Cinema of Japan


Ugetsu

Cahiers du cinéma no. 95; May 1959.

Ugetsu

In 1959-1960, I wrote several long articles (including this one) at Cahiers du cinéma which won me a certain prestige. Why this sudden effervescence? Because the big names of Cahiers had just moved onto filmmaking. And I was occupying empty chairs.

The most faithful review would perhaps consist of multiplying exclamations, superlatives and metaphors, of speaking of the clarity of crystals and the purity of water. But, at the risk of introducing a tonal rupture between the work and its criticism, we must go further. The very intention of criticism – which, unless it needs to fit in half a page, must put up with the treacheries of analytical convention – is not to go after the work’s essence. While there is such a thing as cinematic evidence, it’s impossible to speak of evidence when it comes to criticism. Gratuitousness and complete relativity alone can be the judges of our seriousness and competence. Yes, there’s no other approach to genius than to miss the forest for the trees.

In addition to platitudes and poetic references, I confess being the victim of another temptation: to take Ugetsu for a Japanese film by Mizoguchi when, in fact, it’s a film by Mizoguchi, comma, Japanese. It’s the nature of masterpieces to surpass the boundaries of collective civilizations – if I can be excused for this barbaric and paradoxical association of words that considers as fact that which can only be virtual – from which they nevertheless emanate. One must be aware of the origins, but also accept finally that they explain nothing. One mustn’t say that only the Japanese could have reached this high – a good joke: with Ugetsu, they have for once equalled the greatest works of the West. Confident about our quantitative superiority when it comes to quality, we tend to push our goodwill too far – perhaps due to snobbism, but especially because it costs us so little, applies as it does to exceptional and unquestionable works. And, through different means, we arrive at almost comparable results. I don’t think I’m getting too far from the subject at hand when I cite the Ray of On Dangerous Ground, the Murnau of Tabu for the shot and scene structure, the Preminger of Bonjour Tristesse for the direction of actors rather than Hiroshige and Hokusai, Kinoshita and Kurosawa, Noh and Kabuki, who are evoked without discrimination – rightly or wrongly, knowingly or not – when it comes to anything Japanese. At the most, we could say – something I wouldn’t take the responsibility for – that it’s a Noh view of Kabuki in the first part, and a Kabuki view of Noh in the second.

What we westerners don’t understand – native symbolism, that is – has no importance whatsoever. What a phrase book can decipher is of no artistic interest and that’s why it’s excellent to see a Mizoguchi without subtitles from time to time – it’s as fascinating as the most fascinating show in the world, that of rushes.

The most important thing is not to understand, but to understand that there’s something to understand and that we don’t understand: the means is the end here, since the ending will always turn out to be banal; it wouldn’t get you too far to understand that beans symbolize death, or anything of that kind. In fact, what’s more serious is that certain subtle connections, deriving from the mutual confrontation of symbols or the confrontation of symbols with what we understand, elude us. I propose a question: can the Japanese understand better than us the amazing scene of Miyagi’s death, which we believe to be based, just like our modern cinema, on action and not on ideas? Is it a westerner who could boast of having better understood the meaning of Man of the West, Ordet, Elena than that of Ugetsu?

Ugetsu greater than Mizoguchi

Come to think of it, is Ugetsu really this clear crystal, this pure gem that I just evoked, dazed by my first contact with the film? It’s possible to think so of The Crucified Lovers, Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, monotonous and more literally-Japanese monogataris. Ugetsu is not a film of pure sensitivity like them, made without apparent effort within an artisanal framework. It’s a work of labour and research. My thesis would be that Ugetsu is greater than Mizoguchi. It’s the most complex film in the world and the simplest at the same time, since Mizoguchi considers the complexity of what he shows with a constantly even distance and objectivity. It’s at once the most accomplished art and a withdrawal from this art. The perfection of imperfection and the imperfection of perfection. The perfect balance, in short. The sublimity of Ugetsu stems from the fact that it contests other films on equal terms and that it reigns over them immediately nonetheless. The frames brim with effects, but it’s up to the viewer to go look for them, and not up to the director to bring them to us on a platter through some expressionist solicitation.

Ugetsu, I repeat, is a film entirely on the margin of the eight-five other films that make up Mizoguchi’s filmography, which goes around in circles to end somewhere near Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. And this is perhaps thanks to the transcendence of chance and constraint. Like all works of old age worthy of that name, Ugetsu is a synthetic work. We know that, with age on his side, the creator ponders the vanity of an endless accumulation of invention, and sets out to seek his calling elsewhere. But beware, it isn’t in the Kamchatka or the halos that he’ll discover this elsewhere: the film would then run the risk of being the product of a pure idea, with no other connection to the physical world than through the channel of a retrospective. I prefer Ugetsu to the second part of Ivan the Terrible, more complete than the first, because the force of a juvenile cinema goes hand in hand there with the nobility of an adult cinema.

If it’s difficult to speak about Ugetsu, it’s because it’s a film, not a book, and a film that could never have been a book. The meaning of Ugetsu is resolutely cinematic, hence monist, as opposed to the fallacious atomism of literary creation. What is the film actually about? The unity of all things, their continuity, their confusion. The point of view of Ugetsu is located on the level of imagination, in the literal sense of the word, and that’s why idea and perception in it are closely related. The present and the past, life and death, real beings and ghosts, failure and success, what difference does it make at the end of the day? None, although we know that only the present has a physical reality, that ghosts don’t exist. The fact remains that we imagine them and that it’s true that we imagine all that we imagine; that only what we imagine is true and sovereign, by the very fact we imagine them: unless, with scientific progress, we discover another form of knowledge overnight. And we don’t have the right to cherry-pick aspects of this fact, since rejecting even one part of it is to admit that we can deny the physical world, that we can reject everything, since there is no priority, whether its source is direct or indirect, in everything that can make up an image1. And it’s this monism in which intelligence can see only contradictions that constitutes the entire being of the film, since we are less able in this film than any other to distinguish form or content.

Akinari is betrayed

Well, let’s talk about it, the content. The film is based on two stories from the collection Ugetsu Monogatari (1776) by Akinari Ueda (1734-1809), the Japanese Mérimée. In fact, compared to Thomas Kurihara’s old, expressionizing film, whose remake it is, Ugetsu doesn’t owe much to Ueda. See for yourself:

In “The House in the Thicket”, a peasant leaves his wife home alone to go sell cloth in the city. War follows; on his way back, he gets robbed, falls sick, wanders away, returns home after seven years and finds his wife there; but he realizes the next day that it was the ghost of his dead wife that received him the previous evening in order to encourage him to persist with his task.

In “The Lust of the White Serpent”, a young intellectual is tempted by a serpent that has assumed a female form. He brings back a precious sword from the enchantress’s solitary house and is interrogated by his family about the matter: he is arrested for theft of the Treasure of God since, obviously, no one knows the enchantress or her house. He is sent to prison only for a few months, having proved that he was victim of a demonic possession. But the Thing redoubles its rage, takes the form of our hero’s wife, kills her, before returning to its ophidian form and being put in a cage.

