Archive for the 'International' Category

24
Feb
14

Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

I’m catching up with blogging. My last week in the US and first week of school have made it hard to blog.

Even with the busy schedule, I’ve been able to keep up with my New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie a week (except for finals’ weeks). I just haven’t been able to blog about them.

The week before last I tried Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor. I didn’t realize when I picked out the DVD at the library that it was silent. What’s more the DVD I had had no music sound track, though the box mentioned a new sound track. Not a big deal.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor follows two school girls,  Dora and Sunako, who promise to be loyal friends forever. The promise lasts for about three minutes. When Henry, a Japanese young man with a Western name, catches the girls’ eyes as he nears them on his motorcycle the friendship shows its fragility. Sunako waves at Henry and feels he’s hers. They talk briefly and soon Henry sees Dora, and she’s pretty (prettier, I’d say). When Sunako pouts, Dora promises to give up Henry. Then the girls go to a church for some reason and discuss their Henry problem. I wasn’t sure what to make of Henry’s Western name or the scenes in the church. The conflict over this boy was true to life, despite the girls’ apparently superficial loyalty to each other.

Eventually Dora and Henry marry. Sunako becomes a low level geisha. She dances with men in Western suits at an establishment where some of the party girls are in Western dress. Sunako’s acquired an admirer who’s something of a pet. He’s a Japanese man who claims to be an artist. He does paint her all the time and he wears a beret, so he must be an artist. He just hangs around her like a moon orbiting the earth. Sunako isn’t rude to him, but she doesn’t seem to care about him that much either. Sunako pouts a lot and Henry starts visiting her at the club. It’s unclear whether he’s there to watch over her or to take advantage of the sleazy (for that era) scene. I think it’s a bit of both. Henry and the man in the beret are a bit jealous of each other. Dora’s pregnant and unaware of Henry’s visits. In time she learns how Sunako’s life has gone down hill from her youth when she wore her innocent school uniform. Sunako smokes, pouts and looks sullen quite a bit. It’s amazing that her customers would spend time with her.

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

I can’t recommend the movie. It had potential, but was rather sentimental and dated. I think you could do a lot with this story even with the constraints of an era when sex wasn’t openly depicted.

Evidently, Shimizu is a popular director and contemporary of Ozu. I think Ozu’s a lot better. Shimizu was able to crank out films and made over 100 in 40 some years. I am more impressed by quality rather than quantity. To really decide what I think about Shimizu, I’d need to see a talkie and understand any themes or symbols I might have missed in this one.

21
Feb
14

The Most Beautiful

Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ wellbeing.

Band Practice After Work

Band Practice After Work

The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.

12
Feb
14

Barbara

Thank you Netflix! Thanks for recommending Barbara, a German movie about Barbara a doctor in East Germany in the 1980s. Because she tried to defect to the West, the heroine, Barbara is exiled to a small town in the sticks. She’s assigned to a hospital and given a shabby, bare bones apartment. Taciturn and distrustful, Barbara keeps her distance from her new colleagues, even the friendly doctor André, who does turn out to be making reports on her.

I didn’t catch why Barbara was exiled to this outpost, but did read online it was because she tried to leave East Germany. Due to her attempted defection, Barbara is under scrutiny. One false step and officials will ransack her apartment. Though we don’t see who’s following her, when she rides her bike to a remote spot where her beau has hidden some money for her, she finds someone’s moved her bicycle and let the air out of her tires. In this atmosphere of Communism and surveillance, it’s no wonder why a person wouldn’t trust or open up.

The film works well offering tension and understanding as we see Barbara reach out to her patients, sacrificing for them and offering them more care than doctors usually do. That’s how Barbara and André connect–through their dedication to patients and their adherence to medical ethics.

Nina Hoss as Barbara

Nina Hoss as Barbara

On her off time, Barbara manages to rendezvous with her West German, beau, a wealthy professional who plans to get her out of East Germany.

