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July 18, 2010

Coffee Break


Reprise (Joachim Trier - 2006)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:43 AM

July 15, 2010

The Aimed School

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Nerawareta gakuen
Nobuhiko Obayashi - 1981
IVL Region 3 DVD

After seeing Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu theatrically last April, I was sufficiently intrigued about his other films. Obayashi has been making feature films had a fairly regular pace since his debut. A handful of his other films are available for the more adventurous viewer on imported DVDs. This 1981 film, with a title translated as "School in the Crosshairs", has some of the visual and thematic elements of Hausu, but on a more limited scale.

Short, round faced, high school girl, Yuka, discovers by accident that she has psychic powers. She's not entirely certain what to do with her abilities other than help her boyfriend, Koji, win in his kendo match. Koji is under pressure from his parents to pay more attention to his school work than kendo. Yuka's biggest problem otherwise seems to be academic competition from the sniveling Arikawa. Yuka encounters a mysterious stranger who declares himself to be from outer space, expressing desire to assist Yuka in expanding her psychic powers. There is also the new girl in school, Michiru, who inflames the desire of her male classmates, and appears to have a mysterious agenda. In the name of discipline, Michiru drafts several students into patrol units, the similarity to Nazi storm troopers all too obvious with their synchronized marching and salutes.

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The film was based on a novel by Taku Mayumura. I have to assume that the film was made primarily for the same young audience that would have read the novel, as the fantasy can be described as more child friendly. The special effects are no more sophisticated than they were in Hausu, with low tech animation, superimpositions, and some playing with color part of the visual scheme. The overall results lend a goofy charm to a film in which the fate of the world rests on a young woman clad in a white nightie.

The Aimed School has been described as being an early of the Japanese genre called seishun eiga, movies about high school students, a genre that has had both realistic and more fantastic explorations. Did the filmmaker's daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, have any influence on the choice of this film? Considering that as a grade school girl, she provided the basic story for Hausu, I have to wonder if there is more to Nobuhiko Obayashi's interest in making several films with young girls as the main characters. It may be worth mentioning that Chigumi Obayashi is credited as the editor on a film that her father made ten years later, about an adolescent girl befriending a ghost. What is evident is that Nobuhiko Obayashi has made thirty-nine films since Hausu, yet almost everything available in English is centered on his debut film. Even if that first feature is to Obayashi's career what Citizen Kane is to Orson Welles, that is, the high water mark in the filmmaker's career, any serious discussion should not begin and end with just one film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:43 AM

July 13, 2010

The Last Star of the East

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Peking Opera Blues

The Last Star of the East: Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia and her Films
Akiko Tetsuya - 2005

By nature, I am not the feminine, tender kind. My family tree originated in Shandong Province in China. I guess that must be in my blood. People from Shandong are reputed to be very tough people, trained by the severe weather there. So there is a toughness in me. - Brigitte Lin

One thing that virtually everyone interviewed in the book agrees on is that Brigitte Lin's best performance is that of the magical, androgynous Asia the Invincible in Swordsman II. It will probably be argued by some, myself included, that if there is to be a character named Asia the Invincible, who else is better suited for the part? Brigitte Lin could not be described as conventionally attractive, but in some ways may be more similar to some of the Hollywood actresses that emerged in the Thirties, such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, who command the attention of the viewer, sometimes simply be their very presence onscreen.

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Web of Deception

There are some nuggets of information in this self published book. The substance is less than what I would have hoped for. The book is an assemblage of interviews that occasionally falls into fangirl gush. Akiko Tetsuya might have benefitted from an editor who would have whittled away some of the more redundant passages regarding Lin's kindness to her friends, and her happiness as a self-identified housewife.

