Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
In the tradition of Richard Wright's Native Son, Nagisa Oshima's Death by Hanging follows the story of a young second class citizen condemned for a crime to seem at first against an individual, but as an audience we find out that is an attack against a nation.
The film begins with the traits of all New Wave film-making, by showing an actual prison ground. Oshima's camera is attached to a helicopter and makes a descent upon a rather quaint building that is truly an execution chamber. Our narrator is Oshima himself, commenting on frighteningly true realities of public opinion on capital punishment. 71% of the population want to uphold capital punishment, but Oshima poses an unorthodox, but simple question. You who are in favor of capital punishment, have you ever witnessed an execution? This inquiry in itself to me sums up Oshima's purpose in his early work. Identifying and challenging hypocrisy. Something that many people are unwilling to do.
The victim of the punishment is a young Korean man named R. His crime is the murder and rape of 2 Japanese high school girls. R is hanged, but he lives. When he comes to, he cannot remember anything. His name, his family, his nationality, or the men who killed him. He appears to be completely enlightened in the Buddhist tradition of Nirvana. He does not behave like a criminal at all, in fact he is much more adjusted than the self-imposed superior Japanese prison wards. The man are shocked and the chaplain believes his body is empty and his soul has left. The prison wards believe that is nonsense so they want to hang him again. But they can't hang a man who isn't self aware or competent of his surroundings. So in a deeply biting satire, they act out the known facts of his life trying to get him to remember so he can be hanged.
This is where the narrative becomes interesting. Oshima uses satire to comment of Japan's marginalization of their Korean neighbors. Very similar to the way African Americans were treated in early America or Jews in Venice. R is the product of extreme degradation and exploitation. At one point the men are trying to play the part of his family. One man is playing the part of R's mom and she has to cry. Pretending, the man starts crying, but his colleague says that it's not right, and he should do it more, "Korean". He says by Korean, he means more vulgar. It is this condescendence towards Koreans that can be compared to many other people around the world and to many points in history.
In the conclusion, R understands what his former self did. Being a second class citizen, he was not allowed to have the things that his Japanese peers did. He soon became enveloped in fantasy. He didn't have fresh food, so he imagined he did. He didn't have new clothes, so he fabricated that idea. He couldn't have a Japanese girl, so he fantasized that he could. But he knew he couldn't have this girl in a normal fashion due to his race, so he constantly projected in his mind the act of rape. His constant cerebral denial of everything he hoped for lead to his real life act.
I respect Nagisa Oshima for being unpopular among his countrymen in order to shout at the world. I wouldn't call him a moralist, but he strives to eliminate hypocrisy in the world. This film is just as much an anti-capital punishment essay as it is a race relations thesis. I have always been against capital punishment ever since I was aware of the idea of politics. I was as shocked just as Oshima was when learning about the public opinion of capital punishment in my own English class. Most of my 16/17 year old peers supported death. R's response to his nation's stand on his fate is this. "The nation says that I should die for my crimes. But I don't understand the idea of a nation. How can an abstraction kill me?"
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Susumu Hani's unique film funded in part by the Art Theatre Guild, an organization which supported the filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave who were excommunicated from the Japanese studio system. This film is so truthful, dangerous, and spellbinding that it's hard to find words in the English language to describe it. Only a minuscule number of films can pull so much out of your soul in an hour and a half. Susumu Hani tells the frighteningly authentic story of a young man named Algebra, and his struggle to find himself within the suffocating environment of post-war Tokyo. Algebra works as a goldsmith in a ridiculously repetitive workplace and lives at home with his sexually abusive father. He is very repressed sexually and emotionally, and even once took laughing lessons to relieve his troubles. His abuse as a child led him to repeat his father's mistakes. A casual walk in the park leads to an all too comfortable relationship with a random young girl. A man sees him with the girl and yells "pervert, pervert" and rallies other neighbors to chase him down. Algebra doesn't serve any jail time, for nothing intimate happened, but he does visit a psychiatrist who hypnotizes him. Algebra's is hypnotized in conjunction with watching a movie screen that depicts images of his subconscious. Surprisingly, Algebra wants nothing to do with his dark hobby afterward and begins a heightening romance with a female prostitute with whom he had a failed liaison with earlier in the film. Her name is Nanami, a nude model that works in a peep show-esquire establishment. Nanami takes on her own quest in the film, from a normal peep show girl to doing S&M photos for mysterious clients. She is Algebra's only anchor in the world. The remainder of the film depicts the blossoming of their relationship, and Algebra's personal awakening.
