…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “Japan

Sofia’s Lost in Translation


Sofia Coppola‘s choice of indie-trance music on Lost in Translation‘s soundtrack probably blinds me but she  lyrically captures a modern, non-European city that might never be topped by a future film (correct me if I’m wrong, obviously). When slightly washed up action star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) or her heroine Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) look out of the window, there’s a reason. The fluorescent-lit signs and flashing posters depicting a calligraphic language that the don’t understand. Charlotte leisurely walks the scramble crossings in Shibuya, Tokyo and travel the city’s subway system, Sofia making both modes of transportation look less like its notoriously hectic reputation. She also visits Buddhist temples and enjoys a nightlife that somehow involves a fake shootout, in both times having fun without having to fully drain her energy.

I’ve forgiven Johansson in misjudged performances she will have after this but hers here is probably the best she’ll ever give. Charlotte uglies herself up, agonizing in moments when she feels alone,  abandoned by her husband or when around B-list movie star Kelly (Anna Faris). And her rapport with Bob, her being childlike and girly, captures the spontaneous air that Sofia tries to capture. It’s easier to watch her boredom and frustration and her spark that help cure those things. Bob is the only person to make her smile, pulling out her effortless glow.

This is probably the second most beautiful movie Woody Allen never made as both writer-directors have, in their movies, bourgeois pseudo-intellectual misanthropic characters. Charlotte has a disdain for Hollywood – embodied by characters like Kelly or her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). She, when the occasion arises, prefers to sing classic 80’s tunes as opposed to the usual Queen-Journey-top 40 often playing in karaoke bars. (Interestingly enough for Sofia to create a character who is also a Yale graduate majoring in Philosophy but is barely, if ever, seen with a book. On vacation.). Although this quiet snobbery doesn’t stop her from befriending Bob, both of them are in Tokyo for showbiz related reasons, both of them bored and wanting to get out although they’re free to do so anytime.

Most Allen films have characters or devices holding up a mirror against their protagonist’s insanity or at least find someone to cure them. But Sofia, in making these two characters meet, encourage each other’s misanthropy even to a racist level (I’m not the first one to say this) specifically on Bob’s character. It’s understandable to feel anomic in the Japanese urban landscape that equally and inadvertently exclude them as ‘foreigners’ but it shouldn’t excuse their language and attitude. “Why do they switch the ls and the rs here?” I don’t trust my interpreter. I refuse to learn the language. These people like eating body parts of white girls like Charlotte. Murray pulls these lines off with his wit and comic timing but I still feel uncomfortable with his and the movie’s xenophobia.

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Ozu, Ending All Auteurs


According to iMDb, I’ve seen less than fifteen hundred movies and sometimes I wonder how the hell did I get here? How did I end up practically living in front of my television or a movie theatre? How did I end up being able to pronounce – AND spell! – Apitchatpong Weerasethakul and Jerzy Skolimowski without a bat of an eye and what possessed me and my younger selves to watch more?

I had a good foundation with healthy doses of David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick as a child (my dad actually showed Eyes Wide Shut to my older sister in high school and if any of make any jokes…). But college came. I think it was 2007, between my second and third year studying English and Art History that I realized that even though it might have been too late to switch, that I might have picked the wrong majors.

Not in any particular order, I watched my first Godard (It was Le Weekend, which is more visual than dialogue so I was ok. I still have to see Pierrot le Fou, which used to play a lot here). Then there were three films from fellow Frenchman Louis Malle for the first time. Four from Woody Allen and one from Ridley Scott on an outdoor, downtown big screen, so good that the flashing advertisements around the screen couldn’t distract me away. I’ve seen my first Lars von Trier on a big screen and of course, I drank vodka from a flash minutes after watching the movie, rethinking the sadness of my life. The first Danny Boyle I’ve seen in entirety – I’ve seen parts of and the ending of Trainspotting before. Two from Sidney Lumet, a favourite because his theatre background kept creeping up into his films. Two Johns at their later, tamer years – Waters and Frankenheimer. My first Hitchcock which should have come earlier in my life. George Cukor’s celebration of the feminine. Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket). Two from Nicholas Ray and two more from Frank Capra.

