Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Film Comment Selects" Review: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Retribution"

Retribution (Sakebi). 2006. Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Produced by Takashige Ichise. Cinematography by Akiko Ashizawa. Edited by Nobuyuki Takahashi. Music by Kuniaki Haishima.

Cast: Koji Yakusho (Yoshioka), Manami Konishi (Harue), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Detective Miyaji), Riona Hazuki (Woman in Red), Jo Odagiri (Dr. Takagi), Ryo Kase (Man on a work boat), Hiroyuki Hirayama (Young detective Sakurai).

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been one of the most consistently interesting stylists in Japanese cinema. His films can be superficially associated with the “J-Horror” genre, but anyone familiar with his work knows that much of it goes far beyond this catch-all label. His main strength is that he has not been bound to conventional narrative, and in using his adopted genre as a framework, he has been able to experiment greatly within this form to create a unique cinematic space of moody and intriguing images. In his finest work, including Cure, Pulse, Charisma, and Barren Illusion, Kurosawa offers haunting images that resonate well beyond initial viewings. These qualities extend to his ventures outside the genre, such as License to Live and Bright Future.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa seems to have hit something of a rut lately. His last film, Loft, was a disappointment, even though at first glance it contains many of the elements of his previous work: the somber, unsettling mood; the often baffling and near-incomprehensible occurrences, often concerning the fluidity between the worlds of the living and the dead. While diverting at first viewing, Loft left the impression of being a pale retread of much better earlier work.

However, it pains me to report that his latest film, Retribution, is an even bigger and more serious misfire. Just like Loft, everything familiar to Kurosawa’s films is present and accounted for, including his regular lead actor Koji Yakusho, as a detective investigating a serial killer case. And this is exactly the problem. Everything is far too familiar, both from Kurosawa’s own films (much of it, including a crucial plot point revealed late in the film, feels like a remake of Cure), and other clichéd tropes of J-Horror, such as floating female ghosts (the one in this film often lets out an ear-splitting scream).

In Retribution, detective Yoshioka (Yakusho) is called to investigate a series of murders occurring around a construction site. The victims have all been drowned in saltwater, but strangely, all the murders occur far from any saltwater source. He lives alone in a ramshackle apartment, and is often visited by Harue (Manami Konishi), a mysterious young woman whose relationship to Yoshioka is initially ambiguous. We are unsure whether to sympathize with this character, since the film plays with a well-worn idea in this genre, intentionally making us question whether the detective himself has committed these murders. In the film, we see at least two other murders occur, by two different characters, using the same M.O. Again, not to give too much away, if you’ve already seen Cure, it’s easy to guess how these murders are connected to the central case.

The most disheartening aspect of Retribution is the rote and earth-bound quality of the proceedings. What gives Kurosawa’s films their special resonance is the free space he gives himself to explore such themes as alienation and loneliness which gain their power from not being tethered to a conventional plot. However, in this case everything is explained and rationalized away, as if ticking off items on a checklist. Also, there seems to be an odd lack of engagement with the material on Kurosawa’s part. This may be due to the fact that his producer is Takashige Ichise, responsible for the most popular and archetypal examples of recent Japanese horror (Ju-on, Ring, Dark Water). The tension between their disparate sensibilities, however intriguing a concept it may have seemed on paper, definitely works to the detriment of this production. The lyrical visual quality of Kurosawa’s previous works comes through here and there, especially in the scenes in the abandoned sanitarium that serves a crucial site in the film. Also, Kurosawa seems to be making some point about the eagerness of Japanese society to bury the past, indicated by the constant construction and destruction depicted in the film. But this theme remains undeveloped, itself buried in the film’s insistence in shackling everything to its derivative plot.

In short, Retribution is probably Kurosawa’s worst film yet. For other filmmakers, this would be a not-bad effort, but Kurosawa is capable of, and has achieved, so much more. An escape from the J-Horror ghetto, on the order of Bright Future or License to Live, is sorely called for. Let’s hope he can break out of this stagnation with his next film.

Monday, February 19, 2007

News & Notes, 2/19/07

From Variety Asia: intriguing details on John Woo's upcoming film, The Battle of Red Cliff, an adaptation of the classic Chinese epic "The Romance of Three Kingdoms," which will be released in two different versions -- in Asia as a two-part film, four hours in total, and everywhere else as a single two-and-a-half hour film. Hopefully, when this film is finally made, it will lessen the damage to Woo's filmography wrought by films such as Paycheck and Windtalkers.

Also from Variety Asia: The latest film to run afoul of Chinese censors, Li Yu's Lost in Beijing, screened in its uncut version at the Berlin Film Festival, which just wrapped this past weekend; also, some Berlin deals, including Hou Hsiao-hsien's new film Ballon Rouge ("Red Balloon"), a French-language remake, and expansion, of Albert Lamourisse's 1956 film of the same name, which won the Oscar in 1957 for best screenplay, a remarkable and unusual achievement considering the original was only 34 minutes in length and had no dialogue. Definitely something to eagerly look forward to.

Speaking of Berlin, some of the notable winners included: the top prize (Golden Bear) going to Wang Quanan's Mongolia-set "Tuya's Marriage"; Park Chan-wook's new film I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK won the Alfred Bauer Prize for "innovative film." Also, Taiwanese filmmaker Zero Chou won the Teddy Award, which honors gay and lesbian cinema, for Spider Lilies. I saw her earlier film Splendid Float, which I quite liked, two years ago at the New York Asian-American International Film Festival. You can read about the rest of the winners here.

Also in Korean cinema news, there has been a rather disturbing number of high-profile celebrity suicides, the latest being actress Jeong Da-bin, best known for the 2003 TV drama Cat on the Rooftop, whose popularity had apparently waned in recent years. The method of suicide (by hanging) eerily echoed the 2005 suicide of actress Lee Eun-ju (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Bungee Jumping of Their Own). Even more unsettling, these suicides have inspired copycats. You can read the full story here, in Joong Ang Daily.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Film Comment Selects" Review: Lin Tay-jou's "Bardo"

Bardo (Chui-si Zao-wu Ai-ge). 2005. Written, directed, photographed, and edited by Lin Tay-jou. Produced by Hsieh Chia-kuen. Music by Lo Song-tze. Sound design by Chou Chen.

This year’s “Film Comment Selects” series got off to a very strong, and unusual, start for me with Taiwanese experimental and documentary filmmaker Lin Tay-jou’s Bardo, a 70-minute triptych about the stages of life death, and rebirth. As Lin himself explains on the film’s website, the film’s title is a Sanskrit word meaning “between two things.” The film’s subtitle, “The Lamentation of the Dying Creatures,” is from a medieval text referring to Christian notions of hell, purgatory, and divine judgment. This mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies informs both the subject matter and structure of this astonishing film. The extreme images and sound design of this work are quite indelible, and amid the images of death, cannibalism, rough sex, decay, rot, and blood that flood the viewer in this film, there is also a hopeful vision of the unending cycle of life’s birth and rebirth. I’ll briefly explore each section of this film, preceded by the filmmaker’s statements regarding each one.

Bardo Part 1:
In this merciless universe, everything is expendable.
When the stream of life is exhausted, does any humanity remain?
Time is short – do the gods have any answers for us?
If all will vanish in the end, then why these unending waves of desire?

In this first, dialogue-free section (as is the rest of the film), the black-and-white misshapen-iris images portray a withered and dead post-apocalyptic landscape in which civilization is not only absent, it’s as if it has never even existed. Men and women in tattered rags wander zombie-like among dead trees sprouting rotten fruit. The sacred and the profane intertwine greatly here, as a Buddhist temple looms over these ravenous and murderous creatures. A woman greedily licks and sucks on a statue of Buddha; the pages of an illustrated erotic book are turned; a man masturbates in front of a painting. The survivors of this unspecified disaster are all appetites and animalistic impulses. The only food in sight is rotten and decayed, and the people feed on their dead. In the climactic sequence, a black rain of what is probably blood comes down on the people as they stop, open their mouths to let it in, and rub it on their bodies. The sounds we hear are chanting, growls, murmurs, electronic music, among others. This first section could superficially be classified as yet another example of the “Asian extreme” vogue so prevalent in recent years. The difference here is that this is not done as a cheap shock tactic, but as an expression of a philosophically rigorous examination of Lin’s themes of the life cycle, and his portrayals of these way-stations between levels of existence.

Bardo Part 2:
Legend has it that at the end of life,
we cross a bridge. Old women on the bridge
offer you a bowl of broth, and drinking it,
you forget all. Since the end has been
reached, why look back? If,
at the end of the bridge,
you forget your own face,
then beyond the Door to Yesterday,
will you find your own footprints?
If all is to be forgotten,
when did we actually live?

In the second section, a dead man revisits scenes from his own life, in the film’s words, “like a movie on fast forward.” Actually, the life-as-film metaphor is taken literally here, in both this section and the one following, as scenes play out on a movie screen, and we see the projectors working. The young man in this section has been killed by riot cops during a protest, and he wanders through these scenes and the ones leading up to his death. He sees his happier days as a young radical, reading a Che Guevara volume with his girlfriend on a hill, and later giving her a cross in his car. He travels to these scenes through theater curtains and doors. However, we see that he is not as principled in his personal life as he is in his political life; his girlfriend catches him with another woman, whom he has given the cross to. Lording over it all is death with his scythe, sitting in the screening room and later waiting to chain him. The sequence culminates in an ultrasound image, reiterating the film’s themes of the circularity of life.

Bardo Part 3:
Babies keep being born in hospital beds; pigs’ heads still drop to the
slaughterhouse floor. Entries, exits, in this wailing sea of blood. Do they
represent life – or death? Do dreams still exist in a gigantic earthquake?
Can a poem be found in the depths of ashes?

The third section begins with a piano’s dulcet tones, and the soft-focus image of a woman sleeping at a desk, her head in front of an open book lined with seashells. This gentle beginning soon gives way to what is perhaps this woman’s dream, as a succession of images of death ensues: slaughtered pigs and frogs; a body being cremated; bloody, dying geese. Also, a man and a woman have auto-asphyxiation sex in a hospital bed, and the sequence climaxes with footage of an actual childbirth. Once again, projected images form the basis of what we see, as the woman looks both into the projector and out to us as viewers. This sequence, and the film itself, ends with the gentle piano tones, and the woman sleeping. After all these images of despair, there is a hopeful note, as the baby is returned to the safety of the womb, and the notion that perhaps all we have seen is just a dream contained within the peaceful, restorative world that we see at the film’s conclusion. Or perhaps both sides of this equation are necessary to maintain the holistic balance of the universe.

Whatever the ultimate meaning of it all is, Lin Tay-jou has created a visually, aurally, and philosophically challenging work that will probably haunt me for weeks to come.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Film Comment Selects!

The cinematic winter doldrums are officially over. It will be quite a busy time for me over the next few months, starting with what has become an essential film series for me: "Film Comment Selects," a selection of recent highlights of world cinema, chosen by the editors of Film Comment. The eighth edition screens beginning tomorrow through February 27 at the Walter Reade Theater. I will be reviewing the films in this space over the next couple of weeks or so. For now, I'll briefly point to a few films that seem especially worthy.

The first is one I just saw, the one that provides the striking image you see above: Lin Tay-jou's Bardo (screening on Feb. 16). A truly unclassifiable and mind-melting experience, Lin's film is a non-narrative triptych that speeds through the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, making use of references to Buddhism, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bible, erotic and religious art. Lin compresses all these elements into a unique and searing vision of death, murder, sex, dismemberment, cannibalism, political protest, and much more, which, despite its often extreme imagery and visceral sound design, culminates in an oddly hopeful notion of the circularity of nature's existence.

Other films to look out for are: Jean-Claude Brisseau's Exterminating Angels (Feb. 14 and 17), which continues his unique depictions of female sexuality that he has explored in previous films such as Secret Things; Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (above, Feb. 16 and 18), in which I'll see for myself if he is worthy of the hype he's gotten in many quarters, most notably from Mark Peranson in his magazine Cinemascope; Johnnie To's latest in his series of gangster tales Exiled (Feb. 15); the veteran experimental filmmaker James Benning's 13 Lakes and Ten Skies (Feb. 24); Finnish master of the deadpan Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk (Feb. 22); Retribution (below, Feb. 17, 18, 19), the latest from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, that is hopefully an improvement upon the visually creepy but utimately baffling Loft; Lou Ye's Tiananmen Square evocation Summer Palace (Feb 17 and 18), which got its creator in major trouble with the Chinese government and a five-year ban from filmmaking; Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, who have created some of the most materially tactile, intellectually rigorous, and downright beautiful cinema creations ever made, are in the series with their final collaboration (after the passing of Huillet last year), These Encounters of Theirs (Feb. 25 and 26); and a film I saw at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, Marwan Hamed's entertaining epic of Cairo history The Yacoubian Building (Feb. 21 and 24).

A busy season and much lack of sleep awaits me. For more info on the series, check here.