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.

NZIFF 2021: ドロステのはてで僕ら Droste no Hate de Bokura (Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, 2020)

In marked contrast to the very long and very melancholic films screening at any given film festival, not least last month’s Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, is this Japanese film. It has a short running time and a very high concept, so there’s not much to it (certainly not much in the way of budget) but it’s made with love, an old-fashioned amateurism with all the etymological meaning of that word, and the enthusiasm shows.


This is undoubtedly a slender film, and not just in its concise running time. It’s a classic high concept premise elaborated on a shoestring budget (the closing credits show behind the scenes views of the filming setup) and feels rather like an extended short film in some senses. Like any time travel film, thinking about it too deeply is probably a mistake, but it throws so much energy at the screen that it’s hard to find time to do that thinking. Generally, it has the feeling of a farce put on a theatre company (which it may well be, after all) and the narrative follows its repetitious journey with small changes each time until eventually it’s all you can do to keep up with the almost infinitely recursive loops of time it creates. It’s as clever as it is silly, and would outstay its welcome if it were any longer, but it has a certain something.

Droste no Hate de Bokura (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Junta Yamaguchi 山口淳太; Writer Makoto Ueda 上田誠; Starring Kazunari Tosa 土佐和成, Aki Asakura 朝倉あき, Riko Fujitani 藤谷理子; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 15 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: ドライブ・マイ・カー Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)

The day after seeing director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s elegant and literary Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival — one of my favourite films — I watched this one, which may be the greater and is certainly likely to be my favourite of the year. It works in a similar way, following a theatre director and actor in a way that resembles Rivette but in a very Japanese way. It’s hard to describe (I have a go below), but it’s great. Well worth checking out despite the extensive running time.


Of course those of us who’ve seen Happy Hour (or indeed any of his previous films) know very well that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is very capable of pulling off deeply empathetic multi-character stories with a literary bent, but this latest film is particularly excellent. It takes for its milieu the theatre world, which gets going once our recently-bereaved but well-known actor/director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima; it seems somehow relevant that the pronunciation of his character’s name is close to “Kafka”) puts together a production of Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima, from a cast of variously Japanese, Taiwanese, Filipino and Korean actors.

We get a lot of the rehearsals, not unlike some of the longer and more ambitious Rivette works (Out 1 for example), as this company slowly starts cohering, but the film remains focused on just a few of the interactions between Kafuku and various members of the company — those with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a somewhat shady young man whom Kafuku had witnessed in a compromising position earlier in the film, or with his Korean cast member and her translator/partner, but centrally with his driver Watari (Toko Miura), a sullen young woman appointed by the festival to drive him and who over the course of the film gradually starts to open up (but in her own way, and without compromising her character, as she remains largely unsmiling for much of the film).

As you might expect with a piece that’s about the theatre and acting, and is constructed with such care towards the actors and the performances, it’s all immaculately acted, especially by the relative newcomers — the Korean actors don’t seem to have many credits to their names, but a simple stage scene near the end of the film with the young woman using sign language had me in tears and I’m still not even certain why. A lot of the film feels both richly textured and also a little bit aloof like that, where the characters maintain just enough emotional distance that you really need the film’s running time to break it down a little bit and allow you in. It’s worth sticking it out.

Doraibu Mai Ka (Drive My Car, 2021)CREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe 大江崇允 (based on the short story by Haruki Murakami 村上春樹)
; Cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya 四宮秀俊; Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima 西島秀俊, Toko Miura 三浦透子, Masaki Okada 岡田将生, Reika Kirishima 霧島れいか; Length 179 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: 偶然と想像 Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)

The second day of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival was very productive for me: two of what would be my favourite films of the festival screened, the French film Gagarine and this Japanese film, one of two films from the same director at the festival. A few years back his curious diptych Asako I & II was a festival highlight, and then of course there was his five-hour long breakthrough Happy Hour. He makes literary films with cunning structures that suggest multiple storylines, characters, threads, ways of entering his fictional constructions. This particular film is three separate short stories and billed as such in the title card. They are all lovely, though I think the final one was my favourite.


If there’s any quality I associate with Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s films it’s an elegance of construction, almost a literary sensibility — which makes sense given that here he’s presenting three short stories, the central one of which specifically revolves around a written text. These stories are all focused on women reflecting on their lives and the missed opportunities within them, that revolve around themes of chance or coincidence to drive the narrative. In the first and second there are essentially three characters, whom we largely see in two-shots speaking to one another in long stretches of dialogue, while in the third the two central women are joined together by two unseen other women from their past through which their stories resolve in an odd yet satisfying way. There’s a slightly formal, stilted quality to it — this doesn’t feel like naturalistic improvisation — but that goes along with the constructedness, and I take the filmic choices to be rather deliberate in that regard. The entire initial conversation between two women in the first story takes place in almost complete darkness in the back of a cab, the love triangle brought to light by the end of the story, while elsewhere intertitles move the action around in what almost feel like arbitrary ways, but all becomes clearer if no less emotionally fragile by the end of each story. It’s an elegant film, done beautifully.

Guzen to Sozo (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介
; Cinematographer Yukiko Iioka 飯岡幸子; Starring Kotone Furukawa 古川琴音, Hyunri 玄理, Ayumu Nakajima 中島歩, Kiyohiko Shibukawa 渋川清彦, Katsuki Mori 森郁月, Fusako Urabe 占部房子, Aoba Kawai 河井青葉; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.