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July 30, 2009

Love will Tear Us Apart

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Tin seung yan gaan
Nelson Yu Lik-wai - 1999
City Connection All Region DVD

There's a moment in Jia Zhange's Unknown Pleasures when one of the young men tries to make a living selling pirated DVDs. One of the titles offered is Love will Tear Us Apart. The film's in-joke is that Jia's film was filmed by Nelson Yu Lik-wai, the director of Love will Tear Us Apart. It's a small joke, to be sure, but to not understand that joke is to bring up not understanding a film or filmmaker from another culture. In one scene in Love will Tear Us Apart, a young woman from mainland China gazes upon a portrait of two Hong Kong actors from a past era, Bai Yan and Wu Chufan.

To put this another way, imagine seeing Contempt without following any of Godard's references to other films or filmmakers, or many of the other Hollywood films that depend at least partially on the viewer's knowledge of older films, many assumed to be classics. Add to this only a very general understanding about life in another country. For an assessment of Yu's film in English, let me direct you to a piece by Shelly Kraicer.

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There is sometimes talk about the existence of too much information. Sometimes, even with the resources of the internet, there is still not enough. That there is little of substance about either Love will Tear Us Apart or Lu Lik-wai is continued evidence that there is still work to be done on writing about Asian films in general, and even in regards to a film only ten years old. Definitely there is still more to be done to add to what is currently available in English.

With incredible appreciation to Sabrina Baracetti of the Udine Far East Film Festival, I was able to get a copy of one of the festival books, Far East: Ten Years of Cinema (1999 - 2008). The book, by multiple authors, covers not only the state of the art in different Asian countries, but also the state of the industry. To read this book is to understand better why smaller countries depend on genre films, which are usually the most easily exportable. The book also explains the problems filmmakers have within their own countries, making their films and getting them seen.

Having lived briefly in Thailand, I can testify first hand that Hollwood needs no help in getting people to watch their films. While Dan Glickman of the MPAA bullies his way to get quotas changed to favor American film productions, nothing is done to level the playing field. So few foreign films get shown in the U.S., and too frequently, the Asian films that do get any theatrical play, and the better DVD releases are the action and horror films, which in turn perpetuates a misunderstanding of the substance and quality of Asian films.

I apologize for hectoring any readers. Print books will continue to get the greatest respect, but electronic media gets the word out faster, theoretically to more people. My writing skills may be wanting, but I usually know a good, or even great film, when I see it. It also raises my hackles when people, especially those who get paid to write, display their ignorance, such as the writer who referred to the original The Eye as "J-Horror", not bothering to note that the Pang Brothers are from Hong Kong, or that their pan-Asian productions are usually filmed in Thailand. In the meantime, I am putting my own limited resources to the test because their are so many Asian films I haven't seen, some of which I will be inspired to write about. Don't confuse me with an expert, because there are others who know much more than me. And again, don't think that I'm the final word on anything I write, but rather the impetus for more cinematic explorations. Hopefully, some of those postings will be of substance.

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Love will Tear Us Apart is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:04 AM

July 28, 2009

No Borders, No Limits

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Mark Schilling - 2007
FAB Press

I have only seen three films directed by Toshio Masuda. Two of them were The Human Revolution, Parts I and II, and the third was part of the Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! that was not done by Kinji Fukusaku. I had no idea who Fukasaku was either when I saw Tora, Tora, Tora. I bring this up because Mark Schilling mentions Masuda as one of the several filmmakers not discussed in Donald Richie and Joseph Anderson's book, The Japanese Film. I am not going to fault Anderson or Richie, because before their book, there was really nothing of substance in English, and their book probably reflected much of the general critical consensus of film in general, as well as what seemed to them to matter the most in Japanese cinema by the mid-Sixties. In retrospect I should fault myself for my own laziness in assuming that if a filmmaker is not noted by Donald Richie, than that filmmaker is not worth critical evaluation. To paraphrase Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, don't take one critic's word regarding a film, see the work and decide for yourself.

Sarris and The American Cinema should be noted here because prior to Sarris' book, there were certain assumptions regarding who the worthwhile Hollywood directors were, and Samuel Fuller was definitely not one of them. Just as Sarris caused a reevaluation of directors previously ignored or dismissed that worked in English language films, more work needs to be done to properly acknowledge more filmmakers internationally. Schilling also mentions how Suzuki Seijun has received his share of critical kudos, years after his more productive period, but little attention has been made to the more interesting work of his peers. Mark Schilling's book offers another view of Japanese films, and it is of help that a few more films are made available on subtitled DVDs.

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Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Yasuharu Hasebe - 1970)

While it is far from perfect, this age of internet communications and DVDs has allowed for challenges to laziness in film scholarship, mine included. What I have learned for myself over the past four years of writing regularly about film online is that there is so much regarding film that is unknown to me, either because of critical or cultural assumptions on my part, or because I am dependent on what is available in English, or that a film, or even a tidbit of information regarding a filmmaker is simply not to be found, at least not with my available resources. Schilling's book is about films made by one studio during a span of a little more than a decade. What would be are more books, or at least more internet accessible articles on more films, as well as availability of the films in an easily viewable format.

Personal experience has made some difference. For most Westerners, Thai cinema is either the films that play in the art houses or film festivals, or is the martial arts show. Most of the Thai films that are available on DVD are genre films because those films are the most commercially viable in Thailand as well. What I got to view in Thailand were some films that would not make the film festival or art theater circuit, nor would they be considered for the audience that supports DVDs of Asian genre films. What I have learned is that especially in considering films from other countries, there is so much filtering by film scholars and critics, and the companies that make the films available, which is not discussed or challenged effectively. Any form of scholarship should usually be of some value, but it should also be considered the beginning of discussion or one's own exploration in film studies.

Schilling's book developed from the program he created for the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2005. The festival is noted for featuring both popular and artistic Asian films, both past and present, and often those films and filmmakers not established by mainstream critical consensus. And while this except from an essay by Udine festival organizers Sabrina Baracetti, Thomas Bertacche and Giorgio Placereani is in regards to Asian films, it could easily describe what is required in serious attention to film in other parts of the world: "The history of Far Eastern cinema contains a huge amount of films, auteurs, and production companies which are still totally unknown in the West. If there was so much about modern-day cinema that we didn't know about, to what degree were we (are we) ignorant of the cinema of the past? Exploring Asian cinema in a synchronic/diachronic, horizontal and vertical sense: this was the challenge we set for ourselves."

Since reading Schilling's book, I have even more interest in seeing A Colt is my Passport, although my concern is that the film may not live up to the promise shown in the production stills. I am Waiting is also discussed by Schilling, and is another of the films in the "Nikkatsu Noir" set. Toshio Masuda is represented with his hit film, Rusty Knife. The interview with Schilling suggests that Masuda was also interested in trying to go beyond the expectations of simply filming vehicles for Nikkatsu's stable of stars. Several of the films Schilling mentions are already available on subtitled DVDs. The book's title, No Borders, No Limits should be taken to heart regarding the boundaries often self placed when we discuss film.

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Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (Seijun Suzuki - 1963)

Posted by peter at 12:02 AM

July 26, 2009

Coffee Break

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Susan Strasberg in Scream of Fear (Seth Holt - 1961)

Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

July 23, 2009

Red Cliff II

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Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia
John Woo - 2009
Zoke Culture Region 0 DVD

How often do you watch a movie, and while the final credits are rolling, think to yourself, "I can't wait to see this movie again."?

What struck me most about Red Cliff II is John Woo's humanity. The second film depicts the battle with showers of arrows, towering conflagrations, thundering explosions and not a little blood. Yet Woo shows the human toll as well, not simply the scores of dead bodies covering the ground, which in itself is effective, but also how it may effect two people who have developed affection for each other.

The film begins with soldiers playing a game similar to soccer, kicking a ball across the field. Disguised as a male soldier, Vicki Zhao Wei is on the sidelines, butting her head against the ball, catching the attention of the leading player. The sports hero, Suchai, is suddenly made a battalion commander by Prime Minister Cao, yet he is more interested in relaxing with his newfound friend rather than being a soldier. The trope of having a woman disguised as a man is familiar, yet Woo is able to convey a purity in the childlike friendship between the simple minded young man and the woman, who is acting as a spy, and is of noble birth.

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At the same time as northern army Cao's soldiers are kicking the ball around, the southern leader, Zhou Yu is showing his prowess, tossing arrows from a distance, into a pot. Unlike the others who continually miss the small hole, Zhou Yu hit the target every time, explaining his success to concentration. While the actual battle of Red Cliff is what Woo's film is building up to, what makes his film more than an action spectacle is the use of motifs involving strategy and art. Part of the film involves a discussion on "The Art of War", with an emphasis on art, be it realized as poetry, calligraphy or a tea ceremony. Cao discovers that a large number of his soldiers have died from typhoid, and rather than bury or cremate them, has them floated to Zhou Yu's enemy camp. The tactic is to both physically and psychological undermine his foes. In another scene of cross-cutting, we see Cao reciting a poem about the transience of life, while Zhou Yu's soldiers cremate the dead soldiers on large pyres. For John Woo, the story is not simply one about a vastly larger army in battle with a smaller opposing force, but of the recognition of other's strengths and weaknesses, as well acknowledgment of one's own vulnerability.

