Archive for the 'International' Category

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.

13
Jun
14

Cemetery Junction

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I started watching Cemetery Junction with anticipation. Since Ricky Gervais wrote it with Steven Merchant, I hoped for comedy. I didn’t get that. No big laughs here and yet the drama didn’t satisfy. It’s the story of three pals in the 1970s. One, Freddie Taylor, who’s no doubt named after Frederick Taylor who pioneered the science of management, wants to move up beyond his working class status. He sees his grandmother and parents as stuck in a rut. He takes a job selling life insurance door-to-door for a company run by the father of a pretty girl he went to school with. His friends are in dead end, low paying jobs and their lives are rather routine though they have more fun out at the pub or dance club than their parents do watching TV like zombies. Freddie wants something more, for himself. He soon sees through the empty promises of his job and hopes to avoid the mechanical life he sees even those who succeed at his job are stuck in.

There are plenty of stories and films that address this dilemma and most are more interesting. I’m not sure why this film was made or whom it’s for. Earlier such works were novel and were made for the youth of the 60s and 70s who were struggling to break out of the routine the 50s imposed. Nowadays young people seem to be swimming in choices and from my vantage point it seems fine to choose a different path.

21
May
14

Cannes Film Festivals: Jury Members

It’s time for my favorite film festival: Cannes.

Take a look. Practice your French.

21
May
14

I Live in Fear

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Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955) drew me with the first scene when a dentist mentions he’s a judge for the local family court. Family court in Japan? This is bound to be interesting. At family court, where in 1955 Japan three men from the neighborhood and a silent woman (the secretary?), hear the cases of family disputes. In this case adult children want to have Kiichi Nakajima, their father, ruled incompetent because his fear of subsequent atomic bombings compels him to move his family, wife, grown children and their spouses and his mistresses and children by them, to Brazil, where they’ll be safe.

The court hears all sides and ponders a decision, while back at home family members continue to bicker, worried about money, the father’s will, the family business-a foundry the father still runs. Meanwhile the father goes around town presenting his plan to his illegitimate children, a son whose mother has died, a daughter whose mother runs a bar Nakajima funds and a married daughter who’s husband talks way too much about the effects of such bombs to a man who’s already obsessed and anxious about them. Say what you will about this man who certainly got around, but he provides and protects them all. He’s given jobs and a home to his legitimate sons and makes sure the others get money every month. In a touching scene outside the courtroom, when tempers were running high and the father was furious with his children, he returns to the corridor and gives his wife and children a bottle of orange soda pop. Providing for his family is so ingrained. Yet no one notices.

The case drags on, apparently more than most cases do in family court. All judges admit that the father has a point. The dentist, played by one of my favorite Japanese actors, points out that perhaps it’s crazy to go along with your life ignoring the bomb. Certainly, in Japan it should have been. In hindsight we know nuclear bombs haven’t been used since WWII, but in 1955 it wasn’t clear they wouldn’t be. The judges just can’t bring themselves to rule for Nakajima. Leaving a successful business and good middle class life, to go to Brazil was just too much. (Though there are lots of Japanese in Brazil and Peru. I wonder when they immigrated.)

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He’s looked into buying a farm in Brazil and the seller comes to Japan to show the family a film about it and answer their questions. Nakajima isn’t completely crazy. He takes rational steps. The court clearly considered this though they also sympathize with the adult children who just don’t want to be uprooted. Eventually, Nakajima’s youngest legitimate daughter and his wife agree to go, but an appeals court would still need to rule in favor of the father.

The film’s an absorbing look at Japanese culture and the impact of nuclear weapons. I know I’ve pretty much filed their existence in the back of my head, and though I don’t want Nakajima’s obsession, a reminder of their consequences isn’t bad.

20
Apr
14

Ballad of Narayama

narayamaThis 1955 movie was a hard one to watch. It’s about an old woman of 70 who’s intent upon following her region’s tradition of going up the mountain to die. Spry and sharp, you’d think she’d resist like another man in her village, but no. While her son is heartbroken about having to carry his mother up the mountain to leave her to starve, her insolent grandson, who’s newly married keeps taunting her with songs about her good teeth. Repeatedly, the overgrown brat, who does no work and contributes zilch to the family, unlike his grandmother, sings about his grandmother’s “devil teeth.”

Though well done, I found myself stopping the DVD often. I watched in short spurts hoping the woman could stay with her family. But no, it would be too much of a disgrace to be alive after a great grandchild was born. The whole village would gossip.

I like to be culturally sensitive, but this test I couldn’t pass. The director clearly wanted to show how horrid it was to abandon the old in this ritualized way. How despicable the neighbor who threw his father out refusing him food since he didn’t want to go up the mountain to a slow death. Granted food was scarce and Japan was a poor country until it industrialized, but societies are judge by how they treat their weakest members. While I watched I thought of the short comings of our own system. Still this seemed so cruel. Seventy seems far too young.

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.




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