Criterion Sunday 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 2021.

Mr. Wrong (aka Dark of the Night, 1984)

Stepping back in time, NZ hasn’t been making feature films for all that long. There were certainly earlier examples, but much of the modern industry didn’t begin until the late-70s, so this 1984 horror thriller (of sorts, though it also has comedic elements) directed by a woman is therefore a rather early example of their cinematic endeavours.


I can’t deny there’s sometimes a certain cringe factor when looking back at old New Zealand films; the industry, like the homes and the fashions we see on screen, was a lot less polished back then, and sometimes indeed the acting and direction on some of those titles feel like the work of people still learning the ropes in an industry still in its relative infancy (though enthusiastic amateurishness has its charms too). Thankfully such is not the case with Mr. Wrong (that full stop is in the on-screen title), though as the filmmakers pointed out in a Q&A after the film, it didn’t have a very marketable title (the film got a different, rather unmemorable, title for its US release: Dark of the Night).

It’s a haunted thriller in a Hitchcockian mode (apparently he was originally going to adapt the same story before he died), though being made by a group of women filmmakers mean there’s definitely a feminist slant on it that you suspect would never have made it through if Hitch had been making the film. Partly that comes down to the ending (not the story’s original ending, though I shan’t say any more), and partly it’s just that all the men in the piece are indeed very wrong, whether overtly aggressive, hectoring or just condescending in a gently sexist way. Even the love interest, a certain Mr Wright (Danny Mulheron) — yes that is his name — has a habit of turning up at all the wrong moments and scaring our heroine Meg (Heather Bolton). As all these classic horror scenarios of lurking strangers in dark creaking homes and on rainy mountain roads play out, Meg continually tries to persuade herself she’s overreacting, always apologising to these creepy guys, and in part that’s because she doesn’t initially realise or accept that she’s in a ghost story, but also it’s a little bit because she’s been conditioned to be deferent and submissive, a quality she only slowly starts to shed as the film progresses. That’s probably where the feminism primarily lies, but it works as a subtly chilling ghostly thriller, and even has a few laughs in it. Well worth checking out.

Mr. Wrong film posterCREDITS
Director Gaylene Preston; Writers Geoff Murphy, Preston and Graeme Tetley (based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard); Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Perry Piercy, Danny Mulheron; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 393: おとし穴 Otoshiana (Pitfall, 1962)

You get the sense of what director Hiroshi Teshigahara is about from this film, his debut feature, which has the bleak monochrome landscapes and the sense of alienation from the rest of society that marks his most famous work The Woman in the Dunes. This is partly a supernatural ghost story, but that comes from its mining village setting, where lives are hard, faces caked in sweat, and murder and corruption abounds (embodied by a lethally white-suited manager type). It’s not always clear what exactly is happening, but you know enough that what’s happening is bad and it’s the lowest in society who are being screwed over. It makes for a fascinating study.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his television play 煉獄 Rengoku); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Hisashi Igawa 井川比佐志, Sumie Sasaki 佐々木すみ江, Kunie Tanaka 田中邦衛; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 309: 雨月物語 Ugetsu Monogatari (Ugetsu, 1953)

It’s odd to watch this film expecting a supernatural horror film because those elements don’t appear until the latter half of the film, although there’s a slightly uncanny sense created all the way through. It sets its 16th century scene amongst some poor villagers, one of whom, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), is a potter who is desperate to make money in the local town from selling his wares, having discerned that people seem to be paying more in a time of impending war, while the other (Eitaro Ozawa) wants to be a samurai but is rejected by the local clans for being a poor peasant. When the civil war comes to their very doorstep, they flee, but — much to the consternation of their wives (Kinuyo Tanaka and Mitsuko Mito) — making sure to take the pottery, intending to make money across the water. However, as the action moves across this mist-covered body of water, the film itself seems to move from the real world into a sort of supernatural state, where the dead and living interact, as previously strong family bonds fall apart under the influence of money, mingled with the desperation of a wartime economy. As such it seems to be a reflection not just on the corrosive power of capital, but on wartime avarice leading to self-destruction, the break-up of the family and ultimately death — which makes sense given when it was made. The wives thus come to play a much stronger part, as a sort of moral chorus to the foolishness of the two men, whose actions doom both families in different ways.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the collection of stories by Akinari Ueda 上田秋成); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mitsuko Mito 水戸光子, Eitaro Ozawa 小沢栄太郎; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998).

