Criterion Sunday 567: 細雪 Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters, 1983)

A later film by Japanese master Kon Ichikawa and this does attain a sort of regal bearing, not least for the way its four titular protagonists carry themselves. I must confess the first two times I started watching this I fell asleep, and partly that must be due to me being tired, but to a certain extent it has a sort of drifting and undemonstrative quality that I’ve seen in a lot of Japanese domestic dramas. After all, not a huge amount happens in the usual plot sense, but lives move and change — cities, lovers and marriages prospects, allegiances to other sisters — in ways that remain profound within the world of the film, even if it all just seems to be taking place while seated on the floor of various homes. But it’s beautiful and arranged like a novel, elegantly broken up into chapters and allowing each of these sisters to have her own distinct character within the piece. Just make sure to watch when you’re able to give it your full attention, because the action remains fairly subtle.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writers Shinya Hidaka 日高真也 and Ichikawa (based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki 谷崎潤一郎); Cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa 長谷川清; Starring Sayuri Yoshinaga 吉永小百合, Yuko Kotegawa 古手川祐子, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Yoshiko Sakuma 佐久間良子, Juzo Itami 伊丹十三; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 5 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 564: 乾いた花 Kawaita Hana (Pale Flower, 1964)

This is a stylish movie. It’s a take on a film noir, and it ticks all the boxes: moody black-and-white atmosphere, deep pools of darkness picked out with light, a femme fatale, characters hardened by life continuing to throw it all away on the chance of some thrill that might enliven lives propelled at breakneck pace towards self-destruction. You can see why it was a genre that captured filmmakers’ imaginations, and it pays dividends here — not that I quite follow the gambling game they most often play here, but the point seems to be the ritual of the thing. Ritual is important to this film, the codes of the gangsters, the understanding they all share about the necessity of their crimes, even as they are also fully aware of the futility of it all. And that’s carried over into the gambling, and even the love affair of sorts, though really it’s more of an avuncular relationship, between this gangster (Ryo Ikebe as Muraki, recently released from prison for murder) and a mysterious young woman, Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who seems to be from the upper classes and motivated by boredom, though the film takes pains never to be too clear about her background, which is another noir move, to shroud everything in mystery. It’s a great film about people throwing it all away, albeit with all the cool in the world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writers Masaru Baba 馬場当 and Shinoda (based on the short story by Shintaro Ishihara 石原慎太郎); Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Ryo Ikebe 池部良, Mariko Kaga 加賀まりこ; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 25 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 554: 歩いても 歩いても Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking, 2008)

I can understand the love for this film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, because it intersects fairly straightforwardly with love for Yasujiro Ozu. I suppose there’s always been a certain debt in Kore-eda’s filmmaking to the master but it’s clearest here, in a story of adult children (and their children) gathering at their elderly parents’ home for possibly the last time. There’s that elegiac sense of time and a generation passing, wrapped up in (misremembered) memories and advice and, of course, cooking. The whole first few scenes are just taken up with recipes being prepared, and there’s that gentleness of Ozu in the repeated (titular) motif of the parents walking around their neighbourhood, just gently moving about. Over the course of the film, we get a pretty great sense of what motivates them, the petty resentments they still hold onto with respect chiefly to their youngest son, how he couldn’t be like his (now deceased) older brother, and his poor choice of marriage — though in that respect at least there’s a little softening over the film’s course, which sticks to a day-long timeframe. There’s just a lot of sweetness here, tinged with melancholy at times, but what family gathering isn’t.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Hirokazu Kore-eda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki 山崎裕; Starring Hiroshi Abe 阿部寛, Yui Natsukawa 夏川結衣, Kirin Kiki 樹木希林, Yoshio Harada 原田芳雄; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 539: ハウス Hausu (House, 1977)

This batty 70s Japanese jokey horror film certainly has its defenders and its detractors, and I imagine it’s as much for its off-the-wall anarchic style as anything else, but whatever it really all amounts to — and I’m not sure what that may be, exactly — it’s at least plenty of fun. Indeed at its heart its a generic exploitation movie, in which a group of teenage girls go to one’s aunt’s house only to find it’s haunted, as they get picked off by a mysterious killer (possibly a cat) one by one. But there is no way that a mere summary of what happens could convey quite how batty the whole thing is, the way it’s put together and edited, the constant shots pulling us out of reality into some other dimension that’s somewhere between a musical and a kids’ show in aesthetics. Ultimately that makes it a lot less horrific for me — there’s no real scares — but then again it plays more as a comedy in some ways. Hyperactive of course, and a sub-90 minute runtime is crucial there, but silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi 大林宣彦; Writer Chiho Katsura 桂千穂; Cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto 阪本善尚; Starring Kimiko Ikegami 池上季実子, Miki Jinbo 神保美喜, Ai Matsubara 松原愛, Kumiko Oba 大場久美子; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 526: 父ありき Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942)

Another gentle Ozu film from a rather more difficult period in history, this is matched with his earlier The Only Son by the Criterion Collection, and they do seem to share a fair number of similarities, being about children raised by single parents. In this case, it’s a single father (Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu) who has rather abandoned his son in order to earn money to support him, so it’s only a brief period of time that the son visits the father when he’s grown up. The film charts a certain amount of regret on both parts, as well as the rather bereft lives both have had living apart and not really knowing one another well. Perhaps one can see grander political allegories in this relationship, given the time when the film was made, but Ozu isn’t keen to emphasise any such reading. But it’s a film about one’s responsibility to the next generation at a time when you imagine such a message might have landed a little differently. It is also, as you might expect, excellently acted and it’s only sad that the quality of the film elements isn’t particularly superb.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄, Ozu and Takao Anai 柳井隆雄; Cinematographer Yushun Atsuta 厚田雄治; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Shuji Sano 佐野周二; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 31 January 2022.

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 524: “Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu”

There is no shortage of Yasujiro Ozu films in the Criterion Collection, and all of them are pretty close to being essential. This box set presents two films which may be among his more minor works, but being Ozu both are well worth watching. The first is The Only Son (1936) and the second There Was a Father (1942), each presenting variations of the family arrangement, one with a single mother and the other a single father. In that sense they go quite nicely together, illustrating ideas of sacrifice, familial love and ultimately disappointment, both on the part of the parents with respect to their sons, but also with respect to their own lives.

Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.