Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

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The Favourite (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.


Yorgos Lanthimos can go either way really can’t he? I didn’t even see his The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I really liked The Lobster, and then there’s this, which seems like a carefully controlled “fvck you” to the whole industry of heritage filmmaking. It has the sumptuous sets and glorious frocks and the use of baroque music pulling it back to something like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon but then it just throws a bunch of stuff in that feels less like ‘let’s try and get the historical details exactly right’ (as many historical dramas are wont to do) and more ‘let’s do some free-form historical cosplay’. Needless to say, I think the latter is a far more rewarding strategy at this point in time, though given all the fun dance sequences, the chucking rotten fruit at bewigged naked guys, and the racing of lobsters, they might as well have cast more people of colour in prominent roles. Still, it’s a great film for it’s three leads (Colman, Weisz and Stone), and the way they just talk down to and over the men, who clearly think a lot of themselves but are also fools. The filmmaking feels at once liberated in the way it tries out ideas, but also very precise and controlled in the way it’s all filmed and put together.

The Favourite film posterCREDITS
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 28 December 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Eight: Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Maternal (both 2019)

My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.

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Women Filmmakers: Lucrecia Martel

Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.

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Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II Екатери́на Алексе́евна); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001).

Criterion Sunday 104: 心中天網島 Shinju Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide, 1969)

A strange film, at once adapted from a puppet drama and also self-consciously taking some of its formal characteristics. The story follows a relationship which has tragic overtones, involving a man out of step with his society. However, the presence throughout of these puppeteer characters, at once mutely witnessing and manipulating what’s happening, is pretty powerful.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writers Taeko Tomioka 富岡多恵子 and Toru Takemitsu 武満徹 (based on the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村吉右衛門, Shima Iwashita 岩下志麻; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 June 2016.

Belle (2013)

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.

Belle film posterCREDITS
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.

When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.

Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.

This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).

The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.

The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.

CREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).

Pride and Prejudice (2005)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joe Wright | Writers Deborah Moggach (based on the novel by Jane Austen) | Cinematographer Roman Osin | Starring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, Donald Sutherland, Kelly Reilly | Length 129 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 21 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

There have been a lot of adaptations and reimaginings of novels by Jane Austen (there was a particular glut of them in the 1990s), and for my sins I’ve seen a fair few, such that I’m never really sure what’s going on and who’s who whenever an Austen film starts. I feel like I should know the stories better, but they always seem to involve a bit of to-do around social status, some mentions of the gentleman’s annual income, several lengthy dance sequences, and many many glorious frocks. As staples of the ‘heritage film’ — a moribund genre if ever there was one, laid out by Merchant-Ivory and focused above all on bloodless period frippery — they should by all rights be terrible, but I must admit I like the odd period film with all their stuffed shirts and wilful heroines.

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