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.
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 Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.
- 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).
Suzuki has a masterful sense of constructing an image, which you might expect given his intensive record of filmmaking throughout the 60s resulting in some of the most eye-catching set design and at times dabbling in pop art iconography. This one sticks to black-and-white for its World War II-period story about a young woman who is pressed into ‘service’ on the frontlines in China, where she falls for the eager young Private Mikami (Tamio Kawachi) who serves under a rather more brutal superior officer (Isao Tamagawa). Along with her story (and the actor Yumiko Nogawa is excellent, really tearing into the material with gusto), the film also takes aim at Japanese military policy and the dehumanising nature of warfare, as the private finds himself on trial for being captured by the enemy (despite being unconscious at the time). It’s a fascinating film and one made with Suzuki’s usual flair.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Hajime Takaiwa 高岩肇 (based on the novel by Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Tamio Kawachi 川地民夫, Isao Tamagawa 玉川伊佐男; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2020.
Seijun Suzuki certainly made a surfeit of luridly-coloured borderline-exploitation films during the 1960s, directed with evident panache and a certain gonzo charm. The opening sequences of this particular film hurtle through at a breakneck pace, leaving scant moments for pause or reflection (whether on the part of the characters or the audience). The film is set in the post-war ruins of Tokyo, expressively evoked by a soundstage set that, with its saturated colours, at time suggests Fassbinder’s later Querelle — in its psycho-sexual undertones, if not quite to the homoerotic degree that Fassbinder takes it (though we get our share of Joe Shishido’s sweat-drenched naked body). If the events are lurid — about a band of tough prostitutes working amongst this post-war detritus, trying to eke out a living while flagrantly punishing any of their peers who breaks their code — they suggest a certain moral grey area that existed at the time. Many shots centre the US flag of occupation, and the presence of American military police is constant, as they patrol and are frequently mocked and physically abused and attacked by people who have very little food and few opportunities to get ahead, though already we see gangsters making a space for themselves in this uncertain economy. Scenes of sexual torture push it in darker directions, but the focus remains on the vicissitudes of difficult lives at a transitional moment in Japanese history.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎 and Goro Tanada 棚田吾郎; Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Tomiko Ishii 石井トミコ, Kayo Matsuo 松尾嘉代; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.
Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.
I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.
The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.
With some of the same actors as in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent films Ida and Cold War is this Franco-Polish coproduction, with a more polished costume drama sheen from journeywoman Anne Fontaine, who has made some solid films (I’ve reviewed both Gemma Bovery and Adore on this site, and it’s fair to say I liked one more than the other).
Photographed by Caroline Champetier, there’s an austere beauty to this Poland-set World War II film about nuns in a convent dealing with the outcome of an earlier Russian occupation, with the help of a French Red Cross nurse, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). It’s a terrifying prospect, even in wartime, and there are no easy answers with this kind of material. Perhaps, then, the truth and the intersection with faith overwhelmed the filmmakers, or perhaps they felt it better to set up the conflicts rather than guide the audience. I found it strangely distanced but I must concede this may be more a matter of my response.
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Fontaine and Alice Vial; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 14 November 2016.
If we’re covering recent Polish cinema, it’s impossible to avoid the filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski, who came to prominence with British films like Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), but returned to his native language for Ida (2013). His most recent film goes back into a period setting for another lush, tortured romantic drama.
Somehow buried deep in its genetic code, this film is a musical. Structurally it feels as if it’s inspired by jazz (in a way that La La Land or Whiplash only wish they could be), with a loose, almost improvisational texture, and solos for each of the players. At the very least, one can say it is suffused with music. It deals with a love affair between a pianist and a singer, but in some ways the two characters getting together didn’t grab me: their love felt like more of a pretext for a key change, as we move through time from late-40s rural Poland — where prospective singers (including our heroine Zula, played by Joanna Kulig) are auditioned for a folk ensemble, while our male protagonist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) does field recordings of popular peasant songs — to Warsaw in the 50s, then tangents to various major European cities throughout the 50s, and ending sometime in the mid-60s. The cinematography is gorgeous, while for the story, extraneous explanatory bits are elided in favour of the feeling that the actors convey to one another, little phrases of a love ballad reworked into something with political and even religious meaning — the carapace of Catholicism and Communism figure throughout — but hidden deep within. (Plus bonus marks for wrapping up such an epic narrative within 90 minutes.)
Director Paweł Pawlikowski; Writers Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski; Cinematographer Łukasz Żal; Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 29 July 2018.
I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.
Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.
Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.
I’ve seen this film before apparently, but I really don’t recall it, which is odd. Visually, it builds on Wajda’s previous two films, particularly Kanal (1957), only deepening and enriching its monochrome tones, and setting up some beautiful and striking deep focus shots. It really is something to look at, helped along by Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in his dark glasses. I don’t see him as particularly glamorous or attractive, though he has a certain screen appeal, and his work on behalf of the Communist underground in assassinating political opponents is hardly endearing either, but that’s the drama of the film. It all whirls by with a lightness of touch that recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu without perhaps the sense of absurdity (or without quite the same level of absurdity, because there’s certainly at least some humour at work here). It’s a film, a trilogy indeed, about the legacy of World War II in Poland, and as such these films by Wajda had a huge impact on the development of Polish filmmaking, somewhat akin to the French New Wave. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it’s certainly a fine work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda (based on the novel by Andrzejewski); Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik; Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 3 April 2002 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 6 January 2020).