The movie has minimal exposition, but there’s enough to know what’s at stake and to create the feeling of living under Communist rule in the 1980s. It drew me in and made me care.

Available on Netflix.

29
Jan
14

Queen to Play

Queen_to_Play_S_Chess

In Queen to Play, Hèléne (Sandrine Bonnaire), a cleaning woman in Corsica develops a keen interest in chess when she sees a romantic couple playing on the terrace at the hotel where she sometimes works. Eventually, she convinces a curmudgeon Dr. Kroger (Kevin Klein), whom she also works for, to teach her to play chess.

The plot may not sound like anything special, but the film is due largely to Bonnaire’s performance. The film is strong because it avoids the usual choices. Hèléne’s marriage and work suffer because she plays chess, yet she doesn’t burn any bridges. Her husband may not understand her, but he isn’t a jerk and her marriage remains valuable, worth saving. The film is filled with absorbing scenes like when Helene dances with her rebellious daughter.

Netflix has Queen to Play

28
Jan
14

Sherlock: The Sign of Three

sherlock-wedding

Warning, readers: Spoilers below.

John Watson marries Mary Marston in this episode. Yet Sherlock in many ways overshadows the couple, as one would expect. While the secondary characters like Mrs. Hudson are excited for the couple most are worried about Sherlock. How will he handle this change in his friendship with Watson? I’d rather the big question surrounded solving a crime and capturing the criminal.

The episode did have its bright spots: the costumes were splendid as were the settings. I really liked the bright yellow walls in the place where the reception was held.

The episode started with Lestrade desperately trying to capture three elusive bank robbers. A series of scenes shows the police’s near misses over the course of a year. (Why wasn’t Sherlock brought in to help?) Just as Lestrade and his officers are about to make their arrest, he gets a text from Sherlock. “Help!” Though capturing these robbers is crucial to Lestrade, he decides to race over to 221 B Baker Street to help Sherlock. Since he thinks this plea indicates a dire emergency, Lestrade calls the station to send loads of officers over to 221 B.

But wouldn’t you know it was a big misunderstanding? Sherlock just needed a question about John’s wedding answered. If we hadn’t seen this sort of joke before it would be funny. The show’s done this before with John racing to Sherlock’s aid for a false alarm. While Sherlock’s behavior wouldn’t change, those around him would learn and would think twice before sounding the alarm or racing to him. Why didn’t Lestrade call first? He’s not an idiot.

sherlock-season-3-episode-2-watch-online

The show was uneven to me. Because of all the attention paid to the wedding and how Sherlock would cope, I felt the show was off kilter. The first crime we see involves the murder of a Royal Guard and that was undertaken mainly as a diversion to get the boys out of the house.

There were some scenes with Mycroft which seemed superfluous. Since the episode is entitled “The Sign of Three,” and does borrow characters’ names from “The Sign of Four, I’d hoped we’d see some version of the annoying, and humorous Abernathy Jones, whose in that novel. A modern Abernathy Jones could be hilarious or vexing and intrigue us all. We don’t need Mycroft in every story.

The crimes seem tacked on as if its a bother to deal with them, which shouldn’t be the case. They are the crux of the series. Jonathan Small, the murderer, has a personality and back story that’s paper thin. In the original there’s much more dimension to him.

The writers fill the time with sequences that wore out their welcome fast. I didn’t need to see a protracted stag party/pub crawl with Sherlock and Watson getting plastered. Sure, if you must, show them getting drunk, but do it quickly. The humor of the drunk stumbling around is of the lowest order. I can do without the cliché. Also, the wedding speech dragged on. Though it was interspersed with lots of flashbacks, it still dragged. The speech contained some touching moments and did provide some exposition, but it went on far too long.

After last week’s episode, “The Empty Hearse,” which was weighed down by nods to fans and fan fiction, this episode made me long for Jeremy Brett‘s Sherlock Holmes. While I’m fine with the idea of deviating from tradition, I do still want a good story and not a potentially good story hidden amongst easy gags. It seems like writers Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson, are drunk on the show’s popularity and have taken to writing to the giddier fans. I could excuse a fluffy episode like this if we weren’t limited to three Sherlocks a year.

