The Virgin Spring: a profound and moving work on vengeance, justice and the remoteness of religion

Ingmar Bergman, “The Virgin Spring / Jungfrukällan” (1960)

Perhaps not so celebrated as “The Seventh Seal”, this morality tale on the nature of humanity, the remoteness of religion and the anguish of human existence is nevertheless powerful in its apparent simplicity. In 14th-century rural Sweden, a wealthy landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), both devout Christians, farewell their daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) on her long trip to deliver candles to a local church. With her is her pregnant foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), treated by their mother as a servant as punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Karin and Ingeri’s trip is long and takes them through remote country, and it’s not long before the two young women are separated and Karin meets a dreadful fate at the hands of two impoverished goat-herders attracted to her innocence, generosity and, above all, her rich clothes. Later the goat-herders, together with their mute young brother, seek shelter at Töre and Märeta’s farm where they try to sell the clothes they have taken off Karin. The parents recognise the clothes as Karin’s, and what follows next, as the parents are torn between their Christian faith, with its admonition to forgive sin and to have mercy, and their desire for vengeance against those who have harmed their only child, can only be described as appalling.

Threaded throughout the film is a constant war between Christianity and paganism: early on, Ingeri invokes the god Odin to harm Karin, the favoured and spoilt child, and pops a toad into Karin’s lunch before it is packed into the saddle-bags for the journey. The religious overtones throughout the film are strong to the extent that the whole work groans with the burden. It’s not hard to see that the various characters represent the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: Karin is guilty of sloth, her mother of pride, Ingeri of envy, Töre of anger and the goat-herders of lust, gluttony and greed. Another sin that might be added here is excess: Töre’s rage is so overwhelming that he ends up killing a child who is guilty only by association with the goat-herders. The pagan aspects of the film and their association with life and death are portrayed in the use of fire, earth and water throughout: fire gives life and warmth but can also kill; trees grow from the earth but earth can also smother; and water as used in the film symbolises new life but can also be used in rituals that prepare one for murder. During the girls’ trip, Ingeri meets a sinister old gentleman who might be Odin made manifest: he is one-eyed, he has a pet raven and he lives in a strange wooden house (representing Yggdrasil, where Odin hanged himself?) where water (Odin’s blood?) is continuously pouring through the walls and flooding the floors. The Christian aspect is also strong: Karin’s role as sacrificial lamb is obvious and even the goats that gambol about have symbolic value (as bearers of sin).

Ambiguity is also a constant through the film and none of the characters comes off as admirable in any way. Perhaps the most outstanding character is that of Märeta: initially steadfast in her Christian faith to the extent of burning stigmata into her wrists, the woman lavishes love on Karin, yet when her faith is tested, she becomes a calculating bitch – the scene in which she accepts the clothes from the goat-herders, recognises the clothes and tells the men she’ll find out what her husband is prepared to pay is cold and chilling, and what follows after when she collapses on the door-step and hugs the torn rags is equally heart-wrenching – and all but urges her husband to avenge Karin’s rape and death. This is a splendid piece of acting, notable for its emotional restraint. Von Sydow’s Töre is no less riveting for his near-manic desire for vengeance, his terrible violence and his anguish when, as a result of what he has done, he finds no relief in murder and vengeance, begs God for forgiveness and tries to bargain with God by promising that he will build a church on the site of Karin’s death. His Christian faith, shaky to begin with, cannot help him; his wife’s faith, also severely tested, cannot help either. The couple find themselves in a dreadful existential dilemma in which vengeance has proved to be a hollow comfort. Karin may be spoilt but her innocence, bordering on gullibility and sheer idiocy, is touching and her rape and death are unbearable to watch for their overwhelming pathos. The goat-herders may be repellent but viewers may feel some pity for their poverty, circumstances and unthinking stupidity which have driven them to greed, rape and murder.

The tone of the film is bleak and viewers are left in no doubt about the hardships that people in mediaeval rural Sweden had to suffer in making a living. The film’s coda looks tacked on as an afterthought and its meaning is unclear: does the spring that bubbles up under Karin represent the triumph of paganism over Christianity, or is it a sign of forgiveness or otherwise from God in answer to Töre’s outburst? The spring can symbolise the rebirth and renewal of life and hope. The film’s cinematography is beautiful and simple yet powerful, with a strong focus on close-ups of actors’ faces and the expressions on them, and it is no surprise to learn that the cinematographer for this film, Sven Nykvist, became director Bergman’s go-to camera man for all of his later films.

The film’s plot might stretch plausibility but overall this is a profound and highly emotional work.

Mixing samurai sword action, gore and political commentary on “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance / Shurayukihime: Urami Renga” (1974)

At the end of the first eponymous film, main character Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was dying in the snow but here she has recovered enough to become a fugitive on the run from the Meiji government for having killed the people who murdered her family. A bounty has been placed on her head and Yuki has to travel constantly and furtively to escape oppressive justice. A government agent, Kikui (Shin Kishida), grants her a reprieve from imprisonment, torture and death by giving her a mission: to assassinate activist and trouble-maker Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami) who holds a document whose false flag secrets could incriminate Kikui and a prominent politician, and lead to nation-wide unrest and rioting. Naturally Kikui and his politician friend want the document destroyed. As Yuki tracks down Ransui Tokunaga and becomes involved in his family affairs which include a rivalry with his impoverished doctor brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada) over Shusuke’s estranged wife, the swords-woman finds herself embroiled in conflicting political and personal rivalries in a context of a more militaristic and oppressive society using supposedly progessive social and economic reforms to enforce authoritarian laws and stultifying conformity on the population at large.

As sequels go, this is not a bad one and while very plot-heavy at the expense of character development, the film is engrossing in its own way due to the historical background with the ideas that Meiji-era Japan has eagerly embraced. The Meiji government has imposed a corrupt and violent police force on the people, and guns prove more useful and deadly than martial arts, but the ordinary people have also come to embrace radical politics and its promise of equality, freedom for all and democratic rule. As a result the government resorts to even more violence and torture, and employs underhanded and shocking methods including biological warfare tools – one character is injected with bubonic plague and thrown into a Tokyo slum – to get what it wants and this theme of increasing militarisation and oppression through a selective Westernisation / modernisation program of early 20th-century Japan informs the entire film. While the driving motivation of revenge no longer exists, the convoluted plot produces enough skulduggery, betrayal and corruption on the part of Kikui, his politician friend and government institutions to imbue Yuki with a new life’s mission: to gain justice for and defend the weak, the poor and the vulnerable.

As Yuki, Kaji displays just enough emotion to make her steely character plausible as the avenging angel turned crusader for the poor. She has very little to say and all feeling and character are expressed through her eyes and facial expression – Kaji proves quite adept at saying much in her body language if not in her dialogue. All other characters in the film are treated as disposable and so are very one-dimensional. The love triangle sub-plot is sketchily developed but we learn enough about it in characters’ dialogue that it is plausible. The lack of characterisation proves to be a major flaw as Yuki appears not to care that much for social justice compared to her own desire to evade the law and an argument may be mounted that she only acts the way she does mainly to avenge the torture and death of someone she holds dear and at the same time set even the score with the police. We end up caring much more for the people of the Tokyo slums who lose their homes to arson instigated by Kikui and his hench-men.

The cinematography is very good with much emphasis on beautiful outdoor scenes and unusual angles of filming. There is not quite as much visual experimentation with the movie driven by the complicated plot and its unexpected twists. Fight scenes are occasional and their portrayal is more competent and efficient than elaborate and balletic. Indeed, Yuki does well over most of her killing in the opening credits.

Lovers of samurai sword action and a large body count may be disappointed that there is less choppy-chop though what there is can be very gruesome with one character getting his eyes put out on separate occasions. The political angle may be confusing and the twists in the plot tend to drag out the action and can be exasperating to viewers not familiar with the history of Meiji-era Japan. But for those who know that history and the struggle of the Japanese in general against the hierarchical and totalitarian tendencies of their society and culture, this sequel to “Lady Snowblood” can be quite an absorbing experience.

Lady Snowblood: questioning the pursuit of vengeance in a society undergoing rapid social and economic change

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood / Shurayukihime” (1973)

Based on a manga and the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” homage to old 1970s Asian martial arts flicks, “Lady Snowblood” turns out much better than I thought it would. As a film of vengeance, “Lady Snowblood” actually questions the justification for and pursuit of vengeance in a world of tumultuous social, economic and technological change. Old traditions, values and customs come in for questioning as to whether they can still have any relevance to a new generation in a new world. The film also draws power from its inversion of the traditional role of women in Japanese society: the dominant female characters are strong and unyielding while the male characters are either weak or subservient in some way.

A Westernised family travelling in the country is accosted by a village gang who, suspecting the husband to be spying for the Meiji government, kill him and his son and imprison the wife who is raped and tortured by several gang members. The wife kills one of her tormentors and is thrown into a jail for her pains. In time, she gives birth to a daughter and lives long enough to declare that the child should be brought up to avenge the deaths of her family. Taken in by a kindly woman and a stern Buddhist priest, the child Yuki is trained in martial arts and endurance, all her energies channelled by the priest into transforming her into a professional assassin. Once of age, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) seeks out her family’s assassins and dispatches them one by one. She not only leaves behind a trail of blood, corpses and dismembered limbs but also a young girl brimming herself with hatred and desire for vengeance, sensational news reports, a police force hot on her trail and a terrorised populace.

The film is beautifully shot, often from unusual and artistic angles, and carries a certain if perhaps remote elegance. Parts of the story are told in flashback and some original methods of portraying past history, including the use of old sepia-toned photographic stills and comics panels, are used. There is always the feeling of the impermanence of life and the constancy of change, and the hint that, regardless of whether she succeeds or not, Yuki’s life is lost to an existential paradox: if she succeeds in carrying out her mother’s wishes, her life itself will be over and there is nothing left; if she does not succeed, her life will never be hers to live as a free agent. A hint that pursuing vengeance is ultimately an empty quest, one that can only end badly for Yuki, is ever present. Divided into chapters, each focussed solely on an act of killing, the plot is very threadbare and loose ends are never fully explained but the entire film has a very grim and gritty determination that reflects the heroine’s own iron resolve. The acting is adequate for the job and Kaji’s face manages to be at once stony and expressive whenever the camera wants a close-up of it at critical moments in the film when something unexpected happens that robs Yuki of any satisfaction in carrying out her life work, which is more often than you’d expect in this film. Kaji’s minimal acting manages to turn Yuki into a more subtle and less one-dimensional character than Yuki perhaps deserves to be; there is the suggestion beneath her tough exterior and in some brief scenes, that perhaps Yuki doubts the wisdom of her life’s assignment and might wish that she could have been more like ordinary women. That may be an ironic point, given that most ordinary Japanese women of the time were expected to marry and raise children, and not question social expectations of them to be obedient and subservient to their fathers, husbands and sons.

As the action takes place over a period of 20+ years, the film revels in showing how people change over time and whether or not they regret past actions or realise that vows taken 20 years ago may have no force or relevance to the present day. The thugs who destroyed Yuki’s family have all met with varied fortunes: one has become a destitute drunk, trying to forget the crimes he committed in the past; another has (ironically) become a government agent and middle-man in the trading of weapons between Japan and the West. The action takes place in a world of political corruption where the rich and powerful exploit the poor and the little people are reduced to petty in-fighting and acts of betrayal and vengeance. If only they knew how the elites were screwing them in those days, then they would combine their energies and resources to fight the real enemy! But alas and alack, despite the best efforts of a crusading journalist writing up the deeds of Yuki in his newspaper, the poor are kept divided by ignorance, manipulation and oppression, and (spoiler alert) Yuki the white angel of death is herself felled by a woman much like herself in seeking family vengeance.

There’s a great deal of blood-letting and the sprays of bright-red liquid are obviously exaggerated for effect. The killing isn’t exactly graceful and the fight choreography is more efficient than balletic and stylised. After all is said and done, the film manages to be most things for most people: an enjoyable splatter samurai revenge flick, an attempt at character study and examination of the futility of revenge, and a portrayal of a society in transformation and how individuals cope with immense social and economic change.

