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1945, Hungary 2017

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2018

This is a fine Hungarian film that, so far, does not appear to have enjoyed a proper British release. I was fortunate to catch it at the Sheffield Showroom. It was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was popular with audiences, and it has screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Now Filmhouse, the Edinburgh based exhibitor have made it available. So far there is not a Sight & Sound review.

The film is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 1100 as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. They have already arranged for a carter to collect the boxes and taken them into the village. Among the onlookers is a jeep containing three Soviet soldiers, signs of the Soviet occupation of Hungary following the defeat of the Nazi occupation. Whilst they are tangential to the plot the jeep constantly re-appears, reminding viewers of the state of Hungary at this moment in time.

The station master immediately identifies the two stranger as Jews. He races in panic to report this to the Town Clerk, Szentes István (Péter Rudolf). As the opening suggests this visit will bring up memories amongst the townspeople, and they turn out to be memories of apprehension, fear and guilt.

In the course of a couple of hours we watch as the two visitors follow the cart at a slow pace to the small town and to a disused Synagogue. Whilst this happens the town’s people are preparing to celebrate the wedding of Istvan’s son Szentes Árpád (Bence Tasnádi). But his bride-to-be finds that her former lover has returned after apparently serving in the Soviet forces; he is clearly characterised as leftist whilst István is a grasping entrepreneur. Árpád has a suppressed conflict with his father and relates strongly to his mother. But she, alienated in the marriage, appears to be addicted to ether sniffing.

István seems to have the strongest feeling of apprehension and guilt, shared by the town policeman and the local orthodox priest. As the film progresses viewers get a sense of what haunts these people from the past, though this is not fully explained until near the end of the film. Jewish inhabitants were taken away by the Nazi Gestapo in 1944. But prior to that István, the policeman and and the priest, were involved in a scam with the fascists to appropriate Jewishness property. The key property is a village store and pharmacy which is now run by István. The store sells perfume, an item which the station master believes may be in the visitor’s boxes; a use of props which is an example of the way the film uses signs to power the plot line.

What the inhabitants know and fear is only gradually revealed whilst the film never really gives us access to the feelings or motivations of the two Jewish men. Thus the viewer is caught up in the developing tensions in the town, whilst the characters wonder what the events signify. In the short space of time conflicts, suppressed emotions and, for some characters,, hysterical fears develop. There is illicit sex, a suicide and finally arson.

By the resolution both the inhabitants and the audiences find that their expectations have not been met, the outcome seems unexpected. But the internal conflicts of characters and town produces a dramatic resolution which is an apt punishment for the sins now exposed. With a fine formal logic the film ends as the two Jews and another character leave the station on another train, watched once more by the Soviet soldiers.

It is probably apparent that the film is influenced by classical Western. The obvious parallel would be Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) but there are also traces of High Noon (1952). This is empathised by the fine black and white cinematography by Elemér Ragályi. The flat Hungarian landscape, reminiscent at some points of the films of Miklós Jancsó, provides a suitable canvas for the varied journeys to the town. And the town itself, with its centre the village square where is sited the contentious shop, resembles a cauldron. The wedding preparations take place outside, on a hot summer day. But even with the interiors one senses the stifling atmosphere of a sultry day.

The director, Ferenc Török, is experienced but this is the first of his works I have seen. He displays an excellent control over the acting, the setting and such craft work as the editing. The script is by Ferenc Török, a writer of novels, stories and screenplays: this is an adaptation of one his own stories, ‘Homecoming’. The other contribution that struck me was the musical soundtrack by Tibor Szemző, a musician and composer with quite a few film titles to his credit. In the early stages of the film the music sounded rather slightly anachronistic but in the later stages the themes came together, suiting the revelations which the film had also withheld.

I think this film will take some effort to access at a cinema. But it will repay all such efforts.