Mizoguchi has dropped all this melodrama and added a lot of material of his own: faced with the threat of the Shibata army plundering villages and recruiting farmers, Genjuro, a peasant attracted by the profits of pottery, and his brother-in-law Tobei, who dreams of becoming a samurai, leave town with their respective wives, Miyagi and Ohama, to sell pots, vases and tablecloth at the city market. En route, Miyagi and her son turn back to avoid rapist pirates; but she is killed on the way. Finishing his sales, Tobei becomes a samurai and finds Ohama, whom he had abandoned, in a brothel; they start all over again. For his part, Genjuro, suddenly rich, becomes the lover of princess Wakasa, who is simply the ghost of a young girl who couldn’t find love during her life. A bonze reveals the mortal danger he runs and immunizes him against the spirit, with whom he brutally breaks up. Completely impoverished, he comes back home to find Miyagi. But, the following day, he wakes up to the unpleasant surprise that it was Miyagi’s ghost that had received him the day before in order to encourage him to accept his fate, to continue with his task and to raise his son with the help of his sister and his brother-in-law. There are hence important differences between the film and Akinari’s text. Genjuro’s son, his profession as a potter, Wakasa’s human (and no more animal) nature, the secondary couple Tobei-Ohama: these are what Mizoguchi added after having expunged quite a lot.

Wakasa and Miyagi hold hands

Ugetsu shouldn’t be seen, based on its conclusion, as an apology for resignation and for specifically bourgeois values. Mizoguchi never proposes anything: his art is to show us the beauty of a world of extreme simplicity, but this beauty must be renounced in order for it to be grasped; without which we wouldn’t even see it. Just as how God would only be a myth if evil didn’t exist, everyday life would lose all meaning without Wakasa. Man must abandon the humdrum of existence – and this is Mizoguchi’s original sin – which he often does at the price of his life, in order to experience the beauties and dangers of the glory that seduces him, and only then will he be able to truly appreciate the simple life given to him. This is how the curve becomes a straight line. Beauty always has a moral significance, either in its consequences or in itself. Ugetsu is, if I’m allowed this gibe, a successful Run of the Arrow, it’s the onward and the return trip, the addition plus the subtraction. This turn of phrase determines the construction of the film, which narrates the story of two couples; one survives, not without the cruellest wounds; the other perishes (in fact, in the original script, Tobei and Ohama were to kill themselves); the superimposed happy ending upsets the balance of the film, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; we know since long that Mizoguchi’s universe is one of indifference, and the cruel fate of Tobei and his wife establishes a link with his other films.

Every scene in the film is matched with another one, similar in subject but different in manner: two lance murders; two ghost appearances; two trips to the city; Genjuro turns his mould two times etc. Every movement is responded to by another one in the opposite direction, as in the introduction and the epilogue, the arrival at the market. Every gesture, every movement that the creator puts in place is the formulation of a prejudice, an exercised prerogative about the existence of the universe. The first reflex is to cross arms and do nothing. On the contrary, Mizoguchi goes one step ahead of error and erases it on his way back. By this onward and return movement, he substitutes for a void something that we can consider at least as the presence of a void.

The movement of the artist

Like all synthetic works, Ugetsu is a work marked by domination, the filmmaker’s domination of his material and of himself (hence the abundance of long shots in the depiction of psychology). That is, by self-justification. The works of great men generally champion a way of life which is that of common mortals, while their own is exceptional. Well, Ugetsu establishes a link between the artist and his work. It insists on the humility and the necessity of creation. Genjuro is an artist: his profession as a potter is perhaps the one that resembles that of a filmmaker the most. I don’t think this is an interpretive hallucination: the aesthetic conversation between Genjuro and Wakasa on the secret of beauty have everything a message needs; no doubt that they must be applied to the work of our auteur. Creation, the artist’s as of the peasant, is portrayed as a temptation, but also as the only redeeming temptation in this world where everything is but temptation, since it’s the only noble one. At the outset, every artist is a rebel, a dissenter; but the very fact that he is an artist leads him to discover beauty and his thirst for wealth and fame, which can only be satisfied through a spiritual progress sanctioned by success, turns slowly into a search for beauty and morality. In his essence, the artist is an impure being who, beyond theory and principle, temptations fulfilled and rendered vain, if only thanks to intelligence which is his domain, becomes the purest of all. While everyone, in The Crucified Lovers as much as in Portrait of Madame Yuki, was a prey to the irremediable, in Ugetsu, which is Mizoguchi’s Under Capricorn in a way, an exception among eighty-six films cut from the same cloth, Prospero, pardon me, Genjuro triumphs over the irremediable by accepting it. And, through his evolution, we perceive Mizoguchi’s evolution. We often forget that filmmakers are filmmakers and that the most important problem for them is not racial or social, for the good reason that they have no reason to fear racism at the moment and that almost everyone is guaranteed to anyway find a job that allows them to not die of starvation. The most important problem is that of their existence and their role in society: are they pariahs or beings like others? Is there a chasm between the characters they depict, most often men in the crowd, and themselves? No, the answer is simple, it’s enough to be a maker of objects. But very few films give us this answer, and it’s even rarer that the artist’s life is closely associated with the details that have made this answer possible. After several apprenticeships with the sublime through the conventional, here’s a lightning strike.

What follows is a return to the norm: after such a peak, Mizoguchi will continue to make films like he did before, in a style that isn’t “new style”. And what he sings of here is this perpetual movement of the artist that justifies his vain and relentless labour. Ugetsu is Ugetsu and the critique of Ugetsu. Genius and humility are united once and for all in a perpetual oscillation.

At full speed

Of all Japanese films, of simply all films, Ugetsu is unquestionably the quickest, the most brutally quickest. Just ninety-three minutes for a script so rich that anyone else, Japanese or not, would’ve extended over three hours. In each scene, which is often a single shot, the action is presented at top speed, with strictly minimum editing. The Americans – and God knows how much they’ve tried – could never attain such concision. And Mizoguchi, before as much as after Ugetsu, drew much of his power from an extremely slow tempo. Why this change? Because Masaichi Nagata, in response to the increasing commercial success of his films in Europe and to the reservations that got the too-slow Oharu only a simple Silver Lion at Venice as opposed to a Golden Lion for Kurosawa, decided so. If Ugetsu is a masterpiece, it’s largely due to western influences and not the noblest ones at that. For my part, I don’t see anything wrong with that; and I will not follow these purists who are satisfied only when they can’t understand anything by dint of total esoterism. If we Europeans seek to renew ourselves through contact with the Orient, why shouldn’t the Japanese draw from curious Latin and Anglo-Saxon exoticisms? It’s surely not the first time that a masterpiece has sprung from the meeting of two most dissimilar civilizations. The seeds of this constrained evolution – but voluntary this time around – were already present in the previous Mizoguchis, animated by the same rhythm, no matter that it was slow or fast, which didn’t allow for the superfluity of well-mannered transitions and edits.

