A Samurai Chronicle: an earnest and heavy-going lesson in how to live a good life with grace, compassion and humility

Takashi Koizumi, “A Samurai Chronicle” (2014)

I’m afraid that these days the Japanese just don’t make samurai dramas the way they used to, with devil-may-care flair and an eye for stunningly choreographed sword-fighting action, and a simple story and moral to justify the flashy chang-a-chang violence and high body counts. “A Samurai Chronicle” is an earnest and heavy-going investigation of what real honour should mean to a samurai, and how a samurai should use his fighting skills in helping and defending the weak, the poor and those oppressed and exploited by the rich and powerful. Young samurai Danno Shozaburo (Junichi Okada), in trouble for having picked a fight with another young hot-headed fellow and drawn his sword in his lord’s castle, is dispatched by the head of his clan to assist and spy on Toda Shokaku (Koji Yashudo) who was exiled to his property seven years ago for apparently having insulted Lord Nakane by interfering with his concubine and killing a bunch of retainers. The punishment is seppuku (ritual suicide) but the lord gives Toda ten years’ grace to write a history of their clan’s lineage. Toda retires to his rural villa to do so and the matter that led to his exile is hushed up. It is Danno’s job to make sure that Toda keeps on working on the family history and genealogy, and that when the man’s time is up, he does not try to avoid his punishment.

For three years then Danno lives with Toda’s family and becomes a close friend of Toda and his bold and headstrong adolescent children. At first surprised that Toda engages in farming and treats the local villagers as his equals, Danno gradually takes up agricultural labour himself and follows the family members in their interactions with the villagers, and discovers that he enjoys working around the farm and meeting people unlike himself and learning about their lives and troubles. The villagers are harassed by moneylenders wanting loans repaid and the corrupt commissioner who visits them and makes threats against them. (He is later killed by two of the villagers.) At the same time, Danno decides to learn more about the incident that disgraced Toda and makes a series of discoveries about the incident that suggest Toda is innocent of indiscretion against the concubine (who has now become a nun), and that the cover-up was done to get rid of the concubine’s young son and to protect and keep secret the false genealogy of Lord Nakane’s wife so that her son Yoshiyuki would succeed Lord Nakane as clan head.

The plot is quite complicated and doesn’t leave much room for character development so viewers will find Danno’s character and maturation from willful fighter to thoughtful leader rather flat and subdued. His romance with Toda’s daughter is equally sketchy to the point of being non-existent. Indeed all characters remain much the same throughout and are little more than stereotypes. Toda accepts his fate graciously, even happily, and the impending death obviously has influenced his outlook on life and how he lives it. Danno strives to achieve justice for Toda but eventually has to accept that all his efforts are in vain. Even so, the film ends on quite a happy note as Toda’s son Ikutaro comes of age and accepts leadership of the family in spite of his youth, and Danno marries Toda’s daughter. The villagers’ lot is still heavy but their burden is somewhat lightened thanks to Ikutaro and Danno’s intercession with their clan leader on behalf of young village boy Genkichi who takes the brunt of the punishment meant for his dad Manji for the murder of the commissioner.

The film can be beautiful to watch though scenes of nature indicating the passage of time have become something of a cliche in Japanese historical films. The action tends to be lumbering rather than light and each scene seems bogged down with layers of messages about honour, helping others, being courageous, taking action and how samurai folks ideally should behave. At times the film seems to be a didactic travelogue through traditional Japanese culture, and perhaps it is for young Japanese people ignorant of their history as much as for curious Westerners. There is also a critical attitude towards public pretence for the sake of preserving people’s reputations and not upsetting the social order, even if that means innocent people end up suffering severe punishment. Above all through the character of Toda Shokaku, the film says something about how one should live a life of grace and compassion, and use one’s talents and abilities to the full to help others when one’s time on Earth is finite.

Perhaps the film might have worked better as a two-part or three-part mini-series to enable better character development and allow viewers time to absorb the messages. The romance sub-plot and other sub-plots would have had a better chance to evolve. As it is, “A Samurai Chronicle” comes across as rather strained and a bit dull.

