Friday, December 28, 2007

Mother Joan of the Angels

Every blue moon, I stumble across a rare gem. Occasionally, I am so impressed by it that I feel an obligation to make noise on the subject in an effort to lift it out of its obscurity. This is the case with a Polish film that I watched yesterday, Mother Joan of the Angels.

I first read about the film in an essay on the Art Theatre Guild. The ATG was chain of arthouse theatres in Japan, which was founded in the early 1960's. Mother Joan of the Angels was the first film to play in an ATG theater. For those unfamiliar with the ATG, along with being a chain of cinemas, it was also responsible for producing several masterpieces of late 60's/early 70's, independent Japanese cinema, such as Funeral Parade of Roses, Death by Hanging, Double SuicideEros Plus Massacre, Throw Away Your Books: Rally in the StreetsInferno of First Love, Ecstasy of the Angels, This Transient Life, and A Man Vanishes.

Mother Joan of the Angels is very unique because of its rarity. Like the Japanese movement known as Nuberu Bagu, which includes the directors of the above-mentioned films, the group of filmmakers known as the Polish Film School have yet to receive a great deal international representation. Andrzej Wajda is the forerunner of this movement. His war trilogy of the 1950's is quite well-known, and he, along with many of Poland's best directors, were educated at the Lodz Film School. The director of M.J.A., Jerzy Kawalerowicz, is also associated with the Polish Film School, but I was unable to determine what film school he was trained in. Yet, there is a high possibility that it was at Lodz.

This Polish production from 1961 is a sort of anachronistic sequel to Ken Russell's The Devils. Although Russell's film was released in 1971, this motion picture chronicles events that took place after the death of Father Grandier. Grandier was burned at the stake on accusations of witchcraft by the Church, and Mother Joan of the Angels deals with the further attempts to exorcise the demons from Mother Joan and the nuns of her convent.

The protagonist of the film is Father Suryn, an exorcist who has been called to the convent because of his experience. He, unlike Father Grandier, is a very pious, humble priest, and is confronted by a faith-challenging atmosphere immediately upon entering the town. Although based on a true story in the town of Loudon, this film redistributes the events in an undisclosed Polish village. During Father Suryn's first encounter with Mother Joan, the director creates a palpable sexual tension between them, a problem which will continually present itself throughout the course of the film.

Further information will have to be curtailed, as I intended this summation to be for those who have not seen the film. The themes of exorcism may appear morbid for some, but the author's concerns lie more within human pathos than the supernatural. This almost represents the Eastern European link between such austere, religious auteurs as Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman. Kawalerowicz's fluid, subjective camera, and masterful montage is sure to leave many viewers amazed. There are many fascinating ideas presented about the cause of possession, but I will leave the viewer to discover them.

Also, I must warn the reader not to purchase the Region-2 Second Run DVD. Based on the screenshots from the review on, the Facets DVD, the version I viewed, is of much higher quality. The world must really be upside-down when Facets is the company to make the superior DVD. Their track record leaves much to be desired, to say the least.

I was extremely impressed by this feature, but I hesitate to call it a masterpiece, for the simple fact that I haven't seen anything else by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. It was also quite coincidental that I saw this film on the day that he died. Polart has released several of his features in Region-1, and there is a Region-2 release of his 1966 film, Pharaoh, which is stirring up quite a bit of anticipation within me.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pierrot le Fou - New 35mm Print Via Janus Films

I'm so jealous, particularly because Godard's film won't be playing in a cinema anywhere near my part of the country. I had to resort to an old VHS to see it, but it was worth it. The film was funny, intelligent, and idiosyncratic. In the 60's, Godard's talent was steadily augmenting, and he reached an aesthetic apotheosis with Weekend. May 1968 had a crippling effect on Godard. His earlier creative muscle went away with de Gaulle's government. His subsequent work seems to be more didactic, even more so than what he did in the 60's. Watching films like For Ever Mozart or In Praise of Love is more like sitting in a university lecture hall than being in a cinema. But I admire Godard for going in this direction because at least it shows some cinematic evolution on his part. As much as I love Antonioni, sometimes he just repeats himself. But Antonioni is the best facsimile of himself because he has learned himself better than anyone. Watching his segment in Eros, "The Dangerous Thread of Things", was enjoyable, but ultimately felt like self-indulgence on the auteur's end.

Well, it's time to close my critical evaluation of these European cineastes.
Pierrot le Fou is being re-released in theatres, and I predicate that a new, gorgeous Criterion DVD will be here in the States by this time next year.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mondo candido (1975)

This movie has it all! There's sex, violence, and philosophy. It's an epic surreal arthouse/exploitation/comedy adventure. Most noteworthy about the film is how littered it is with gorgeous yet cartoonish symbolism and props. It's like something out of El Topo combined with Monty Python. The humor in the film is lighthearted, intelligent, and morbid at the same time. I really can't describe this movie in words and do it justice. It's an amazing experience that has to be seen to be believed. The plot is simple, it's just about a guy searching literally the whole world for his lover but so much craziness goes on in between. From my understanding this film was inspired by a Voltaire novel too. There's no official release of this movie that is attainable. The only release you can get is a bootleg, which has custom subtitles since no other version was ever translated. You can order it off this place:

Monday, June 18, 2007

Update: Clips from Akio Jissoji's Mujo

Now, I finally have the equipment needed to play import DVD's, and seeing these clips confirms my choice for which discs will be my first purchases. There is a large boxset of Jissoji's early films available in Japan. I believe it is an 8-disc set, and includes all his films with the Art Theatre Guild. I will attempt to write a thorough review on these films once I see them, but my most recent obligations are to write "homemade retrospective" essays on Toshio Matsumoto and Shuji Terayama.

Some of these clips might be quite dark, and sorry, no English subtitles.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Follow-Up to the Akio Jissoji Post: Trailer for Mandara (1971)

iskander80 is now my favorite YouTube user. He has uploaded the trailer for Akio Jissoji's Mandara, and I have e-mailed him to request more trailers from Jissoji's early art films. And now, thanks to Paul Berry at the University of Washington, I have found an article on Mandara, along with other articles on Nuberu Bagu films, all concerning sexuality in 70s Japanese cinema.

Warning: This trailer contains nudity.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Xala (1975)

Today, June 11 2007, African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene passed away at the age of 84. I just remembered I've seen one of his films, Xala, a long time ago. I'm sketchy on details (cause it's been so long since I watched it) but it was a really good political satire comedy from what I remember. There was a character with impotence, which I believe was an allegory about the system and power. The end is very disgusting yet so hilarious and probably the one thing that you'll remember the most after watching this film. It's not the most challenging film, but the viewer does have to stay focused to really get into it. If you want a really strange African film though to see how complex African cinema could be, I'd suggest "Touki Bouki", which I didn't understand and was confused by. Well anyways, Xala is pretty accessible cause it is a comedy at the core but not too simple, that's a good thing. It's a nice start if you want to get into Sembene's films. This one is out on DVD in the US, although I see the DVD cost around $20 so try to rent or borrow it if you're low on cash.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Looking for Akio Jissoji: The Early Films With the Art Theatre Guild

Avid film fans will always confront the same dilemma at one point or another: many of the films we wish to see are not readily available. This happens far more times than necessary when searching for foreign cinema, and it is an axiom with Asian cinema. By far, the director whose work I wish to see most is Akio Jissoji (1937 - 2006). Jissoji would probably be completely unknown in the West, if it were not for his direction of the extremely popular Ultraman series.

I first became aware of Akio Jissoji through Roland Domenig's review of his first feature film, This Transient Life. Domenig likened this film to the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. The reviewer constructed these comparisons from a religious context because Buddhism is a major theme in This Transient Life. Jissoji applies the use of perpetually moving camera to convey the Buddhist idea of transience. The film did acheive some international recognition when it won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. It also became successful in Japan in the cinemas owned by the Art Theatre Guild. Consequently, Akio Jissoji joined the ranks of Kazuo Kuroki and Shuji Terayama, and the three became the most popular directors in the Art Theatre Guild in the 1970s.

Akio Jissoji went on to direct three more films with the Art Theatre Guild: Mandara (Mandala, 1971), Uta (Poem, 1972), and Asaki Yumemishi (Lived in a Dream, Life of a Court Lady, It Was a Faint Dream, 1974). Unfortunately, there are no professional reviews of these three films, albeit a reader review on the IMDB of Mandala. There is very little information available on his last two films with the ATG. According to the above-mentioned review by Domenig, Poem contains religious and philosophical themes, and the BFI database page describes Life of a Court Lady as a Kamakura-period piece with religious themes.

Although this filmmaker has been forgotten in the West, there is some hope for those who are interested. Pioneer and Geneon have released Region 2 DVDs for most of his films, but as with many Japanese releases there are no English subtitles. Because of Jissoji's recent death, there have been eulogies written on certain science fictions websites, but these are mainly concerned with his work on Ultraman. Possibly, one day we will read about a Jissoji retrospective occuring somewhere outside of Japan. Japanese new wave cinema hasn't received much attention internationally, but recently there have been a few sparks of hope. Yoshishige "Kiju" Yoshida was honored with a complete retrospective at the 27th Sao Paulo International Film Festival in 2003. Earlier this year, the Febio Film Festival in Prague featured several Nuberu Bagu films including Kazuo Kuroki's Preparation for the Festival. It may take a long time, but I feel that Jissoji and his contemporaries will receive the appreciation that they deserve.

Here is a link to find some beautiful screenshots from his early films.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Unlucky Monkey (1998)

Why isn't director Sabu more well known? Every movie of his I've seen is "Top 10 favorite movies of all time" worthy for me. The most popular thing he's ever done was an acting part in "Ichi the Killer". That's a shame because "Unlucky Monkey" is a way better movie on so many levels! For those of you unfamiliar with him, Sabu's films mix dark humor, screwed-up drama, ironic situtations, philosophy, and some bloody action/violence. Also his stories are not linear, as in it doesn't follow the "plot A to plot B, the end" formula. Rather, the entire movie starts with a character who's one action triggers a continous unpredictable chain reaction that eventually snowballs into an over-the-top strange moment. In the case of "Unlucky Monkey", this chain reaction starts off with a bank robbery. Only 1 of the 3 robbers survives and gets away with the crime. This one survivor accidentally kills a woman though as he ran like hell with a knife in hand. He never got caught for the murder either but his guilt gets the best of him, giving him depressing psychological turmoil as he tries to rationalize the whole ordeal. Somehow his path crosses with some yakuzas that were in some pretty deep shit. You have to discover the ironic twists of fate and how these characters coincide with one another on your own because all the fun is in seeing the unpredictable mess of a life these guys have unfold and crash. Sure there is a decent amount of bleeding throughout the film thanks to gun violence, even a guy's crotch get shot, but don't expect a non-stop Jon Woo style gunfest. A large percentage of this movie's strength is from the philosophy explored in a very natural way that anyone alive can relate to, not just some pretentious scholars. If you haven't seen a Sabu film yet, this ones a good one to start off with.