It would be ridiculous to think of this constraint as a disadvantage, especially as Mizoguchi, who isn’t mad and, as an aside, whose name we pronounce “Mizogutchi”, has completely annihilated the principle by pushing it to its extreme and extending it to all aspects of the mise en scène. But he couldn’t have thought of it all by himself.

Is it a question of telling us that we are at the countryside? And wham! A shot of the fields, interrupted right away by another insert of a lake, and lake in Japanese means Lake Biwa. A single shot, slightly mobile, shows us the hero and all the potentials of the drama. Thirty seconds after the credits, we know everything, thanks to an expertly concise and elliptical dialogue, which makes characters address each other as “my wife”, “my brother” etc. and describe the character traits of each one in an adjective. And Mizoguchi never stops rushing towards his final goal. A speed that would upset the Japanese as much as the European. All great films purport to show us God’s point of view; we already know that, I invent nothing, but what I didn’t know until now, and which Ugetsu just taught me, is that they are made for an ideal viewer who is more than “in the image” of God, who is God. It feels ten times faster for us, and we need ten viewings to be on equal footing with the film since, alas, the rushes must’ve already been pulped. The effects are conceived to enrapture the artist, or someone in his place, and not the viewer.

 

1I made fun of myself in Up and Down, where I utter this line while getting on the bicycle: a slope of 6 degrees.

[Translator’s Note] Moullet has fun typing out the full title of the film in French, Les Contes de la lune vague après la pluie (“Tales of the hazy moon after rain”), every time he refers to it – a running joke lost in translation. Clearly, he was paid by the word.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Shoplifters

[Spoilers ahead]

Imagine this scenario: a news item appears on TV about a group of squatters who have been caught sheltering a pair of long-lost children. The group has also been earlier implicated in other crimes petty and grave such as shoplifting, car-breaking, extortion and murder. The viewer is disgusted at the insidious outfit for having kidnapped and groomed kids to sustain their racket. He turns off the TV, more hardened, more cynical about the state of the society. This view of things is what Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters attempts to turn upside down, considers as it does these events from the inside. It takes as its mission to exemplify one of art’s important social functions: to cultivate understanding of and empathy towards lives other than one’s own.

Middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live illegally with old lady Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) in the latter’s tiny independent house nestled amidst apartment complexes in a residential Tokyo district. They also have with them young Shota (Kairi Jō), a preteen who accompanies Osamu on his shoplifting excursions, and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Hatsue’s step-granddaughter moonlighting as a sex worker. On their way back from a raid one day, Osamu and Shota find toddler Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone at a house. They bring her home to feed her and discover that she is being abused by her parents. They decide to retain her at their home, showing great concern and affection towards her. Yuri warms up to the bunch as well and tags along with Shota on his outings. Like the group of children in Nobody Knows, the characters in Shoplifters are tied together in tenuous bonds and the exact relationships between these individuals is never defined until late into the film. The group, however, behaves as though they were family, assuming traditional roles of children, parents and grandparents and exhibiting genuine warmth towards one another.

As in Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters mulls over the question of what makes a family and, while love is certainly a big part of it, writer-director Kore-eda’s answer is more materialist than you’d expect: a family is one that behaves like one. Much of the interpersonal relations in Shoplifters is embodied in particular gestures of the actors: Hatsue blowing a piece of hot gluten cake before feeding it to Yuri, Nobuyo claiming Aki’s attention by tapping her arm with a pair of chopsticks, a seated Osamu accommodating Shota between his legs, Nobuyo breaking a cob of boiled corn to feed a distracted Osamu, Aki overlapping her own hair over Yuki’s newly-cut hair to match their colours, Nobuyo scrubbing soap off Osamu’s back in the shower immediately after a death in the family. Several shots show the group lined up on one side looking at things off-screen: television, fireworks, waves at the beach. As is common in the director’s work, food, rather the act of consuming food, plays a crucial communal function: eating is what the “family” does when they are together. There’s also a touch of Kafka’s Metamorphosis here, with the family’s unity being contingent on the material value each individual brings to it.

Kore-eda pays equal attention to the group’s material living conditions. Contrary to popular depictions of poor households in cinema, the residence in Shoplifters is crammed with objects. Hatsue and company are clearly hoarders; their precarity doesn’t afford them to be otherwise. This space crunch makes for a spate of double-framed shots. Except for little Yuri, no one seems to fully fit the frame, their heads or limbs constantly cut off by the borders. Kore-eda makes interesting use of glass in moments conveying the emotional distance between characters. To emphasize how their relationship is regulated by material reality, he and cinematographer Kondo Ryuto constantly picture them with some object or the other intruding the image. When Aki questions Osamu about the lack of physical intimacy between him and Nobuyo in the house, they are each filmed with a piece of furniture in the foreground: Osamu need not spell out the impossibility of privacy in this house. The composition answers for him.

The actors, too, are mostly filmed in pairs or smaller groups. They make their way around the limited space of the house like pieces in a sliding puzzle, taking the place of others as they vacate their spots. Shota carves out a space of his own, living in a wardrobe like corner of the house with a partition. Divisions between living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom are all fuzzy. The only time the characters move freely is when they are at the riverfront, an empty parking lot or at the beach, their working environments and the shops they visit being similarly overridden with objects. In contrast, when the actors are filmed in separate shots with space around them, it is mostly during moments of crisis: when Nobuyo has to negotiate with a colleague over who gets to keep their job or when the group is interrogated by the police after they are discovered. The frontal way the actors are filmed in these scenes with free space around them amplifies our impression of their vulnerability.

How do these characters endear themselves to us despite being in moral twilight zone? Much of it owes to Kore-eda’s bag of writer’s tricks. For one, Hatsue, Osamu and Nobuyo save Yuri early on in the film, much before we get to know anything about them. The toddler’s helplessness without them makes the liberal viewer want the family to hold together. The group’s manifest love for Yuri therefore trumps every revelation and turn of events to follow. By withholding compromising information until they are of no import, the plot makes sure the viewer is invested in the family. Moreover, the flaws that Kore-eda ascribes the characters – shoplifting, stealing, blackmailing – are all socially-defined misdemeanours without universal validity, with ample extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, in their interaction with and behaviour towards others, the characters remain faultless.

That’s why the film starts falling apart when the group is caught. As each person is cross-examined by the police, signalling the dissolution of the group, the film’s muted sentimentalism comes to the fore. Kore-eda has always been a melodramatist, but there’s a certain degree of disingenuousness in the way Shoplifters uses social ills as buttons to turn the viewer on and off: mistreated child, abused wife, self-harming youth, negligent parents. The moments where film reaches outside of its stated premises (namely the scenes not involving the family), wanting to be portrait of an entire country in the grips of social alienation and economic hardship, don’t sit well considering the understated manner in which the rest of the film explores amorphous communal formations.

