I thought the year was less productive and interesting than 2013: however I had a lay-off of nearly two months and missed a number of new releases. The ones that really impressed me this year were:
Winter Sleep / Kis uykusa Turkey / France / Germany, 2014.
For me not just the best new film this year, but the best for several years. Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his team have produced a long, but richly complex film. One that reflects on the personal and the social. Despite comments by some critics this is a splendidly cinematic film.
Ida, Poland, Denmark / France / UK, 2013.
An absolute pleasure in black and white academy ratio. Director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographers Lukasz Zai and Ryszard Lenczewski have produced a visually stunning film. The cast are excellent. What also impressed me is that the film not only achieves the look 1960s Poland but also of the Polish cinema of the period.
The Patience Stone, France / Germany / UK / Afghanistan, 2012.
This film had one of the outstanding performances of the year from Golshifteh Farahani. The screenplay, from the director Ayiq Rahini’s own novel, by Jean-Claude Carriére suggests he is still the finest writer in European cinema.
Concerning Violence, Sweden / Denmark / Finland / US / Norway / Germany.
This was an outstanding documentary, which showed proper respect for the archive material that it used: something that many films do not. The structure and editing of the film by Göran Hugo Olsson and his team was exemplary. The treatment of the writings of Frantz Fanon was somewhat partial, the most serious failing in the film.
The Missing Picture, France / Kingdom of Cambodia, 2013.
This was another exceptional documentary though its politics were less fully developed than in Concerning Violence. Rithy Panh’s direction and design was powerfully evocative: and the use of models and dioramas gave the film a very distinctive form.
Set Fire to the Stars, UK.
A last minute addition: 2013 ended with a film about a sculptor, 2014 with one about a poet. Beautiful wide-screen black and white cinematography and a fine sound design and music score, (director Andy Godard, Cinematography Chris Seager, Music Gruff Rhys). It also rescues the poetry of Dylan Thomas from its rather facile treatment in Interstellar.
The 20th (and possibly the last) Bradford International Film Festival gave me the discovery of the year – a retrospective of the films of Japanese director Nomura Yoshitarō based on the writings of Kobayashi Mosahiro. I especially liked the 1958 Stakeout (Harikomi) with my favourite Takamine Hideko in a leading role.
The Festival also provided a welcome retrospective of British director Sally Potter.
The 28th Leeds International Film Festival provided the best UK retrospective of the year – five films by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in 35mm prints. Included were his masterpiece Persona (1966) and the equally fine Through a Glass Darkly / Såsom I en spegel, 1961.
The Festival also provided the most challenging screening of the year – an immaculate print from the Netherlands Film Museum of Max Ophuls’ 1936 The Trouble With Money. Unfortunately the print had no English subtitles: it says something for Ophuls skill as a director that I could follow most of the plot.
Il Cinema Ritrovato 28th edition offered a film that I have waited long to see in its full format. As part of The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics the Festival screened, in a black and white 35mm CinemaScope print, Kaagaz Ke Phool / Paper Flowers, 1959. One of Guru Dutt’s memorable melodramas with very fine cinematography by V. K. Murthy and music by S. ED. Burman.
The Festival also screened the best digital restoration and screening I saw this year, a 4K version of John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine, 1946. The ample Arlecchino cinema was packed for the occasion.
The best offering from the silent era was at [predictably] the 33rd Le Giornate del Cinema Muto – The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov unfortunately listed as Russian Laughter rather than the correct Soviet Laughter. I especially enjoyed The Trial Concerning Three Million / Protsess o Trekh Millionakh, 1926.
The nadir of 2014 was February, which saw the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, US. I can understand it being the most plagiarised film of the year but found it unaccountable that it was in the Sight & Sound ‘top listings’. There have been recurring traces of misogyny in the films of Martin Scorsese and this seems to me to be the worse example.
Then it was joined by The Book Thief, US / UK, 2013. Markus Zusak’s novel is an exhilarating and formally audacious piece of writing. The film version reduced it to the worse sort of mainstream conventions.
