Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

Matajuro Unno and the kidnapped Okoma in Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

Humanity and Paper Balloons concerns the lives of a group of low standing individuals living in tenements in the poor districts of Edo in 18th century Japan, most notably the unemployed ronin Matajuro Unno, living with his wife Otaki, and Shinza, a barber involved in most anything except cutting hair. There are also other characters like old blind man Yabuichi and their stingy landlord among others. It begins with a suicide in the tenement block. A ronin who's had to pawn his sword has killed himself by hanging, "The samurai should have slit his belly" someone says, "it was a disgrace to hang himself". The other tenants use the wake for the ronin as an excuse to throw a party. There is no honor or respect in being a samurai with no allegiance.

Unno is himself in a similar situation, his wife making paper balloons to make ends meet while Unno is out looking for a job, putting his last hope in gaining employment with Mori, a high ranking samurai who was helped to his position by Unno's late father. Mori however, doesn't want anything to do with Unno and even refuses to accept a letter from Unno's father with Unno's persistence only resulting in a beating from a group of yakuza hired as protection at the local pawn shop where Mori is grooming the owner's daughter, Okoma, to become the wife of a samurai.

Then there's Shinza, who's arranging nights of gambling in his home and has become the target of the yakuza with thugs chasing him down as soon as he sets foot outside. When Shinza is denied pawning his barber tools at the pawn shop, it results in him impulsively kidnapping Okoma and hiding her at Unno's house, not to make money off a ransom, but to put the screws on the pawn shop owner and the yakuza.

With its story about the lower classes of the Edo-period, Humanity and Paper Balloons a warm and humorous, but in the end very pessimistic film about how the people further down on the social ladder are treated by the higher ups. The humor coming mostly from exchanges between the tenants and situations as when they trick the landlord into first buying them sake for the wake, and then more food when he arrives or the blind man not letting anything slip by unnoticed.

Starting with the suicide of the ronin, director Sadao Yamanaka spends the rest of the film showing what could possibly lead to a man taking such extreme measures. Through Mori's treatment of Unno, who is already in a desperate situation, leading him on hoping that he'll just give up instead of telling him to his face that he's unwanted, and Unno being too ashamed to admit his failures to his wife who can only pretend to not know what is going on, it all adds up to the inevitable. No matter how persistent and servile Unno is, he's not able to get ahead because of his current lowly standing.

Shinza is more of a rebel, running his gambling business not only to make money but also out of spite. Why shouldn't he be able to do something others can? Just because they say so? When he kidnaps Okoma he refuses to accept the ransom but demands an apology from the pawn shop owner. Not just to be noble but also because having someone grovel before him would put himself in a higher position, as shown by the respect he receives from the other tenants.

Humanity and Paper Balloons is the last, and one of only three remaining, of the 22 films Sadao Yamanaka directed during his short six year career. He was drafted on the day of the premiere of Humanity and sent to Manchuria where he died in 1938, leaving a will ending with the words "Please make good movies". In the portrayals of the tenants, Yamanaka shows great love for his characters but he also shows their flaws. Like Unno's persistence that just becomes too much, what would have happened if he had just followed Mori's instructions to come back the next day and left it at that. There is a scene where Unno is reaffirming that he will surely arrive the next day at eight in the morning that makes him seem so desperate that it almost becomes unsettling. And is Shinza's demand for an apology and his wish for respect really that different from those of which he demands it from? In the end the only one being well off is the landlord who doesn't mind rolling over for anyone as long as there is money in it for him, showing that in this world humanity and honor doesn't mean a thing if you're not wealthy. As Yamanaka was a leftist, there is no doubt on which position he takes, but he doesn't take anything away from the complexity of his film or its characters.

Something that really struck me with Humanity was the flow of the film and how natural it felt, both in the editing and the performances of the actors, the left-wing theatre group Zenshin-za. This is the first Japanese film I've seen from the 30s and I wasn't expecting it to feel so modern. Other films I've seen from this period have felt staged with theatrical performances, but not so here. Just like when I watched Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog (1949) for the first time and that it could have been made much later, Yamanaka's film seems almost like it could have been made today.