There were also the films in classes under the English major bracket, where my professors were self-loathing whites. They introduced me to George Stevens’ colonialist propaganda, although I’m pretty sure not all of them are like that. John Ford, poking criticism towards colonizers under the guise of propaganda. D.W. Griffth, who is quasi-apologetic for being a colonialist in his first and most important film. Errol Morris, Ousmane Sembene and more capturing depressed people in both developed and developing nations. Find out why I wrote this entry after the jump.

The reason why I’m prattling on about my lifetime journey in cinema so far is because recently, a few weeks before I’ve seen a movie directed by an auteur whose name everyone can pronounce but who is nonetheless elusive – Yasujiro Ozu. His last name smoothly rolling off the tongues and keyboards of the better movie critics and bloggers. When Roger Ebert – hi! – and other film critics and bloggers write about the director, the more intimidating he got. Deathbed movie intimidating. I didn’t go to regular film school so I didn’t watch Tokyo Story during 101. I also don’t do the Criterion thing like all of you – finances and clutterphobia are both to blame. I watched my first Ozu, the auteur to end all auteurs, a few weeks before my twenty-fourth birthday and I don’t feel ready.

But a film group here showed Ohayo, a film produced by Shochiku and not Toho. It’s one of his lighter, more jokey ones. Here he chooses to film in colour, giving the film a more modern feel. The film’s supporting characters have such strong impressions that I don’t feel like there’s a central character here, although I don’t see that as a bad thing. Some characters include a set of children with no female friend and housewives talking about shares of money that makes it feel like a Mamet film avant la lettre. And Ozu has a more elastic definition of the word ‘trapped.’

I might also be overreading when I notice how the camera’s so close to the ground or how the frame almost hugs the body. I’ve seen more medium shots and close-ups here than in, say, a Kurosawa (other than Kurosawa I’ve only seen one Mizoguchi and one Sion Sino. It’s really sad). I also noticed on the pictures of this film that are available on the internet, as well as my screencaps, that it focuses on the faces and figures of the targets of the jokes. It’s as if these characters look depressed, that we need sound and movement to understand that they belong within a comedy. I suppose it’s foolish for me to believe that I’ll understand everything about Ozu within a single film, that I need to see more to get a sense of the man.


20:10: The imitators edition


I stole this idea from Nathaniel Rogers. These are screen caps of the twentieth minute and tenth second of movies, many of which I can’t really expand on as he eloquently does. But really, this is posted because My VLC shuffle played The Kids are All Right and Shutter Island, which are already taken. [ETA; Also, I have not and will not put the names of the movies where these screen capscome from, for guessing reasons]

A rival painter observes, praises master yet talking behind the protagonist’s back.

“Excusez moi, numero two!” “HEY!”

“What happened?” “Oh, you didn’t hear…”

It’s not high school anymore. Friends dirty dancing in public…

He feels the pains of ‘adult sizing’ in a self-aware amusement park.

“…children, heaven bless them, they will look up to me and mind me…”

Los Angeles, night-time. The vandals rise and fall.

Traffic. No dialogue, obviously.

“Yeah, well, where is he? How come he takes a lousy stinkin’ job?”

At 3AM, a careless nursemaid tells the truth to a budding actor.


Top Ten Films of 2010


I’m not even properly doing this list, while just writing about the first ten awesome films off the top of my head. [ETA: Because of distribution randomness, movies like The Conspirator won’t come out so I can’t really make a proper list until April this year. Nonetheless, here I am.]

I wanna commend the naturalism of Noah Baumbach‘s latest film Greenberg. I’m not sure if I can really call this mumblecore because I feel the emotions are just as explosive as it would in a typical drama. The characters of this film underact their deliveries of empty threats and misunderstandings, but they have to come back together eventually.

It wasn’t until now that I realized that I am Love echoes Hitchcock in portraying quiet eroticism, obsession and guilt within the elegant trophy wife Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton). The editing is snappy yet buttery from, for example, close-ups of nature scenes to close-ups of Emma’s body perfectly captures the impressionistic waves of her emotions.

The obligatory animated film spot goes to How to Train Your Dragon, again, with its rousing music score that helps portray the fantasy within Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) as he befriends a slick dragon. It’s interesting to see an animated film convey such human intimacy and freedom, its modest ambitions captivating its audiences.

A tidbit in this month’s GQ described Inception as a heist version of an Alain Resnais film, and my love for this film makes sense by reading that. The film’s intricate structure messes with your head without seeming deranged. It’s an enveloping experience combining narrative, visuals and sound. Most importantly, it’s got style.

Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a marvelous achievement in editing that translates the comic book into film. I really felt like I was flipping through the book itself. The eye-popping graphics are also lovely, making the film an esoteric experience, going hand in hand with Scott Pilgrim’s (Michael Cera)’s energy level, kicking ass.

I’ve referred to the influences that Meek’s Cutoff, illuminating its audiences with colour while presenting the Oregon Trail’s dangers in quietness. Director Kelly Reichardt shows how much she’s mastered the art of composition, where every skirted, persevering woman or tree or rock looks like artwork. I can’t wait to get the film’s DVD to screencap it.

As I’ve said in my review of this film, I’ve given mercy fives but the one movie that truly blew me away this TIFF is Confessions, which, as I’ve said earlier, is a mixture of elegy and revenge as a genre. It also exposes a society where children do the unthinkable. people don’t stop learning but don’t evolve as mature human beings neither.

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone takes us with the tough Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) go head to head with her enemies who just happen to be on her extended family, like her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and the matriarch (Dale Dickey). Despite the survivalist and drug-addled reputation it may give, this haunting tale put the Ozarks on the map.

I probably like The King’s Speech mostly for the quotes. Does anyone else think that the future King George VI’s (Colin Firth) words as adorable? Obviously the story about him and his unlikely mirror, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), both of whom show their inadequacies and hurdles. People who call this ‘Oscar bait’ are amateurs.

Another Oscar bait ‘guilty pleasure’ is The Fighter, a movie capturing the rustic, rupturing cadence of a working class family in Lowell Massachusets as they stick to their own mythologies through boxer and comeback hero Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). This movie has a male protagonist surrounded by strong women and is the definition of the ensemble cast.


Zangiku Monogatari


A blogger once said that you need life experience to be a critic. That’s not true. You need life experience to be a great artist.

Zangiku Monogatari – or translated in English, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums – is about a young actor named Kikunosuke Onoue (Shôtarô Hanayagi), an adopted child of a fifth generation actor, Kikoguro (Gonjurô Kawarazaki). The rules of the game are nepotism instead of meritocracy, and Kikonosuke gets critiqued behind his back while praised in his presence. His brother’s wet-nurse Otoku decides to break that chain by telling him that her aunt doesn’t like his acting. From this revelation, the audience knows that these kids are gonna end up being together through thick and thin, but this isn’t your typical love story. It’s just as much about Kiku’s career, the battle and benefits of both nepotism and meritocracy as they unfold in 19th century Japanese metropolises.

Mizoguchi makes the decision here to use wide shots and long takes. Yes, those long takes lost my attention span a few times, but they depict a city street or a room as a way of reminding us of the old form of the theatre. The characters are in the environment and we’re watching them for minutes without blinking, like we would on a stage. Their emotions radiating through the volumes of their voice, making close-ups unnecessary. Some of the low angles remind us of a view that a lucky audience member would have in a real theatre. Or medium angle shots between walls or tree trunks or plants, from the view of someone peeping into Kiku’s relationships and interactions with others. The most obvious instances of close-ups are of Otoku, either getting fired or reading a flyer promoting Kiku’s performance, and seriously thinking about going even if she’s forbidden.

Kiku chooses Otoku, making his surrogate father disown him. He has to go to Osaka where the competition for actors isn’t as bad. He leaves the theatre with no fans to greet him unlike the other actors. When Kiku’s family make a stop in Osaka for a performance, Otoku pleads for them to give him a chance. Kiku plays a geisha and kills it. The further the camera is from the characters, the more public the place is. That doesn’t stop Kiku from showing his joy to his father, as everyone else watches.

The actors recall the Kabuki acting of the era they’re portraying, complete with gestures and physical restrictions due to their costumes. Hanayagi’s acting choices are an acquired taste, being lifeless and wooden in the first act of the film, keeping in mind that he was playing naiveté and convinces the audience that he’s more than half his real age. He eventually evokes either mean-spiritedness or insightful pathos depending on his fortunes. The actress plays Otoku is the most consistent, caring and emotional, which counts for good acting I guess. Her heart breaks when he’s away from her, which physically manifests through illnesses. I do find her character too passive, altruistic, and distressed. Her sacrifice to petition for a better job for him doesn’t feel earned. What good does it do her that she’s a martyr?


TIFF: Confessions


Confessions starts like a ‘taut,’ elegiac film about the eventual loss of innocence, with images of milk cartons and Japanese school children being rambunctious while their teacher meekly prattles on. She announces her resignation for being an ineffective teacher, writes on the chalkboard a huge calligraphic symbol denoting ‘life.’ She eventually gets their attention on a sad, dreadful, unforgettable lesson.

Director Tetsuya Nakashima sometimes uses traffic reflector mirrors to show the kids walking and meeting, or slows down to watch a softball hitting someone’s head. Muted colours dominate the film, only giving breaks of warm red and yellows when characters flashback into happy moments. The music balances out the children’s chaos and eventually is in tune with the teacher’s dread-filled lesson.

ph. TIFF

Confessions can be also read as a genre film, a revenge horror, comparable to the Noh-inspired examples within the Japanese canon. By revealing that her child’s murderers are two of her students, her calm demeanour turns her into a ghostly figure. She’s a woman both victimized by men and out for revenge, her little victims eventually depicted as incorporating abject elements into their lives.

In revealing that genre spin we can talk about the performances, any of the leads can arguably be best in show, whether it’s the teacher’s slow burning vindication or the students’ evil facades and psychological pain. The transformation and genre-crossing of the film isn’t a smooth transition and the film’s long scenes makes it drag and tonally imperfect, but Confessions is both artistic and engaging. 5/5.


Madadayo


ph. DVDBeaver

Two scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s swan song Madadayo say it all, and in a way the latter scene repeats the same message as the former. The first scene of the film shows the Sensei, a German professor, appearing behind a blue door and entering a classroom. He stands in a platform most Westernized classrooms are equipped with. He announces his retirement from teaching. The whole class tells him that he will always be their Sensei, stands to show their allegiance to him. He pulls a handkerchief and dries his tears.

The second scene is Sensei’s first Madadayo banquet, in a German beer hall, a party held with the constraints of postwar finances. He drinks a glass of beer as big as his arms. His former students perform some curious, culturally esoteric ritual where they ask him if he’s ready – to die – and his frail old voice confidently bellows, “Madadayo,” meaning not yet.

Both scenes show the Sensei towering over his students, then seamlessly make him short and meek and humble within five minutes or less. He’s a great man, raised by his status, but he’s human and relatable. Kurosawa’s always shown masculinity as a contest but he refreshingly shows manliness as gentle and civilized. There’s still the war context and the Westernization of Japan. None of the men in the movie are shown literally fighting, but the Sensei is defiant and has successfully taught that defiance to his students.

Also, it’s a story about a man and his cat, if you’re willing to endure something like that. As a character study, it’s difficult for Madadayo to become a great film. His students repeatedly call him “a lump of gold without impurities,” which may be applied to this film. It’s no bracelet, but you’d be a fool to dismiss its beauty.