Monday, March 31, 2008

New Directors/New Films 2008 Review: Lee Isaac Chung's "Munyurangabo"

Munyurangabo. 2007. Produced, directed, edited and photographed by Lee Isaac Chung. Written by Samuel Anderson and Lee Isaac Chung. Co-produced by Samuel Anderson and Jenny Lund. Art direction by Jean Kwezi. Sound by Jenny Lund. Original solo music by Claire Wibabara.

Cast: Jeff Rutagengwa (Munyurangabo), Eric Dorunkundiye (Sangwa), Jean Marie Nkurikiyinka (Sangwa's Father), Jean Pierre Mulonda Harerimana (Gwiza), Uwayo B. Edouard (Poet), Narcicia Nyirabucyeye (Sangwa's Mother), Etienne Rugazora (Ngabo's Father), Pierre Claver Kayitsinga (Father's Killer).

A near-classic work of cinematic and cultural alchemy, Munyurangabo is not only the stunning debut of a major talent, but also an expressively beautiful vessel where the voice and experiences of a people scarred by genocide, poverty, and ethnic warfare is given shape through a sensitive outsider who uses these materials to create a work of art that is transformative for both its creators and its viewers. In a similar process recalling Dave Eggers’ recent novel What Is the What, which related the experiences of a refugee who survived the genocide in Sudan, Korean-American Chung, along with collaborators Samuel Anderson and Jenny Lund, improvised this film with his cast, all of whom experienced the Rwandan civil war first hand, losing family members and struggling with the impoverished aftermath. Opening with a quote from the book of Isaiah, this film in its basic outline is a revenge story with biblical overtones. Also, with its rural setting, and many shots of characters framed though doorways, there is more than a hint of John Ford’s westerns.

Munyurangabo (Jeff Rutagengwa) is on a mission to avenge his father’s death by searching for, and murdering his father’s killer. He is accompanied by his close friend Sangwa (Eric Dorunkundiye), who is seeking to reunite with the family he left behind three years earlier, and especially to repair his strained relationship with his father (Jean Marie Nkurikiyinka). Sangwa’s desire to reconnect with his home life immediately clashes with Munyurangabo’s single-minded desire for revenge. He is also more than a little envious of Sangwa’s intact family, since he was orphaned because of the war. Also complicating matters, and creating considerable strife in the village, are the two friends’ ethnicities: Munyurangabo is a Tutsi and Sangwa is a Hutu, each an opposite member of the warring tribes of Rwanda’s civil war. Instead of their friendship being regarded as an example of reconciliation, their relationship is looked on with hostility and suspicion, especially by Sangwa’s father, who angrily admonishes his son: “Don’t you know we’re enemies?” Munyurangabo eventually leaves the village, determined to carry out his revenge, where he meets a poet (Uwayo B. Edouard), who delivers the most moving moment of the film, where he recites directly to the camera a long lament for Rwanda’s violent history. Thereafter this revenge story is transformed into something very different from what it was when it began, as is evident during the film’s lyrical final scenes. Munyurangabo’s experience at this point parallels that of another cinematic character out for revenge: Ethan Edwards, portrayed by John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. Chung’s unerring eye for the perfect visual and musical accompaniment to his narrative, as well as the impressive and truly authentic performances by his cast, come together to create an experience that is truly original and lingers long in the memory.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Directors/New Films 2008 Review Round-up #2

Epitaph (Jung Bum-sik and Jung Sik)

The Jung Brothers (as the sibling co-directors prefer to bill themselves) use the crowded genre of Korean horror to deliver a visually elegant and beautifully crafted ghost story, evoking ghosts both historical and literal. The framing device and the film narrative proper are set in two distinct historical periods in Korean history. In October 1979, the month of the assassination of dictatorial president Park Chung-hee, an aging doctor, Park Jung-Nam (Jeon Mu-song), is prompted by a photo album to reminisce on his experiences in Anseng Hospital, which is about to be torn down. The bulk of the story takes place three decades earlier, over the course of four days in 1942, at the height of imperial Japan’s stranglehold of colonized Korea. Although this hospital, with its spookily dark interiors and hushed, funereal corridors, was “as quiet as the eye of a storm” during this turbulent period, the historical circumstances of the imperial Japanese government, which sought to suppress all traces of Korean culture, are felt throughout the film, most notably in the hospital architecture, which is a mix of Western and Japanese elements. A major plot device of the film concerns the murders of Japanese soldiers. The Jung Brothers, in their debut feature, display an impressively prodigious command of all elements of their film craft, especially in the art direction, color schemes, and cinematography. Besides the requisite shocks and scares, which are in this context genuinely frightening in some scenes, there are some passages of stunning visual beauty, one example being the scene utilizing Japanese-style sliding doors to depict the marriage of Jung-Nam to a Japanese bride. The conventions of K-horror are successfully transcended, not only because of the film’s visual strategies, but by provocatively paralleling the fictional horror story that unfolds with the all too real horrors experienced by the Korean people in the late stages of World War II. (April 5 and 6)

La Zona (Rodrigo Plá)

The haves and the have-nots are at war in Plá’s dystopian tale, the titular community a walled-in, gated suburbia protected with armed guards and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. When a wild storm breaches the defenses of this wall, allowing a few of the unwashed masses to break in, and for one of them to murder one of the privileged citizens, the rest rally to keep the authorities out of it, and deal with the situation themselves, vigilante style. The film ticks off familiar points dealing with encroaching surveillance, police corruption, and the overwhelming amount of state apparatus necessary to preserve the lopsided balance of rich and poor. However, despite the high-tech veneer, no points are made here that George Orwell hadn’t already addressed six decades ago. (April 4 and 6)

Falling From Earth (Chadi Zeneddine)

An experimental fantasia evoking life during and after the Lebanese civil war and spanning across four decades, Zeneddine’s film contains many arresting and intriguing images. In 2008, an old man (Rafik Ali Ahmad) lives in a bombed out building, collecting photos of various people. Stories of three of them unfold in the course of the film. In 1990, a man deals with the aftermath of his wife’s suicide and his own history of abuse toward his family. In 1975, a security guard begins a bathroom stall correspondence with a mysterious person. In 1982, a woman (Carmen Lebbos) pines for her missing lover. Although the parts don’t quite cohere into a fully satisfying whole, and the ending uses a disappointingly clichéd image, Zeneddine’s impressively fluid images successfully transcend the film’s faults. (April 1 and 2)

A Lost Man (Danielle Arbid)

Despite the singular noun in the film’s title, two men are at the center of the story: Fouad Saleh (Alexander Sidding), a Lebanese man shattered by his experience in the civil war and suffering from memory loss; and Thomas Koré (Melvil Poupaud), a French photographer who prowls the streets at night, drinking in bars and picking up women, using everyone around him as fodder for his photography, practicing a disturbing sort of artistic vampirism. Both men become symbiotically intertwined in Arbid’s erotically charged scenario, as Thomas haunts the night districts of Jordan, incessantly snapping photos during his sexual assignations, pulling Fouad into his world, greedily uncovering the troubled man’s secrets. Inspired by the work of French photographer Antoine d’Agata and American novelist William T. Vollmann, A Lost Man effectively evokes the atmosphere of night life in the border towns Arbid depicts, and while it flirts with orientalist fetishizing of its Arabic characters, especially the women (surprising for a female filmmaker born in Lebanon), the film remains a fascinating and unsettling exploration of the dangers of taboo-breaking in Muslim societies. (April 5 and 6)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Directors/New Films 2008 Review Round-up

The 2008 New Directors/New Films festival, screens from March 26 through April 6 at the Walter Reade Theater and the Museum of Modern Art. This year’s edition is the strongest in years, collectively providing a potent snapshot of current social, political, and cinematic trends. Civil wars, multicultural life in major cities, the legacies of colonialism, and natural disasters are but a few of the major themes touched upon in this year’s film selections. Quirky and individualistic character portraits are also thrown into the mix, with varying results.

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt)

The opening night film’s central image, the frozen-over St. Lawrence River, over which the protagonist Ray (Melissa Leo) smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canada-U.S. border, is a potent representation of the fragility of the circumstances that Ray and the other film’s characters find themselves in. Their constricted existences, and their struggles to gain some sort of financial and personal stability, resonate between the worlds of the upstate N.Y. trailer park where Ray lives and the Mohawk reservation where Lila (Misty Upham) tries to get back her son from her mother-in-law. Ray’s big dream is to find a new double-wide trailer for herself and her two kids, which is jeopardized when her husband runs off with the money needed for their home. Authority lays a heavy hand on everyone, although it works differently for Indians as opposed to whites. Ray, as a white woman, is able to travel more freely, at least at first, between these two worlds. But as circumstances force them together, their destinies crisscross in an unexpected fashion. Stark, de-saturated colors dominate, as the harsh elements mirror the lives, and often desperate circumstances, of the characters. The Chinese and Pakistani immigrants who are used for money by both sides are the most powerless of all, shuttled back and forth as human cargo and commodities, unwilling pawns in the efforts of the poor to survive. (March 26 and 27)

Jellyfish (Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen)

This gentle comedy crisscrosses the destinies of several denizens of Tel Aviv, creating a portrait of the city that beautifully captures the ebb and flow of their lives. Honeymooners Michael and Keren (Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller) are stuck in a hotel in the city, unable to travel to the Caribbean because of the bride’s broken foot. Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipina caretaker, deals with two very different charges, while feeling guilty over the young son she left back home. Batya (Sara Adler), an aimless young woman is put in charge of a mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who comes out of the ocean. This scenario flows naturally, without feeling contrived or forced. Beneath the genial, comic tone of the piece is an underlying melancholy and loneliness that comes through, with Joy’s pining for her son, the single woman who lives alone in the same hotel as Michael and Keren, and an actress’ strained relationship with her mother. Appropriately making extensive use of marine imagery as a metaphor for the characters’ desire for connection, Jellyfish offers memorable images and incident (e.g. a hilarious experimental staging of Hamlet), and is a successful transition to cinema for the film’s co-directors, who previously made their names as literary artists. (March 27 and 30)

Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat)

Set in the Thailand coastal town of Takua Pa, which lost thousands of its inhabitants in the December 2004 tsunami, Wonderful Town represents a beautiful expression of the figurative (and possibly literal) ghosts that haunt this place, still existing in the woozy hangover of the town’s loss. This is a quiet film, full of silent spaces, and hushed, funereal tones, dealing in the contrasts between country and city, history and progress. Ton (Supphasit Kansen), an architect overseeing a new development in town, stays at a nearly deserted hotel, run by Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), who up to this point has remained safe in the cocoon of her life in town, running her daily errands in the hotel. As Ton, longing for an escape from the hectic bustle of Bangkok, and Na, feeling trapped between mountains on one side of Takua Pa and the sea on the other, are inevitably drawn together, the delicate balance that has existed in this lonely town is upset. The aimless youths riding through the streets on their motorbikes (including Na’s troubled younger brother) become steadily more menacing, and the whispers of gossip grow ever louder. This is an impressive debut, its odd melancholic rhythms encompassing mordant humor, lyrical visual passages, and a conclusion that combines heartbreak and hope. (April 2 and 4)

Trouble the Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

Ever since the initial calamity and continuing outrage and horrors that resulted from Hurricane Katrina, films on this subject have been a virtual documentary sub-genre. In this extraordinarily moving film, something new and vital is brought to the table: a view from the inside, literally, of the storm. This unique perspective comes courtesy of Kimberly Roberts, a resident of the lower Ninth Ward who brought her camcorder with her as the raging waters trapped her and her family on their roof. Scenes from this footage are inter-cut with her efforts to rebuild her life after the storm, complicated by both bureaucratic barriers and her own difficult family history. The co-directors, who previously worked with Michael Moore, allow this footage to tell their own stories, without a falsely authoritative voiceover, which puts into vivid relief such moving scenes as Kimberly performing her rap song directly to the camera, documenting her life story and her unflagging resilience. (April 3 and 6)

Soul Carriage (Conrad Clark)

UK director Clark delivers a reasonable facsimile of recent Chinese cinema: Xinren (Yang Fen Jun), a young construction worker paid such low wages that he can’t even afford a few beers to entertain his friends after work, is forced to carry the body of his dead co-worker (killed in a workplace accident) to the man’s hometown. He is given some hush money to give to the family, so that the company can keep everything below the radar of the authorities. The rapid industrial creep and lack of humanity prevalent in this vast landscape, represented by the hapless protagonist, a physical manifestation of depression and hopelessness, are duly present. Despite some brief flashes of attempted humor, misery is the dominant mode. However, what one misses is the sort of formal brilliance found in such filmmakers as Jia Zhang-ke, which would have added some substance to what is essentially a shallow outline for a film, rather than a fully realized one. Interestingly enough, Zhang Yang’s recent film Getting Home features a nearly identical basic storyline, but Zhang uses these elements to create a comic story told with much more soul and a firmer grasp of the complexity of the characters depicted than in Clark’s film. Soul Carriage, despite its lofty ambitions, remains an outsider’s view, however sympathetic, that fails to get below the surface of its minimal scenario. (April 3 and 5)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: Risa Morimoto's "Wings of Defeat"

Wings of Defeat (Tokko). 2007. Directed by Risa Morimoto. Written by Linda Hoaglund. Produced by Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund. Cinematography by Francisco Aliwalas. Edited by Maya Stark. Art direction by Joe Wu. Animation by Jef Castro. Sound design by Tom Lino. Music by Extreme Music.

Risa Morimoto’s documentary Wings of Defeat sheds valuable light on one of the most notorious yet least understood aspects of World War II, the Japanese pilots known as kamikaze (or in Japanese parlance, tokkotai), considered in the popular imagination to be fanatics who eagerly sacrificed themselves to inflict damage on US personnel, the equivalent of present-day suicide bombers. This film, with a thorough focus, counters these popular notions. While not excusing or making apologies for these soldiers’ actions, the film puts these pilots’ actions into illuminating context. Through interviews with those who survived or abandoned their missions, and by examining the way the kamikazes functioned within the propaganda prevalent in Japanese society at the time, it becomes clear that the strategy of using kamikaze pilots was in large part an act of desperation by Japan’s leadership, faced with an outmanned, losing army lacking in basic resources.

Morimoto adds a personal dimension to this story, relating her discovery that her own uncle had trained as a kamikaze pilot in his youth. Her process of uncovering her family history intersects with her exploration of Japanese wartime history, in both cases revealing stories shrouded in silence, obfuscation, and mythology. Wings of Defeat unfolds in a straightforward, linear manner, which works to its advantage as a fascinating work of journalism that is remarkably nuanced in its approach to this still-sensitive subject. Through interviews with kamikaze pilots who survived their missions (there were in fact hundreds who did so) either through failure or outright desertion, and with U.S. veterans who survived a kamikaze attack on the USS Drexler, a Navy destroyer ship, we learn that the divisions between the two sides are not as pronounced as we would believe. The U.S. veterans reveal a surprising level of understanding towards the kamikazes who attacked them. “We would have done the same thing,” one says, expressing their willingness to sacrifice their own lives if they had been told that would be necessary. The recollections of the former kamikaze are also quite revealing, and a sharp contrast to the popular notions of them as faceless, fanatical automatons. Many of these pilots were drafted unwillingly into this service, often at the last minute and with inadequate training. The kamikazes were glorified in the Japanese popular media, portrayed as noble warriors and saviors of their country, rather than what they truly were, which were unwilling pawns of a last-ditch strategy by a leadership unwilling to admit defeat. Distortions in both Japanese and western notions of these soldiers, on the one hand as self-sacrificing warriors, and on the other hand as mindless fanatics, are given a valuable corrective in this film. Archival footage and original animation also effectively evoke the frenzied propaganda campaign waged by the Japanese government, especially at the late stages of the war, when all Japanese citizens were essentially considered potential kamikaze recruits.

Wings of Defeat screens at Japan Society on March 18, and will be introduced by Morimoto and her co-producer and writer Linda Hoaglund, and a Q&A will follow the screening with the filmmakers and former kamikaze pilots Takahiko Ena and Takeo Ueshima, along with U.S. Navy veteran Fred Mitchell, one of the survivors of the attack on the USS Drexler.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Review: Buichi Saito's "Plains Wanderer"

Plains Wanderer (Daisogen no wataridori). 1960. Directed by Buichi Saito. Written by Gan Yamazaki. Cinematography by Kurataro Takamura. Music by Taichiro Kosugi.

Cast: Akira Kobayashi (Taki), Jo Shishido (Masa), Ruriko Asaoka (Junko), Mari Shiraki (Setna), Yoko Minamida (Kazue), Yuzo Kiura (Kiyosato), Nobuo Kaneko (Kodo), Toshio Egi (Nobuo).

Japan Society’s film series “No Borders, No Limits: 1960s Nikkatsu Action Cinema” continues with Buichi Saito’s 1960 feature Plains Wanderer, screening on March 14 at 7:30. The fifth installment of a popular nine-part series, Plains Wanderer is a sterling example of the “Eastern Western” genre, a popular staple of Nikkatsu action films. These films used the iconography of the American Western, but added unique characteristics of Japanese culture and history, and in the case of Plains Wanderer, crossed it with the gangster film genre. Akira Kobayashi, one of Nikkatsu’s biggest stars, played the wanderer in this series, a lone hero who wanders into various towns, a figure akin to those played by Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher’s westerns, although Kobayashi was far less taciturn and stoic than Scott.

Taki (Kobayashi), a wandering, singing cowboy, comes upon a village in Hokkaido populated by the Ainu, aboriginal people of Japan. He brings in tow Nobuo (Toshio Egi), a boy abandoned by his mother, whom Taki is searching for. Taki becomes drawn into the conflict the villagers are having with Kodo (Nobuo Kaneko), a rapacious bar owner and developer, who wants to take over their land for tourist construction. Also in the mix is Junko (Ruriko Asaoka), the owner of an arts and crafts shop selling Ainu craftworks, and who is conducting an anthropological study of the Ainu. Her interest is not merely an intellectual one; she loves and wants to protect these people. Her father-in-law Kiyosato (Yuzo Kiura) has mortgaged the Ainu land to Kodo, and he struggles to pay back the loan, but it is soon becomes clear that Kodo is less interested in being repaid than in making profit off the Ainu village land. Junko is engaged to Shigeru, Kiyosato’s dimwitted son. Her doubts about the impending marriage are only exacerbated by the arrival of the dashing Taki. Also complicating matters is Junko’s friend Setna (Mari Shiraki), an Ainu village girl who is in love with Shigeru.

Taki’s main foil is Masa (Jo Shishido), Todo’s wisecracking henchman, who crosses paths with Taki frequently, challenging him to fights. Masa is the sort of wry heavy who would be played in an American Western by Lee Marvin. The Wanderer series, much like other popular Japanese film series such as the Zatoichi series, followed the same template in each film: Kobayashi as the lone figure drifting into town who has a romantic relationship with a local woman played by Asaoka (Kobayashi and Asaoka were in fact a real-life romantic couple for a time), with Shishido as Kobayashi’s antagonist. Kobayashi would also frequently break out into song, making him a pop-music sensation as well as a movie star. In Plains Wanderer, Kurataro Takamura’s widescreen cinematography, featuring Hokkaido’s picturesque landscapes, lends an appropriately iconic Western flavor to the proceedings. What emerges as the film’s main theme is a clash of civilizations: the Ainu, an uncorrupted, pre-modern culture, is threatened by the decadent, Westernized modern world, populated by violent, greedy gangsters. The eclectic mixture of tradition, mythology, and modernism is a recurring feature of the film. Taki in his black leather cowboy outfit and Setna in her Ainu dress both stand out starkly in the modern hostess bar in the city. The American Western influences also contrast with the Ainu rituals depicted in the film, represented by the wizened fortuneteller woman and the bear dance festival, while the film’s conclusion directly evokes the similar ending of George Stevens’ Shane.

English trailer:

Japanese trailer: