The Babushkas of Chernobyl

What a terrific film! I have to thank Sharon for recommending it to me. I learned of Babushkas of Chernobyl from the library’s Fall Film Challenge. Here’s what she wrote on the DVD’s Fall Film Challenge slip of paper:

A unique story to be sure. Quoting the co-director Holly Morris, “The dead zone, it turns out, is full of life.” That is a great hook and so true. After the Chernobyl disaster, the Babushkas refused to stay away from their homes. Decades later, they continue to live on their own terms. These women are rock-solid awesome.

Like The Wolfpack, you can put this in the “who knew” category i.e. stranger than fiction. These women find a way.

Yes, this is the story of three grandmas, or Babushkas, who retuned to their homes within the Dead Zone by Chernobyl. They farm here, forage and fish. So daily they eat what’s high in radiation. Yet, and the doctors confirm this, they outlive many of their former neighbors who evacuated. Go figure.

We learn about these tough women and their thinking about living in a ghost town. We also see the teenage boys who’ve taken to sneaking through the barbed wire. These teens play a computer game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set in the site of the nuclear disaster. They’re drawn to this eerie ghost town, where some of their relatives lived and worked. They see it as romantic.

The Babushkas are sure to warm your heart. Talk about resilient and dedicated.

Sisters of the Gion

gion sisters

While Memoirs of a Geisha painted a romantic portrait of geisha living in a Japanese Cinderella story, Sisters of Gion gives viewers a realistic view. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who’s fond of creating films about vulnerable women, the Sisters of Gion we see are the older, trusting Umekichi and the more perceptive, jaded O-Mocha. Umekichi’s patron has gone flat broke. He has to sell his store and his family has to move back to his wife’s hometown in disgrace. The wife isn’t the least bit happy about the shame that accompanies this fall.

The patron, Furusawa-san, accepts Umekichi’s offer to put him up. O-Mocha is incredulous and miffed. Doesn’t Umekichi realize that they’re just barely scrimping by? How can they take in a penniless former merchant? Quiet Umekichi ignores her younger sister, occasionally saying something about tradition or being good to people.

O-Mocha is the practical sister. She realizes that her sister needs a new patron, pronto and to get one she’ll need to be seen in an exquisite kimono at a top level party. O-Mocha gets her sister the needed invitation and figures out how to hustle an assistant in a kimono shop to help her sister. Later when the shop assistant is found out, O-Mocha cozies up to the shop owner who she wants to be her patron.

O-Mocha sees the geisha life for what it is — a way for men to have young playthings. It’s not a path she appears to have chosen, but she’s determined not to be a victim in the system, if that’s a possibility in a male dominated society.

The film was absorbing and often beautiful. I admired O-Mocha’s spunk and wished her sister would take some of her advice. It’s a classic, I’d love to see again.

Do You See Me?

The Italian comedy Do You See Me? looks at the difficulties a talented female architect faces when after succeeding around the world, she decides to return to Italy where she’s lucky to get a low paying waitress job. While Serena Bruno has graduated from top schools and won awards for her work, back in Italy the economy’s tight and jobs, particularly for women, are scarce.

Serena Bruno first is attracted to and then when she learns he’s gay, she befriends the owner of the restaurant where she works. He sees her talent and intelligence when no one else does. He encourages her to enter an architecture contest to redesign a public housing space. Though her idea, which was inspired by input from the residents, is fantastic she fears she’ll be passed over for a man so when the committee mistakes her for a secretary to Bruno Serena she plays along. She convinces her former boss, now friend and roommate to pretend to be Bruno Serena. Comedy ensues and while the situation is ridiculous, it’s a thoughtful, fun film that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.

It’s an enjoyable film that depicts the difficulties woman still face.

Dragnet Girl

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

dragnet girl

Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.

The Life of Oharu

banish oharu

Life in 17th century Japan certainly wasn’t easy for women if The Life of Oharu is anything to go by. I really loved this movie about a beautiful young woman. First Oharu is a courtesan at the Imperial Palace. When she gives in to a lower class retainer’s advances, she’s found out. Then she’s banished from Kyoto. Her parents are also banished because they failed to guide their daughter properly. When they’re led out of the city, soldiers keep back their loved ones separating them with a pole as they proceed to the city limits in tears.

Oharu’s lover did not get off scot-free. He was beheaded after dictating a letter urging Oharu only to marry for love.

After a long banishment, Oharu lucks out. An emissary from an important lord must hunt for the perfect courtesan. The requirements are so specific. Feet must be a certain length, certain earlobes, background, talents. No one fits all the criteria — no one except Oharu. At first she kicks and screams, but eventually she goes to Edo (now Tokyo) where she delights the lord and infuriates his wife. She bears the lord the desired male heir and things are looking up. She finally feels at home, valued. However, the wife, who’s jealous of her husband’s fondness for Oharu, sends her packing with very little cash. Oharu’s father has over extended himself in business thinking he’ll be taken care of for life as his daughter bore the heir. The film continues to show this poor woman’s hardships and to reveal how precarious life could be in this highly structured society. The acting is superb and the story compelling as I had no idea what to expect. I really was shocked that Oharu was tossed out after producing a royal heir.

oharu

While the film is melodramatic, there’s humor such as when a prostitute drags a man into an inn, while he’s calling out, “I’ve got to get home to my wife.” Based on the novel, The Life of an Amorous Woman, this film is beautiful with images that will stick with you. For more on the cinematography read this essay on the Criterion Collection website.

Mr. Selfridge, Season 2

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Mr. Selfridge’s second season kicked off a couple weeks ago. The first episode picks up as Selfridge’s is about to celebrate its firth anniversary. Time’s flown by and it shows for some and not for others, which is odd. I was glad to see my favorite characters/actors, but the first episode was strange because the story pretty much wipes aside, or minimizes the problems Harry faced at the end of season 1 when his wife, fed up with his philandering and the public ridicule of a satirical play about Harry, left as did his best friend and most talented colleague, Henri LeClere. As if that weren’t enough, Harry’s reporter pal childishly turned on him, because he wasn’t available mmm.

I found it implausible that Harry wasn’t more affected by isolation. He’s a gregarious man who needs his social network to make him who he is. Without that energy, Harry’s nothing. He’d have hit rock bottom and then had to find new friends as well as new loves. He did find new women to replace his lover Eva Love, but Henri and Frank’s friendships were left void. I didn’t buy that that wouldn’t have left a big hole or that Selfridge would have tried to fill it. I also found it odd that Rose, Gordon and Frank all reappear at the same time. Yes, it’s the anniversary, but someone would have reconnected earlier and others might never have.

It’s just weird that in pre-WWI era Agnes, Kitty and Vincent are still single. One of them would have married. It’s odd that we don’t really know why Henri hit the skids. If J. Walter Thompson, New York didn’t work out, why not return to Chicago’s Marshall Fields, Macy’s or Paris? Why would he wind up in squalor? It’s not like he’s a gambler or drinker. I’m also surprised that Miss Mardle has chosen to stay on at Selfridge’s and work with her lover Mr. Grove as his new, young wife has baby after baby. Only a glutton for punishment would. Since she took a risk on Selfridge’s store, you’d think she’d have the pluck to get a new job.

Amanda Abbington

The second episode, where Henri seems to return for good, had a better storyline. I’m glad that Miss Mardle has come into money. We’ve got some new villians this year. Poor Lady Mae is married to a wife beater, who’s destitute. He’s cut off her funds since he has no money. It’s good to see Harry defend Lady Mae and all women against this abusive blackguard.

Rose is back and has taken up with a new friend, Miss P whom she met on the ship back to London. Rose needs a few more friends in London, but it’s just too convenient for the writers to make this one the owner of a risqué bar. Mr. Selfridge always tries to titillate in an anachronistic, implausible way.

Agnes’s character and storyline draw me it. I’m happy to see her back from Paris where she apprenticed at Galleries LaFayette. As the new head of display she’s got her hands full, particularly since the new head of fashion took an immediate dislike to her and is doing his best to sabotage her. Thank God, Harry knew that Henri would consider coming back if it were to help this damsel in distress, (whom he loved and left). Though I like Victor, I prefer to see Agnes with Henri. Most characters don’t get two fine young men to choose from. It’s an embarrassment of riches, in a way.

Good Reminder by Hank Green

Sure we know this, but we don’t really buy into the idea enough. Instead we buy into an idea that life’s an constant game of getting makeovers and new clothes. Wear what you like and spend half what you do on clothes. The rest of the cash can go into investments, experiences, etc.

Downton Abbey: Presentation balls

rose mclareOn Sunday’s Downton Abbey finale, Rose finally was presented to society in a majestic ceremony with much elegance. I didn’t realize these women were presented to the King and Queen. I expected something like the presentation balls in the States (not that I’d been to one). I’ve read plenty of books and seen many BBC dramas, where this is mentioned, but I’m glad Downton showed us the real spectacle. Both Cora and Lord Grantham were stunning, as was Rose.

Thanks to my friendly, public library reference services, I’ve found out a bit about all this Presentation business:

From ABC-CLIO’s Daily Life through History website
http://dailylife.abc-clio.com/

debutante balls

The word debutante comes from the French, debut, which means, “beginning.” The young woman is said to be “coming out” when she is introduced, implying that she is leaving the sheltered world of family life to join a wider society. The tradition of formal presentation of a young woman is rooted in an old English practice where daughters of the aristocracy, who married within a very small circle of elite families, were presented to those of similar social standing when they reached a marriageable age. The practice continues to be associated generally with wealthy and socially prominent families.

In England, presentations took place during “The London Season,” which usually coincided with the sitting of Parliament. Generally, it began after Easter and continued until August when the grouse-hunting season started. Families of wealth and position made a mass migration from their country estates to London for “The Season,” to exchange their quiet life of limited entertainment for days of shopping, riding, and visiting; and evenings of theater, dances, and balls. It was regarded as the chance for young men and women of position to mingle and find a marriageable partner. Marriages were more likely to be made on the basis of social connections, eligibility, and finances than on common interests, compatibility, and love.

Before a young woman could join in the social activities of “The Season,” she had to be presented at court to the queen. This typically took place when she reached 18. Prior to that time the activities of a young woman of social position would be restricted to attendance at school and limited participation in any social functions. While the actual presentation would only take a few minutes, preparations for the event were extensive. There were rigidly prescribed rules for presentation that extended to dress and accessories. Unmarried women were expected to wear a white gown, although soft color over a white background was permitted. The gown had to have a train. The headdress had to have feathers and a tulle veil long enough to reach the train. The number and size of the feathers on a headdress varied with the whim of the monarch. Queen Victoria favored three large feathers.
Continue reading “Downton Abbey: Presentation balls”

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.