Archive for the 'International' Category

10
Aug
14

apart from you

apart from you

Directed by Mikio Naruse, Apart from You (1933)  shows two geishas who’re stuck in an ignoble profession they wish they could escape. The film starts with an amusing scene in a geisha house run by an old woman who smokes and gambles. She studies the racing statistics in the paper like a scientist.

While Western books and films Orientalize geishas accenting their musical skill and gorgeous clothes, I’m finding films and books created by Japanese people portray this life as hard and soul killing.

I can’t improve upon Michael Koresky‘s synopsis so I’ll simply quote it:

Apart from You also gives us our first glimpse of Naruse’s careful way of dramatizing geisha life. The film concerns two melancholy working women: the long-suffering Kikue (seen in an early shot plucking out telltale gray hairs) and the younger Terugiku, whose beauty and seeming optimism mask growing disillusionment. Their internal wounds slowly become apparent: Kikue is having difficulty with her teenage son, Yoshio, who, bitterly embarrassed by his mother’s profession, has stopped attending school and fallen in with a pack of delinquents. Terugiku harbors deep resentment toward her family, especially her alcoholic father, for forcing her to become a geisha to help support them. An attraction develops between Terugiku and Yoshio—in the film’s most moving segment, she takes him on a trip to her family’s impoverished village; there, she instructs him that it’s wrong to be ashamed of and mistreat his mother, who works in her profession only to provide for him and his education. The verisimilitude with which Naruse depicts the geisha existence reaches its apex in the film’s frenetic party scenes, startlingly physical, decadent displays based on the director’s observations of a geisha house near Shochiku Studios.

Apart from You is a moving film though there were a few shots that were awkward as if the director was trying to figure out the medium. These were rare, but glaring errors, which given the power of the whole film, are easily overlooked. Similarly, the hoodlums Yoshio joins seemed like caricatures, but they’re not on screen that much. Both actresses who play geishas were quietly compelling and sympathetic.

04
Aug
14

À Nous la Liberté

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Directed by René Clair, À Nous la Liberté (1931) follows the attempt of two convicts to escape. One man succeeds, but his friend is captured. The man who escapes starts a new life selling phonographs on the street. Soon he’s prospered and owns a store. Not much later he owns a huge factory making thousands of phonographs. One memorable scene shows his workers marching in to work, punching in, taking their seats on an assembly line and working like machines, just as the factory owner had when he was in prison. The striking similarity is not accidental.

Later the factory owner’s friend is freed and by chance meets his rich pal. The film is full of such coincidences but they made me smile rather than roll my eyes. At first the prosperous man is leery. Does his old chum want to black mail him?

No. His old friend Emile is far more sincere, more innocent. Despite the soul-killing monotony, Emile wants to continue working at the factory so he can woo a woman he’s infatuated with. As the rich men’s high society friends talk about him behind his back and are stuffy bores, the factory owner opens his life and his wallet to his old pal to help him win this woman’s heart. Then the wheel of fortune turns against this pair of friends.

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The film does use sound, though sparingly. For much of the beginning I thought it was a silent film. It’s a fun, clever film that has an uplifting feel to it. I agree with critic Michael Atkinson who describes as “bouncy with melody, soaked in spring light, wistful about the conflicted relationship between serendipity and love.”

Clair was the first to film a scene where all hell breaks loose when workers can’t keep up with the assembly line. His studio and some critics believe that Chaplin plagiarized À Nous la Liberté when he made Modern Times. Clair didn’t get involved and said since he appreciates so much of what Chaplin’s done, if he did borrow from this film, that’s fine. His studio disagreed and took legal action which dragged on for 10 years. They lost.

À Nous la Liberté has a surprising, positive (or perhaps naive) ending. I can see why the film was on a list of “Most Influential Films” I received at Act One. So glad my library had it.

25
Jul
14

Osaka Elegy

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Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, Osaka Elegy (1936) opens with Mr. Asai, a middle-aged grouch, insulting his servants and wife. According to Asai-san, everyone in his house is stupid and incompetent. He and his wife argue and he threatens to get a mistress. The wife replies “go ahead.” There’s not even a spark of love or kindness in this man or his wife.

At work Mr. Asai is more temperate. He even smiles and laughs. Ayako,  a young office girl, who answers the phones, catches his eye.  Though she wears a kimono at work, while the men all wear Western suits (it’s always telling when a culture has women in traditional dress and men in the more modern) Ayoko embraces modern mores. She smokes, outside of work she wears the new styles.

Uninterested in middle-aged men, Ayoko  has eyes for Susumu, a dashing young salary man, who likes her but isn’t ready to move beyond friendship. Ayako’s bigger problem is her father, who’s embezzled 300 yen from his company. They’re ready to set the police after him. Ayako has to deal with he father’s colleagues who come to the house to hound the family for money. Her cowardly father eavesdrops outside while they intimidate his daughters.

Ayako tries to get a loan from Susumu Nishimura. She’s run out of people to ask. In the end her only hope is an agreement with Mr. Asai, who’s pestered her with offers of money and apartments for some time. She winds up agreeing to Mr. Asai’s terms since Susumu hasn’t committed to her and can’t lend her the money.

She gives her father, who shows little appreciation or concern for Ayako, the money and disappears. She quits her job and goes off to her new gilded cage. Later she meets Susumu in a department store. He proposes and she thinks her life can change for the better. Yet more demands from her ungrateful family lead her away from the marriage she hoped for.

