Saturday, February 16, 2008

Watched December 24-30, 2007 (part two): Murnau, Honda and Burton

Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens / Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

The old Kino DVD of this film actually looked quite good (far better than older versions I had seen) but, though it had two musical scores, neither struck me as satisfactory. The new Kino DVD looks better -- and, perhaps more important, sounds vastly better, thanks to the reconstructed, newly recorded, original (1922) score of Hans Erdmann. This version of Nosferatu, or its British cousin (from Masters of Cinema), is an indispensable one for fans of Murnau and of "silent" cinema in general.

This is one of my favorite silent films (and one of my two favorite Murnau films, along with Last Laugh). The cinematography by Fritz Arno Wagner is, to my mind, unsurpassable. While the acting style is florid here, it certainly suits this material. So much has been written about this film that any brief comments I can offer are essentially superfluous, however. More important by far are screen shots -- which I hope convince anyone who lacks a new improved version of this classic to rent or borrow a copy -- or better yet, buy one.

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Matango / Attack of the Mushroom People (Ishirô Honda, 1963)

Perhaps it was unfair to Mr. Honda to watch his Matango the same week that I watched the newly restored Nosferatu. His (very loose) adaptation of William Hope Hodgson's 1907 story "The Voice in the Night" is certainly one of the best of Japan's vintage science fiction films of the 1950 and 1960s. And yet, Matango is not really competitive with the older "horror" film -- or with the story that inspired it.

Hodgson's story is simple but eloquent and narrowly focussed on telling its "incredible" story in a believable fashion. Hodgson tells of a ship, becalmed in the North Pacific, that encounters a man in a small boat, begging for food for himself and his wife. The man refuses to allow himself be seen clearly -- or to come on board the ship. At first suspicious, the crew decides to provide the help he requested, stirred by the urgency and sincerity of his tone. Food having been floated over to the man, he rows back to the isand where he and his wife are standed. Hours later, the man returns. He expresses gratitude and tells them that the two of them agreed that he should recount the story of their misfortunes.

The two were abandoned as the result of a shipwreck, left behind by the crew due to an insufficient supply of life boats. They floated (on a raft they made) to an island, but the island was almost entirely covered by some sort of lichenous growth -- lacking any sort of normal vegetation or animal life. They found a stranded ship offshore, but it too had been taken over by the lichenous growth -- and proved to be uncleanable. Luckily, they found a tiny patch of sandy beach that seemed resistent to the spread of the growth, but they still lacked a source of food (other than the supplies they had brought along and some canned good they found on the abandoned ship). Despite their best efforts to avoid contact with the lichenous contamination, they found that tiny patches of lichen had begun to appear on their skin. When returning from fishing one day (with little to show for his efforts), he found his wife had tried eating fungus due to her dire hunger. While wandering long a path through the island's "forest", he encountered a strange creature that seemed to be almost entirely made of fungus -- and realized the ultimate fate that awaited his wife and himself, if they were to continue eating the lichenous growth. The couple had resolved not to eat any more of the apparently addictive substance, but had now run out of food. The supplies given to them by the ship's crew, would allow them to get by a little longer (as they reconciled themselves to starvation rather than giving into metamorphosis). After giving the crew thanks and a blessing, the man rows away. As he does so, a ray of early morning sunshine shows the crew that the man's story had been no delusion.

The script for Matango is, by comparison, cluttered, totally inconsistent and wildly melodramatic. Here a yacht (with its male and female passengers and its crew) is pushed to an island by a mysterious current -- and once there, the ship is unable to leave. It is a large island, with clean running water and luxurious (normal) vegetation -- albeit apparently devoid of animal life. They find an abandoned ship, contaminated by some strange fungal growth and also encounter some large patches of fungus in the depths of the island's forest. The castaways start running out of food quickly (despite some canned goods left on the other ship, shellfish near the shore and a patch of garden near the shore). While sleeping on board the abandoned ship, which has been beached, they are bothered by what seems to be a mysterious prowler. Lust (and greed for food) causes all sorts of dissension (and some killings). Two of the most troublesome are driven away -- and discover that the fungus is delicious. Eventually only a man and a woman are left onboard. Despite incursions by strange wandering creatures, the two don't stick together -- so, of course, fungus people carry off the woman. The man finally discovers her in a fungal glade, surrounded by an array of weird creatures in various stage of fungus-hood (including the partially-transformed exilees). She too has decided that the fungus is irrestible and urges him to join her in eating it. He runs away in horror, finds the (original) boat useable and heads back towards civilization. This story is framed by the main character, returned to Tokyo and immured in an isolation ward in a hospital. He tells his story, but we never see his face -- until the last moments of the framing story at the end of the film.