Shinza being threatened by yakuza.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Sniper (Dante Lam, 2009)

Huang Xiaoming as Lincoln in Dante Lam's The Sniper (2009).

Originally filmed in 2007 but released in 2009, Dante Lam's The Sniper was postponed because of co-star Edison Chen's sex scandal in which intimate pictures of him and various Hong Kong actresses were leaked to the public when he turned his laptop in for repairs. The delay also caused Dante Lam's next film, The Beast Stalker (2008), to be released before The Sniper even though it's something of a sequel thematically.

Since I'm a fan of sniping action I've been looking forward to The Sniper since I saw the first promotional shots of it and while I had my doubts about how good it would be, it didn't disappoint. The base of the story is about competition and the competition between men in particular , the question is if there can be two masters at something co-existing or if one will always try to exceed or bring down the other, and the dark sides that this competition can bring out of a man. It's all spelled out pretty clearly during the film, there is not much subtlety in The Sniper.

Edison Chen plays OJ, a regular beat cop who joins the Special Forces sniper unit of the Hong Kong Police where he comes under the command of Hartman (Richie Jen), the unit's top shooter. OJ soon discovers there was another sniper, named Lincoln (Huang Xiaoming), who used to hold the title of top shooter before Hartman. On a mission four years earlier, Lincoln took matters into his own hands and accidentally killed a hostage. Since no one would testify on his behalf that the hostage taker was about to pull the pin out of the hand grenade he was holding, Lincoln has been incarcerated up until now. When Lincoln is released around the same time as the criminal that he failed to kill, it all comes to a boil with Lincoln blaming his former unit for his time in prison, Hartman trying to maintain command over his unit and OJ looking to become the best sniper on the force.

Not everything is perfect in The Sniper but as I want to end this post on a positive note I'll start with the flaws. At only 87 minutes in length, including the end credits, the film still has some superfluous scenes like the ones with the main characters' wives and girlfriends. They don't do much for character development since you get a pretty clear picture of them anyway, just adding some unnecessary sentimentality to the film along with the in-your-face message. This is more of a minor nuisance though, since it doesn't manage to bring down the entertainment level of the film as a whole.

Richie Jen as Hartman.

The actors all do a good job of displaying the competitiveness and the dual feelings between duty and to personally excel that it brings with it, even though if it's not really anything we haven't seen before. Both Chen and Jen work as the cocky new recruit and the more experienced unit leader but it's Huang who stands out as the menacing Lincoln, stealing every scene he is in with his screen presence. No matter how good the actors are though, a film like this stands and falls with its action scenes and this is where it really delivers. Not confining itself to the premise of its title, The Sniper features regular gunfights, chases, car jackings and explosions as well as stealth snipers picking off their targets, all culminating in the final, surprisingly bloody, sniper showdown, which is one of the best action set pieces I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Sachiko Hidari as Tome in Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman (1963).

The film starts with an insect climbing a muddy hill, struggling to get to the top. Tome Matsuki is a woman born in the countryside of Japan in 1918 and she spends her youth on a farm together with her somewhat slow father, Chuji, who she may or may not have an incestuous relationship with. The "may not" comes from her mother being less than faithful to Chuji and not really knowing who Tome's biological father is.

The film jumps to when Tome is in her late teens/early 20s and having had a baby of her own and a failed relationship behind her she moves to the big city, leaving her father and baby, to work as a housemaid at the home of a woman named Midori who has a child with an American GI. After Tome inadvertantly causes the death of the child she ends up in a religious meeting where she meets the madam of an inn that is also a front for a prostitution business run by the madam. Up to the point when Tome is talked into prostituting herself, she has been adapting herself to situations but without any particular motives except survival, she now becomes an opportunist, taking the first chance she gets to rat out the madam to the police and take over the business herself.

