Criterion Sunday 302: 切腹 Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962)

A film named after ritual suicide was never likely to be a thrilling prospect (at least not to me; you do you if that kind of thing gets you excited). However, it turns out this Japanese samurai-era thriller has very little actual seppuku in it, indeed one could argue that the very idea of this kind of ritual dishonour is what the film is keen to address, because neither of the masterless samurai (ronin) who enter the Iyi clan house, both looking haggard and desperate, is really looking to commit suicide. Instead, through a series of elegant shots and beautiful compositions arranged around the hardened and determined face of Tatsuya Nakadai in the lead role as Hanshiro, we get a series of flashbacks that make it clear that there is little honour in the samurai code and that plenty of people (like the Iyi chief played by Rentaro Mikuni) manipulate it to their own ends. In fact, there’s an ultimate bitterness and anger at the way in which those who have fallen on hard times are treated, and the brutality of the Iyi response is what Hanshiro is seeking to confront. It’s a film with depths of darkness in every frame, as within each character, and while it has a lot of the generic tropes that other more famous films (those of Kurosawa for example, and Rashomon doesn’t feel too distant to this one), but it twists them in complex ways: a fight sequence isn’t just a bit of fun swordplay, it’s a fundamental question of honour, and unlike in Kurosawa’s films it’s just one man against a (flawed, ignoble) system.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a ten-minute introduction by film scholar Donald Richie about the themes and meaning within Harakiri.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 異聞浪人記 Ibunronin ki by Yasuhiko Takiguchi 滝口康彦); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Akira Ishihama 石濱朗; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 20 March 2020.

Bacurau (2019)

Everything being well, this is a film I should have seen in a cinema two weeks ago, but I returned from holiday on Friday 13th, just on the cusp of the COVID-19 crisis, and sticking around in a central London cinema didn’t seem particularly sensible, and would increasingly seem less so up until the point cinemas closed a few days later. Well, it’s on Mubi now, where everyone can watch it — and I might add, without wishing to become some kind of sponsored content, that for UK viewers they currently have a deal to get three months for £1 so you have no excuse if you want to see this and some of the other films I’ve written about (there are also seasons dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, Park Chan-wook, Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention new films by filmmakers I don’t know yet but soon will). Mendonça Filho’s debut film Neighbouring Sounds, the one he made before Aquarius, is also there, and I feel like that’ll be another one I’ll check out soon.


There is no shortage of art dealing with the sometimes brutal intersection between the fast pace of modernity and traditional communities usually left unsupported by government and big business. In a sense, that’s what this film is dealing with, using a sort of generic template that traces its lineage back to The Most Dangerous Game or alternatively to 60s acid westerns (there is some ingestion of psychotropic drugs towards the end, but it’s not filmed in a trippy way). The first half of the film is about the little titular village in the outback of Brazil, tracing the family dynamics and the local life, which has been upturned by the death of one of its elder citizens. Right from the start there are these little clues towards the upheavals to come, such as the way the town has disappeared from Google maps, and the arrival of a mayoral candidate from a (disliked) local town sparks the ire of the locals, who are very efficient at hiding themselves away in a hurry (this becomes a plot point later on). Thus when Udo Kier and his gang of ne’er-do-wells arrives on the scene, we’re primed for something odd to happen and things slide downhill pretty quick, as the body count racks up. It’s brutal and gory in its way, but it’s also a film that’s angry about governments and about technology and about Western capitalism and probably also pretty angry about Bolsonaro and his ilk. And it’s an anger that will probably percolate for a while through the cinema of many nations now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of this kind of rapacious economic system.

Bacurau film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles; Cinematographer Pedro Sotero; Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Udo Kier, Sônia Braga; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 26 March 2020.

Three 1956 Films by Yuzo Kawashima: Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, The Balloon and Our Town

Continuing my films seen on Mubi week, it’s incredible now, but perhaps unsurprising, to reflect that Japan produced such a huge wealth of filmmaking talent after the war that has been so little appreciated (at least here) despite the many decades that have since elapsed. Mubi has inaugurated a retrospective dedicated to one such underappreciated talent (director Yuzo Kawashima), whose films are well-regarded by the Japanese film community, but almost unknown — and certainly largely unavailable — in English. Despite his lack of Western renown, his Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, 1957) has its acolytes, especially in Japan where it comes near the top of a lot of best-ever lists, but perhaps the titles just didn’t translate so well in English. It’s frustrating that in the UK only three of his many films were made available on Mubi; when I travelled earlier this month to Australia, I found a lot more of them, though sadly (being on holiday) did not take up the opportunity to watch them all.

Continue reading “Three 1956 Films by Yuzo Kawashima: Suzaki Paradise: Red Light, The Balloon and Our Town”

Holy Motors (2012)

Much of my week themed around films I’ve seen on Mubi will be films, like this one, which are no longer watchable there because of their 30 day turnaround on everything (a new film every day, with only 30 films on the platform at any one time). However, I believe they give a sense of what’s available; at the end of last year for example they did a month of the decade’s classics, which is where I caught up with today’s film.


So, undoubtedly, I slept on this one. Despite making many best-of lists (for the year and now the decade), it sounded from what I heard initially like some kind of oneiric puzzle box of a film, a state-of-the-nation type disquisition perhaps, or some kind of grand folly (in which, after all, Carax has form), but I loved Pola X (1999) so I’m surprised I put this off. It does indeed follow its own strange logic, suggesting both every filmmaker’s favourite topic — a film reflecting on its own creation and the creative impulses of art itself — and something more intangible perhaps: a sense of the world and of shifting identities within it. On a single viewing at home, I can’t really hope to make sense of it all, but it’s a film that clearly contains many readings within it, a dense allusory text (not just to Eyes Without a Face but the presence of Édith Scob and that mask is certainly the clearest of all the film’s tips of the hat) and a magisterial visual style. It could of course be empty — and there are undoubtedly flourishes in there just for he hell of it, for pure fun — but this doesn’t feel like cinematic magic for its own sake, and Denis Lavant in himself has such an expressive register that you can’t imagine the film made with anyone else.

