The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Archive for November, 2012

The Master (US 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 November 2012

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

The Master has all the trappings of an ‘event’ film and that is indeed what it has become. Paul Thomas Anderson made the decision to shoot his film on 65mm film, but to release it in a standard 1:1.85 ‘modern widescreen’ ratio rather than CinemaScope (1:2.35) or one of the other widescreen aspect ratios associated with the 1950s ‘roadshow picture’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (December 2012) he recognises that he has created a problem with his ‘chamber’ piece which seems to promise to be something else. He thinks that you should ideally see this work on a 70mm film print. In the UK only one cinema (in London) is showing the film in this way with every other screening offered on digital projection. Not surprisingly, the rush of cinephiles to the Odeon West End placed the film into the Top 20 on its exclusive 70mm run for the first two weeks (the Roadshow idea) and the hype built for the subsequent release to 153 digital screens. However, those 153 digital screens struggled to produce a fraction of the screen average for the 70mm print. Instead The Master now looks like a solid American Independent hit rather than a crossover hit.

I describe this distribution history and its media coverage to highlight the problems facing anyone who wants to write about the film now on release. There are already hundreds of words out there – can I justify adding any more to the pile? There are a few things that haven’t been said and some that need a greater airing so I’ll press on. I should say first that I watched the film with interest, even when I didn’t particularly feel taken by the narrative or the theme. It’s a long film (143 mins) and it requires patience. But surprisingly the time flew by. The cinematography and set design/costumes look stunning and the music soundtrack features some lovely songs some of which are on YouTube – though I didn’t notice Jonny Greenwood’s compositions as much as I did on There Will Be Blood. The central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are probably what most audiences notice first. I found them both quite disturbing (especially that of Phoenix) but they do make sense in terms of the characters. Less prominent perhaps, but very effective, is Amy Adams. There is no doubt about Anderson’s talents as a director in terms of both developing a grand vision and orchestrating all his resources. The problems I have with the film are associated more with the narrative ideas and the overall theme. This may be more to do with my increasingly dyspeptic view of American culture and American cinema generally.

If you’ve managed to miss the plot descriptions of the film, I should point out that Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US sailor who after the Second World War is unable to settle in to civilian work and who becomes a drifter – and an alcoholic – who one day stumbles onto the yacht/steamship being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a would be guru who is developing a practical philosophy about living in America entitled ‘The Cause’. He is attracted to the sailor, despite  the alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, and a strange relationship begins. Dodd’s existing family have some misgivings about accepting the new convert.

Freddie leads the crew in flaking out . . .

. . . this was in mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

. . . this was in my mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

The film is ‘about’ the struggle to marry together dreams of ‘freedom’ and the possibilities of affluence in an increasingly conservative American society in the Truman era. The specific time period I find absolutely fascinating but the narrative about ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ that is blown up to epic proportions is less attractive. It’s possible to make statements through metaphor and the stories of ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ people, but the ‘Great American Novel’ and Hollywood appear to prefer ‘big’ heroes with big aims – whether they are ‘leaders’ or ‘anti-heroes’. Freddie Quell in Joachin Phoenix’s performance offers a construction with familiar characteristics drawn from a range of famous literary characters who have in turn been personified in high-profile performances. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (an original cinema creation). I’m not claiming any direct resemblance here, rather that these are all characters either remembered from wartime or struggling in the aftermath to maintain some form of independence/freedom in the face of conformity. The difference here is that one familiar character is placed in a relationship with a second, the father figure and visionary character. The problem is that I don’t see this as a new story so much as an endless stream of references. Watching it felt like being in a kind of intertextual dream. I couldn’t work out why we were shown a scene in the desert and I started thinking about Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (US 1980). Later I read that one of the plot details in the film was based on an anecdote told to Anderson by Robards. At another point when Dodd is ‘processing’ Quell via a set of questions, I thought of Warren Beatty being subjected to propaganda films in The Parallax View (US 1974).

Part of my problem is that I’ve never found Scientology or other cults particularly interesting (the Dodd character and other aspects of the plot are supposed to be informed by Ron L. Hubbard’s story). The ‘real’ story for me would be the era of the HUAC hearings and the development of conservative politics in America. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a significant number of Hollywood creatives came to the UK to escape the witch hunts in the US. The Master plotline also heads for the UK towards the end of the film and these scenes were quite surreal – and again I started to make connections, this time to the Powell & Pressburger films of 1944-46 and their American GI characters.

Whatever problems I had with the theme of the film I have to admit that the film itself has set me thinking and I feel I should watch it again. Anderson apparently took a great deal from two documentaries – one by John Huston on the ‘processing’ of veterans returning from war in 1946 titled Let There Be Light and the other by Lionel Rogosin in 1955 called On the Bowery dealing with drunks on Skid Row (see the interview with Anderson by James Bell in Sight and Sound December 2012). I suspect I might end up watching the DVD.

Posted in American Independents | 1 Comment »

Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, Japan 2009)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 November 2012

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by  ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?

Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.

The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)

In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.

Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.

I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.

I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.

Useful web reviews:

Festival Without Borders

Asia Pacific Arts interview with Kore-eda

Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:

The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.

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Posted in Japanese Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Digital Film and Digital Cinema

Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 November 2012

A DCI compliant Christie Digital Projector in a Yelmo Cines theatre in Spain – image from http://www.christiedigital.co.uk

Global film production, post-production, distribution and exhibition has now reached a point of no return in relation to ‘digitisation’. Writing about the experience of watching films in cinemas has become problematic because the industry is in a state of flux and it is easy for any of us to get confused about what is happening. This posting is an attempt to lay out the current state of digital film and digital cinema as I understand them. Please add any other anecdotes, explanations, suggestions for additions etc. as a comment.

What we finally see on a screen as a moving image sequence depends on at least four separate processes. The first is image capture. It is often difficult to determine the exact format that was used in shooting a film. Today it is possible to shoot on virtually any known format from 16mm film through to an iPhone or a toy camera. It doesn’t really matter because anything can be digitised. Of course, the more image data that is captured (the higher the ‘resolution’), the more options are open in post-production. However, it is still possible to lose the advantage of high quality images if they are not processed correctly.

Editing is now routinely digital since all the source material has been digitised. This was the first part of the process to be converted. During the post-production process it is possible to manipulate images so that they resemble different sorts of film material. The end product of post-production is a ‘digital intermediate‘. This could still be printed back to 35mm film for distribution and projection but it is now most likely to be processed to produce a digital master and a DCP – a digital cinema package for digital cinema exhibition. The same master will also produce a range of digital formats for digital download, digital TV and DVD/Blu-ray, each of which will have different specifications. Films are now edited/post-produced in the knowledge that they must look good on several different formats  The distributor creates the DCP and the exhibitor must ‘unlock’ it and decompress and download it for projection using a Theatre Management System (TMS) which places the film in a projector menu alongside ads, trailers and other material and probably commands to mask the screen, open curtains, lower lights etc.

D-cinema

So this is the basic process. Unfortunately it isn’t quite so simple in practice. The Hollywood majors want to remain in control of distribution in the major territories and so the seven studios (reduced to six when MGM became part of Sony) set up the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) in order to create an international standard for digital cinema. You can access the specification and background details here. Any distributor or exhibitor that wants to handle Hollywood product going into cinemas must comply to the DCI standards (set by SMPTE, (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and confirmed by ISO). DCI compliant technologies are part of ‘D-cinema‘. These standards are concerned with the creation of DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Master) and DCPs and their projection. From the outset, the DCI standard was designed to include both 2K and 4K specifications. This means that either a 2K or a 4K DCP can be sent by a distributor to a cinema. The cinema may have either 2K or 4K projectors and it is possible to ‘extract’ a 2K file to project from a 4K package. Similarly, a 2K package can be ‘up-sampled’ by a 4K projector. Major cinema chains globally are now beginning to invest in 4K projectors – but most films are still being distributed in 2K DCPs.

E-cinema

Norway was the first territory to become completely digital for cinema distribution and other European territories are approaching 100%, although in larger territories with many small single screen independent cinemas the process may take longer. However, D-cinema is not the only digital cinema technology. Lower resolution digital formats have become known as ‘E-cinema‘ and in India E-cinema is in operation via satellite distribution, supplying smaller rural cinemas while in metropolitan multiplexes DCI-compliant prints are projected. The Indian satellite distribution system may produce a lower resolution image but the economics of the system make more sense and it’s possible that this form of E-cinema might be more suitable elsewhere in other parts of Asia and Africa. Since anything ‘sub 2K’ is classed as E-cinema there are already a range of E-cinema sites in Europe and North America, small community cinemas or screening rooms projecting from DVD or Blu-ray. (Sorry Keith, but for some exhibitors, Blu-ray is de facto a theatrical format.) Similarly, most film festivals now accept films on a variety of digital formats including HDCAM SR/HDCAM from Sony and the slightly lower specced DVCPRO HD from Panasonic. Unfortunately some also accept Digibeta or Beta SP. The problem is that digital projectors need careful treatment by knowledgeable projectionists to get the best out of different formats and in a festival context, even the best technicians don’t have time to tweak settings between showings so films that look great at one festival look terrible at another. (This rant from a US website offers an interesting perspective on the problems of preparing a film/digital file to show at festivals in North America – there is a lot of sensible info here and I certainly recognise the problems as seen by festival audiences.)