 

Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.

 

 

Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.

 

 

A Tattooed Life: underrated yakuza character study expressing anti-nationalist nihilism

Seijun Suzuki, “A Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichidai” (1965)

A surprisingly touching and quite emotional drama, told in a traditional way, this is an underrated yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki in which he explores honour and loyalty between two brothers. Hit man Tetsu and his much younger art-student brother Kenji are forced to go on the run when they are suddenly ambushed by rival killers and Kenji, trying to defend his big brother, kills an important yakuza. The two men try to catch a ship to Manchuria but a sleazy hustler fleeces them of their money and they go to work instead for a man, Yamashita, in charge of a construction company trying to build a tunnel. The brothers are accepted by the work crew but it’s not long until Kenji falls in love with Yamashita’s wife Masayo and Masayo’s teenaged kid sister Midori falls for Tetsu. At the same time, one of Yamashita’s employees, a not-very-nice piece of work, has the hots for Midori so there are a couple of very complicated love triangles here. Add to those linked romances the police and the yakuza linked to the man murdered by Kenji hot on the brothers’ trail and you’ve got one slowly yet steadily simmering revenge drama that erupts into a brief but highly intense bout of violence.

The bulk of the film is basically a character-driven straight narrative that establishes the context for the violence for which Suzuki pulls out all the stops for the precious four minutes that underline his reputation for stylish direction: the traditional Japanese house structure provides an unforgettable setting for the interplay of shadow and light, what is seen versus what remains hidden behind paper screens, the use of colour as a dramatic device in its own right, and even the unusual angles at which the camera is held to emphasise the visceral nature of the sword and gun fights. As the fight proceeds, the camera pans along to the left, zooms in on a character running away from the camera lens through a series of rooms, then shifts position to film from above and abruptly jumps to film characters from below! The actual fighting is unforgettable to watch as men slash at one another with swords; it looks precise and graceful thanks to the lighting Suzuki used and the minimal backgrounds in which one colour predominates among the shadows.

Apart from the film’s set piece, the rest of the narrative is not bad to watch: the brothers improbably build up a rapport with Yamashita’s work crew which includes plenty of oddball characters who, even after they learn of Tetsu’s yakuza background and of Kenji’s crush on Masayo, rally behind them both. The brothers have a close relationship which is often strained by Kenji’s impulsive actions and his deeply felt loss of their mother which translates into a desire for Masayo. Kenji’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy and Tetsu’s reaction is one of the most moving I have ever seen a male actor perform. The brothers provide a strong counterpoint to each other in characterisation. The two sisters are also contrasted in character: Masayo accepts that her marriage is a loveless one and is resigned to living within the strictures of convention while the young Midori ardently declares her love for Tetsu, yakuza or no yakuza, and tries to run away with him in defiance of social convention.

The natural landscape settings are often beautiful and scenes of rolling beach waves appear to suggest something of the impermanence of life and love. There is a nihilism present in the film: Tetsu does what he does for his younger brother’s sake only for the younger, naive man to throw everything away; at the end of the film (spoiler alert), Tetsu leaves Midori for a bleak future and the young woman is inconsolable. What happens to the Yamashita couple is uncertain.

Suzuki expresses a distaste for authority figures and Japanese corporate values throughout the film – the police are no better than the yakuza, the yakuza spread their corruption into legitimate business and corporate loyalty is called into question when it’s directed towards unworthy individuals and causes – and its historical setting in the 1920s hints at Suzuki’s own cynicism about the Japanese government and its conduct in the decades leading up to Japan’s invasion of China and southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The common people are hearty, honest, jovial and down-to-earth while their “betters” are suspicious and untrustworthy characters. The sleazy hustler, always wearing a white three-piece suit, turns out to be an ultra-nationalistic thug.

Perhaps “A Tattooed Life” is not quite as flamboyant or wacky as Suzuki’s later films but its plot is more highly developed and plausible than some of Suzuki’s later, better known works and deserves wider attention.