The narration does appear to be typical: a young outgoing girl stabilizes the shy young man, but this film is all about the unique use of storytelling and the employment of a cinema verite style of photography. Yuji Okumura employs a liberated, documentary-style camera technique that brought memories of Sergei Urusevsky's work in I Am Cuba. I have seen few urban environments filmed so masterfully, yet simply in black-and-white. The film also has a theme of nostalgia for childhood and innocence, much like The Spirit of the Beehive. This theme is reinforced through Algebra's flashbacks of childhood set to a subtle, melancholic score.
This is a very important film. It may upset some viewers for its harsh depictions of reality, but it could be inspiring nonetheless for those who seek a better version of the truth. Susumu Hani took a cue from Italian Neo-Realism and hired non-professional actors for most of the roles. This choice makes the film the more poignant. It peels away the layers of fabrication that a studio project would leave on and leaves us with a story that few can imitate or forget.
This film is very important for anyone looking to make sense of the film movement in Japan known as 'Nuberu Bagu' (romji for the French term, Nouvelle Vague). The slowly crumbling, Nikkatsu corporation produced this film in an attempt to appeal to a new, young audience which previously received no representation in Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu wasn't the first studio to appeal to a youth audience. Kon Ichikawa's Punishment Room was also released in 1956 to the reception of much controversy. This new literary and cinematic genre depicting lustful, rich and violent youth was known as the Taiyozoku (literally Sun Tribe). Sun Tribe referred to young people who had the money and the time to leisurely enjoy the sun, such outdoor activities as boating and water skiing. However, this culture of recreation was not a representative of reality, for even by 1959, 1 out of every 131 Japanese citizens owned automobiles. This more reflects the lifestyle of the author and harbinger of the Taiyozoku genre, Shintaro Ishihara (current mayor of Tokyo), who wrote the story/screenplay for this film, as well as the stories which inspired Kon Ichikawa's Punishment Room and the short story and film version of Season of the Sun.
The production of the film is quite extraordinary as well, shot in 17 days with a low budget, it is surprising how well-arranged all the shots are. Ko Nakahira (who was mentored by the rebellious director, Yuzo Kawashima, who was also a great influence on Shohei Imamura) masterfully displays lessons learned from French auteurs such as Jean Renoir. This is definitely obvious in the very impressionistic final sequence. Despite my adoration of this motion picture, this may be Ko Nakahira's only great work, besides maybe 2 or 3 other modern pictures for Nikkatsu. He suffered from alcohol abuse and was not able to free himself from the conveyor belt conventionalism present at Nikkatsu. Eventually, he had to expatriate to China, and use a pseudonym to make films for the Shaw Brothers. It is sad because this film had a such an outstanding ripple effect in Japan. The great financial success of Crazed Fruit spawned many other Taiyozoku films, and inspired the Japanese New Wave towards its epoch. To paraphrase Nagisa Oshima (who was greatly inspired by this debut effort), "the sound of the motorboats and the ripping of the woman's skirt heralded the sound of a new Japanese cinema."
