There are relatively few global filmmakers who regularly release films of consistent high quality – and which make it into UK cinemas. One of the few is Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, arriving here only six months after its Venice appearance, maintains this record. It will be seen, however, as a departure in some ways from the mainly family melodramas that have brought him the widest audiences.
It’s not immediately apparent what kind of film this is and some of the promotional material I’ve seen is quite misleading. It’s not primarily a crime film or a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘philosophical protest film’. The protest is against the Japanese justice system and it is philosophical because it is very personal and not at all practical – only a handful of people have an inkling of what the protest is about. I don’t know that much about how the Japanese justice system works but one anomaly, given the other aspects of Japan’s modern democracy, is that the death penalty is still in operation. Wikipedia has a useful page detailing the very precise instructions for sentencing which could result in execution by hanging. It’s worth reading through these to understand the legal case that faces the film’s protagonist, the lawyer Shigemori. He’s played by Fukuyama Masaharu, who also played a lead role in Kore-eda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013), his biggest hit in Japan. There is another link between the two films. Like Father, Like Son is about an attempt to resolve problems for both families when it becomes known after six years that two mothers in a maternity hospital were given each other’s babies. The discovery raises a host of legal questions as well as issues for the families. Kore-eda was told by his legal consultant that: “Court is not the place to determine the truth”. This observation (quoted in the film’s Press Pack interview) then drives the approach to The Third Murder.
The narrative of The Third Murder really begins with Shigemori’s legal firm being appointed to defend Misumi (Yakusho Kôji), accused of a murder to which he has confessed. Because he has already served time for a murder thirty years ago and because he is charged this time with murder plus burglary, the death sentence appears inevitable. Shigemori begins by following procedures designed to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence, but his meetings with his client and some of the facts he discovers about the case disturb him. It turns out that Shigemori’s father, now retired, was the judge who passed the sentence on Misumi for his crime on Hokkaido in the 1980s. Shigemori would have been a boy then and when he meets his father, the old man says he made a mistake – if he had sentenced Misumi to death, the second murder wouldn’t have happened. His intervention drives the narrative into another family drama. It transpires all three men (Shigemori, Misumi and the murdered man) have daughters and this leads Shigemori into new avenues of investigation which will eventually push him into a change of heart and a change of strategy, especially when he meets the victim’s daughter Sakie (Hirose Suzu, the titular character in Our Little Sister, 2015). However, Misumi seems to be playing his own games and begins to change his testimony. When the case finally comes to court, it isn’t at all clear what will happen. And this is the point of the narrative. The court will make a decision based on judicial procedures and it will not necessarily take note of anything Shigemori or Misumi might say.
Audiences may well resent the fact that we never find out who actually committed the murder, even though we think we’ve seen the act at the beginning of the film. We don’t know whether Misumi ever tells the truth. Is the ‘third murder’ really the death of Shigemori’s belief in the judicial system? At the start of the narrative he seems very efficient and conventional in approach. By the end he has changed considerably. How do we feel about the case now? (Or perhaps more importantly, how does the Japanese audience feel at the film’s conclusion.) Kore-eda succeeds in presenting Shigemori and Misumi as two men who are in many ways quite similar – but one began with certain advantages and was ‘judged’ and the other wasn’t. This ‘doubling’ of the two men is achieved visually in some astonishing scenes in the interview room culminating in a shot which manages to superimpose one head over the other. This was the first time that Kore-eda had used the ‘Scope frame of 2.35:1 and he and his cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya set out to shoot the film very differently compared to their earlier collaborations. They opted for the colder look of crime films and studied Kurosawa’s High and the Low (1963) for ideas about using the ‘Scope frame. There are many big close-ups in the interview room and the courtroom scenes are shot more to emphasise the procedures than to create drama. Kore-eda began his career as a documentary filmmaker and he carried out a great deal of research to represent the procedures faithfully.
There are several things about the plot and the use of imagery that I still don’t understand and which will have to wait for a second viewing. But this didn’t ‘spoil’ the narrative for me. I do recognise one of the complaints though and that is the way the central pairing of the lawyer and client comes to dominate and we lose track of some of the secondary characters. For example, Shigemori has two colleagues working with him. One is an older and perhaps more experienced former prosecutor and the other is a keen younger man (like Kurosawa’s young apprentice figures?). Both these characters seem to fade into the background after earlier providing important sounding-boards for Shigemori’s changing ideas about the case. I’m tempted to conclude that Kore-eda perhaps might have developed his narrative further. Some have complained that the film is too slow and already feels too long at 124 minutes. I could have taken another 30 minutes – or even a two or three part long-form TV production?
I should say something about the two leads in the film. Yakusho Kôji is one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated actors with roles for major directors such as Imamura Shôhei and Kurosawa Kyoshi. His biggest film in the UK was possibly the romantic comedy Shall We Dance (1996). Fukuyama Masaharu has much less experience in films but he has the distinction of being one of the most successful pop singers ever in Japan with 25 No1 singles. For Kore-eda he seems to have played two roles that both see an uptight, ‘controlled’ man forced to change by the experience of meeting other kinds of men and learning their stories. As well as Takimoto’s cinematography, the score by Ludovico Einaudi also works well to convey the tone of Kore-eda’s film.
This film has already generated much interest and nominations for a number of prestigious awards. However, a major Oscar was not one of the Awards that it actually won. The Hollywood Academy is not noted for its critical acumen, but this year’s major awards really do ‘take the biscuit’. Do people really think that Birdman is a better film, has a better director and has better cinematography? Of the major award nominees Selma is the best film that I have seen, apart from Ida in the Best Foreign Language Category. It may sound banal but maybe the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave last year sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers stereotypes such as African-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!
Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one thought. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. One aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or reactionary.
The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence is shot using noticeable cinematic techniques, which the film then tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.
The film continues with scenes from private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual experience of the day to day for the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of Edgar J. Hoover.
The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.
When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.
Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of Non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.
If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film twice now, on both occasions there were good-sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence.
The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit, [she does get ‘a film by ..’]. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars are coming to join them they break into a chorus of De.e.o.o.o.o. The film is also conscious on the issue of gender – at mealtimes and in other ways. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him.
In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical [excepting Johnson and Wallace], but that too is in line with the intent of the film.
The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and dramatic overhead shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Just to highlight one scene. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist, John Lewis (Stephan James), in a car: whilst they are partly in darkness, as the conversation develops the light falls increasingly on King’s face.
The film was mainly shot on location. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, sitting regally in the Oval office.
And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue was mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action.
The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anamorphic ratio – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.
Still if you see one Oscar-winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.