Not to harp too much about the original, but in the novel, we do learn why John so loves Mary. He worries about whether he’s too poor for her as she’s the heir to a fortune. He describes her character and in the end he is able to propose. I have liked the character of Mary Marston played by Amanda Abbington does a fine job, but she doesn’t have much background. She’s a beautiful cheerful woman who doesn’t try to divide these friends, but there’s no sign of why John’s marrying this beautiful, cheerful woman rather than another. In the book, that was clear.

26
Dec
13

You Will Be My Son

I watched this on my flight home. You Will Be My Son is a drama about an obnoxious, overbearing father, who owns a successful winery. He sees no value in his son, who can’t do anything right in his father’s eyes. When the wine estate manager is too sick to oversee the harvest, rather than have his son take on responsibility, the father turns to the manager’s son, who’s done well in the American wine world. This young man is a natural and has a far more engaging, strong personality, but it’s painful to watch the real son get insulted and slighted time and again.

The winery owner/father just gushes over the estate manager’s son, showering him with expensive gifts and taking him to Paris when he’s to receive an award.

I did learn a lot about modern wine making from this intense family drama. The ending was quite a surprise. Because the father was so offensive and clueless regarding his son, whose weaknesses must have been partly due to having a father so biased against him, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see You Will Be My Son. It’s a fine movie, but nothing great.

23
Dec
13

Fill the Void

fill void

The most intriguing film I’ve seen in a while is Fill the  Void, an Isreali film made in 2012, which kept me fascinated on my flight back home. Fill the Void is a quiet, dramatic film that focuses on a Hassidic (some reviewers refer to the community as Haredi, but the distributor calls it Hassidic) community in Tel Aviv.

In this very traditional world, we meet Shira, an 18 year old woman who visits a grocery store with her aunt to get a glimpse of a young man she may marry. Courtship is very much a communal activity within this society. She’s pleased with this earnest young man and eager to marry as her sister Esther has. Esther is older and stunningly beautiful, clearly the center of Yorchay,  her husband’s life. However, life takes a cruel turn when Esther dies in childbirth. The Shira’s parents often care for the baby and when Yorchay’s mother announces that he’s considering remarrying and moving to Belgium, Shira’s mother hopes to convince him to marry Shira instead so the baby will always be nearby.

What unfolds is a careful, respectful story about characters whose traditions may seem archaic, but truly still work for them. Shira’s torn between what to do. She envisioned a  different life and she’s little experience making such decisions. It’s not a family that disregards her wishes or forces Shira to bend to theirs. In fact, it’s interesting how thoughtfully this community works to see that wisdom and justice prevail in all matters brought before the rabbis.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, an orthodox female director, the power of the film lies in its silent moments and thoughtful characters. It’s a world where people consider other’s happiness and tradition as much if not more than their own. There’s no such thing as a snap judgement in this society which manages to continue in the midst of a world that moves at breakneck pace. I found the acting superb and the view into this rarely seen world fascinating. If you watch it, you’ll realize the beauty of a traditional community that’s easy for us to dismiss.

The film is hard to find. It’s not on Netflix, but I see that my library has the DVD. Perhaps yours does too.

07
Aug
13

Spiral (a.k.a Engrenages)

spiral

Formidable!

I’ve just discovered and gotten hooked on Spiral, a fast-paced, well written police/law show from France. Season One focuses on the murder of Elina, a beautiful, young Romanian woman who was a biology graduate student and a prostitute on the side. Her younger sister is missing and soon turns up dead.

Caroline Proust stars as the Laure Berthaud, the police captain, who leads a male staff with some gender bias. It’s clear that some fully accept her and others less so, but this isn’t the 1990s of Prime Suspect. Unkempt and down to earth, Laure is loyal to her men, protecting even the Coke addict troublemaker Gilou. She’s masculine in her attitude towards sex, very open and not looking for commitment. Yet despite, or because of her indifference to fashion, Laure is beautiful.

Grégory Fitoussi plays the Vice Prosecutor, Pierre Clément, a straight arrow lawyer. Pierre is recently separated from his wife, who could pass as a model. She’s the antithesis of Laure, polished, fashionable, willing to break inconvenient rules and annoyed when her husband isn’t.  Pierre’s childhood friend has a big role in season 1 as his name appears in a murder victim’s diary placing Pierre between the Scylla and Caribdis having to choose between loyalty to an old friend and professional ethics.

Clément often opposes Joséphine Karlsson, a gorgeous, intelligent defense attorney with no scruples whatsoever. In season 1, episode, Karlsson’s boss dies suddenly. She soon agrees to work for a disbarred attorney, who was convicted for raping his last colleague. Together they make the good guys work for every conviction. If the money’s good, and Karlsson will always ask for more, she’ll get any scumbag off.

The police are a varied lot. Tintin’s a dependable, astute detective, while another, Gilou, is a junkie with a hooker as a girlfriend. Soon the junkie turns as a informant to the underworld. Viewers are on pins and needles whether Gilou’s

At first the French legal system confused me. They call a man “judge” who seems to have the duties of the State’s Attorney in our system (i.e. he reminds me of the D.A. in Law and Order.) Yet he interviews suspects and victims in his office and someone else presides in the courtroom. Like the Brits, lawyers wear black robes and white neckwear, but no fake wigs are needed.

The plot gets more twisted and complex as time goes on. The suspense rises and rises. The story’s very Aristotelean in that the greatest threats are often characters near and dear to Clément or Berthaud. In each episode you don’t know what will happen till the very last second. Your stomach will turn as you get glimpses at the criminal’s depths.

Warning: The program’s got several gruesome scenes. I admit I had to look away and since my French is poor wasn’t sure when I could resume viewing.

The characters are complex and even perplexing psychologically. No one, except the criminal and the Elina, are completely good or bad, but rather intriguing. As a viewer I was never sure if good would win out. I was rarely sure of anything other than that there’d be a complete reversal by the end of each episode. If you like The Shield or The Wire, watch Spiral on Netflix.

22
Jul
13

798 Art Space

When I was in Beijing, I went to the 798 Art Space. I’d been there a few years ago and this time it seemed more commercialized. While there were cafes and shops before there seem to be more or else there just seemed to be fewer galleries open. Some galleries have started to charge and although they just asked for 10 rmb, that adds up and in a country with so many fantastic museums that are free paying made no sense.

I was pleased that I figured out how to get out to 798 on public transportation. You can just take the subway to Dongzhimen and then a bus out to 798. Beijing cabbies overcharge tourists relentlessly.

22
Jul
13

In a Better World

In_a_better_world

The Danish film In a Better World caught me by surprise. Compelling and intense, it weaves together the stories of Anton, a doctor who works for an NGO like Doctors without Borders in Africa and his family in Denmark and Christian, a boy who moves to Denmark after his mother dies. Anton’s son Elias is a victim of bullying until Christian defends him. The two boys become friends, but Elias is troubled by Christian’s violent streak. Christian believes might makes right and takes pleasure in revenge and plotting. He doesn’t know when to stop or that the unexpected can make a plot go awry in terrible ways.

Anton lives part of the year in Denmark, where he tries to reconcile with his wife Marianne, and part of the year in war-torn Africa where women are sliced open by a Chieftain called Big Man. Anton is a highly ethical man who tries to live non-violently and to teach his son the same.

Lonely and fascinated by Christian, Elias is too weak to refuse and stop his friend from his escalating violence. The film depicts the consequences of missing fathers.

 

I liked the film’s tone and the opportunity to travel to two new settings, Africa and Denmark. Roger Ebert criticized the film for cutting between the two cultures of Africa and Denmark, however, as someone who splits her time between cultures I found no problem with that choice.




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