Tagged: Compendium film

Train of Events (UK 1949)

Railways are featured in several Ealing films, but in the case of Train of Events the studio went the whole hog and and approached the newly formed London Midland region of British Railways to provide access to the engine sheds and mainline trains working out of Euston station. The resulting production is a good example of a film that misses several targets and has generally left critics cold, but for anybody interested in railways or representations of aspects of life in London in 1949 it offers a range of pleasures. This is one of Ealing’s ‘portmanteau’ or anthology/compendium films. The best known of these is Dead of Night (1945), which like The Halfway House (1944), goes for individual stories told because of a meeting of different groups of people around whom the segments of the narrative are organised. Each of these films has a slightly different narrative structure and a different feel in terms of genre. Train of Events deals with four separate stories which eventually converge on the 3.45 pm Liverpool express from London Euston. What happens to the train is revealed immediately after the credits and the four stories are told in flashback before a final sequence in the present.

Miles Malleson as the clerk issuing job sheets at the engine shed

There are three directors, four writers and two cinematographers involved and the large cast required the round-up of actors from other Rank partners as well as early roles for actors who would become well-known in the 1950s, such as Peter Finch, John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Leslie Phillips. There are a host of familiar players who will have you scrambling for reference books. The first story, directed by Sidney Cole, focuses on the railway itself and the family of a senior locoman played by Jack Warner. Gladys Henson and Susan Shaw are his wife and daughter. Warner and Shaw were well-known to audiences at the time as key members of the Huggett Family films made by Gainsborough. In 1950, Warner and Henson were reunited in the police procedural, The Blue Lamp. This railway story offers us access to the engine shed at Camden and the streets around Somers Town, the district just to the North of the three mainline railway stations of Euston, St. Pancras and King’s Cross. The few minutes of documentary footage promise a fascinating story that isn’t really followed through completely. Cole was the least experienced of the three directors but the very experienced actors and camera crews carry the story segment. It’s the only time in my viewing experience that I’ve had the same thrill of a railway drama that could match Jean Renoir’s La bête humaine (France 1938), if only for a few moments. Currently, there are hundreds of historical railway films on YouTube, many made by the railway companies or British Transport films, but few of them with the professional crews of a studio like Ealing. Having said that, I don’t think Ealing’s crew members were very aware of which locos they were filming and how to ensure they had enough coverage of the loco on the 3.45 express. Still, 1949 was particularly interesting for transport historians as the railways had just been formally nationalised in 1948. Some of the locomotives on shed have the new numbering system and livery, others are still identifiable as London Midland and Scottish Railway engines.

Valerie Hobson and John Clements in ‘The Composer’ story

The narrative structure means that the stories are not presented separately and instead there is some cutting between stories that takes us to different parts of London and includes some more documentary-style location shooting. It’s good to see trams crossing Westminster Bridge and buses around the West End. One story is set partly in the BBC television studio at Alexandra Palace and partly in Covent Garden. It features a conductor/composer (John Clements) and his music: a piece about one man and two women which in turn points to a comic drama about the two women in his life, his wife (Valeria Hobson) and the prima donna pianist (Irina Baronova). John Gregson plays a priggish young man interviewed in the studio about the ‘immoral music composition’. Directed by Charles Crichton, this is the weakest of the four stories for me. In parts it felt like it was borrowing from The Archers’ The Red Shoes (1948) but without the sure-footedness of Powell and Pressburger.

Patric Doonan as the railwayman boyfriend to Susan Shaw (with her back to the camera)

The other two stories are the responsibility of Basil Dearden. One is a different kind of arts/theatre story in which a young actor (Peter Finch) is rehearsing a part in the West End in a play about to go on tour. He is disturbed by the sudden appearance of his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for some time. This story includes some night time street footage which is distinctly noirish. The fourth story involves a young woman who has fallen for a German POW who has possibly eluded the authorities for whatever reasons (repatriation or settlement of POWs was not completed until late 1948). Either way, the couple are on the run and the Liverpool train offers the chance of access to a boat leaving the UK. Both these stories have real possibilities and offer real drama rooted in the London of the time. They reminded me of Dearden’s 1947 film Frieda, one of my favourite Ealing pictures. One of the main problems with Train of Events is the shifting tone between the four stories with two stories including comedy and the other two tragedy. I think the problem lies with Michael Balcon as the studio head. It would have been better for me if the railway worker’s family story had had more bite, perhaps along the lines of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) which as well as some noir railway footage includes both Warner and Shaw in its cast. I would have left out the ‘composer’ story altogether and developed each of the other stories. I would also have avoided the underlying message of the film which seems to suggest that the outcome of each story is based on the ‘moral behaviour’ of the central characters.

