Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That Load-Bearing Wall is Alienating Me: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudi and Other Examples of Architecture on Film

There are certain directors who distinguish themselves by their remarkable use of architecture, above and beyond the necessities of basic scene-setting or even of visual beauty.  The directors of this type who first come to mind are Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Tsai Ming-liang.  Tsai’s work is especially engaged with the ways in which his characters find themselves enmeshed in their urban landscapes.  Some of his best films are devoted largely to the exploration of buildings, like the apartment complex in The Hole (2000) or the single apartment in Vive L’Amour (1994).  Tsai’s perspective on urban architecture seems to owe a great deal to Antonioni, as they both see in urban landscapes the inescapable signs of modern man’s alienation; one need only recollect the image of Monica Vitti lost within the industrial wasteland of 1964’s Red Desert, Antonioni’s first color film, to understand the Italian auteur’s dissection of the relationship between humans and architecture.

Monica Vitti in Red Desert
However, Antonioni’s landscapes don’t speak merely of “alienation;” they are also hauntingly beautiful.  According to Geoff Dyer’s book-length essay Zona, Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t care for Red Desert, as he thought that “Antonioni got so seduced by ‘Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists’” that “the color has killed the feeling of truth.” That’s a bit harsh.  But have you seen Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists?  It’s hard not to be seduced, and I see nothing wrong about that.  Red Desert is by far my favorite among Antonioni’s films, which are a pretty “mixed bag,” as far as I’m concerned, but that belongs to another blog post.

Tsai takes Antonioni’s aestheticization of potentially bleak urban landscapes even further.  For Tsai, massive apartment complexes—while perhaps emblematic of a broader sense of alienation—provide a wonderful refuge for his hero, Hsiao-kang. (The protagonists of every Tsai Ming-liang film are named Hsiao-kang and are played by Lee Kang-sheng.  Hsiao-kang is Lee’s real-life nickname).  This is especially the case in Vive L’Amour, as Hsiao-kang seeks to withdraw from Taipei by hiding out in the empty apartment that sits at the heart of the film.
Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) evading detection in Vive L'Amour
The trope of Hsiao-kang as squatter is taken up again in 2006’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, which finds Hsiao-kang in Kuala Lumpur, savagely beaten by thugs and whisked away to an abandoned building to be nursed back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker (the two never speak to each other, ostensibly because of the lack of a common lanuage; in fact, Hsiao-kang never speaks at all in this movie.  This isn’t that unusual for Hsiao-kang or for any character in a Tsai Ming-liang movie, for that matter.  They are not a talkative bunch).  The lower levels of the building become flooded, which calls to mind the ceaseless rain of The Hole and is in sharp counterpoint to 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, in which Hsiao-kang and the denizens of yet another apartment complex confront a Taiwan in the grips of a devastating drought.  In all of these movies, Tsai films the architecture of the buildings with a seemingly intuitive feel for the way they appear on film; he almost abstracts them from their context, and you find yourself looking at a lovely arrangement of shapes that could potentially end up signifying nothing beyond themselves.  But they always do (signify things beyond themselves, that is), because Tsai also sees in the architecture an exteriorization of his characterss mental states (often states of alienation) which is comparable to the way in which Akira Kurosawa famously reflected his characters’ emotions through the weather (Toshiro Mifune is always the harbinger of a storm).

What got me thinking about architecture on film was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1985 documentary Antonio Gaudi (which I watched this evening), which seems to take the filming of architecture and reduces it to its purest form.  Antonio Gaudi is a largely wordless film, and consists almost entirely of Teshigahara’s camera panning through the various Gaudi-designed buildings that pepper Barcelona.  Without any verbal narrative to place things in context (for example: “Gaudi designed this building in such and such a year; his wife had just died and his patron was, etc, etc”), we must draw our meaning almost solely from the architecture on view.  I say “almost,” because the film is accompanied by a score by Toru Takemitsu (who, slight exaggeration, scored every Japanese movie made during his adult life) and the score, by turns elegantly baroque (or rather, Baroque) and surreal (electronic noise like what one finds in the “music” of Karlheinz Stockhausen), and this score provides the viewer with certain basic emotional cues.

In such a stripped down movie, Teshigahara is forced to let architecture speak, and in so doing he shows how architecture can speak in other, broader cinematic contexts (by which I mean, movies where the architecture is not the exclusive focus).  Teshigahara’s filming of Gaudi’s architecture (I don’t know how to separate them in the opinions I’m drawing here) is alternately beautiful, sensual, unsettling, or often some combination thereof.  I must confess myself to be not a huge fan of Gaudi as an architect.  His works are the sort of thing that would work well as painting or sculpture, but I should think it would be difficult to live in them; I could say the same thing of Le Corbusier’s concrete brutalist monstrosities, although for different reasons.  Le Corbusier’s buildings are just cold and inhuman.  Gaudi’s buildings have warmth, but it’s a pulsating, surrealistic warm; the humanity they convey is unstable and disturbed, and I don’t know that living in them long-term would have a good effect on the mind. Or perhaps their surreal impact diminishes with time and one becomes accustomed to them.
Just a bit unsettling, maybe?
The Gaudi movie is an unexpected entry in Teshigahara’s somewhat small filmography, which includes such classics as The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another.  Although perhaps it’s not so unexpected when one looks at the prominent role of architecture in The Woman in the Dunes (1964).  This masterpiece, based on the Kobo Abe novel of the same name and with a screenplay by the novelist, depicts the travails of an amateur entomologist who finds himself trapped at the bottom of a large pit amongst a sea of sand dunes, his only company the woman who lives there and his only shelter her house.

The Woman in the foreground, the main room of her house behind her.
The woman is faced with the Sisyphean task of daily shoveling back the sands that never stop encroaching on her house.  Not surprisingly, we see a lot of the house, and the house’s relationship to the sand and the people and their relationship to it is of the utmost importance.  We can see in this film Teshigahara’s mastery of the use of architecture for narrative and aesthetic purposes.  Whether or not he’s a master of “architectural cinema,” like Antonioni or Tsai, is a question for which I do not yet have an answer.  I would like to see more of his films first.  Hopefully the Criterion Collection, which has released four of them in the U.S. (Antonio Gaudi and, before that, Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another in a box set) will provide American cinephiles with access to the rest of his oeuvre.  It must be smaller than Ozu’s, and Criterion has already done an admirable job of making that available to us in it’s entirely (or almost its entirety, anyway; feel free to contradict me in the comments section if I’m missing something).  Perhaps a Teshigahara Eclipse collection would set the matter to rights.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hot Springs and Snowstorms, IRL: On Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife

Well, here’s a movie as elegant and affecting as any ever made, and it was made all the way back in the year of our Lord 1918.  To put that in perspective, that’s thirty years after Louis Le Prince’s 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene which, at 2.11 seconds, is the world’s oldest extant film; twenty-three years after the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station; sixteen years after George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon; and three years after D. W. Griffith's 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation.

What I’m getting at here is that when the Swedish director Victor Sjöström made his cinematic masterpiece The Outlaw and His Wife, the medium of film was still incredibly young.  But already at this stage, we can say that, though it may have been young, it was hardly primitive.  Furthermore, it was already proving why it was an indispensable medium in its own right, to be valued along media of much longer standing, like music, painting, and literature.
A brief digression is in order here.  I once watched an interview with the modern-day Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov (whose movies include Mother and Son and Russian Ark) and in this interview Sokurov asserted that cinema was not a necessary art form.  Music and literature, having been around for centuries, were necessary artistic media; they had a fundamental role to play in what it meant to be human; but cinema? Cinema was too novel.  Our nineteenth-century forbears had gotten along without it—gotten along in terms of artistic achievement and satisfaction, I suppose—so clearly it wasn’t essential.
Aleksandr Sokurov, receiving the Golden Lion for Faust (2011) at the Venice Film Festival.

Well, although I hold Sokurov in high esteem, I must disagree with him here in no uncertain terms.  Because cinema is essential; because it can do things that only cinema can do.  And it was doing these things in 1918, as WWI burned itself out, and Sjöström made The Outlaw and His Wife.

