A Chairy Tale: fable about importance of communication, respect and equality

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra, “A Chairy Tale” (1957)

A delightful little number that even young children will appreciate, this Canadian short is a fable about communication and the importance of respect and equality among people. The film is very simple and is set on an unadorned stage with a dark curtain in the background. Actor Claude Jutra wants to sit down on a wooden chair to read his book but the chair has a mind of its own and refuses to be sat upon. There follows an amusing sequence in which Jutra chases the chair around the stage Keystone-Kops style, fights with it, rejects it, tries to humour and placate it, dances a tango with it. and finally is made to understand that the chair just doesn’t want to be treated like, well, part of the furniture.

The method of animating the chair involved the use of strings attached to it as if the chair were a marionette puppet and then varying the speed of the camera throughout filming so that in the finished product, parts of the film whiz by fast and other parts are at normal speed. Pixilation, a form of stop motion animation used to bring together live and animated figures in the pre-CGI age, gives a slightly more stilted and less naturalistic quality to Jutra’s movements but otherwise he works very hard and moves freely and expressively.

Musical accompaniment by Ravi Shankar on sitar and Chatur Lal on tablas provides the only sounds viewers hear. The music provides an extra layer to the film’s story in that the sitar and tablas are continually conversing with each other in addition to fulfilling the usual counterpointing role of highlighting aspects of the film’s story. Perhaps the music could have been even more relevant to the film if the tabla player had been allowed to play solo in some parts of the film so that his drumming takes a lead rather than a support role. The sitar is lively, sinuous and resonant; the tablas are hard, dense and blunt and don’t’ resonate quite so well so perhaps the tablas need more “space” in the music and the sitars less for the instruments to sound equal.

The structure of the plot mirrors stages in a confrontation that leads to exhaustion, consideration of alternative strategies and finally negotiation and agreement. A lesson to be learnt here is that aggression and violence to get your own way will always fail and it’s better to listen to the other party’s grievances. Seeing an issue from the other person’s point of view is another lesson young viewers will take with them. When every strategy is exhausted and the film milks its conflict for all it’s worth, agreement and compromise are possible and the film ends. The film’s moral can be extended to other relationships including love and marriage, and to relationships between and among groups in society.

True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

WikiSecrets: questionable motives and agenda in documentary that smears whistle-blower

Marcela Gaviria, “WikiSecrets” (2011)

Took in this documentary on SBS1 last night on the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier arrested in May 2010 f0r allegedly passing confidential US national defence information to the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The documentary mixes interviews with various talking heads including Wikileaks main man Julian Assange, close associates of Manning himself and the odd interviewee or two who probably are more deserving of time in the slammer than Manning.  Manning himself is not interviewed. The documentary covers the soldier’s background in a general way before detailing his involvement in the US army as an intelligence analyst and how he was able to download masses of classified information and US diplomatic cables and pass them onto to others. Correspondent Martin Smith acts as narrator as well as interviewer and together with voice-over and interviews puts together a story in which a troubled young man, at odds with his society and in particular his employer, gets some kind of revenge on the bullies who have tormented him over the years by leaking secrets that will embarrass them and the government that condones what they have done to him even if it means risking his country’s security.

Lasting an hour, the documentary has an earnest style and is put together simply with some live-action recreations of what Manning might have done mixed in with interviews and some film clips. This simple style gives the documentary an air of sincerity and objectivity that disguise its aims. Issues such as the importance of national security over transparency, accountability and the public interest are presented simplistically in a way that suggests American people’s interests and the need for openness in a democracy are subordinate priorities to the needs of the US government, whatever they are (which the documentary won’t tell us, obviously). The overall view is that Manning has done wrong and should be prosecuted for jeopardising US national interests. But as Assange himself more or less says to Smith, the best way to protect secrets is not to have them in the first place. What he also could have thrown at Smith (who seems antagonistic towards Assange compared to his gentle treatment of other interviewees) is that if the US government needs to keep secrets, then what for? If the secrets are to protect the public, shouldn’t the public know what they’re being protected against?