LFF 2021 #3: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô, Japan 2021)

This is the highest profile film in my selection, winner of the Silver Bear at Berlin this year. I chose it partly because Nick Lacey had written about Happy Hour (2015) on this blog, the five hours plus earlier film by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke. I didn’t think I’d make it through the five hours but at only two this more recent film looked doable. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an odd title that conjures up for me a different kind of film than that offered here. The original Japanese title is ‘Coincidence and Imagination’ which is a little more helpful. It’s a compendium or anthology film comprising three separate episodes each written and directed by Hamaguchi. The characters and settings are different in each short film. In each case the narrative is built around strained meetings and conversations, behind which are other relevant relationships.

Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) and her ex-boyfriend Kazua (Nakajima Ayumu) discuss his recent meeting with Tsugumi

Episode 1 ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’ deals with two twenty-something female friends. The coincidence in this case turns out to be that Tsugumi meets a man and they appear to fall for each other almost immediately (thus the ‘magic’). But as Meiko listens to her friend’s story she realises that this is Kazua who was once her boyfriend. What will she do? Will she tell Tsugumi and if so, how? Is she jealous? Does she still love Kazua? Episode 2 ‘Door Wide Open’ is rather different. Nao, a mature university student who is married with a small child takes another, younger, student as her lover. They have both taken a French course with Professor Segawaya who always keeps his office door ‘wide open’, mindful of harassment charges. The young man has been held back in class by the Professor and seeks revenge. When the Professor wins a prestigious prize for his novel, the young man dreams up an entrapment plan which he forces his partner to carry out. But what can she do when the door is always wide open and any passing student or staff could look in?

Nao (Mori Katsuki) reads a passage from his novel to Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko)

Episode 3 ‘Once Again’ involves only two characters, but there are other missing characters who are important to the narrative. Natsuko returns to her home city of Sendai to attend a high school reunion of the class of 1998. She hasn’t been back for twenty years since she started work in Tokyo and she discovers that she doesn’t know anybody, until a woman does recognise her but Natsuko can’t remember her name. Next day on her way to the station she sees another woman on the escalator. Is this her old lover? After an entertaining chase around the escalator the two women manage to find each other. But will this ‘reunion’ work out? They go to the woman’s house to make tea. This last episode has a ‘speculative fiction’ aspect to it in that the world has experienced a computer virus which has caused personal files on computers to be dispatched to contacts, sharing secrets and causing disruption. Hamaguchi made this episode after COVID struck and this idea was his response.

Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and Aya (Kawai Aoba) by Sendai Station

There are several notable aspects of each of these encounters. Most of the ‘action’ is simply a conversation between two people and in one case the two characters are framed in a continuous two-shot for what seems like several minutes with sustained dialogue. To do this, the actors must be very well prepared and at ease with shooting. Hamaguchi discussed acting in his online Introduction and in the Q&A. He stresses that his main motivation was working with his actors and he outlined his methods. What was most interesting for me was his revelation that it was his prior production experience on documentaries that enabled him to understand the issue of anxiety on a shoot, both for himself and the actors or the subjects of the narrative. He works with all the actors together on their lines, repeating them so many times that they internalise the words and relax.

As to the three scenarios, he argues that he thought about seemingly impossible set-ups and how the characters might react to the events in realistic ways. Of the three episodes I found the second most gripping because it generated an erotic tension and the third the most interesting in the way the script developed what seemed a not unusual occurrence when two people meet and they are not sure whether they know each other or who the other person is. What happens is very interesting. The first episode was in some ways the most conventional scenario, but even so did hold my attention because of the quality of the performances.

Nao with her younger lover Sasaki (Kai Shouma) in ‘Door Wide Open’

What surprised me about this film was that I assumed it would feel slow with long conversations but I was very surprised to discover just how quickly the time had flown by because I was so engrossed. Hamaguchi’s work has been compared by international critics to several other directors but mostly I think to Eric Rohmer. He himself mentions the French New Wave plus John Cassavetes and his film Husbands (US 1970) as a major influence. These comparisons represent high praise but the startling thing is that Hamaguchi completed a second film in 2021 and it is also in the LFF programme. Ride My Car (2021), adapted from a Murakami short story is the Japanese Oscar entry for 2022 (and it won the Cannes screenplay this year). It must be very good. One of our regular correspondents, John, has seen it, however, and stated that for him it dragged a little during its three hour running time. I’ll be interested to see it after watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It does seem that with these two films, Hamaguchi is being accepted as the latest international auteur to emerge from Japan.

The technical credits of Wheel of Fortune are all strong but I’d like to pick out the cinematography of Iioka Yukiko which is a crucial element in the success of the acting. I thought the ‘light classical’ piano soundtrack was effective but it doesn’t appear to be credited. [A friend told me later it was Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’.] I don’t want to pick out any of the actors, all of them were very good for me, though studying performances and following subtitles does mean missing some facial expressions and gestures as the BFI host of the screening Hyun Jin Cho suggested. I realise that I haven’t emphasised that in both Happy Hour and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi has presented female-led stories about women’s desire, but without any sense that this is unusual. This shouldn’t need to be said but still seems necessary. I enjoyed this film very much, especially the opportunity to explore these scenarios.