Seeing the completed Red Cliff makes me concerned about the "international" version, condensed to about half of the original two films, that is to be playing U.S. theaters, what it will look like, although advance word has been favorable. The original films are said to be scheduled for U.S. DVD release by Magnolia Films, but this is yet to be seen. It is only at the conclusion that so much that might seem extraneous makes sense to the totality of Woo's vision. One wonderful scene is of Tony Leung Chiu Wai performing a solo dance with a sword, a very balletic moment. Another moment to savor is when Zhang Fengyi, as Cao Cao, talks about missing his young son. Woo's clearly on the the side of Zhou Yu and his allies, but the scene with Zhang allows some sympathy for the enemy. Another favorite scene is of Takeshi Kaneshiro playing a trick on Cao's soldiers, sitting in a small boat, drinking, while arrows whiz around him. One might argue that it is the relationships between characters, rather than the actual battle, that is at the heart of Red Cliff II.

Near the end of the battle are the hallmarks of a classic John Woo film. Leung and Zhang are caught in a "Mexican standoff", with swords instead of guns. There is a last second, breath taking rescue. To criticize John Woo for repeating certain elements from film to film would be like complaining about the use of "Shall We Gather at the River" in a John Ford film. I don't feel like I am exaggerating when I say that the Red Cliff films are John Woo's greatest films to date. Rather than thinking Woo retreated from Hollywood, one could consider that past decade as one allowing Woo training on making a large scale, large budget epic. The "thinking person's epic" did not disappear with Anthony Mann or Stanley Kubrick but is alive and well in China.

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Red Cliff II is available from HK Flix.

Posted by peter at 12:07 AM

July 21, 2009

Maniac Cop

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William Lustig - 1988
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

While I was living in Thailand, I was getting mail at a private mail box in Berkeley, California. Since resettling back in Denver, I have been getting stored mail forwarded to me on a sporadic basis. One of the recent packages received was a DVD of Maniac Cop that Synapse sent to me back in November that must have arrived at about the same time that I was starting to acquaint myself with Chiang Mai. The guys at Synapse obviously didn't seem to mind that I didn't bother to write about Maniac Cop as they have sent me screeners since my return to the U.S. Still, I feel that I should write a few notes on this cult film.

There was a twinge of nostalgia when part of the action took place on Bleeker Street in New York City. Even though the film was shot about eleven years after I had moved from the city, it was still recognizable from when I lived there. I wish the camera had captured the full marquee of the Bleeker Street Theater. That was the last theater I visited before I left New York - a double feature of L'Eclisse and Puzzle of a Downfall Child, seen in the company of Richard Koszarski and his wife. Of course, there is always some nostalgia simply seeing the twin towers as well. Still, from what I had read and heard, New York City of the Eighties was not the same as it was during the early to mid-Seventies, and the changes were not for the better.

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I can't believe there would be anyone reading the title, Maniac Cop, and not figuring out what the movie is about. That said, the best way to watch this film might actually be with the commentary by William Lustig, writer-producer Larry Cohen, co-star Bruce Campell, and composer Jay Chattaway. Among the fun bits along the way is pointing out that Maniac Cop was something of a family affair with Lustig's uncle, Jake LaMotta, briefly seen as a detective checking out the first victim, played by Cohen's daughter, Jill Gatsby. Sheree North also appears as a crippled police woman operating the only computer in the police station, and unavoidably a little voice wonders if Marilyn Monroe would have appeared in such a role, in a low budget thriller, had she lived. Deserving of more than supporting roles is Tom Atkins, playing the police detective who almost solves mystery.

What is intriguing is that Maniac Cop combines the genres of police thriller and horror movie into a lightly entertaining package. For a significantly more intense comparison, one might want to see the two French Crimson Rivers films. Maniac Cop was not made for serious analysis, nor should it be examined too closely. Instead, think of this film as one of the better last examples of grindhouse cinema made before the grindhouses all closed.