The unresolved question for cinemas that have still not converted is still who pays for this conversion to digital? The so-called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) is supposed to work by ‘spreading the load’ between the distributor and the exhibitor but it doesn’t work for everyone and especially for small distributors.

New distribution and exhibition practices

Rumours are circulating in the UK about the new distribution practices in a digital environment. I’ve heard stories that distributors are not maintaining the DCPs of films beyond their ‘normal’ release. The hard drives can easily be re-cycled/re-used so once a film has finished its run, the print won’t be kept. I don’t know if this is the policy but in the last couple of weeks I’ve had two education screenings. The first was for a 1990s film, a classic already re-released in the 2000s. It’s just too old to have been released as a DCP so the distributor sent a Blu-ray disc. This was an improvement on the last time I showed the film a few years ago when they sent a DVD. The Blu-ray looked very good on a very big screen. Apart from a few over-dark scenes I wouldn’t have noticed standing at the back of the auditorium. The second film was released as a ‘specialised film’ title earlier this year and I watched it on a DCP. Imagine my surprise when we were sent a slightly battered 35mm print. Fortunately, the cinema still had a working 35mm projector. The audience didn’t seem to mind but somebody asked me if the scratches had been added for authenticity and I don’t think that they were joking! The serious point here is how geared up are the distributors to handle education/festival/archive/repertory bookings? Is Blu-ray going to be what we can expect after an initial release on DCP?

Yesterday I heard about a new multiplex that has opened locally. It is completely digital and I’m told that the manager can virtually run the whole operation from his office, ‘dragging and dropping’ films and ads onto different projectors via the TMS. Pretty soon the films will arrive in the cinema by satellite in the UK and another ‘technical operation’ will be removed.

Overall, I’m happy to see the more consistent quality that we get from DCP, especially in multiplexes. But it comes at a cost in terms of employment and ‘de-skilling’ of projection staff. This was recently demonstrated in the UK by the widely-reported incident in which a projectionist in a multiplex, presumably looking after several screens at once, projected the first few scenes of a gruesome Cert 15 horror film to an audience of young children expecting a family animation. I’ve also been told horror stories about satellite links going down in live broadcasts – these now include Q & As with directors as well as live feeds of opera, ballet etc. My feeling is that satellite is a necessary evil in countries with transport problems, but I’m not totally convinced by the current technologies available in a country as densely populated as the major urban centres in the UK.

Finally, there is the important question about formats for proper film archive storage. Digital is not a good long-term storage medium since the longevity of physical discs and tapes etc. is not yet proven. But just as important, each time the technology improves, archivists will need to maintain a working example of each playback device. Keith is our local expert on archives, so I’ll leave him to write about these issues. He has already pointed us to the website of the FIAF.

Posted in Digital film, Film industry | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Breathing (Atmen, Austria, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 15 November 2012

Trying to live

Roman (Thomas Schubert) is allowed out of a juvenile institution on ‘day release’; his job is at a morgue. So far so melodrama, especially as Roman is almost as emotionless as a corpse. We follow his faltering steps into the ‘real world’ as he tries to find a compass in a society that treats him with contempt; we don’t learn of his crime until well into the film.

The narrative progresses slowly, routinely; typically arthouse as it demands our patience as we wonder whether it’s better to actually live a life rather than watch someone else live theirs. However, it repays patience with intense drama, when Roman is sent to pick up a corpse in the street whilst a distraught wife is still clinging onto hope that her husband’s still alive, an an emotional payoff at the end when… well, I shan’t spoil it.

Death remains a taboo in western society; consumerism is driven in part by a desire to deny it: cosmetics for everyone. Breathing confronts death, particularly in the scene where the morgue attendants have to prepare a corpse of an old woman who has died at home. We get to see what we don’t wish to see as the deceased body is carefully attended to by men who, hitherto, have been generally unlikeable. It’s a particularly powerful scene.