 

The 47 Ronin (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki): a drawn-out epic about maintaining abstract ideals in a changing society

Hiroshi Inagaki, “The 47 Ronin / Chushingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki” (1962)

The tale of the 47 masterless samurai who avenged their lord’s forced seppuku death in defiance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s orders is one that’s been celebrated in cinema several times and this version is a lavish epic lasting well over 3 hours. It boasts an impressive cast including Toshiro Mifune and is impressively staged: most scenes are breathtaking for the sheer beauty of the backgrounds and various props with their attention to historical detail. The plot itself can be very drawn out and slow but director Inagaki extracts and deftly escalates the tension and suspense towards the inevitable showdown climax. Themes of samurai honour and loyalty, and retribution for wrongful death and atonement run throughout the film, as might be expected; there is also a commentary on the political corruption of the shogunate that provides the social context in which the tragic events play out. The film challenges viewers on whether personal integrity and idealism are preferable over self-interest and street cunning, and on whether the code of bushido, admirable in many respects, might ask too much of people in surrendering their lives and relationships to abstract ideals. Within the film also, there is a sense that time is passing and the world of the Tokugawas is becoming irrelevant to the needs of people, high-born and lowly alike, and that as a result the old ways and ideals are succumbing to materialism and the pursuit of pleasure, and true and worthy values no longer hold attraction for people.

For Western audiences, the classic tale is basically as follows: at the turn of the 18th century, Lord Asano is obliged to receive envoys from the Shogun and offer his home and castle to his retainers. To this end, Lord Kira is sent to teach Lord Asano the finer points of the appropriate ceremonies to be conducted. Lord Kira demands that Lord Asano offer him gifts and bribes as befit his position when the younger man arrives at the Shogun’s residence but Lord Asano refuses to engage in such corrupt practices. Lord Kira angrily insults Lord Asano to the extent that the young daimyo loses his temper and draws his sword against the instructor. Lord Kira suffers a slight wound but Lord Asano is punished for having drawn his sword in the Shogun’s residence and is obliged to commit seppuku. In addition, his properties and wealth are to be surrendered to the Shogun and his entire family is ruined.

Lord Asano’s retainers, led by Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, become ronin (samurai without master), surrender their lord’s castle without a fight. Oishi and 46 other retainers swear to restore Lord Asano’s family. After an early attempt to gain permission to restore the Asano family fails, Oishi then gives up and resignedly leads a life of dissolution while the other men disperse. People wonder if he’s lost his marbles and jeer and make fun of him. The reality though is that Oishi is secretly plotting with his men to bring ruin to Lord Kira at a time when Lord Kira has let down his guard in the belief that Lord Asano’s men are not seeking revenge.

The film’s fastidious attention to historical details is prominent but this is not at the expense of the plot or the acting. Characterisation can be patchy: Oishi’s character and a few minor characters are fleshed out very well and viewers can see their inner struggles as they strive in their own ways to remain faithful to the memory of Lord Asano yet pretend otherwise in order to throw off Lord Kira’s spies. On the other hand, Lord Kira is portrayed as a pathetic clown who loves pleasure and clings to life in a way that invites contempt. (There may be a good reason for portraying Lord Kira in such an unbecoming way: the film suggests that Oishi and the other retainers are wasting two years of their time plotting revenge on such a pitiful wretch and they would have been better off fighting the Shogun’s army and dying for their lord’s castle in the first place before deciding to surrender it without a fight.) The actor Toshiro Mifune has a minor role as a masterless ronin that simply repeats past roles he played in various Akira Kurosawa historical drama flicks.

The plot flows easily from main story to various sub-plots and weaves all the parallel strands into one mega-work that gives the impression of encompassing all levels of society in early 18th century Tokugawa Japan. The viewer gains a little insight into social and political changes then sweeping the country: society from the Shogunate down is becoming corrupted by self-interest, the pursuit of sensuous pleasures and greed, and those who uphold the old ideals of loyalty, honour and self-sacrifice increasingly find themselves shut out of a society interested in material wealth, status and flattering and bribing others to get ahead.

Perhaps the film could have been edited here and there – the pace does bog down to very glacial levels – and critical moments in the film such as Lord Asano’s seppuku ritual tend to be cut off abruptly. The actual tale of the 47 ronin is quite thin and padded out with fight scenes, staged scenery, several sub-plots and moments of earthy humour. What motives Inagaki may have had in making the film – his version came out a few years after another movie version which itself followed hard on the trail of yet another – I have no idea: he may have been trying to revive people’s interest in their traditional culture, emphasising aspects he believed worth preserving and passing onto younger generations, in the context of a period in which Japanese society was exposed to heavy doses of American culture after Japan’s defeat in World War II.  There is some emphasis on the masterless ronin disobeying the Shogun in plotting to kill Lord Kira and that could be taken as a warning to Japanese audiences that loyalty to samurai ideals should not be subordinated to unthinking obedience to government. On the whole, “The 47 Ronin” is a highly involving film, quite typical of action films of its time, which has aged well and whose themes might still resound with audiences in Japan and beyond today.

 

 

The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.

Stoker: psychological thriller let down by stereotyped characters and poor scripting

Park Chanwook, “Stoker” (2013)

Appropriately Chanwook Park’s Hollywood directing debut is a psychological thriller featuring an oddball protagonist who has lived a life of isolation for a long time and who carries out a devastating revenge against someone who has destroyed her family unit. (This scenario will be familiar to fans of Park’s Vengeance trilogy films.) On the eve of her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) hears that her father has died in a bizarre car accident and she and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) duly attend her old man’s funeral and must entertain the guests at the lunch-time wake. One of those guests is Dad’s younger brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into Mum’s life and affections. For someone besotted with Evelyn’s porcelain beauty and brittle spirit, Uncle Charlie pays rather too much attention to India herself. In the meantime the house-keeper and well-meaning Aunty Gin (Jacki Weaver) disappear mysteriously and India later discovers they have been murdered. India also learns a few things about Uncle Charlie and his murky past, and how his past may be connected with her present, her relationships with her parents, separately and together, and what these mean for her future as she leaves adolescence behind.

The plot is based on the Alfred Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt”, in which a character, also called Charlie, preys on a widow and her daughter, and “Stoker” contains several visual references to Hitchcock’s work (“Psycho” most notably since this is the Hitchcock film most people know). However, in spite of a fine acting performance by Wasikowska, “Stoker” comes across as rather hollow compared to Hitchcock’s work. This may be due to the script, penned by actor Wentworth Miller, that Park worked with: the dialogue isn’t very good and some scenes in which India goes to school and is bullied by male classmates do not fit well into the rest of the film. Significant characters are very stereotyped and lack depth: Kidman, in playing Evelyn, must be on a personal quest to play Blanche duBois in the “A Streetcar named Desire” production to end all such productions while Goode’s character is plain creepy from the time when India spies him observing her at Dad’s funeral right up to the climax. At least Wasikowska does an excellent job portraying India (whose middle name could be Wednesday Addams) as an outsider coping with the usual angsty teenage-girl issues like competing with her mother, coping with social ostracism at school, fending off the attentions of boys and, er … dealing with an uncle with psychopathic tendencies.

Where Park excels is in creating an atmosphere of unease and growing horror with great use of cinematography that emphasises long shots and creative panning of the camera, and beautiful visual scenes that combine the innocence of nature with the grotesque and brutal. The style of “Stoker” is rather less flamboyant and melodramatic than some of Park’s earlier films but the toned-down style suits the subject matter and its steady but sure build-up to the climax. The use of music which includes Lee Hazlewood’s song “Summer Wine” is an important element in the film’s narrative and intense atmosphere of sexual frustration and longing.

The narrative has a cyclical structure in which the same or similar visual shots bookend the film. This refers to the film’s nature-versus-nurture theme: how much of India’s character and subsequent behaviour is the product of her family genetic inheritance, and how much of her upbringing? Kidman’s character Evelyn has some poignant lines in which she talks about the reason for having children: do people have children because they hope that their children will succeed where the parents do not (or cannot)? How aware were India’s father and Charlie Stoker of her character, to the extent that the father tried to shield India from Charlie and the family way by banishing Charle and teaching the daughter hunting? If the Stoker family has a troubling relationship with psychopathy, from which there may be survival advantages (it is only because India discovers her inner psychopath that she saves her own life and Evelyn’s life), what might this say for society at large?