A glance at the lineups of the major film festivals reveals how strong a year 2013 was for cinema, though the most important films, as is usually the case, wouldn’t see the light of day until about a year or two later. Personally, even more than it did in 2012, cinema took a back seat for various reasons and I could see only a fraction of what I wanted to this year. (Favorite discoveries this year include Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, Ernst Lubitsch and Samuel Fuller.) This post lists my favorite films that premiered in 2013. Other films I really liked were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope. Hope that 2014 will be a much better year on all fronts.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

 

The Wolf Of Wall StreetReligion is the opium of the people” wrote Karl Marx. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street evangelist and stock market prophet, Jordan Belfort, might just agree, even though the kingdom of heaven he promises is very much of this world. Martin Scorsese’s loud, unhinged and debauched portrait of the rise, fall and resurrection of the loud, unhinged and debauched Belfort is the anti-Christ story of our age: a man who lets others suffer for his sake and for whom every object, experience and sensation in the world is worth commodifying. Scorsese’s presents late capitalism in all its rapaciousness and vulgarity, as a force which appropriates pretty much everything in its way, including criticism, to gain momentum, as a psychosexual space in which the id is given free rein and libido finds an outlet in the act of moneymaking and as a state of perpetual sensory stimulation where wealth accumulation for the sake of it becomes as addictive as sex and drugs. Rife with film references and genre games, The Wolf of Wall Street is as much a duet between Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and the topicality of Terence Winter’s adaptation as it is a soaring, endlessly fascinating example of commercial filmmaking that witnesses a veteran craftsman at the top of his game.

2. Stranger By The Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

 

Stranger By The LakeIrrationality is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s simmering Stranger by the Lake, in which the object of fear is also the object of desire and where death and sex– la mort et la petite mort – are inseparably intertwined. Like Tsai Ming Liang’s quasi-phantom protagonists and their deserted habitats, the ghost-like characters in Guiraudie’s film haunt the lake by the day and vanish by night. And like Tsai’s cinema, Stranger employs a repetition of similar shots, spaces, movements and perspectives that both imparts it a structural simplicity and makes the gradual deviations from them even more pronounced. Marked by three distinct spaces – the woods, the beach and the parking lot – that trace the Freudian topology of the human psyche, the film presents a homo-normative world in which heterosexual presence is literally pushed to the margins, resulting in a level playing field divested of the problems of male gaze. More importantly, Stranger is perhaps the most visually accomplished film of the year and its handling of the interaction between Caucasian bodies and sunlight, foliage, twilight sky and water surface recalls the finest Impressionist works, especially those of Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir.

3. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, USA)

 

StokerAn extremely inspired piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant Stoker contains some of the most exciting cinematography, editing, sound and production design seen this year. Like Polanski’s movies, Park’s film is about the gradual induction and eventual decimation of Good by Evil. As in Stranger by the Lake, what is most seductive is also the most frightful. Fear and desire are enlaced together and embodied by the figure of Uncle Charlie, who is both an instrument of death and object of sexual desire. Stoker is evidently the result of synergy between a strongly authorial filmmaker who thinks primarily in terms of images and a rich, meaty script that draws as much from horror cinema and literature as it does from Hitchcock’s body of work. Park’s erotic, alluring economy of expression distinguishes itself from the self-congratulatory shorthand of ad filmmaking in the way it establishes subtler association between images and sounds in the film. Strikingly directed with strongly vertical compositional elements and an eerily accentuated sound palette, Stoker is a glorious return to form for Park, who is among the most remarkable visual stylists working today.

4. Shield Of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

 

Shield Of StrawTakashi Miike’s juggernaut of a film, the proto-dystopian Shield of Straw, works off a premise familiar to Western movie audience: a group of cops have to transfer a pedophilic killer from the city of Fukuoka to the police headquarters in Tokyo. But there’s a problem. A multi-billionaire has announced a bounty on the guy so massive that it overshadows any fear of imprisonment. What’s more, the killer is such a despicable figure that any residual moral compunction about knocking him off is eliminated. The cops, as a result, have to protect him from not only the entire Japanese population but also themselves. A distant cousin to Scorsese’s film, Shield of Straw imagines a society where both moral and legal obstacles – the superegoist constructs of sin and crime – to Darwinian social-climbing are eliminated or, worse, justified. More impressive than the demonstration of how such an economic system becomes a perfect incubating ground for greed is its central existential dilemma, in which the obligation is on the individual not only to do the right thing, but to understand what the right thing is.

5. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia)

 

The Missing PictureHow do you represent history on film that was never documented visually? This is the question that to which Rithy Panh’s highly original, challenging and affecting work responds. Seeking primarily to be a document of life in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps, the film uses neither fictional recreation, which might end up graphic and exploitative, nor animation, which lacks the material presence that photographs offer, but hundreds of meticulously hand-made clay dolls that stand in for people who are to be represented, the concept being that clay would symbolically contain the remains of the camp victims. The resulting film places the audience at a distance from the horrors being described while always retaining a space for empathy. A densely detailed voiceover , on the other hand, recounts Panh’s personal experience at the camps, his lament about images that should or should not have been made, the way cinema had become a tool for totalitarian oppression and reflections on the wacky “Marx meets Rousseau” ideology of the Khmer Rouge that justified the camps. The outcome is a thoroughly thought-provoking essay film that has both the simplicity of a historical document and the ambitiousness of a deconstruction project.

6. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß, Georgia)

 

In BloomOne of the regrettable things about Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ absolutely heartbreaking debut In Bloom is that it is being promoted and received merely as a coming-of-age film set against Soviet collapse. Though the film is certainly that, it is grossly unfair to pigeonhole a wrenching portrayal of female camaraderie on par with anything that Pedro Almodóvar has made into a convenient marketing category. Two 14-year old ‘women’ Eka and Natia, superbly played by debutants Lika Babulani and Mariam Bokeria, in the process of transitioning to adulthood, negotiate the social and cultural problems that plague a country in transition and quietly break patriarchal norms. Dysfunctional families, street violence and the war with Abkhazia are all definitely forces that shape the young women’s lives, but they reside on the periphery of the narrative, which, like the finest Italian Neorealist films, does not underestimate the power of individual agency while acknowledging social constructivism. There is as much truth in Natia acceding to be married to a guy she does not like as there is in Eka tossing the Chekhovian pistol into a lake.

7. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France)

 

Mood IndigoTrust a wild music video director like Michel Gondry to come up with the zaniest, trippiest, most imaginative film of the year. Adapted from Boris Vian’s (apparently unfilmable) book L’écume des jours, Mood Indigo is escapist cinema in the truest sense of the term and presents a universe free from the laws of physics and logic. So you have the Pianocktail which concocts a drink based on the notes you play, a rubbery dance form where legs wobble and sway with the woozy jazz soundtrack, split-screen weather conditions, a doorbell that needs to be squashed every time it is set off, a star philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre discoursing from inside a gigantic pipe and a floor full of stenographers writing in chorus the film they are in. Mood Indigo’s gently satirical tale of downward mobility embodies the spirit of the best musicals, producing a strange, unwieldy yet alluring film that combines levity of form with the somberness of its story. Rivaling Terry Gilliam at his surreal best, Gondry’s ceaselessly inventive film is something of a descendant to Georges Méliès’ and Émile Cohl’s cinema of dreams.

8. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell, Estonia)

 

A Spell To Ward Off The DarknessBen Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s hypnotic tripartite work presents a single nameless character, played by musician Robert A A Lowe, living in three different social setups: as a part of a commune in Estonia, as a loner in the Finnish woods and as a member of a Norwegian Black Metal group. Specifically, the film shows the character in three states of being, in which the identity of the individual is subordinated to larger ones – the New Ageist assimilation of individual into the community, the Tarkovskian oneness with nature and the Black Metallic transcendence into the realm of the occult. These, on a more general level, are also the three avenues through which men create meaning in their lives – purposeful communal living, Thoreau-esque simple life in harmony with nature and creation of art. Although Spell’s significance arises from the interaction between its three parts, the individual segments themselves contain enthralling passages, especially the trancelike last section, made almost entirely out of the close-ups of performers’ faces and the discordant soundscape, transports the viewer to an experiential plane far removed from his mundane corporeality. It reinforces what André Bazin said of cinema: the Real can be arrived at only through artifice.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

 

Like Father, Like SonA decidedly worn-out premise is at the origin of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son: two babies are swapped at the hospital at the time of birth and end up in different social strata. What could have been an exercise in broad comedy or, even worse, class stereotyping – though the film is a comedy and does double as a fine comedy of class-bound manners – is instead transformed into a piercing examination of parenthood, in which bringing up a child becomes a process of coming to terms with one’s own flaws and insecurities. Through turn of events the film undermines the perspective that men look at their offspring as a continuation of bloodline and women view them as the recipients of their care and affection, While, on the surface, the film seems to be merely a cautionary tale about the perils of spending too little time with your kid, on careful unraveling, it reveals itself as a much more delicate look at the tradeoffs one has to make in bringing up a child, at the question of where to interfere and where to let go.

10. Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, USA)

 

Drinking BuddiesWith Drinking Buddies, the insanely prolific Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed a modest three films in 2013 and acted in five, has made a work that might well situate him in the line of filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo in both its structural simplicity – marked by numerous small symmetries – and its fine observations on human relationships. The terrific ensemble is as much an author as Swanberg is and the actors evidently draw from personal experience. A naturalistic depiction of the lives of two friends at a brewery, the film treads the ever fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance. Like in the equally excellent Mexican comedy Club Sandwich (2013), Swanberg and his actors host a playful game of smudging the boundaries of sexual propriety by employing ambiguous actor positions, dialogue and physical interaction that fudges the accepted movie conventions about on-screen friendship and romance. If not anything else, Drinking Buddies is an embodiment of the shortcomings and apprehensions of the ‘millennial’ generation, for which the line between friendship and romance has become porous and tricky to negotiate.

 

Special mention: Young And Beautiful (François Ozon, France)

Experimenta 2013

By the time I got to know the details, I’d already missed half of this year’s Experimenta, India’s most prominent experimental film festival founded by Shai Heredia in 2003. This year’s edition was impressive not only in its expansiveness, being categorized into competition section, country focus, artist talks, live performances and artist profiles, but also given that it was entirely crowd-funded, which surely calls for some cheers. I congratulate Experimenta and wish them bigger successes in the years to come. Here are some notes on exactly one half of this year’s fest.

 

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION

(Curated by Anuja Ghosalkar)

 

MOUNT SONG (Shambhavi Kaul, India, 2013, Video, 9min)

Burning StarShambhavi Kaul’s elusive, melancholy and richly atmospheric film starts with images of storm inside an artificial jungle. We don’t see the storm, just the idea of a storm, which is befitting for a film that traces the elements that constitute a sensorial experience, as when watching a film. Gliding through what looks like haunted, dilapidated sets for a Chinese martial arts movie, Kaul’s film preoccupies itself with pure form, such as the amorphous outline a wisp of synthetic smoke, visceral, staccato edits between shots and the mysterious interplay of light, dust, colour and camera movement, under the veneer of an abstract genre piece located somewhere between Masaki Kobayashi and Tsui Hark.

BURNING STAR (Joshua Gen Solondz, USA, 2012, Video, 4min)

Burning StarModest in scope yet hypnotic in effect, Solondz’s 4-minute animation in colour is admittedly a dedication to the artist’s father who apparently wanted him to “make a more colorful work”. Colourful, it certainly is. We see a twelve-sided star, alternatively imploding and exploding in dazzling primary colours, with spiky patterns that complement its periphery moving towards and away from the star’s pulsating core, which serves both as the visual and true center of the symmetric image. The soundtrack dominated of what sounds like radio interference, reminiscent of Peter Tscherkassky’s work, attains a musical regularity that makes the film easy to groove to.

PLAY LIFE SERIES (Ella Raidel, Germany, 2012, Video, 11min)

Play Life SeriesRaidel’s four-part study of performativity in the visual media begins with a rigged-up sword fight between two actors suspended on ropes in the woods – a scene that is soon revealed to be a part of a film shoot, prompting us to reflect not only on the artificiality of the fight, but also the film crew itself. This Brechtian gesture of exposing the inescapable element of performativity that marks all filmmaking becomes the organizing principle for the rest of the film, which emphasize the artificiality of earnest forms – melodrama, music videos and even everyday confrontations – by creating an ironical distance between them and the audience through the presence of a film crew – hardly experimental.

PARTY ISLAND (Neil Beloufa, France, 2012, Video, 9min)

Party IslandPerformativity and ritualized interaction are also at the heart of Beloufa’s raunchy video work that is set in an artificial, back-projected beach, where a bunch of actors stiltedly playing vacationers go through the codified rituals of vacationing, socializing and seducing. More interesting than its ham-fisted, part-Surrealist illustration of the sexualization of images and the subliminal representation of sex through phallic imagery are its formal pleasures – its tableau-like arrangement of actors in a claustrophobic setting, the equally suffocating chopped, restrictive images, the double framing of actors through geometric shapes, the intuitive, tactile editing pattern and the intriguing interaction among multiple visual planes.

BLACK POT AND MOVEMENT (Chaoba Thiyam, India, 2013, Video, 13min)

Black Pot And MovementA simple, direct and even schematic equivalence characterizes Thiyam’s modestly but precisely named film – that between the fabrication of the eponymous black pot and the formulation of a new movement by a pair of dancers. However, like its title, Thiyam’s sepia-tinted film is entirely materialist in approaching this comparison, striking an equation between the pliant material using which the pot is made and the equally malleable bodies of the performers. The juxtaposition between the rhythm of repetitive labour and dance movements also attempts to collapse the gap between the artist and worker figures – a chasm that artists have always struggled with.

ASHURA (Köken Ergun, Turkey, 2012, Video, 22min)

AshuraOne of the more assured and less academic entries in the programme, Ergun’s compilation of vignettes from Ashura Day – the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in the Battle of Karbala by minority Shia population in the outskirts of Istanbul – is a sketch of collective mourning, a reflection on the cultural regulation of expression of grief. Through an unforced collocation of theatrical religion and religious theater, the film demonstrates how heightened, artificial, popular forms become the most cathartic form of communal grieving and, in a general sense, how art’s purpose of embodying and representing collective apprehensions still remains central.

