Okayo no kakugo / Oyako’s Preparedness (1939)

29 03 2015

There’s a simultaneous sense of difficulty and joy in writing about a filmmaker like Yasujiro Shimazu. It comes from the lack of literature about the filmmaker in general. It’s difficult because there’s no consensus discourse formed around his work, but there in lies the joy. The responsibility is great, but engaging with his films provides us the opportunity for us to establish a narrative. Frustration comes from the many holes we have in his career. As is the case, I hesitantly call this film an important departure from his 1938 effort So Goes Love. Like that film, a “light” comedy turns dark, but the political factors are more muted here. It’s an important change for Shimazu, and the role of his leading lady, the great Kinuyo Tanaka, positions an even greater career shift.

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Oyako is a live-in assistant at a dance academy.  She occupies the space of both a pupil and a professor, providing lessons, but also acting as something of a maid to the academy’s “master” (as she refers to her) Osumi. Shunsaku, a photographer, enters the studio one day to photograph the two. Oyako is visibly flustered by the appearance of such a handsome man. She can’t hide her blushing face, which is explained away by Shunsaku’s assertion that “cameras make young people blush.” While waiting for the development of the pictures, Shunsaku takes Oyako out to dinner. She’s completely smitten, but later overhears a conversation between Shunsaku’s mother and Osumi. He’s interested in marrying a complete different student at the academy.

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The economic hardships depicted in a film like So Goes Love are not completely eliminated here. For example, Oyako’s grocery shopping trip ends prematurely because of money. Income doesn’t drive the narrative here, love does. Oyako’s unrequited crush for Shunsaku is to be understood by us as a tough case of puppy love. Osumi herself explains the pain as being part of her youth. Age and experience makes us wiser about relationships, time allows us to reflect on past heartbreaks as something not so serious. Even if we cried uncontrollably, as Oyako does here, the privilege of hindsight allows us to even laugh about these earlier disappointments.

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Still, Oyako’s pain is registered as valid by Shimazu’s camera. For most of the film, his eye remains neutral. The tight spaces of dance academy almost seem to expand with his camera’s distance. However, he focuses in after Oyako gets her heart broken. He himself might take the position of Osumi, he suggests we all experience these unrequited crushes in our youth, but even then he understands that Oyako’s pain, in that moment, feels like the biggest tragedy ever. With this pain, she imagines herself delivering a powerful dance performance on a stage. It’s all captured in one take, then the film dissolves back to her in the dance academy. She collapses, the camera slowly pans in unison with a swelling soundtrack. The pans anticipates the presence of another body. Perhaps Shunsaku has returned to pronounce his love! The pan stops, but no body enters the space. The film ends.

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It is interesting that Oyako’s youth is stressed so frequently as the woman who plays her, Kinuyo Tanaka, was transitioning out of the “youthful” part of her career. Prior to the 1940s, Kinuyo Tanaka was a sex symbol. At the very least, her sexuality played a factor in her public persona. As the 40s rolled along, Tanaka’s image shifted. In A Hen in the Wind, she was the victim of spousal abuse in Ozu’s most violent film. Her collaborations with Mizoguchi, furthered this image of the enduring victim. Even in Life of Oharu, where she plays a sex worker, her own sexuality of no interest. The tragedy of the film is the sexuality of men violently imposed on her own body. Because of so many traumas, love itself triggers pain and anxiety. At a certain point, her face became indicative of endurance but unlovable. It’s an unfair arch that dominates the career of many women actors, but Oyako’s Preparedness should be commended for mapping this trajectory.

5

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Hyuil / A Day Off (1968)

16 03 2015

Death, even when we’re prepared for it to separate us from those that that we love, is jarring. It is many other things, of course, but we seldom process it as an event. Death isn’t an event, though film often tries to sell us it as an event, just sadder and bigger than other ones. Perhaps it is ironic, but the deaths that echo through our brains and leave a sticky residue on our hearts, are something we wrestle with the rest of our lives. Films depicting death get it wrong usually, they provide closure, a sense of purpose underneath all the tears. Either that or they briskly drift away from the emotions and treat death like another plot point, another event in life. A Day Off is a tragedy, one whose visuals and narratives won’t be unfamiliar to anybody well versed in a certain type of sad, poetic arthouse flick (Olmi’s The Vanguished comes to mind, for one) but it offers us a new way of encountering death and grief.