Things are going well so far for Tome but just as she betrayed her boss, the women working for Tome starts taking customers on the side and ultimately she is betrayed in the same way. As if that's not enough, Tome's daughter, Nobuko now grown up, arrives to borrow money and manages to not only get the money but to steal away and get pregnant by Tome's lover and benefactor since many years, Karasawa. In the end, Nobuko returns to the country to have the baby together with her fiancé who knows nothing of Nobuko's affair in the city. Karasawa, desperate to get Nobuko and his money back, sends Tome to the farm to retrieve her. And so the film ends with Tome back in the country, climbing a muddy hill, struggling to get to the top, once again having adapted to new circumstances to get by.

As the translation of the original title, Entomological Chronicle of Japan, suggests, The Insect Woman is more of a study of human behaviour, juxtaposed with that of the crawling insect at the beginning of the film, than a melodrama. At no point in the film, from when she has grown up, do you really feel for Tome, at times her actions are even detestable. The detachment comes from the style of the filmmaking and the way the story is being told.

Spanning over several decades, from around 1918 until the 1960s and following the same subject with clips of historical events to show the societal changes around her which she and everyone else has to adapt to, the eco. This along with freeze frames at both crucial and totally random feeling moments in Tome's life where she, through voice over, and the viewer is able to reflect on she has become.I also felt that with Tome so strongly representing adaptability, being so focused on survival and success, changing with the times and always adapting to surroundings, it removes some of her identity and personality and adds to the detachment of me as a viewer, making me feel more like an observer than someone emotionally involved with what's happening on the screen.

The detachment is both a weakness and a strength for the film, sometimes it feels like a chore following a person that you don't really care about, but at the same time it doesn't make the film any less interesting, but it's not what I would call entertainment. I remember having something of the same feeling while watching Imamura's The Pornographers (1966), whose original title translates to An Introduction to Anthropology. The result of The Insect Woman, Tome returning home climbing the hill just like the insect at the beginning having been replaced by a younger version of herself seems clear enough, but isn't that what happens to all of us in the end? Is it as simple as that no matter how much society changes, man will toil away in the same manner to get ahead not learning from our mistakes, just following our most basic needs.

I don't know if I'd really call Tome a strong person either, strong willed maybe, but she constantly makes the wrong decisions and even when it seems like she might be headed for some success, life remains a struggle for her. She never manages to truly become independent as in the end, she's relying on men to help her with money, men who measure a woman's worth only in how much money she can bring in working for them and who doesn't even care if she is faithful as long as they get what they want. The answer to what it all might be about sickens, "natural order". But as Imamura shows, women struggling are survivors, adaptable to any situation, and outlive their men.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Warring Clans, Flashing Blades - A Samurai Film Companion (Patrick Galloway, 2009)

Hideo Gosha's Goyokin (1969), reviewed in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades.

Patrick Galloway dives right back into the samurai film pool, following up on his 2005 Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves - The Samurai Film Handbook with Warring Clans, Flashing Blades - A Samurai Film Companion and this time he's going a bit deeper into the more unknown films, unknown to casual fans like myself, at least.

This time the writer provides a bit more cultural context and explanations to the different ceremonies, the warrior code and other cultural proceedings that occur in samurai films. He also takes a slightly more analytical route, which is very much welcome, but just like in Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, the writing suffers from becoming too casual, the reviews mostly consisting of a (detailed) synopsis and pointing out of "whoa!" moments. At the same time as it is pointed out that samurai films aren't that easy to get into and takes some work to really understand, the writing at times feels like it's aimed at 14-year-olds just looking for the next cool flick.

Don't get me wrong, I still really like the book. The style keeps it from becoming too dry and makes it a quick and fairly entertaining read, and while deeper analysis would have been appreciated, for the number of films on review here, it would take a lot more than 200 pages. And no matter what I think of the writing, there is no denying of all the research and enthusiasm that has gone into the book and that is its strongest point as the love for these films comes through. For as a guide to, and an inspiration for looking up all these films, Warring Clans... fills its purpose more than well, and what could be a better function for a book like this?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tsumugi (Hidekazu Takahara, 2004)

Aoi Sora is Tsumugi (2004).

Another release from Pink Eiga, the new company specializing in Japanese sex films of the pink cinema kind. Their fifth release, Hidekazu Takahara's Tsumugi, is a coming of age drama about a high school girl who likes toying with the men around her, starring AV idol Aoi Sora. The following text contains spoilers.

The story involves several characters that all need to grow up and mature in different ways, accepting and taking responsibility for their actions and lives. Tsumugi is having an affair with her teacher, Katagiri, who is about to have a child with his wife, and who is also having another affair with one of his co-workers at the school. Tsumugi is also getting involved with a boy in her class who she sometimes taunts for being a lousy student, not playing sports and basically not having anything going for him, until he finally accepts it as fact.

All these characters, including a punk rock singer who's a friend of Katagiri who's a bit too old to be sporting a mohawk and hasn't seen his daughter in years, come to a point where they have to make a decision to either act as adults and make the right decisions or to run away from their responsibilities because of interactions with Tsumugi. At the same time as she too has to make her own decision she works as a catalyst for the other characters in the film.

As it turns out, only the students, and possibly the youth-like punk singer, manages to realize what is probably best for them, while the adults resort to childish actions and selfish behavior.
The boy student decides that he's had enough of not knowing where he wants to go in life and decides to start training for a triathlon in Hawaii, the first time he's really worked for anything, and to Tsumugi's surprise he's really giving it his best shot.

When Katagiri's co-worker finds out about and confronts Tsumugi about her relationship with her teacher, and is unable to end it, she outs them in the teachers' lounge, more out of jealousy than care for a student, and in the process makes a fool of herself judging from the lack of reactions from other teachers. In the meanwhile, Katagiri is still involved with Tsumugi even though he has become a father, and while they're out driving, Tsumugi seems to realize that she's probably better off with the student than the cheating Katagiri, but as the films comes to a close, and the characters have made their decisions, so does her role as a catalyst and she has a fatal accident which Katagiri runs from.

The acting is good all around, with the stand out being Aoi Sora who fits her role perfectly even if it might come down more to screen prescence and charisma than anything else, and the co-worker whose desperate outing in the teachers' lounge is really uncomfortable to watch. The whole film feels very natural and the director manages to tell the story efficiently during the film's 62 minute running time and the many sex scenes never imposes on the rest of the film, they feel like a natural part of the story and doesn't come off as tacked on.

I'd say that Tsumugi is one of Pink Eiga's better releases, up there with the more serious films they have put on disc so far, A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn (Daisuke Goto, 2003) and New Tokyo Decadence - The Slave (Osamu Sato, 2007). It is also the first to be released in two editions, one standard and one special, with the special edition sporting 5.1 surround sound and a bunch of featurettes, mostly revolving around Aoi Sora, and some music videos.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Yu Koyanagi and Kyoko Koizumi in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008).

Tokyo Sonata starts off with an apocalypse on a personal level for office worker Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) when the department he is head of is downsized and moved to China. His way of dealing with it is by not telling his wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and children so as to not lose his authority as patriarch of the family, pretending to go to work each day when he’s really going to an unemployment office and homeless shelters to get a free meal together with an old friend from school, Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), who’s also unemployed.

Kurosu has made hiding that he’s unemployed into an art, always carrying around a briefcase, wearing a suit, having set his phone to ring five times every hour and having fake conversations on it and going so far as to invite Sasaki for a family dinner and scolding him at the table over some imaginary work related business. Kurosu also has a theory that the only way to find a way out and start over is to embrace the situation and accept who you are, but that not many people dare to do so. Instead they keep standing in line with the poor and homeless, wearing their suits thinking, hoping, that it will set them apart from the rest.