BLOOD EARTH (Kush Badhwar, India, 2013, Video, 40min)

Blood EarthSquarely located in the now-too-recognizable genre in Indian documentary of partisan filmmaking against the repercussions of globalization, Badhwar’s film is an account of the reactions of the residents of Kucheipadar village in Odisha to the acquisition of their bauxite-rich land by mining corporates. Shinsuke Ogawa it isn’t, but Blood Earth’s documenting of the often-glossed-over fault lines in a popular movement gives it a transparency frequently absent in its contemporaries. Its best moments, however, are completely apolitical: a protracted, fixed-camera shot of a room full of noisy, convening villagers that results in strange visual patterns over time and a Daïchi Saïto-esque tracking shot of roadside plants that delightfully takes the film for two minutes into a non-representational realm. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

A+ (Nobu Adilman, Canada, 2012, Video, 6min)

A+Commissioned by the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Adilman’s charming, humourous and even suspenseful short video, scored to a guitar solo, presents us glimpses from the meticulously maintained, hand-written film-viewing diary of super-cinephile Moen Mohammed spanning the year 2011 (inferred from an entry on Trash Humpers), consisting of movie names, year of release, director name and grades. The result is not only a straightforward documentation of the tastes of one Antonioni-loving, Godard-disliking film buff, but also an indirect snapshot of the boons of new millennial cinephilia which facilitates the viewing of such a vast, variegated repertoire of films within a short period of time.

TRAVELS ABROAD (Karl Mendonca, USA, 2013, Video, 7min)

Karl MendoncaMendonca’s petit film diary was shot in 8mm apparently over six years (go figure!) and charts the filmmaker’s return home from New York to India. We see the filmmaker’s ride back home through the eyes of an outsider, his (grand?) parents and his trekking into the local woods presented in a typical home video aesthetic, sometimes presented in time lapse. Marked by circular motifs, Travels Abroad is a self-proclaimed exploration of themes of migration, identity and belonging, but, in actuality, it never rises about its home movie banality and accomplishes little more than what any everyman equipped with a video camera flying back home would have shot.

PULSE (Anuradha Chandra, India, 2013, 16mm, 15min)

A sketch of Rotterdam in 2008, Chandra’s 16mm project presents out-of-focus, low frame rate, time lapse images of the city and its environs that are abstracted till the limits of perceptibility. Owing to high exposure times, people, vehicles, seasons and the time of day are abstracted out and the residual record of static structures underscores the strongly geometrical nature of urban constructions. These images, frequently dominated by a single saturated colour, carry a tension between movement and stasis. On a level, Chandra’s film is an Impressionistic portrait of a city (with pointillist images) that explores how far a geographical entity can be visually abstracted so as to retain its identity.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Joe Hambleton, Canada, 2012, Video, 8min)

One is reminded of Chris Marker, especially the melancholy Level Five (1997), while watching Hambleton’s refreshingly widescreen structural film that employs a repeating element – the camera looking through the windshield of a car rolling on a highway before slowly zooming out and refocusing onto an object fixed to the car ceiling – while a voiceover recites what sound like diary entries of a gamer wandering internet message boards. We are in the far future, it would seem, and the current day objects – joysticks, electronic toys and other curios – in the car appear like shards from a past. The result is a meditation on memory, a reflection on how geography and everyday objects bear the trace of history.

ANOTHER COLOUR TV (The Youngrrr, Indonesia, 2013, Video, 9min)

The Youngrrr Collective’s simple and amusing critique of the isolation of the middle class from history would perhaps have been more effective as an installation, wherein the contrast between the two sections of the screen we see – a mute assortment of various local TV telecasts serious and frivolous and the reverse-shot of a middle-class household hooked to soap operas, ‘reality’ television and religious sermons and literally imprisoned within the frame of the television – would have been even sharper when placed face-to-face. Nevertheless, by locating tawdry television productions alongside their passive consumption and internalization, the film brings to surface the artificiality of the family’s time together and the ideological-mediation of their private conversations.

NEW HARVEST (Pallavi Paul, India, 2012, Video, 11min)

A discordant combination of talking-heads interview of a politically dissident poet, educational documentary about the desire of scientists to alter nature’s rhythm of day and night and morsels of letters real and imagined between two writers shot in digital video with harsh light sources that form deep chiaroscuros, Paul’s project revolves around things utopian – ideal yet impossible – images unmade, roads not taken. The segments or the fragments of narratives within each are linked by a dream-logic which suggest a impossibility but seem to look forward to a future where these dreams might be realized. The outcome is a set of vague stabs at anarchist political hopes.

ARS MEMORATIVA (Scott Miller Berry, Canada, 2013, Video, 20min)

Ars MemorativaArs Memorativa – Art of Memory – refers to the methods and techniques we use to remember things, but in Berry’s four-part examination of audiovisual media as incubators of personal memory, it also points to cinema as the preeminent art of memory, of remembrance. Amalgamating analog and digital video, celluloid and audio recordings, whose scratches, smudges and crackling noises, in their own way, act as traces from the past, the film partly ruminates on the purpose of cinema as an authentic document, as evidence of a person’s existence. Berry’s film is a modest reflection on how home movies, music records and photographs, after a person’s passing, develop the quality of preserving the history of the person’s life.

 

SPECIAL FOCUS: JAPAN

(Curated by Chris Gehman)

 

GESTALT (Takashi Ishida, Japan, 1999, 16mm, 6min)

With a beguiling organ-driven soundtrack, Gestalt impresses us with the transparency its of intention, as the title makes clear, and the single-mindedness of its approach. Ishida’s delectable study in 16mm of the malleability of our perspective of space, apparently achieved by continuously repainting the walls of a room, founds itself on the interaction of various geometric and non-geometric motifs that make the space appear alternatingly two and three-dimensional. The effect is to continually keep altering our impression of the room space, and in critical theoretical terms, to undermine the artwork’s interpellation of the viewer as a subject and to destabilize the Albertian perspective on which his/her relationship with the image is based.

A FEATHER STARE AT THE DARK (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2003, 16mm, 17min)

In the dream-like way normally unrelated objects segue into each other, Tsuji’s hand-drawn illustration of a made-up Creation myth reminds one of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, and perhaps even the works of Dali. Tsuji’s method involves drawing with charcoal on paper, photographing the result, erasing the plate and redrawing the next frame. The result is that the each frame carries a trace of the previous and, consequently, the film chronicles its own history, its own making. Tsuji’s drawings are unrealistic, disproportional, undignified and composed of fluid forms that throw his method into sharp relief. The outcome is closer to sand animation than traditional drawing

YELLOW SNAKE (Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2006, Video, 10min)

Pitched between non-representational and traditional 2D animation, Aihara’s purposefully unwieldy video work, made 5 years before his demise in 2011, consists of two distinct visual planes – a periodic flux of semi-representational figures (bottles, fingers, planets, doughnuts) progressively growing in size to give an appearance of coming out of the screen (and hence the appearance of three-dimensionality) and a realistically drawn two-dimensional yellow hand with a pointed index finger that keeps poking into this swarm of monochrome objects – laid over a discordant soundscape. Mischievous and gleefully indulgent, Yellow Snake, if not anything else, is a reflection of the artist’s own playful relationship with his drawings.

MY TOWN (Tomomichi Nakamura, Japan, 2007, Video, 17min)

A mélange of even wider variety of animation techniques marks the quasi-Cronenbergian My Town, which draws from low-resolution photography, stop-motion animation, commercial anime drawing and video game graphics on which rudimentary pencil sketches without much foreshortening are overlaid, which, in essence, inscribes two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space. Nakamura’s part-science-fictional part-fantastical narrative seemingly about a virus outbreak, an ensuing nuclear war and the eventual wiping out of humanity is distinguished by its soundtrack – a combination of drum beats, electronic music and low-frequency noise – and its cinematic approach to space – its simulation of film camera and its depiction of flat objects in three-dimensions.

SPACY (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1981, 16mm, 10min)

Intermittently stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken inside a gymnasium exhibiting these very photographs, Spacy is a structural study of cinematic space that creates a mise en abyme of photographed spaces into and out of which we move until we are no longer sure of which ‘level’ we are in. Despite the rapid stream of images shot at us, our focus remains firmly fixed at the geometric center of the image around which the configuration of represented space changes continuously. This trait, along with the absence of any vertical camera movement and the many levels of space negotiated, places the film alongside contemporary First Person Shooter games like Doom.

ZONE (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1995, 16mm, 13min)

Ito’s intense and claustrophobic piece, positioned between postmodern music videos and generic horror, shows the reanimation to life of a headless man wrapped in gauze and tied to a chair in a room populated by mirrors, a bandaged toy truck, a masked figure with light sources on him and framed photographs of eerily empty locations. Rife with movement – pleasing lateral tracking shots, time-lapse photography, reverse video and stop-motion animation – Zone plays on Kracauer’s idea of cinema as resurrection of dead objects from the ghastly stillness of photography. Ito’s psychologically motivated film is closer to classical Expressionism than his earlier structural work.

JAPANESE KITCHEN: THREE STORIES (Tabaimo, Japan, 2000, Video, 9min)

Japanese KitchenA more traditional style, closer to commercial Japanese animation, marks the three-episode Japanese Kitchen, which presents sketches of a housewife trying to imitate recipes shown on daytime television. The manner in which the banality of the situation is superimposed over chilling body horror – beating small men and women in a mixer to produce babies, deep frying the male brain and seeds that have people crawling out when soaked in water – betrays a trace of populist horror cinema, television and literature. Tabaimo’s tongue-in-cheek triptych – commissioned for television whose audience is the very subjects of her film – proposes tantalizingly easy and morbidly humorous solutions to the demographic problems of Japan.

INCH-HIGH SAMURAI (Tanaami Keiichi and Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2007, 16mm, 8min)

Inch-High SamuraiOne of Aihara’s last films, Inch-High Samurai is admittedly a tribute to and a re-imagination of a popular manga series the directors used to read as kids that presented the adventures of a Samurai measuring an inch in height. The difference is that this film taps directly into the libidinal foundation of the manga and crystallizes the sexual and violent forces brimming beneath. Hyper-kinetic, raunchy and decidedly over-the-top, the film opens with drawings of various body parts floating on the sea from where the little phallic Samurai begins his extremely telescoped set of frenzied adventures that is, quite literally, the stuff of wet dreams.

CHILDREN OF SHADOWS (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2006, 16mm, 18min)

A ghastly spin on Western fairy tales, especially Hansel and Gretel, Children of Shadows is a tale of survival and growing up that is constructed with fluid, curvy and continuous forms that facilitate and highlight Tsuji’s charcoal on paper approach. The artist uses his POV like a moving camera and negotiates a three-dimensional space even when he abstains from providing a stable reference as in traditional drawings which makes it tougher to judge location or proportion. The movement of characters is slowed down, as though traversing an oneiric space, there is an affinity for closed forms and the humour is black and the drawings joyfully vulgar.

GOD BLESS AMERICA (Tadasu Takamine, Japan, 2002, Video, 12min)

Takamine’s God Bless America gives us the artist and his female assistant sojourning inside a red-walled studio while working on a massive lump of clay present in the center of the screen and the room. We see them pass 18 days working, eating, socializing and having sex in time lapse while the clay head is moulded in such a way that it appears to sing the titular hymn in real time. If this construction of twin time frames within a single film derives from music videos, the integration of the work of art into lived-in space derives from architecture, where it becomes an object to be experienced intuitively by habitude instead of through active contemplation.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: JACK CHAMBERS

(Curated by Lauren Howes)

 

HART OF LONDON (Jack Chambers, Canada, 1970, 16mm, 79min)

Stan Brakhage called this final film of Canadian visual artist Jack Chambers, who died of leukemia in 1977, one of the greatest films ever made. Chambers’ predominantly found-footage film exhibits touches of Brakhage’s own work, especially Dog Star Man (1961-64), in its use of roving secondary exposure, image overlaps, negatives, faster frame rates and high-velocity montage and its partly phenomenological approach to images. Opening with footage of a deer hunt – an event that would haunt the entire film – the first section of Hart of London is scored to the sporadic sound of the elements of nature and engages with visuals of architecture and everyday life in London, Ontario, superimposed with a negative that results in stereoscopic images at certain points, and, at times, abstracted away from photorealism to the point where we only observe black dabs on a white screen. Towards the midpoint, the film moves away from superimposition towards montage as the primary technique for meaning creation. It is from hereon that the film crystallizes its exploration of the cycle of life. Images from a slaughterhouse are intercut with those of a baby, dead sheep fetuses are juxtaposed with a human newborn. The architectural marvels of the first segment are responded to in the second by destruction and demolition of buildings, which become as much a spectacle as the former. On one level, the film is certainly an indictment of human egotism, which places humanity at the center of the universe and deems it as being the prime mover of all things. But it is also a meditation of humanity’s ceaseless capacity to learn, endure and survive and the film abounds with symbols of birth, rebirth and resurrection. This view of humanity from a detached, godlike-perspective takes the film closer to the oeuvre of Artavazd Peleshian, whose ultimately hopeful view of life, Hart of London echoes, however less emphatically.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: PANCHAL MANSARAM

(Curated by Shai Heredia)

 

INTERSECT (Panchal Mansaram, India, 1967, 16mm, 6min)

Panchal Mansaram was already established as a collage artist when he came to cinema and this transition is evident in the approach to his material in Intersect, which mashes footage shot during his interactions with Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar and Marshall McLuhan with excerpts from TV and radio commercials. “East and West are becoming like each other” goes one stray audio bite. Evocative of the many fine experiments at Films Division – yet not as pointed or as rigorously thought out – Intersect was completed after Mansaram’s emigration to Canada and reflects the director’s own transnational status – an autobiographical element which he explored further in his mixed-media installations.