Someone, if not on the level of Patricia Bosworth with Montgomery Clift, perhaps on the level of Lee Server's look at Ava Gardner, could fashion a more interesting biography. The apocryphal origin of Lana Turner's screen career has nothing on Lin. With her last year of high school not yet finished, the young Taiwanese Lin Ching Hsia was recruited on the street to play the part of a girl her own age in a movie. After the filmmakers viewed tests with several girls, Lin was chosen to play the lead in her first movie. Not only had Lin not thought about a career as an actress prior to her first performance, but the film, from a fictionalized biography of a Taiwanese writer, was blocked from theaters in her own country. Nonetheless, Outside the Window was successful enough within the other Chinese language markets where it played. Following that film's release, Lin was a star, first in Taiwan based productions, eventually working primarily for Hong Kong based filmmakers in the productions that made her known internationally.

What can be gleamed from the interviews is that the first decade of filmmaking for Brigitte Lin was demanding, both physically and emotionally. Not only was Lin making between five to six movies per year, but her frequent costar was Chin Han, a married actor with whom she had a long-term relationship. Other than some mentions of how important Chin was to Lin, one reads that tempestuous off screen behavior never intruded when the two were filming. The most salacious act mentioned by Lin is of going to a nude beach with the much shyer Teresa Teng. What I found frustrating is that for a book that proclaims itself to be about the films covers only a handful of the one hundred movies made between Outside the Window and Ashes of Time.

That Lin starred in one hundred movies within a twenty-two year period is staggering. That a more thorough examination of those films might be in order would be of considerable help in scholarship regarding Chinese language films. While a fair amount of Brigitte Lin's Hong Kong work is available on subtitled DVDs, the major portion of her early work is more difficult to see. Some of the early films that are available are on VCD only, and many titles are not subtitled. Of related interest is the mention that had Lin not retired from acting, she might have returned to Taiwan to work with acclaimed filmmaker Edward Yang.

The interviews with Wong Kar-wai, Ronny Yu and Tsui Hark tells as much about the respective directors' working methods as the actress they worked with, personally and professionally. Lin replaced the younger Michelle Yeoh on The Bride with White Hair when Yeoh was unavailable due to scheduling. Yu's revealing that he had to fight to get the then thirty-nine year old actress to play the romantic lead hints at one reason why Lin may have chosen to step away from film in the following year. Lin's retirement follows a pattern established by many actresses, with Michelle Yeoh proving herself to be exception, still taking on martial arts roles well into her Forties.

For the book's shortcomings, Akiko Tetsuya did one thing right by creating more interest in watching other films starring the shy girl born Lin Ching Hsia. The original Chinese given name, chosen by her mother, was that of a wuxia character which seems to have set the initial path of the actress. As an internationally know movie star, she could be said to have created herself when, in English language school, she chose the name Brigitte.

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Eagle Shooting Heroes

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:29 AM

July 11, 2010

Coffee Break


Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton in Privilege (Peter Watkins - 1967)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:56 AM

July 08, 2010

I Hate Luv Storys

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Punit Malhotra - 2010
UTF Motion Pictures 35mm Film

Lately, new Bollywood movies have been appearing with greater frequency in Denver. For a while the films were showing up at a huge multiplex in the south metro area. For the past few weeks, the films have been booked at a smaller multiplex run by the Regency chain, given to primarily showing some of the lower profile art and independent movies. The screen isn't as big, and the seating is traditional, not stadium styled, but with more reasonable leg room. Prior to watching a film from India, I also made it a point to visit the nearby Indian restaurant, where I had more than my fill of the buffet lunch, Chicken Tandoori and Palak Paneer among my favorites.

Almost midway through I Hate Luv Storys, it stopped mattering to me whether the film was a satire, or humorous tribute, to Bollywood movies. I started wanting to see the kind of Bollywood film that totally embraced the cliches, or at least had one eye popping musical number. There are a few funny moments in I Hate Luv Storys, but what I really missed was the exhilaration of seeing a lead actress, dubbed by a high pitched singer whose voice causes me to think my ears might bleed, and a team of voluptuous dancing girls in saris, dancing in a palace, a field, or even a mountaintop. There's a comic musical to be made about the making of Bollywood movies, but I Hate Luv Storys is not that film.

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The basic plot about an Assistant Director who claims to not believe in love, and is cynical about the films he helps make for a very successful director, and his conflicts with the Production Designer, a young woman who believes she has met the man of her dreams. The two, Jay and Simran, "meet cute", sitting next to each other in a movie theater where he says disparaging things about the movie they are suppose to be watching. Jay discovers the next day that he is to work with Simran on director Veer's newest movie, which the filmmaker immodestly declares is "not a love story, but a saga". Of course the path of true love never runs smooth, Jay has his girlfriends, Simran has her fiance, but it should be a surprise to no one how the film ends.

What is of somewhat greater interest is reading the film as a text on how westernization has affected some of the tropes of the Bollywood musical. There is a sense of self-consciousness that seems to have gotten in the way, making I Hate Luv Storys less fun than it should be. There are some visual and verbal references to other films that I probably missed, but I'm not sure if it would have made much of a difference. The film takes place in a Mumbai where people go drink coffee at the Marriot Hotel, wear t-shirts from Abercrombie and Fitch, and dance to hip hop influenced music. I briefly saw a McDonald's in the background of a street scene, while the interior of a movie multiplex has posters for Avatar. In the attempt to be up to date, what is seen is the loss of those elements that made Bollywood movies charming and entertaining.

Judging from the number of previews, plans are in place to show more Bollywood movies at the Regency Theater. One of the previews was for a film titled Aisha starring Sonam Kapoor, who happens to be the female lead of I Hate Luv Storys. One of the film within film moments in I Hate Luv Storys takes place a bridge, probably reminding more than a few people of Kapoor's first starring film, Saawariya, Dostoevsky's "White Nights" transplanted with a Muslim twist. Like many people involved in Bollywood films, Sonam Kapoor comes from a family whose name is virtually synonymous with Bollywood. Hopefully, the next film I see starring Ms. Kapoor will be more lovable.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:38 AM

July 06, 2010

Memories of Matsuko

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Kiraware Matsuko no issho
Tetsuya Nakashima - 2006
Lambaian Filem Region 0 DVD

Many of the best musicals have essentially sad stories. Even the musical numbers aren't always joyful. Anyone who thinks that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a happy ode to the holidays hasn't been listening very carefully, or has forgotten the heart wrenching moments in Meet Me in Saint Louis. Memories of Matsuko made me think not so much of specific films by Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse, but their careers that embraced both the fakery of the musical genre and dramas focussed on the seamier side of life. Consider that Minnelli's work includes both the fantasy of The Pirate and the outcasts and losers of Some Came Running and the fractured family of Home from the Hill. Bob Fosse's All that Jazz encapsulates a filmography of self-destructive artists that also includes Cabaret and Star 80. Tetsuya Nakashima's film has both hyper pastel colors and animated singing birds, and the kind of melodrama and tragedy that could only have been hinted at in an MGM movie of a bygone era.

Nakashima is probably best known for his manic Kamikaze Girls, the frequently comic story of two very different teenage girls, whose dedication to particular fashion styles makes them both outcasts in their rural town. That Memories of Matsuko hasn't even garnered a U.S. DVD release has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but is more of a commentary on distributors incapable of embracing a film that defies easy marketing. It may sound like a cheap shot to describe the film as the manic and depressing story of a woman who was both manic and depressed. The flashbacks of Matsuko's life are told within the exploration of a young man investigating the mystery of an aunt he didn't know, and her death under suspicious circumstances.

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A description of the story would probably scare more viewers. Matsuko is seen as a young girl, seemingly ignored by her father who dotes on Matsuko's chronically ill younger sister. The closest to approval and affection Matsuko gets from her father is making a face that makes him laugh. That facial expression gets Matsuko in trouble later as an adult. Matsuko's adult life is the stuff of a dozen Joan Crawford movies, with one abusive lover after another, and an existence mostly on the fringes of society. Matsuko's life is described as meaningless, yet the people that the nephew meets explain how their own lives were affected by this woman whose life seemed like a series of one bad turn after another.

The alteration between past and present, and fantasy and reality, as well as the musical numbers, suggest that Nakashima is the filmmaker that should have been given the assignments handed to Rob Marshall. There's more song than dance, but the best musical moments belong to "Happy Wednesday" which is centered around the domestic bliss Matsuko experiences with one married lover, and another song, "Love is Bubble" is about Matsuko's experience as a "soap girl", working at a place where massages are disguised as personalized bathing. There are some comic moments, particularly when the nephew meets one of Matsuko's friends, a very successful porno star.

Even the final credits, in large yellow print, reading "The End" will recall older Hollywood movies. Nakashima, discussing Memories of Matsuko with Mark Schilling stated, "But look at The Sound of Music - that's a film with plenty of sadness in it. Or Cabaret - the heroine hardly has an easy time, does she? The really great musicals usually have something serious going on behind the songs - that's what gives them their power. And that's the sort of film I've tried to make."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:22 AM

July 04, 2010

Coffee Break

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Dick Powell and Georgia Caine in Christmas in July (Preston Sturges - 1940)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:45 AM

July 01, 2010

One Million Yen Girl

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Hyakuman-en to nigamushi Onna
Yuki Tanada - 2008
Catchplay Home Entertainment Region 3 DVD

One Million Yen Girl sometimes seems almost as slight as Yu Aoi's reed thin frame. The film contrasts sharply with the kinds of Japanese films that have been more visible lately, neither based on a graphic novel, nor centered around a fantasy action character. A more appropriate comparison might be to an independent film such as Wendy and Lucy, another film by a female filmmaker, about a young, itinerant woman.

Aoi carries most of the film by herself as Suzuko, freshly released from prison. In a flashback, it is explained that her imprisonment was the result of an impulsive act, reacting to the cruelty of a male roommate. Criminal charges were based on the alleged loss of one million yen, about ten thousand dollars. The onus of having a criminal record puts the timorous Suzuko at odds with her family and former acquaintances. Suzuko decides to leave Tokyo to some of the more remote spots where she finds jobs, keeping them until she saves one million yen, then moving on to another location. Alternating with Suzuko's journey, is her young brother, Takuya, who tries to deal with his own status as the victim of school bullies.

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Suzuko protects herself by keeping emotional distance from the people she encounters, even from those who seem to accept her without judgement. Showing up at a beach resort, she reveals a natural talent for making shaved ice treats, content to work long hours behind the counter. At a small mountain town, Suzuko get a job at a peach orchard. Young and pretty, in a community of mostly older people, the city fathers attempt to make Suzuko a public symbol of the town in attempt to sell more peaches. Again, attempts to maintain anonymity are defeated.

While the subject of having outsider status is not unusual for Japanese films, what differentiates One Million Yen Girl is that the character is neither an artist, nor someone enforcing or breaking, the law. Suzuko is a person who has learned not to be trustful of other people, but is not comfortable with herself. For a person who seeks an existence with limited personal interaction, Suzuko oddly takes jobs dealing with the public, at the beach snack bar, and later at a home gardening store. The greatest threat to public exposure ironically comes when she is in the small mountain town, with plans to feature Suzuko on television as the town's "Peach Girl". This sequence is marked by gentle humor.

While there is no discussion regarding One Million Yen Girl, the most extensive interview in English with Yuki Tanada was conducted by Jasper Sharp. A brief conversation with Chris MaGee is also of interest. The film is also notable for being one of the first films with Yu Aoi in the starring role, rather than one of several leads, or part of an ensemble. Not yet 25, Aoi could still easily pass for a teenager. The role of Suzuko shares some similarities with other parts taken by Aoi of a young woman who only appears to be fragile, masking self-assurance and unbending determination.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 12:35 AM