The Criterion Collection offers two insightful essays on Osaka Elegy. In one it points out that the director was haunted by his parents selling his sister into prostitution so they could pay for his education:

A detail of Kenji Mizoguchi’s life that is seldom left out of any biographical note is the fact that his older sister was sold into prostitution when he was a child. The practice was not uncommon among poverty-stricken Asian families, and while horrifying enough, the boy’s future was linked to her bondage. After the death of their parents she supported him, and her eventual marriage to a wealthy patron made his education possible. According to the tenets of Japan’s institutionalized sexism, the sacrifice of the less-valued girl child for the well-being of a son would have been taken for granted. But the themes and meaning of the director’s entire body of work attest that for him at least, it never was. Over his long career, through more than eighty films, Mizoguchi would constantly champion women wronged and discarded: Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, A Woman of Osaka, A Geisha, and Street of Shame. His portrayal, with merciless depth, of the workings of a society that nurtured male privilege and sanctioned second-class citizenship for women, suggests a sensibility on the cutting edge of giri.

I was struck by how Ayako’s desire for a progressive, modern life, was strangled. While she could smoke and work, but neither of these actions kept her secure or gave her power. Also the movie, while not explicit, was open about sexuality and exploitation. It doesn’t dress up the sacrifice and cost Ayoko must pay. There’s a bold realism in the film that captivates.

 

23
Jul
14

A Gun in Each Hand

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The Spanish film A Gun in Each Hand looks at middle aged men – their work, families, marriages, and affairs from every angle. There’s a wry wit that runs through this film that depicts several vignettes that end with a surprise. It entertains while looking intelligently at older characters. I usually don’t like films where random lives cross paths, but this film works.

06
Jul
14

Tokyo Chorus

ozu tokyo chorus

In 1931 Ozu made Tokyo Chorus, a silent movie about a salary man who promises his son a bicycle when he gets his bonus. From the early school scenes we see the hero has a problem with authority and can be a troublemaker.

Anticipating the father’s bonus all is sunny at home. However, the hero speaks up for an older colleague who was unjustly fired and winds up losing his job at an insurance agency. He doesn’t know how to break this to his family, life is changing and hard times lie ahead. (Remember the downside to life long employment is it’s awfully hard to find a job as a mid-level professional. There are no openings.) He tries to satisfy his son with a scooter, but it doesn’t satisfy. The other kids have bikes and the son, who gets very bratty in a very realistic way, won’t accept anything less.

The film shows the man trying to find work, but without luck. Then his daughter gets ill and has to go to the hospital. It’s sad when we see how he had to pay the hospital bill. Throughout the film his wife is long suffering. She’s a serious woman who’s married a man who often can’t control himself. At times he unwittingly humiliates her, but she never gets angry. She seems to understand that won’t help and believe that endurance is the key to survival.

The film is well paced and kept my interest. It’s further evidence that silent films can say more than many talkies. Often the characters speak, but we don’t get cards saying what was said. That’s okay because we can infer the dialog and in that way the film is universal. The actors, particularly the hero, who’s played by  Okada, Tokihiko is very likable and expressive. According to imdv.com, he died a couple years after making this film. It’s a shame because he could have had a long career.

03
Jul
14

The Burmese Harp

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I’m catching up on my blogging. I saw this movie before I left China and haven’t had time to blog.

Another Criterion Collection DVD, this one based on a popular Japanese novel, The Burmese Harp is set as WWII ends. A company of Japanese soldiers is in Burma, on the look out for British soldiers. Their captain is very musical and has used singing to build espirit de corps and to trick the Brits, or try to. When they hear the British soldiers approaching their camp, the captain urges his company to laugh and sing to give the impression that they’re goofing off though they’re on their guard. When they start singing a song with the same tune as “Home Sweet Home,” the Brits echo back. Soon the Japanese learn that their side has surrendered.

Yet there’s another Japanese company up in the mountains, a fervent nationalistic group that’s still fighting. Mizushima, a soldier who’s learned to play the Burmese harp, volunteers to go up the mountain and tell these soldiers the war’s over. He’s given 30 minutes to get these hold outs to surrender. No matter what he says, they refuse. They don’t believe Mizushima and feel their duty is to fight to the death no matter what.

After 30 minutes, true to their word, the British start attacking. Most of the hold outs get killed. Mizushima survives, but is shocked. His world’s been shattered and he can’t  return to his unit. He steals a Buddhist monk’s robes and wanders the countryside as a monk.

burm harp

His unit search for him and don’t want to return to Japan without him. At one point they think they’ve passed him on the road, but Mizushima doesn’t acknowledge them. He’s too shattered and lost to return to his old life.

The Burmese Harp doesn’t address the atrocities the Japanese committed, but it does show the horrors and effects of war. Most of the civilian Japanese had no idea what their soldiers did overseas so it wasn’t part of the original novel, or something the director, who broke out with this film, knew of.

The Burmese Harp presents an interesting view of WWII, one that I’d never considered. It also depicts Japanese culture with nuance.

26
Jun
14

Het Diner/The Dinner

het diner

Amazingly, Dutch film The Dinner has no characters that I liked, just one that I could pity, yet managed to keep me fascinated. Paul, the main character, has been out of work for years. His insertion of extreme political ideas in his history classes cost him his job. In contrast, his brother Serge is a successful politician on the verge of running for Prime Minister. The film centers on a dinner the brothers and their wives have so they can discuss how to deal with a troubling YouTube video of their sons harassing a homeless woman.

Paul narrates the film and offers some background on what happened to his family that influenced his son to get him to this place, how Paul’s temper and prejudices surfaced when he tried to repay a shop owner whose window his son broke and how he reacts to the principal who called him to discuss the extreme ideas his son used in an essay.

The dinner at a chic restaurant, that Paul could never afford, suspense and tension builds and slowly the nature of the son’s crime gets revealed. The characters surprise with their responses that I’d never have predicted. It’s a thoroughly modern film that grabbed my attention and held it.




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