Film review – 殯の森 / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

 

Naomi Kawase’s fourth full-length feature film came ten years after her debut ‘Suzaku’ won the Camera d’Or, the prize awarded to the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Mourning Forest’ was also the recipient of a prize at Cannes, winning the 2007 Grand Prix.

The contemplative film was inspired by director and writer Kawase’s childhood growing up with her grandmother, who suffered from senility. It follows the nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono), who starts a job at a home for elderly people suffering from dementia. The home is deep in a forest and allows a certain amount of freedom and tranquility away from distractions. The youthful Machiko forms a strong bond with and elderly man named Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who has a tendency to run away as soon as he’s given the opportunity. Shigeki is a widower whose wife has been dead for 33 years, a significant milestone in the Buddha mourning period as the end of the liminal period, traditionally celebrated with a ceremony. The job is perfect for Machiko, also in mourning for the death of her child.

On Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko takes him on a car ride into the countryside. But when their car breaks down Machiko goes in search of help, only to find when she returns to the car Shigeki has disappeared into the nearby forest. She ventures in to find him and eventually the pair go on a cathartic journey of mourning and bonding as they journey deeper into the depths of the forest.

“I wanted to show as well that you could have a relationship across generations, that was very important. I didn’t want there to be any taboos between generations,” said Kawase in her statement at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “It was important to me to show that despite their differences that you can have this relationship and you can have some sort of support in life.”

That is exactly what this film shows. It is an exploration of the relationship between two people at very different stages of their lives, sharing the same experience but at different stages of mourning, providing support for one another. Of course, Machiko is much more aware of what she is providing than Shigeki, but the results are very much the same.

Shigeki Uda was 60-years-old when the film was made, but he played a man of 70 years. To prepare for the role as someone who has dementia, he went to extreme measures to ensure he had an accurate portrayal. “I spent three months in a home for the elderly, a home that was used as a model for the film,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “I spent three months with people who were senile. I ate with them, I bathed with them, I lived with them, and I felt with them.” The achievement is astounding, giving a real sense of the condition. There are moments where he has a blank look on his face, when asked a direct question, that will feel familiar to anyone who knows someone with dementia. He can still feel that he must provide an answer but he is unsure exactly what is being asked of him, so he pretends he understands and offers a response anyway. That can’t just be guessed at and Uda is showing a real understanding of his character when he does this.

The film is a contemplative, spacious film. The scant use of dialogue allows the viewer to take in the beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Hideyo Nakano. This is heightened by a subtle score from Masamichi Shigeno, which never feels overbearing, mixing well with the organic sounds of the forest. The mix creatures something that feels extremely naturalistic.

Kawase created a sincerely wonderful film with ‘The Mourning Forest‘, which shines a light on dementia. It underlines the importance for those interacting with anyone with the condition to know that they are still human, with emotions, feelings and a personality. It exhibits the sort of understanding that can only be achieved by someone who has lived with someone with the condition. With two first-class performances from the lead actors, the results are magnificent.

 

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Film review – Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)

Two decades before Jackie Chan broke into Hollywood with box office smash Rush Hour, he was making another significant breakthrough in his career. Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master were both released in 1978 by Seasonal Film Corporation. They marked Chan’s first mainstream success as a lead actor and showed him to be a realistic option to fill the gap in the market left by Bruce Lee following his unexpected death in 1973.

Chan had worked as a stuntman on two of Lee’s biggest films: Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. But it took the two action comedy films in 1978 for him to rise to prominence and make the world pay attention to just how entertaining he is on screen.

Drunken Master, which has recently been remastered and issued in HD on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label, tells the story of Wong Fei-hung (Chan), a young martial arts trainee with more confidence than ability. A couple of incidents in his local town lead him to be disowned by his father – a martial arts master – and he is forced to train with the great but harsh Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien). Beggar So is a master of the secret martial arts techniques of the Eight Drunken Immortals, and Wong must train with him to master the techniques to defeat the notorious killer Yim Tit-sam (Hwang Jang Lee).

Once Chan appears on screen for the first time, his charisma and charm are there in plain sight. He commands the screen and plays everything for laughs. It feels entirely effortless and he inevitably carries the entire film.