In Sasaki’s family, things are already out of his control, but he’s too busy keeping up appearances to realize it. The two children in the family are both taking different paths from their father, the elder one, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi), is joining the American army forces and the younger, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), having trouble in school, actually bullying a teacher when he feels unfairly treated. The teacher’s solution is “If you ignore me, I’ll ignore you.” When Kenji wants to take piano lessons, Ryuhei takes the opportunity to show that he is still in charge by saying “No way!” while the real problem probably is the cost. Even when Kenji pockets his lunch money to pay for the piano lessons and it turns out that he’s a child prodigy does his father acknowledge him, instead he says “How could our child be a prodigy?” and what awaits Kenji is a beating in another desperate attempt from Ryuhei to prove that he is still the man in the house even though he doesn’t have a job. In fact everyone except Ryuhei is somewhat successfull, the wife, Megumi, has recently gotten her drivers license and as it turns out that might be her key to starting over, Kenji decides that he wants to play piano and is very good at it, even Takashi finds his calling by joining the military. It’s only Ryuhei who desperately clings to the past.

At the same time as Ryuhei isn’t a very sympathetic person, it’s easy to identify with him, the hopelessness of standing in line at the unemployment office, the shame of facing one’s family and friends after being laid off, the anger and resentment from having to jump through hoops at interviews for jobs that are far below your previous one and the loss and frustration of not being in the position you once were, in society as well as at home. And I think this is Tokyo Sonata’s strongest point. Compared to earlier films by Kiyoshi Kurosuwa it might lack in atmosphere and sense of pending doom, but in these times of financial crisis and skyrocketing unemployment it doesn’t get much scarier than this.

After Kurosu tells Sasaki about his theory, he acceptingly joins the ranks of the poor and unemployed, walking along with them to the next free meal, but when Sasaki goes to visit him at home, he finds out that Kurosu’s way out was to commit suicide by poisoning himself and his wife, taking her with him. These scenes are where it’s easiest to recognize Tokyo Sonata as a Kiyoshi Kurosuwa film, seeing Kurosu fall in with the ghost like crowd and floating away, the multi-tiered freeway seen after Kurosu’s suicide, making the city look like a ghost town despite all the cars. There is no life, just people fitting into their roles, whatever they may be.

When Megumi is asked by Takashi why she doesn’t divorce Ryuhei, she answers that it isn’t so bad playing the mom role, but still when she puts her hands in the air so that Ryuhei can help her up off of the couch, he’s already gone and she asks for someone to help her, anyone. She too needs a push to start over herself. And the help comes in the form of a burglar (Koji Yakusho) in a strange twist that doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the film. It takes a sudden turn into comedy and theatrical overacting from Yakusho as his failed locksmith turned burglar kidnaps Megumi and makes her drive his stolen getaway car. When they stop at a mall so Megumi can use the restroom she runs into Ryuhei who is working there as a janitor, but she still doesn’t say anything and returns to her kidnapper. They drive as far as the road will go and spends the night in a shed at a beach. When Megumi wakes up in the morning the burglar is gone, the only thing left being tiretracks headed straight into the ocean. Refusing a dead end, Megumi returns home but things seem to have change, everything is out in the open now about Ryuhei’s job situation and everything else.

During all of this, Ryuhei has found an envelope full of money in a restroom stall. He takes it and heads home on foot but is hit by a car and passes out in the gutter covered with trash. When he wakes up he turns the money in at a police station and heads home, deciding to start over himself, but only after hitting absolute rock bottom. For the other characters the fall wasn’t as hard since they were more aware of the roles they were playing and their ability to accept the situation they were in and adapt to it. Only Ryuhei who was foolishly clinging to his old ways had to reach the bottom before he could start over.

The ending does offer hope, not unlike many other films by Kurosawa, his apocalypses warrants change rather than total destruction. When Kenji auditions for a music school, Ryuhei and Megumi are there to watch and when Kenji has finished playing they all leave together, hopefully to a happier life.