Conflagration: a competent critique of modern Japan and an unreal quest for beauty and purity

Kon Ichikawa, “Conflagration / Enjo” (1958)

Based on the novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (itself based on an actual incident) by notorious Japanese writer / actor / nationalist Yukio Mishima, this film is a character study of a young and idealistic if very flawed Buddhist acolyte in the throes of a spiritual and psychological crisis, and the behaviours that his crisis leads to, with all their tragic consequences. Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) comes from an unfortunate background: his parents have been custodians of a remote country Zen Buddhist temple that received few visitors, and to relieve the stress of poverty and isolation, Goichi’s father spoke frequently to his son of his desire for them both to visit the famous temple of the Golden Pavilion, the most beautiful object in Japan. However the elder Mizoguchi dies from illness and so Goichi journeys alone to become apprenticed as an acolyte to the head priest Dosen Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is a friend of his father’s. Though shy and suffering from a stutter, Goichi is accepted by Tayama. Tayama recognises that Goichi is diligent and has some good qualities, and hopes that the teenager will eventually succeed him as head priest: to that end, he arranges for Goichi to continue his schooling and then to attend the local university. While settling down at the temple, Goichi visits the Shukaku building, the actual focus of the temple complex, and realises that it indeed is a beautiful creation.

Goichi’s mother insinuates herself as a maid at the temple and starts to pressure her son to put his head down and tail up in the expectation that he will succeed Tayama, though there are other worthy apprentices also working at the temple. Over time, as Japan undergoes American military occupation and becomes Westernised, the temple becomes a tourist attraction, making good money, and the unworldly monks become corrupted by easy wealth and materialist desires. Tayama himself visits geishas (and gets a woman pregnant) and spends money in ways unbecoming of an austere Zen Buddhist monk. Mizoguchi’s only friend, the kindly Tsurukawa, dies in a horrible accident and his place is taken by the cynical Togari (Tatsuya Nakadai), a cripple who eggs on Mizoguchi to commit various misdemeanours that escalate in seriousness so as to offend Tayama enough that he will throw out Mizoguchi. But no matter how much Mizoguchi skips school and university, runs away, borrows money without paying back, spends his tuition fees on prostitutes or lies about accepting cigarettes from an American soldier for pushing his girlfriend and causing her to have a miscarriage, the head priest does nothing.

Eventually Mizoguchi, stressed by his mother’s demands and Togari’s manipulations, infuriated at Tayama’s silences and apparent inaction, and disappointed that the Shukaku building itself means nothing more to the monks and society at large as a money-making machine, vows to take drastic action: on a journey back to his former rural home, he remembers his father’s funeral and cremation, and there he makes the decision that will damn him for the rest of his life: he will destroy the Shukaku temple to preserve its beauty and purity from the defilements of materialism.

The film can be read as a critique of modern Japanese society, its obsession with money and materialism, and how such obsession corrupts Buddhist values. However Toyama still retains a conscience, and is troubled by his new double life: in that, there is the suggestion that no matter how corrupted and sinful one becomes, there is always the possibility of redemption if one repents and makes amends. Nakadai plays a significant role in undermining Mizoguchi with his cynicism and knowledge, but ends up a pathetic character. Mizoguchi himself, for all his idealism and potential, has a rotten core: having been bullied and spurned throughout his childhood for his stutter and background, he grows up with self-loathing and hatred, and fails to see that, in spite of their weaknesses and imperfections, Tayama and the other priests do mean well and want him to succeed.

Mizoguchi’s tragedy is that he is unable to overcome his dysfunctional family background, his resentment at his vulgar and sensuous mother for betraying his father and bullying him, and the flawed idealism, combined with revulsion for the physical senses, that both his parents inspired in him.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback form which enables significant events relevant to Mizoguchi’s final actions to be inserted into the narrative smoothly and help to escalate the tension and derangement that the young man suffers.

While the film is not very deep – Ichikawa left out much of the Zen philosophy of the novel so that the movie could appeal to a wide audience, and made his central character less conflicted and somewhat more bland than in the novel – it does a very good job of criticising Japanese society in the 1950s with its grasping nature and the potential loss of ethical values. Redemption though is always possible – but this makes the film’s final scene all the more devastating.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clément play their parts well: in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clément are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with him, is inexplicably passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy: all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert. How this voluntary return to isolation is going to aid Travis in further self-discovery and maturation – it could also put him in danger of regression into amnesia – Wenders is unable to say and the conclusion seems half-hearted to the point of defeatism.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh): a canny live-action Disney reworking carries its own messages amongst the schmaltz

Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” (2015)

Being a Disney production, this live-action version of the tale as Disney tells it can only go so far in its reinterpretation for a new audience. Director Kenneth Branagh is canny enough to make a fairy-tale that appeals as much to adults as to children while subtly shifting the focus slightly so that the attention focuses on the rivalry between Cinderella (Lily James) and her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and the different sets of values they represent. In this way, Branagh tries to say something about how youth, innocence, spontaneity, authenticity and having regard for one’s fellow travellers in life, be they high-born or low-born, will triumph over cynicism, calculation, hierarchy and upholding traditions and customs that may once have been relevant but have now lost their meaning and are observed simply for their own sake. Branagh sets his story in a lavish faux 18th-century wonderland where artifice and nature become one and the same, and Disney magic  is made fresh yet familiar.

