Friday, June 05, 2009

Collected short takes, newer films

More collected capsule comments, scavenged mostly from IMDB postings earlier this year (pre-cellulitis). ;~}

Tonari no Totoro / Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
We finally got to watch (for the first time in at least 10 viewings) this animated treasure (involving two little sisters) along with two young girls (sisters aged 6 and 3½ years old). Their parents being adventurous, we watched this in Japanese (with subtitles). Even so, the girls were mesmerized -- and rarely wondered about what was being said -- mostly they understood this pretty intuitively. All had a wonderful time. (When it was over, the girls asked (nicely -- but in vain) for an immediate re-watch).
Chilsu wa Mansu / Chil-su and Man-su (PARK Kwang-su, 1988)
Pretty much the film that kicked off the Korean New Wave. 1988 was the year of the Seoul Olympics and of Korea's first democratic election (alas, the opponents of the former military dictatorship split the vote, allowing the election of the former dictator's hand-picked successor). Movies had been subject to extensive censorship -- and Park began testing how far Korea's nominal democracy would let him go.
The film starts like a romantic comedy, with Chil-su (an aspiring artist -- who quits his commercial art job) pestering a slightly older colleague Man-su (an artist now mainly employed painting walls and billboards) into giving him a job (and providing him a place to sleep). Meanwhile Chil-su has developed a crush on Ji-na, a college girl (and is trying to pretend he is also a college student). Chil-su, it becomes clear has an active fantasy life -- and trouble keeping it disentangled from reality. Man-su, on the other hand, feels trapped -- wanting to leave Korea but unable to get a passport (due to his father's political "crimes"). One day, taking a break from painting a huge (and racy) billboard on top of a building, the two take a break on top of the advertising superstructure. Knowing no one can hear them, they feel free to shout out their frustrations and criticisms -- but (even unheard) they attract attention -- with authorities deciding they are demonstrators of some sort (who might commit a spectacular suicide as a protest). The befuddled sign painters, on the other hand, can't hear anything said to them (too far up -- and too much urban noise) and become increasing distressed (and too intimidated to simply climb down)...
The stars here (AHN Sung-kee as Mansu, PARK Joong-hoon as Chilsu and BAE Jong-ok as Jina) became main-stays of Korean cinema and television over the following decade. Park's later films became even more explicitly critical -- and served as the training ground for a number of Korea's up and coming directors (particularly HUR Jin-ho and LEE Chang-dong, chief among them) as well as stars (such as Moon Sung-keun).

Ti dao bao / Lucky Encounter (Johnnie To, 1992)
A supremely silly tale of thieves who get involved with the ghost of a little boy murdered by his uncle -- and try to help him both get revenge and get re-incarnated successfully.

Hana-bi / Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, 1997)
The Japanese DVD was re-issued at a lower price -- and is probably the best looking version of this film (and it has English subtitles). I love many bits of this -- but find it to be a bit uneven. And I really really don't like that very last shot.

Yoshida Kiju ga kataru Ozu-san no eiga / The Cinema of Ozu According to Kiju Yoshida (Kiju Yoshida, 1994)

Mainly made up of film clips and some present day footage of locations of Ozu films as seen today (well, as of 1994 or so) -- with voice-over commentary by Yoshida. He sees Ozu as essentially an avant-garde artist. It's an interesting approach, but I'm not entirely convinced. This was a subtitled condensation of four on-hour shows screened on Japanese teelvision.

Kagami no onnatachi / Women in the Mirror (Kiju Yoshida, 2002)
I liked this film about three generations of women (and the lingering impact of Hiroshima) a lot more than I liked Yoshida's (undeniably gorgeous) earlier films (three seen previously). Very effective -- with good performances (Mariko Okada was, of course, excellent).

Sa-kwa (KANG Yi-kwan, 2005)
Sa-kwa means both apple and apology in Korean. A woman gets dumped by her long-term boy friend -- and decides (eventually) to marry a rather dorky admirer. The two develop some rapport, but gradually become estranged -- and the problems become worse when the heroine re-encounters her old boyfriend. This moves almost imperceptibly from romantic comedy territory to something very different. Slow-moving -- but this is what helps the film ultimately stick in one's mind.

Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero / Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers (Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)
A savagely black comic family drama. An orphaned school girl and her elder half-siblings (who are not related by blood) -- and the ditzy wife of the older brother. Not exactly one big happy family. the younger sister is a would-be manga writer -- who finds her elder sister's travails excellent subject matter. The whole cast is fine but Hiromi Nagasaku as the brother's wife is the real stand-out.
Zui yu fa / Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, 2007)
A fascinating documentary, both funny and more than a little scary, about a Chinese Border Police outpost near the Korean border. The bulk of these police are conscripts -- and very young seeming. They clearly received little training as to either crime investigation or the proper way to interact with the people they serve and protect.

Meotjin haru / Dear Enemy (LEE Yoon-ki, 2008)
Possibly my favorite film of the past year or so. Cannes winner JEON Do-yeon (now on indefinite maternity leave) starts out rigid and angry, trying to collect on a bad debt made a year or so before to a former boyfriend, played by HA Jung-woo. He seems to be utterly irresponsible (and way too willing to exploit women -- easy to do, given his charm). Our "hero" has no cash on hand, and when the "heroine" rejects his promise to wire what he owes to her account (soon), they go off together, as he tries to come up with money to re-pay her. Over the course of the day (and into the late evening), our heroine's assessment of her "enemy" and herself gradually shifts. The two leads are utterly phenomenal. An intelligent and immensely kind-hearted film.

Entre les murs / the Class (literally, "within the walls") (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
A very good, but often disconcerting look at a teacher at a middle school in Paris. In this case, the teacher who wrote the memoir on which the film is based plays himself (more or less). It would be interesting to know how much fictionalization has gone on here. In any event, this is going to require considerably more processing (hopefully a DVD will show up).

Tokyo! (Michel Gondry/Leos Carax/BONG Joon-ho, 2008) (seen screened)
2 out of three isn't too bad. The consensus of our household was that Gondry's Interior Design and Bong's Shaking Tokyo were both pretty decent -- while Carax's Merde was pretty shitty. All three are pretty fanciful -- so not sure any of them gives much of a feel for the reality of Tokyo. The best performances were provided by Ayako Fujitani (Steven Seagal's daughter) as an under-appreciated young woman in Gondry's segment and by Teruyuki Kagawa as a ten-year-long (self-imposed) shut-in in Bong's film. Yuu Aoi's presence in the latter is a bit of a luxury, as she doesn't really get much chance to show off her acting ability.

Kimi no tomodachi / literally Your Friends (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2008)
Frustratingly the DVD of this recent film was not subbed. This story of the friendship between between two girls (in grade school and middle school -- and after) is both sweet and intelligent -- with plenty of emotion but without cheap sentimentality. The teen version of the characters are well-played by Ayu Kitaura (the older of the two sisters in Kore'eda's Nobody Knows) as Yuka (a girl with congenital kidney problems) and Anna Ishibashi as Emi (as a girl with a limp due to a childhood accident). If only this would show up in subtitled form I'd highly recommend it.

Sour Strawberries: Japan's Hidden Guest Workers (Tilman Konig & Daniel Kramers, 2008)
An interesting look at Japan's (mis-)handling of "guest" workers doing unskilled work, with a distraction (of sorts) relating to the Japanese-only policy of some businesses in Tokyo. More functional than "artful".

Akiresu to kame / Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano, 2008)
More apparent artistic self-flagellation by Kitano -- this time in his guise as visual artist. Set in childhood, early adulthood and mid-life crisis time. The first segment is absolutely wonderful (and the boy playing the young version of Kitano is marvelous -- really looking and acting much like a young Kitano). The actor playing the middle Kitano is too old -- and looks nothing like Kitano. The saving grace of this portion is Kumiko Aso -- who plays Sachiko, a young woman in love with our hapless hero (and who ultimately marries him). Kanako Higuchi, who takes over as the older Sachiko is equally fine -- and, of course, Kitano is excellent as (a distorted parody of) himself. Not fully successful throughout, but usually intriguing (and occasionally moving).

