浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

浪華悲歌 / Osaka Elegy, now eighty years old, came midway into director Kenji Mizoguchi’s career. Despite this, it is one of the earliest examples of Kenji Mizoguchi’s work readily available to view by the general public and has just been restored and released by Artificial Eye as part of a boxset titles The Mizoguchi Collection.

By today’s standards, it has a strange narrative that seemingly unravels itself from a reasonably happy place to a completely unhappy place for everyone unlucky enough to be wound up in the story. It is built around telephone operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), a girl who uses manipulation out of desperation for her own family. Her father is struggling to keep afloat financially after finding himself unemployed and owing 300 JPY. Her brother is also in desperate need of money to pay for his tuition fees or he will be thrown off his course. A solution presents itself in the form of Sumiko Asai (Yoko Umemura), the owner of a successful drugs company who has taken a shine to Ayako. Agreeing to be his mistress to solve the financial issues, she soon realises that the solution isn’t quite as simple as she had hoped.

The topics covered by the film are explored and exploited. It’s a clever technique as the initial story seems quite bland. As the reality is revealed to those involved Ayako comes out as the only person to be perceived to be in the wrong. Several men have had an affair with a girl under half their age, effectively buying her time, but they are above the law due to their standing in society. Since she is perceived to be of a lower class, it is on her that the blame is left.

She was in fact trying to live by her giri morals – the duty to do right by ones family. Whilst her methods may be unorthadox, she never sways far from these morals. The most upsetting part is her final line in the film, revealing that she believes herself to be a delinquent.

The quality of the film is lost slightly by the poor condition of the remaining footage. Throughout the film there are issues with sound – the constant background hiss is quite off-putting, there’s the odd loud pop and the dialogue can feel muffled. It’s not inaudible, but a far cry from perfect.

Similarly, the picture quality is poor, particularly in the darkened interiors of the traditional Osakan houses where the blacks appear muddy. This, like the sound, is not the fault of Artificial Eye. They’ve clearly made a decent job of some imperfect source material. It’s a shame, but realistically this is a business venture and spending the money to restore relatively obscure Mizoguchi films would be hard to justify.

As I understand, the other three films in this box set (The Story of the Last Chrysthanthemum, Utamaro and His Five Women, Sisters of the Gion) are all in the same boat, with imperfections in both audio and visuals (I haven’t watched them yet). That these films have surfaced at all is enough to be grateful for and those looking for more Mizoguchi after enjoying the Master of Cinema releases will be well served. As such, despite the flaws this box set is a recommended purchase.

 

 

Lilting (Hong Khaou, 2014)

Hong Khaou’s Lilting is a film of understated power. Watching it is a deeply moving experience.

The plot deals with the unexpected death of a young man played by Kai, and the toll this takes on his lover Richard (played by Ben Whishaw) and his mother Junn (played by Cheng Pep-pei). The snag in the situation is that the mother is unaware that her son is homosexual, and the situation is made more complex by the fact that Richard intends to respect his lover’s wish to keep this secret whilst at the same time ensuring Junn is looked after, which raises issues that are extenuated by the fact they have no common language. Or rather, they don’t until Ben hires a translator, though this gives rise to as many issues as it resolves.

This is a complicated storyline to see through and could easily fall flat with poor performances. Junn is brilliantly stubborn and cold, though we can see a heartbroken woman underneath the façade. Whishaw’s turn is an absolute revelation and every quirk adds to the belief that he is completely ripped apart by the situation.

A large amount of praise also needs to be heaped on the unwillingness to shy away from the fact we are seeing a homosexual relationship. So many times in films we see same-sex relationships implied but rarely do we see the playful intimacies and passion of such a relationship. This isn’t to say that there are any gratuitous sex-scenes, but the story called for the young men to be very much in love and the closeness is not shirked. Hopefully this is something we will see more of in the future.

Lilting is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a stunning study of the emotions people go through when someone they are close to dies with a secret, and the difficult resolutions they find to deal with the loss. If you get a chance to see it, then grasp it with both hands.

Lilting is out now in selected cinemas across the UK, and will be released in the USA on 26th September 2014.