The documentary suggests that Manning’s homosexuality played a large part in his alienation from the US military and its culture, in particular its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which prevents gay men and women from being open about their sexuality. This “blame the victim” stand conveniently lets the hierarchy within the US military and the US Department of Defense off the hook for not changing the culture of the armed forces to be more inclusive and accepting of people who are otherwise capable of carrying out military duties. Manning is portrayed as a loose cannon at war with inner demons which he may have had but this skewed opinion does not necessarily have any bearing on why he decided to download particular data in vast quantities and feed information to Wikileaks. Most likely in his work he saw evidence of illegal activity and other acts that compromise democracy and freedoms as set out in the US Bill of Rights and that his sense of right and wrong led him to act as he did. Usually when people are bullied or discriminated against in ways Manning might have been, and counselling has had limited success, they turn to drink, drugs or suicide; in some very rare cases, they may carry out acts of sabotage or violence against the people who have bullied them.

Manning’s present incarceration and abuse are treated cursorily in the film; Smith doesn’t mention the name of Manning’s lawyer let alone speak to him. The documentary fails to say that during his time in solitary confinement, Manning was humiliated by being forced to appear naked during inspections, was often deprived of sleep or had his prescription glasses taken away from him

There is no mention in the documentary of what Manning might have seen, heard or experienced in Iraq that led him to do what he did. Apparently to Gaviria and Smith it’s as if the sufferings of Iraqi civilians and the hardships of US and other soldiers and their families count for very little against the embarrassment Manning might have caused his government. There is no mention of people who might have died because of Manning’s actions. The film even fails to make much of a case against Assange for not redacting the names of informants and others on US diplomatic cases and other classified documents. People may have died as a result of Assange’s decision but no names are brought to his (and our) attention.

Ultimately viewers are no closer to knowing what Manning actually did that was wrong other than to follow his conscience. Manning may have committed a crime or crimes but the documentary doesn’t reveal what they are. Viewers learn very little about Wikileaks itself and what it actually does; most of what the documentary reveals about the organisation is petty differences between Assange and his deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg who left Wikileaks to set up OpenLeaks. Assange’s responses to Smith’s questioning are brief compared to some other interviewees’ responses which suggest some creative editing has been used to make the Wikileaks founder look bad.

What also makes “WikiSecrets” look bad is its failure to compare Manning’s actions with that of the person who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the Wall Street Journal as a way of punishing her husband Joseph Wilson for reporting that Niger was not exporting uranium to Iraq in the 1990s. Manning’s “crimes” start to look more like the whistle-blower actions they are. The person who leaked Plame’s identity is guilty of a crime for the same reason “WikiSecrets” attempts to paint Assange in a bad way over his initial refusal to redact the names of informants: Plame’s exposure potentially put the lives and careers of diplomats, businesspeople, workers and others plus their families, not just informants, at risk. One has to question the motives and agenda behind the making of “WikiSecrets” in this light.

 

Cat Soup: surreal meditation on life and death, time, religion and the universe

Tatsuo Sato, “Cat Soup” / “Nekojiru-so” (2003)

Here is a beautifully animated surreal short film which superficially looks like a children’s film but is clearly intended for adults: an early circus scene in which a strange magician chops up his assistant into pieces with a chainsaw and the film zooms in on body parts with meat, blood and bone marrow clearly exposed will dispel any and all lingering doubts! The style of animation is at once simple with the main characters (two cats) drawn with very charming large heads and large eyes in the style of  “Hello Kitty” mascots, and other characters and some objects also very basic in appearance; yet backgrounds, buildings, various props and creatures the cats encounter have realistic details. The plot also is simple and complex: on one level, it’s a quest and on a different level it’s an investigation into faith and religious belief, the nature of God, the life cycle and death itself.

Nyatta is a boy cat whose sister Nyakko is nearly taken away by Death; he struggles in a tug-of-war for his sister’s soul with Death and both rivals come away with half her soul. Nyatta determines to retrieve the other half of Nyakko’s soul from Death so he takes her to a circus and this trip sends them on an odyssey that drops them onto a boat in a vast ocean, then into a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale and through a desert where they come close to dying from thirst. They meet some strange characters: a pig who allows his flesh to be cut up and eaten, a man who dresses in bondage clothes and tries to cut them up with giant scissors and a woman who sews dismembered limbs back onto bodies. The strangest character of all is God Himself who treats Earth as a giant bowl of soup (blood soup as it turns out) and runs time backwards and forwards on a creaky mechanical clock machine.

The film is worth several repeat viewings for the colourful surreal visuals alone. All animation is done with traditional hand-drawn or hand-painted methods. A water elephant tries to help the two cats in the desert but evaporates, a giant bird contains within it all the world’s clouds and weather and butterflies of metal flit through a swamp. The scene in which God loses a walnut and forces to time run backwards and forwards in order to get the nut back is a highlight that features scribbled animation in shots where humans execute other humans, a pedestrian is run over by a car and guillotines fall (or not at all in all three shots). Most memorable is a scene where the two cats wind up sitting on huge red waves, frozen in movement and resembling waves on traditional Japanese woodblock prints in detail. The colours are not very psychedelic and blatant: they can be bright but usually they are subtle and the surprises and the magic come by way of usurping viewers’ expectations about things that appear on the screen at any one time.

“Cat Soup” isn’t to be watched for its plot which is bare yet turns out vague and puzzling: the value of the film is in its strange visuals and juxtaposition of actions in bizarre sequences: to take an example, a pregnant woman falls over a waterfall, a stork saves her and feeds her to its chicks, the chicks defaecate and the poo lands in soil from which a tree grows and sheds tears with images of the woman’s babies within. This sequence has no relation at all to the cats’ quest; it exists to illustrate the random nature and cruelty of life. The later sequence in which God disrupts the chronology of the universe to search for his lost walnut suggests that such randomness and cruelty are often due to petty thinking and behaviour and lack of foresight and consideration. God Himself is a small-minded being whose main concern is where His next meal might be coming from. The very vagueness of the film and the strange sequencing of visuals and actions invite multiple interpretations of what it might be saying.

Rather than try to make sense of what the film is throwing out, viewers should relax and immerse themselves in the cats’ adventures: I consider that this is the goal of the unusual visual style and associations that appear. Huge red tsunami waves that don’t move? An elephant made entirely out of water? Mechanical butterflies? These are ingenious ploys to get you to suspend logic and rational thinking.

For those who still insist on finding something that makes sense, there is a message but it’s a very pessimistic one: we can forestall death with all the effort we can muster but it can still come at unexpected moments. Belief in God or religion is of no comfort; God is an arbitrary and capricious being. There is also the idea that if one is fated to die, then one accepts that fate. As with many films of similar nature to “Cat Soup”, dealing with universal themes, the ending may seem a depressing let-down and a nasty joke on the animators’ part.

Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

13 Assassins: good guys fight bad guys in a changing world where old traditions and values are redundant

Takashi Miike, “13 Assassins” / “Jusannin no Shikaku” (2010)

Is there a genre of film the prolific director Takashi Miike hasn’t yet touched? Eighty films in twenty years and there is still a film genre that has remained innocent of his style of over-the-top violent melodrama? Amazingly there was until 2010 when he unleashed his homage to the historical samurai epic, “13 Assassins”. As with other films he has made, this remake of a 1963 movie by Eiichi Kudo of the same name straddles the mainstream, the arthouse and the cult underground. The violence which includes lopped heads, two ritual suicides, a quadruple amputee and a scene where a family is pin-cushioned with arrows puts the film firmly in extreme film territory; the beautiful cinematography and a wide range of filming methods anchor the film as an arthouse piece; and the plot’s simple and straightforward narrative of good guys versus bad guys will find favour with a wide audience. If there’s a twist the general public will appreciate, it is that the good guys are rebels and the bad guys are allied with the government of the day.

That day is sometime in 1844 in Tokugawa-period Japan: Lord Naritsugu (Gorou Inagaki), the youngest son of the old Shogun and half-brother to the current Shogun, is set for a promotion in the Shogunate. This worries Lord Doi (Mikijiro Hira) as Naritsugu is a psychopath who rapes and kills at will. After two noblemen and their families are shamed and humiliated by Naritsugu’s outrages, Doi hires an experienced samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to secretly assassinate the young fellow. Shinzaemon hires 12 men to help plan an ambush of Naritsugu while he undertakes his annual trip from Edo to his clan’s estates. The cabal discusses strategy and tactics and decides to trick Naritsugu and his entourage into entering a booby-trapped village. The scheme succeeds as planned but there’s one problem: Naritsugu’s chief samurai Hanbei, suspicious of his old sparring partner Shinzaemon, has summoned extra reinforcements so that instead of fighting 70 men as expected, the 12 assassins plus a hunter called Koyata Kiga discover they have to fight 200 men!

The film is tight and moves smoothly from the first hour during which Shinzaemon’s planning and recruitment take place to the second hour of battle in the village where the assassins have trapped their prey and his warriors. (The version of the film released in Australian cinemas has about 20 minutes cut out.) Though the battle scene is long, clever filming and editing that flits from one assassin to another and one extended battle scene to another ensure that momentum is constant and continues to build to the climax where Shinzaemon confronts Hanbei and Naritsugu alone. Each battle scene shows evidence of careful planning and imagination though the results are gruesome to watch: gates with spikes slam shut and block exits, oil slicks thrown across paths are set alight and a group of bulls similarly aflame (thanks to CGI technology) terrorises the evil lord’s retainers.

Generally the acting is efficient without much depth of characterisation: Naritsugu is quickly established as head villain by his white clothes, his heinous actions against various nobles and a peasant woman, and other characters’ conversations about him. His utterances and further behaviour reveal his contempt for the niceties and hypocrisies of Japanese upper-class society and the code of bushido that governs samurais’ behaviour and actions without exception. The only other characters worthy of mention are Shinzaemon and Hanbei, rivals since their youth and not only in swordplay and oneupmanship: they are rivals in how they interpret duty and loyalty to their masters, which calls into question who their masters are. Are their masters simply their immediate lords, as Hanbei believes? Or are their masters more than their lords and the Shogun himself: are their masters also the people of Japan, their culture and their values – in short, are their masters more than humanity itself? How the old-timers Shinzaemon and Hanbei interpret their code and the values of duty, loyalty and sacrifice makes them highly significant players. Interestingly Naritsugu also becomes more than just a stereotyped villain in a significant and actually quite moving scene where he faces final judgement for his cavalier brutality; the young actor Gorou is impressive in his portrayal of the young lord’s agony.

The depiction of violence is actually tasteful and stylish yet brutal and degrading. The point is made, however bloodily, that violence and death can be very squalid, painful and senseless. The burden of being a samurai, adhering to a code that has become useless in a changing world yet still demands heavy sacrifices of its followers and their families, is underlined in Shinzaemon’s dialogue with his nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) and in a short poignant scene where Shinrokuro leaves his mistress to join his uncle’s crusade.

Ultimately heroes and villains alike meet their fate which in part is predetermined due to their unwavering loyalty to their bushido code. The government of the day doesn’t care much for their OK-corral moment and pretends it never even happened. You wonder whether over 200 men died in vain for a set of values and traditions the government cynically uses to keep society under control. Soon even the government itself is swept aside by the Meiji Restoration. Life goes on.

This is a well-made and handsome-looking film with plenty of drama, excitement and tension. The sense that the time of the samurai and their culture and values is coming to an end gives this epic a poignant edge. There are some downsides to the film: the music is intrusive and not necessary at all, the logistics of 13 men holding off 200 enemies even with the help of explosives and ingenious tactics are implausible, and Miike can’t resist adding his trademark flourishes and black humour. Not a great film to compare with the Kurosawa / Mifune classics but enjoyable to watch.

 

Melodrama, spy thriller hi-jinks and conservation activism a strong mix in “The Cove”

Louie Psihoyos, “The Cove” (2009)

This documentary by American photographer and film-maker Louie Psihoyos combines spy thriller genre elements with an agenda to educate the public about the need to preserve the marine environment by concentrating on one issue and following some related side-issues. The issue that “The Cove” revolves around is the annual slaughter of dolphins and pilot whales at a marine cove in Taiji, a small town in southern Honshu island in Japan. Initially the film concentrates on a lone figure, Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who became famous in the 1960s for training the dolphins that shared the role of the hero dolphin in the popular TV series “Flipper” that was exported around the world and boosted the growth of marine parks that featured bottlenose dolphins as a main attraction. O’Barry later comes to see that his work as a dolphin trainer is having harmful effects on the animals and from then on dedicates his life to returning captive dolphins to their ocean habitat and raising public awareness of problems both captive and wild dolphins face from human activities. The film’s focus extends from O’Barry’s advocacy campaign to Japan’s annual harvesting of dolphins in Taiji where the animals are either caught for export to marine parks or slaughtered for food. This brings up a related issue of the dangers that eating dolphin and whale meat can pose for humans as the meat usually contains high levels of toxic chemicals, in particular mercury and cadmium.

Much of the film is structured around Psihoyos’s attempts to film the actual round-up and slaughter of the animals in the scenic little bay at Taiji by the Taiji fishing fleet. The local people including the police are hostile to the presence of Westerners and try to intimidate them or provoke them to violence. Psihoyos and O’Barry recruit a team of special effects workers, scientists and freedivers to develop tactics and technology that include fake rocks with cameras inside to make a secret film of the Taiji fisherfolk’s activities. The team must place their cameras in and around the bay at night as the round-up and killing usually take place at dawn and the activists film what they do using infra-red photography. A camera is also placed on a helicopter to take aerial shots. This emphasis together with the filming methods used gives the documentary an axis of drama generating tension and excitement and sustaining attention around which diversions into less melodramatic aspects of the dolphin hunt can be made.

Accuracy in some of the information given is suspect and there’s a possibility that the information might have been massaged to arouse strong audience reactions: the film makes no mention of the fact that pilot whales are also killed in the Taiji round-up for food. An animated map shows where live captured dolphins are exported from Taiji to other parts of the world including North America, yet since 1993, dolphinariums in the United States have not imported dolphins captured in drive-hunts. One might assume that if captive dolphins suffer chronic stress – and it must be said that conditions and hygiene in marine parks and other places where they live may vary a great deal throughout the world -they would not be breeding and raising babies yet as of 1996 over 40% of dolphins kept in US dolphinariums were captive-born. Perhaps O’Barry’s zeal as a born-again dolphin advocate has infected Psihoyos and others he comes in contact with and this makes “The Cove” look biased in parts and open to charges of bashing Japan and its culture.

Overall the film is tight and structured with many scenes of great beauty and excitement interspersed with information that generally can be verified through other sources. Unfortunately the film-makers appear not to have researched the history of whaling and dolphin hunts in Japan and in Taiji in particular and this ignorance colours their attitude towards the Taiji locals. O’Barry is perturbed at seeing monuments and study centres dedicated to whales in Taiji but cetaceans are in fact part of the town’s history and culture and this in itself plays a big part in the local people’s hostility and resentment towards the film-makers. Both sides behave combatively which prevents them from looking at ways in which Taiji could still benefit economically from the whales and dolphins that visit the area: sightseeing tours to watch whale and dolphin migrations, using festivals dedicated to whales and dolphins to attract tourists and preserve local traditions, and setting up a marine sanctuary that can be monitored by outside animal welfare organisations are some alternatives. There may be other industries worth developing in Taiji so that its economy is not so dependent on exploiting sea mammals and over time the drive hunt could be reduced and abolished altogether.

Certainly there are other side-issues Psihoyos could have considered in his documentary though they stretch the boundaries of the main subject: why does the Japanese government continue to throw money at whaling and forcing the Japanese public to eat cetacean meat when the industry is in economic dire straits? why does the government pretend there are no health risks involved in consuming cetacean meat? could it be that there are close connections between politicians individually and the government as a whole on the one hand and whaling interests on the other? is the Japanese media under government or other external pressures not to mention whaling and drive hunts to their public? Perhaps, like Japan’s nuclear energy industry, the Taiji dolphin-hunt refers to an aspect of Japanese nationalism that feels insulted and humiliated by post-1945 US occupation and the cultural influences that the occupation brought to Japan, and which tries to reassert itself and its vision of Japanese cultural, racial and technological superiority. Whaling is seen as a tradition worth pursuing because it’s a native “tradition” which, not coincidentally, serves the same purpose of ridding the oceans of animals that “compete” with Japan’s fishing industry over decreasing global stocks of fish.

As with many American documentaries these days the film makes a plea to viewers to take action against the dolphin hunt but doesn’t offer specific suggestions or a list of organisations including Psihoyos’s own Oceanic Preservation Society to support. There is no mention of groups like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who also have a guerrilla-like activist approach to fighting the global whaling industry and O’Barry comes across as a proverbial lone voice in the wilderness in decrying the Taiji dolphin harvests. After the drama of trying to get film footage of the hunt without being caught and jailed, the film-makers’ ultimate message to viewers is a deflated let-down and some people might go away feeling manipulated.

Anxiety about industrialisation and technology and their effects on individuals and society in “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

Shinya Tsukamoto, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989)

Once again Tsukamoto has remade “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” in the form of “Tetsuo: Bullet Man”, the previous remake having been “Tetsuo: Body Hammer” in 1991, so it’s worth looking at what the 1989 student film original, made on a budget of less than US$1,000, might mean for current audiences. The plot is very basic and uses a cast of six actors of whom three play major characters. An unnamed youth usually known as the Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) panics after mutilating himself with a steel tube and runs out onto the road. A car driven by an unnamed salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) knocks down the youngster; the salaryman and his girlfriend passenger (Kei Fujiwara) believe he is dead so they dump his body in a forest. Later the salaryman begins to transform into a scrap-metal monster and realises that the Metal Fetishist isn’t dead after all but is controlling his metamorphosis and channelling his rage and frustration into something very sinister indeed.

The use of black-and-white film is effective in detailing the grimy industrial environment of urban Tokyo where the salaryman and the fetishist live: the textures of cables, wires, toxic goop and industrial waste look so detailed they take on a very inhuman life of their own. Fast-forwarding, lightning-fast edits, flashbacks, close-up images (some so close up that you can see saliva hanging off teeth in mouths), nightmare scenes, stop-motion animation and the odd sequence that has no relation to the plot make for a fast-paced film that ratchets up the tension to the moment when the salaryman is forced to admit to his sin and face off against the Metal Fetishist. Cables and wires shudder with a malevolent tentacle demon soul and pullulate like hypersexed parasite bacteria in a new host victim.

Many taboos and assumptions particular to modern Japanese culture come in for a hatchet job: the post-1945 notion that technology is humanity’s friend and servant gets a good hammering and the salaryman’s demonstration of anger may well be a cutting comment on expectations of male white-collar workers in 1980s Japanese society as compliant and uncomplaining cogs in a machine network that exploits them and their efforts. Social beliefs about Japanese women as meek and mild also get roasted: the two females in this film are transformed by their contact with the Metal Fetishist into ravenous sexual predators. The salaryman has a nightmare about his girlfriend anally raping him with a penis that’s part-python/part-electric cable. Some viewers might interpret the portrayal of women in “Tetsuo …” as indicative of dislike and distrust of women and their sexuality but this depiction is part of a greater criticism Tsukamoto makes which might unintentionally reflect his own views on how men and women should treat each other. It should be said that at the very moment the salaryman and his girlfriend meet the Metal Fetishist a bit too head-on, the youth has cursed them with his flesh-metal fusion obsession; from then on everything about the couple including their dreams and thoughts is manipulated by him to torment them, and this includes turning their expectations of each other upside-down. This suggests that contact with industrial society and its values warps natural human drives and turns them into unnatural, monstrous phenomena.

There’s plenty of hilarious black humour in scenes where the Metal Fetishist, meeting the salaryman in person for the first time, presents him with a bouquet of flowers and a female train commuter under the fetishist’s control early in the film pursues and harasses the salaryman relentlessly, pausing only to peek at herself in her mirror and fix her hair a bit. The funniest and most disturbing scenes involve the salaryman with his big Black-and-Decker pecker chasing his girlfriend around their apartment; she knifes him and he drills her in a mutual orgasmic bloodbath. Apart from taking the term “screwing” to its most logical extreme, this part of the film may say something about how the sexual act has become mechanised and robbed of human emotion in a technological society. Equally lunatic and twisted is the fight between the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman: this battle of sexual penetration metaphors ends in an ultimate orgasm where corporeal boundaries are literally dissolved and the pair bring forth a new offspring. The true purpose of sexual intercourse in the industrial environment is to generate more machine beings to spread the contagion of technology throughout the world: the new creature with both the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman at its helm rides off to conquer the Tokyo suburban wilderness.

The soundtrack is important in this film: one comic moment comes when the salaryman spoon-feeds his girlfriend and as she drags the food off his fork with her teeth, metal-scraping noises can be heard. The music by Chu Ishikawa is a bouncy industrial rock pop that suits the film’s frenetic pace and the dense montages of images that each last for a split-second.

The undercurrents of “Tetsuo …” are at once malevolent, pessimistic, cartoony and absurd; the subconscious human fears that it dredges up can be very confronting for many people. Jokes and ideas are taken to their logical extreme that milks them as much for laughs as for horror. This is a definitely a film for people who like being challenged and confronted with ideas and themes that riff on the deepest human fears and anxieties. Humour is used to allay some of these anxieties and make what could have been a highly intense film more bearable but its resolution, which may be a surprise to some viewers and is at once funny and sinister, is firm and uncompromising about the eventual fate of humanity.

 

 

Russian Ark: visual travelogue through art and culture meditating on identity, history and time

Alexander Sokurov, “Russian Ark” (2002)

At last a film was made with just one take and a well-executed and visually gorgeous film it is too. “Russian Ark” is an affectionate journey through just over 300 years of Russian history, art and culture and a travel guide through the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, taking in a tour of the Winter Palace in particular. An unseen narrator (voiced by director Sokurov himself) has become a ghost through an unknown accident and is fated to haunt the corridors and galleries of the museum throughout its existence starting in the very early 1700s. He meets 19th-century French diplomat the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) and together they trawl the museum buildings, seeing, meeting and sometimes interacting with people of the past and present. They are unintentional witnesses to some significant and not-so-significant events of Russian and St Petersburg history including Tsar Nicholas I’s reception of Persian diplomats come to apologise for a mob lynching of a Russian ambassador in Tehran and the siege of Leningrad (1941 – 1944). They watch the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II dance in the Winter Palace corridor and the Marquis himself takes part in a huge and extravagant ball to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

The film makes some references to the Marquis’s life: he was known to be very religious and was skeptical of Russian attempts to appear European and civilised. The Marquis and the unseen narrator provide a “plot” of sorts in which they comment on what they see and express opinions and feelings about Russian art and culture. Mildly critical comments about Russian people are made: their seeming reverence for the rule of tyrants, their penchant for trying to keep up with the West and copying the West on a grand scale, the notion that big is best where Russia is concerned. The question of what it means to be Russian is raised but as the film progresses the narrator and the Marquis end up carried away by the visual glories they see and the discussion of Russian identity as something distinct from or parallel with European / Western identity, however superficially conducted, melts away.

The roving camera becomes the film’s major character and the narrator is its voice; the film acquires a voyeuristic and even conspiratorial air as the camera glides, often unseen, through the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The camera and the Marquis don’t try to hide – the Marquis often addresses people directly in spite of the narrator’s pleas not to speak to people – but watch people from behind windows, columns or other spectators. Viewers familiar with Russian and Soviet history may be reminded of the authoritarian, police-state surveillance aspects of past Tsarist and Soviet governments and present post-Soviet governments. The single-take structure of the film with its intrusive Peeping-Tom flow immerses the viewer in whatever the camera lens takes in; the viewer becomes part of the stream of images and ultimately a participant in the film’s proceedings. The Russian Ark, for which the Hermitage Museum is merely the physical bearer, turns out to be the Russian people and their artistic, cultural and historical heritage, worth preserving, remembering and passing down to future generations. By watching the film, viewers share in the responsibility of interpreting and passing on the best of Russian and Western art and culture to the future.

The flowing single-take format does have its disadvantages: its arbitrary route through the Hermitage assumes viewers already are knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history and can make sense of what they see and why Sokurov chose to focus on some famous historical incidents and personalities and not others. Why Sokurov didn’t focus on some part of the construction of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace or of St Petersburg is a mystery since that could have told us something about the personalities of the Tsars and the power they wielded and about the nature of Russian society during the imperial Romanov period. There are significant events missing from the film: the 1905 Russian Revolution; the revolutions in February and October 1917 that respectively felled the Tsarist government and brought the Bolsheviks to power; the 1918 transfer of the Soviet government to Moscow; and the bombing of the museum during the city siege in World War 2. The format is very subjective: the immersion of viewers into the film sweeps them along and admits no resistance or criticism of Sokurov’s view of Russian history and culture. Even the Marquis near the end of the film is awed and impressed by what he sees and experiences, and admits that Russians are “European” after all. The film even dismisses itself as a historical drama: the Marquis early on talks about Russia being a theatre and Russians as actors, and this idea is picked up at the end of the film when hundreds of people attending the ball leave the building by going down an enormous staircase. People wanting a history lesson will be disappointed – they will know no more about Russian and St Petersburg history at the end of the film than they did at the begininng.

With the single-take structure, there will be untidy moments where edits are needed and errors in timing and pacing become apparent. Apart from one early scene where an actor appears to miss his cue with Dontsov waiting patiently behind a set of double doors, the action and pace are smooth, graceful and leisurely in keeping with the notion of plunging the viewer into Russian and European art and culture. Sokurov and Dontsov keep up their patter without missing a beat so to an extent the single-take form has been successful. The camera’s movements do not jar though it’s possible some viewers might feel nauseous after seeing the effortless way it pans around or circles objects and people.

Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic and sad for the loss of Imperial Russia, especially when one considers the upheavals, the chaos, genocide, suffering and tragedies that followed in the Soviet period. A strong sense of time passing and erasing, diminishing or changing the meaning of events and artefacts from various historical periods can be felt. This is reinforced by the way the camera travels through the physical museum and history, backwards and forwards, in what’s meant to be a cyclical journey through space and time; some viewers may find the film repetitive in parts. Audiences need to know that the real Tsarist Russia, for all its wealth, flamboyance and exaggerated grandeur, was a harsh world for the majority of its subjects and had its share of invasion, famine, tragedy and mass killings. We need look no further than St Petersburg itself which was built on the labour of conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish and Finnish prisoners of war in the early 1700s. Perhaps Imperial Russia is best appreciated as a place to be visited in novels and stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, nicely sanitised according to individual preference, and never to be actually visited except by ghosts.