Yami no kodomotachi / Children of the Dark (Junji Sakamoto, 2008)
Aoi Miyazaki moves into new territory -- as a volunteer worker in Thailand -- who gets embroiled with criminal organ dealers and child prostitution (after encountering a rather jaded Japanese reporter). Sometimes quite harrowing (and extremely disturbing). Reminiscent in some ways of Ann Hui's (artistically superior) Boat People (set in Vietnam), but with a somewhat less convincing script. (Miyazaki is apparently one of the few genuinely socially conscious young stars in Japan -- and she and her actor-brother often invest quite a bit of effort in international do-gooding).

Hyakuman-en to nigamushi onna / The Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Yuu Aoi winds up in trouble with the law (seemingly wrongfully accused) and, when released, causes trouble for her family (especially her little brother, who winds up getting bullied due to her notoriety). She decides to set off on her own -- and not return until she has earned one million yen. The film traces her travels (and work) at a beach resort, a peach farm and a garden supply store (in a suburb of her own town). Aoi is quite good in this (playing a character more punk-ish than her norm). A nice film by a young woman director. I wish this DVD had subs, however.

Nekonade / Petting the Cat (my translation) (Mika O'omori, 2008)
Another good film by a young woman director. This one is centered on a (forced to be) tough personnel director who adopts a stray cat -- but is too worried about injuring his fierce reputation to let anyone know he has done so. Meanwhile, he has to give bad news to some employees -- and train a group of young women "recruits". Kitano veteran Ren Osugi plays the central role. A film like this could be stupid -- but this one was done extremely well and was very entertaining (for the whole household) despite the lack of subs on the Japanese DVD.

Aruitemo aruitemo / Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore'eda, 2008)
One of the best films of 2008 -- and another master work from Kore'eda. Finally seen – at long last – thanks to the Japanese DVD (which has English subtitles). Around 24 hours of family life (during a reunion for death anniversary of the family's eldest child), plus a brief epilogue. A remarkably (and sometimes painfully) true to life depiction of the relationship between elderly parents and their adult children. The entire cast is spectacular.

Collected short takes, older films

An assemblage of (mostly) short notes on films seen earlier this year. This post collects comments on older films (with comments on a newer version of one older film). My next post will aggregate remarks on some newer films.

Gyakuryu / Backward Flow (Buntaro Futagawa, 1924)

Like Futagawa's later Orochi (see below), this features silent super-star Tsumasaburo Bando as a wronged hero, pushed into seeking vengeance. In this case, the protagonist is even more floridly dysfunctional as the result of his mistreatment. Interestingly over the top.

Orochi (Buntaro Futagawa, 1925)

A silent chambara starring Tsumasaburo Bando (one of Japan's first great action stars). One of the few nearly complete films from this era. Bando plays a mistreated samurai who falls into bad company after escaping from prison (he was framed). When he encounters his lost love, he is forced to choose between loyalty to his crooked patron and love (though she is now married to another samurai, who seems to be quite ill). Visually impressive (despite lots of story improbabilities).

Yajikita son'nô no maki / Yaji and Kita - Yasuda's Rescue (Tomiyasu Ikeda, 1927)
Yajikita Toba Fushimi no maki / Yaji and Kita - The Battle of Toba Fushimi (Tomiyasu Ikeda, 1928)

Fragments of two films featuring comic star Goro Kawabe and dramatic star Denjiro Okochi as a Laurel and Hardy-esque pair of ne'er-do-wells (actually modeled on Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton) who get embroiled in adventures around the time of the fall of the shogunate. Lots of silly fun -- too bad so little survives.

Dokuro / The Skull (Sentaro Shirai, 1927)

Kabuki star turned movie idol Utaemon Ichikawa plays a Christian warlord, in the last struggle against the Shogun, who is committed to stamping out Christianity. Meanwhile his lover (and their infant) is not faring well on the homefront. Visually stunning, I wish I could give due credit to the cinematographer. Apparently Shirai (who was incinerated in Hiroshima) created only a modest body of work -- and most of his other films are lost.

Sozenji baba (Masahiro Makino, 1928)

A sore loser samurai kills a fellow samurai who had beat him in a mock sword fight earlier in the day (leading to more teasing than he could bear). He flees to Osaka where he catches the fancy of a gang boss's pretty daughter (who also is pretty good with her six-guns). He is embarrassed after he is rescued (by help she hires) when kinsman of his victim come to avenge the crime. When the next wave of avengers comes, our heroine just won't give up the fight to defend her man. Visually impressive -- and loads of fun. (seems to have a few gaps).

