Kanzashi (1941)

24 05 2008

My first exposure to the cinematic world of Hiroshi Shimizu came with 1937’s Forget Love for Now (Koi mo wasurete) and honestly, it was a tad bit disappointing. It is a very fine film, no doubt, but between the non-ideal viewing conditions and somewhat melodramatic sensibility, it didn’t nearly live up to my expectations. This film, on the other hand, seems to correct all of the problems I had with that film. If anything, Kanzashi is one of the most undramatic films of all time, at least in a traditional sense. It downplays all the conventions of storytelling and yet communicates something extremely profound, if unexplainable.

The film opens with a fairly long tracking shot that follows a pair of women making their way to a hot spring resort. We cut to another group that includes by a recuperating war vet, Osamura. While taking a bath, his toe is pricked by a hairpin, which had been left there by Emi, one of the women in the opening sequence. He is baffled by his discovery but also sees a poetic illusion within it, leading the professor (another resort guest) to believe that some immediate romantic spark exists between Emi and Osamura. Emi returns to the resort to apologize but Osamura attempts to downplay the injury. They both become absorbed into an ideal way of living, shared with resort neighbors.

At the time of it’s release, Shimizu’s film was written off as being purely escapist and it is easy to understand why. Once the principle characters are introduced, little drama is injected into the story. Instead, the film is built around a series of snapshots ranging from awkward (Emi and Osamura’s first meeting) to silly (the snoring contest) to heartbreaking (the poignant finale) and all of this is filmed in Shimizu’s extremely austere style. His camera remains static for most of the film, with only a few exceptions. Combine this with Shimzu’s sharp humor, which is perfectly profiled in the introduction of the professor, and the result is something that anticipates the early features of Fassbinder, as well as the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

Even when stacked up against the best of “plotless Asian” cinema, Kanzashi feels uneventful but this is, if anything, a strength. Where the film isn’t so much escapist entertainment, as it is about people participating an escape, it perfectly captures moments bursting with emotions nuanced to the point of appearing trivial. The “group” that we follow is almost like a perfect family, but underneath their fleeting moments of happiness, is something overwhelmingly sad. From time to time, Emi receives messages from Tokyo that encourages her to come back. In the end, everyone returns to Tokyo except for her. We know little to nothing of Emi’s past but it is lack of character exposition that makes the film so powerful. It captures a brief period of time in which essentially nothing happens, at least not on the surface, but underneath is a lot of drama and it is riveting as hell. In other words, a complete masterpiece.

Billy Liar (1963)

24 05 2008

It’s quite funny that this came out the same year as Anderson’s This Sporting Life since this film represents a deviation for the “angry young men” genre, occasionally approaching a level of parody. Proclaiming it as an ancestor to modern quirky indie films may be an exaggeration but it does maintain a free-form style not unlike that in Altman’s more immediately groundbreaking Brewster McCloud. Still, this is a few years earlier so it is exceptionally evolved for its time, especially considering how dull and repetitive many of the British New Wave’s features were becoming. An enjoyable way to spend 90-some minutes but one shouldn’t expect substantial emotional resonance.

William Fisher is a lazy young man frustrated by the constant nagging of his parents, as well as the demands of his multiple girlfriends and his dull desk job as a clerk for a funeral home. He frequently escapes from reality to the country of Amborsia, a dream in which he is the prime minister. His optimism carries over to some of his real life experiences as he attempts to become a screenwriter in London. However, it is clear that he is over his head and in the mean time, he meets Liz, the only girl who seems to understand him and the only girl he seems to have genuine feelings for. They plan to escape to London and start a life together but William feels attached to his “boring” lifestyle and can’t fully make up his mind.

While well-regarded for its strange comedic sensibility, even more is written about the poignancy in Billy Liar. At the risk of giving the final sequence away, I must say that it is a very emotionally relevant decision made by the film’s protagonist. He ultimately resists the change in his life that he is so eager to facilitate. While it is disappointing to see William run away from the beautiful Julie Christie, it also communicates something deeper, in retrospect, that I think every human can relate to in some form. Even if we despise our current way of living, we are still attached to its rigorous flow.

Now, this is probably giving the film too much credit. It basically goofs around for ninety minutes and tries to deliver something profound within the closing sequence. The rest of the film plays about in a much more inconsequential but equally riveting manner. The self-consciously “serious” finale is a bit jarring, though, in spite of Schlesinger’s best attempts to have it play in with the rest of William’s fantasies. It’s almost impossible not to think of Brewster McCloud and its finale, which tries similarly attempts to be poignant but pulls it off in a way that corresponds with the rest of the film’s silly, carefree tone.