Branagh sticks closely to the Disney story but at least he gives his characters motives and he surrounds Lily James and Richard Madden (who places Prince Charming) with seasoned actors – all of them British including James and Madden, save for the Australian Blanchett – who play their roles quite subtly. Blanchett may never single-handedly save the Australian film industry by staying home and sponsoring young directors, script-writers and actors but if she’s going to pursue more Hollywood projects in competition with other ageing actresses (and I for one would advise her against that since work for actresses aged 40+ years in Hollywood tends to be rather scarce), she may as well have a ball: she clearly relishes her role as the sadistic stepmother, flamboyant and elegant in dress, scheming and vindictive in nature. Yet audiences can sympathise with her plight: in an age when women of her socioeconomic status were expected not to work but to depend on their fathers or husbands for money and material wellbeing, Blanchett’s stepmother, twice widowed, is clearly desperate to marry well and to see her daughters, silly and spoiled as they are, married off well too. If love can blossom as well, that’s a bonus; but alas, the stepmother discovers her second husband does not love her much at all. This is about as far as Disney will go to demonstrate how in many ways upper-class women had fewer options and freedoms than their lower-class sisters did in early modern Western society. An irony exists then, when the stepmother banishes Cinderella to the servants’ quarters after the death of the girl’s father forces the family to scrimp and save by letting the hired help go: by having to do hard work, Cinderella becomes a capable young woman, able to empathise with other lowly people, to spend more time with her mouse friends and to have more freedom (to ride a horse into the countryside where she meets Prince Charming on a hunting trip) than her step-sisters who are forced by their mother to learn piano, singing, drawing and other idle pastimes expected of young ladies of their class (and not doing very well at any of these activities).

James and Madden bring freshness and some substance to their respective roles but that’s all that can really be said about them. James’ experience in acting is sorely tested in her last scene with Blanchett and her last line of dialogue to the other woman sounds unconvincing. For a film preaching conservative Christian charity, this part really goes down a clunker. The fate of the stepmother and her daughters afterwards becomes so ambiguous as to suggest (horror of horrors!) that they might have been banished, which goes against the grain of Cinderella’s maturing and her capacity for compassion, but in an original twist, Prince Charming’s chief advisor with whom the stepmother was getting a bit chummy also goes into exile so there’s the suggestion that they have hooked up together and hopefully will live happily ever after. (Branagh might have brought some loose ends over from his Hamlet acting / directing effort from way back in the mid-1990s.) There are moments in the film that hint that Cinderella might not be as kind as she should be, that she might be capable of anger and revenge against those who have wronged her. Madden’s Prince Charming is allowed to develop some character in a small subplot in which he and his father (Derek Jacobi) argue over the sort of woman he should marry: the king is all for an arranged marriage with a princess as custom dictates but the prince desires to marry someone who is innately good and natural. The role of the king is no stretch for Jacobi who only has to remember bits and pieces of past Shakespearean roles but he’s better off slumming his pensioner days in any fluff piece by Branagh than with some other British directors.

The film is packed with CGI flourishes which are to be expected and its landscapes and architecture are deliberately overdone and artificial. There’s no such thing as too much excess, especially excess of the smooth and saccharine kind, and the biggest problem in a film of this kind is for the actors not to compete with this excess but to act in a way that is either minimal or natural without being swallowed up by the tinsel. Happily Branagh knows when to pull back on the lavishness to allow his cast moments to be themselves. Appropriately for a film in which power passes from an older generation (and the values it represents) to a younger, the setting is some time in the 18th century: an age where absolutist monarchy was at its height but would soon be felled by revolutionary activity inspired by the Enlightenment. The narrative is slow to get off the ground, and quite a lot of time could be shaved off the first half of the film, but then starts to move very rapidly once the main characters are established.

I’m sure everyone associated with this film has done better work or will do better work, and I’m certain Branagh didn’t sweat much at all over it, but as it is, “Cinderella” is Disney-perfect in a way that satisfies its core audience of little girls and their big sisters and mums, caters to the public’s desire for pre-9/11 innocence and nostalgia, and reinforces traditional Christian values of kindness, courage and stoicism in adversity, forgiveness and  hope for a better world: values that are sorely needed in an age when political, economic and cultural chaos are becoming more apparent.