Finally, notable centenaries. The Hyde Park Picture House passed one hundred years – November 1914. The team still manages a pretty varied programme of films and also we enjoy fairly frequent 35mm screenings.
And then this was the anniversary year of Charlie Chaplin, first appearing in February 1914. I saw a considerable number of Chaplin films during the year, the one I most enjoyed revisiting was Modern Times, 1936. The screening at the National Media Museum was enhanced by a clip from the delightful Cuban film For the First Time / Por primera vez, 1967.
This was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.
In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.
Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.
As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?
I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.
Here’s a trailer for a US release:
The third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?
1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.
The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.
The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.
The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.
Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):
This was actually the first of Bradford International Film Festival’s Nomura Yoshitaro films based on the published stories of Matsumoto Seicho to be screened. All the issues about the 16mm print for Stakeout also apply here. Although released three years after Stakeout, I thought this seemed like an earlier film. Part of that feeling came from the style of the film which much more resembled the films noirs of the 1940s in the US and Europe.
Tom Vincent’s notes in the festival brochure capture the noir elements well when he refers to: “voiceover, revelations, duplicitous characters . . . indebted to Hitchcock with a dual-identity plot and elevated showdowns reminiscent of both Vertigo and Rebecca, plus a Herrmann-like score”. We might add the use of flashbacks and the presence of a femme fatale. Many of these elements also signal melodrama and with the added presence of elements of the police procedural, Zero Focus is clearly related to the other four films in the festival package.
The convoluted plot involves a young couple who marry in difficult circumstances. Teiko is in Tokyo and Kenichi has been working on a job for his advertising company on the west coast of Japan in Kanazawa. Immediately after the wedding he returns to Kanazawa to tie up loose ends before taking up his new post in Tokyo – but he doesn’t return on the expected day. He can’t be contacted and after a few days his company send another employee, with Teiko, to investigate what they realise has become a ‘missing persons’ case. Gradually Teiko uncovers her husband’s ‘other life’ in Kanazawa and on the remote Noto peninsula with its rugged cliffs (which will provide a dramatic setting for the narrative climax). The police investigation hinges on a crucial memory of what happened in Japan under occupation (1946-52) when street prostitution to serve American GIs began to become a social issue. One of the police officers had been a ‘street guard’ who knew the women on the street. This notion of building social issues into crime fiction has been part of the attraction of Matsumoto’s stories for readers.
The film has been released on DVD in North America and there are some reviews on IMDB. Unfortunately most of them don’t realise what a gem the film is. As with Stakeout, Nomura and his scriptwriters are interested in the women in the story so it is literally the ‘voices’ of the three women shown at the head of this posting who effectively ‘drive’ the narrative through voiceovers. Teiko is a Tokyo girl at first well outside her comfort zone tramping through the snow in her high heels on the coast. But she gets down to it and adapts quickly (note the lined bootees in the photo). Kuga Yoshito who plays Teiko was by this time a veteran of Japanese cinema having made an early appearance for Kurosawa in Drunken Angel in 1948 and subsequently worked on Kurosawa’s The Idiot and films by both Mizoguchi and Ozu. She is slightly older than a ‘young bride’ might be and this makes her more interesting for me. She looks like she means business in the last reel! Working on the script was Hashimoto Shinobu who contributed to Kurosawa’s script for Rashomon and other films. The Rashomon connection here is a device whereby the final part of the film offers different versions of what actually happened in the story of Teiko’s husband’s disappearance.
Some of the more perceptive reviews of the film are found here:
The harsh beauty of Noto is similar to the mountain spa region around Saga in Stakeout and Nomura tries to get what he can from it. I was struck by how the cliff top and the angry sea (in other parts of Japan) are settings that recur in more recent Japanese films including Ringu (1998) and Villain (2010). They also appear in two further Nomura films.
N.B. If you are looking for this film, don’t get confused by the 2009 remake which is easily available on DVD.