Mogari no Mori (2007)

11 05 2008

Another extremely frustrating effort from Naomi Kawase. Perhaps even more so than Moe no Suzaku though in her defense, it is largely due to this film’s giant ambitious which are never quite equally executed. In some ways, this is actually a step-up from Shara. Where that film is more of a straightforward drama captured in a naturalistic fashion, this is more of an attempt at being a poem. It does achieve a very Malick / Herzog vibe but the content drags after awhile and begins to stray back to something more dramatic. Kawase’s attempt at trying new things is admired, though, as this film has more than enough inspired sequences to prove its own worth. At the same time, it is not the transcendent masterpiece that it could have been.

To get her mind off the recent death of her son, Machiko begins working at a retirement home. She is scared at first, but quickly eases her way into the atmosphere. She also begins an unlikely friendship with Shigeki, who lost his wife thirty-tree years ago. Their friendship is understandably slowed down by Shigeki’s mental instability. On a trip outside the retirement home, Machiko’s car gets caught in a ditch. She goes to look for help but when she returns, Shigeki has disappeared. She quickly finds him deep in the forest. The two continue to hike through this forest looking for the grave of Shigeki’s wife.

For about the first 25 minutes, Kawase creates a distinct atmosphere bursting with spontaneity and poetry. The sequence in which Shigeki and Machiko play hide and seek represents the final particularly fantastic section of film, sans the finale. A beautifully composed, almost montage, of heartbreaking sequences that feel completely free of any dramatic conventions. In some ways, this further reinforces just how small the gap between Harmony Korine and Naomi Kawase is. Perhaps it is a little bit of a stretch to call this the Japanese Gummo but the film’s first section seems to imply that it is working towards just that.

Everything following the opening is downhill, though not overwhelmingly so. Once Shigeki and Machiko get “stuck” in the forest, there are some nice sequences but nothing really equating to the breathtaking moments from earlier on. The sequences in the forest range from cheap scares (a falling branch) to completely tedious nothings (walking in a forest with no focus on nature?) to the bizarre (Machiko taking her clothes off to warm Shigeki) but again, nothing as special as what we’ve seen in the first few minutes. In compensation, the film’s final sequence does live up to the completely amazing opening, but there’s still too many instances when the film feels as though it is dragging. Even in Shara, Kawase could have benefited from some editing. If you’re going to film people walking for thirty minutes, you better something great to fall back on. Instead, a majority of the film is borderline-nauseating camera work of two people walking. Still, there’s something very special going on here.

Yearning (1964)

11 05 2008

After a long personal hiatus from Naruse, I return to the master with Yearning, one of his very best. As one can expect from Naruse, this is a very downplayed drama, meticulously composed with an admiration for the tohoscope format, which Naruse perfected in the 60s. Like Floating Clouds, this takes an almost absurd melodramatic turn during the final act and yet, the film manages to come off incredibly well. Perhaps these “turns” only seem melodramatic because Naruse always downplays the events leading up. Regardless, this is a master in his prime, i.e essential viewing.

Reiko owns and operates a small-town market that is on its last leg. This is mostly due to the corporate supermarket that is taking a majority of the town’s market. Within the market, Reiko takes care of her mother-in-law as well her brother-in-law, Koji. After her husband’s death, Reiko piled herself in work to erase the pain but the idle time has given her time to reflect on her life and she sees it as a waste. Meanwhile, Koji, is harboring a longtime crush on Reiko. Without a job, he’s given time to goof off with his older buddies. He’s offered an opportunity to start a new supermarket and in the process, leave Reiko forever.

Once again, Naruse displays his unquestioned ability to work in the ‘scope format. Perhaps it is due to the long break I’ve had from him, but this film, in particular, seemed a bit more edited than his other efforts from the 1960s. The increase in cutting actually makes the few longer shots seem all the more remarkable. Judging a Naruse film on shot length isn’t really necessary, though. In all of his films, especially this one, there is a repetition in the shot set-ups that make his style very surveillance-like. This perfectly fits in with the usual dark humor that seems more pronounced than before. There’s a few sequence that are unbearably awkward in the greatest of ways.

The above description fits the film first hour or so and then things begin to take a much more tragic turn. Reiko announces her plans to return home and leave the shop. In response, Koji follows her. There are many sequences in which the attitude of the couple shifts so quickly. A realistic shift, of course, but it is hard not to have the word melodramatic pop in your head. In theory, the accusations of Naruse being melodramatic could be just when one considers just how anti-dramatic his style is. I suppose when something plot related actually happens, it glaringly so. However, in the case of this film, I think the overly-expressive musical score is to blame. Some of the film’s music is quite good, actually. It has an almost Hawaiian sensibility to it, reminding one of Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild. That’s just one piece, though. The score that acts as a dramatic guide is atrocious, though, and threatens to dilute the power of Naruse’s images. It’s never quite that bad but it certainly is a nuisance.

The most perfect example of the score’s awkward placement comes in the film’s beautifully composed final sequence. I don’t want to give anything away, but the final occurrence is a tragic one. However, Naruse pulls it off in classiest (or non-exploitive) of ways and with enough visual elegance to equate to the end of L’Avventura. The score, which serves no purpose almost makes this sequence a laughable mess. Only on a second viewing with the sound turned off could I appreciate this fabulous sequence. So really, this is a perfect film, but with a very out-of-place of score. One of Naruse’s greatest works from the 60s, a period in which he could do no wrong.

The Red Desert (1964)

11 05 2008

Perhaps Antonioni’s single most technically accomplished effort is also his least nuanced. In some ways, it feels as though the introduction of color into palette made him want to do something a bit more simple. The characters, though deep as usual, feel like more accessible, streamlined portraits of the characters in the trilogy. Where in his previous films, “eros” is characterized as its own being that can burden human relationships, it is more like a monster here. In other words, this probably closer to Polanski’s Repulsion than anything else in Antonioni’s filmography.

Following an accident, a sensitive Guiliana has still not gotten use to the rhythms of human life. Her husband, Ugo is professional and presentable but never willing to give her the attention she deserves. Ugo now has a new associate, Corrado, who develops a deep interest in Guiliana. He is aware that her past has made her cautious, but he does not understand the importance of such events. Like almost all of Antonioni’s character, the three drift around, trying to capture fleeting moments of pleasure in hopes of something bigger. In the mean time, Guiliana’s mental condition continues to worsen.

With the final film of his trilogy, L’Eclisse, Antonioni achieved an almost wordless but profound examination of a drifting soul, trying to attach herself to someone. Here, we get sort of the same thing but it is presented in a much more expressive, outspoken, and talkative manner. For as much as Antonioni is remembered for introducing a cinema not reliant on dialogue, it is here, in one of his most famous works that he indulges everything he seemed to have been fighting against before. That isn’t to say this is as talkative as an Eric Rohmer film, or that it the characters are able to articulate themselves particularly well. Instead, it is a more “cinematic” problem that the dialogue taints the usual rhythms of Antonioni’s work.

To make up for the lack of nuance, some new technical elements are employed. The ambient drone that is present throughout the film perfectly fits the mechanized atmosphere in which our protagonists (if you want to call them that) are trapped in. The shots are built around a color in an attempt to correspond with the character’s psychology. Such manipulation may seem a bit over the top and even gimmicky, but the colors have a distinct feeling. Sure, Identification of a Woman has a richer color pallete and ultimately, looks much more modern, but this film feels a bit confident in it’s presentation. Explaining the cinematography would be a daunting and probably impossible task but there is definitely something special about it.

Considering how well this is received among the “Antonioni circle” it is a tad disappointing to find the film to lack the complexities that, personally, make Antonioni so very special to me. Then again, there’s definitely some great things in here and of course, Monica Vitti is quite possibly the single most captivating actress of all time. Her performance is a bit more melodramatic here considering that she’s suppose to be “insane” but she is special to watch none the less. Combining her presecene with the formal experimentation and you’ve got yourself a wonderful film. The film’s only problem is that the characters aren’t fleshed out to the usual Antonioni standard.