I discovered this film when I bought the Mamouru Oshii Cinema Trilogy Collection boxset, available from Bandai. Like many anime enthusiasts, I was interested in Mamoru Oshii after viewing Ghost in the Shell and its sequel, Innocence. It turns out that these 3 films are not metaphysical, cyborg action dramas, but rather comedies and satires of the whole film world, as well as the anime industry. Talking Head's "storyline" is about an anime feature that must be released in 2 months, but there is no director. A "migrant technical director" is called in to replace the missing director. His skills include being able to perfectly mimic anyone's style while still being able to make innovations to that style. The story takes a turn when the crew members begin to die, one-by-one, Heart of Darkness style. Talking Head is the best of the 3 films in the trilogy, combining the film-within-a-film elements of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 with a deliberate abstraction of film reality by exposing sets and lighting set-ups (Oshii did the same thing in The Red Spectacles). Oshii is a talented creator; he distorts our assumptions of the imposed reality of film while giving us a lesson in film history. He also has his characters giving numerous speeches about the way films must be made, but Oshii himself breaks these self-imposed rules in his own storytelling. The link of the trilogy is Chiba Shigeru. He plays the lead in all 3 films of the trilogy, and speaks with a standard Japanese accent, but the seriousness in his voice adds to the satire that Oshii is trying to convey. Talking Head is a great film for anyone who wants to know what goes on inside a director's head.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Jean-Jacques Beineix is a curious director. Throughout these last two years, I've been delving deeper into art house features, but watching Beineix's films is a flashback to the commercial cinema that I grew up on. Not to imply that one market is better than the other, but the independent/art house world and the commercial industry have two different mindsets. With Beineix's first three features, it is obvious that he is trying to reach a wide audience, but there is a small, almost imperceptible tinge of personality placed into each of his films. Yes, he may just be an auteur. The most obvious aspect I've noticed in these first three features (Diva; The Moon in the Gutter; Betty Blue) is the persistent sense of longing. All three features have strong, believable romantic themes, and Beineix, like so many French artists, has a slight obsession with finding and defining love.
The Moon in the Gutter is based from the book of the same title by David Goodis. Like most Americans, I never even heard of Goodis until watching Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. Some may have also seen him parodied in Godard's Made in U.S.A.. In Beineix's adaption of Goodis' novel, Gerard (Gerard Depardieu) is a stevedore who falls into a romance with a wealthy woman, Loretta (Nastassja Kinski). In this French adaption, the setting is switched from Goodis' hometown of Philadelphia to the ports of Marseilles. Gerard's neighborhood is quite squalid, reminding one of the slums in Jean Renoir's Les Bas-fonds.
Aligned with these lowly settings and romantic sentiments is a plot; Gerard plays a man who can be perfectly described as the strong and silent type. His emotion has been stripped from him after the death of his sister, raped and forced to suicide. Every night, he visits the bloodstained crime scene and broods over his existence, wishing to have a chance to leave the ports. Almost anchoring him down to his muted life is his lover, Bella, brilliantly and passionately played by Victoria Abril. She accepts her social standing in the slums, but for him, committing to her would mean accepting a life that he does not care for.
Gerard's luck may begin to shift when he encounters another melancholic, yet well-dressed and seemingly out of place man at the town bar. He grieves over the past like Gerard, and is only consoled when his gorgeous sister, Loretta enters the room. Fans, like myself, of Nastassja Kinski's flawless performance in Paris, Texas, will not be letdown in this film. Not only is she undeniably gorgeous (quite a force to be reckoned with in curls, scarlet lipstick, and dark garments), but Beineix, like Wenders, doesn't dare interrupt her performance with a flurry of shot-reverse shot editing. Her introduction into the picture may have been a bit overdone, with a close-up that could have distinguished nasal hairs, and a fan turned up too high, but when she speaks, one is wholly absorbed. Like her peepshow reunion scene in Paris, Texas, I had thoroughly lost myself in the scene when she and Depardieu ride and reminisce through the docks.
Following the dock ride are dreams and/or alcoholic binges. Gerard continues his reluctant courtship with Loretta, as she is the more active side of the relationship, while fearing that she may reach the same fate as his sister. Bella continues to be a comfort, yet somewhat of a nuisance for him, creating a threatening problem for him, and through all that he may have just found the man who drove his sister to death.
A small amount of research will show that this film was thrashed by critics upon release. Roger Ebert even seemed to not have much interest in it. It understandably had a cult following after its release, and would probably be just as polarizing today if it had an official DVD release in the States. Beineix doesn't really resolve anything in this film, but he is one of the few directors who has enough stylistic merit to make a good film without a fully coherent plot. For some of the lunacy in his cinema, like the ice-biting and the banana warehouse fight in this film, Beineix comes off with a certain charm that I can't ignore. He fully believes in his colorized recreation of film-noir (this film owes a lot to the aesthetic choices of 40's American cinema), and I have a respect for his enthusiasm, even if it didn't come off with perfection. This fixation with the director's work may just be a passing interest, but I would like to follow-up this experience with a viewing of Roselyne and the Lions. It seems that Beineix has simply fallen out of favor these days; most of his films are only available in France, and he hasn't released a feature in 6 years.