Older Brother, Younger Sister (1953)

30 01 2008

It’s a bit ironic that Mizoguchi made a very Naruse like film in 1953 with Gion Bayahsi and in the same year, Naruse turned out this film. It might not completely resemble Mizoguchi’s usual style, but it still shows examples of similar dramatic and melodramatic touches. It’s also quite odd that this is one of the two films that Naruse made for Daiei in the 50s, the other being the funny and heartbreaking Lightning (Inazuma) which shows Naruse being as nuanced as ever. Perhaps a subdued, deadpan comedy and a slightly melodramatic family drama shows that Naruse’s range can be seen even in his short partnership with Daiei.

Mon, impregnated and abandoned by her lover, is forced to return home where she’s not received with enthusiasm. Her sister, San, has also returned home but with less emotional baggage. Eventually, the tension in the family becomes unbearable and it’s all pushed to the forefront by the violent older brother, Inokichi. When Mon’s lover comes to talk to the family, her father is outraged but Inokichi’s response is even worse. He beats him up and when Mon returns back home he does the same to her resulting in a very dramatic climax.

The aforementioned melodrama is most likely a result of two things: Masuyaki Mori’s uncharaceristaclly subpar performance and the sweeping, epic score that intrudes long stretches of the films. It also seems like the sets are more noticeable in their artificiality than in other Naruse pictures. He does occasionally strike visual (and audio) gold, the most obvious case being the scene where the father looks at the flowing river: a beautiful shot with the river creating an almost ambient drone. Of course, such scenes get muddled in-between ones with painted backgrounds. It’s a testament to Naruse’s usually great use of space that only in a open film like this do I notice how dated certain things look. Probably towards the bottom if I had to rank the twelve Naruse films  I’ve seen but it’s still very good.

Shara (2003)

30 01 2008

I was trying to think up a shortlist of female directors from Japan not too long ago and outside of Kinuyo Tanaka, who of course is famous for other things, I could only think of Naomi Kawase. Unfortunately, she got little attention when she won the Grand Prix at Cannes for The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) last year. She’s written two novels and directed ten films (her latest is in post-production) but only now, is she getting attention in the west. I’ve felt like I’ve written “only now getting attention in the west” about one hundred times in this blog already. America is just so far behind in Asian cinema. Enough whining, Shara (Sharasojyu) definitely represents the work of a promising talent.

The films opens with a prolonged and rather awkward sequence of Shun and his brother running through alleyways. For better or worse, Kawase’s shakycam tracks the traveling of characters in a way that is as immediately striking as the steadicam tracking shots in Alan Clarke’s films. Shun’s brother disappears and this setups the rest of the film, which takes place seven years after and reflects the family’s inability to move on from their trauma. Shun is now seventeen, exteremly alienated, and falling for Yu. Their respective families have much bottled in leading up to the “Shara festival.”

I always see it as being short-sighted when saying any films is like “so and so but with something else” but this just be an Ozu film with the unfortunately overused shakycam. The first is particularly Ozu-esque, as Kawase simply observes the everyday rituals of the film’s characters. The similarities in living conditions certainly doesn’t hurt this comparison, either. Seeing as how this is a delicate film, it takes place away from the bright lights and modernization of the big city. I’m also reminded of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films from the 80s but placing Kawase on the same plateau as my two very favorite directors is a bit premature.

Even though this is a remarkably observant and neutral slice-of-life, the otherwise sparse narrative is plagued by a very silly exposition that ends up taking fifteen minutes of screen time. The film is about Shun, his family, Yu and her step-mom and that’s why the bit about the disappearing brother is unnecessary and frankly, a little silly. It’s bad enough that Shun never really “looks” for his brother but it’s even worse that Kawase felt such an explanation was needed to order to understand the tension of the family. It would be much more interesting, at least to me, had none of that information been given and the audience would be left to study the nuance of the present episodes.