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Posted by peter at 12:06 AM

July 19, 2009

Coffee Break

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Ori Sivan and Ari Folman in Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman - 2008)

Posted by peter at 12:05 AM

July 16, 2009

Being Hal Ashby and two later films

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Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel
Nick Dawson - 2009
The University Press of Kentucky

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The Slugger's Wife
Hal Ashby - 2006
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Lookin' to Get Out
Hal Ashby - 1982/2009
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

For myself, it seemed like Hal Ashby could do no wrong during the Seventies. My first of Ashby's films, seen as a student film critic, was Harold and Maude. Living in New York City, oblivious to the pulse of the rest of the country, I was unaware of how Ashby's film fared critically or commercially. This was black humor both dark and very funny, and I named Harold and Maude as one of the best films of 1971. I later caught up with Ashby's directorial debut, The Landlord soon after. The one Ashby film that is my favorite is The Last Detail, the odyssey about two military police escorting a petty thief to the brig, only to realize that metaphorical shackles are as restrictive as real ones. Additionally, I knew some of the cast members who essentially played themselves as Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists. I had another "degree of separation" from Hal Ashby when I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Julie Christie at Telluride in 1974. Christie was filming Shampoo at the time, and described Ashby as gentle.

Christie was not alone in her assessment of Hal Ashby. His usually soft-spoken manner is attested to by several people in Nick Dawson's biography. What makes this biography a bit different from other show business biographies is that it more deeply discusses the business as well as the show. More than simply a chronology of events, Dawson explains the politics of show business, that is to say the union rules for editors and directors, the decision making processes at the studios, and the various other aspects that affect a movie from the first proposal to the final cut. Also discussed are several films Ashby did not make including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Tootsie.

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Dawson also goes into detail on Ashby's career during the Eighties, when he seemed to be unable to do anything right. I avoided The Slugger's Wife primarily because of a lack on interest in almost anything from the pen of Neil Simon. While most of Ashby's films did not originate with his involvement, signing up to do The Slugger's Wife was a mismatch of director and project more several reasons. Seeing on DVD, I was first struck by the impression that the film was made by some middle aged men whose idea of then current popular culture was based on watching half an hour of MTV. The story of a woman who sees her own professional aspirations stifled by her baseball player husband who demands she watch all of his games, alternates between the worlds of professional sports and pop music. Bickering couples is a Simon specialty, but this is no Barefoot in the Park or Odd Couple. The only reason to watch The Slugger's Wife is for the performance of Martin Ritt as the team manager. Ritt originally was scheduled to direct, but bowed out due to health. Ritt is the one cast member who doesn't seem to be acting, delivering his lines with warmth and humor that the rest of the film lacks.

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Lookin' to Get Out is another matter entirely. I can't recall that the film, in it's original theatrical version, taken out of Ashby's hands, ever played in Denver. The DVD is Ashby's cut of this troubled production. Filmed in 1980, the story of two down on their luck gamblers fleeing mobsters in Las Vegas falls almost appropriately between Altman's California Split and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky on one end, and May's Ishtar on the other. Even when the film isn't improvised it often feels that way with Haskell Wexler's camera sometimes posed back to allow the actors to move around each other. While I am not as enthused about the film as some, I can understand the affection that Lookin' to Get Out has garnered.

While most of the film is devoted to the volatile Jon Voight playing against sheepish Burt Young, the best performance belongs to Ann-Margret as Voight former girlfriend who trades the roller coaster life with Voight for a more solid life with the owner of a big Las Vegas hotel. The hotel is also coincidentally where Voight and Young choose to spend the night with a convoluted plan to win back in gambling the thousands of dollars Voight owes to the mob in, of course, a gambling debt. Angelina Jolie, age 5, appears more or less as herself, that is to say, like many other girls her age, a bit shy and awkward. My own feeling is that had Lookin' to Get Out been released as Ashby intended, it would not have been significantly more successful at the box office, although it might have had less of a critical drubbing. Still, the film as it exists is more interesting to watch than The Slugger's Wife which seems like a second-hand version of the Eighties.

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Beyond simply being about Hal Ashby and his films, Being Hal Ashby brings up more discussion about the function of film criticism. Most of Ashby's films began as projects originated by other, with Ashby refashioning the film where he could, once he signed on as director. Since the films released during the Eighties were re-edited by others without Ashby's participation, the films only partially represent what Ashby had envisioned. As such, because information on the making of films is often limited, or unavailable, what film critics are often unaware of is how much of a film actually represents the filmmaker, and how much may be the result of other people who had a hand in the process from screenplay to final cut. Being Hal Ashby might also serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring directors regarding the navigation of studio politics. Especially at a time when Hollywood is primarily interested in manufacturing movies designed to make the most money in the least amount of time, Being Hal Ashby helps explain why it is difficult to make a truly good movie, and why a great film is almost a miracle.

Posted by peter at 12:26 AM

July 14, 2009

Sleepy Eyes of Death - Collector's Set, Volume 1

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade/Nemuri Kyoshiro Sappocho
Tokuzo Tanaka - 1963

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure/Nemuri Kyoshiro Shobu
Kenji Misumi - 1964

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing/Nemuri Kyoshiro Engetsugiri
Kimiyoshi Yasuda - 1964

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction/Nemuri Kyoshiro Joyoken
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Until it made it's U.S. DVD debut, I was unfamiliar with the series of film starring Raizo Ichikawa as the ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro. The name Nemuri roughly translates as sleep. Released under the series title, The Sleepy Eyes of Death, the films were extremely popular in Japan until the untimely death of Ichikawa at age 37 from cancer. Even if cancer had not claimed Ichikawa, a look at his filmography suggests that he was working at a grueling pace, with not only twelve Nemuri Kyoshiro films made between 1963 and 1969, but other films as well, including seven films in the Shinobi no mono series made between 1962 and 1966. As popular as the series about the blind, swordfighting masseur, Zatoichi, the Nemuri Kyoshiro series were dependable moneymakers for Daiei Studios.

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Unlike the Zatoichi series, the Nemuri Kyoshiro series never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. There is no surprise in this primarily because the main character is nihilistic, the films end on a downbeat note, and the series is more culturally specific regarding the history of Japan during the 19th Century prior to the Meiji Restoration. The events take place in and around Edo, now Tokyo, when the Shogunate was corrupted by profligate spending, the Samurai were finding their power limited, and a new merchant class was emerging in financial and political influence. The general tone of the Nemuri Kyoshiro series is more serious than that of the more visceral and comic Zatoichi films.

Raizo Ichikawa's own sleepy eyes may remind a few of Robert Mitchum, albeit with a prettier face, but a similar, commanding low voice. Similar too is the attitude of someone who at least outwardly claims not to give a damn about anyone or anything. Kyoshiro not only is a masterless samurai, but he chooses to stay that way, often turning down work, but often fighting more or less reluctantly on behalf of those less powerful or marginalized by those in power. Women fight to be with him, be they princesses, courtesans, hostess or street walkers. With his brush of reddish hair, Ichikawa takes on the appearance of a fox. As a master swordsman, Kyoshiro is know for his technique of moving his sword in a wide circle, his victim slain before the circle is completed.

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The first four films, as noted, have four different directors. What is interesting is to watch the evolution of a series, especially as the fourth film is what cemented the popularity of the Nemuri Kyoshiro films after a shaky beginning. The first film is the least interesting except that it introduces the character of Kyoshiro and some of the historical elements that inform the series. The story is somewhat like The Maltese Falcon but with a small jade statue that several people are fighting over. Things ramp up with the next three films. Kenji Misumi is probably best known for his work on on the Zatoichi films. Aside from the marked improvement in the visual style from a guy known as "Little Mizoguchi", what I really like about the second film is the use of extended periods of silence to create tension. Kyoshiro becomes the protector of the Shogun's minister of finance, whose job is in part to keep the Shogun's extended family from bankrupting the country. The third film is by another frequent director from the Zatoichi film, Kimiyoshi Yasuda. There is a constant use of shadows which makes the film visually stunning. The story, about a member of the Shogun's extended family groomed to be heir to the throne by his ambitious mother, adds a greater psychological dimension to the series. Director of the fourth film, Kazuo Ikehiro, is said to have made a point of bringing in elements from the original novel by Renzaburo Shibata regarding Kyoshiro's origins. This time it is the Shogun's opium crazed daughter who causes much of the trouble, while Kyoshiro gets involved with persecuted Christians, and a mysterious nun. The violence and nudity are amped up which may explain why this film was more popular than the preceding three. Part Four also brings back the character of Chen Sun, a master of weaponless martial arts who challenges Kyoshiro's sword with his kung-fu.

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Chen Sun is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, the brother of Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu. The family resemblance is easy to spot. Wakayama is the only cast member to play the same character twice. When watching the films back-to-back, one will notice a number of cast members from the Daiei Studios stock company playing different parts in different films. Of interest to some in the fourth film is the appearance of Akemi Negishi, Josef Von Sternberg's muse for his last film, Anatahan. As with their other films, AnimEigo has subtitles that explain briefly some of the historical or cultural references spoken of by the characters, with more extensive notes as part of the supplements. When it comes to subtitles on Japanese films, AnimEigo slaps the snot out of Criterion. As for the further adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro, is suspect that the best is yet to come.

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Posted by peter at 12:09 AM

July 12, 2009

Coffee Break

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Erika Nishikado in Funky Forest: The First Contact (Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki - 2005)

Posted by peter at 12:09 AM

July 09, 2009

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor

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Yukinoji Hange/An Actor's Revenge
Kon Ichikawa - 1963
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

I've only seen a handful of films by Kon Ichikawa, and Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is one of my favorites. The letterboxed New Yorker Films tape now is replaced by an anamorphic DVD that also has improved subtitles that not only translate the dialogue but also, at certain points, will at some context to what is being said. Because of the improved translation, it is also easier to follow the story, but also Ichikawa's satirical points about celebrity.

Kazuo Hasegawa celebrated is 300th film appearance doing a remake of the film he starred in under Teinosuke Kinugasa's direction in 1935. As it turned out, Ichikawa's version was the second to last film Hasegawa made before devoting himself entirely to stage productions. In retrospect, this all seems appropriate as the main character is an actor, and the film, and often the comments made by the characters, concern dramatic and timely entrances and exits. I don't know if Kinugasa's version is available in any format to compare the two versions. What is certain is that between having Kinugasa play two roles, sometimes appearing appearing opposite himself, and what is implied by the relationships of some of the characters, Ichikawa has made a film that remains perversely humorous, or perhaps humorously perverse.

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Certainly helpful is one of the DVD notes that explains that by law, oyama, male kubuki actors, were to maintain the female facade off stage. Taking place in the 1830s, it is only the appearance of a gun and a mechanical clock that remind the viewer that the film takes place at a time when Japan held onto feudal traditions. One of the running jokes of the film is that almost everyone falls in love with Yukinojo, the kabuki actor played by the baby faced Hasegawa. Among those to be charmed are the willing, Lady Najimi, who literally falls lovesick, and the initially disinterested, the supposed "man-hater", the female gang leader, Ohatsu, who first declares Yukinoji to be creepy with his high pitched voice, make up and purple kimono. An older businessman offers patronage, while the thief Yamitaro expresses affection that may be more than brotherly. Even setting aside that some oyama were homosexual, the rivalry of women for Yukinoji makes Revenge of a Kubuki Actor a gender-bender where love charges along without need for apology, explanation or second thoughts.

What might be considered more perverse is that the revenge portion of the story is the least interesting part of the film. Yukinoji, a celebrated actor from Hokkaido, has been invited to appear in Edo. It is in Edo that he is able to face the three men who ruined his parents, causing their suicides when Yukinoji was still a child. The men in question seek out Yukinoji, not knowing who he really is, setting themselves up for their Yukinoji's revenge. The trio forwarded their own ambitions in business and government taking advantage of Yukinoji's parents. Complicating things further is the presence of Heima, a formal rival of Yukinoji's when both studied sword-fighting.

And here's where Revenge of Kabuki Actor is fun. Yukinoji may rightly be described as sissy, but it doesn't stop him from handling himself against a band of swordsmen. The exterior scenes mostly take place in a dreamlike or theatrical environment with characters moving in and out of darkness. Sparks illuminate the scene as sword strikes sword. Observing Yukinoji fighting Heima and his samurai friends, Ohatsu comments that the "real" swordplay is more entertaining than what appears in the theater. The use of settings, lighting and color shift in such a way as to eliminate the distinction between artificial and realistic appearing environments.

While Hasegawa was saying goodbye to a career that began in the silent era, many of the other stars were at their respective peaks or on the ascent. Curiously, Fujiko Yamamoto, who played Ohatsu, also retired from the screen after making one more film as if there was a tie in life as there is with her character who disappears with Yamitaro, who decides to retire from thievery. Ayako Wakao had also established her career in the Fifties, but continued her career through the beginning of the Seventies, with infrequent appearances since then. Briefly seen in Shintaro Katsu who had begun his first of many films as Zatoichi, the sword wielding blind masseuse, just the year before. Raizo Ichikawa, in a supporting role as a thief seeking reknown, also began his series as the samurai Nemuri Kyoshiro.

Could some of the dialogue and situations have been veiled commentary on the inner workings at Daiei Studios? The self-reflective parts of Revenge of Kabuki Actor add to the fun, while some the parallels between what happens to Hasegawa, Yamamoto and Raizo Ichikawa's professional lives and their respective characters is uncanny. A filmmaker with lesser imagination would have immediately pounced on the potentially campier aspects of Revenge of a Kabuki Actors. Hasegawa may have been too old to recreate his famous role, yet this works within the context of a story in which the characters peg their lives on appearances being mistaken for reality. That the film remains highly enjoyable may also be related to something Ichikawa has said in an interview with Mark Schilling: "What hasn't changed is the way we look at human beings. Mores and manners change, the cut of a suit changes, but the way we look at human beings doesn't change so much."

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Posted by peter at 12:12 AM

July 06, 2009

The Sprit of Ed Wood Blogathon: The Calamari Wrestler

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Ika Resuraa
Minoru Kawasaki - 2004
Pathfinder Home Entertainment Region 1 DVD

What I liked best about Ed Wood, Jr., or more precisely, Tim Burton's version of the oft maligned filmmaker, is his unwavering conviction in his talent. Similarly, many of the actors in Wood's film plunge ahead with dialogue and situations with a sense of seriousness befitting the cast of a Shakespearean tragedy. It doesn't matter that the interior of a rocket ship looks like it was filmed in someone's living room, or that the flying saucers look like suspended pie tins. Ed Wood's films are nothing if not entertaining in their ineptness and absurdity. Even if Wood was totally deluded about his abilities as a writer or director, it's the sincerity of Wood and his players that helps make his films continually watchable.

I had written about three Minoru Kawasaki films last November. Like Ed Wood, Jr., Kawasaki makes films with very limited budgets, with stories that defy conventional description. The very cheapness of his projects is never disguised. Unlike Wood, Kawasaki is a more technically able filmmaker, but the obvious financial restrictions he has to work with are part of a self aware aesthetic. Both Wood and Kawasaki exist as outsiders, working without the benefit of studio support. The main difference is that while one may laugh at Ed Wood, Jr., one laughs with Minoru Kawasaki.

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The Calamari Wrestler is about a talking squid who seeks to become Japan's wrestling champion. He might also be the reincarnation of a deceased, highly revered wrestler. The squid costume looks marginally better than something found in a Roger Corman creature feature from the Fifties from the top, but no attempt has been made to hide that there is a boot wearing man underneath. Convinced that the squid is, in fact, the reincarnation of her late lover, a young woman, daughter of the wrestling commissioner, pursues the cephalopod. Interspecies love takes a back seat to sporting spectacles between men and invertebrates. Kawasaki's world is one that a more conventional thinking film viewer would pass on, but I find myself easily swept up by Kawasaki's childlike, rather than childish, universe of talking animals that coexist with humans.

One might argue that Kawasaki is as personal a filmmaker as Ed Wood. Both are writers and directors whose films reflect some of their personal obsessions. Kawasaki's films reflect a childhood growing up with parents who ran a seafood restaurant, as well as his love of wrestling, baseball, and Japanese genre films, especially Toho monster movies. It might also be said that a filmmaker, as well as an audience, with less imagination, would demand more realistic computer generated special effects, rather than watching a guy in a rubber suit. Kawasaki's films are about outsiders whose sense of integrity is challenged establishment characters with greater financial or political power. A Kawasaski hero is incapable of compromise or being untruthful. Even if some of the more distinctly Japanese aspects of Kawasaki's films are not fully understood by western viewers, one has to love a film where the most unlikely protagonists achieve victory in spite of overwhelming odds. Love wins out with marriage and parenthood in The Calamari Wrestler with an ending that could open the way for a sequel, perhaps titled The Squid and the Wail.

For more of "The Spirit of Ed Wood", visit Cinema Styles. Angora sweaters are optional.

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Posted by peter at 12:05 AM | Comments (5)

July 05, 2009

Coffee Break

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Linda Darnell in Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger - 1945)

Posted by peter at 12:48 AM

July 03, 2009

New York Asian Film Festival - the Home Version

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20th Century Boys

Let's face it, there are even people who live in New York City who couldn't make it to the New York Asian Film Festival. For the rest of us, it should be noted that a good number of the films are available on DVD. It may not be as cool as seeing it on the big screen in a (hopefully) air-conditioned theater. On the bright side, many of these DVDs cost no more than a movie ticket. When you factor in service charges, transportation to and from the theaters, and snacks or meals, and for some, the services of a babysitter, buying a DVD seems even more reasonable. What is listed here are primarily DVDs playable internationally, regardless of home region coding. Some exceptions are noted. Also, while I have listed only one version, there may be a choice of other DVD versions as well as Blu-ray versions. The versions listed have English subtitles. It should be noted that Monster X Strikes Back is now available for rent from Netflix and GreenCine.