The film follows the adventures of an eighteenth-century Icelandic outlaw who falls in love with a widowed farmer, who forsakes her respectable life to live with him in the wilderness.  Now, picture lovers on the run in the Icelandic wilderness: you can describe it verbally, as I have just done, and you can even do so with literary flourishes.  You can act it out on stage (as indeed had already been done with this story, which Sjöström adapted from a pre-existing play), although in that case the actual wilderness will have to be left largely to the imagination; you could paint some lovely backgrounds, but the snows and the Icelandic hot-springs can hardly be brought into a theater.  And then of your course you could paint the scene, the lovers hand in hand, the wind-whipped snow blowing about, the geysers exploding; you could caption it, “The Outlaw and his Wife, Fleeing through the Wilderness;” but this would still unavoidably be a static composition.  None of Sokurov’s favored pre-cinematic media can convey the motion and the scale of such a scene.  But film can, and it does, and the results can be quite beautiful; they can convey a beauty without which we would be much poorer.  Look at this still, depicting the protagonist (played by Victor Sjöström himself) at a hot spring (and I am aware of the irony of using a still to demonstrate the glories of cinematic motion):

Here is the protagonist, standing before a stunning natural backdrop:

And here are the titular outlaw and his wife, exultant and triumphant:

These are beauties that only cinema can convey, and if they were not always essential (as I suppose that, circa-1900, they weren’t), then they have certainly become so.  Just as Rabelais’s contemporaries may not have thought his novels were essential, or Montaigne’s his essays, it can well be said that their successors certainly did.  We are not the men and women of the nineteenth century (although it is interesting to note that Sjöström and everyone else involved in the making of this movie were children of the nineteenth century; Sjöström was born in 1880 and would have come of age artistically without the experience of film), and what was inessential to them has become an integral part of the modern experience.

I suspect that a similar process will take place with video games.  I recall reading an interview with Salman Rushdie conducted by David Cronenberg (for some reason; it was a fine interview, I just don’t know why Cronenberg of all people should have conducted it) in the mid-1990’s in which Cronenberg asked Rushdie if he thought that video games could be art.  Rushdie responded that no, they could not be art, and furthermore, they never would be.  For Rushdie, an avid consumer of literature and film (his essay on The Wizard of Oz has become something of a classic), video games are aesthetically inessential, and at this early stage of their development, that isn’t too surprising.  But given time to grow—much as cinema has grown from the Lumières to Sjöström to Kurosawa to Kubrick and far beyond—there is no reason to think that video games won’t come into their own as works of art, and will become a medium just as essential to the aesthetic appetites of the future as literature and cinema are to us today.  I will admit that I myself am not a player of videogames (the last console I owned was an N64, God bless it), but who knows where I’ll be in thirty years, and who knows how immersive, and how beautiful, the videogames of my future will be?  I only hope that I’ll be able to hold them in the esteem they’ll deserve, and advance beyond the fundamentally reactionary attitudes of Rushdie and Sokurov (but Sokurov is a great filmic artist, whatever he says about the medium; maybe he’s just being modest). 

Hell, I suspect that the video games of the future will be fantastic.  The technologies behind newer artistic media have grown at a stunning pace.  We can take Sjöström’s own lifetime as an example.  As I’ve already mentioned, he was born in 1880, eight years before the first extant motion picture.  When he was well into adulthood, he became a master of silent cinema and a great film actor as well.  If the name Sjöström sounds familiar to you, then you may have recognized it as the name of the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), made three years before Sjöström’s death in 1960… a year after the release of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
I’ve thrown a lot of dates around in this post, but I’ve done so because I find them to be inspiring, both in terms of what they mean for the growth of artistic media and for life in general.  A lot can happen in a human lifespan.  If things at present look like shit, we can be thankful that the future remains unknown, and therefore we have reason to be hopeful.  I consider my worldview to be one of cautious pessimism: I suspect things will turn out badly, but I’m always pleased when they turn out well.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Noble Lord Yoshitsune and his Hilarious Porter: Some Notes on Akira Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

*This post discusses major plot details of the movie, fyi.*

I’m always amazed at the movies that got made during World War II, if only by virtue of their getting made at all.  The films of this type that come most immediately to mind are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (made in Nazi-occupied France in 1943) and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (made in Nazi-occupied Denmark, also in 1943).  Now, I’m not one to frequently go into the whole “testament to the human spirit” thing, but one can’t help but be moved by the persistence of art in even these darkest of times.  Granted, it is certainly disconcerting to watch these films, both of them estimable works of art, and think, “Wow, the Holocaust was going on while they were filming this.  While Dreyer was setting up this shot, people were being killed en masse at Treblinka.” I’ve mentioned in a previous post Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” and my response to that remains the same: “Well, actually, there can, and there is.” I don’t remember who said this, but somebody was writing about Vladimir Nabokov, and they pointed out what seemed to be the lack of overt political engagement in his novels (a notion which I might contest, his novels are full of politics, although he has the restraint to not beat you over the head with it), but this writer went on to say that Nabokov’s response to Nazism and Communism wasn’t to pen political polemics, but rather to erect “glittering fortresses of civilization” (or something very similar; I remember being struck by the line).  The writer asserted that perhaps these fortresses would prove to be more enduring than the polemics of the time.
Nabokov, very ostentatiously catching a butterfly.

(Maybe this is from Lila Azam Zangeneh’s The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, which I once debated purchasing at a bookstore but for which I didn’t feel like paying 23 dollars.  I read something similar in an essay about Arthur Koestler (Arthur who? Exactly!) who was a prominent intellectual from the thirties until his death, but whose fame has declined because so much of his work is polemical and focused on the very specific issues of his time and place; oh, also, it came out after he died that he raped and beat a lot of women, so that really didn’t reflect well on him).
Arthur Koestler, pictured not abusing women, but don't let that fool you.

All of this brings me to Akira Kurosawa’s The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, made in 1945; alas, I can’t find whether it was made before or after the surrender, but whatever the circumstances, this movie was made in a devastated country, with everything in short supply, hundreds of thousands of young men sent off overseas to be killed, wounded, or imprisoned, and major cities in flames.  This explains why Tiger’s Tail, at 59 minutes, is by far Kurosawa’s shortest film.

At the time of Japan’s greatest catastrophe, Kurosawa chose to make his first samurai movie, and a samurai movie based on one of the greatest Japanese samurai heroes, Minamoto no Yoshitsune.  A little historical background: In the 1180’s, the Heian era, a period of unparalleled classical Japanese refinement, came to a cataclysmic conclusion, when the two major landholding clans, the Taira (or Heike) and the Minamoto (or Genji) tore the country asunder in a bloody civil war.  The Taira were destroyed in 1185 and the Minamoto, under the leadership of Minamoto no Yoritomo, established the Kamakura shogunate.  Now, Yoritomo had a younger brother, Yoshitsune, who had made something of a hero of himself during the civil war and who had many admirers flocking about him.  Now, if you’ve just become the shogun in the aftermath of a civil war—and it only takes one civil war to set the precedent that you can have more—the idea of a sexy young general becoming more popular than you must be disconcerting.
Yoshitsune and his chief retainer, Benkei, viewing cherry blossoms, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.

So Yoritomo turns on his brother and Yoshitsune and a small band of loyal retainers flee, trying to make it to the semi-independent province of Mutsu in northern Honshu.  Pretty much every episode in the downfall of Yoshitsune has been mythologized in Japanese literature and music, and it appears that Kurosawa decided that his Yoshitsune movie would just focus on one of those episodes (and again, this is Japan in 1945; there’s no money to make a Yoshitsune epic).

The movie begins in media res and we find Yoshitsune and his six retainers disguised as itinerant priests and travelling through a hostile province; they are accompanied by one porter; more on him in a minute.  In order to cross out of that province, they’ll have to make it past the checkpoints of samurai loyal to Yoritomo.  The whole movie pretty much revolves around the crossing of one of these checkpoints.

But what about the porter? Because in many ways, this is the porter’s movie.  The porter is here to provide comic relief, and he provides it in spades.  If this were a Shakespeare play, the text would designate the porter as a clown.  His shtick is that he’s an obsequious, avaricious coward, and isn’t it hilarious that he’s been caught up in this major piece of history? Yes, it is.  This is the same comic potential that Tom Stoppard saw in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The porter shouldn’t be here, by all rights, but he is, and he’s determined to ham it up and involve himself as much as possible, even if that means playing the exaggerated coward in a manner reminiscent of Woody Allen in Love and Death (1975).  And to continue on in the Shakespearian vein, one can see in this clown the fool of Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s epic samurai adaptation of King Lear (which, in sharp contrast to Tiger’s Tail, Kurosawa made with money).
The porter, as portrayed by Kenichi Enomoto.

The porter’s presence positively dominates the film, to the point that it seems downright strange.  What kind of samurai movie is this? But we must remember that we are in Kurosawa-land, and from that perspective, we can see that even here, in his first samurai movie, he’s playing with and subverting the conventions that define the genre (in the subversive style of the spaghetti westerns that I discussed in my last post).

Another point of interest is the character of Yoshitsune.  Watching him in this movie, one would never think he was the hero of great battles, because his character is remarkably passive.  He spends most of the movie silent, his face concealed by a large hat, leaving all the negotiating, all the threatening, and just generally all the action to his retainers.

It is 46 minutes into the film before we see Yoshitsune’s face (and remember, this movie is only 59 minutes long).  In the lead-up to this, we have just witnessed the great showdown at the checkpoint, with Yoshitsune’s samurai convincing the border guards that he and his retinue are itinerant priests and that Yoshitsune is one of their porters (along with the porter, of course).  Just as they’re about to leave, with everything apparently in order, one of the border guards demands that they halt and insists on having a closer look at Yoshitsune.  The guard doesn’t think that Yoshitsune looks like a porter; in fact, he thinks that Yoshitsune looks like Yoshitsune, the most famous fugitive in the country.  And then Yoshitsune’s chief retainer, Benkei, makes a brilliant decision.  He turns on Yoshitsune and begins to berate him, as he would any common porter, for calling attention to them and for general incompetence.  He even goes so far as to beat Yoshitsune with his staff.  And this is what finally convinces the border guards that the porter is just a porter, because there’s no way that a vassal would actually strike his lord, regardless of the circumstances.  And so Yoshitsune and his retinue escape, and they make their way down the road to rest from the stresses of the checkpoint incident, and everyone is happy and cheerful about Benkei’s brilliant ruse, except Benkei himself, who is devastated, because, like the border guard said, nothing could justify a vassal striking his lord.  He bows deeply before Yoshitsune and excoriates himself and one expects seppuku to be the logical outcome, but then Yoshitsune asserts himself!  The only time he takes any action in the whole movie!  He takes off his hat, and we see his youthful, feminine face for the first time, and he takes Benkei by the hand, and by his authority and his presence, he puts everyone at ease, and reassures Benkei that he did the right thing, saying, “It was not this hand that struck me, but the hand of the God of War.” And then he retreats back under his hat.
Benkei (L) and Yoshitsune.

So in this movie about a great Japanese cultural hero, the hero barely does anything, while the most active character by far is a comically foolish porter.  For a martial Japan about to enter into a post-military era, this reworking of a national myth couldn’t have been more relevant.
A shame, then, that it wasn’t actually released in Japan until 1952.  The American Occupation authorities had dictatorial censorship powers over Japanese cinema, and they did not look kindly on samurai movies, which they assumed advocated a military ethos that had no place in the recently pacified Japan of “Shogun” MacArthur.  This censorship perhaps explains why Kurosawa—so strongly associated with samurai films—spent most of the occupation making either Capra-esque dramas or hardboiled noirs.  And these were good movies, don’t get me wrong, but it just strikes me as uncanny for Kurosawa to have spent his formative years making No Regrets for our Youth rather than The Hidden Fortress.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Soi Cowboys: On Some Recent Asian Westerns

When the Italians started making Westerns, these films were referred to as spaghetti Westerns; now, whether or not that term was initially meant to be derogatory, I can’t tell you, but it sounds affectionate in hindsight.  I like the sound of ‘spaghetti Western,” it sounds better to me than just plain “Western.” I have heard that Indian Westerns (like Sholay, which I haven’t seen, but that’s the big one) are referred to as “curry Westerns,” which sounds a little bit more racist, but whatever, again, I can see the affection in it.  But what are Asian Westerns? Rice Westerns? Because that just sounds downright racist, like back in the day when “buy American” types referred to Japanese cars as “rice-burners.” So I won’t call them “rice Westerns.” Come to think of it, I think I’ve heard Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo referred to as a spaghetti Western—it was the “inspiration” for A Fistful of Dollars (that is, the people who made A Fistful of Dollars ripped it off without obtaining the rights to it)—so perhaps any non-American Western can be a spaghetti western.

But this is neither here nor there.  I raise the issue only because I want to talk about some recent Asian Westerns.  I have three specific examples in mind: Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), and Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (2010).  Now, first off, what makes these movies “Westerns?” They don’t have the American landscapes, they don’t have Native Americans to dispossess or Mexicans to casually dispatch (Borges takes perverse pleasure in recounting an anecdote of Billy the Kid, in which the racist gunslinger boasts that he’s killed “twenty-one people, not counting Mexicans). There’s no “frontier,” and hell, there’s no “West.” But in the absence of an actual frontier, there’s a frontier mentality; these movies take place in neglected backwaters (Tears of the Black Tiger) and lawless warzones (The Good, The Bad, The Weird (GBW, we’ll call it for short) and Let the Bullets Fly).  Also, they may not have Native Americans or Mexicans to kill, but they do have that perennial figure of American westerns, the evil rich guy.  In the American films, he tends to be a cattle baron or an oil tycoon or something like that.  In Black Tiger, he’s an evil provincial governor; in Let the Bullets Fly, he’s an opium smuggler and human trafficker.

GBW is unique amongst these films in that the “bad guy” isn’t an individual tyrant, but rather a large institution: in this case, the Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria.  But now I’m getting ahead of myself.  What I want to discuss briefly in this post is why and how each of these movies uses the Western genre.

Tears of the Black Tiger is engaged, first and foremost, in a large-scale pastiche/parody of Thai b-movies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most of this source material has not been released in the United States, so the viewer of Sasanatieng’s movie comes to understand these sources only through Sasanatieng’s gleeful distortion of them.  Perhaps a Thai viewer who “got the references” would derive the same satisfaction that a college film student derives from a Quentin Tarantino movie, or that someone “in the know” would get while watching The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray says to Owen Wilson, “Not this one, Ned,” which is totally a reference to Jules and Jim, and isn’t it just satisfying to “get that?” I sound more sarcastic and intolerant here than I mean to.  I don’t object to allusions.  In fact, I derive great pleasure from them.  Half the pleasure of certain Borges stories (to come back to Borges again) comes from the erudition on display.  Perhaps I only mock reference-chasers because I’m embarrassed to count myself among their ranks, much as a hipster affects to despise hipsters or a gay Republican campaigns against gay rights.

Oh, right, Tears of the Black Tiger.  Well, the Western genre here is used to take the viewer on a whirlwind nostalgia trip through Thai movie melodrama history, mixed with a healthy dose of homoeroticism and psychedelia.
A representative still from Tears of the Black Tiger

The Good, The Bad, The Weird, which takes its title from the quintessential spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is engaged largely with the task of having fun with genre tropes.  The movie follows three Korean adventurers in Japanese-occupied Manchuria as they race each other to the location of a hidden treasure, while simultaneously avoiding their fellow outlaws, Chinese and Korean nationalist rebels, and the Japanese Imperial Army.  It’s probably the funniest movie you’ll ever see about the Japanese occupation of China, which may or may not be a dubious distinction, depending on how you want to look at it. (I always like to recommend Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel Allah is Not Obliged by saying, “It’s the funniest book you’ll ever read about child soldiers,” which is true).

Just as a side note, why is this Korean movie set in Manchuria? Because the Korean peninsula just isn’t big enough for a Western, or at least not one on this scale, with the characters chasing each other on horseback or motorcycle through vast desert wastes, the pursuing Japanese Army raising an enormous dust cloud as they give chase.  The optics just wouldn’t have been the same if the film had been set in Korea.
Song Kang-ho, riding a motorcycle in Manchuria

Let the Bullets Fly also has a great sense of fun, but this fun is tempered by a biting and satirical indignation.  The film follows bandit leader Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen, directing himself) who kidnaps the incoming governor of a small town during the Chinese civil war and decides to become governor himself.  He comes into conflict with local bigwig Huang Fox (Chow Yun-fat), who’s made his fortune through the trafficking of opium and humans.  Their face-off is one of escalating corruption, violence, and disregard for human life (although our sympathies generally remain with Zhang, because he’s a bandit, and therefore romantic, after all, whereas Huang Fox is the Chinese civil war equivalent of, oh, I don’t know, Silvio Berlusconi).
Chow Yun-fat is a much more handsome Silvio Berlusconi

Jiang Wen employs the Western genre in Let the Bullets Fly because the lawlessness that pervades the Western setting allows his characters’ greed and calculating amorality to be played out to their most outrageous possible extremes.

Let the Bullets Fly is the highest grossing Chinese movie in history, which is astonishing, given how subversive the whole thing is.  It’s not difficult to see the corruption on display in Jiang’s film and to find its modern parallel in the country of Bo Xilai, so how it made it past the censors is beyond me.  Jiang himself has been a controversial figure over the years.  His 2000, black-and-white masterpiece, Devils on the Doorstep, about a group of Chinese villagers during WWII who suddenly find themselves in possession of a Japanese prisoner, provoked controversy not just for its subject matter—the Chinese in the film were insufficiently saintly, the Japanese insufficiently monstrous (or too monstrous, according to the film’s Japanese co-producers)—but for the way Jiang went about distributing it.  In 2000, he premiered it at the Cannes Film Festival without first seeking the approval of the Chinese Film Bureau.  In retaliation for this undermining of their authority, they banned the film from being distributed in China and prohibited Jiang from directing movies for the next seven years.  I should imagine Jiang feels vindicated, what with returning from this period with the highest grossing Chinese movie ever.

I suppose it’s noteworthy that, although the Western is all but dead in the United States, its generic structures continue to flourish overseas.  But it seems to be just the structures.  Nobody makes a straight Western anymore; if people make Westerns, they always do so with an element of post-modern pastiche.  Maybe that’s for the best.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Some Notes on Japanese “Crazy Young People” Movies of the 1950’s and ‘60’s



Young people are a plague, teenagers especially.  They’re ignorant, they’re reckless, some of them are downright sociopathic.  They have no impulse control.  God damn the lot of them.  Americans realized this no later than 1953, with the release of László Benedek’s The Wild One.  This is the movie where Marlon Brando, a motorcyclist with a leather jacket, upon being asked what he’s rebelling against, famously responds, “Whadaya got?”

Now, it’s quite possible that the Japanese realized that young people were dangerous and insane long before 1956, but it’s 1956 that saw the release of Ko Nakahira’s epoch-making (or rather initiating) film Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu).  This movie would serve as the prototype for most of the “crazy young people” movies to follow, and we can find in it most of the key elements that would define the genre.

First, some background on Crazed Fruit.  The film—produced by Nikkatsu, masters of the Japanese b-movie—was written by the novelist Shintaro Ishihara, a friend of Yukio Mishima who would later go on to become a far-right wing, vigorously racist politician; he is currently the governor of Tokyo prefecture (after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he said that it was the gods punishing the Japanese for becoming “too materialistic.” This is comparable to Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and feminists; interestingly enough, I remember thinking to myself, shortly after the disaster, “I wonder if Ishihara will blame this on the Koreans or something.” Luckily he restrained himself, and we didn’t have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto plain earthquake, when dozens of ethnic Koreans in Japan were lynched for a variety of imagined crimes.  For instance, the water in many of the wells in the Tokyo-Yokohama area became cloudy—a natural result of the earthquake—and this was interpreted as the Koreans poisoning the well water!  Sigh, racism). 

Now, Shintaro Ishihara’s involvement is important because—slight exaggeration—all crazy young people movies were written by Ishihara.  Furthermore, Crazed Fruit stars Yujiro Ishihara (or “Yu-chan,” as he was known to his legions of fans; God, was he pretty), Shintaro Ishihara’s younger brother.  Yujiro Ishihara—against, slight exaggeration—is the star of all Japanese crazy young people movies, and God damn, but there are a lot of them.  Between 1956 and 1959 alone, he was in literally dozens of movies (perhaps actors in general were just more productive back then; I mean, how many movies was Ryan Gosling in last year? Three? Maybe four?)

There’s a  pretty girl in Crazed Fruit named Mie Kitehara.  She was similarly prolific and she and Yu-chan appeared in a number of films together.

Oh, what’s Crazed Fruit about?  Well, Yu-chan and his brother are spending their summer vacation at their father’s house on the beach.  Being wild and reckless, they do a lot of motor-boating and water-skiing with their hard-drinking, nihilistic friends, including a wealthy half-American with the exotic name of Frank.  Of all the crazy young people, Frank is the most hedonistic and the most amoral, which is not surprising, given that he’s not really Japanese.  This is another trope of crazy young people movies: the sinister presence of foreigners (and their nationalities are rarely specified; they’re just foreigners, or gai-jin. Frank is rather an anomaly in that his American-ness is noted; usually, the only foreigners to get a nationality are African-Americans, who are something of their own category in post-war Japanese cinema; more on this in a moment).

I see I’ve digressed.  The plot of Crazed Fruit: Yu-chan and his brother meet a pretty girl named Eri (the lovely Mie Kitehara) and they both fall in love with her.  This is problematic because Eri, as it turns out, is married to a paunchy, balding foreigner who must be at least twice her age (he has a British accent, for what it’s worth).  The image of young Japanese women “whoring” themselves out to foreigners is one of the main signs of decadence in these films, and it’s also the primary way for the women to demonstrate their depravity.  There are worse things a young Japanese woman can do than marry a foreigner in these movies.  She can openly prostitute herself to foreign businessmen and American soldiers.  And, most provocatively, she can have sex with an African-American soldier.  In Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1963 The Warped Ones, someone recommends to a prostitute—whose primary clientele consists of American soldiers—that she have sex with his black friend.  This is too much for her and she declines with disgust.  Even she has standards.  And in Shohei Imamura’s 1961 masterpiece Pigs and Battleships, a prostitute attempts to make her boyfriend jealous by threatening to sleep with American soldiers, even black ones!

One of the remarkable things about the Japanese cinema of this period is the complete lack of any notion of political correctness in its representation of African-Americans.  The depictions are by no means always hostile, although sometimes the best they can do is treat the African-American as a novel object of curiosity.  Or the Japanese character will see the African-American through a haze of stereotypes and received ideas.  This latter tendency is depicted most trenchantly in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964), in which a young petty gangster finds himself involved with a fugitive African-American soldier who has murdered two of his white fellow soldiers.  The Japanese man is a lover of jazz music, the prism through which he sees black people, and he assumes that this is all he’ll need to make friends with his new black guest.  In broken English he tells him, “All black people are my friend!  Thelonious Monk: buraku!” Now, the soldier has just killed some people and is in fear for his life, so he has no time for jazz music, but the Japanese gangster just can’t understand that.  When he finds that the soldier can’t even play the trumpet, and doesn’t even seem to like jazz, it’s downright incomprehensible to him.  Black Sun is probably the best Japanese movie I’ve seen which directly examines Japanese conceptions of black people, painful though it is often is to watch.  And in defense of Imamura’s treatment of African-Americans in Pigs and Battleships, I don’t think Imamura himself is expressing a racial prejudice; he’s just depicting his characters realistically, and alas, that’s how, realistically, they’re going to talk about black people.

I’ve digressed again.  Crazed Fruit.  Yu-chan, his brother, their love for Mei Kitehara’s character, her shameful marriage to a foreigner.  Well, it goes without saying that the relationship between the two brothers collapses, and they eventually end up engaged in open combat for Kitehara’s love.  I won’t reveal the ending; go get a Hulu Plus account and watch it there (they have a lot of Criterions available for streaming there, and it’s cheaper than Netflix).

A few more things that decadent Japanese youth will do in crazy young people movies: they like to drive convertibles, they listen to jazz and rock music, they use American slang expressions (quel horreur!)

It’s interesting how movies like Crazed Fruit and, say, Rebel Without a Cause, can be so reactionary (look at these crazy young people, with their cars and their music and their sex!) while simultaneously being so exciting to the young people that they purport to depict (“Wow, look at Yu-chan/James Dean! He’s so rugged and handsome and dreamy! Look at Mie Kitehara/Natalie Wood! She’s so sexy with her provocative, form-fitting sweaters!)

Now, as a cosmopolitan snob, I’m leery of American movies, so I’ve probably seen more Japanese crazy young people movies than their American counterparts (in fact, of the American variety, the examples I’ve given—The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause—are probably the only ones I’ve seen).  I sort of work under the assumption that if it’s Japanese, it must be better than the American version.  But I’m sure both Crazed Fruit and Rebel Without a Cause spawned legions of shitty imitations.  The only difference is that no one bothered to distribute the Crazed Fruit knock-offs in the United States, whereas the Rebel wannabes were free to flood the market. So the Japanese can produce crap too; it just doesn’t get exported.

As for Ko Nakahira, he’s something of a one hit wonder in the Japanese film industry.  After Crazed Fruit, he ended up making a string of similar young people movies for Nikkatsu, none of which equaled the success of his break-though, and then he ended up relocating to Hong Kong, where he directed, among other things, a Chinese-language remake of Crazed Fruit.  This movie has not yet been released by the Criterion Collection.