Strip away Park’s input and the film becomes an ordinary if creepy family drama with a tight and incestuous love triangle. A Nick Cave is needed to inject some complexity into the script so that a motivation for India being and becoming in the family way can explain why she was brought up the way she was. How the best efforts of parents often tend to reinforce psychopathic tendencies in their children rather than keeping them dormant and unrealised could also have been made clearer in the film than it is.

Upstream Color: how love and hope can overcome a cycle of evil and bring about healing

Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (2012)

Since making “Primer”, Shane Carruth’s career as film director and producer has definitely leapt ahead. There is still a rough-edged quality to his work but it also has a new-found poetry. A definite Shane Carruth universe based on real life, yet combining certain elements of wacky sci-fi and reality in a highly eccentric style, now exists. Compared to “Primer” which was based around the familiar SF trope of time-travel and the complications it caused for the two guys who used it, “Upstream Color” has a more straightforward narrative revolving around another familiar trope of apparent mind control and the message that that trope might embody.

Kris (Amy Seimetz), a film production executive, is drugged and abducted by a thief (Thiagos Martin). In her drugged state, Kris is tricked into handing over most of her life savings to the thief. Awaking from her drugged state, Kris discovers a worm wriggling in her body. Responding to a series of low-toned drones, Kris travels to a pig farm where the farmer, who has used sampled infrasonic sound to attract specimens of a nematode worm to his farm, performs a transfusion operation to remove Kris’s worm and inject it into a sow.

Apparently healed, Kris tries to reorganise her life but finds herself unemployed and her bank accounts empty. By chance, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth), who is drawn to her. Through trial and error, the two discover that they have had similar experiences and start to feel one another’s emotions and pain. As they eventually piece together various coincidences in their lives to ascertain the nature of their mysterious link, a parallel story runs in which the pig farmer makes field recordings of sounds in and around his farm, travels astrally to observe people, and drowns a litter of piglets mothered by the sow who receives Kris’s worm. While the piglets are dying, Jeff attacks his co-workers and Kris suffers a panic attack.

Jeff and Kris come to realise that they are being controlled by the pig farmer and confront him. They contact several other people who have also been infected by nematode worms from the farm and surrounding forests, and bring them to the farm. In time, the pigs are made healthy and the nematode worm infestation disappears.

The film might be considered a metaphorical investigation of cycles of physical / sexual abuse of children and how those cycles can be broken by the victims acknowledging that their problem exists, owning the problem and finding for themselves the solution to the problem. The victims also reach out to others and educate them, and together they all work to eradicate the original cause and heal their environment and society. The pig farmer might be a metaphor for Evil or Satan and the thief might be Satan’s tool for spreading temptation throughout society. At the same time, out of suffering and its banal repetition, represented by the nematode worm’s life-cycle through innocent flowers, humans and pigs, love and hope can arise, and from those positive emotions can spring motivation to eliminate evil, heal wounded souls and spread good health and bounty.

The cinematography is very beautiful and often poetic: Carruth may not be a very experienced director but he has a distinctive, matter-of-fact style that finds unexpected beauty and art in even the most gruesome shots. Scenes in which nematode eggs are released into a creek and spread through it to infect an entire ecosystem are lyrical yet sinister. The use of close-ups and hand-held cameras gives a documentary feel to the action. The soundtrack is an essential character in the film though actual music is quite conventional: the pig farmer uses found sound to entrap and draw his victims to his farm to extract the fully grown worms and inject his pigs so the parasites can complete their life-cycles.

The romance between Kris and Jeff is very deep and complex, and the sex scene between them, filmed in a short, choppy series of close-up shots, reveals more intimacy than a hundred Hollywood romance films put together.

The film’s structuring can be confusing to viewers and the narrative has plenty of logic holes – shouldn’t the nematode life-cycle go from flower to pig (a herbivore) to human (a carnivore)? – plus there are loose ends a-plenty; but all the rough patches do not detract from a film that speaks up for the power of love and hope to overcome evil and heal society.