20th Century Boys.

Be a Man! Samurai School.

Cape No. 7.

Dream (Region 3)

Empress and the Warriors

Exodus (Region 3)

Eye in the Sky

Five Deady Venoms

High Noon

Hard Revenge Milly

If You are the One (Region 1 pre-order)

Ip Man

K-20: Legend of the Mask (Region 3 Pre-order)

Longest Nite

Magic Hour

Monster X Strikes Back: Attact the G-8 Summit!

Rough Cut

Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms (Pre-order)

Tokyo Gore Police

The Warlords

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The Warlords

Posted by peter at 12:21 AM | Comments (1)

July 01, 2009

Nuits Rouges

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Georges Franju - 1974
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD

As long as Hollywood is married to the idea that any film made needs to be based on a comic book, television series, or previously made film, I am astounded that no one has thought of remaking Nuits Rouge. Yes, the film was hardly a success, released at the worst possible time in France when the entire country was virtually on strike, while New Line dropped the ball with the U.S. release, titled Shadowman. But what a sales pitch could be made! The plot could be described as The Dark Knight and The DaVinci Code, plus killer zombies. Best of all for those concerned about upsetting the Vatican is that the Templars are the good guys.

Much of the credit should go to Jacques Champreux who wrote and stars in the film. Inspired by Republic Studios serials, Lon Chaney, as well as the serials of his grandfather Louis Feuillade, Champreux plays the villainous master of disguise who is usually seen with his head covered completely by a red mask with only is eyes visible. This villain is known as the man without a face, yet anyone familiar with Franju's most famous film probably can't help but be reminded of the masked Edith Scob, Franju's Eyes without a Face. The faceless man is after a lost treasure, said to be found in a sunken vessel in the Caribbean. The faceless man has an army of men whose faces are equally covered, but in black, a beautiful female assistant, and a deranged doctor in his employ. Seen thirty-five years later, the technology of hidden video cameras and tiny microphones is enjoyably retro while the intent at the time was futuristic. There are also the secret passageways and safes found behind oversized paintings. And of course, attractive women in skintight catsuits or black tights never are out of style.

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Georges Franju had always dreamed of making his own version of Fantomas. As it turned out, it was the woman in the catsuit, Gayle Hunnicutt, who starred in a version made for West German television six years later. Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote extensively about Feuillade prior to Les Vampires being made available on DVD, touching on Franju's homages. One can intellectualize all one wants to about Franju and Feuillade, but Feuillade's most lasting contribution has been in the creation of a cinematic icon. Musidora has Irma Vep paved the way for the various incarnations of Batman's Catwoman, Mrs. Peel, and Maggie Cheung as a late 20th Century Irma Vep. That also includes Cat-women of the Moon, but this is about an image that moves from film to film. Had I the ability to make screen grabs from a Region 2 DVD, I certainly would. The best I can do is offer a link to Tim Lucas's series of screengrabs. I can tell you that Rouges Nuit is almost worth the price of admission just to watch Hunnicutt in black, with that bountiful red hair.

The DVD interview with Champreux is worth watching to learn the history of how Nuits Rouges was made, and almost undone by a Yugoslavian crew. Aside from Judex, which I had the opportunity to see theatrically a couple of times in New York City, and Eyes without a Face, the only other Franju film I've been able to see was Thomas the Imposter, also many years ago. A film like Nuits Rouges, which probably seemed out of synch with the times in 1974 probably works better thirty-five years later when it's old fashion aspects would be less of a problem, much in the way that John Ford's anachronistic Seven Women looks less dated than, for example, Murderer's Row. The homage to cinema's silent era could be in part why the Nuits Rouges cast also includes Josephine Chaplin. Seeing Nuits Rouges back-to-back with Judex easily demonstrates that the two films are more similar than Franju have been willing to admit. Whatever may be lacking in budget, especially for special effects, Nuits Rouges makes up for abundantly with its low tech charm.

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Posted by peter at 12:41 AM | Comments (1)