The fact that Disney relies on a British director and a British / Australian cast to carry off one of its flagship Disney fairy-tale staples in a live-action film probably does not say very much that is positive for the current state of American directing and acting.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

Floating Weeds: a graceful work of compassion for human frailties

Yasujiro Ozu, “Floating Weeds” (1959)

In the hands of a lesser director, the soap opera plot of this film would have become sensationalist drama, soon to be forgotten, but because the director is Yasujiro Ozu, the story becomes a comment on the generation gap and a society undergoing profound change under Western influence leading to the death of tradition, family break-up and people lost and anchorless on life journeys. A small struggling troupe of actors who perform kabuki plays comes to a sleepy seaside town in 1950s Japan. Its main actor, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), drops in on an old lover of his, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), to see how his son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has progressed in his absence. Progress might be an understatement: the son has just left high school and hopes to go away to college to study electronics – an unbelievable ambition for a child of humble village origins. Kumajuro’s mistress in the acting troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is jealous that her man has gone to see an old flame and plots revenge: she persuades fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi, aware that a liaison would ruin Kiyoshi’s plans and thus his future. Kiyoshi falls hard for Kayo and is prepared to throw everything away for her. In the meantime, Komajuro’s acting troupe, failing to draw full houses for their tired stage productions, break up and Komajuro is faced with having to depend on Oyoshi for a living and admitting to Kiyoshi that he, Komajuro, supposedly his uncle, is really his long-lost dad.

The style of the film is very understated and the acting is restrained, rendering the intense emotion bubbling beneath the actors’ quite stoic veneers all the more acute. Tension when it breaks out is sudden and shocking. We get a real sense of things careening out of control as Komajuro finds that his hitherto neatly compartmentalised life breaks down thanks to Sumiko’s scheming. People get upset, fall into messy and socially embarrassing relationships and Komajuro lashes out violently; his behaviour just leads to more misunderstanding and fall-out. What could have been reunion, reconnection and reconciliation becomes instead alienation. Komajuro has to learn what is of real value and where his loyalties should lie; they do not necessarily lie with traditional family structures but with family based on common experiences and life-long bonds, whether blood-based or not.

Apart from Komajuro and Sumiko, the characters are one-dimensional and represent particular stereotypes in the Yasujiro Ozu universe. The real glories of “Floating Weeds” lie in the creation of atmosphere and in the camera’s delight in stills of house interiors and village life. Sometimes the camera is placed on the floor or at knee level which affords a very intimate viewing of the action that occurs and the conflicts that are brewing. The camera rarely moves and the action takes place as if on a stage. In several scenes, we really do see plays within a play. The film’s approach tends to be cool, remote and objective, very formal, and the actors move and behave in restrained and formal ways as if the whole film itself is a kabuki performance. Even Komajuro and Sumiko’s first vicious argument is staged in an unusual way that at once stresses the distance between them personally and between them and the audience, yet intensifies the heated emotion: the two argue across an alley during a heavy downpour of summer rain. At one point in the film, Komajuro and Kiyoshi together discuss the troupe’s first performance: Kiyoshi jokingly tells Komajuro that he overacts but then later says that the troupe and its repertoire are too old-fashioned and stale for younger audiences who want something more current, while Komajuro tells Kiyoshi his troupe’s plays appeal to unrefined tastes and therefore Kiyoshi shouldn’t waste his time watching them. The two might very well have been talking about Ozu’s movies, the state of the Japanese film industry and popular tastes in cinema at the time!

Slow in pace, picturesque in a small-scaled way, intimate and revolving around human relationships rendered intense by studied acting, the film won’t appeal to everyone but to those not afraid of watching Ozu’s particular style of story-telling, “Floating Weeds” is a graceful work that casts no judgement on human frailty but instead urges compassion for people as they struggle and cope with life-long consequences of decisions they foolishly made years ago and now must come to terms with.

 

The Eel: tale of redemption labouring under too many complex abstract themes

Shohei Imamura, “The Eel / Unagi” (1997)

Japan’s boys in blue have an enviable record in obtaining a near 100% rate of criminal convictions and never more so than when the criminal walks into the police station, calmly announces that he’s just killed his wife and places the bloody knife on the customer services counter. Thus begins a complex character study in which a man, burdened with guilt and a heavy past, claws his way back into society and thus redeem himself. After eight years in prison for killing his wife whom he caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) moves away from Tokyo and with the help of his Buddhist priest parole officer makes a new life for himself as a barber in a country town. The community is populated with some oddball types who include a young man who borrows Takuro’s barbershop pole in the evenings to attract UFOs.

