청춘의 십자로 Cheongchun-eui Sipjaro (Crossroads of Youth aka Turning Point of the Youngsters, 1934)

In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.


For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.

With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

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La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).


Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 232: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959)

Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

浮草物語 Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Ozu; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英朗; Starring Takeshi Sakamoto 坂本武, Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Rieko Yagumo 八雲理恵子; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018.

浮草 Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Ganjiro Nakamura 中村鴈治郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 October 2018 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, October 1997).

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).