Arigato-san (1936)

1 06 2008

In some ways, this is absolutely one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen. It has a big giant grin of an attitude, a sensibility akin to 1950s suburban America, but underneath it is surely one of the most tragic, heartbreaking stories ever told. This should be expected from Shimizu as he always seemed to produce very “every thing’s fine on the outside, every thing’s not-so-fine on the inside” type of films. But here, it’s taken to a completely different level with upbeat and peppery music providing a background for a completely tragic tale. A poetic would-be romance disguised as depression-era Japan escapism, and overall, one of the finest films ever made.

A friendly bus driver who goes by the nickname of Mr. Thank You transports an odd variety of characters to a train station. Living up to his nickname, Mr. Thank You remains a courteous driver, thanking everyone whom he passes by. He also seems to have many acquaintances, many of whom being young and beautiful woman. Inside the bus is an outgoing, sophisticated young woman who makes many advances to the young and charming bus driver. There’s a stubborn businessman whose mustache becomes the butt of most of the young woman’s jokes. In the back, there is a mother traveling with her passive daughter, who is on her way to being sold into sexual slavery. The bus driver downplays the advances of the more “modern” and extroverted woman and centers his focus on the more reserved girl.

Once again, we have an effort from Shimizu that is not a deep character study. Unlike his peers, he shows a more situation-driven parable but one that features an undeniable heartbreaking charm. Even then, he is very careful with each of his character. The more experienced woman who openly flirts with Mr. Thank You never becomes a femme-fatale or even a villain. It is never quite made clear, but it is very likely that she has gone through a predicament similar to the younger girl that the bus driver takes an interest in.

At first, the seemingly happy tone gets some getting use to. Through the film, there is an overwhelmingly silly score that continues to reinforce the myth that everything really is perfectly fine. There’s even a sequence when the younger girl finally breaks down and tears, but the music continues to play. Normally, I would never condone such a goofy musical choice but Shimizu seems to overuse it to the point of cynicism making the film oddly funny but still terribly sad. In fact, one must appreciate Shimizu’s ability to resist ever using any “sad” music. The fact that anyone can view this as escapism is a testament to how much a director can manipulative a audience. In this case, though, Shimizu is manipulating the audience to feel the exact opposite of what the story intends, which results in something jarring but undeniably idiosyncratic.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

1 06 2008

In spite of all the hype building this up to be some sort of “thriller” it is actually a wonderfully executed social drama on par with the Dardenee Brothers, Alan Clarke, and hell, maybe a bit of a Gaspar Noe influence thrown in there too. No question, it is a very suspenseful film but not at all in the conventional sense. The Lives of Others this is not. Instead, it is a film that is bleak, awkward, and tension-filled without the influence of any of the textbook conventions that suspense films have always been built around.

Otilia and Gabita are roommates, the later girl is need of an abortion. Otilia, being the more outgoing of the two, does a majority of the work: making a hotel reservation, meeting with the doctor, and taking the initiative to pay for the procedure. In the mean time, she also needs to show up for the birthday of her boyfriend’s mother. Everything ultimately works out but the pressure of such a burden can’t quickly be forgotten.

First of all, I must say that this is visually, one of the more unique films I’ve seen in quite sometime. Even Yumurta‘s visual style had roots in the films of Hiroshi Ishikawa (Tokyo.Sora, Su-ki-da) but Mungiu’s look is probably that of a slightly bleached out film shot by Christopher Doyle. That is to say, this capture the same borderline garish color scheme of a Wong Kar-Wai film but still maintains a very dark look, almost akin to a David Fincher film. I suppose one could read this as insult, but it’s really a compliment as the simultaneously saturated and bleached colors look wonderful when under the control of such accomplished camera work. There’s plenty of long handheld/steadicam shots that aimlessly follow characters, which is fantastic, and to make things better, it’s juxtaposed with (similarly beautiful) static shots. All in all, a fantastic film from a technical point of view.

The narrative is not really the main thrust here, as little “plot development” takes place. Obviously, those who expect some sort of conventional suspense film are bound to be disappointed. There’s really no ever-looming threat or sense of danger, but rather a dreary and accurately fucked-up world with an overwhelming amount of stress. Mungiu clearly intended to establish such a mood, because the film ends without any type of closure that one often finds in suspense films. The quick scare is not going to go away, the bad guys aren’t defeated, everything isn’t going to be fine. It is so often in film, even respectable art films, that so much closure is given that the viewer can only deduce that this is the end. Unless, the protagonist has died, this shouldn’t be felt. Life continues after the screen fades, for us and for Otilia and Gabita.