Initially business isn’t great because Takuro is a morose taciturn fellow who talks only to his pet eel, acquired at the prison. Then into his life comes a mysterious young woman Keiko (Misa Shimizu) who has just attempted suicide. Takuro saves her life and in gratitude Keiko offers to work as his assistant. The priest parole officer approves of the arrangement and soon Keiko starts attracting business for the barbershop in town and beyond with her grace and beauty. She falls in love with Takuro and Takuro himself struggles to repress his desire for her. But as life would have it, Takuro’s former prison-mate Takasaki turns up as a local garbage collector jealous of Takuro’s luck in finding a new life and threatening to expose Takuro’s secret past; and Keiko’s past catches up with her as an old flame (Tomorowo Taguchi) tries to extort money from her mentally fragile mother and comes to threaten Keiko herself.

The film’s style is smooth, graceful and studied with moments of intense emotion and slapstick humour that don’t really sit well together. The early scenes suggest that a gritty hardboiled drama is in the offering but as the film progresses, director Imamura seems to find handling some climactic scenes rather too confronting and intense as these are turned into improbable farce. The film is mainly driven by its characters and in this the two leading actors excel: Yakusho as Takuro combines patience, stoicism, self-guilt, remorse and repressed desire in the one taciturn character and Shimizu plays a complex self-conflicted woman who at first appears submissive and virginal but is later revealed as a passionate and assertive businesswoman who beats up her gangster boyfriend.

The film is an interrogation of contrasts within and between people and what these say about the rather schizophrenic nature of modern Japanese society. Individuals may deal with these contrasts and the stresses they create by indulging in odd and eccentric pastimes: Takuro by talking to his eel, Keiko’s mother by imagining herself as a flamenco dancer and the young townsman by trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Takuro’s dead wife Emiko and Keiko are compared and contrasted in their sensuality and their homely domesticity, most notably in their offerings of lunch to Takuro. Takuro finds redemption in running a barbershop and talking to his eel while Takasaki is unable to find authenticity and a path in life despite chanting Buddhist sutras constantly. Madness appears to be a constant theme: Keiko frets that she might have inherited her mum’s unstable nature and Takuro has periodic hallucinations. At the end of the day, we don’t really know if Takuro really did catch Emiko with a lover. This possibility together with some disturbing implications are dealt with rather flippantly by Imamura by having Keiko fall pregnant with a baby whose paternity is unknown. Takuro accepts Keiko in her pregnant state but one wonders whether the way in which he passively agrees to support Keiko and her unborn child really does signify a wholehearted acceptance of Keiko with all her faults and foibles or if this merely suggests Takuro’s accommodation with society and its pressures.

It may well be that Takuro was truly himself when he killed Emiko, only to lapse back into his deadened self to face the consquences. His behaviour towards Keiko as their working relationship becomes close may either be interpreted as Takuro rediscovering his true emotional self, or paying off his karmic debt or simply acting as he should since he is on parole and must behave properly. The tension throughout the film comes from viewers’ knowledge of Takuro’s early intense rage and whether it will erupt again to such devastating effect. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), there is a real possibility that Takuro will not return to Keiko and that Keiko herself may return to her old job in the city.

The letters that Takuro receives in the film may or may not be real and the film suggests that Takuro’s real problem is his inability to be true to himself and to give and receive love. Takasaki plays on his mind quite a bit to the extent that Takuro has difficulty accepting his hallucinations about the man for what they are and projecting his hallucinations outwardly in ways viewers may find disturbing.

Ultimately the film suffers itself from the burden of its abstract complexity and the various mind games it plays with the audience. The movie starts off strongly but then doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or a drama of passion. Most of the support cast tend to be one-dimensional and parts of the plot appear as an after-thought: Takasaki is introduced quite late in the piece as a foil for Takuro and Takuro’s relationship with his eel is rather undeveloped – the eel is made to symbolise aspects of Takuro’s life that remain hidden and also carries him through his transition from prison life to civilian normality. Though when at last Takuro releases his eel into the sea, one must ask whether this means Takuro has regained what he lost in his distant white-collar job or whether he has finally accepted that mainstream society requires him to stay emotionally dead.