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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海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

大俠梅花鹿 Da Xia Mei Hua Lu (The Fantasy of Deer Warrior, 1961)

Can anyone truly call themselves a lover of the seventh art, that play of light and movement over time resulting in motion pictures, if they haven’t seen a bunch of adults dressed in animal onesies enacting a story of primal passion in the wooded hills of Taiwan? You’d imagine this might be a kids’ film except for its life and death themes, as Miss Deer must ward off the untoward attentions of an Elk and a Wolf, goaded on by the spectacularly bespectacled Foxy, the latter two characters at one point grooving on down to a kitschy version of ‘Tequila’ in the forest. It is hardly a perfect film by any means, but you may find there’s enough to justify watching it — albeit at the danger of provoking a strange attraction towards a woman dressed as a fox, or a man dressed as a deer.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ying Chang 張英; Writer Chi-Cheng Chao 趙之誠; Cinematographer Hsing-Yi Li 李興義; Starring Yun Ling 凌雲, Hung Pai 白虹, Lin Lin 林琳; Length 87 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.

楊貴妃 Yokihi (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, 1955)

A brief theme week not tied into any particular release coming up, though the London Film Festival starts on Wednesday 2 October and it always features a trove of world cinema. No, after my recent theme week on Asian diaspora cinema, I wanted to refocus on cinematic visions of China, some of which have been made by expatriate Chinese directors, most of which are made by other countries, and some which are perhaps specifically resistant to Chinese influence in the region — from or about contested territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong.


A late colour film by Mizoguchi, based in Chinese history, which deals with court intrigues involving the lowly lady of the title raised to chief consort of the Emperor, whose family are then inducted into government, provoking the ire of the people and a tragic ending for all concerned. The camera glides beautifully throughout these palatial rooms, strikingly picked out in shades of red, as Machiko Kyo does subtle work as a beautiful woman sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of the men around her. It may not be esteemed among Mizoguchi’s best, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Ching Doe 陶秦, Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎, Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 and Masashige Narusawa 成沢昌茂; Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama 杉山公平; Starring Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, So Yamamura 山村聰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.