Friday, March 14, 2008

Two by Kozintsev and Trauberg

Novyy Vavilon / New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1929)

Kozintsev and Trauberg had been working together for 8 years by the time the two made New Babylon. After several years collaborating in experimental theater, they made their first foray into film making in 1924. Having worked with Dmitri Shostakovich in some of their theater productions, they turned to him for their first attempt at making a film with an integral (live) musical score (albeit without dialog). The film suffered from government interference even before its formal premiere. The government approved version was cut by 20 percent from its original length, and the synchronization of the music apparently no longer fully matched the creators' original intentions. These synchronization problems, together with the inability of the theater's orchestra to cope with Shostakovich's musical demands, helped ensure a less than rapturous initial reception. While the longer version has been reconstructed recently and re-synchronized with its original score (by British musicologist Marek Pytel) -- and performed at least once, it was not utilized for the Absolut Media (German) DVD. The cut version represented in this release was approved by one of its directors (Trauberg), but only after the deaths of his two collaborators (Kozintsev and Shostakovich). At least for now, the current DVD represents the only reasonably available version of the film. (Note: an old Facets video might have represented a longer version, but it looked awful and had an inappropriate non-Shostakovich score).

Even in possibly compromised form, what we find is an impressive film. Its topic -- the rise and fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 -- seems like one that would get an epic treatment. However, like Kuleshov and Barnet (and unlike Eisenstein), Kozintsev and Trauberg focus on individuals not proletarian masses -- and incorporate a considerable amount of humor into their film (at least in its early phase).

The story's focal character is Louise (played Yelena Kuzmina), a shop girl in a shopping and entertainment complex in Paris called "The New Babylon" (which makes her an observer of the decadent Parisian upper class). Most of the characters in the film are ones with whom she comes in contact, at work and in her neighborhood. The secondary focus is on a low-ranking soldier named Jean (Pyotr Sobolevsky), who is not a Parisian but rather comes from a rural village. During the siege of Paris by the Germans, Jean's military world intersects Louise's proletarian one. He is given food and money for ammunition (and has his shoes repaired) by the lower-class city dwellers. When the government capitulates to the Germans, and the Parisian populace begins to express dissent, he casts his lot with the army and withdraws with them to Versailles. After the people of Paris take control over their own city (briefly), he plays his small part in crushing the "rebels" -- and then digging the graves of Louise and her comrades (the vengeful victors summarily executed tens of thousands of Parisians in the course of a couple of weeks).

Visually the film is quite rich and heterogeneous, sometimes drawing almost as much on French impressionist (and post-impressionist) artwork as on contemporary cinematic norms. There are shots evoking Monet and Renoir and others inspired by Toulouse-Lautrec (who actually portrayed Parisian decadence of a somewhat later era). Other shots look back to the artwork of the French revolutionary period.

Kozintsev and Trauberg make some use of montage, but also present some quite extended scenes. Especially notable are two matched sequences, one from near the beginning and the other from near the end of the film. In the former, we see well-to-do Parisians dining in New Babylon's cafe, while behind them (and somewhat out of focus) we see others dancing manically. In the latter, we see Jean, shocked at what is happening, while behind him (somewhat out of focus) his comrades slowly and methodically dig the mass graves that will soon be filled. We also see a statuette of the Blessed Virgin overseeing the grim work, as the rainm pours down.

Young Kuzmina (only 20, in what seems to have been her first film role) seems to have a keen sense of comedy, but is required to shift into melodramatic and then tragic heroic mode as the film moves towards its conclusion. Other characters are less individuated, but perform their roles effectively. Aside from Kuzmina, the other stars of the film are Andrei Moskvin's cinematography and Shostakovich's music. The images captured here are often remarkable, including ones not really susceptible to screen capture -- such as scenes played at night involving light reflected from the water laying on muddy roads and cobbled street, disturbed by moving shadows.

The plot can obviously be criticized as propagandistic (major script revisions were demanded after the film was initially approved, due to a shift in high level film making policy demand by Stalin). But I think one can say that the visual and musical-dramatic qualities of the film transcend whatever the purported propaganda was intended to be. Indeed, from the first, Shostakovich's score itself provoked outrage from political purists, as it did not support the noble message the film was supposed to present. (Quoting from Offenbach's operettas during supposedly serious moments was an obvious sign of frivolity). Of course, Kozintsev and Trauberg affirmatively relied on Shostakovich to provide an additional level of "complication" to the film. Insofar as the film was shown after its controversial premiere performances, it was stripped of its score and accompanied by more suitable generic music. We are lucky that, at last, efforts are being made to allow audiences to see (and hear) some semblance of the film that the creators actually wished to make. Until such times as a DVD version of Pytel's fuller version (hopefully) arrives, the Absolut Media DVD (which is English friendly) is the best possible way for this film to reach the wider audience it deserves.

More screenshots:

Odna / Alone (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1931)

Kozintsev, Trauberg, Shostakovich, Moskvin, Kuzmina and others (including actor/assistant director Sergei Gerasimov and art director Yevgeni Yenej) must have appreciated working with each other. Despite all the problems connected with the making of New Babylon, they soon joined together to make another movie -- a sound film that was not quite a "talkie", set (mostly) in the vicinity of the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

Once again, Kuzmina plays the central character -- a newly graduated teacher looking forward to a comfortable life in Leningrad (with her fiancee) who is, instead, assigned to a rural school in Siberia. Once there, she finds herself at odds with both the local party head and the still powerful traditional village leader. The lives of the children she is sent to teach are, like those of their parents, centered around the herding of sheep. When many of her students are co-opted for work with the sheep, she moves her classroom to the open air. At first irritated by the universal preoccupation with sheep, she gradually comes to understand the importance of this activity. When the part boss (Sergei Gerasimov, a leftist journalist in New Babylon) and village leader (Liu-Sian Van, actually a local villager) to sell the flocks off to a corrupt speculator (Pyotr Sobolevsky, the Jean of New Babylon), Kuzmina protests. When she attempts to travel to a neighboring village to speak to a higher level official, she is marooned in the middle of nowhere. Before she can return, she is caught in a sudden snow storm. When villagers become concerned over Kuzmina's whereabouts, the party boss simply shrugs his shoulders. Nonetheless, volunteer searchers rescue her, though not before she has suffered from severe frost bite. On learning of the perfidy of their leaders, the villagers dislodge them, appointing new leaders -- who immediately request a medical rescue flight to take Kuzmina to the nearest (but still distant) hospital. As she is bundled into the airplane, she promises her students (and their parents) that she will return as soon as she can.

As with New Babylon, Kozintsev and Trauberg took on an approved topic (the promotion of rural education and adoption of collective farming principles) and proceeded to make a film that skirted the edge of what could be gotten away with. Again, significant script re-writing was mandated -- as the film was intended to be much darker in tone. Even so, one wonders how many other Soviet films of this era depicted a popular revolt against corrupt party leadership.

This is a much simpler film stylistically than its predecessor --and most of the storytelling is conveyed by the faces of its performers (almost all of whom were non-professionals, once the shooting moved to Siberia). The children in the film did a superb job, and the adults did almost as well. As in New Babylon, Kuzmina has to negotiate a role that starts off in full comic mode and then shifts from key to (usually darker) key. In one of my favorite moments, one of Kuzmina's most devoted students offers the gravely ill teacher her doll (presumably the only toy she owns) and Kuzmina manages to convey both her underlying pain and her happiness and gratitude for the girl's kindness. Gerasimov, on the other hand, is delightfully sleazy as the lazy and greedy party boss.

Shostakovich's music for this is also superb -- featuring the first use of a theremin in a film and Mongolian throat-singing. He designed the music in a more modular fashion overall, so as to cope better with imposed last-minute cuts. His music, plus information from the script, is all that remains from the reel of the film that remains lost. Unfortunately, the missing portion is actually the climax of the film -- when Kuzmina is abandoned in the face of an oncoming snow storm. The Absolut Media DVD copes with the missing reel by adding descriptive titles that track the events as the (reconstructed) score plays. In addition to the music, Alone features sound effects and bits of talking here and there. Most of the talking in the film emanates from public address speakers (and the like) -- but a couple of lines in the Leningrad section seem to be attributable to the actual characters. I would characterize this as another essential DVD for those who love early Soviet cinema.

A few extra captures:

Monday, March 03, 2008

Jidao zhuizhong / Zodiac Killers (Ann Hui, 1991)

Seen in early January 2008

Asian directors going abroad to make films often wind up foundering to some extent. Ann Hui's story of Chinese adrift in Japan is no exception. It reminds me a lot of Takeshi Kitano's Brother (about Japanese yakuza transplanted to Los Angeles). It is a "noble failure" that, for all its serious narrative flaws, is often visually quite striking.