Kurama tengu (Teppei Yamaguchi, 1928)
Kurama tengu - Kyôfu jidai / the Dreadful times of Kurama Tengu (Teppei Yamaguchi, 1928)

Kurama Tengu (the devil from Kurama) was the alias of a defender of the poor (and the Emperor) in the huge struggle between the forces of the Shogun and the Emperor just before the Meiji Restoration -- a character rather reminiscent of Zorro (a hit in Japan of that day) and the Lone Ranger. He was the central figure in a long series of short adventure films, aimed largely at children (with children featured prominently as both objects of protection and protective helpers).

The first of these films featured lots of remarkably choreographed fight scenes. Frightful Days, however, is much more atmospheric -- and reminiscent of Fantomas -- about an impostor (head of a band of thugs) masquerading as Kurama Tengu -- to make money and destroy his reputation.

Interestingly, KT's major opponent through the series is not a villain -- but a hero (albeit one devoted to the cause of the Shogun). There are villains, but they are lesser beings. And then there are the leading females -- the sweet young woman (sister of a villain) who takes care of homeless child acrobats and a pistol-toting "spy" (daughter of KT's most devoted supporter), who may or may not ultimately have a heart of gold.

Raiden (Shozo Makino, 1928)

Raiden means "thunder and lightning" -- the professional name of the protagonist, a sumo star of the late 18th and early 19th century. This short film is pretty much a slapstick comedy. Raiden's elderly mother (using a rather dastardly trick) has forbidden him from winning his next bout (she fears he is winning too much, incurring too much ill will from opponents and their noble patrons). Meanwhile, a samurai has rashly boasted he had a wrestler who could beat Raiden (having no wrestler on his staff at all). A quackish mountain priest (Masahiro Makino, a former child-star for his father, already moving into directing himself) gets pressed into service -- and poor Raiden must desperately try not to defeat his utterly inept rival. Lots of fun.

Ronin-gai / Samurai Town -- I and II (Masahiro Makino, 1929)

All that remains of the first film is the concluding battle -- and it is a stunner.

The second film is sort of a day (or so) in the life of poor (unemployed or mis-employed) samurai. I has an unusual structure -- with multiple story lines, none really resolved fully. Interesting, but not as entertaining as Sozenji baba. I would guess that this provided some inspiration to Sadao Yamanaka -- who would soon tackle films with a similar setting.

Chûkon giretsu - Jitsuroku Chûshingura (Shozo Makino, 1928)
Shijushichinin no shikaku / 47 Loyal Ronin (Kon Ichikawa, 1994)

Two versions of Chuishingura, separated by almost 70 years. One is quite impressive, the other is mostly a turkey. Makino's version (with the missing final section supplied from a film made by his son a bit later) is remarkable. Although old-fashioned in a few ways ways, it is still quite effective. Ichikawa's version on the other hand is quite inauthentic in content, and often plodding; action scenes are lackluster.

Uwasa no musume / The Girl in the Rumour (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

A marvelous film visually, even if occasionally a little abrupt narratively. A story of two sisters, the older being more traditional, the younger a "moga" ("modern girl"). Their widowed father runs the family sake shop -- but is running into financial trouble (causing him to make some bad decisions). Meanwhile, his long-time mistress's little business is also on the rocks. Amidst this, the older sister is introduced to a well-off suitor (a university boy who is much more intrigued by the less traditional "little sister"). Add a dotty grandfather, an officious uncle and busy body neighbors -- and you have a very good (but probably not quite “masterpiece” level) Naruse film.

Otome-gokoro - Sannin-shimai / Three sisters With Maiden Hearts (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

Visually (and aurally) splendid adaptation of a Kawabata story about three sisters, whose mother exploits them (and other young women), forcing them to panhandle musically. Lots of experimentation by Naruse and cinematographer Hiroshi Suzuki -- blurring in and out of flash-backs -- and flashbacks inside of flashbacks, all in the context of as tyle which is (overall) proto-neo-realist. Yet another Naruse film that one probably needs to classify as a masterpiece.

Nadare / Avalanche (Mikio Naruse, 1937)

A rare miss. Based on a then-popular book -- and the script is far too dialog-heavy. Naruse (and assistant director Akira Kurosawa) and his cinematographer (not a Naruse regular) come up with little in the way of visual story telling. One experiment fails -- pulling a dark shade over a character, while their inner thoughts are spoken. It might have sounded good in concept -- but it flops -- and helps add to the overall over-wordiness of the film.

Sanjuusangen-dou, toushiya monogatari / A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (Mikio Naruse, 1945)

The Sanjusangendo was located less than a mile from our bed and breakfast in Kyoto -- so we put off visiting until the last minute -- and got there about 5 minutes to late (leaving us to peer through an occasional gate) as we walked around the walled perimeter of the temple compound.

The temple in question is a very long one -- and noted for (1) having a very special statue of Kanon (Kwan Yin) plus 1000 additional statues of Kanon, lining all the walls and (2) being the site of archery competitions for about 400 years.

The official central figure in the film is the orphaned teenage son of a samurai who committed suicide after failing to break an archery record (due to some sort of clan rivalry). He has been protected (and raised) by a kind-hearted innkeeper (Kinuyo Tanaka) for 10 years -- but now wants to break the record his father failed to break. His training is not going as well as it should (an he is increasingly at risk from his father's old enemies), when a mysterious stranger (super-star Kazuo Hasegawa) comes to his aid.

The youth is callow (sometimes annoyingly so), but one soon notes that Naruse is more interested in the interplay between Tanaka and Hasegawa -- who are both splendid, Parts of this are wonderful, others are a little clunky -- but very worth seeing.

Historical note -- shot on location (more or less) in Kyoto as Tokyo was being burned to the ground by American fire bombing.

Inazuma / Lightning (Mikio Naruse, 1952)

Almost surely my favorite film from the year of my birth -- and near the top of my list of (many) Naruse favorites. Hideko Takamine is absolutely wonderful as the youngest (adult) child of a rather dysfunctional family. One of Naruse's most optimistic films -- as Takamine manages (at least partly) to seek a path to a more orderly (and rewarding life).

Yukinojo henge / An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

The new US DVD of this is quite adequate (even if it has little in the way of extras).

As is usually (always?) the case with Ichikawa's collaborations with his screenwriter wife (Natto Wada), one finds a wonderful film -- in this case built on the foundation of a rather silly 1930s swashbuckler (seemingly set right before the opening of Japan to the West). Kazuo Hasegawa, the hero of the original version, reappears in his original role (a young man, who is a kabuki actor specializing in playing women characters) and in a second major part -- as a sort of do gooder master thief (who serves as an observer and comentator on events from time to time). (The film was made, in part, to celebrate Hasegawa's 300th film role). Fujiko Yamamoto plays the leader of a pickpocketing crew from Osaka (also consisting of chambara super-stars Raizo Ichikawa and Shintaro Katsu) who falls for Hasegawa. (FY seems to have retired from acting after this film -- no clue I can find as to what she moved on to). The rest of the cast (including Ganjiro Nakamura and Ayako Wakao) is quite good as well).

Ironiya sudby, ili S legkim parom! The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Eldar Ryazanov, 1975)

The show that supplanted the adaptation of Shostakovich's Cheryomushki as the must-see movie on Russian television for New Years Eve, this starts with a brief homage to the older film. A mild-mannered doctor from Moscow is supposed to propose to his girlfriend on New Years Eve, but winds up mistakenly shipped to Petersburg -- after he and his buddies party (and drink) a bit too much at the bath house (an annual ritual for a group of school buddies). He winds up at an identical apartment at the same address as his own -- albeit in a different city (and, of course his key works). The 30-something teacher who occupies the apartment is stunned to find a drunk stranger sprawled on her bed (with her own suitor soon to arrive). After 3 hours, most problems are ironed out. Amusing -- but nowhere near the level of Shostakovich's Cheryomushki, either cinematically or musically.

Silent Bando, Gondry and Suo

Koina no Ginpei -- Yuki no wataridori / Migatory Waterbirds (Tomokazu Miyata, 1931)

Mainly this is a showcase for super-star Tsumasaburo Bando, who plays Ginpei, a rural yakuza underling in love with the pretty daughter of the local innkeeper (a semi-retired gang member). Two problems, another gang boss wants to take over the territory held by Ginpei's boss -- and the innkeeper's daughter (though fond of Ginpei) is actually in love with one of Ginpei's colleagues. After doing his duty of defending his boss's turf, Ginpei becomes a wanderer. When he returns, several years later, times have changed for the worse in his old town. Some decent fights, but overall less of a visual feast than most of the other old silent chambara I've seen.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Having recently enjoyed Gondry's third of a recent omnibus film (Tokyo!), I decided to check out this earlier movie. Alas, unlike his recent short film, I found it visually hyperactive and narratively over-complicated. I was glad when it was over.

Soredemo boku wa yattenai / {Even So,} I Just Didn't Do It (Masayuki Suo, 2006)

Suo's last movie was the gentle-natured romantic comedy Shall We Dance, made back in 2006. This film -- an expose of the Japanese criminal justice (?) system -- is hard-hitting and a bit didactic. It tells the story of a young man wrongly accused of groping a school girl on an overcrowded train. In it we learn the (sadly true) fact that once accused of a crime, conviction is almost certain (and that appeals mainly exist only to overturn the rare acquittals). We also learn that judges are not independent -- but rather can be demoted or otherwise punished if they issue acquittal decisions. And we learn that, if innocent, one is best advised to plead guilty (not just to groping charges, but even to rape), as the punsihments are nominal compared to what will happen if one claims innocence and demands a trial. Pleading innocence is, it would seem, an affront to the police, the proecutors, the government -- and is almost invariably punished very severely. Virtually none of the due process protections taken for granted in the US (and Europe) exist for accused criminals.

As a movie, rather than a tract, this is also pretty good. Not much real suspense, as one can guess rather early on how things will turn out. A really fine cast, with Ryo Kase as the accused and (the splendid) Koji Yakusho as his lead defense attorney -- and many others. Cinematography is smple and effective, with not much in the ways of artsiness. Music sounds rather Hisaishi-esque at times -- but was actually provided by the director's older brother.

A bit of timely news, just recently the Japanese Supreme Court overturned a groping conviction -- for the first time _ever_.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Naruse, Imai, Bodrov, Kawase and Ikeda

Sakasu gonin-gumi / Five Men in a Circus (Mikio Naruse, 1935)

The fourth (and lightest weight) of the five films Naruse made for PCL (later part of Toho) in his first year after his departure from Shochiku. Perhaps inspired (a bit) by Ozu's Story of Floating Weeds (made in 1934), this depicts two sets of wandering performers -- a five man band of itinerant musicians (playing Western instruments) and a small-time circus run by a grumpy old tyrant (with two lovely daughters). When all the male circus performers go on strike, the circus hires the five musicians to fill in. Even if "minor" Naruse, the film is charming, visually lovely and sociologically fascinating -- showing an immense amount of westernization in the midst of rural Japan -- classical music, ballet, cabaret, etc.

Bushidô zankoku monogatari / Cruel Story of the Samurai's Way (Tadashi Imai, 1963)
Adauchi / Revenge (Tadashi Imai, 1964)

In Bushido, Imai seems to have taken on more thematically) than he could handle in one (2 hour) film. He tries to show the stultifying effects of submission to state (and family) power throughout the ages (from the medieval era until the present). Some parts work well, others seem a bit cursory. I found it rather a jumble, overall.

In Adauchi, on the other hand, Imai takes a more focused (but still ferociously critical) look at the way the samurai system not only ran roughshod over individual human values but made a mockery of even the values it claimed to uphold. He leaves any parallels to modern times up to the viewer to find themselves.

I found this dramatically and cinematographically more compelling than the highly touted works of Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion, Harakiri) which cover similar ground -- despite the fact that Imai had a far less accomplished cast (Toei just couldn't provide the deluxe casting that either Shochiku or Toho could provide). This deserves to be far better known.

Mongol (Sergei Bodrov, 2007)

A big, dumb movie -- but often remarkably gorgeous looking (with fairly decent performances). Seems to simply illustrate random (and largely unconnected) moments of Genghis Khan's early days. The (copious) fake blood here makes that in Kitano's Zatoichi look positively life-like.

Nanayomachi / Nanayo (Naomi Kawase, 2008)

A heartbreaker. All the little things that irritated me about the last part of Mourning Forest show up here in full force. Some lovely travel pictures, but dramatically atrocious (with equally atrocious performances). The worst movie I've ever seen by a director I admire.

Tounan kadobeya nikai no onna (Chihiro Ikeda, 2008)

Note : Literally translated, this is something like "the woman of the southeast corner apartment on the second floor", but is mysteriously (and not very appropriately) renamed Tokyo Rendezvous in English.

This debut feature film of a young woman director is quite delightful overall. Clearly shot on a low budget (the DVD makes the quality look rather VHS-ish) but has a first-rate cast -- including Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story, Sansho, Bad Sleep Well). Somewhat in the vein of Jun Ichikawa's loving looks at down-scale Tokyo, mixed with a bit of Yoji Yamada's more populist take on similar material. This covers issues like pressures towards marriage in young professionals, urban land ownership, and finding a place in life (physically and psychically) where one feels comfortable. I fear this will never cross the ocean theatrically, but the Japanese DVD is subbed (for anyone who might be interested).

Ito, Yamanaka, Inagaki, Hou -- and pleasant fluff

Oatsurae Jirokichi goshi / Jirokichi the Rat (Daisuke Ito, 1931)

Denjiro OKochi plays the title character -- a master thief from Tokyo on the lam in Osaka. He gets entangled there with the travails of two women -- the sister of a thuggish barber (and yakuza boss) and the daughter of a disgraced (and dying) samurai. The action sequences are stunning -- and the perforances and story are equaly fine. A masterpiece..

Kochiyama Soshun (Sadao Yamanaka, 1936)

Another masterpiece -- this one featuring Chojuro Kawarasaki as an ultimately noble criminal, Soshun Kochiyama -- a sort of urban Robin Hood in 18th century Tokyo. Kochiyama gets into trouble trying to protect an innocent street vendor (Setsuko Hara in her first major role, 15 or 16 years old) who is imperiled due to the misdeeds of her juvenile delinquent brother.

Muhomatsu no issho / The Life of Matsu the Untamed (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1943)

Tsumasaburo Bando (one of Japan's first grat action movie stars) appears as a good-hearted (if undisciplined) rickshaw driver in love with a young widow (and devoted to her young son) who he could never hope to marry due to his inferior status. More sentimetal than the Ito and Yamanaka films above, but still wonderful.

Ni luo he nu er / Daughter of the Nile (HOU Hsiao Hsien, 1987)

This HHH film is possibly his most neglected "mature" work, though I can't realy figure out why. It prefigures Millennium Mambo in some ways, focusing the travails of a young woman. A very fine film.

Uchôten hoteru / Suite Dreams literally more like Seventh Heaven Hotel (Koki Mitani, 2006)

Enjoyable fluff that is a bit reminiscent of Fawlty Towers, with some nods to Grand Hotel. Koji Yakushi (as the nuber three executive at a luxury hotel) leads a huge all-star cast in this story of an eventful New Years Eve at a bustling hotel. Not much to speak of cinematically here, but very entertaining.

Signs of life

Since my last post, I've watched many more films -- but didn't even keep a list of what I failed to report on. I also visited Japan with my wife in February (staying in the Kansai region for 2 weeks) and have spent time in the hospital (and at bome) fighting a foot infection. Consequently, I have had time to watch more films and to write (a little at least) about some of them. Not enough energy to tackle screen captures -- yet.

Just to prove we actually made it to Japan, a few pictures:

Enjoying the plum blossoms at Domyoji Tenmangu Shrine (Fujidera)

In front of the burial mound of Emperor Nintoku (Sakai)

Open Air Museum of Japanese Farm Houses, Ryokuchi Park (Osaka)

Nara Park (Nara)

Following the footsteps of Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara -- Kiyomizudera Temple (Kyoto)

Playing pachinko

Gion Hatanaka teahouse (Kyoto)

I have pictures of my foot (at its worst) too -- but I think you should just accept that part of my story on faith.

A few short reviews to follow....