Saturday, March 31, 2007

Travelling Actors

Stolen Desire (Nusumareta Yokujo). 1958. Directed by Shohei Imamura. Written by Toshiro Suzuki, based on the story "Tent Theatre" by Toko Kon. Produced by Kazu Otsuka. Cinematography by Kurataro Takamura. Edited by Tadashi Nakamura. Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Art direction by Kimihiko Nakamura. Released by Nikkatsu Corporation.

Cast: Osamu Takizawa (Taminosuke Yamamura), Shinichi Yanagisawa (Ezaburo Yamamura), Hiroyuki Nagato (Shinichi Kunida), Michie Kita (Chigusa Yamamura), Yoko Minamida (Chidori Yamamura), Kimiko Nanazato (Sayoko), Masako Urushizawa (Midori).

Stolen Desire (1958), Imamura’s first feature film, and the first of three films he released in that year, is his delightful tribute to the “earthy” citizens of the Kawachi district of Osaka. From this film onward, Imamura expressed his interest in what were considered the lower rungs of Japanese society. One of the lowest were actors, especially the traveling kabuki actors we follow in this film, whose troupe is constantly referred to in the film as a “beggar theater.” This colorful lot includes Shinichi (Hiroyuki Nagato), the troupe’s stage director, whose ambitions for elaborate and artistic productions are often frustrated by his less-than-disciplined cast; Chidori (Yoko Minamida), an actress married to Eizaburo (Shinichi Yanagisawa), a star of the troupe whom Shinichi is in love with; Chidori’s sister Chigusa (Michie Kita), another actress who is in love with Shinichi, and is jealous of Shinichi's obvious affection for her sister.

The film begins with a narrator’s voiceover extolling the fact that 13 years after World War II, there is now “no trace” of the war, and that the people there have been pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years. We focus in on the troupe’s last performance of “The Loyal 47 Ronin.” As always, the kabuki performance opens with a striptease show, after which most of the largely male audience exits the theater before the actual play. The narrator amusingly notes that although students almost never attend these shows, there is a sign prominently displaying student discounts. The performance is aborted after an actor onstage refuses to say his lines, complaining that he hasn’t been paid. The fight moves outdoors, with one of the actors trying to grab the cash box from the ticket seller’s hands, culminating in Shinichi going after the fighting actors with a hammer.

The troupe is forced to leave after their stage is taken down by workers in need of timber. The troupe leader says he cannot pay them and they should go their separate ways. However, the actors say that they will stay with him. Shinichi sticks with them also, even though a friend of his has offered him a job directing television. He also remains there because of his longing for Chidori.

They move on to another village, and after raucous negotiations with the local landowner Fujita, the owner of a brush factory in the area, they set up a tent in a paddy field. The actors are an immediate sensation, especially the actresses whom the men chase after and sometimes peep in on when they are dressing for bed. The men especially enjoy the opening strip show, and the troupe plays to packed houses. The conflicts and love triangles continue here also.

Imamura’s love for these passionate, uncouth, and rowdy people comes through beautifully here, and the film is an often hilarious experience, made all the more so by not following a conventional narrative, but instead being a freewheeling and lighthearted portrait of these people. Imamura would continue his examination of the lower classes for the rest of his career, which would include darker portraits of those even lower in society than actors -- prostitutes, pimps, killers, primitive societies -- which were always interspersed with sensualist and bawdy humor. Stolen Desire is a remarkable debut film that contains many hallmarks of the even greater work to come.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Disappearing Acts

A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu). 1967. Produced and directed by Shohei Imamura. Cinematography by Kenji Ishiguro. Edited by Matsuo Tanji. Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Production design by Ichiro Takada. Sound recording by Kunio Takeshige. Released by Nikkatsu Corporation.

Cast: Yoshie Hayakawa, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Sayo Hayakawa, Shohei Imamura.

A mystery without a solution, A Man Vanishes (1967) is a fascinating study of the eminently collapsible boundary between reality and artifice. More precisely, it suggests that what we think of as “reality,” and how we behave in this framework, is as much a construction as any work of fiction. Initially, the film seems to be an example of the cinema verité documentary style prevalent in the 1960s. A voiceover informs us that even on the “small island” of Japan, hundreds of people a year can easily vanish among the crowds of people, never to be seen again. The film is ostensibly a study of one of these "johatsu," or missing persons. We focus in on the particular case of Tadashi Oshima, a man who disappeared one day on his way to work, and the efforts of his fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa, to find him. The camerawork is handheld, and fly-on-the-wall observant. There is little music, and all indications point to the idea that this is a document of Yoshie’s search, with an "investigator," actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi (the rapist from Intentions of Murder), accompanying her to interview people who knew him in order to find out where he is and why he disappeared so suddenly.

However, there are signs that Imamura is up to something different here, beginning with the credits sequence, in which a medium attempts to contact Oshima. This is rather odd, since he is apparently still alive. “The unhappy spirit of a woman haunts him,” the medium says of Oshima, and this explains why he cannot love any woman. The medium reappears at other points in the film, sometimes as brief flashes.

The film delves into the investigation, revealing the many layers of personality and history that exist beneath the surface of this apparently ordinary salesman and the lives of those connected to him. Among other details, we learn that he had embezzled money from his company over a two-year period, and kept a mistress while he was away on business, who he may or may not have gotten pregnant. The animosity between Yoshie and her sister Sayo also surfaces in the course of this search. Yoshie disapproves of her sister’s relationship with a man she is not married to. She also comes to suspect that Sayo may have had an affair with Yoshie.

The verité veneer begins to drop away as we see how Imamura is manipulating certain actions, as he would in a drama. At one point, Yoshie confesses she is beginning to fall in love with Tsuyuguchi; he tells Imamura that this would be “awkward.” We see discussions between Imamura and his crew (in which Yoshie is frequently referred to as “The Rat”) in which they discuss how the film is going and where they want to take it.

The “documentary” aspect of A Man Vanishes, already questionable and extremely flimsy, completely collapses at the end of a long scene in which Yoshie, increasingly agitated, interrogates her sister about the fact that several people have reported seeing Sayo and Oshima together. They argue at either end of a dinner table, with Imamura sitting silently between them. A fishmonger is brought in, who confirms that he did indeed see the two of them together. Despite all this, Sayo strenuously insists that everyone who saw them together is mistaken. It is a lengthy and repetitious scene, with neither side willing to budge. Sayo then turns and asks Imamura, “Director, what is truth?” Imamura answers, “I don’t know what’s the truth. Nobody knows the truth.” At this point, the film’s most audacious and astonishing gambit occurs: Imamura yells to the crew, the walls fall away, and it is revealed that the scene we’ve just witnessed has been occurring on a soundstage. A narrator informs us that everything we have seen up to that point is fiction, although this fiction is indeed based on actual disappearances.

The camera crew moves to the street, and the argument resumes as a growing crowd gathers. Even though the scenario has been revealed to be fictional, the arguments on either side become increasingly passionate, resulting in an irreducible impasse. Both sides insist that their version of reality is the truth, and nothing is resolved. Imamura and Yoshie speak to each other in a voiceover at the film’s conclusion. “The film is finished, but reality is not,” Imamura says. A Man Vanishes is one of Imamura’s most idiosyncratic and unsettling films, in its radical fracturing and questioning of cinema’s representation of what appears in front of the camera.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kiarostami at MOMA/Imamura at BAM

Just a quick note to say that I am currently eyebrow-deep in two major retrospectives happening right now in the city: "Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker," a multimedia exhibit at MOMA, the film section of which runs through March 19. Alongside that series is one that is proving to be a long-overdue revelation for me: "Pimps, Prostitutes, and Pigs: Shohei Imamura's Japan," screening at BAM through March 29. This accounts for the woeful lack of posts lately. However, this will be rectified soon. Watch this space for reviews of films in both series.

In the meantime, here are some interesting links on both directors, from the online journal Senses of Cinema:

Merhnaz Saeed-Vafa on Abbas Kiarostami
David Sterritt's interview with Abbas Kiarostami
Nelson Kim on Shohei Imamura

Also: an interview with Imamura from the World Socialist Web Site.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2007 Review: Bruno Dumont's "Flanders"

Flanders (Flandres). 2006. Written and directed by Bruno Dumont. Produced by Jean Brehat and Rachid Bouchareb. Cinematography by Yves Cape. Edited by Guy Lecorne. Sound design by Philippe Lecoeur. Costume design by Cedric Grenapin and Alexandra Charles.

Cast: Adelaide Leroux (Barbe), Samuel Boidin (Demester), Henri Cretel (Blondel), Jean-Marie Bruveart (Briche), David Poulain (Leclercq), Patrice Venant (Mordac), David Legay (Lieutenant), Inge Decaesteker (France).

Bruno Dumont’s latest film, Flanders, screening in Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2007” series, which runs at the Walter Reade Theater from February 28 through March 11, is a highlight of this year’s selections. A return to form after his failed US-set experiment, Twentynine Palms, Flanders returns Dumont to his familiar milieu of raw sex and violence told with Bressonian preciseness and economy. While Flanders is not quite up to the level of his near-masterpieces Life of Jesus and Humanity, it is a searing vision of war and its effects on those who fight it and those they leave behind, made all the more powerful by Dumont’s painfully unadorned and stripped-down presentation. Following Dumont’s usual method of casting, the actors in Flanders are all non-professionals.

We first encounter Demester (Samuel Boidin), working on his farm. We soon learn he is about to go off to war; whether he has been drafted or volunteered is unclear. Demester is a rather brutish-looking, inarticulate hulk of a man; the actor portraying him is one of the very distinctive ones that Dumont has an uncanny ability to discover. He speaks with a friend about the war, in very plain and simple terms.

We are then introduced to the film’s other central character, Barbe (Adelaide Leroux), Demester’s sometime paramour, and there is an early scene of the two having sex in the woods near the farm, shot in an unblinking fashion that emphasizes the animalistic nature of the coupling. This sort of non-dramatized vision will be carried throughout the rest of the film, both in the home and war scenes.

Before Demester is about to go to war, he has drinks with Barbe and other friends in a local bar. Perhaps to distance himself from Barbe’s reputation as the town slut, he denies that they have a real relationship. To punish him, she picks up another man, the more conventionally handsome Blondel (Henri Cretel), who will soon join Demester in the war, fighting in the same regiment. The pain on Demester’s face as he watches them is quite palpable. Later, Barbe tearfully embraces them both before they go off to fight.

Up to this point, the bleak rural setting (beautifully rendered by Dumont’s regular cinematographer Yves Cape) and the lack of an obvious contemporary feel would lead one into thinking this is a period film, perhaps set during World War I, in which Flanders was a famous setting. It is a surprise, then, that when we finally see the men in the battlefield, they are fighting a modern war in a Middle Eastern desert, clearly evoking the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The country they are in is unnamed, and the nature of the conflict is never stated. What everything is reduced to is casual brutality on both sides. The soldiers shoot two teenage boy soldiers and brutally rape a female soldier. Dumont frames these scenes in medium shot, without cutting, close-ups or musical underlining, a matter-of-fact method that makes them all the more disturbing. Demester, however, doesn’t seem to participate in these atrocities; he simply observes them, but does nothing to protest or stop them. Later, the soldiers are captured by enemy forces, in which they are shot, tortured, and subjected to the same treatment they have given out.

The film alternates between the battlefield and the farm, where Barbe becomes increasingly agitated, to the point that she is committed to a mental hospital. She also aborts Blondel’s child. Barbe seems to feel the cruelty of the war in an extremely empathetic way; after the soldiers shoot the children in the stomach, there is a cut to Barbe holding her stomach. Although this is perhaps due to her pregnancy, the juxtaposition of these shots suggests otherwise. An outburst she makes to Demester later in the film, where she says she saw what happened in the war, confirms this. Barbe, far from the battle, feels the death and destruction keenly, while Demester and the other soldiers commit brutal acts without remorse or any recognizable human feeling. We can infer from this that in Dumont’s view, women, as far more empathetic creatures than men, are far less likely to cause the conflicts that lead to the carnage that we see here.

Demester returns from the war, in the film’s terms, just as abruptly as he went in. Outwardly, he seems unchanged, returning to his usual life of work on the farm, and sex with Barbe. When asked about the war, he says simply, “It was hell out there.” However, the film’s final scenes drive home how profoundly he has been transformed by his war experience. Culminating in a final scene that explicitly evokes Bresson’s character epiphanies (especially Pickpocket), Flanders offers a vision of war that is quietly shattering and quite moving, remarkably achieving this without overt politics or specifics, rendering Dumont’s essential truths in quite visceral relief.

Flanders screens on March 4 and 5. For more information on this film and others in the series, see the Film Society’s website.
Flanders trailer: