Criterion Sunday 525: 一人息子 Hitori Musuko (The Only Son, 1936)

Ozu’s later works are among some of my favourite films and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the elements in his style were already in place by the time of this, his first sound film. He punctuates shots with images of socks and linen fluttering in the breeze in neatly-arranged rows, a clean organisation that belies the relative poverty the characters live in, and those tatami mat shots are very much in evidence. I also think his attitude to his characters is already fairly complexly laid out: the disappointment of the mother (Choko Iida) in her son (Himori Shin’ichi) is something she buries pretty deeply and when she does express it and try to find some way to accept her son’s life (which is, outwardly, pretty happy despite his lowly career), she is still left with a pain inside, expressed via a final shot. These emotional resonances are largely not expressed via dialogue, and that method of hiding sadness behind a smile is something Ozu would do a lot in his films with Setsuko Hara. Still, for some reason I find it difficult to embrace the film and I don’t think it’s just the slightly indifferent preservation of the elements (there’s a lot of noise on the image and soundtrack). Perhaps it’s the insistency with which the big city is seen as a corrupting influence (but then again the mother is struggling just as hard out in the countryside, having lost her family home), or perhaps I just feel out of step with the moral quandaries — though again I don’t think the mother’s internal struggle is impossible to imagine today. Still, it marks a step on the way to some of cinema’s greatest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Masao Arata 荒田正男; Cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto 杉本正次郎; Starring Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Himori Shin’ichi 日守新一, Yoshiko Tsubouchi 坪内美子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 511: Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006)

I’m not sure is this is the best of Pedro Costa’s three films grouped together as the “Fontainhas trilogy” after the Lisbon slum/shanty town where they take place, but after spending so much time with these characters in this place, its quiet reflectiveness feels the richest, perhaps because of that time spent. Costa too has developed his video aesthetic that he began with In Vanda’s Room, recapturing some of the painterly contrast that was at play in the first of the three (Ossos) but without the conventions of the narrative. The characters are still slouching around going nowhere, interspersed with the tall and elegant elderly man Ventura narrating a letter to someone long gone it seems. and there’s not much in the way of plot to speak of, but it swaps out the crumbling buildings of the previous films for the new apartments built in their place, which have a sort of antiseptic quality, though there’s still plenty enough places for Costa to find his crepuscular shadows. I can’t really explain too much why I like it, but it’s an experience that just needs to sort of wash over you, and at that level I find it rewarding.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Leonardo Simões; Starring Ventura, Vanda Duarte; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and I’m fairly sure I saw it a cinema in London, probably the ICA, back in around 2007, but I don’t have a record of it).

Criterion Sunday 510: No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000)

As a film this is certainly a follow-up to Pedro Costa’s 1997 film Ossos, sharing a lot of the same characters (or maybe they’re real life figures: the term “docufiction” is applied and it’s impossible to know where the boundaries lie), and stylistically we have all these dark, derelict spaces beautifully framed and lit, captured by Costa’s camera, largely fixed in place. However, it’s also quite different, not just in taking in an expansive running time, but in embracing then relatively new digital video technology. There’s a notable degradation to the image compared to Ossos, but this is formally matched to the setting, which itself is a rough, broken area of housing being literally torn down as we watch and as these characters try to live their lives. Drugs are a major part of coping, and watching Vanda and her friends shooting up, sniffing and otherwise ingesting drugs is part of the texture of the film, not a moral lesson so much as just a throughline to their misery. Not much happens in some senses, and this is where watching on a big screen, in the captive experience of a cinema, would undoubtedly have improved it for me. As it was, my attention strayed but never for too long, and Costa proves himself adept at capturing something remarkable about these lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Pedro Costa; Starring Vanda Duarte; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 26 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 509: Ossos (1997)

I can’t fully pretend to be able to tell apart the characters in this film by Pedro Costa, which kicks off his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (being the films set in the downmarket area of Lisbon where migrants from former colonies have tended to cluster together). Nor am I entirely sure of their relationships to one another. However, Costa’s filmmaking is absolutely clear in finding perfect images to capture the essence of this neighbourhood and of the squalor in which the characters live. Not quite dim and unlit as his later films, there’s still a palpable sense of chiaroscuro to the contrasts in these interiors, as characters with equally murky intentions move through them (a young mother, a feckless father, some others who are trying to do good to little avail). Every shot here has a careful and palpable beauty to it, even as the characters themselves seem unable to express themselves and keep trying to find a way out of a certain sense of hopelessness. It feels like a move towards his modern style of filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; Starring Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie (Never Gonna Snow Again, 2020)

Following up with the last few reviews from films screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, this Polish-German co-production has had a UK cinematic release recently, and it’s certainly the kind of diverting, prettily shot and slightly magical comedy-drama that could do well. In the context of a festival, it feels like a little bit of whimsy, but we all need that from time to time.


When you see the title and hear its words spoken (right at the start of the film), you know that it definitely is going to snow at some point, and the dreamily distanced tone suggests clearly — again, pretty early on — that not only will it snow, it will be metaphorically Meaningful. This film has the carefully composed artfulness of a Kieślowski film, though it strikes a far more magical realist tone in being about a mysterious man (Alec Utgoff) who seems to have supernatural powers, and its hinted that it has something to do with his childhood near Chernobyl. But for the most part it plays out as something of a satire on the bland, depressed and heavily medicated nouveau riche middle classes, living in cookie cutter houses at the edge of some industrial city, presumably in Poland (where it was made and filmed). The film has a contemplative tone, a bit like Donnie Darko perhaps if not even a bit meditative like Tarkovsky, and even if it does have that heavy metaphor weighing down on it, it still makes for a pleasant film about wealth, class and privilege punctured by the post-war histories of Eastern Europe embodied in our man Zhenia.

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie (2020) posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert; Cinematographer Englert; Starring Alec Utgoff Олег Утгоф, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 19 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

NZIFF 2021: Gagarine (2020)

Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).


It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.

Gagarine (2020)CREDITS
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 474: 赤い殺意 Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder aka Unholy Desire, 1964)

I do think that Shohei Imamura’s films are rather an acquired taste, given the way they pack in incident at a high pace, while also dealing with bleak and unsavoury storylines and characters, and it’s no different here. For much of its overextended running time of two-and-a-half hours, this film deals with underprivileged characters constantly being dumped on, as their choices and lives are ever more constrained by violence and immiseration. The lead character is Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), who comes from a poor family, judged for being the granddaughter of a prostitute but also for not conforming to the body shape expected of a Japanese woman (being rather plump). She’s married as a second wife to a man (Ko Nishimura) who hasn’t even officially recognised her as his partner and who has been cheating on her for over a decade with a librarian colleague of his, and when a burglar breaks in to steal some money for his medication, further punishment is doled out to her. It’s all rather bleak, but somehow Imamura manages to kindle a small flame of hope that carries throughout the film, that things might get better, and that’s where the title comes in — as part of Sadako becoming more of an agent within her own life, she hatches a plan to do away with the man (or men) besetting her, but knowing that things could yet improve for her is what pulled me through what is otherwise a pretty bleak story, filmed with big ominous pools of inky black shadow everywhere, a Japanese post-war noir palette replete with portentous metaphors for lower class life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura (based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara 藤原審爾); Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Masumi Harukawa 春川ますみ, Ko Nishimura 西村晃, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi 露口茂, Yuko Kusunoki 楠侑子; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 25 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 465: どですかでん Dodes’ka-den (1970)

As with all of Kurosawa’s films, there’s a lot of love for this one now, unlike upon release, presumably because a newly economically resurgent Japan didn’t want to reflect on its treatment of the poorest in society. That’s where this film sets its scene and though it’s Kurosawa’s first colour film, it’s used expressively, not naturalistically, in tandem with the very stagy sets. This is a story set on the edges of a public tip, a sort of shanty town of Japanese dwellings that bear only scant relationship to the grander structures seen usually. Characters are caked in dirt and work long hours for little reward, while others of them seem to be losing their minds (not least the kid who utters the titles onomatopoeic words, pretending to be driving a tram). There’s something a bit picturesque about this setting, which is reminiscent of say his earlier film The Lower Depths, but which uses the colour to make it both visually quite palatable, though nevertheless quite grim. This film’s reception may have driven Kurosawa to despair but it clearly has a devoted following and it’s one I wanted to like a lot more than I did.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 季節のない街 Kisetsu no Nai Machi “The Town Without Seasons” by Shugoro Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographers Yasumichi Fukuzawa 福沢康道 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Yoshitaka Zushi 頭師佳孝, Kin Sugai 菅井きん; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.