Honda does a good job of creating an eerie and foreboding atmosphere, despite the script's poor plotting, non-existent character development and clunky dialogue. He also makes the most of a largely so-so cast. The cinematography is often just serviceably functional, though some striking images can be found. I'm no expert on "special effects", but I assume these were well done for the era. My conclusion -- a better than average film of its genre, interesting but seriously flawed.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

While I did like this overall, I discovered, when trying to anlayze it after the fact, that I found more niggling flaws to note than virtues to extol. A catalog of those defects would give an inaccurate impression of my response to the film. The bottom line is that I am glad that a cinematically effective adaptation of a Sondheim musical has finally been made and, likewise, glad to have seen it -- once. I can't imagine ever feeling the need to see it a second time, however. Purely musically, I found this fairly inadequate, far inferior to the original broadway cast recording.

Seen at the theater, so no screen captures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Watched December 24-30, 2007 (part one): Aoi Miyazaki x 2 and Jun Ichikawa

Ao to shiro de mizuiro - Scenario Toryumon 2001 (Takahashi Naoharu, 2001)

Aoi Miyazaki's second starring role was as an unhappy (and quite troubled) school girl in Akihiko Shiota's devastating (and outrageously under-appreciated) Gaichu / Harmful Insect (2001). In that film, her best friend was played by Yuu Aoi. In this short (45 minute long) made-for-television movie, filmed not long after Gaichu, Aoi Miyazaki once again plays an unhappy school girl and Yuu Aoi plays her ex-friend. Moving from middle school to high school, Miyazaki got marked for generalized bullying by her classmates -- and her friend, eager to purge herself from the taint of the long prior friendship, is especially merciless. As a result, Miyazaki has only one remaining goal at school, to jimmy open the locked door to the school's roof and throw herself over the edge. The arrival of a new male student (payed by Shun Oguri), looked down on by others due to his juvenile delinquent past history, is viewed as an opportunity by Miyazaki (as it turns out, he carries around a full kit of lock picking tools). When he gets beat up, following an attempt to "borrow" someone else's bike, Miyazaki is roused from her own deep funk to help him out.

While Oguri gives Miyazaki some burgling pointers, he doesn't open the door for her himself. And, as he figures out the depths of her depression, he seems to make certain that she will not succeed in her immediate goal (getting through the door), at least not when he is around to observe. Meanwhile, a new teacher is also worried about what she senses (though most harassment of Miyazaki takes place out of her sight). It seems that she had a good friend who took drastic action due to inability to tolerate bullying any longer.

Naoharu, the director here (all his work until this past year seems to have been television-related), shot this in a mostly low-key fashion. Performances are generally under-stated and naturalistic. The central focus here is on Aoi Miyazaki -- and she acquits herself well, presenting her character in a thoroughly convincing manner (with relatively little reliance on dialog). No subtitles on this Japanese DVD, but probably not needed a great deal in this case.

As to the name of this show, Scenario Toryumon seems to have been a series of films made on a once a year basis for several years. "Toryumon" means "dragon gate" -- but I am not certain what the reference might be to here (there is a wrestling organization of this name, but I can't see any connection). "Ao to shiro de mizuiro" literally means something like "the color of water (light blue) is made from blue and white". I must confess, I am also not able to find any explanation of this phrase either.

Hatsuyuki no koi: Virgin snow (HAN Sang-hee, 2007)

Virgin Snow also stars Aoi Miyazaki, who is now a pretty young (married) woman. And she has graduated from playing middle school and high school students to playing college students. (However, in her current television series, she has actually been promoted to being the wife of one of the last shoguns). Here, she plays the oldest of two daughters of a single mother, and who is both a student at Kyoto University and a kimono-clad attendant at a local temple.

