Exodus (2007)

15 02 2008

Pang Ho-Cheung follows up his 2006 masterpiece, Isabella, with another effort saturated with overwhelmingly beautiful visuals. The protagonist here is also a police officer, but the narrative similarities end there. Isabella is ultimately a “father-daughter” film and this is ultimately a “woman killing men” film. Yes, the film is about a cop investigating, based on his own suspicions,  the secret plans of women, which is to kill all men apparently. Thankfully, Pang is one of the most aesthetically evolved directors ever and in terms of visuals this is another step up for him, perhaps even topping Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, the film which his new style seems to be modeled around.

Tsim Kin-Yip is a cop whose marriage with Ann seems to be going smoothly. One day he interrogates a man caught peeping in a woman’s bathroom. Indeed of admitting to anything, the man explains to Tsim that he was looking for more evidence to support his case that all women are teaming up to kill all men. Tsim assumes the man is insane, but later that very same day, the man confesses in a very mechanical fashion. This intrigues Tsim, who now begins investigating the conspiracy that the man had mentioned in the first interrogation. As he dives further into the investigation, his wife becomes more and more neglected. He feels guilty for this and attempts to spend time with her, but doing so leads him directly into another part of the investigation which then leads him to an affair with Pun Siu-Yuen, the ex-wife of the man Tsim interrogated.

It’s to Pang’s credit that the story is never confined to being just an investigation. All things considered, this is probably as great as a film can be given it’s obvious narrative restrictions. It might be a result of the distinct stylistic choices, but there are some very humane and poetic moments. Fans of plot-driven cinema will feel anxious at times with development taking such a backseat to much more graceful scenes like Ann laying in bed with a cat, or Tsim looking through a window.

Even though this didn’t resonate with me that deeply, it did reinforce just how great Pang Ho-Cheung is. This isn’t nearly as instantly lovable as Isabella but it is more instantly groundbreaking in a cinematic way. It’s a shame that something as evolved as this, will fall between the cracks. The blame can be shifted on Pang, in this case. He isn’t exploring anything truthful or ahem “deep” (not that I care for overly-ponderous films…) in a film like this, so that could be why many arty people like myself will neglect a film like this. The narrative may appeal to a certain mainstream audience, but Pang crafts his films in such a unconventional (to say the least) way that they’ll neglect it as well. Hopefully his second film from 2007, Trivial Matters, will get a bigger audience, Pang deserves one.

A Wanderer’s Notebook (1962)

15 02 2008

This is quintessential Naruse here. All of the themes/topics that have defined the rest of his oeuvre — money, abused women, heartbreak, disappointment, etc. — are pushed to the forefront in his gentle retelling of Fumiko Hayashi’s autobiography. At times, the film borders on feeling like a Naruse parody and even becomes simply too bleak. My general reaction after finishing this was “great, but I know Naruse has done better, this seems a little melodramatic” but my thoughts have shifted since then. Considering the harsh events that Mrs. Hayashi endured, Naruse crafts the film with care. This is understandable considering that Mrs. Hayashi was a bit of a hero to him and it’s well-known that he adapted many of her stories. This is not a cinematic love letter to the author, but indeed a cinematic thank you note and it couldn’t be better.

The film opens with a young Hayashi running down an alley, screaming for her mother, played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka in a much smaller role. She informs her mother that father has been arrested and before the titles even set in, we have our first look at humiliation. It’s much lighter compared to what will appear later in the film. Hayashi’s father is forced, by the policemen, to sing “his” song. Embarrassed, she runs away but it is never made clear if she is upset with the policemen, her father, or just men in general. The voice overs that follow imply the last option and the film lends it’s time detailing how Hayashi was commonly mistreated in her “rise” (if you actually want to call it that) in becoming a poet.

Immediately, the audience understands why Fumiko thinks so negatively of men but this generalization is a flaw on her part. It’s important to know that Naruse does not want to make her out to be a martyr. Yes, she did go through a lot (and this film conveys that beautifully) but her perspective was bias. All the handsome men were the ones mistreating her. Time after time, she falls back, both emotionally and financially, on Daisuke Kato’s character. She sees nothing of him, though, at least not until their final meeting at the end of the film. It would be an exaggeration to say he is her ticket out of depression but the life he lived was probably not as saturated with injustice.

Explaining the story isn’t of much interest to me because the film is more about the many relationships that are made. Simply stated, there are not enough words in any language to accurately describe the depths of every character. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, this has always been a hallmark of Naruse’s films. It’s just worth mentioning in this case because a plot arc does sort of develop here, but it’s far from being a priority to Naruse. This is not a criticism of him, if anything it’s a compliment.

If the film has any drawbacks, then it might be that it’s simply too bleak. This is not the best place for someone to start with Naruse. Despite it showcasing many of his most popular themes, it would probably be better for a Naruse novice to get acquainted with his pessimistic outlook and post-war style before diving in with this film. As great as it is, and it is great, this is 127 minutes of suffering and that’s likely to turn a lot of people of. Much like Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud, Hourou-ki is the climax to the director’s previous work. Labels like “melodrama” and “self-indulgent” will be thrown around by those experiencing Naruse for the first time with this film. However, this will resonate deeply for those that are at least vaguely familiar with his work.

On the objective side of things, this couldn’t be much more perfect, either. Takamine (and everyone else) is perfect as always. Kinuyo Tanaka has a very small role as her mother, and it’s very likely that Tanaka’s personality rubbed off on Takamine. That influence helps culminate in one of Takamine’s best performances, which is completely necessary considering how often this walks the lines of being too bleak even for a person like myself. Mr. Naruse’s work with space is excellent as always and, being shot in TohoScope, it couldn’t look much better. TThis is one of the greatest treasures in the history of Japanese cinema and it’s essential for anyone remotely interested in the history of the subject matter.