Sword of the Beast (1965)

15 11 2008

I’ve seen a few samurai films already, but I went into this thinking of it as somewhat of an introduction, and boy, what a way to get acquainted not only with a whole genre, but with a wonderful director in Hideo Gosha. Had I seen this film about a year ago, I probably would have hated it, but it feels like a comfortable “next step” from the powerful and personal westerns that Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher made in the 1950s. Gosha’s style is a bit more kinetic compared to their contemplative tone, but I still can’t help but see some sort of connection. Perhaps the only relation is in the fact that all three made beautiful genre films that are ten times more complex than the works of their colleagues.

This film, unlike those Boetticher or Mann westerns, is definitely an action film. It ends with an action sequence and closes with an action sequence, yet Gosha deserves lots of attention for the careful way in which he balances his characters, their relationships, the fighting sequences within a slightly conventional plot device. Essentially the main character, Gennosuke, is running away from his revenge-hungry samurai comrades after killing their clan minister. In the mountains, he gets mixed up with a couple and their search for gold. All these elements collide in the final twenty minutes for one of the most legitimately exciting, but also beautifully photographed, action sequences in all of cinema.

I’ll admit it, this isn’t a completely arty or humanistic masterpiece. There is lot of action and plenty of plot related sequences that I would almost always be irritated by, but Gosha molds his content beautifully. In a decade filled with formal experiments, even in Japan alone, Gosha stands quite tall among a more respected director like Yoshishige Yoshida. This film lacks the superb editing of The Affair, but it does have a very similar visual style. There’s only so many ways to say a film looks fantastic, but man, this is really a fantastic looking film. Kazuo Ikehiro’s even more underrated In a Ring of Mountains would be a good reference point, but Gosha is far more mobile with his camera.

At a mere 85 minutes, Gosha’s movie feels a tad bit short and maybe even a little bit underdeveloped but I think the short scope and length plays to his advantage. As I already mentioned, this is a very energy-fueled film. There is always something interesting going on – be it the cinematography, the characters, or the absurd nature of the samurai code which Gosha seems to be poking fun at, at a sub-Buñuel level. With this in mind, we never feel setteled in to the movie, which could be a negative element in a more straight-forward character drama, but it seems to perfectly echo what Gosha is aiming for. Hopefully, Gosha’s other films are just as confidently crafted.

The Way We Are (2008)

15 11 2008

Christian Petzold, I hope you’re taking notes, this is how you make a simple and effective multi-character drama. More importantly, Ann Hui has finally lived up to the promise she showed in the great July Rhapsody. The other two films of hers that I’ve seen, Goddess of Mercy and Visible Secret, certainly aren’t bad, but they are definitely going in the opposite direction of the extremely gentle and real sensibility of July Rhapsody and this film. If there’s any problem I can think of Hui’s two masterpieces, it’s that they are a bit too fragile, nice, and understated but that is exactly what makes both films so special.

I suppose comparisons to Ozu are inevitable seeing as this is slow, Asian, and a movie about family, but I don’t want to make it sound like I’m selling Hui short. She’s not nearly as formally rigorous after all, even though there are a few very nice “minimalistic” touches in this film. The strength of her film has little to do with the technical, though. It obviously has more to do with the characters, all of whom are incredibly easy to understand and equally easy to like. Calling the story “undramatic” seems like an empty gesture, the simple and non-contrived way in which the characters interact is so impressive that it can’t be explained by words.

Perhaps I should back up a little bit. The film concerns itself with three characters, Cheung, her son, and an elderly women that she befriends. The dynamic between all three is fresh, to say the least, but is also one that seems so random and odd that it builds another level of realism. There’s nothing dramatic hiding underneath their conversations, like there is in Wolfsburg, because they have no phony “psychology” to attempt to explain the way they are. It’s difficult to explain why the film works, but needless to say, it absolutely does.

I hate to continue describing the tone as undramatic, and unforced as it builds a slightly incorrect image of a film that is extremely slow and inaccessible, but this is anything but. I have a hard time believing anyone would be able to find this boring, even though it is so devoid of plot. There’s many elements that look like they could go the way of being a conventional dramatic device, such as Cheung’s mother being in the hospital, but nothing ever extends to the point of being considered a typical film conflict. Maybe this would all be a bit mundane, but the sense of intimacy that Hui creates is unlike any I’ve ever seen attempted. The film feels so achingly personal, as though it was it just a project that she intended to show to only friends and family.

On a much more pedestrian note, the HD cinematography looks absolutely gorgeous here. I may still prefer good ole’ celluloid, but this film along with Jia Zhang-Ke’s Still Life and Liew Seng Tat’s Flowers in the Pocket show just how great the potential is for this format. It certainly helps in this case to have that wonderful blue-heavy saturation that all modern Hong Kong “art” films seem to inherent. As far as form goes, Hui isn’t really all that strict. She seems to juggle close steadicam sequences with gorgeous Tsai-worthy static shots. No doubt, this is one of the best-looking films of 2008 as well as one of the best overall.