Atlantique (Atlantics, 2019)

One of the strongest and strangest debut films this year was by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the niece of filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Over the past decade she’s made a number of beguiling short films (a personal favourite is Snow Canon) and her latest has had distribution from Netflix, which means a smattering of cinema screenings and a permanent home online. I would love to rewatch this and think it would reward such an effort greatly, not least due to the wonderful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who also shot another of the year’s most beautiful films (and another of my favourites), Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


This is a beautiful, strange, but poetic film about migration — whether the kind we’re familiar with from the news, or the transmigration of the soul (what the ancient Greeks called μετεμψύχωσις metempsychosis), because both of these feature in the film. Indeed, they are in some sense intertwined in enigmatic ways that the film never explains or simplifies, it’s just present in the text which seems to effortlessly find a mythical quality to its storytelling, helped by the beautiful visuals and the specific performance styles which are elicited from the actors. It’s set in Senegal, as Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young middle-class woman, secretly meets with a young construction worker, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), though her family want her to marry Omar, a wealthy socialite who flatters her with gifts of rose gold iPhones as if they’re nothing. The problem is that Souleiman and his compatriots, being exploited by wealthy bosses over their pay, leaves to seek a better life in Europe, leaving Ada behind to deal with the fallout. The plot is largely incidental to the atmosphere created in this seaside city where the crashing waves along the shore become a constant refrain to the movement of her life, as a young cop starts sniffing around, certain that things aren’t what they seem. It reads as a genre piece, but it plays out as something far more mysterious, sensual, beautiful and intoxicating. Ten years ago director Mati Diop made a short film of the same name which had men sit around a beachside campfire speaking about their hopes from migration, and now finally she has this feature film which is so much more. I can see myself rewatching this, because it tells a specific story of people living their lives in Dakar, but it tells another story too, a stronger and more pressing one, in which those who exploit others to their deaths are still called upon to pay the ferryman.

Atlantics film posterCREDITS
Director Mati Diop; Writers Diop and Olivier Demangel; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Ibrahima Traoré; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

beDevil (1993)

Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.


An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.

Under the Shadow (aka زیر سایه Zir-e sayeh, 2016)

There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.


This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.

Under the Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی‎, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.

LFF 2016 Day Six: LoveTrue, Interchange and Dearest Sister (all 2016)

I missed days four and five of the London Film Festival what with being away for the weekend for my birthday (I was in Manchester at a beer festival). Anyway, I returned on Monday 10 October and resumed watching films…


LoveTrue (2016)

LoveTrue (2016, USA, dir./DOP Alma Har’el עלמה הראל)
Psychodrama is a new one on me, but it fits into a burgeoning interest in examining the intersection between the stories we have in us and the ways they can be presented: the focus seems very much to be on documentary-as-performance (with, notably, some acted recreations of events, though the actors are clearly identified and the nature of this collaboration becomes part of the film at several points). Here, there are three central protagonists (in Hawaii, Alaska and NYC) but the ways they deal with the other players in their lives, specifically at the level of love, are quite different. I think the achievement of Alma Har’el’s film is getting under the skin of characters who can be quite unlikeable (here I’m speaking chiefly of the men), and making them empathetic at some level. Romantic love almost seems like an illusory idea by the end, but there are definitely other forms of love that haven’t been abandoned in all three, and in the telling it goes in some surprising emotional directions.


Interchange (2016)

Interchange (2016, Malaysia/Indonesia, dir. Dain Iskandar Said, wr. Said/June Tan/Nandita Solomon/Redza Minhat, DOP Jordan Chiam)
There’s an interesting film in here about the appropriative gaze of white colonialists, whose early-20th century photography was thought to steal the soul of tribal peoples. This idea is parlayed into a vampiric metaphor (people literally sucked of life and turned inside out) within a detective thriller genre framework, which would be fine if it didn’t rest its characters and narrative on so many other referential crutches (Se7en, Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Vertigo, not to mention a whole strand of Hong Kong police thrillers and that kind of thing). Ultimately I just couldn’t care about photographer Adam, or the police detectives — or anyone really — and too much of the characters’ dialogue was filled with portentous platitudes. Still, it never fails to look stylish, and there are some beautiful images.


Nong Hak (Dearest Sister, 2016)ນ້ອງຮັກ Nong Hak (Dearest Sister) (2016, Laos/Estonia/France, dir. Mattie Do, wr. Christopher Larsen, DOP Mart Ratassepp)
This is something unusual — a Lao-Estonian-French co-production — though as the director mentioned in a post-film Q&A, there’s no real Lao cinema to speak of (all her local actors are non-professional, even if they all do a great job). The film is ostensibly a ghost story, looping in supernatural lottery prediction, but the heart of the drama is of class and social mobility dividing the rich city woman Ana (who is losing her sight, her sense of perspective — do you see) from her poor country cousin Nok, whom Ana barely knows but who has been moved in to help her around the home by the rich woman’s white (Estonian) husband Jakob. The film is also canny about calling out the presence of western NGOs and their workers’ assumptions about Lao women. But this is not a film which fits into South-East Asian horror stereotypes, nor does it quite match up to the kind of slow-burn Thai weirdness of, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (though I’d put it closer to that). It has its own rhythms, and uses a tightly-focused handheld aesthetic to help put across some of the terror and uncertainty felt by its blind central character.

Criterion Sunday 90: 怪談 Kaidan (Kwaidan, 1964)

There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).

Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writer Yoko Mizuki 水木洋子 (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Katsuo Nakamura 中村嘉葎雄, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Osamu Takizawa 滝沢修; Length 183 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.