Criterion Sunday 480: 人間の條件 Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, 1959/1961)

I suspect part of the power of this film lies in its epic running time. This first of three instalments (sometimes called No Greater Love) is itself split into two parts, each with its own credits, so perhaps properly this is the first two parts of a six-part film. In any case, it tracks the life of one man during World War II, played by legend of Japanese cinema, Tatsuya Nakadai. Kaji is a bureaucrat who is posted to Manchuria to help run a mining operation staffed by indentured locals and captured prisoners of war. Already the film is gearing up to examine its major thematic question, which is whether it’s possible to act justly during a time of war. Certainly there’s no particular attempt to soften the edges of Japanese imperialist ambitions of the era, though Kaji continues to try and do the right thing and be an honourable man even when he has almost no agency or control over the suffering around him. His attempts to make reforms at the mine and to treat the workers fairly only drives a wedge between him and his superiors and causes him no end of trouble — and of course the situation he finds himself at the end of this first film is clearly not going to be the worst place he’ll end up. Kobayashi directs in stark black-and-white with plenty of fine directorial touches but this remains a sweeping epic of the sort that was prevalent in this era, all of which presumably owe something to the experience of the previous few decades: a grand statement on the big themes that elaborates on what it is to be just a single person against an enormous system designed to crush everything around it.

Continuing the story of the first two parts, the third and fourth chapters of this epic (called Road to Eternity) chart Kaji as he works as a private in the army, having been beaten down to this in the first film from his work as a mine overseer due to his attempt to show mercy and restraint. Here again his commitment to being a good person is again tested sorely, and again he finds himself at the sharp end of a brutal system of punishment and repression that doesn’t encourage positive behaviour or good soldiering and only rewards giving up one’s life in the futile pursuit of wartime ambition. There’s some lovely stuff here too, and a strong moral thread with Kaji attempting to navigate the constant ritual humiliations of the service, but this is still firmly within the mould of a grand historical epic, and how much you respond to it may depend on your love for the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi 小林正樹; Writers Kobayashi, Zenzo Matsuyama 松山善三 and Koichi Inagaki 稲垣公一 (based on the novel by Junpei Gomikawa 五味川純平); Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代; Length 575 minutes (split into six parts in three films of 206 minutes, 178 minutes and 190 minutes).

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 19 November, Thursday 25 November and Saturday 27 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.


I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 397: Ива́ново де́тство Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962)

Andrei Tarkovsky evolved something of a heavily image-based cinema, which favoured the grandest of visual representations for his ideas, or at least that’s the only way I can explain how so many of the shots in his films remain so indelibly in my mind years later. Which is why I was rather surprised to revisit this film, which has not much lingered in my mind, and realise there’s plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful camera setups here too, though none stays with me like Masha (Valentina Malyavina) being held over a trench and kissed, as a sort of swooningly romantic yet somehow treacherous and bleak poetic image. There’s a lot to commend this first feature film of Tarkovsky’s, and clearly he would continue to refine and grow his craft (his second feature was the epic Andrei Rublev), but there’s still something very Russian about the sensibility, shared with other contemporary depictions of war like Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying, where war is nothing glorious (and, largely here, unseen) but instead a perilous backdrop to a story of a childhood lost, derailed by the conflict and which never really stood a chance. The visual quality doesn’t detract from the story but it makes it somehow just a little bit bearable to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андрей Тарковский; Writers Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Кончало́вский and Mikhail Papava Михаил Папава (based on the short story Иван “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov Влади́мир Богомо́лов); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вади́м Ю́сов; Starring Nikolai Burlyayev Николай Бурляев, Valentin Zubkov Валенти́н Зубко́в, Valentina Malyavina Валенти́на Маля́вина; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 5 August 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 4 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 382: Overlord (1975)

There have been a few films set during or after World War II in the Criterion Collection recently (The Burmese Harp, 49th Parallel and Green for Danger just to name three), and usually war films — especially those about the British and Allied experience during the war — don’t tend to do much for me, often being little more than patriotic exercises in triumphalism. This breaks the mould a little, though, being an intriguing blend of archival war footage from London’s Imperial War Museum with a narrative about a young man, Thomas Beddows (Brian Stirner), being trained up ahead of the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 (which is to say, Operation Overlord, from which the film takes its title). Thus it strikes a very interesting and slightly odd, elegiac tone, as Thomas muddles his way through basic training, strikes up some friendships and then is shipped off to the beaches and the film’s distinct anti-climax. It’s a film that manages to be about war as much as a portrayal of the experience of one person during that conflict, and about the ways that the way we might approach the world as civilians clash with military expectations at these heightened times. It’s moving without being mawkish, and puts this enormous historical moment at a small, human level.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stuart Cooper; Writers Cooper and Christopher Hudson; Cinematographer John Alcott; Starring Brian Stirner, Davyd Harries; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 20 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 379: ビルマの竪琴 Biruma no Tategoto (The Burmese Harp, 1956)

After the bleak nihilism of 1959’s Fires on the Plain, the pairing of it by the Criterion Collection with this earlier film by Kon Ichikawa comes as something of a surprise. It’s not that The Burmese Harp (which Ichikawa remade in the 1980s) is not another stark anti-war tale, and it’s not that unlike the later film it features far more in the way of specific wartime horror (piles of Japanese bodies rotting on the Burmese beach is just one, for example). No, what surprises me is the gentle sentimentalism, of the sort you can imagine in British films about World War II, as the soldiers and medics on both sides frequently burst into song, and there’s some to-do about some parrots as well. It makes some sense, of course, given that this is a film not so much about the horrors of war as about the gentle consolation of Buddhism, which our hero Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) turns to religion after failing to convince his compatriots to surrender. It’s hardly a bad film, but I find the overall tone jarring, despite some lovely moments that have already imprinted themselves on my brain, like the monk disappearing into mist outside the temple.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writer Natto Wada 和田夏十 (based on the novel by Michio Takeyama 竹山道雄); Cinematographer Minoru Yokoyama 横山実; Starring Shoji Yasui 安井昌二, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 378: 野火 Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1959)

This is, unquestionably, a bleak film. It’s about a bleak time for a group of men at the sharp end of history, which is to say the Japanese army in 1945 on the Philippine island of Leyte being driven back by the (largely unseen) American forces. We join the film as Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), still sick from TB, is told by his commanding officer to go back to the hospital to recover some more or else kill himself to spare everyone the trouble of his existence, and the film just moves on from there as Tamura treks across the country, joins up with compatriots and learns they are all trying to reach an extraction point, which may or may not result in their rescue, but seems to offer almost certain death in trying to reach it. The soldiers become progressively more emaciated and deranged as the film progresses, and that’s pretty much the tone the film stays in, essaying this bleak existence with little hope for any of its protagonists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writer Natto Wada 和田夏十 (based on the novel by Shohei Ooka 大岡昇平); Cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi 小林節雄; Starring Eiji Funakoshi 船越英二, Osamu Takizawa 滝沢修, Mickey Curtis ミッキー・カーチス; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 December 2020.