청춘의 십자로 Cheongchun-eui Sipjaro (Crossroads of Youth aka Turning Point of the Youngsters, 1934)

In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.


For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.

With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

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Pour Don Carlos (For Don Carlos, 1921)

This 90-minute feature may have been cut down from a much longer original, but even what survives has had to be painstakingly put together by a team of restorers from various Cinemathèques, resulting in what was presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato as a work-in-progress. Truthfully I found the historical drama aspects difficult to follow, and there’s a lot that writer/director/star Musidora attempts to fit into this story of a political conflict over bringing Don Carlos (Charles VII) to the Spanish throne in the 1870s. However, Musidora clearly had a love affair with Spain (just as the camera has with her), as she returned to that setting for other films she made in the 20s. Here, she plays a supporter of Don Carlos called Allegria, and for much of the first half of the film is dressed resplendently in a military uniform, cutting quite the gloriously dashing figure. There’s a second section where she’s a poor peasant woman trying to free a colleague from captivity, which comes on rather suddenly, and wasn’t quite as compelling, but Musidora remains a charismatic screen presence.

A lady is accosted by a military officerCREDITS
Directors Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne; Writer Musidora (based on the novel by Pierre Benoît); Cinematographers Frank Daniau-Johnston and Léonce Crouan; Starring Musidora, Stephen Weber; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 232: A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959)

Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

浮草物語 Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Ozu; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英朗; Starring Takeshi Sakamoto 坂本武, Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Rieko Yagumo 八雲理恵子; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018.

浮草 Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Ganjiro Nakamura 中村鴈治郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 October 2018 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, October 1997).

Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.

The Wind (1928)
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom]; Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough); Cinematographer John Arnold; Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again on DVD at home, Wednesday 26 April 2017).

Lady Macbeth film posterLady Macbeth (2016)
Director William Oldroyd; Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда Ledi Makbet Mtsenskovo uyezda “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Twelve: A Woman of the World (1925) and Women Who Kill (2016)

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun.


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise.

Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Joseph Delteil and Dreyer; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Renée Falconetti; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, and on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 15 November 2015).

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.

Song film posterCREDITS
Director Richard Eichberg; Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller); Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner; Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015.

“Joanna Margaret Paul: I Am an Open Window” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by Mark Williams, director of Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, who helped curate the programme and who stayed for a Q&A afterwards that I sadly had to miss, again due to running off to another screening.


The last film I need to write about for my 2015 LFF is the one I’m probably least able to write about, as the world of artists’ film works is still largely obscure to me, experimental pieces more likely to be seen in a gallery installation than an actual cinema. Nevertheless, having grown up in Wellington NZ, I thought it only right to turn my attention towards the filmmaking of artist and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003). Five of her short films from the late-1970s are presented here, and they are largely little snatched fragments of domestic life, further distanced by the silent black-and-white photography, grainy and indistinct, like messages from another world, which in a sense they are. Interspersed between these are recent works by New Zealand artists made in response to her films, emphasising both the mundane (“Third Revision” has a sort of provisional structure, as if hastily extemporised, though I don’t doubt there is plenty of work in putting across that impression) and the picturesque (“By Sea” is a particularly beautiful and strange film of oddly domestic seascapes). Whereas most of Paul’s original films are entirely without sound, rachel shearer — whose work has been as much with sound as image — finds poetry in the combination of these, and the other films also tend to use both aspects of their medium. It’s difficult to really write about, given the almost intangible evanescent presence of these works, but they are fascinating and even enjoyable if you’re willing to be open to this form of expression.

CREDITS
Contents: “Aberharts House” (1976); “Napkins” (1975); “Bosshard Family” (1976); “Jillian Dressing” (1976); “Thorndon” (1975, all by Joanna Margaret Paul); “I Am an Open Window (2015, Rachel Shearer); “By Sea” (2015, Sonya Lacey); “Still Light” (2015, Nova Paul); “Third Revision” (2015, Popular Productions); “Sky” (2015, Miranda Parkes); “Untitled (Epilogue)” (2015, Shannon Te Ao); Length 68 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 18 October 2015.

“Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.

CREDITS
Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015.