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The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin, Japan 2017

Posted by keith1942 on April 7, 2018

This is the new film from Koreeda Hirokazu. Whilst it is not his best title it is the best new release that I have seen so far this year. The story is rather different from those of his well-known family dramas though it is thematically linked to them through the focus on fathers. As the title suggests the film explores a killing. Misumi (Yakusho Kôji) has been arrested and charged with the murder and robbery of his former employer, Yamanaka: seen only briefly in a depiction of the murder. Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a lawyer recruited onto the defence team. Misumi has previously been in prison for a double murder committed thirty years earlier. Shigemori’s task is not to clear Misumi but to reduce the charge of murder and burglary to murder and theft, the lesser charge likely to save him from the death penalty.

Whilst the plot seems to be a legal drama the focus is equally on the relationship between lawyer and suspect. Shigemori investigates not just the circumstances of the crime but the background of Misumi and of the family of the victim. All three men [accused, lawyer, victim) are fathers with a daughter. Misumi and Shigemori both hail from the northern province of Hokkaido, though both left there years before. And both suffer from guilt feelings over their family failures.

When Shigemori joins the legal team his colleague Settsu Daisuke (Yoshida Kotaro) tells him that Misumi is unreliable, confessing to the murder but changing his account of this several times. The lawyer suffers a similar experience when he interviews his client. And he finds that the victim’s family members , the wife Yamanaka Mitsue (Saito Yuki) and daughter Yamanaka Sakie (Hirose Suzu), also change their accounts of the background to the crime.

The location of the murder and the trial escaped me but a colleague [Trevor Norkett] identified the settings. The main story is set in coastal city of Kawasaki, south west and not that distant from Tokyo. A second setting is in a suburb of the Tokyo Metropolis, Chōfu. It seems the actual crime was committed on the banks of the Tama River, which runs close to Kawasaki and on to Tokyo. However, both Shigemori and Misumi originally come from Hokkaido, a northern island and prefecture, noted for its cold and wintry climate: Tokyo and Kawasaki are in central japan with milder climates. Shigemori’s father, Shigemori Akihisa (Hashizume Isao), is a retied judge who actually presided over the trial of Misumi for the earlier murders. In discussions with his son the judge regrets not imposing the death penalty at the time. Shigemori visits Hiroo and then Rumoi, the latter a small sub-prefecture where the earlier murders occurred. He fails though to find Misumi’s daughter who has moved away. We do see her in a flashback by Misumi, with them both lying in the snow. She, like Sakie, has a disabled leg. And a shot of Misumi and Sakie in the snow in another flashbacks emphasises the parallel between the two women.

As the film progresses the focus closes in slowly but surely on the two men, lawyer and accused. Whilst other characters are interesting it seems that their function is to illuminate the standpoint of the two fathers. Shigemori is separated and has a fourteen year old daughter. We only see her briefly but it is clear that Shigemori feels guilty about failing her. Thus there is a rapprochement between the two leads which follows from their roles as fathers. Here the film continues the thematic concentration in Koreeda’s work on families. In his films families demonstrate a line of dialogue given to Shigemori by his judge/father, that even family members do not really know their own: applicable to the memorable Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008).

The plot actually works more like a legal thriller than a family drama. In an online interview Koreeda made the following comments:

So, I was talking to a friend, who is a lawyer, one day and in Japan the truth is that the court is not a place where the truth is pursued. The lawyer was saying, “yeah it’s kind of a problem that we are not pursuing to find out the truth of what’s happened.” So, I asked him “what was it that he did?” and he said, “we’re there to make adjustments to the conflict of interest.” I mean, I don’t know if addressing the conflict of interest is more of a common way of thinking in the west, but many people in Japan, they believe that the court is the space in which the right thing is done and the truth is pursued. So, there was a gap between what the lawyer was telling me and how the Japanese public perceives it. With that as a backdrop, in which the courts, really, are just trying to say you’ve got a conflict of interest, how can we remedy that or adjust it or fix it or something like that. Going from that and saying, “okay, what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?”

The search for truth and meaning is a recurring theme in the films. The developing relationship between lawyer and client, one that sees the lawyer increasingly treating Misumi as an equal person, leads to a possible grasping of the truth of the crime. Only possibly because right to the end the film maintains the ambiguities of testimony and recollection.

Koreeda scripted, directed and edited the film. It has a different rhythm from his family dramas. There are still the long shots and long takes but the cutting is at time relatively fast. The cinematography, in colour and an i/scope frame, by Takimoto Mikiya is very effective. There is excellent use of the full letter-box. There are some splendid night-time sequences with the changing reflections from a fire. At several points there are dramatic overhead shots which point up our observation of the protagonists. And then at the climax and resolution of the film there is a long superimposition which looks great and which suggests what may underlie the characters’ actions. The music by Einaudi Ludovico fills out the drama and characterisations. Whilst generically the film seems to be a court room drama Einaudi’s frequent use of a piano, along with a guitar and electronic instruments, concentrates our attention for much of the time on the psychology of the characters.

The film was shot digitally and looked fine on the DCP I saw. In Britain the film is distributed by Arrow and it was a better transfer than their earlier Une Vie (2017) though that was from 35mm. Unfortunately the film seems to have very limited release: I saw it in Sheffield. There is only one venue screening in Leeds. Given the quality of the recent output by Koreeda Hirokazu this does seem to be a failure by exhibitors.

 

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Room for Let / Kashima ari, 1959

Posted by keith1942 on March 28, 2018

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in Toho-Scope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby [‘A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors’, 2008) notes,

“Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Yuzo Kawashima is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.”

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. ‘Room for Let’ is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and [I suspect] a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

“a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house .” [Japan Foundation Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are a number of examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima, Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe    Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. I have travelled to Sheffield on several occasions for the Japan Foundation touring programme, the audiences have always been small. This is a shame. Their programmes are interesting. And the 35mm prints I have seen so far have been good quality. Britain seems to be a less friendly place for both ‘reel’ film and for Asian cinema. I am currently having to hunt round to find a screening of the new Kore-eda Hirokazu film, The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin.

 

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Odd Obsession/Kagi, Japan 1959.

Posted by keith1942 on March 29, 2017

Kimura’s introduction to the film.

Every year the Japanese Film Center tours a programme of films, some contemporary and some classics from earlier periods. The programme usually includes a couple of film on 35mm rather than on digital. Unfortunately the programme only visits a limited number of cities or areas, and West Yorkshire in not one of these. So it means travelling to Manchester or Sheffield, the nearest venues screening the films. I caught this film at the Sheffield Showroom. This independent multi-screen is convenient, five minutes from the main railway station. It is well designed and equipped. The auditoriums I have seen are small but have reasonable size screen and proper masking. And the seats are very comfortable.

This film was directed by the great Japanese film-maker, Ichikawa Kon. As a director he has over 90 credits, from the late 1940s to 2006: he died in 2008. Alexander Jacoby, in his excellent ‘A Critical handbook of Japanese Film Directors’ (2008) comments;

“Ichikawa was somewhat underrated … because his apparent eclecticism of theme and style defied auteurist notions of consistency. He himself divided his films into  “light” and “dark” but the two categories  were united by his wry attitude towards experience : … [Masumura Yasuzō explains] he “does not present us with the humour, anger, sadness and joy of humanity in all its rawness, but instead observes it with am ironic and detached gaze.”

His films are often subtly comic, even perverse. This film was a good example.

The main character was a retired antique specialist, with a younger and very attractive wife. His ageing body was less virile whilst his young wife , a seemingly traditional character, balked at some of his suggestions for excitement. So he hit on the novel strategy of generating jealousy by encouraging an attraction between a young trainee doctor engaged to his daughter and his wife. Predictably things did not develop as he expected.

The films structure had a part noir double triangle: older man – desired woman – younger man; younger man – younger woman – …. This seemed deliberate since the sequences in the couple’s homes had a strong sense of claustrophobia; as the story developed, there were recurring shots of the corridor between rooms, in a dark chiaroscuro suitable for noir. There were also a number of external shots full of chiaroscuro, but these were more poetic, especially a recurring shot of densely set trees; giving a sense of escape from the restrictive interiors. It seems the Japanese title means ‘key’, a prop that passes between the characters.

The film was presented with modernist touches. Thus it opened with a direct address to camera and audience by the young doctor Kimura (Nakadai Tatsuya). He intermittently acted as narrator, though as the film unfolded it included actions and events he did not see or hear. We met the central protagonists; Kenmochi Kenji (Nakamura Ganjiro), already on special injections as he coped with an ageing body; Kenmochi Ikuko (Kyo Machiko), the younger wife; and Kenmochi Toshiko (Kato Junko), the daughter engaged to Kimura and also involved in sexual activity with him. These characters were introduced by a freeze frame which interrupted the presentation of the previous character; emphasising the interaction between them which was both the story and the theme of the film. The family also had live-in servant, Hana (Kitabayashi Tanie), who played a more important role in the closing sequences of the film.

Ichikawa worked on the film’s script with his regular collaborator [and partner] Wada Natto and Hasebe Kieji. The script was adapted from a novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro which created some shock because of the explicit nature of the tale. This was retained in the film, but there were also apparent changes; in particular in the ending of the film which was extremely sardonic.

The film was screened from a good quality 35mm print. It was in 2.35:1, and shot on Agfa colour film stock. The subtitles were reasonably easy to read. The cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo was very fine. he worked regularly with Ichikawa but also worked on films like Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa Akira) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953 Mizoguchi Kenji). The colour cinematography here was very well done: there were bright palettes for scenes of ironic observation contrasted with the darkly noir moments as the character interaction developed in unexpected ways. The visual is expertly combined with the aural, a good soundtrack by Nishii Ken’ichi. There was one fine sequence, with a sharp cut, moving from the copulation of Kimura and Toshiko to a nearby railway junction where we saw and heard two wagons coupling. A witty comment on the endless and varied ellipsis that cover sexual activity on film.

The film ran for 107 minutes and was witty and entertaining. As usual there were points where the mores of Japanese culture escaped one but overall it was clear and absorbing. The film won a special prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for ‘the courage of its approach’: a comment that reflected the period as well as the film. It also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960: though the US release was shorter by about ten minutes: the sex scenes?

 

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A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki Japan 1953

Posted by keith1942 on February 26, 2016

Tagasugi and Harako

Tagasugi and Harako

This was one of the films in the Japanese Film Season from the Japan Foundation screened at the Sheffield Showroom. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, West Yorkshire missed out. However it was worth the trek to Sheffield to see this very fine post-war melodrama. There was also a helpful introduction by Dr Kate E Taylor-Jones from the University of Sheffield.

The film was both written and directed by Kinoshita Keisuke. He was a popular filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1980s. As was often the case in the Japanese film industry he started out as an assistant, in his case to the very fine director Shimazu Yazujirō. He developed his skills writing scripts in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1943, The Blossoming Port / Hana saku minato. The earliest of his films that I have seen is Carmen Comes Home / Karumen kokyōni kaer, a comedy with a fine lead performance by one of my favourite actresses Takamine Hideko.

The central characters and plot of this film are a widow Inoue Haruko (Mochizuki Yuko) and her two grown-up children, her daughter Utako (Katsuragi Yuko) and her son Seiichi (Taura Masami). Haruko works as a barmaid in the seaside resort of Atami. But such work shades over into entertaining male customers and prostitution. Haruko has also dabbled in the black market of the times and [unsuccessfully] in the stock market. The family suffered notable deprivation in the years immediately after the end of the war, presented as typical of the times. Because of her work in bars the children were raised for much of the time by Haruko’s brother-in-law [the husband died during the war] and his wife. They have denigrated Haruko and her work and the children have developed a contempt for their mother.

In the present of the film Seiichi is a medical student in Tokyo. He is also trying to have himself adopted by an aged wealthy couple who lost their son in the war. This seems to have been a frequent event at this time, demonstrating the importance of the son and heir in the culture. Also typical of the films is Seiichi’s dependence on his sister, [a trope in many of the films of Mizoguchi). Utako is studying dressmaking in order to gain independence: she is also studying English, a useful skill in the period. Unbeknown to her mother she is having an affair with the English teacher, Akazawa Masayuki (Uehara Ken). It is these relationships that dominate film and their downward spiral that leads to the tragic conclusion.

Seiichi and Utako

Seiichi and Utako

Whilst the centre of the film is the present and the family triangle there is much more for the viewer to take in. I felt that I really want to see this film again in order to master all is complexities. There are frequent flashbacks, but not signalled in a conventional manner and in some cases apparently not motivated by a particular character. Thus we see the family deprivation in the immediate post-war period as Haruko’s scrimps, saves and even steals to feed her children. We see how Utako and Seiichi are embarrassed, including at school, by the social contempt directed by others at Haruko’s means of supporting her family.

At least two of the flashbacks are character motivated. One, repeated, shows us Haruko’s struggles to obtain food for her children. The other, also repeated and motivated by Utako, concerns a rape. In the traditional manner of Japanese mainstream drama this is not depicted at all but symbolised by the camera shots of stones and broken glass followed by an ellipsis.

But the flashbacks also include actual footage [some of it newsreel, other shots of newspapers] of Japan at this time. The film cuts from present and past to the ‘actual’ without conventional signals. Thus it operates in the manner of montage in the Soviet usage. I felt, but was not sure, that these montages also proffered thematic comment. Certainly we saw post-war deprivation and poverty. criminality and prostitution, including provision for the occupying G.I.s. Another segment addressed corruption in government and business. There were demonstrations and strikes. Much of this was accompanied by non-diegetic music, including at one point a variant on The Red Flag. And another sequence, repeated, appeared to show homeless people, pursued by police or security forces: this footage was silent.

There is an amount of commentative techniques in the film: on the lines often associated with Brecht but equally set out for the Soviet filmmakers by Vsevolod Meyerhold, There are a number of musical numbers in the film and the most important is Resort Town Elegy. This is sung for Haruko by Takasugi (Sada Keiji), an itinerant street musician. It is he that provides the final obituary for Haruko in the company of  the cook at the bar who enjoys a friendship,  but also running verbal battles, with Haruko.

Stylistically the film is dominated by static mid-shots and plan américains. The accompanying close-ups seemed to be to be slightly fewer than was common in popular narrative film. This was also true of dollies and tracks and of low and high angle shots, though all these were used as well, often for emphasis. Much of the film was in deep focus, but there was little deep staging. The exception was a long take late in the film with Haruko at Yugowara Railway Station, [on the way back from Tokyo). She stands still and we gradually discern the approaching train in the distance: followed by three mid-shots and then a close-up of a discarded sandal.

The film was produced by Shochiku, who had a tradition in the ‘shomin geki’ film [lower middle-class dramas]: though this is closer to the lumpen proletarian situation found in some of the films by Naruse Mikio. Essentially this film is a ‘mother picture’ or haha-mono, and this genre frequently depicts unsympathetic children.  It is certainly a melodrama whilst at the same time it offers the sort of social critique more commonly associated with social realism. Kinoshita worked with a number of regular film actors and crafts people on this film: and the production values are very good. Apart from the montage sequence the style is generally straightforward, more akin to Naruse than Ozu: though the latter’s Tokyo Story (1953) also features the Atami resort. There are also parallels with the films of Kinoshita’s mentor, Shimazu Yasujiro:. I was especially struck by a couple of low-angle shots up stairwells and staircases which reminded me of Children of the Beehive (1948 Hachi no su no kodomotachi ), director Shimizu Hiroshi.

The films are still touring the UK and worth looking out for. A Japanese Tragedy was screened in 35mm. It was a fair print though it was a dupe. The definition was pretty good but the contrast was not brilliant, especially in night scenes.

 

 

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