Thursday, June 30, 2011

Passing Fancy


1933, Japan, directed by Yasujiro Ozu

From the wonderful opening scene, tracing the journey of a wallet through a crowd of ethically challenged patrons, Ozu's 1933 comedy creates a vivid sense of urban life in the midst of the depression, with little details like the few coins in a wallet or the tattered paper of a screen door telling reminders of the realities of the period, as was also the case in his earlier Tokyo Chorus.

Such details don't for a moment obscure the essential lightness of the characterizations, however: the film features the first appearance of Kihachi, the loving if barely competent father who appears in a string of subsequent Ozu films, as well as another in the series of lively urchins played by Tomio Aoki. What's perhaps most remarkable, though, is the subtlety with which Ozu transitions from knockabout comedy - a rambunctious child hitting his hungover father on the shins to wake him up, for instance - to a revelatory passage wherein the bonds of family are movingly revealed, without any abruptness and while remaining true to the flawed, engaging characters.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

L'Homme du Niger


1940, France, directed by Jacques de Baroncelli

Where British colonial films generally kept their stars safely back in the studio, several similar French productions shipped the headliners overseas - as was the case for this muddled propaganda melodrama, which blends a tale of lost love and leprosy with attempts to extol the Niger irrigation scheme. That scheme was a long-gestating dream of some French colonials, who imagined they could create a cotton-growing scheme in the Sahel, partly to give French cotton manufacturers a stable supply line and partly, perhaps, to compete with pretty successful British efforts along the same lines in the Sudan.


The film's credits include thanks to the ministry for the colonies, although the real power in matters irrigation lay with the Office du Niger, a quasi-independent entity that was at the height of its powers around this time; the Popular Front government had attempted, with very limited success, to rein it in a few years earlier, and the final scenes are something of an orgy of celebration of the vast though ultimately unsuccessful irrigation effort.


The opening and closing sections were filmed in what's now Mali, including in a working leper colony in Bamako, with an extended sequence back in Paris sandwiched in the middle. Leprosy is a key plot element - indeed L'Homme du Niger is the second Harry Baur film within two years to feature leprosy, though Baur's character was not the victim in either case. There's a nice bit of business, involving a lighter, cigarettes and an observant physician, to reveal the leprosy problem, although it's telling, and entirely expected, that a single European character gets far more screen time than the entire hospital of African patients, most of whom are dismissed in the usual patronizing terms.

Although he was a prolific director, particularly in the silent era, very few of Jacques de Baroncelli's films are available today, and although he extracts several nice performances here, particularly from Harry Baur - who is especially good in the key diagnosis scenes - and Victor Francen, the love story elements fail to convince, which seriously hobbles a film that's already uncertain of whether to emphasize the politics or the drama.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Street of Shame


1956, Japan, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi's final film returns to the theme of socially marginalized women, in this case the workers in a brothel, with the narrative stitched to a backdrop of (real life) political debates on the outlawing of prostitution in Japan in the mid-1950s. Mizoguchi punctuates the film with radio accounts of the discussions in parliament, contrasting those more formal exchanges with the prostitutes' own conversations on their collective future, as well as with the (generally self-serving and yet not wholly inaccurate) views expressed by the brothel owner.


The film is essentially constructed in two halves, the first introducing the primary characters and their life stories, with the second commencing as each storyseems to come unravelled - with sometimes dramatic outcomes - before the cycle begins again in the raw final scenes, capped by the final shot in which a young prostitute tries to shrink behind a wall, a sharp contrast to the defiant directness of the central character at the end of Osaka Elegy.


I'm surprised that there is so little work that compares the films of Mizoguchi with those of Ousmane Sembène: leaving aside both filmmakers' interest in the social importance of women, they are both political filmmakers in a very direct sense, intervening in ongoing social debates and, arguably, acting as important influences in those debates. For Sembène, such engagement was more or less a career principle, whereas some of Mizoguchi's films are only indirectly concerned with contemporary social commentary, unlike this film, which doesn't feel at all dated despite the very topical concerns. The resonances between the cinema of Mizoguchi and Antonioni feel particularly strong here, with Mizoguchi's exteriors prefiguring shots from Antonioni almost a decade later.

Deserto rosso (1964, Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Street of Shame (1956, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Women of the Night


1948, Japan, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

As is the case with De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, made the same year half a world away, Women of the Night infuses neo-realist themes with the skill and settings of an experienced studio director: the flavour of post-war Japanese experience is sharp, but there's nothing rough-edged about the treatment, whether in the interior shots, often models of deep focus construction, or the elegant camera movements, such as in the gripping scene where one of the film's central characters descends a staircase while concealing contraband from a nearby policeman. Mizoguchi's use of music also functions as a discreet but unmistakable emphasis to the onscreen action at critical moments.

The long final sequence, on a soundstage carefully constructed as though it depicts a bombed-out neighborhood, is a corrosive explosion of grief, anger and sadness, giving full voice to the emotions of the exploited, often desperate women of the title, all of them used or abused by men who are almost uniformly weaker yet socially more powerful. There's an unexpected moment when we see Christian imagery in a stained glass window that has somehow survived the destruction - a moment that perhaps recalls Mizoguchi's own identification with the downtrodden, but which also suggests the deep gulf between spiritual succour and harsh material realities in the Japan of the late 1940s.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Osaka Elegy


1936, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

As in so many of Mizoguchi's subsequent films, particularly those with a modern setting, women are seen here as both the strength of Japanese society - taking on burdens men are either unwilling or unable to assume - while also remaining the most vulnerable class in that same society. Their pragmatic decisions, often taken to preserve family life at all cost, are nonetheless the source of their exploitation and social shame, a contradiction that's at the heart of Mizoguchi's critique. The false happiness of the domestic scene near the end is devastating, though there's barely time to absorb Mizoguchi's undermining of the family idyll before he cuts to the blunt final shots, that hang like an accusation before the viewer.

The picture above is a frame grab created by Jim Emerson as part of a fascinating post on staging and deep focus at his blog Scanners; he makes insightful comments on Mizoguchi's shot choices in one striking scene from early in the film, which establishes several of the key relationships in the film. That sequence is among the most interesting in Osaka Elegy, which feels at times like a dry run for his subsequent, and more confident, Sisters of the Gion, shot later the same year.

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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States