Kagi (1959)

20 11 2008

All of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge apply here. Overall, I’d say this is definitely the better movie, though it is unfortunately nowhere close to being on the same level as Fires on the Plain. Formally, the film represents Ichikawa at the most formally assured point in his career, as well as the high point in his writing collaborations with his wife, Kogo Nada. The cast is pretty fantastic too, but I guess there isn’t really enough “substance” there for any emotional impact to be felt. It is pretty good, but perhaps slightly hallow as well.

This is none the less, a very watchable movie. It is suppose to be a “dark comedy” of sorts and even though it isn’t nearly as funny as say, Ozu’s funniest work, it does manage to bring its own sort of absurd complicated humor. There are shades of Buñuel, but there isn’t quite enough comedy there to ever make it feel as though the film is actually all that satirical. I am a big fan of “gallows humor” and even though the subject matter requests some serious thought, this is nothing all that “dark.” In a way, this makes the film somewhat more realistic, but not more likable.

For as visually stunning as the film occasionally is, it’s the performances that really carry the weight. It’s not exactly an actor-driven movie, but it isn’t exactly a formally-driven movie, either, which gives it a slightly middle-brow (by the standards of Japanese art films) feeling. It is definitely impressive how Ichikawa composes his shots. Every once and awhile he will resort to Ozu style shot/reverse shots, but I guess that is the perfect lead-in for the biggest problem for the film overall. There is too much telling, not enough showing.

The most frustrating aspect of the plot-driven sensibility Ichikawa provides is that it is masked under an exceptional visual style. It’s as though he has the tools to elevate his film beyond the level of a purely contrived premise but chooses to wallow within the simplicity of his story. In all honesty, this doesn’t seem all that different from something Todd Solondz would do. To Ichikawa’s advantage, he shows a compassion for his characters that is much more respectable than Solondz’s condescending outlook. On the other hand, though, why wouldn’t Ichikawa just go and make a full-blown Ozu imitation? If he really wanted to make a cynical dark comedy, then he should have shown some signs of cynicism. I get the feeling he and Wada were far too nice to ever see their characters in a negative enough light for this film to really work. I’m glad this is the case, but I have to wonder why Ichikawa would bother with a story so shrill and potentially snark.

I Was Born But… (1932)

17 11 2008

Anybody who has bothered to read at least a week worth of posts on my blog will know that I absolutely love Yasujiro Ozu. He’s not unquestionably my favorite director ever, but he’s definitely the first response in my head whenever such a question is posed. This is why I’m a tad bit embarrassed about the fact that only now have I gotten around to one of his most acclaimed films. Even more embarrassing is the fact that I would perhaps even go to the length of saying this film is underrated. Sure, it is well respected as one of the most familiar works of Japan’s silent era of cinema, but it is so much more than that.

As with many of his silent films, including the 1935 masterpiece An Inn in Tokyo, crafts his drama within the atmosphere of the lower class. It’s been documented that as Ozu’s career progressed, the financial state of his characters got better. There’s very little that the young family in this film superficially shares with the one in say, Tokyo Story. Even with the potential of social commentary looming, Ozu delivers one of his most complete pictures. It sounds a little hokey to attempt to sell the film from this angle, but it really does have everything. Well, at least everything that I personally look for in a film.

Needless to say, the performances here are all pretty great. Tatsuo Saito, a figure in prewar Japanese cinema, plays the father of the film’s prepubescent protagonists. Of course, Tomio Aoki plays one of the boys. This might be the defining role in his entire career. Essentially, he does the same sort of thing in An Inn in Tokyo, but I couldn’t care less. It sounds a little weird, but there is definitely something bizarre and fascinating about his face. Even one of his schoolmates observes this – “he looks like a bug.” In that sense, it’s easy to think that Harmony Korine probably watched this movie a dozen times before making Gummo.

It seems like it has been awhile since I’ve brought up Korine’s masterpiece, but it really owes a great deal of the dynamic between Jacob Reynolds and Nick Sutton to the one here between Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara. There’s one particular scene in which the boys find a cigarette bud and proceed in smoking it, the sort of thing that would make Korine smile. I don’t want to underscore Ozu’s film by constantly comparing it to a movie that wouldn’t be made for another 65 years, but perhaps such an extended time span is reflective of this film’s genius.

Of course, there’s plenty of other things worth mentioning, such as a nearly perfect example of Ozu’s later aesthetic with only a few brilliantly placed tracking shots here and there. In fact, these tracking shots seem to perfectly compliment the whole “kinetic” feeling that normally is the polar opposite of the tone of an Ozu film. Obviously, both approaches work for me, but was still extremly exciting to see one of the best directors ever attempt something slightly different than usual. There’s other things worth mentioning too, like the fact that the film is seriously one of the funniest things ever. It’s a comedy, but in the exact opposite way that a silent film should be a comedy and I say that in the best possible way. There’s some Keaton-inspired gags, but they are beautifully masked in Ozu’s universe. If I haven’t made it clear yet: this is absolutely one of the best movies ever made.

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.

Wolfsburg (2003)

14 11 2008

While this is certainly a lot better than Christian Petzold’s later film Yella, it is also still a far cry from his great Gespenster. Watching this film was actually a much more frustrating experience than watching Yella, only because it confirmed some of my worst fears about Petzold as a filmmaker. Sure, Yella has just as many if not more absurd dramatic touches as this film, but I guess I was convinced they were just a one time thing for Petzold. Judging from the last ten minutes of this film, Petzold is just really interested in completely silly dramatic turns. To his credit, he does have these overly-dramatic sequences progress in a very unassuming manner. Still, I can only wish that his dramatic sensibility was as subtle as his visuals.

Petzold does actually set the audience up for the worst (in terms of shrill-ness) by opening his film with a sequence of the main character, Phillip Wagner, accidentally hitting a kid in the middle of an empty road. He drives off from the accident, though, and the film seems to drive off from the melodramatic nonsense with him. While the small child is left abandon on the side of the road, we are introduced to his mother, Laura. The accident, as one can expect, has a very polarizing effect on her, but her son seems to get better with time.

From here, the film gives a very unhurried examination of the lives of both characters, Phillip and Laura. There is this very genuine, unforced sense of sadness echoing through the uneventful (the opening accident aside) lives of every character. Petzold’s visuals aren’t quite up to the level with the directors he seems to be taking ques from, but there are some flashes of brilliance in a few distant static shots that seem to come out of Edward Hopper paintings. Tsai Ming-Liang can do this for a whole movie, probably, but that’s exactly why he is such a brilliant filmmaker. Petzold’s visual accomplishments are very incredible, even though they are far from overwhelming.

The last ten minutes or so are completely ridiclous and an embarrassment to any film made by a filmmaker who is as obviously talented as Petzold. It all makes sense, though. Even Gespenster had a really silly b-plot (though maybe it was the main story in Petzold’s mind) involving the main character’s parents. It seems the minor problems I’ve had with all of Petzold’s film up to this point have not been odd, unplanned lapses into melodrama, but instead planned attempts to be shocking. Bruno Dumont does this sort of thing in his films, but the difference is that his films are actually somewhat shocking, while the conclusion to Petzold’s is just laughable.