DEVI, STUFFED GOAT AND PINK CLOTH (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1967, 16mm, 16min)

An assortment of impressionistic vignettes from the city of Bombay – a place that Mansaram calls “collage in motion” – strung together by the pervading presence of the beautiful lady of the title, her stuffed goat and a piece of pink cloth, this 16mm quasi-Nouveau Realist project tries to comprehend a city partly through its extraordinary human specimen, decrepit objects and familiar images. Some passages of the film, scored to a mix of flute, trumpet and percussions, seem straight of a René Magritte tableau in the way they piece together completely dissociated commonplace objects, even though this disruption of everyday logic seems less like an ideological intervention than a gleeful vagrancy of a mischievous imagination.

REAR VIEW MIRROR (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1966-2011, 16mm, 13min)

45 years in the making, Rear View Mirror spans the entire career of Mansaram as a filmmaker and opens with the voice of the artist reciting a piece of autobiographical information. Seen through the eyes of two young tourists entering a city on a horse cart, the film unfolds as a kind of ‘re-entry’ into and ‘looking-back’ at his life in India, especially his early years in his hometown of Mount Abu in Rajasthan, suffuse with reds, yellows and browns. The images of the convivial atmosphere at the local fete is complemented by sundry images – spiritual and profane – from the city linked together by the director’s characteristic sense of humour.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: AKBAR PADAMSEE

(Curated by Lalitha Gopalan)

 

SYZYGY (Akbar Padamsee, India, 1970, Video, 6min)

Bombay-based abstract artist Akbar Padamsee made his transition to cinema with the help of ace cinematographer K. K. Mahajan and was apparently held in high regard by Mani Kaul. A product of the short-lived Visions Exchange Workshop (VIEW) founded by Padamsee as a platform for enabling interaction between painters and filmmakers, the soundless animation Syzygy begins with basic geometric figures moving on the screen in regular patterns. With mathematical regularity, these figures morph into word grids and number lines representing distances, which in turn, gradually, give way to more complex intersection of line segments – mazes, meshes and networks. The resulting images bear similarity to the works of Mondrian and Kandinsky and serve to illuminate emotional correlatives to purely aesthetic forms such as the sense of spaciousness and liberation offered by a diagonal line slashing across a matrix of verticals and horizontals. Despite its ostensibly stream-of-consciousness approach, all the images have a regularity, harmony, and balance which throw light on Padamsee’s structured and perhaps even classicist thinking process.

Onna Ga Kaidan Wo Agaru Toki (1960) (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)
Mikio Naruse
Japanese

 

When a Woman Ascends the StairsMikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) could have well unfolded in post-war Los Angeles, in its dark alleys and seedy bars, for it reveals itself as something of a hard-boiled film noir told through the eyes of a woman. Set in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo, the film centers on a bar manager Keiko (Hideko Takamine), a widow of thirty years, who must choose between remarrying into a respectable family and starting her own joint. Keiko is in a race against time, against the disappearance of her youth, and her tragedy is the tragedy of most women in modern society. Appearance is of paramount importance. “I hate liquor, yet I drink my fill every night” she says. She must be glamorous; she must smell good; she must be young or perish. She must don this Sisyphean role that is decided for her, never to complete her ascent and always returning to the bottom of the eponymous staircase. Positioned somewhere between the cool, satirical detachment of Imamura’s The Insect Woman (1963) and the melodramatic viscosity of Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), Naruse’s empathetic yet never simplistic film offers no easy way out, not once letting our sympathies get tuned to a particular character. Constructed nearly as a string of conversations – all shot exquisitely in widescreen with striking centralized compositions marked by tense negative space – When a Woman Ascends the Stairs charts a single woman’s ultimately futile stabs at success in a grossly lopsided industrial society. Towards the end of the film, as Keiko ascends the stairs one more time, now more determined perhaps, Naruse’s film nearly attains the spiritual-existential intensity of Winter Light (1963). She can’t go on. She will go on.

Ghost In The Shell

Hanabi

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Hanabi

Hanabi

Pâfekuto Burû (1997) (Perfect Blue)
Satoshi Kon
Japanese

 
Perfect BlueSatoshi Kon’s remarkable debut feature Perfect Blue (1997) begins with an action scene from a television episode of Power Rangers, revealed only shortly later to be a live performance by the actors in a public auditorium. As the resoundingly unsuccessful show winds down, we hear some young audience members sourly point out that it was nothing like the television version. This idea of the virtual, the illusionary coming across as more real than the real drives the central conflict of Perfect Blue, in which an erstwhile pop idol, Mima, finds herself becoming the prisoner of her own fabricated personality. A good ten years ahead of its time, Satoshi Kon’s film frighteningly presages the progressive virtualization and publicization of our personalities. Mima loses out to one of her fans who does a better job of impersonating her than herself and develops a persona for Mima that’s truer than reality. Perfect Blue doesn’t merely subordinate reality to illusion and personality to identity, but thoroughly undermines the possibility of constructing such dichotomies, as reality and illusion bleed so thoroughly into each other that it is not just impossible, but also immaterial that they be separated. Even with its deceptively assuring closure, a la Shutter Island (2010), the film pulls the rug of reality from under our feet and leaves us hanging like Scottie Ferguson. Very much like Mima, the audience struggles with the instability of the movie’s construction and attempts (perhaps in vain) to hold on to a solid ground from which to view things, to secure its own sanity. Directed with an extremist’s taste for visceral shock and a modernist’s eye for reflective surfaces, Perfect Blue challenges the psychological seriousness of many similar live-action features, while benefiting from its choice of the medium.

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

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Woman Of the Dunes

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Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Woman Of the Dunes

Bara No Sôretsu (1968) (Funeral Parade Of Roses)
Toshio Matsumoto
Japanese

 

Funeral Parade of RosesToshio Matsumoto’s flamboyant, shape shifting, subversive Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is perhaps the ideal poster boy for what is known as the Japanese New Wave. If this loosely defined group associated with the cinema of filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura attacked the traditional notion of “the Japanese Identity”, exposing the blind spots in its attempts at constructing a seamless racial, political and cultural identity for the nation and upsetting any stable ground hitherto held on to, Matsumoto’s film questions the idea of identity itself. Centering on a group of transvestites working at a bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District, Funeral Parade of Roses is a potpourri of fictional passages, interviews and found footage that weaves together various modes of representation/exposition and simulates the theme of amorphousness of identity that is at the heart of the film. This idea of identity-as-performance is set in motion by a tape recording that plays throughout the film and talks about humans wearing multiple masks one over the other and is fortified by the film’s perpetual self-reflexivity, which keeps revealing whatever we witness as staged. This reflexivity also keeps the film from being exploitative towards its transvestite subjects, who are instead made active participants in the creative process. Matsumoto does nothing that could undermine the dignity of his actor-characters and portrays them in all their richness: jealous, scheming, funny, carefree, tormented, self-deprecating and proud. (Not that the film takes all the right steps – it still seems to buy into the troubled childhood cliché.)  Full of baffling shifts in tone, attitude, pace and narrative modes, Funeral Parade of Roses is the kind of film Almodóvar would really dig: perverse, intense, loving and dead serious.

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