The plot and delivery border on the ridiculous. There are comedic sound effects added to every single move in every fight, which may take some getting used to for newcomers to the genre, although why they would start here is beyond me.

The martial arts on display is exemplary, with Chan clearly an expert in his art to the point of making his character look completely believable as a poor student. Also notable are Hwang Jang Lee’s Taekwondo displays, which are utilised to great effect.

Inevitably, if you’re seeking out this film you’re probably doing so to see the origins of Jackie Chan’s career. On that level, you won’t be disappointed as it shows a young actor having fun finding his feet in a lead role. An underrated gem.

Drunken Master can be purchased on Blu-ray now. It is also available on U.K. Netflix.

Film review – Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)

For all its technological achievements and successes as a great tale, William A. Wellman’s 1927 cinematic epic is remembered for one thing – it’s the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

The ceremony was far removed from what we know today. The winners were announced three months before the ceremony and it was a much smaller affair than the modern interpretation, with the awarding of prizes taking around fifteen minutes to complete. Wings actually won a prize called “Outstanding Picture”, later renamed to Best Film, making it famous at the expense of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. The latter won the similarly-named “Unique and Artistic Picture” on the same night, though on the night it is unlikely this was treated as a runner-up prize.

Wings concerns two love rivals – Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) – who are fighting for the attention and affection of Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack’s persistence is so committed that he fails to notice his tomboyish next-door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), despite her continuous effort to get him to notice her. They enlist in the Air Service as trainee fighter pilots. It covers their time in World War I as they complete training, launch into their first battles and become close friends.

It is perhaps a simple plot by today’s standards, but it’s often not the premise that makes a film great but the delivery. This is close to perfection.

Films like this may have been wonders when they were released, but few stand the test of time and allow enjoyment and excitement for the viewers today. Indeed, we are now 90 years further on in cinematic technological advancements and there isn’t a single person involved with the film that is alive today.

The world of cinema should be eternally grateful that Paramount decided to invest £900,000 in restoring this picture. The results are worth considering so you know exactly what you’re seeing and hearing.

On the positive, the picture is absolutely crystal clear. Many segments of the film were unseen for years by the general public, and whenever Wings did surface it was in a severely compromised form. A duplicate negative was found in Paramount’s archives, though this too suffered from significant damage baked into the print. However, digitising the original negatives and painstakingly restoring the film has done wonders for the visual experience. Credit must be given to Executive Director of Restoration Tom Burton and the team at Technicolor Creative Services for such a wonderful result, utilising tinting techniques of the era for added authenticity.

This has been matched up with a new recording of J. S. Zamecnik’s original score by Dominik Häuser and Michael Aarvold. The score was for a 14 reel version of the film that was edited down to 13 reels for the theatrical and roadshow release. Therefore there was a portion of freedom given to the scoring pair, but it is clear the right decisions have been made at each step, as evidenced by the moving results contained on the restored masterpiece. 

Controversially, the sound features sound effects that match to the visual image. Will McKinley has written a fantastic article about the positives and negatives of this, arguing both sides of the toss in a far more eloquent way than I could manage. It’s well worth a read. For me, these additional sounds are 100% in the score and I can see the restoration team’s predicament. If they omitted them it would sound more “authentic”, but only in as much as it’s what a modern audience expects from a 1920s sound film. This score was steeped in innovation and, like the technological risks taken in shooting the visuals, was way ahead of its time. I’m happy the music sticks to the original score, and if you don’t like it you can try an alternative option on the disc (provided by Gaylord Carter), or even mute the whole thing!

Utilising the trainee pilot angle, director Wellman was able to draw on his experience as a First World War pilot to create some absolutely astonishing sequences. They were all filmed on brilliantly blue but cloudy days, which gives the planes some scale and improves the dynamic nature of the dogfights. 

