Jinsei no onimotsu / Burden of Life (1935)

23 02 2013

It’s somewhat fitting that I saw this so recently after Shimazu’s A Brother and His Younger Sister as this effort from Gosho also represents the shomin-geki genre beginning to work itself up the social ladder. The family here might a little below the one in Shimazu’s film, but they are certainly middle class. It seems that towards the end of the thirties, the genre began to concern itself more with being character-driven home dramas. This is essentially what they always were, but there’s a level of privilege found in the families of these two films that isn’t the norm. It’s not overwhelming, if anything, it’s fairly subtle, but it’s worth noting.

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Shozo and his wife Tamako exhaust themselves trying to pay for their daughters’ marriages and in the process, they seem to forget their much younger son, Kanichi. While his sisters are all young adults, one of whom is already a mother, Kanichi is still a young boy. The age difference seems to suggest his conception was something of a mistake. This sentiment is followed by Shozo himself who confesses such an opinion of his son night after night to his wife. After the elder couple marries off their final daughter, they are jubilant until Shozo realizes he still has to worry about his far younger son. He suggests that they don’t pay for schooling and send him out into the working world, which motivates Tamako to leave and take Kanichi with her.

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Despite the 65 minute running time, Gosho seems to have a little fun with the structure of his film. One might think he needs to quickly devote his energy to the “main” story (the one I’ve described above) but he takes his time. Instead, he begins with a focus on Itsuko and her (comically) deceitful husband. This is something of a secondary narrative, but the storytelling strands in the film never feel like simplistic linear narratives. I mean, the film unfolds in a linear fashion but there isn’t the sensation, like there is in most films (even great ones), that the director is deliberately concerned with the pace of his storytelling. Nothing is rushed here by Gosho, and as cliche as it sounds, it really enhances the film’s realistic qualities.

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There are also some pretty fantastic performances here. Tatsuo Saito plays Shozo perfectly: when he reveals just how much he doesn’t care for his son, we are stunned. As a peripheral character in the film even points out, it’s easy to see his side of things. The words he has for his son (which he never says to Kanichi’s face, thankfully) are so disheartening one would think that if Kanichi heard it, it would be the foundation for several years of therapy. Masao Hayama is likewise impressive as Kanichi, playing his hidden fears for his father’s presence off as something not so tragic. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene where Kanichi plays with his friends. As supper time arrives, children begin to leave as their appetite gets the best of them. Kanichi encourages the few remaining to continue playing with him as although he is most likely as hungry as they are, he is willing to do anything to stay away from his father.

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It’s important to note that never in the film is Shozo presented as being abusive to any of his kids or his wife, but this of course does not make his behavior remotely acceptable. In something of a hokey turn, he eventually realizes the error of his ways when, free from the restrictions of his wife, he explores the nightlife with some coworkers. The hokey turn comes when he spots a flower boy who reminds him of his son. There’s another crucial moment in this stretch where he talks to a barmaid. She calls him father, which of course triggers his fatherly duties. He asks her about this and the discussion leads to the barmaid’s age. She tells him she’s nineteen and we see something remarkable in Shozo’s face. The barmaid is presumed to be younger than any of his daughter and he realizes the preposterous nature of his actions. He leaves immediately afterwards.

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The film doesn’t really have time for much more to happen outside of what I’ve described and a few episodes that do enhance the characters. This seems like a reduction of Gosho’s accomplishment, but it’s not. Even within such a tight frame, he squeezes fascinating characters from material that might have given us forgettable side characters in the hands of a lesser director. Itsuko is of particular interest, if only because she’s played by the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka. Although she collaborated with Gosho before in Madamu to nyobu (1931 – considered Japan’s first talkie), this is the earliest I’ve seen her. Perhaps it helps to be a fan of hers to begin with, but her performances here is nice and subtle. She has a wonderful moment where she asks her mother for money, and she plays off her mother’s concern with wits. Meanwhile, she sees through her husband’s white lie that would have given him an excuse to hang out with a pal. There’s an interesting bit of class politics there as well, as her husband refers to the family’s problems as “typically bourgeoisie” but nothing more is made out of this. Given the character’s comic personality, I think we’re supposed to scoff at his assessment rather than agree with it.

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Ani to sono imoto / A Brother and His Younger Sister (1939)

13 02 2013

One is left wondering what might have become Yasujiro Shimazu had he not been succumbed to lung cancer in 1945. He was diagnosed in 1935 and his output suffered afterwards, up until his death. This film comes a little bit after his prime, which would have been the early to mid 30s. This is still a wonderful film, but it does represent Shimazu going outside of his usual territory. This is a still domestic drama, but he’s moved up from the usual lower middle class family to one that seems perfectly fine financially. Considering the social status of the protagonist, one can’t help but note a similarity with Ozu’s films of the 50s and 60s, especially when Ozu himself was still working with lower class families.

