The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993)

25 05 2008

I suppose it’s quite fitting that I finally got around to seeing Tran Anh Hung’s first feature after watching a pair of films from Hiroshi Shimizu. The unique “plotlessness” of Shimizu that I have lionized these past two days seems to have a found a modern link in this and The Vertical Ray of the Sun. A few months back I saw the latter film, which is undeniably beautiful but at the time, I was far too concerned with the limitations of the narrative. Like Shimizu, Tran’s aforementioned features (Cyclo, while great, doesn’t fall into this category) are, on the surface, very cheerful and easy-going. In addition, both seem very keen on long tracking shots through multiple rooms. Unfortunately for Tran, his strokes aren’t nearly as masterful as Shimizu’s when it comes to characters.

Mui, a young girl, becomes a servant for a mourn-stricken family. She observes their multiple ways of dealing with pain. The grandmother, saddened by the loss of her husband and her grandchild, spends all of her time praying. The older boy in the family spends his time making wax bugs while the younger one creates mischief, teases Mui, and above all, farts. (More than likely a nod to Ozu’s Good Morning) The household’s mother handles her sadness much better, but when her husband leaves with the family savings, she can no longer bear the pain. Ten years later, Mui is still working as a servant but now she does so for an engaged songwriter.

As always, Tran’s greatest cinematic strength is his literal attention to detail. There are thousands of shots in this and his other two films that reveal the textures to the smallest of objects. It seems pointless to even attempt to comprehend the beauty of the images here. Even screenshots do little to no justice to the feelings they produce when witnessed in live motion. The film never really has a dull moment because it can really appreciated without any understanding of the developments in the plot.

This is the film’s downfall, then, I suppose. While the film’s opening moments feel natural and uncontrived, the final section is dampened by goofy Cinderella-inspired symbolism. This isn’t too much of a problem, per se, but the mood is inconsequential to begin with so once the drama begins to kick in, it feels very manufactured. Perhaps I am simply resisting calling it a masterpiece, which is what it should be. The awe-inducing images combined with a setup that obviously has roots in the films of Ozu and (Satyajit) Ray: sounds like something I should be embracing on all levels. If only it had maintained that observation/carefree sensibility the whole way through. Still, it is a wonderful debut from a wonderful director, who, unfortunately, has a very small output.

Anma to onna (1938)

25 05 2008

Still reeling from the post-viewing high of Kanzashi, I decided to give this earlier Shimizu feature a try. It isn’t nearly as great and it suffers from a few narrative hiccups, but for the most part, it is further reinforcement of just how skilled Shimizu is as a filmmaker. Not only that but with this film, it is becoming more and more clear that he has his own recognizable style. Really, I got off on the wrong foot with Forget Love for Now since it seems to provide little representation of what he has going on in this and Kanzashi.

Two blind masseurs, who make a hobby of counting how many people they pass, find work in a secluded town. One of the masseurs, Tokuichi, inadvertently falls in love with the kind Michiho. The two begin a playful but infrequent relationship. All hope appears lost for Tokuichi when Michiho develops an interest in Shintaro, a lonely man who continues to prolong an uneventful vacation with his nephew.

Like Kanzashi there is no noticeable “drama” here and the sensibility is similarly carefree and happy. There’s silly comedic hijink that only deepens the theory that Shimizu’s world is one of never-ending happiness. That’s a pretty superficial assessment, though, and a false one at that. Once again, essentially nothing important happens on the surface, but Shimizu’s films seem to be more about what his characters don’t say, rather than what they do say. Perhaps it is difficult to comprehend but there really is a heartbreaking, almost tragic, would-be romance floating underneath the cutesy humor.

In a way, I’d like to think of this film as a poem, if not a fully-fleshed out character-driven film. The short running time (65 minutes) contributes heavily to such a feeling, but the moments of heartbreak and beauty are presented in such a fragmented way. This is not a criticism at all, in fact it is praise as really no one was making cinema like this during 30s. To say that Shimizu’s cinema is a precursor to Wong Kar-Wai’s is a bit of an exaggeration. Yet in this film, Shimizu captures some wonderful moments and does so in a way that is fleeting but memorable. A perfect example would be he sequence in which Tokuichi passes in between Shintaro and Michiho. Once again, a masterpiece from Shimizu but I still prefer Kanzashi as that one feels a bit more balanced and a lot more developed.