There is also a cinematic first in the film, with the first onscreen man-to-man kiss. It comes in one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film. David has become stranded behind enemy lines and steals a plane to return home. Jack, already believing his friend has died, is on a suicide mission to take down as many enemy pilots as possible to help the war efforts, in careless abandonment of his own safety. Miraculously he survives his plan, shooting down innumerable enemy aircrafts. On returning, he spots one last pilot heading towards the Allied base. He goes in for the kill, without knowing that it is in fact his best friend David. When he lands and seeks the enemy to seal his victory, he realises what he has done. As David dies in Jack’s arms, the complex emotions get the better of them and there on screen is the first same-sex kiss, albeit perhaps accidental. It simply couldn’t have been cut or reshot – it’s integral to the plot and seals their respective positions in their friends’ lives.

The Masters of Cinema team are the perfect choice to take control of such a historic release. There are three bonus features on the Blu-ray disc: one covering the restoration, one that puts the flight aspects of the film into context and one that covers the legacy of the film. The accompanying booklet is full of additional information and essays on the film and director. It just fits the gravitas deserved of the film.

That we can now sit in our front rooms and see a film of this importance in such high quality is a wonderful feeling. The history of cinema is too important to simply let go. It’s fantastic that an entire new generation have the opportunity to see where cinema started and Wings certainly represents a significant piece of the puzzle.

Film review – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

If you’re a casual fan of the history of cinema, you may be forgiven for thinking that Stanley Kubrick has only released eight films. 

The reason for this misunderstanding? I blame the brilliant but consistently re-released boxset of films that features every feature he directed from Lolita onwards, along with a documentary on his career titled “A Life In Pictures”. It’s so prominent and features so many classic films that his early output is often forgotten.

The biggest casualty of this is Spartacus, the 1960 epic that starred Kirk Douglas. It seems obvious, but there’s a whole generation of film fans that are well aware of the film and the director but are surprised that Kubrick was at the helm.

It’s a shame that his early output is so criminally overlooked, but it’s also a problem that Masters of Cinema and Arrow have put a lot of effort into correcting. First came 1953’s Fear and Desire, a film steeped in rumours that Kubrick himself wanted to destroy all known copies of. It is far from his best work, but has an audience. It was bundled with three Kubrick-directed short films: Day of the Fight (1951), Flying Padre (1951) and The Seafarers (1953). These aren’t essential viewing for anyone other than the most ardent Kubrickian, but plot a path to his genius-level filmmaking that was revealed shortly after.

Arrow’s release of 1956’s The Killing is similarly detailed. The Sterling Hayden-starrer was a critical success on its release but commercially didn’t really make it out of the starting blocks, serving second fiddle to a now-hard-to-find film called Bandido! and eventually losing $130,000.

So where does Paths of Glory fit into this? It was Kubrick’s final film before his epic box office smash Spartacus in 1960, which was also critically praised and thus provided him much more leeway when it came to choosing his next project, which was Lolita.

Arguably, the reason he was offered Spartacus was in part due to his success with Paths of Glory. Indeed, the original director (Anthony Mann) was sacked after just one week of filming and it was this that led to Kubrick being hired, not least for the fact that Kirk Douglas was the star of both and his production company – Bryna Productions – was behind Spartacus and vicariously the hiring of a replacement director.

The short reason for Douglas’s affinity to Kubrick is quite simple – the film is absolutely brilliant. Douglas is allowed to explore a complicated character with no compromise to the artistic integrity, despite the fact that the film was banned in several countries for content deemed controversial at the time of release. It is a really powerful display of his acting ability.

Set entirely in French army bases during World War II, the basic premise of the film is that Colonel Dax (Douglas) is ordered by his superior General Mireau (George Macreary) to attack the “Anthill”, a well-defended German stronghold. Mireau’s reasoning behind his decision is entirely selfish as he has been offered a promotion for a successful attack on the Germans. Douglas attempts the manoeuvre despite knowing it is essentially a suicide mission for his men, but they all quickly realise it is doomed to failure and they retreat. They are subsequently accused of cowardice and three men are selected for trial and face the death penalty, with only their own accounts and Dax’s legal background to save them.

The film was banned by several countries on its original release, deemed as anti-military. Subsequently, cinema-goers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Spain were unable to see it until decades after its release. It is understandable, given the portrayal of the hierarchy and corrupt decision making. The integrity of the film is also maintained with a wholly miserable ending to the film, an early sign that Kubrick wasn’t one to conform to normalities.