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Jee-yun and Huh-wook might be in love, or they might just be understanding and sympathetic to their mutual physical needs. The would-be couple meets every Sunday, under the pretense of coffee, but the interactions are physical. We’re treated to a Sunday that would be like any other for the two, except that Jee-yung has some unfortunate news: she’s pregnant but her body can’t handle it. An abortion is necessary, and Huh-wook hops from one irresponsible friend to another in an attempt to borrow the necessary money. He ends up stealing some from a rich friend. Now financed, the operation is set to proceed, but the doctor warns Jee-yun that it will be risky. With the anxiety of Sunday bearing down on him like the cold of Seoul’s winter, Huh-wook wanders around the city to escape the pressures of his reality.

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“Her name was Jee-yung” Huh-wook informs us at the film’s opening. The past tense suggests she may no longer be with us, a danger that is reiterated by the doctor. Jee-yun does not survive the film. Her death is indeed upsetting, yet director Lee Man-hui’s refusal to depict it onscreen is of interest to me. He could have easily given the two lovers tearfully embracing in a hospital bed as one of them life drew to a close. Jee-yun’s off-screen death makes sense to the film’s focus, we spend more time with Huh-wook throughout, but the absence of a visualized death is of great interest. We do not see enough of Jee-yun to know much about her, outside of information that comes to us in relation to Huh-wook. It sounds almost like a slight, but honestly, the most intriguing element of the film is what we’re never privileged to see on screen. Not Jee-yun’s death, but the way she carries this burden against all the other social factors that already threaten her life.

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It’s difficult to elucidate what I find so compelling about the framing of (err the lack thereof) Jee-yun’s death. Huh-wook’s bender ends with a drunken hook-up. We can only presume that during this ecstatic encounter, Jee-yun’s life is slipping away. Huh-wook wakes up to the church bells, whose sound signals the end of Sunday. We seem some mental labor taking place in his effort to re-establish his concerns: he needs to be reminded of the fear he feels for Jee-yun. Arriving at the clinic, he’s given the news. A nurse, almost condemning his night of debauchery informs that if he had only arrived a little earlier, he would have had the opportunity to say goodbye. This is treated as a tragic irony, further driving the knife into Huh-wook’s heart. What if he hadn’t gotten drunk and noticed a particularly striking woman at a bar? Does it matter? Jee-yun still would have died, yet that dramatic moment of closure, so frequently depicted in movies, is treated as valuable. It is valuable, of course, but it could never have undone the damage.

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Jee-yun’s death would be the crux of many narratives, perhaps it was meant to be here, but the film provides us with a moment that concisely confronts grieving. Fueled by alcohol and tears, Huh-wook sprints to nowhere in particular as his head revisits his most cherished moments with Jee-yun. We want these moments, they provide us a heartbreaking and poetic eulogy. But it doesn’t all come together, Huh-wook’s ugly crying takes over the soundtrack. Neither we nor Huh-wook gets to blissfully replay the past. We can only squint and see our memories obscured by the power of the present. Following the loving montage, Huh-wook sits on a train. His crying is no replaced by a hyper-observant sound design that captures all the mundane found in a late night on public transportation. It’s the most brilliant moment in the entire film: the reverie of Huh-wook’s grieving collides with reality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t slow down to let you deal with your pain.

5





King Lear (1987)

14 03 2015

The lost or unrealized film, as a concept, is endlessly fascinating to cinephiles. Just in the past year, Frank Pavich’s loving documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, explored the endless possibilities that we can dream up for a film that never exists. However, I can’t share Pavich’s enthusiasm for Jodorowsky as an artist, and I find him forcing the idea that the non-film in question would have been an unquestioned masterpiece. King Lear is just one of the films that Jean-Luc Godard, yet in all his resourceful, he managed to restructure the failure of the project itself into a film. As maddening and complicated as the film itself stands today, I can’t help but find that the entire project was planned ahead by the filmmaker. The messy failure that was the film’s production becomes the actual film’s powerful and beautiful meditation on art.

