I am Waiting

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Another film in Criterion’s Nikkatsu (Studio) set is I am Waiting (1957). Directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, I am Waiting tells the story of an ex-boxer who rescues a young woman from suicide. She couldn’t take working at a mobster’s low-end bar anymore. Her savior offers her a safe place to live and work at his restaurant. She gets happier, and calmer.

This nice guy dreams of joining his brother in Brazil, where the brother has bought a farm. Time passes and there’s no word from the brother. About the time the nice guy, whom we learn was a prize-fighter reveals that he wants to escape his guilt for killing a man in a fist fight. The club owner any lackeys find a girl at the restaurant. This mobster figures the girl owes him two years worth of work performing in his club. Despite her disgust, she agrees to return to protect the nice guy. 

Then the guy starts retracing his brother’s footsteps and discovers the brother never got on the ship to Brazil. The nice guy deducts if there’s a connection between his brother’s disappearance and the mobsters. 

I enjoyed the plot in performances particularly those of the lead man and woman. The film never got sappy or simpleminded it’s portrayal of this couple. I wouldn’t call this a thriller, it was definitely noir with plenty of dark, inky shadows.

The story was absorbing and my heart went out to all the beautiful losers, nice guy, the girl he rescued and the doctor cum mentor, who drank too much.

 

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Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Sweet Bean (An)

Though I can’t stand Japanese sweet bean paste, the movie Sweet Bean is another story.  Loner Senato runs a snack shop in Tokyo where he makes and sells pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste when one day Tokue, a cute old lady, comes along and begs for a job. She begs to for a job, but he’s sure at 76 she’s unable to do the lifting and hard work he needs.

When she comes by again bearing a batch of the most incredibly delicious sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted, he relents and hires her. The next morning she’s there at 4 am to make the beans replacing the canned glop used before. Soon there’s a line around the block for the snacks.

Wakana, a student whose single mom wants her to stop studying and get a job, is drawn to this pair of loners. She shows how wonderful friendship is with someone much older. She shares her dreams and memories with Tokue and keeps Sentaro on the right path regarding sticking up for Tokue.

In the midst of the business’ success, the shop’s meddling owner pops in and insists  Sentaro fire Tokue because her knobbled hands are due to leporasy. She’s a health risk. She’s got to go.

The film goes into new territory and explores friendship, loyalty and isolation in a beautiful way. I loved this film. Even though I still can’t choke down a sweet bean pancake and highly recommend this movie.

Dark Horse

The documentary Dark Horse shows how a rag tag group of friends in Wales agree to pool their cash and breed a racehorse. Jan, a cleaner at a grocery store cum barmaid, has a fascination with breeding a thoroughbred. As a girl she learned to breed birds and whippets from there father. How much harder could it be to breed a race horse?

Jan’s friends and husband agree to contribute 10£ per week to the horse’s upkeep. The film consists of interviews on how Jan and the group made decisions and supported their horse Dream Alliance. Every step of the way, the group makes clever decisions to make the most of their money. For example, when choosing a trainer, Jan convinced the others that they had to get the best because a good trainer can do wonders with an average horse, but a mediocre trainer can ruin a good horse.

Dream Alliance surprises them all with his performance on the track and the film is a feel good movie with a healthy dose of realism. It’s fine for family viewing and I loved how these working class folks made a splash in the Sport of Kings.

The Spirit of the Bee Hive

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Perhaps I missed something, but The Spirit of the Bee Hive confounded me. A story about Anna, a young girl living in a village in Spain, who sees a Frankenstein film and gets obsessed with figuring out why Frankenstein killed a girl who had tried to play with him.  She asks her older sister, who’s probably 7 or 8 years old, and gets a fanciful response which sends her on a mission to find Frankenstein in a local field.

Because I don’t know much about Spanish history and couldn’t understand the context a lot of the film was beyond me. Moreover, the family was so alienated. The parents spent little time with each other or with their children. There were some touching scenes, but as a whole the parents seemed distant and lived in their own heads. The kids were allowed to wander wherever including along and on railroad tracks. They’d put their ears to the tracks to determine if a train was approaching. That made me tense, but on the suspense scale, I wanted something more.

At one point a man who’s been shot jumps off the train and makes his way to the abandoned barn in the desolate field where Ana seeks her Frankenstein. We never learn his story. Ana innocently cares for him and brings him food and tends as best she can to his wound. He never says much. One day after she leaves him some food and starts for home gunfire takes the man out. We never learn the source of the bullets. Since Ana’s given the victim her father’s jacket with his watch in the pocket, her father is questioned by police. We never hear what’s said and never does the father talk to Ana about her actions. So much is left to the imagination and without understanding of Spanish modern history and its impact on the culture, I couldn’t appreciate this film.

The father was a beekeeper and scholar and there’s plenty of bee hive patterns, like the windows shown above. Still I really never got the significance of the title. I was going to watch some of the extras on Disc 2, but I figured I didn’t want to spend the time digging deeper in the hope of possibly understanding an opaque film.

Ana is blessed with the most beautiful, arresting eyes and they’re well photographed. Her sister is pretty as well. Seeing how they’re captured on film was the best part of this movie. For the most part, the emotionally distant characters left me cold.