LEE Joon-ki is a currently much-in-demand young Korean actor (following his starring role in the 2005 King and the Clown ). He is undeniably very cute and charming. Here, he plays the son of a visiting professor teaching advanced pottery and ceramics making and a new transfer student at the university (despite his abysmal command of Japnaese). Of course, Miyazaki and Lee meet for the first time even before the credits -- and the remainder of the film tracks the pair's vicissitudes. This film involves dialog in Japanese, Korean and (a bit of) English, making it yet another entry in the recent string of bilingual (or more) films featuring trans-Asian romances (possibly kicked off by the much more arty Last Life in the Universe).

Director Han is extremely accomplished technically, and has a good sense of composition. But the story isn't especially believable and the plot (such as it is) is often rather trifling. Reality breaks in only occasionally -- mostly in connection with the alcoholism of Miyazaki's mother (and her mother's abusive new boy friend). As it turns out, this bit of trauma serves mainly to separate the two young people for a (relatively long) while -- and is forgotten about thereafter.

Unlike Heavenly Forest, which was somewhat haphazardly directed and shot, but required Miyazaki to provide a bravura performance, here she mainly needed to be pretty and gracious -- but watching Aoi Miyazaki be pretty and gracious is scarcely a hardship. The Japanese DVD wound up not having English subtitles; accordingly, those unable to understand Korean will need to decipher the Japanese subtitles.

Aoi Miyazaki trivia. Currently (early February), 22-year old Miyazaki is simultaneously one of the stars of the most popular movie in Japan (Kagehinata ni saku) and the star (and title character) of the most popular television series (Atsu-hime).

A few more screen shots:

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Ashita no watashi no tsukurikata / How To Become Myself (Jun Ichikawa, 2007)

Until the last week of the year, LEE Chang-dong's Milyang (Secret Sunshine) had no real competition for my pick as favorite film of the year. Then I got to see Jun Ichikawa's latest (largely ignored, as usual) film. While the issues in Ichikawa's new film are not so monumental as those in Lee's film, this story of two schoolgirls and their cell phones proved surprisingly moving.

Juri (Riko Narumi) and Hinako (Atsuko Maeda) are classmates, but not close friends. Juri is popular enough in middle school, while Hinako is a class leader -- until she falls from grace and becomes shunned and an object for (mild) bullying. Juri is troubled by what happens to her classmate, but not enough to take any risks on her behalf. However, on the last day of middle school, the two have a covert conversation in the library (safely seated at separate tables, lest someone else come and see them). After Juri apologizes for her cowardice and Hinako re-assures her that she didn't hold this against her, the two have a brief but heart-felt chat.

The two girls go their separate ways, not coming into contact because they attend different high schools, but one day Juri hears that Hinako is moving soon to another part of Japan. On a whim, Juri, whose once ideal home life has frayed (due to the divorce of her parents), sends well-wishing text message to Hinako. Hinako, depressed at having to move (despite not fitting in all that well in her current school), pretends not to know who her correspondent is. Undeterred, Juri apologizes for sending mail to the wrong person by mistake -- but keeps on writing. Hinako, a bit annoyed, can't resist writing back -- and eventually she comes to depend on Juri's messages (which re-traverse their middle school history, albeit in semi-fictionalized form, and provide advice on how to be popular in her new school). When Hinako meets a boy who seems to like her, Juri (who has never had a boyfriend herself) frantically pores over countless online advice columns in order to find suitable advice to pass on. Throughout all the back and forth communication of the two girls, they never acknowledge that they actually knew each other once. While Juri's idealized vision of Hinako initially helps re-build her confidence (allowing her to become popular in her new school), Hinako gradually finds it oppressive to keep acting up to Juri's ideals. Beyond this point, readers wanting to know how things turn out will have to watch the film for themselves (or send me an e-mail begging for personalized spoilers).