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The world is beginning to pick up the pieces following the Chernobyl disaster. William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth is searching for pieces of language from his ancestor’s past and in doing so bumps into Don Learo, who might actually just be a famous playwright, and his daughter, Cordelia. Don Learo is actually Norman Mailer, but Mailer and Kate, his real daughter, leave the film after two takes of the opening scene. They’re replaced by Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald, embodying the hybrid space of the artists and their actual roles. Meanwhile, Professor Pluggy/Godard is auditioning to become a recluse, chaperoned  only by goblins (one of which is played by Leos Carax) while diving into the “deep end” of his research.

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On the surface, one can easily claim that Godard’s adaptation can be only be called that with one’s tongue firmly in their cheek. In the middle of the controversy surrounding the film’s production, Godard confessed that he never read the source text. It sounds like him being coy and playful in his unique sort of way, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are connections to be made with the Bard’s original text, but Godard’s interest is in the act of creation itself and its labor, potentially futile, when it comes to the world at large. Stuart Hall once made a remark that critical theory, in the face of suffering and oppression, seems unproductive or at least lacks the necessary urgency for true social justice. Godard is making a similar claim about art.

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King Lear does qualify as a science fiction film and it does take place in a world recovering from an apocalyptic event yet even if we take such circumstances to heart, it is still funny to think of William Shakespeare’s word as at risk or even worse, completely lost. To say nothing dismissive about Shakespeare himself, his canonization in academia is so firm that if we ever “lose” him, we can lose anybody. Despite one’s own personal opinion on his art, his work has been molded into a syllabus that has been unquestioned, perhaps to the detriment of educators and students alike. His words, even if we do connect with them on an emotional level, have little use when we’re suffering from radiation poisoning. This isn’t a dismissal, but a conversation on art’s limitations that doesn’t exactly shape the film, but become a crucial moment. I would argue that Godard has always been a political filmmaker, even when he was making something comparatively more approachable like Band of Outsiders, but here he begins asking what can the political filmmaker do? What are they to do in order to question or fight the way things are?

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Shakespeare’s King Lear is a story about territory and power, which sounds like fertile material for Godard and yet, his eye focuses towards Lear and Cordelia, the incestuous potential he finds in their relationship. It’s communicated to us even as there is no specific physical manifestation of said feelings. Burgess Meredith, as Lear(o), never really settles, his uneasiness embodies the tension. He is not a leech, but he is overly protective of his daughter. He’s always about to snap, and he frequently does so when his daughter, Molly Ringwald (who seems to be providing the blueprint for every Hal Hartley heroine ever), dictates back to him his own words which he finds unsatisfactory. Lear(o)’s guarding of his daughter makes sense in the text’s time and place, but here it manages to synthesize a relationship between power, territory (which we can read as colonialism), and gender. It is interesting to note that Kurosawa switched Lear’s daughters to sons in Ran, erasing this relationship. A minor detail for one filmmaker is the most crucial element for another.

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The theme of territory looms large over both Shakespeare and Godard. No one Godard film can be separated from the rest of his canon, and King Lear, at least to me, has an inseparable relationship with For Ever Mozart. There, the white leftists and artists find themselves as the saviors as opposed to the occupiers. They feel entitled to the territory, just the way that colonialism tells us that White men are entitled to the land of natives. The violence all occurs under words like “cultivation” and “civilization” and “enlightenment” which obscures real history and produces the one that leads us to the racist and sexist shackles that maintain and inform the public’s idea of “common sense.” Art, perhaps, can be the thing that challenges this common sense. It is an effort that feels hopeless, as though we are throwing pebbles at the bruising machinery of hegemony, but it is necessary and vital. The institutionalized study of Shakespeare, divorced from the man’s own words, has become a part of this larger common sense. If this film undermines him, then it is a political act. We can love Shakespeare, but he is the White, the Colonizer, the Oppressor. Ironically, so is Godard and so am I. Even as we do speak out against these very forces, we are protected by and benefit from them. To return to my borrowing and paraphrasing of Hall’s quote, what purpose does art serve in relation to all of this? Godard abandoned words a long time ago, they’re not enough to answer this question.

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