Holy Motors film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Leos Carax; Cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape; Starring Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 3 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

American Psycho (2000)

If there’s one thing that Netflix is most commonly criticised for, it’s the relentless focus on the new. If you want old films generally you go to other places, like the Criterion Channel or TCM (if you’re in North America), or Mubi, or even Amazon Prime. Still, you can sometimes find some vintage classics on Netflix, and that’s the film I’m covering today, because yes the year 2000 is now a good 20 years’ away in time. I should mention, as an aside, I have not read nor at this point would I read the original novel on which this was based; it has its adherents, but I don’t think I need to welcome the voice of Mr Ellis into my life.


For Christmas Day, my wife and I watched this film, what I would now consider a modern classic (and almost a Christmas film itself), though I’m not sure I was quite so sold on it when I first saw it almost 20 years ago. If anything, I think age has only made the satire sharper and more resonant, though the core of the film remains the monologues of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), often critiquing popular music of the era, which he delivers in a completely straight way that only heightens their comic impact. For me the key thing the film does is blur the line between what’s actually happening and what’s in Bateman’s head, to the extent that it’s never clear where anything lies as the film progresses. It’s a film about the opulent allure of specifically American wealth creation, and a nasty dissection (as it were) of all the flaws inherent in corporate consumerism, about the way it turns society against itself, and leads to the murderous psychosis that’s at the film’s heart, and which it very clearly links to the functioning of American capitalism itself. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted. I wonder that Mary Harron never again had a chance to emulate its success, but this film at least stands as proof of her talent.

American Psycho film posterCREDITS
Director Mary Harron; Writers Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis); Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 9 September 2000 (and most recently on Netflix streaming at home, London, Wednesday 25 December 2019).

Trys dienos (Three Days, 1991)

A filmmaker whose first films were made in the final dying days of the Soviet Union (I have a bonus review of one of them below), but who has since come to some prominence on the art film scene has been Šarūnas Bartas (often transcribed as Sharunas Bartas). I’ve so far only seen this, his debut feature film, but it has a beautiful slow cinema quality that definitely commends his work to me, and as a bonus comes in at a sprightly 75 minutes.


Strong echoes of Tarkovsky in this debut feature. It moves slowly, deliberately, without excessive talking. There are characters (two young men, and a young woman, primarily), who meet, then seem to be looking for a room, but for what reason (sex? shelter? some flicker of human connection?) is unclear. What is evident is that their town is bleak, apparently without comfort, filled with crumbling edifices, and that their lives have little future to commend them. Bartas, like Tarkovsky and Tarr, is great at capturing that feeling in landscapes, against which the characters seem suitably bowed. Fantastic stuff but I love this kind of thing.

Three Days French film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Starring Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Rimma Latypova Римма Латыпова, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Audrius Stonys; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.


Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory of the Day Passed By, 1990) [USSR, medium-length, black-and-white]

A beautiful quiet mid-length film which has a documentary way about capturing an unnamed city and its characters, its bleakness and its persistence, and the changing seasons.

In Memory of the Day Passed By film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.

Наследный принц Республики Naslednyy prints respubliki (Crown Prince of the Republic, 1934)

I’m still on holiday this week, but Friday in the UK sees the release of one of my favourite films of last year, the Georgian dance-based drama And Then We Danced, which I exhort everyone to go see. Therefore this week, I’m doing a week devoted to the Soviet Union and its former republics, starting with the silent era.


Of all the films I saw at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in 2018, I had perhaps the fewest expectations about this one, and it ended up being thoroughly delightful. It’s a very late silent film made in the USSR about a wayward father (Pyotr Kirillov) who shirks responsibility for raising his son — in a particularly excellent scene, he avers strongly that he’ll leave if his partner (Yevgeniya Pyryalova) goes through with having a baby, grabbing an empty suitcase for show and leaving loudly (“I WILL LEAVE”, “I AM LEAVING!”, “I have left…”) while she looks on impassively and with very little interest in him sticking around. And that’s reasonable, for he is no good, and ends up in a bachelor apartment with a bunch of architects designing the glorious Soviet communal future. Moving forward in time, when (for reasons too silly to elaborate) his baby is separated from its mother and brought to the bachelor pad, they all take turns raising it while searching for its mother. It has a snappy sense of style, some beautiful photography, and a lithe central performance in the character of Andrey (Apsolon), who is first seen along the wharves of Leningrad, like a young Gene Kelly about to launch into a tap routine (though sadly there’s no dancing). It largely maintains its comic pace, and even if one hopes perhaps for an ending wherein the woman raises her kid with the four bachelors (minus the deadbeat dad), at the very least it has a happy outcome.

Crown Prince of the Republic film posterCREDITS
Director Eduard Ioganson Эдуард Иогансон; Writers Boris Chirskov Борис Чирсков, Ioganson, Rafail Muzykant Рафаил Музыкант; Cinematographer Georgi Filatov Георгий Филатов; Starring Pyotr Kirillov Пётр Кириллов, Yevgeniya Pyryalova Евгения Пырялова, Andrei Apsolon Андрей Апсолон; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).