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Keisuke works late hours at his job where he doesn’t get the attention he feels he deserves. He comes home very late to a house that he and his wife share with his younger sister, Fumiko. Fumiko is a perfect modern girl, who supports herself with a job as a typist. One day at work, she is confronted by a man who has obvious romantic intentions. She resists them, but the man stays active, sending her flowers on her birthday. Keisuke’s boss tells him of his nephew and his intentions to marry Fumiko. Keisuke is expected to pass along the marriage proposal, which his boss expects will be accepted, but Keisuke knows his sister better than that.

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While this film does anticipate Ozu’s latter works in content, it’s very different in form. While Shimazu keeps most of  the action indoors, either in the home or the office, he doesn’t do it with Ozu’s rigor. In fact, Shimazu seems to lack a close aesthetic companion, being efficently low-key in most situations but has some more artsy flourishes, including some restrained tracking shots. While the camera movements aren’t exactly Mizoguchi (it might be worth mentioning that Mizo’s most technically accomplished film, Zangiku monogatari came out in ’39 as well) there’s still some impressive cinematography, which unfortunately tainted somewhat by the print’s conditions.

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The biggest draw here might be the performances, though. Shin Saburi is pretty excellent, and there aren’t many opportunities to see him in a role where he’s this young but still has a larger role. The same goes for Chishu Ryu, who has a small cameo as a family friend. Kuniko Miyake’s role isn’t large, but her presence further contributes to the similarity with Ozu, as she appeared in a great deal of his work in the 1950s. Her role is ultimately a passive one, with much of the film’s material coming from the professional lives of Fumiko and Keisuke.

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Michiko Kuwano is excellent here as Fumiko, laying out the framework for the “modern girl” type that became an important part of post-war Japanese fiction. Her independence is somewhat stunted by her admiration for her brother, and she’s apprehensive in telling him that she’s uninterested in the marriage proposal. She’s aware this might be costly for him, but he ultimately becomes the good guy. He immediately accepts her rejection, which ends in him getting fired. The film concludes with the family being sent off to Manchuria, and Fumiko mentioning that she won’t be courting anyone until her brother is in a comfortable financial position. She feels guilty about her brother being fired, but it hasn’t made her regret her decision to not get married. If anything, it has reinforced her resistance to the institution itself.

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Jack and Diane (2012)

12 02 2013

One of the few things wrong with Bradley Rust Gray’s otherwise excellent 2009 feature, The Exploding Girl, is although it’s very grounded and beautifully photographed, it’s a bit too minimalistic for its own good. Not so much in form but certainly in content. While, I agreed it looked exactly like a film that would be a favorite of mine, it didn’t necessarily feel like one. One can’t call his followup too reserved, though. While I’m not quite sure of saying it’s entirely bonkers (there’s a wide range of idiotic IMDb commenters that have already done that for me), it’s definitely not a safe choice.

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I intentionally made this a double bill with Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks just because they were both released last year, both superficially “indie” films. In my writeup of that film, I mentioned feeling sort of self-conscious typing up a plot summary. I feel the same here too, but for the opposite reason. Where as that film sounds like there’ s too much going on when put to paper, this one feels like nothing is happening at all. Indeed, it is fairly plotless. Jack meets Diane, and they fall in love almost immediately. Like many great “young love” stories, the film’s driving force doesn’t come from obstacles set up by the narrative, but from the inner narrative of falling in love.

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If the last sentence of that paragraph sounds silly, you might want to turn away now. There’s also a story buried deep away within the film’s fabric about werewolves. It’s ridiculous enough to begin with, but how rare it appears makes the film all the more befuddling. The film was always designed as a “werewolf love story” but maybe Gray’s intention was to always market it on the popularity of Twilight (Riley Keough’s resemblance to Kristen Stewart is another hint to this) and only give the audience the smallest amount of fantasy/horror elements as possible. The contributions from the Quay Brothers exist in the same sort of space as the horror content, except their stuff is actually sort of weirdly beautiful. It’s a really small part of the movie, though, and people fascinated by their abstractions should be wary that their work is sort of minor here.