It’s written and directed by Karl Markovics, who played the lead in the terrific The Counterfeiters (Aus-Ger, 2007) and I’m looking forward to his next film.

Posted in European Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Sapphires (Australia 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 November 2012

(from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)

I thought I would enjoy this movie and I did. What I hadn’t expected was just how emotional it would be and how rooted in the experience of the filmmakers. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year. This makes it even more distressing to see some of the inane comments on IMDB and some of the bland (even if generally favourable) reviews in the UK. So let’s be clear, this is an Australian movie from Goalpost Pictures, adapted from a stage play based on a real story about an Aboriginal girl group from the 1960s which toured Vietnam entertaining American soldiers – in itself interesting since Australian forces also fought in Vietnam. The attraction was that the women were playing to African-American troops and this is a film as much about racism in Australia as it is about ‘sweet soul music’. The Weinstein Brothers got their hands on the film after its Cannes screening earlier this year and they have been promoting it in such a way that most reviewers can’t get beyond comparing it to Dreamgirls, The Commitments or even Good Morning Vietnam. There are some elements in common with each of those films and the writers cite The Commitments as an influence on their approach, but for me The Sapphires is much more interesting.

It’s written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt were in the original group, directed by Wayne Blair who himself starred in the original play and photographed by Warwick Thornton who directed Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009). This trio of Aboriginal filmmakers, with co-writer Keith Thompson, were at the centre of what the producers have described as the strongest creative team on a recent Australian production. The press kit gives a great deal of background on the film and is recommended reading.

The premise of the film is simple. It’s 1968. Three young women are still living with their extended family in an Aboriginal community of Yorta Yorta people in the Murray river area which forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One day they are spotted by a down-at-heel Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who is working as an MC for a local pub’s talent contest. This leads in turn to a decision to audition for the US Army which is recruiting entertainers for its troops in Vietnam. So far, so conventional, but the trip to Melbourne also involves finding ‘cousin Kay’ who they haven’t seen for several years and who makes up the fourth member of the group. Kay is ‘passing for white’ in Melbourne having been ‘stolen’ by the authorities ten years earlier. This reference to the trauma of the stolen generation, both for the light-skinned children and their families, will drive several strands of the narrative during the film and provide some of the most powerful emotional sequences. The history of Australian policies towards indigenous Australians is brilliantly presented in Rabbit-Proof Fence – in which Deborah Mailman (Gail in The Sapphires) also appears. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in Vietnam with mainly predictable developments involving the girls with GIs and Chris O’Dowd as a loveable but rather hopeless manager. The war scenes were mainly reconstructed around Sydney – but some material was also shot in Vietnam.

The film isn’t perfect by any means – two of the girls have stories that don’t seem to move forward very much. But this isn’t a film about narrative complexity. To work, it needs to do two things well. The first is to give us a real insight into the relationship between the Aboriginal communities in Australia and the Civil Rights movement in America as experienced by the families – and to do this with a sense of authenticity. The second is to present great-sounding music. These two aims are linked since it was Memphis soul (alongside James Brown and Curtis Mayfield) from the late 1960s which provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. (See our posting on Talk to Me.) I can’t be a distanced observer here since I grew up with this music, but I thought the singing (and the US backing band) were excellent. The lead voice comes from Jessica Mauboy, runner-up on one of the Australian Idol shows and, I think, now a major pop music star. Perhaps more surprisingly, as a relatively unknown performer, Shari Stebbins as Kay also sings very well. These two, along with Miranda Tapsell, come from the Darwin area on the Northern tip of Australia. The producers tell us in the Press Kit of the difficulties of finding four Aboriginal women, at least one of whom had a strong lead voice and the other three having voices that produced the right harmonies. At the end of the film, we get to see the original group and the women who went to Vietnam. It’s clear that the production team chose the performers well. I should also add that Chris O’Dowd does very well to hold his own against the four women. My only regret about the film was that I’d have liked more of the group singing Merle Haggard – but perhaps I’m the only one.

The film has done well in Australia taking over $14 million. In the UK it is distributed by eONE Entertainment, the newly expanded Canadian major. According to Screendaily the film was released on 233 screens for No. 7 in the UK chart and a weekend total of just over $500,000. Strangely, in West Yorkshire it was on only one screen at the Showcase in Birstall. Where are all the other screens?

If you like soul music, you’ll like this – but do read the Press Kit afterwards. This is what works as a Friday night feelgood movie for me.

Interesting report on the film from The Australian.

Here’s the Australian trailer:

Posted in Australian Cinema | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Leeds IFF 2012: Girls of Dark ( Onna bakari no yoru, Japan 1961)

Posted by keith1942 on 14 November 2012

This film was the last screening in the Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective at the Leeds International Film Festival. It was her fifth film and was released in 1961. The scriptwriter was once again Tanaka Sumie together with Masaka Yana. The film deals with the rehabilitation of prostitutes. Prostitution was a common theme in Japanese films in this period. In 1956 the Government passed an anti-prostitution law which came into effect in 1958. The book from which the film was adapted came out in this period. There were also a cycle of films dealing with prostitution, a famous example was Mizoguchi Kenji’s Street of Shame (1956). However, Tanaka’s film is atypical in dealing with the question of the rehabilitation of these ‘fallen women’. The film seems to have differed from the book in a number of respects. The scriptwriters changed some of the story, including explicit references to lesbianism. However, it seems that the director re-introduced at least aspects of the last theme, and that topic is explicit in the final film.

The opening of the film features a series of short newspaper articles, and sequences in the red light district, including raids by the police. After the credits the action opens in the Chiragiku Home for Women [a rehabilitation centre: it is worth noting that the more recidivist offenders were sent to reformatories. We meet the staff, including the directress Nogami and a group of new inmates. The centre is toured along with a group from a Ladies Club, and includes a young married woman, Mrs Shima (Kyoko Kagawa who had already appeared alongside Tanaka Kinuyo in Mother and Sansho Dayu). I found the opening scenes not easy to follow as we meet a large number of characters and I found it difficult to catch all their names.

One couple that stood out were two older inmates, Kameju asnd Yoshimi. Kameju constantly makes advances to Yoshimi, who is fairly unrepentant about her trade. And at one point Kameju snuggles down besides Yoshimi under a coverlet telling her that '‘woman are better than men’. Yoshima makes frequent attempts to escape and this finally leads to a tragic end for the smitten Kameju.

Then the narrative narrows to focus on Kuniko (Hara Hisako) and to a lesser extent on her friend Chi-chan. Having obtained a good record in the Home Kuniko is allowed to leave and to attempt to re-establish herself in society and work. We follow her as she makes her way through three different jobs. Occasional voice-overs give us access to her thoughts and feelings. And she writes letters to Nogami, which the directress reads out to the inmates.

In the first job Kuniko is a paid help for a married couple with a shop. The work is hard and the wages low, 2,500 yen a month: apparently not a living wage. [It is worth noting that in the Home the inmates receive anything from a 62 to 15 yen rate for their work]. Embittered Kinuko wreaks her revenge on the husband and momentarily considers returning to her previous life. However, she is picked up by the police.

Back in the home Kuniko is now placed in a factory. She is set apart from the other girls there, and when she tells them about her past she is subjected to bullying and a sadistic attack by a group of fellow workers. She returns to the home painfully injured.

Her third job is in a ‘rose nursery’ owned by the husband of Mrs Shima. The husband is a lecturer. The young wife is very supportive of Kuniko, and there has already been a hint of attraction on her part when she visited the Home. Kuniko shares a room with her friend Chi-Chan, who has a job in a local cafeteria. The rule of the Home is to avoid entanglements with men, however Kuniko develops a relationship with the young worker in the nursery, Tsugasa. She is also visited by an old flame and pimp from her past. The social antagonisms around prostitution follow her here as she attempts to make a new life.

Michael Smith in his introduction remarked that the film showed more of a distinctive style than Tanaka’s earlier films. This was apparent and one of the visual pleasures was the use of the Tohoscope format in black and white. This is a fine film format and there are some striking compositions, especially in the several dramatic exteriors. I noted that more of the drama of this film was played out in the exterior settings. But there was also the use of framing and the drama on staircases and corridors that we saw in her earlier film, The Eternal Breasts. In many scenes Tanaka used the widescreen format to place characters in the setting and to place significant objects in the frame. There are placements and close-ups of roses in the nursery sequences which comments upon the situation. The filming of groups in especially well handled, and there are several stark tableaux-like shots at moments of intense drama.

I found the action and characters more conventional than in the earlier The Eternal Breasts.

For example there are fights among the women in the factory section, a staple of such films. The red light scenes seemed very familiar.  However, my colleague at the screening thought the film the less conventional of the two. My feelings were that whilst the relationships between the women were very interesting, the treatment of rehabilitation and of prostitution was familiar from other film treatments.

I was though, struck by the final sequence of the film. Kuniko is once more working, this time with woman collecting marine food in the waters along a beach. Her voice-over speaks of her wish to achieve stability and purity. The final shot shows her in a line of women returning with their heavy baskets along the sands. Then we have a great camera crane above the women, tilting up to show the sea and surrounding vista. The shot seems like a reverse image of the famous shot that ends Mizoguchi Kenji’s Sansho Dayu and conjures up a similar feeling of calm and perseverance. Perhaps it was homage to a master. In the Mizoguchi film the final shot shows two humped-back islands. In Tanaka’s film the equivalence are two rock pillars: Freudians would be able to make great play with this.

The whole series of films has been remarkably absorbing and extremely enjoyable. Michael Smith summed up the week with thanks to the Leeds International Film Festival, The Centre for World Cinema, The Japan Film Foundation and the Hyde Park Cinema Picture House. The applause from the audience was also a well-deserved thank-you to him from the audience for his labours in bringing these rare films to Leeds and introducing us to a little known but clearly very fine actress and outstanding woman filmmaker.

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema, People, Stars | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Leeds IFF 2012: The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Japan 1955)

Posted by keith1942 on 12 November 2012

This was the first film directed by Tanaka Kinuyo in the Leeds International Film Festival retrospective. I found the film impressive. It addresses a topic that even today that filmmakers find difficult to address directly, a woman who suffers a mastectomy. Tanaka, and her scriptwriter Tanaka Sumie [not related], have taken the story of an actual character, Tanaka Fumiko. She was a tanka poet who suffered a cancer, which led to the removal of her breasts. As the catalogue comments this is developed into “an unflinching account of a modern-minded woman afflicted with breast cancer’.

Plot spoiler – much of the plot.

Fumiko (Tsukioka Yurneji) is married to a taciturn and unsympathetic husband and has two children, Noboru and Aiko. She seems like a devoted and dutiful wife, but is dissatisfied with her situation. Her husband has an extra-marital affair that leads to a divorce, with her son residing with the father whilst she remains with custody of her daughter. Her family pressurises her to consider remarriage. Then she is diagnosed with breast cancer. After the operation Fumiko is partly distraught by the effects on her body but also shows signs of an awakening as a new woman. This is signed visually by her changed and stylish hair cut, (a sign in Japan of a woman’s change and in wider cinema often a sign of a woman’s trauma).

Fumiko has also been involved in a local poetry circle. The publication of some of her poems leads to interest by the Press, mainly it seems because of her tragic situation. This leads to her meeting a reporter from the Tokyo Daily News, Otsuki. At first part of the cynical exploitation of her, a relationship develops between them, but it is cut short by her death.

The basic plot suggests a fairly melodramatic story and a large dose of sentiment. In fact this is avoided, partly by the emphasis on her personal development and by an astringent depiction of the travails of her situation. It is only in the last scenes of the film that sentiment becomes unrestrained, as Otsuki and her children in a traditional gesture cast flowers into the water. This is presumably to provide a more upbeat tone to a tragic tale.

What impressed me was that the film mainly avoids the sense of tragedy. The focus in this tale is on the change in Fumiko, in her developing strength and in her unsentimental response to her situation. The catalogue describes her as follows: “ Fumiko is instead refreshingly presented as an imperfect, often selfish character and Tanaka’s handling of the film as a whole is tinged with the same even-handed humanity as she projected in the best of her own performances.” This is in part due to the fine performance of Tsukioka Yurneji in the lead role. After her operation she is transformed, not just visually with her new hairstyle, but in her behaviour. She becomes obviously sexy in a way that was absent when she was seen as the dutiful wife.

Looking back the signs were there even in her married times. Her poetry acts as an outlet for her frustrations. She writes poems that are critical of her husband: which occasions catty comments from other women in the poetry circle. At the same time, after her operation, she remains a loving mother, caring and concerned for her children. She leaves them a final poem as a recollection of herself for her two children.

The style of the film is also impressive. Just as Fumiko changes after her operation, so does the film. The early scenes are fairly conventional. The family lives in a rural location surrounded by farmland, sheep and cows. The camera positions are straightforward, as is the editing though occasional shots suggest the darker side of the situation. At the moment when Fumiko discovers her husband’s infidelity there is a close-up as hand reaches back to collect a forgotten handbag. Another close-up shows a pair of white gloves, which Fumiko flings at her husband’s head.

Following the operation, the film has a much more urban feel (set in Obhiro, Hokkaido), we spend much of the time in a hospital. Outside visits are to streets, the railway station and a local school. The camera seems more mobile and there are very effective shots set in corridors and stairways: the latter settings for moments of great intensity. The amount of close-ups increases noticeably: often of Fumiko but also of the characters that surround her.

There are several powerful scenes placing Fumiko behind frames and bars. As Otsuki leaves her to return to Tokyo Fumiko stands behind the bars of a window and the camera very slowly tracks in on her. Another especially effective sequence has a camera tracking Fumiko as she follows a corpse and grieving relatives to the hospital morgue. This group is framed in a long corridor and the sequence ends with Fumiko stopped by the bars of the door into the morgue. This is also an example of how effectively the film uses repetition: after her death Otsuki and her children follow her body to the morgue. But the gate into the receptacle of death again bars the children.

Alex Jacoby comments in his excellent Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors on Tanaka. He suggests she lacks the individual style that marks out the auteur. This is the old chestnut of auteur versus metteur en scene. What Tanaka does is to extremely effectively bring to visual and aural life the story provided by from actual life and adapted her scriptwriter. It is true that Tanaka’s films shows the influence of the directors with whom she worked as an actress. Apparently her earliest film followed the style of Yasujiro Ozu, with whom he worked several times. There are occasional signs of his style in this film. There are low-angle camera shots: exteriors that occur before or after an interior scene, though much shorter than those found in Ozu. And there is the frequent continuation of a sequence when the main plot interest has ended. However, a more marked influence is Naruse Mikio, with whom she also worked on a number of films. Much of the framing recalls Naruse, as do the frequent powerful close-ups relying on the performer for impact. Like him the exteriors seem mainly about setting, the drama is almost completely played out in the interiors. Like both Naruse and Ozu, Tanaka also frequently uses very effective deep staging to place the characters and their relationships. Costumes and sets reinforce this angle. In the course of the film Yoshio marries. However at the ceremony Fumiko remains preparing food and avoids wearing the traditional kimono required for such ceremonies. The music, by Kojun Saitó, recalls Naruse, with varied combinations from orchestral string, through a recurring accordion and the occasional combination of vibraphone and piano. And in the dramatic operation scene there is an insistent bass drum. There is a parallel with an earlier film: in the scene where Fumiko bathes she is heard humming ‘O solo mio’ – a song that featured in Naruse’s film Mother, starring Tanaka.

The influence is probably due in part to the writer Tanaka Sumie, who wrote several of Naruse’s fine 1950s films, also addressing women’s issues. One influence that is missing is that of the director with whom she worked most frequently, Mizoguchi Kenji. The record of Mizoguchi opposing her move into direction could explain this, whereas Ozu was very supportive, letting her film one of his scripts. But it is probably also due to Mizoguchi’s contradictory treatment of women characters. In his films women tend to remain dutiful, and are often the victims of sacrifice for the men.

This is definitely not the case with Tanaka. Fumiko is a rounded character with contradictory emotions and responses. But she shows remarkable resilience as she faces the crises in her life. Here she is closer to both Ozu, whose women are strong but usually dutiful, and even more to Naruse, whose women stolidly face up to the oppression of life. Tanaka goes further however in detailing the actual experience of women and how they learn to live with these travails.

The operation includes a close-up of her breasts as the nurse prepares for the surgeon’s knife and then there is a close-up of the scalpel that will cut away the flesh. Equally the film openly addresses women’s desires. In an early scene Fumiko visits the home of her friend Hori and his wife Kinuko. At the start of the sequence Kinoko heats the stove whilst her husband takes a bath. At one point she slides back the small window looking into the bathroom, as her husband relaxes in the hot water. After Fumiko’s arrival Kinuko leaves for a teachers’ meeting and in the course of the evening Fumiko expresses her love for Hori, though this remains unconsummated. Hori dies and in a later scene, after her operation, Fumiko uses the same bath and Kinoku heats the water. Kinuko slides open the window but is shocked when Fumiko happily displays her disfigured chest, (not though to the audience). After this incident Fumiko admits her love for Hori and says that she wanted to once bathe in the same place that he had done. The later apparently sexual relationship between Fumiko and Otsuki is handled with much greater discretion.

In introducing the film Michael Smith suggested that Fumiko is not a ‘likeable character’, a different emphasis from his description in the catalogue. And after the film a young woman said that she really liked the film but that ‘the men were terrible’. This is partly true but it is a larger issue in the film. The husband is discredited and the reporter also, at least in his early appearances. But Fumiko suffers a great amount of unsympathetic treatment from other characters. I have already mentioned the poetry circle and the Press exploitation. At another point in the film she tells her mother (grandma) that it was her insistence that led to Fumiko’s marriage. And her friend Kinuko is seen as hidebound by social attitudes and is unable to face her new condition. It is in this context that I find Fumiko shows great strength of character.

It should be noted that she is strongly supported in her illness by her mother and by her brother Yoshio. And Kinuko visits her and gives her a music box that belonged to her husband Hori. In a parallel between her loves, later in the film Fumiko gives the music box to Otsuki.

There is possibly an autobiographical theme in the film. In the early 1950s Tanaka, a popular star, returned from the USA and arrived back in western style clothes. She received many complaints from fans and criticism in the press for this ‘lapse’. Whilst in her many film roles she is often strong and also stoical, I have not seen a film in which she was able to play a character that represents the liberation of the ‘modern miss’. But this is the battle that Fumiko is fighting in this film.

Alex Jacoby, whilst praising the film and the performances, criticised the emphasis on the terminal illness rather than on a women making her own life and career in place of marriage. This is a fair point; in fact Tanaka’s own career followed that pattern, she never married but she made her way as a star and then as a filmmaker. However, the film is dealing with a particularly oppressive aspect of life for women: not just in terms of their sexual roles but in their ability to determine their own relationships. I think the film remains an early and powerful expression of a woman’s struggle. And it seems that Tanaka remains a rare example of a successful and really interesting woman filmmaker in Japanese cinema.

Posted in Directors, Festivals and Conferences, Japanese Cinema, People, Stars | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 November 2012

The fishing boat with its captain and 30 passengers is not really equipped to travel long distances in Atlantic waters.

Pirogue is a general term to describe boats such as canoes or ‘dugouts’. On the West African coast large versions of the traditional canoe shape, powered by a single motor, are used for fishing. The local fishing industry is in decline from overfishing (including factory fishing by trawlers from the EU) and this gives a further impetus to the attempts to leave the region and migrate to where there might be jobs. Thousands have left the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania in open boats, attempting to reach European beaches. Most of those who have survived the trip have ended up in the Canaries, part of Spain. This film ends with a title informing us that 1 in 6 of these illegal migrants fails to survive – and many of the others are then ‘repatriated’ back to their home country.

Moussa Touré’s film is based on a novel and it tells the tale of one such journey from Dakar. In one sense the narrative is familiar, comprising a mix of the standard illegal migration story (what motivates both the migrants and the people who transport them?) and the ‘forced community trapped in a boat’ genre typified by the Hollywood disaster movie. One of the earliest examples of the latter was Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The tragedy of La pirogue is that the travellers have chosen this ordeal. Some of them know the dangers, others are so desperate to leave that they probably don’t want to know.

Accommodation is rudimentary in the pirogue.

The film is handsomely mounted and looks good in a CinemaScope presentation. The narrative provides us with two main groups: the boat’s captain and his brother plus the trip’s organiser and others in their circle as opposed to the passengers who represent people from the interior including some from Guinea who speak a different language. Allied to these differences are familiar oppositions of young and old, secular and religious. There is enough potential narrative conflict to sustain the film’s relatively short running time and I found it gripping. If I’m honest though, I did think that as a suspense film – who will survive the trip, what kinds of dangers will the boat face? – there were too many clues to what might happen and I found myself in that familiar position of admonishing characters for not being careful enough with essential items of equipment. It will be interesting to see how the film goes down with audiences. It’s a mainstream popular film from Senegal with production values commensurate with European funding and technical support. My fear is that it might fall between two stools – perhaps not enough excitement for the mainstream but possibly not quite enough characterisation and observation for the arthouse. So far, it hasn’t got UK distribution, though it has opened in France and I think it is booked for North America. The people in the boat are a divided community and I’m not sure what this says about Senegal if the film is in any way metaphorical. I think it’s this thought that makes me wish that we found out more about the individual characters and their problems. But despite my slight misgivings I urge you to see this if you get the chance.

La pirogue opens the Bristol-based Afrika Eye Film Festival tonight November 9 and it screens as part of the Cornerhouse ‘French Connections’ season on Monday November 12.

Posted in African Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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