The supporting cast here (parents, siblings, clasmates, teachers) are uniformly good -- but the film rests mainly on the shoulders of its young heroines (particularly Narumi's Juri). Ichikawa moves the film at an often leisurely speed, that nonetheless builds up considerable intensity with actions mainly consisting of reading and writing text messages. Although other films (such as Jeong's Take Care of My Cat and Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou) have featured cell phones and text messaging in prominent roles, Ichikawa makes this modern form of written communication the primary focus of action here. As a result of the centrality of indirect communication, Ichikawa relies on split screens (and insets) from time to time -- something I do not recall him doing in any of the other eight films I've seen by him.

Alas, the Japanese DVD of this film (like those of all of Ichikawa's films since Tokyo Marigold) lacks English subtitles. There apparently is a fan-subbed version floating about the ether, but I have not heard of any plans for a subbed commercial release anywhere. (Ichikawa's previous film, the very fine Aogeba totoshi never got any sort of subbed release). One final word as to the title -- the literal rendition strikes me as a bit more appealing and evocative, something like "the way of making tomorrow's me".

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Watched December 17-23, 2007 (part two): Ozu and Suzuki

Nagaya shinshiroku / The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

Ozu's first post-war film (after a 5 year gap in his career) dealt with one of Japan's most pressing (and least attended to) social problems -- the existence of large numbers of homeless children, who were either war orphans or otherwise lost or abandoned. Here, a young boy, six or so years old (Hohi Aoki) has been found by Chishu Ryu (playing a fortune teller of sorts). When he brings the boy home to the house where he rents a room, its owner (Reikichi Kawamura) has no interest in housing a stray child. The two decide then decide to palm the boy off on the curmudgeonly shopkeeper who lives across the street (Choko Iida). Iida has no enthusiasm for the proposal, but acquiesces. She is chagrined to find that the boy still wets the bed at night -- and tries to track down the boy's missing father. Having no luck in this endeavor, she and the boy return home. After he wets the bed again, the boy runs off. Iida, feeling guilty, looks frantically (but fruitlessly for him) -- but late that night Ryu (having found the boy in the same place he had first encountered him), brings him back.

Iida decides that she should, in effect, adopt the homeless boy -- to the amusement of her comparatively well-to-do childhood friend (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), who nonetheless seems to approve of this endeavor (and provides some financial support). After the purchase of new clothes and an outing to the zoo, Iida and the boy go to have a "family" picture taken. That night, however, the boy's father shows up at her house, apologizing for having taken so long to find him (and detailing his own desperate searching). Iida stoically sends the pair off (with new cap, sweater, books etc.), after asking them to visit her now and then. Her neighbors are surprised at how distraught Iida is over the events of the evening. They attribute her tears to her loss of the boy, but she insists that she is actually crying due to her uncharitable thoughts about the "lost" father (who she suspected of abandoning the boy), which she discovered to have been unjustified. She then tells her neighbors (and by extension, the audience) that she now realizes the importance of doing something about all the lost and orphaned children. She can, at least, find another boy who has no family at all and adopt him. The neighbors are a bit non-plussed by her resolution (and the clear implicatiuon that they too have been failing to meet their obligations to the all too many homeless children of Tokyo), but Ryu points her in the best direction to find a needy orphan. The film closes with shots of homeless boys loitering about the statue of Saigo (in Ueno Park -- near the zoo visited earlier in the film).

This first post-war film represented both a new beginning and the end of an era. It was, in essence, a final reunion of most of Ozu's pre-war repertory company -- and his last exploration of the lower working class milieu that was a regular subject in his films of the early (to middle) 1930s. Takeshi Sakamoto makes one last appearance as a character named Kihachi (playing one of Iida's neighbors, a fabric dyer with a flourishing family, who serves as head of the neighborhood committee). While Sakamoto would appear in one more Ozu film, this was the last Ozu appearance for both Iida and Yoshikawa (whose working relationship with Ozu stretched back almost 20 years).

Ozu's film got very little support from its initial audiences. The Japanese government (and public) did not do a good job of dealing with orphaned and abandoned children in the years after the war. As the film suggested, ordinary people seemed too focused on money and material goods to pay much attention to annoying things like homeless children. It would appear that audiences of that day likewise had no interest in being reminded of a moral obligation they had little interest in fulfilling. Despite the film's many charms, it was close to a flop.