Watching it now, it feels way ahead of its time. There is no happy ending. The characters are fully formed and Kubrick is confident enough to let the brilliant Kirk Douglas engulf the entire frame with close-ups and lingering shots.

The action sequences as the troops push over the top into no man’s land are engrossing and brutal, giving a reality to their predicament. Without getting this right, the whole picture would have fallen flat.

This is absolutely a film that needs to be watched and shouldn’t be seen as just a point of interest for die-hard Kubrick aficionados. If you can find a copy and want to see beyond The Chosen Eight, you really need to invest.

Film review – Varieté (Ewald André Dupont, 1925)

Recently remastered and re-released by Eureka on their Masters of Cinema label, Ewald André Dupont’s Varieté is a wonderful film that’s well-deserving of a bit more attention, even 90 years after its original release.

It follows Boss Huller (Emil Jannings), the owner of a touring circus and former trapeze artist. Now retired with his wife (Maly Delschaft) and trapeze partner, their relationship is functional but stagnant. However, when  a mysterious woman called Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) appears and joins his entourage, he becomes besotted with her and this marks the end of his marriage. Shortly after this a celebrated younger male trapeze artist named Artinelli (Warwick Ward) joins to turn their duo into a trio. Frictions rise between the two men as they begin to vie for the interest of Berta whilst remaining professional on stage.

Brit Ward and love rival German Jannings

Modern cinema fans may know lead actor Jannings, though they may not realise it. He was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2007) by Hilmer Eichhorn in the tensely played-out film premier scene. During the Second World War, Liebich was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party and was taking lead roles in many of the biggest Weimar-era films. By the end of the war, with the Nazi party defeated, he was left unable to work in the restructured Germany keen to forget the pervious decade, eventually retiring to a farm in Austria before dying at the start of the 1950s.

Before this, however, he was a much-celebrated film star, both in Germany and America. He was the first actor to receive the Oscar for Best Actor (for roles in two films: The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), which happens to also be the first ever Oscar statue given out at the first ceremony, putting Jannings in a unique part of film history. Perhaps his greatest performance came in Die Letzte Mann, released a year before Varieté. He would surely have won more Best Actor Oscars if only the Academy Awards had started ten years previously.

The way the film plays out may leave viewers feeling somewhat bemused about how we are supposed to feel for the lead actor. Firstly, he leaves his wife at the drop of a hat for a woman he knows almost nothing about other than that she has arrived on a seemingly cursed ship. Then, when his new lover essentially does the same back to him, he plots a jealousy-fuelled revenge, murdering both her and her lover. It seems too that the judge in charge of hearing his plight forgives him and allows him to leave prison. It doesn’t leave much room for any kind of compassion for the character. Indeed, when it was released in America the entire introduction was cut from the release, leaving a much more moral character for the viewers [1].

You may also need to suspend your belief that Jannings could possibly pull off the stunts involved. Whilst they are beautifully and innovatively shot, I couldn’t help but feel like Jannings – 40 at the time of the shoot – was a tad too portly to follow the trajectories required of a trapeze artist. Inevitably an unconvincing stunt double was used, but it’s only a minor blemish on a series of quite fascinating scenes.

Whilst the restoration is absolutely perfect, a note should be made about the variety of soundtrack options available. The unusual default option is supplied by The Tiger Lillies. I attempted to watch this version but changed it after about ten minutes. It didn’t seem to fit very well at all – much more modern than it should have been and not really matching the tone of what was happening on the screen. Much better is the Johannes Contag version, listed as third on the main menu. There’s also the aforementioned complete American version, though I didn’t venture this far.

This is well worth investing in for fans of German silent cinema, and it’s great to see it being given so much attention so long after its initial release. 

[1] http://www.silentsaregolden.com/debartoloreviews/rdbvariete.html

Film review – A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)

A New Leaf, the 1971 debut feature film from Elaine May, tells the story of Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), a wealthy man who finds himself broke through misfortune and bad money management. Striking a deal with his rich uncle Harry, he borrows $50,000 to help facilitate a temporary extension to his rich lifestyle, with the hope that in the time he has to pay Harry back he can find a rich single woman to marry and regain financial security. He happens upon Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), a shy and clumsy botanical professor who may well provide the solution to his problems.

The film is definitely a black comedy, even though its light on the latter. Much of the humour here is based on Matthau being in situations of discomfort or unfamiliarity. Initially suicidal after realising he has now money, then more so at having to say farewell to his favourite upper class haunts, his pain is worsened by having to act like he has feelings of affection and compassion for a woman he has little interest in. Driven solely by money, he is shocked at how poorly her finances are managed, sacking her entire house staff team in one memorable scene.

The film plays out like an extended and scripted episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s hard to think that Larry David hasn’t seen this and been influenced by it in some way, though admittedly the comedy in David’s work is much more realised.

However, as a one-trick pony the joke tends to wear thin as we progress towards the inevitable climax of the film. According to the extensive liner notes – a gift we come to expect with the Masters of Cinema releases – there was a much extended version of A New Leaf (running at a whopping 180 minutes) that never saw the light of day, and probably never will. Whilst it’s always a shame to think a director’s vision hasn’t been fully realised, and the normal response from film enthusiasts is that the director’s cut is the ultimate version of a film, it appears that what we do have access to is probably as good as it gets. Indeed, Matthau preferred the shortened version, which cuts out a murder subplot and provides a happy resolution at the end.

That’s not to say that May’s vision is unworthy of viewing. Certainly, as a writer-director-star she succeeded in creating a solid picture. Her character in the film is by far the most interesting. She is a scientific professor, despite seemingly not needing to work (having inherited her wealth). She is essentially a philanthropist if we look at the way she treats her overpaid and underworked house staff. She is a loving and dedicated wife to her new husband, despite getting nothing in return for her devotion. In many ways, despite her introverted geekiness and inherent clumsy nature, she is a strong female role model. Subtly, the plot of the film is a slight on men in general, which was unusual for the era.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a little known film for a reason. It’s not groundbreaking or unique enough to warrant any kind of extensive praise. It has its fans and at times we are watching vintage Matthau, but the pacing, lack of a cutting script and predictable plotline undermine what could have been a much better end product.

Film review – Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

‘Journey to the Shore’ won director Kiyoshi Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the Masters of Cinema label’s latest foray into the new release market; the label is more frequently associated with the restoration of forgotten classic cinematic releases but has enjoyed success with the likes of ‘Listen Up Philip‘ and ‘Life of Riley‘ in recent years.
The film tells the story of Mizuki, a young female piano teacher mourning the death of her husband Yusuke, who we learn has drowned at see three years prior to the start of the film. However, when his ghost appears mysteriously at home one day, she is less surprised at his presence and more annoyed as he has forgotten to take his shoes off.

The reunited couple set off on a journey together as he takes her to visit the people who have helped him journey home from his point of death, with Mizuki’s resulting spiritually cathartic journey being the focal point of the story.


It’s a story that is rooted in Japanese culture, with the human grieving process following the death of a loved one a typical starting point for its fair share of Japanese films in recent years. Where this sets itself apart is in the very blatant separation from reality afforded by the seamless interaction between the living and the dead. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about who can talk to whom, nor does there seem to be any surprise or shock experienced by the living seeing a close departed friend or family member. Indeed, Yusuke is portrayed as a living, breathing being with he ability to fully interact with his surroundings. It’s a unique spin on the matter (pun intended).

There are some really effective cinematographic techniques employed to reflect the mood of the scenes, most notably in the dimming of the lights when a darker story is being retold. The credit here lies with director Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. It was subtle enough to have an impact before I realised what had happened, as key characters revealed their darkest of memories, and it added considerably to the picture.


Whether it really works as a whole is something I’m still not totally sure about. Certainly it is delivered with conviction, though the overall effect is something entirely morose. There seemed to be a relentlessness to the depression involved that, whilst perhaps reflective of the mood of the characters involved, seemed to offer nothing in the way of a positive escape for anyone watching looking to be guided by the grieving process.

The film achieves its aims and carries everything off to perfection. It’s just not a very pleasant experience to sit through.