This shows us the exploits of a trio of young Hong Kong Chinese who came to Japan to study. One dutifully studies, another has gotten embroiled with the yakuza (having caught the eye of a mobster's daughter). The third (played by Andy Lau) is drifting, sometimes going to class, sometimes cutting class to work at part-time jobs. His path crosses that of another Chinese student, one (played by Cherie Chung, in her last movie role prior to her retirement). Chung is a scholar by day and a bar hostess by night. Lau is smitten by Chung, but she is not interested in him (except as a friend, more or less). As it turns out, Chung is already in love with a yakuza, albeit one on the outs with his boss. He has returned from exile, seeking reconciliation, but proves to have inconvenient information. He is killed, but not before asking Chung to deliver the dangerous information. She, in turn, drags Lau into her problem. Things go increasingly less well for all concerned as the movie goes on.

With both fine cinematography (courtesy of Daving Chung) and good performances, where does the film go wrong? The most immediately noticeable problem is the film's absolutely abysmal score, which features way too much uninspired synthesizer doodling. But I suspect that one could, with sufficient strength of mind overlook this problem -- if it were the only deficiency of the film. A much more serious problem is the fact that the script is quite poor. It seems to make no attempt to imagine the realities of life for Chinese students studying in Japan -- and the Japan it depicts seems to be the Japan of mediocre action movies, and not the country that actually exists. Even worse, the script lurches about plot-wise, from one fairly arbitrary event to another. Surprisingly, the scriptwriters are WU Nien-jen (a Taiwanese writer who worked extensively with HOU Hsiao Hsien) and Raymond To (an occasional collaborator withTSUI Hark). One wonders just where this team went wrong.

Despite the flaws of the script, Hui anages to sustain the illusion of a credible story for long stretches here and there, even if all the pieces never quite come together. And Hui manges to do a good job of showing interesting bits of Japan's underside -- including not just places but also a remarkable cameo appearance by Kyoko Kishida (Woman of the Dunes, Autumn Afternoon) as an elderly prostitute. The Hong Kong DVD of this film is both cheap and reasonably good-looking -- so fans of Ann Hui, Andy Lau and/or Cherie Chung might find the DVD worth checking out.

Oh -- if you were wondering about the relevance of the English title of the film -- there is none at all. The Chinese name actually refers to searching, using one's utmost effort. A few more pictures:

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Tennen kokekkô / A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2007)

Seen in early January 2008

The Japanese title of Yamashita's new films seems to translate to "natural cockle-doodle-doo". Although about the first thing one hears in the film is a rooster crowing (and we do see chickens from time to time), the significance of the title is not especially clear to me. The film (based on a popular shoujo manga) is set in Shimane Prefecture (the second least populous prefecture of Japan). Clearly built in the post-war baby boom era, the combined grade school and middle school now has less than 10 students -- and is probably reaching the end of its days. The films primary focus is on the oldest student in the school, Soyo (played by Kaho) now in ninth grade. While she has had friends in lower grades, she has never had a classmate in her own grade. At least, never until the start of the film -- when a newcomer from Tokyo (who has family ties to the village) arrives as a transfer student.

Most of the focus of this slow-moving and sweet-natured film is on the relationship that develops between Soyo and the newcomer Hiromi (Masaki Okada), though interactions with her family and schoolmates (most of whom are just "little kids") are not neglected. One complication of her friendship with Hiromi (other than his "attitude") is the fact that he turns out to be the son of her father's first love, who ran away to Tokyo long ago, but who has now returned.

Not much of a plot here, but still -- things happen. Soyo trades her "first kiss" to Hiromi for his fashionable Tokyo windbreaker. The children go on excursions to the beach and to a local festival. Soyo worries about whether her father might rekindle his old romance with Hiromi's mother. The middle schoolers go on a class trip to Tokyo. Just all the normal sort of things kids of this age do. In some ways, this bears a lot of similarity to what might be the first film of this sort, Mikio Naruse's 1947 Haru no mezame (Spring Awakens / Puberty).

The performance by Kaho (who was the same age as the young heroine whose part she played) is very good. Her fellow star Okada, though a couple of years older than he ought to have been, likewise did a creditable job. The cinematography of Ryûto Kondô is quite lovely. One's reaction to the film will probably depend on one's tolerance for a film that favors a low-key atmosphere and mood over plot. As for me, I enjoyed it a lot, albeit not as much as Yamashita's prior Linda Linda Linda, but to be fair that is probably my favorite film of the past couple of years.

More screen shots: