The Case for Global Film

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

Posts Tagged ‘war film’

Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, USSR, 1959)

Posted by nicklacey on 12 June 2014

A mother's yearning

A mother’s yearning

Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.

So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.

Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.

 

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The Railway Man (Australia/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 January 2014

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.

Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.

The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.

On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.

Posted in Australian Cinema, British Cinema | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Odette (UK 1950)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 11 January 2014

Marius Goring as the German intelligence chief approaches Anna Neagle as Odette

Marius Goring as the German intelligence chief approaches Anna Neagle as Odette

Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.

After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet  she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.

Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!).  If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at  No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.

So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.

Odette is tortured at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris.

Odette is tortured at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris.

These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.

Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.

Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore, Yugoslavia, 1996)

Posted by nicklacey on 30 August 2013

The bad and the good?

The bad and the good?

The abomination of war is accentuated in civil war; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (original title translates better as Beautiful villages burn beautifully) covers the post-Yugoslavian war of the 1990s that foreshadowed the current ‘conflict’ between ‘the west’ and Muslims. Its complex structure focuses on a band of Bosnian-Serb militia who, amongst other things, burn Muslim villages. The main protagonist is Milan who, in pre-war years, ran a business with his Muslim mate. After scene setting, with a newsreel about the Brotherhood and Unity (such irony runs throughout the film) tunnel first opened in the 1970s, most of the plot takes place 20 years later in the dilapidated and unfinished tunnel as the militia seek shelter from the Bosnian army. Much of the narrative features flashbacks of how the disparate members of the militia joined up from the viewpoint of a number of them recuperating, after the event, in hospital.

Unsurprisingly the film divided opinion when it was release. In an excellent article Igor Krstic (http://www.kinoeye.org/03/10/celluloidtinderbox.php) notes that although Croatian critics dubbed the film pro-Serbian (Croatia was also embroiled in the war against Serbs/Serbia) it was also the first Serbian film to be successful in neighbouring countries after the war ended. While it’s easy to see why the film appears to be pro-Serbian, as we rarely get any other view than the militia’s, Krstic also demonstrates the film’s nuances; principally that the ragtag bunch of militia are not portrayed as likeable characters and in this the film is also challenging Serbia’s national mythology. One of the ways this is done is through the casting of Velimir Bata Zivojinovic as the unit’s commander; Zivojinovic starred in many Partisan films that were important in the myth-making of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

That said I did find the film disturbing. The Muslims who surround the militia are entirely dehumanised, Krstic himself points out that this is drawing of tropes of Hollywood’s representation of the Vietnam war where ‘Charlie’ was an invisible presence in the jungle. Krstic fails, however, to note that this is in itself racist – the enemy as the monstrous Other. Does that make the film racist? Not necessarily as it could be argued that this is a film from the Serbian perspective; no doubt being surrounded by others who want to kill you is a terrifying experience and the enemy will seem monstrous.

This is powerful film-making and draws upon the absurdist vein of Catch 22 and MASH; it’s a bleakly occasionally comic portrayal of the war that is brilliantly made and uncomfortable to view from a political standpoint.

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Rossellini #2: Paisà (Italy 1946)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 May 2013

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisa.

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisà.

This is another earlier set of notes from 2006, now slightly updated during current work on Rossellini.

The second of Rossellini’s post-war films, Paisà (‘countryman’) is often quoted as the film that comes closest to the neo-realist ideal that Rossellini himself described some years later. If neo-realism was concerned with ‘finding’ stories in the world rather than imposing a fictional narrative on a location, then surely Paisà is that film. Equally, it meets the criterion of a film that refuses to be an ‘entertainment’ and speaks directly to the memory of the recent past. As the Taviani Brothers, filmmakers themselves who were inspired by Rossellini when they saw the film in 1946 as teenagers, have commented: “It presented what we had just experienced, but now we understood that experience through the presentation on the screen”.

Paisà tells the story of the Allied (here, very much the American) advance through Italy, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fighting in the North in the winter of 1944, and their interaction in each episode with the partisans and ordinary Italians. Different characters appear in each of six separate episodes – there is no possibility of us identifying with an individual American hero who ‘makes it through’ (or indeed with a British squad like that in The Way Ahead, UK 1944) to a triumphant conclusion with a German defeat.

The story derives, in Rossellini’s terms, from the concrete reality of the situation and the approach he takes to the production supports this aim. The six episodes are intercut with actual newsreel footage, titles and voiceover in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish ‘real’ from staged footage. The Americans in the film are professional actors (but not ‘stars’), but many of the Italians are played by local people in the ‘real’ locations which Rossellini uses whenever possible. In the final episode, the incidents are based on events recounted by the ‘real’ partisans. The bleak ending of the film would not be possible in a Hollywood film, but for Rossellini it is not the end of the ‘story’. As Bondanella (1993) points out, for Rossellini the ‘reality’ is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity as understood in Christian philosophy. When the film begins, the Americans and the Italians are clearly unknown to each other, but the experiences they have through the course of the narrative prove their humanity and the development of their understanding. Pierre Sorlin suggests that:

Paisà might be considered as a history film – but it is a history not told from without by a historian trying to clarify the issue. It is the subjective, intuitive vision of an Italian who thanks the Allies for their support and condemns them for having taken so much time and let so many Italians be killed. Open City asserts the cohesion of the Roman population, Paisà wonders what has been left of Italy after two years of war. (Sorlin 1996: 101)

Sorlin’s comments prompt some consideration of the British characters in Episodes IV and VI, who seem (at least the military, not Harriet) to be ineffectual and arrogant. This may just be Rossellini recognising that the Americans were paying for the film.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

Episode IV and Episode VI feature the use of Rossellini’s ‘long shot, long take’ approach to action. The argument in favour of the long take and the long shot is clearly demonstrated in the production still above. We are presented with a series of long takes in which the action unfolds, often in relatively long shot. The scenes are carefully orchestrated to flow almost seamlessly. Although there is clearly a ‘leader’ (the American officer), we are not invited to adopt his viewpoint. When mid-shots or medium close-ups are used, they pick out particular narrative incidents rather than develop individual characters. Most of all, the camera is used to create for us the viewpoint of the partisans who live in this unique environment. As André Bazin writes:

. . . the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions exposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon (Bazin 1971:37) )

Robin Wood (1980) makes some important observations which place the analysis of style and content in Paisà in context. He reminds us that what distinguishes Rossellini is his refusal to make a ‘well-made film’ and that his placing of the camera is governed by a desire to reveal the actions of characters and their consequences. Comparing the final episode of Paisà with the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, he comes down on the side of Rossellini who, unlike Eisenstein is not producing a film from a position of having triumphed in the Revolution. Instead, Rossellini’s camera suggests: . . . “total instability, the sense of a world where nothing is certain except ultimate desolation, physical and emotional, a world of random and casual cruelty . . . “ (Wood 1980: 889) In other episodes, especially the one with the MP and the boy, Wood sees Rossellini as undermining our expectations of conventional stories with familiar ‘types’ and predictable outcomes, “leaving us in every case, not only without complacency, but without hope”.

Paisà was, not surprisingly, shunned by popular audiences in Italy at the time, but does it work now to bring home the horrors of war and the capacity for human suffering? We could argue that Paisà was the ultimate achievement of Rossellini’s neo-realist approach. Its episodic structure, long shot compositions and avoidance of star performances focuses absolutely on the concept of liberation won by partisans and soldiers en masse.

References

André Bazin (1971) ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ in What is Cinema?, Vol. II (originally published in Esprit, January 1948), Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: CUP

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

Roy Stafford 20/5/06

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¡Viva! 2013 #4: Las largas vacaciones del 36 (Long Holidays of 1936, Spain 1976)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 March 2013

Las_Largas_Vacaciones_Del_36-Caratula

vivalogoThe Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).

I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.

The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.

One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

My Way (Mai Wei, South Korea 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 September 2012

A Korean soldier in a Russian uniform is captured by German troops in My Way

My Way has been promoted as the most expensive Korean blockbuster yet produced. It has had a handful of cinema screenings in the UK courtesy of the Terracotta Film Festival but it is released today on DVD by Universal in the UK. (Co)writer-director Kang Je-gyu was one of the principal figures in launching the concept of the Korean blockbuster with his earlier films, Swiri (Shiri, 1999) and Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo (Brotherhood 2004). The Korean concept of a blockbuster is slightly different to the Hollywood concept. The term tends to be used for any film that gets a wide release and which attracts a large number of admissions – i.e. the term refers more to distribution and exhibition than genre or narrative. All kinds of films have become blockbusters in South Korea, but often it is their appeal to aspects of Korean culture that is important.

Kang Je-gyu’s films have been blockbusters in both the Korean and the US sense. Shiri and Brotherhood both dealt with North-South conflicts in Korea, the latter with the 1950-53 Korean War and a story about brothers caught up reluctantly in the fighting. This spectacular war film attracted over 11 million admissions in South Korea (about a quarter of the population). My Way has a similar structure and theme as Brotherhood, but takes on an even bigger story that crosses Asia from Korea to the D-Day beaches of 1944. Kang was inspired by a reported historical event – the capture of a Korean soldier in a Wehrmacht uniform by American forces during the D-Day landings. Kang discovered the elements of the man’s story and then added another intriguing element of his own.

My Way begins and ends with a marathon runner during the 1948 London Olympics. The remainder of the 142 mins is a long flashback that begins in 1928 with two small boys racing each other. One is Kim Jun-shik and the other is Hasegawa Tatsuo, son of the Kim family’s Japanese colonial landlord. Tatsuo has his future mapped out as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. As a child he revels in the tussle with his Korean friend but ten years later he will face Jun-shik again in an ‘all-Japan’ trial. Jun-shik can’t be allowed to win and instead he is ‘pressed’ into the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuko (Manchuria). He becomes an unwilling participant (with other Korean pressed men) in the major battle with Soviet Russian forces on the Mongolian border in 1939 – where he again comes up against the now Colonel Hasegawa. Both men are captured by the Soviets and put in a Siberian work camp from where in 1941 they are pressed into the Red Army and after a battle with the Germans they escape westwards only to end up in a German work battalion on the Western Front. During this long trek they work through their personal antagonisms.

The emphasis in the film is on the epic battles fought in Manchuria/Mongolia and on the Eastern and Western European fronts. Kang Je-gyu uses CGI extensively and re-created his version of the D-Day landing at Utah beach in Latvia on a budget of $3 million. The cinema screening I saw was missing most of the subtitles because of a projection problem with the digital print. Since the film includes Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and German dialogue this could have been a major problem. In reality, although I might have missed some of the nuances, I think that I could follow most of the film fairly easily. Certainly, I was not bored at any point through 142 minutes.

My Way is not an art movie. It’s a popular epic war movie with masses of CGI. It could be compared to Hollywood films like Pearl Harbor (which I haven’t seen) and that seems to be what most US critics have done, seeing it as just another bombastic mindless adventure movie. I think it is the Hollywood Reporter review that derides it as “blowing itself to bits”. I’m not going to claim that the film is an incisive analysis of war in the twentieth century, but I think that it deserves a little more consideration, at least as a project if not as a successful film narrative.

My first thought was that as a rare East Asian film that attempts to represent historical events in Europe, My Way offers a lesson for superior European critics. I felt myself about to scoff at an opening which pretends to be London, before I checked myself after realising that I have no idea what Seoul looked like in 1948 – just as I had little idea of the major battles fought between the Japanese and Russians over the Mongolian/Manchurian border in 1939. Kang has to be applauded for the ambition of his storytelling. He is also very brave to take on Japanese-Korean relationships in the 1930s and 1940s. The strategy for this big budget film was to use major stars from Japan, Korea and China to attract a Pan-Asian audience. Jang Dong-geon (who plays Jun-shik) and Odagiri Joe as Tatsuo have to carry the film. Fang Bingbing has a much smaller role as a Chinese sniper in Manchuria and other than Kim In-gwon as Jun-shik’s friend, pressed into the army at the same time, none of the other characters in the film are developed.

The strategy appears not to have worked in the sense that My Way attracted only around 2 million admissions in South Korea and a fraction of that number in Japan. I haven’t seen any figures for a Chinese release as yet. The Korean producers are looking at a significant loss with a worldwide box office take of only $16 million. On reflection, the loss of subtitles in the screening I attended probably didn’t help me understand the changing relationship between the Korean and Japanese characters and that relationship may be the stumbling block for audiences in both countries. I’m not sure what Chinese audiences might make of the film. The current animosity towards the Japanese won’t help but at least the film does offer an East Asian perspective on events in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, rather than Hollywood films, My Way resembles Chinese epic productions and I notice that the film’s release in Korea and Japan at the end of 2011 coincided with Zhang Yimou’s latest epic production Flowers of War (China/HK 2011) about the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 – not the best time to release a film about the Imperial Japanese Army, even if the focus is mainly on the Koreans forced to serve in it.

Since I’ve not seen the Hollywood CGI representations of World War 2 battles, I’m probably repeating a well-known observation, but I have to say that the depiction of the D-Day landings in My Way were almost surreal, especially in terms of the massed squadrons of bombers and American capital ships. I was reminded of anime like Graveyard of the Fireflies (Japan 1988) which includes the firebombing of Kobe by the Americans. Here’s an idea of how My Way looks in the US trailer:

Posted in East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Fires On the Plain (Japan 1959)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 August 2012

Tamura decides to do without boots in one of the film’s lighter moments.

What is an ‘anti-war film’? A straightforward question perhaps if we accept that the single purpose is to promote the idea that war is always a bad thing. But that is in itself a contentious statement. Audiences often reject invitations to go along with a film’s perceived intention. They are more inclined to find their own pleasures in what is presented. It would be wrong too to think that there is only one kind of anti-war film. Fires On the Plain is one of several films I’ve considered for an event supporting the release of Nadine Labaki’s new film Where Do We Go Now?

Fires on the Plain is almost the polar opposite of the other famous anti-war film made by the husband-wife team of director Ichikawa Kon and writer Wada Natto. The Burmese Harp (1956) is a film which explores loss and defeat in Burma in 1945 but does so with optimism and humanism and which sees the possibility of Japanese soldiers returning home for a new life. Like the earlier film, Fires On the Plain is a literary adaptation, but this time the theme is the brutality of war and the ultimate degradation of the human spirit. It’s not an easy watch but its status on IMDB (with a score of 8.1) suggests that it continues to make an impression on audiences in North America. The DVD is not available in the UK and must be imported from Criterion in the US or Korea. The Criterion release has several ‘extras’ and an essay by Terry Rafferty on the label’s website.

Outline

The first few weeks of 1945, the last year of what the Americans term ‘The Pacific War’, see the Japanese occupation force of Leyte in the Philippines reduced to a rump by the much stronger American forces who are moving through the islands on their way to a possible invasion of Japan. The forlorn hope of the Japanese survivors is to reach the town of Palompon where a ship may be waiting for them. To get there they must march across rough terrain during the rainy season and avoid the Americans who occasionally attack but who are otherwise too busy preparing to move to other islands to bother too much about these soldiers ‘left behind’. We infer from what happens that the Japanese Occupation of Leyte had itself been brutal in the treatment of the local population who are now not going to help. Starvation is the likely outcome for the Japanese who scramble to find a few yams left behind in the fields after harvest.

The central character is Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji), a slightly older draftee who we see spurned by the hospital and by his own field commander. He has TB but the hospital has no room for him and his commander does not want another mouth to feed. He finds himself wandering towards Palompon, often alone but also meeting up with small groups of Japanese soldiers with the same intention. The film’s title refers to the pillars of smoke that Tamura often sees in the distance. He believes that they are smoke signals sent by Filipino guerillas and he avoids them. Other Japanese tell him that they are just fires lit by farmers to burn corn husks. By the end of the film we cannot be sure what it is that Tamura sees – or what sense he makes of it.

Commentary

I found the film quite difficult to get into at first, but gradually the narrative took hold. By the end it was difficult to tear myself away from the screen. Ironically, for all the brutality and degradation, the film is actually very beautiful. Shot in rich black and white ‘Scope by one of Ichikawa’s regular contributors Kobayashi Setsuo, it includes beautifully composed ‘figures in a landscape’ as well as close-ups of the ‘everyman’ face of Tamura. Funakoshi Eiji manages to be quite handsome, very miserable, bemused and tortured with equal facility. Ichikawa began his career as an animator and he was also interested in graphics. The strong visual imagery and especially the widescreen compositions are to be expected. (The landscapes were actually shot on the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo in a region used by Kurosawa for his jedaigeki films – but I was convinced this was the Philippines when I watched the film.)

As an anti-war film, Fires on the Plain raises several issues. It doesn’t explain the events which led up to the situation or offer us any kind of back story – there is no attempt to suggest who is ‘responsible’ for what happens. There is a suggestion that Japanese officers have perhaps a better chance of survival, but really we only see what happens to a group of Japanese soldiers – some individuated but others not. The Americans come out of the film quite badly I think with attacks on the straggling Japanese soldiers when they are clearly not a threat to anyone. Having said that we only see the Americans from the perspective of the Japanese (who, it is suggested, think that the Americans will always kill them rather than take prisoners).

The more inhuman the behaviour of the soldiers becomes the more ‘humanist’ is the effect of the film. In one famous sequence, Ichikawa offers us a darkly comic moment when one of the dead soldiers answers an aside by Tamura and this is followed by a little sketch in front of a static camera that borrows directly from Chaplin’s little tramp. Be warned though, things get much worse though a little later on. How much of what we see is ‘real’ and how much is the product of delirium and despair is for us to judge. The only hope that you can take away from a film like this is that somehow the human spirit will survive. But I think it is clear that war will charge a very high and unacceptable price to prove the point.

Checking the release of the film in the UK, I discovered it was a Compton release – a distributor associated with X Certificate films in the early 1960s. At that time Japan was the source of the ‘extreme’ cinema of the period (as it was again in the 1990s) and I’m reminded of the most gruesome, yet most humanist, war film I’ve seen, Masumura Yasuzo’s Red Angel (1966).

If we are going to have ‘canons’ of films that we recommend to students, I’d certainly place Fires on the Plain on that list. Here’s a tiny snippet to whet your appetite:

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

 
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