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While there is plenty of ridiculous stuff going on, stuff that may or may not be about werewolves, Gray still has the restrained beauty of his previous film. In a way, it fits perfectly with such bizarre flourishes. It’s sort of the American equivalent of the musical interludes in The Wayward Cloud. Perhaps more a accurate comparison from that same film would be the finale, because it is just as uncomfortable yet weirdly romantic to see the protagonists in that film consummate their relationship as it is to see either Jack or Diane turn into a werewolf and harm their lover. It doesn’t make sense at all, and these moments seem to occur outside of the film’s normal time and space, but they aren’t entirely terrible.

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I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on Gray’s previous work, since I’d argue that this is his best movie, but it’s important to see where he draws on his past. The performances here are remarkably candid, even though the dialogue of the script itself is (intentionally) vapid. Gray intentionally came to my attention in 2006 with the release of So Yong Kim’s In Between Days, a film he wrote. The coming of age thing was overdone even then, but the freshness of his texts came from the unromantic and more honest depiction of growing up. While he’s operating with a love story here and I would argue that this film is totally romantic, the same honesty is present. It, of course, helps when the performances manage to ring as true as they do here.

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Riley Keough, the more impressive of the two leads, has a particularly remarkable scene where she tries to share her (now deceased) brother’s mixtape with Diane. I risk losing any potential viewers by describing the way she struggles to confess her love for Diane in this scene. It’s definitely one of the realest thing I’ve seen in an American film in the past ten years. It feels very unprofessional in a good way (think Paranoid Park, which could serve as an aesthetic companion, as well) and like Gray’s restrained compositions, manage to ground a film that has it’s fair share of fantastical elements, maintaining its realism even in the face of something from another realm.

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The film might be a disaster, a beautiful one, but it’s inconsistent implication of genre does make it feel a little unorthodox even as it consciously experimental and arty. I would argue to the people upset by this inconsistency that Gray’s heart seems to be in the right place. The really important parts of the film, the romance between the two protagonists plays out as gentle and poetic, even as the life the characters face seems like the opposite.

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Gray makes wonderful use of the Flying Picket’s cover of Yaz’s Only You, which is known to  most as the closing song to Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels. It’s another fit comparison, a film that seems crude because of action/gangster imagery, but is actually one of the most wistful works in all of cinema. Gray’s film operates on a similar level, even as his ends with the song matched to an extended static shot of Diane’s face, the formal opposite of the speed-manipulated, saturated conclusion of Wong’s film. I’m at the risk of being too meta talking about the intertextuality of a song that’s already a cover to begin with, but it’s a perfect point of reference. Gray’s film is a similarly kinetic and crazy love story, even as it is more restrained. Make no mistake, this is still a personal and unique vision, it  just uses the same vocabulary as the previously referenced films. It’s a masterpiece on its own.

8

 





Nobody Walks (2012)

11 02 2013

I’ve tried to stay on the optimistic side of things with Lena Dunham, while obviously acknowledging her inherent flaws as a writer, there’s something that makes both her debut feature, Tiny Furniture and her television show, Girls, very easy to watch even as the actual works might not be all that profound. At the risk of using a film critic cliche, her work is very watchable, but this is not the case for this film, for which she penned the script. I’ll give her credit for trying something serious but her script’s biggest problem might be that characters, none of which are terribly interesting, are all fueled by desires to have sex with people they shouldn’t. It sounds sexy, I guess, but it’s ultimately just a boring film.

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Martine comes from New York to Los Angeles to collaborate with Peter on her film. He’s a sound designer and with a huge house at his disposal, finishing the product doesn’t seem to be a problem. The two share an attraction, which is a problem because Peter is happily married to Julie and is busy raising two children, one of which, Kolt, is from Julie’s previous marriage. Kolt is also full of desire, her romantic longings are directed towards David, Peter’s assistant who has an interest in Martine as well.

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Here’s a confession: I felt like a complete idiot typing up that plot synopsis. Such a ridiculous outline should make for embarrassingly bad movie, but give Ry Russo-Young some credit, it all unfolds somewhat naturally. It helps that Olivia Thirlby seems to ground such sensational content, giving a performance that is probably too good for something so sleazy. The film never feels like it’s fueled entirely by sex, at least not representing sex, but the problem comes from the fact that every character seems to throw good judgement out the window in order to fulfill a carnal desire. Strike that, only Martine and Peter do that, and while Thirlby’s performance eases the melodramatic burden of the story, John Krasinski’s performance seems to do the exact opposite.

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Here’s another example of me wanting to give some part of this film some credit: Krasinski at least tries, but that’s sort of his fault. It’s a little bit harder to show the surface of a crumbling marriage when you’ve been conditioned to make witty comebacks and smirk at a camera for half of your career. There’s a scene towards the end where he has a break down, and the manifestation of his anger is him throwing a bike into his oversized pool. This is nothing but comical, and this is clearly not the intention. He’s left out to dry with such a useless and unlikable character, and he’s not nearly talented enough to salvage some sympathy from him.

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The film does benefit from a few stylistic flourishes, mostly the ones used to represent the sound design work Martine does for her film. The film looks nice enough, especially considering almost all of the action is limited to an expensive Hollywood house. This comes back to the film’s biggest problem: who the hell cares about such people? Maybe I’m to blame for watching one too many “social realism” films from Japan, but the film gives us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives and when we leave them, it feels like a relief. It takes less than an hour for the “overwhelming” sexual tension between Martine and Peter to break and for the two to fuck. Clearly, Peter  got over the mental anguish of cheating on his wife with some ease. If that’s the case, why should one bother to care when everything is a mess for him at the film’s end? They shouldn’t.

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Genroku Chûshingura / The 47 Ronin (1941)

4 02 2013

Mizoguchi is best remembered for his historical and poetic epics. Films like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu have helped shaped his image as a filmmaker whose talents lie in that of his virtuoso camera movements. This wasn’t always the case, though, as for my money, his best work is the less expressive social dramas like Gion bayashi and Sisters of the Gion. By 1940, he was better known for the latter, though the release of Story of Last Chrysanthemums in 1939 was an excellent showcase for his talent with the camera. His next film, this two part epic, seems to have been the most visible shift in his style, taking a well known tale in Japan and making it unrecognizable through his distinct personal vision. It’s an impressive film from a technical standpoint, but it’s lacking in other fields.

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Lord Asano seeks Lord Kira of the Shogun court for advice, but because Asano isn’t aware that he’s suppose to bribe Kira beforehand, he isn’t given substantial advice. Upset by Kira’s dismissive attitude, he attacks him, which ends up with Kira being wounded. The attempt at murder, especially against such a high-ranking official as Kira, within the court is punishable by an order to commit suicide. Asano’s retainers, following the protocol of bushido and general loyalty, attempt to seek vengeance against Kira. They are surprised to find that their cause is actually supported and condoned within the system, even as those supporting individuals cannot publicly express this.

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There is an awhile lot of subtext in this story, and it would be wise for one to familiarize themselves with the story of the 47 Ronin. Additionally, the film’s production could also use some context. The intentions of adapting the story was definitely nationalistic, even as the end product might not have shown such a stance (more on this later) and while part one lost an enormous amount of money, the Shochiku company was pressured by the military to distribute part two. This was brought on by Shochiku’s notable lack of national policy films at the time. This seems like a lot of red tape I’m going through without even getting to the meat of the film, but it’s important. While Seika Mayama’s adaptation of the story (which Mizouchi’s films is based on) is fairly revisionist, it was still seen as a suitable source of national pride.

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The film doesn’t flow in the convincing manner that the military probably wanted, and one can’t help but think that Mizoguchi might have intentionally signed on to the project to subvert the tale. While this film, because of its length, might be too difficult for a beginner, it is a very accurate representation of Mizoguchi’s stylistic flourishes. The entire film, with the exception of some dull dialogue-driven scenes, seems to be based around elaborate tracking and crane shots. It’s fairly impressive, especially when the film’s set (designed by future filmmaker Kaneto Shindo) were constructed specifically to fit the movements of the camera.

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It’s easy to underestimate Mizoguchi’s wizardry here. There’s two or three sequences here in particularly of such great beauty, that it isn’t difficult to divorce them from the film’s context. This feels necessary since the film’s context, the actual narrative that is, is not particularly exciting. Apparently, Mizoguchi cut several dialogue-driven scenes from Mayama’s source because he didn’t feel comfortable working with such expository sequences. I’m not one to criticize a filmmaker for what they left in, but there are several fairly long stretches in this film that revolve around conversations that serve just to forward the plot, which is bizarre enough considering how slowly the story unfolds. It seems that the dialogue necessary to tell such a story mostly just tripped up Mizoguchi and prevented him from making a film conceived entirely out of long tracking shots.

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The film was intended to evoke bushido, “the way of the warrior” in the public and thus, remind them of their country’s military that they needed to support. One can’t blame Mizoguchi for wanting to ignore the military’s intentions for the film, but his disinterest doesn’t exactly subvert the theme of loyalty. As is the case, this film is technically dazzling but ideologically, at its best, it’s convoluted. One could argue it’s downright detestable, but that might be going too far. Shochiku had to make this movie or the military would have shut them down. It’s odd, though, because the film itself almost made the company go out of business with all the money it lost. A fascinating film, none the less, that’s a must for any Mizoguchi fan, but not one that should be a priority for anyone trying to familiarize themselves with the director.

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