Unfortunately, Nagaya shinshiroku also got remarkably little respect in the West for many years. It was probably first mentioned here in Anderson and Richie's The Japanese Film (1959). However, it appears that neither author had actually seen the film. The title was mis-translated into English, based on mis-reading the name as "Nagaya shinshi roku" (Record of a Tenement Gentleman) instead of the correct "Nagaya shinshiroku" (A Who's Who of the Tenement). Even worse, the plot was totally misdescribed:

[the film} was about one of many homeless boys who roamed the streets directly after the war. The boy meets his father, but eventually rejects him to go off on hids own and live his own life

As was seen above, this description has virtually no resemblance to what actually takes place in Ozu's film.

This film also got short shrift in in Richie's Ozu (1974):

It was also the first and last time Ozu can be caught making a nod in the direction of civic endeavor, an idea imported from abroad that enjoyed a brief popularity during the Occupation. At the end of the picture, the middle-aged [protagonist] decides to open a center for war orphans like the one she had come to love. This unlikely, one might almost say un-Japanese, resolve almost ruins the film.

Audie Bock, in her Japanese Film Directors (1979) continued the Western writing off this film, on the same mistaken basis as Richie -- namely, that Iida's decision to open an orphanage at the end was so "un-Japanese". Noel Burch, writing in the same year in his To the Distant Observer, was more charitable to the film -- he found it to be one of the few post-war Ozu films to have any trace of the value of Ozu's pre-war work. ( Burch considered most post-war Ozu films to be "de-vitalized", due to fossilization of Ozu's style, and thus suitable only to "the amusement and edification of the dilettante").

It would appear that the first American champion of Ozu's long spurned film was David Bordwell. In his 1988, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, Bodwell noted:

If Ozu had made only this seventy-two minute film, he would have to be considered one of the world's great directors.

Finally, in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (2001), Donald Richie made amends for his earlier dismissal of Nagaya shinshiroku, now calling it "one of Ozu's most perfect domestic comedies". Today, any viewer (with multi-region DVD playing capacity) has his (or her) own opportunity to judge the merits of this film. While the film has yet to show up on DVD in the United States, there are two English-subtitled versions to choose from -- a passable Panorama release from Hong Kong and an even better one from Tartan (UK). I suspect that a Criterion edition will show up in North America one of these years.

On last note, fans of Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro, might find this film particularly interesting. This modern film of a curmudgeonly individual (Kitano as a washed-up petty yakuza) saddled with the job of caring for an unprepossessing young boy shows more than a few echoes of Ozu's Nagaya shinshiroku.

Hishu monogatari / A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (Seijun Suzuki, 1977)

I make no claim of Suzuki expertise. I found his Pistol Opera weird but (mostly) intriguing and I positively love his Operetta tanuki goten (Princess Raccoon), my favorite contemporary movie musical (pace Burton and Sondheim). Beyond that I know nothing but rumors.

This earlier Suzuki film started off promisingly -- as a send up of modern business (and advertising) in the vein of Masumura's brutal black comedy Giants and Toys (1958). Here, some opportunistic businessmen decide to groom a pretty amateur golfer as a golfing star, in order to take advantage of her potential in fashion advertising. The scheme works -- for a while -- and then their lucky victim becomes dispensable.

This film begins to get very weird about mid-way through, and then simply becomes more and more random. In addition to the main plot (and the heroine's romantic misadventures), there is a younger school boy brother with a very strange girl friend and a very scary neighbor, who basically takes more and more control over the heroine's crumbling life. By the end, the film has totally run off the road.

Unfortunately, much of the random-ness in the latter part of the film is simply not all that interesting, either in terms of story or visual imagery. The most engaging aspect of the film for me was the presence of veteran actor Shuji Sano in his last role (he would die the next year) -- as a grizzled golf professional who resented turning his beloved sport into an advertising opportunity.

The is available on DVD with English subtitles -- from Panorama (HK). alas, this is a pretty abysmal release. A disappointing release of an even more disappointing film.