Mrs. Kawase’s aesthetic deserves a word or two, as well. As I said, this is a very low-key drama, the type that I watch at an almost obsessive level. This is one of the first that seems to be keen on using the shakycam handheld look. Certainly the more kinetic approach can strike a chord with me (WKW, Fruit Chan, Cassavetes, and hundreds more) but it tends to be used for much more consequential films. The clash of somber pacing and anti-attention span camera work is very awkward at times, particularly the far too long opening sequence. This leads me to my final very small compliant and that’s that Kawase should have spent a little more time in the editing room. The opening sequence which is basically ten minutes of slow-motion footage of two kids running in a street feels sort of cool at first but goes on for an uncomfortable length of time. The opening festival sequence is a blast in face from the restrained mood the film had built itself upon and yet, the festival sequence ends up feeling even more mundane if only for the fact that it goes on way too long.

Even though I am vocal about my very small problems with the film, it is still pretty much a masterpiece. It’s refreshing to see that not everyone follows the long-held traditions/beliefs about minimalistic films in Asia. This is more akin to the social dramas coming out of South America, the “gluesniffing” genre as I like to call it, but with more focus on characters and their relationships. The people who would like Shara know who they are, and they shouldn’t waste anymore time not seeing it.

Endless Desire (1958)

29 01 2008

My feelings towards this are a lot like the feelings I have towards Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower. Fittingly enough, both films were my introduction into directors that I should have been familiar with already. I can’t say either film left a considerable impression on me, but they both felt sort of inconsequential and not a big deal when stacked up against the rest of their filmography. Of course, the appeal of those other films being the fact that I haven’t actually seen them yet. To reiterate my thoughts on Pale Flower: this is a wonderfully shot film, exceptionally framing but fairly conventional in every other aspect. There’s some refreshing slapstick humor that’s sort of nice to see in contrast to all the older “slice-of-life” minimalist films I’ve been watching lately. At the same time, there’s also the ever-dreaded over-arcing plot. In all honesty, this setup feels like something from the Twilight Zone (to be specific, “Four Characters in Search of an Exit” – no twist, thankfully) by trying to engage the audience with superficial character development. This really isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because for what it is, it is quite entertaining but I am expecting much more from my next Imamura experience. I wasn’t expecting much from this and I pretty much got what I bargained for. There’s far worse ways to spend 100 minutes.

Gion Bayashi (1953)

27 01 2008

Kenji Mizoguchi is best known in the West as the mind behind Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, both very fine films but both films where the dreamy vibe begins to engulf itself. Perhaps it’s the fairy tale like structure of both films, but in my opinion, they come off as too magical instead of poetic. The Malick comparisons make sense, especially since he attempted a stage adaptation of Sansho but it feels like Mizoguchi is escaping to another world instead of focusing on the beauty within this one. Gion Bayashi is a bit more realistic than Mizoguchi’s more highly-regarded films and for my money, a lot better too.

Eiko (Ayako Wakao) is a naive teenager attempting to start a new life. She travels to the Gion district in hopes of following in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a geisha. She meets one of her mother’s geisha “sisters”: Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) is far less idealistic but she takes in Eiko anyway, despite the financial difficulties that the training will bring to her. A year pases, Eiko is now Miyoe, and Miyoe is ready to make her geisha debut. Miyoharu and Miyoe are invited to entertain at a business meeting between Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba) – Kusuda falls for Miyoe and Kanzaki falls for Miyoharu. Kusuda wants to give Miyoharu to Kanzaki to help close a business deal but both geisha are against it and this leads to more financial turmoil.

A delicate, slice-of-lice film that Mizoguchi made in-between his two most famous epics, Sansho and Ugetsu. This is a bit closer to the films that Naruse started making in the 50s, which is ironic considering that Mizoguchi was very upfront about his distaste for Naruse. As I mentioned in the opening, the film still has Mizoguchi’s distinct style stamped all over it. I can see Mizoguchi attempting this type of narrative in one of his earlier films, Women of the Night, which I also liked quite a bit. However, that film amounts to an almost Seijun Suzuki-esque exploitation film with very dubious attempts as coming off as true to life. There’s some equally melodramatic flairs here, but not enough to deride this perfectly downplayed tragedy.

Death Row Woman (1960)

26 01 2008

Nobuo Nakagawa is often considered the father of J-horror. This tag makes complete sense since Jigoku and Ghost Story of Yotsuya are early examples of the type of cinema that Japan is now putting out at a nauseating rate. Yet, with both of those films, I see truly personal films. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic value that both of those films hold, but I really think they’re just as truthfully, at least in an emotional sense, as any film I’ve ever seen. Death Row Woman, released in 1960, does little to back up this theory. Instead, it’s just a fairly interesting and sort of funny, Hitchcock-esque thriller.

Kyoko is accused of the murder of her father after engaging in an intense argument with him. She hasn’t done it, though. So she breaks out of prison and reunites with the man that her father had arranged for her to marry. There’s a lot of plot development that I don’t fully comprehend because it’s too “intricate” or whatever. I suppose I look too much for character development even in something rather mindless like this. Anyway, she ends up with this guy in a very happy (but confusing) ending!

Pretty much any problem I have with this film is a result of the “genre” it’s suppose to be confined to. Without getting deep into my cinematic principles, I’m not a big fan of plot-heavy film noir type things. I definitely prefer films to be relatively plotless and to focus more on the characters and so on. For what it is, this is pretty good. Nice cinematography, well-composed shots, and some really neat music to create some genuinely suspenseful stuff. On the other hand, most of the suspense comes in the first twenty minutes which is really just a rip-off of the final 15 minutes in Bresson’s A Man Escaped.

The only particularly memorable aspect of the film is Yoichi Numata’s performance as the inspector. I have always had a distaste for his performance as Tamura in Jigoku. It’s never good when a character comes off a villain and in that film, he does. In retrospect, it has more to do with the actual writing than his performance. I can see from this film that he could transfer his on-screen charisma to much more interesting roles. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this film is a hoot or anything, but it is kind of funny.

I posted some more screen shots from the Beam/Eclipse DVD here.

A Distant Cry From Spring (1980)

26 01 2008

Tamiko Kizami (played by the always wonderful Chieko Baisho) is a widowed farmer who lives with her only son. She’s constantly working on the farm almost as though it’s an outlet for her to free her emotions. One night, a man named Tajima stops by asking for shelter. She welcomes him in and he leaves the next day. The following spring, he comes back asking only for a job and a place to rest. Tamiko is slow to give her trust to him but when she falls ill, he is left to take care of the house as well as Tamiko’s son, Takeshi. Tajima’s friendship with her son grows which finally allows Tamiko to feel at ease in his presence. Around the same time, we find out Tajima’s secret: he killed a man and he’s been running from the law for two years. He eventually surrenders to the police. This is followed by a very emotional finale in which Tamiko finally articulates her feelings for Tajima, while he is on his way to prison.

Yes, I know. It sounds terrible. It’s very obvious right from the start where the narrative is going, but even the conventional structure is approached with care from Yamada. All the plot points, as melodramatic as they are, come off in a very natural way. This is a true testament to Yamada’s talent as a filmmaker. It is deliberately paced enough that the Hollywood-esque emotional scenes come off as genuinely heartbreaking. In any other context, the final sequence would be hokey but it somehow rings true when juxtaposed with the rest of the film. Of course, the terribly intrusive score doesn’t make matters better but I don’t think these things detract from the film in any significant way.

When compared to Tora-san, this is a much more distinct early Yamada feature, both in style and emotional resonance. Accusations against it as being predictable are justified but man, if it isn’t one of the most beautiful composed films I’ve ever seen. The few conventional cinematic traits of the film never feel too bad when they’re photographed like they are here. There’s undeniably a Malick-vibe going on. After all, we are on a farm and much of it occurs during either, sunrise or sunset. In every other case, though, it’s very different. His work on Ozu films have definitely left an impression. This probably some of the most meticulous framing I’ve seen for a film shot in cinema scope. It reminds me even a little bit of Nagisa Oshima’s The Sun’s Burial but again, this is more on the contemplative side as opposed to the kinetic one.

Since the visuals are so important to this film, it’s also important to watch the right DVD. The Panorama disc says it’s widescreen but it isn’t. It’s cropped and looks like VHS, which destroys two of the film’s more important strengths: the framing and the visuals. Shochiku released a correctly formatted and well-restored version of the film in Japan, but the copy doesn’t have English subtitles. I have to give thanks to AliceFrye for transferring Panorama’s subtitles to the Shochiku copy. 

Samaritan Girl (2004)

26 01 2008

Kim Ki-Duk has built up something of a persona that can probably only be matched in modern Asian cinema by the cult of Shinya Tsukamoto. His films are almost self-consciously sloppy and self-indulgent to the point that many find him endearing. He produces films at a ridiculous rate (three films in the past three years) which implies that not only are his films quickly thrown together, but he is constantly attempting to reach some sort of personal understanding. This is probably romanticizing Kim’s films as they are indeed terrible, objectively speaking. He has many detractors to point this out. The most (in)famous one being Tony Rayns who oddly enough has a very friendly personal relationship with Kim. Without going into any profound analyzing, I’ve deduced two things about Kim: 1) he’s a terrible director and 2) he’s a very interesting person. I just can’t make any statement on his actual films.

Samaritan Girl is no exception to Kim’s messy, self-indulgent, misogynistic world. If anything, it is the perfect introduction to it. Jae-Young and Yeo-jin run a prostitution service so they can save up enough money to travel Europe. Jae-Young is the prostitute and Yeo-jin is the one who organizes their business, if you can call it that. Jae-Young is much more outgoing and energetic where as Yeo-jin is quiet and takes things a bit more serious. She cares so much for Jae-Young that she is immediately disgusted by her friend’s customers. Jae-Young always reports back with touching information about the men she meets but this upsets Yeo-jin. Jae-Young dies which leads to Yeo-jin taking over the business and she tries to comprehend the joy that her friend got from their customers. Yeo-jin’s dad becomes suspicious and eventually starts “hunting down” these men. They meet up at Yeo-jin’s mother grave for a father-daughter bonding finale.

It’s pretty much impossible to comprehend the depth of their relationship; Yeo-jin’s feelings for Jae-Young may have been intentionally romantic or it could have just been a result of Kim’s usual misogynistic overtones paired with two schoolgirls. It’s still the most interesting aspect of the film. Had it not been for Jae-Young’s death this could have been a very nice, low-key friendship film (a la Take Care of My Cat) but the mood of the film shifts every fifteen minutes or so. Much of it’s strength can be built upon an early scene in which Jae-Young tells the story of an Indian prostitute in a poetic, non-intrusive manner.

The middle stretch of the film is embarrassing, though. Yeo-jin’s dad becomes dedicated in an unreal, noir detective kind of way. This leads to him killing her customers in the film’s most outrightly exploitive sequences. His overly-dramatic introduction basically points out the type of thing to expect from Kim. He is using a very common dramatic tone in hopes of finding something much more deeper in true. It’s like he’s taking conventional storytelling and turning it into a symbol for something much deeper. This is where I give up on this “conflicted artist” explanation of Kim. No matter how open-minded I try to be, this isn’t really that good.

I’ll try to step back and say that since Kim’s films are so objectively bad (poorly-made in technical terms) that they cannot be assessed in the usual manner. This is an awful lot of thinking that has to be done for a director who probably isn’t even self-conscious of his “deeper” appeal. As I said earlier, Kim Ki-Duk the person has to be very interesting and this film makes it very obvious. However, I don’t know Kim as a person, I haven’t meet him and so his films provide nothing more than just a really weird guy attempting to commit his soul onto celluloid. This is why Tony Rayns’ case is so interesting to me. Much like the relationship between Yeo-jin and Jae-Young in this film, I don’t know how well Rayns and Kim know each other. Even if they are merely friendly acquaintances, there must be some influence on Rayns’ opinion. Since he’s meet Kim, he’ll know some basic things about him, they can carry a conversation and both will probably have an idea of how the other will respond. This might be where Rayns’ distaste for Kim comes in, he has a pretty good idea of how Kim is going to structure his films.

This is not a criticism of either person. It’s mostly just me pondering about their relationship. Whenever Rayns sees a very Kim-like aspect in one of Kim’s films, he probably rolls his eyes because he expects it. What Kim seems to be trying to do is honestly and accurately, put his soul on film with all the self-indulgent excess that it probably results in. Much like what John Cassavetes intended on doing, but the two just have a different personality. Speaking of which, I bet the relationship between Ray Carney and the on-screen Gena Rowlands is probably equally befuddling. If I were somehow right about all these things, it would just be a perfect example of how films really can affect our lives. I don’t mean in the superficially “realistic” type of way but in a way that we are not even conscious of. Our own relationship with the images on the screen vs our relationship with the people projecting that image onto the screen. In other words, this was a pretty okay movie.