Modern Films have acquired this film for UK and Ireland distribution. I recommend seeing it and discussing the scenarios. Would you act differently in the same situation as these characters?

Tokyo! (Japan-France 2008)

Tokyo! is a triptych, a three part ‘compendium film’ made as a Japanese-French co-production partnership and featuring two of the quirkiest French directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. The reason for writing about it now is that I am researching the third director, the then rising star of South Korean cinema, Bong Joon-ho. All three directors were asked to make a film lasting roughly 36 minutes set in Tokyo. This follows similar projects set in Paris and New York. I don’t know how the commission was worded but the three films take quite different approaches. Two of them do focus on ‘living in Tokyo’.

The young couple arrive in Tokyo and eventually find a place to park in Michel Gondry’s film

Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ is up first. He adapted a graphic novel story, ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell, and presents it as a young couple driving into Tokyo and then sleeping on the floor of a university friend’s apartment. Space is at a premium in Tokyo so all the apartments are cramped and expensive and there is nowhere to park the car. The guy in the couple is an aspiring filmmaker with some novel ideas but the woman has not yet decided what she wants to do and the experience of coping with Tokyo (and how it changes their relationship) affects her much more than him. Gondry finds a fascinating and delightful way of visualising how she feels and I greatly enjoyed his film.

Denis Lavant plays the central character in Leos Carax’s film ‘Merde’

The middle film by Leos Carax is titled ‘Merde’ and features a demented character emerging from the sewers and racing down the streets in Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, knocking down shoppers and stealing odd items to chew on. Dressed in a vivid but filthy green suit the man is played by Carax’s ‘go to’ actor Denis Lavant with relish. He has a milky eye, a red beard, sooty hands and feet and gurns enthusiastically. His rampage is repeated a little later but this time he stages a terrorist act and is arrested. In what follows, Carax offers a satire on a range of social and political issues that are universal but here they are made specific to Japan. The final section utilises the judicial system in Japan as a narrative device to pick out specific Japanese issues about wartime atrocities and immigration policies and also offers a prescient commentary on how populist media campaigns are fuelled (and contested) by the ways in which incidents are reported. A caption at the end promises us a ‘Merde in New York’ follow-up.

the ‘hikikomori’ in Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Shaking Tokyo

Bong Joon-ho’s film completes the triptych with a more composed and beautifully designed film, ‘Shaking Tokyo’. The central character is a hikikomori – a recluse who lives alone in an apartment from which he never emerges, only opening the door to the delivery drivers/riders who bring his food and drink and other necessities. Even then he doesn’t look up to make eye contact. He hasn’t left the apartment for more than 10 years. He is still relatively young and receives money from his father each week. One day he opens the door for his Saturday pizza delivery. As usual, his gaze is lowered to focus on the pizza box onto which he will place the cash for the deliverer, but today his eye catches the leg of the person holding the box. There is an almost fetishistic suspender joining the person’s shorts and leggings. Our recluse hero looks up and sees this is an attractive young woman who delivers pizzas using a motor scooter. For a moment their eyes make contact and then a rumble announces an earthquake. The apartment full of supplies and carefully stored pizza boxes etc. starts to shake and the young woman faints. The recluse is forced to act. I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the narrative, but after this classic ‘inciting incident’ the hikikomori can’t just carry on as he did before. He feels compelled to leave the apartment.

The trhree directors with Bong in the centre

Bong’s film is beautifully shot by Fukumoto Jun. Kagawa Teruyuki, playing the role of the recluse, makes almost imperceptible movements in close-up to convey his thought processes (which are sometimes confirmed by his voice-over thoughts). Within the confines of the apartment and an exquisite mise en scène comprising neatly stacked boxes, bottles and toilet roles, Bong is still able to construct an engaging narrative. How do we relate this to Bong’s concerns in his features? Unusual for a Bong film there is no form of family or social group to enable a commentary on society – perhaps because this is Japan rather than South Korea? Instead the film demonstrates Bong’s mastery of design and choreography of action. And the hikikomori is a familiar marginal character who is forced out of his home to search for the young woman. Once out of the apartment and out on the street, perhaps Bong does critique Japanese society, albeit obliquely and in a way that might only be possible for a Korean. Whatever you make of the last few minutes of Bong’s film, he has done what all the best short films should do in my view – produce a narrative with ideas and try to make it as ‘filmic’ as possible. I don’t how his crew were able to create the final scenes but it works very well. I would recommend the the triptych for Bong’s film alone with Gondry’s as a bonus. I know Leos Carax has his fans and they may enjoy his contribution.