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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

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The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

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Archive for the 'National cinemas: Japan' Category

How to hypnotize the viewer: Mizoguchi’s STREET OF SHAME on the Criterion Channel

     

Street of Shame (1956).

Filmmakers must study the film image and its potential for expression. This is our primary responsibility.

Kenji Mizoguchi

DB here:

So much of contemporary film and TV takes pictorial space for granted. Yes, The Avengers: Endgame stuffs its frame with, well, stuff, but you’re seldom given time to see everything. Even in films not so dominated by CGI, if the the actors’ faces and gestures come across and you can hear the line readings, that’s pretty much enough. Most of the rest is there to fill out the very wide frame.

“Wait,” I hear someone saying. “Thanks to Steadicam, directors use camera movements to sweep through space all the time.” Yeah, that’s just my point: They sweep through. We’re following characters’ backs or fronts, not exploring space as such. Very seldom do we get a chance to probe what’s revealed, except in carefully wrought movies like Sunset (which tease you into trying to discern what’s not even in focus).

Moreover, today the pace of the editing is so fast, even in an “intimate” movie like Booksmart, that the actors’ faces dominate everything. For fifty years many directors have been “shooting for the box,” shoving their actors into close-ups that will read on TV, now on computers and smartphones. Like the endlessly moving camera, the big heads and the quick cuts refresh the image often enough to hold our interest in a distracting environment.

Granted, most filmmakers now supplement their fast-cut, rapid-pan close-ups with an occasional landscape shot that can look pretty, in a calendar-image sort of way. Overhead shots, now facilitated by drones, swoop us through the towering corridors of The City or across a swath of forest in a way that is undeniably impressive. This convention doesn’t count, for me, as pictorial intelligence unless somebody like Tony Scott does something, however nutty, with it.

I’m not against these stylistic choices per se; every style is valid if it’s pursued with imagination, rigor, and delicacy. Nor am I suggesting that the other extreme, so-called slow cinema, is inherently more virtuous. Long unmoving takes can be paralyzingly dull. Ozu made fast cutting just as “contemplative” as Hou or Tarr, because he knew how to design pictures.

It’s just that the norms of intensified continuity and the “free camera” have overwhelmingly dominated current practice. It’s worth remembering other ways moving pictures can be. One way to do that is to revisit film history, and the work of Mizoguchi Kenji is an ideal place to start.

His Street of Shame (1956) is the subject of this month’s Observations entry on the Criterion Channel. In it, I invite you to join me in attending a master class in staging.

The theme is Mizoguchi’s perennial one, that of the ways in which women succumb to or resist their oppression in a patriarchal society. We’re in the Dreamland brothel, where five–eventually, six–women are working at the very moment the government debates eliminating prostitution. Mizoguchi shows how they both cooperate and compete, trying to quit, deploying different strategies for managing their clients, and just getting by. It’s all done through what Mizoguchi called the “hypnotic power” of carefully choreographed images.

 

A personal note

In a way, Mizoguchi made me a film teacher.

During the week of 25 September 1969, what could you have have seen in Manhattan? I Am Curious: Yellow, La Chinoise, Closely Watched Trains, Miracle in Milan, Hell’s Angels ’69, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Midnight Cowboy, The Killing of Sister George, De Sade, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Second in Montreal, <—->, Take the Money and Run, Alice’s Restaurant, Medium Cool, In the Year of the Pig, Easy Rider, Putney Swope, and programs of Kubelka and Jack Smith movies. There were many double bills on offer: The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country, Yellow Submarine and The Gold Rush, King Kong and The Lady Vanishes, Seven Samurai and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, Monterey Pop and Don’t Look Back, The Deadly Affair and Funeral in Berlin, Little Sister and Alice in Acidland, Lonesome Cowboys and Flesh.

Yeah, those were the days before cable TV, home video, and streaming.

In the city for only a few hours, I didn’t go to any of those shows. There was yet another double bill at the Bleecker but I could catch only one title: not Lola Montès (I would see that in Paris a year later), but Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.

As a teenager I had read books about cinema (Welles, Hitchcock) and in college I’d written movie reviews and participated in a film club. Now, newly graduated, I was teaching high school. The only Japanese films I’d seen were the Kurosawa standards our club programmed. Despite planning for a career in high-school teaching, I thought about film most of the time. In the pages of Film Culture and Movie I had read about Mizoguchi.

I came out of Sansho with tears streaming down my cheeks. I heard two young men in the lobby talking about the film. Did they go to NYU or Columbia or some such place? All I know was that they loved Mizoguchi’s long takes, as I did. Somehow, those takes had to be connected to the way the movie hit me. I thought something like: I’d like to study this sort of thing.

I returned to my apartment and began figuring out how to apply to graduate school.

Mizoguchi was still largely unknown, certainly unappreciated. The New York Times didn’t get around to reviewing Sansho until it resurfaced in a later run. Roger Greenspun made up for the neglect with a a gracious note.

“The Bailiff” is a film of breathtaking visual beauty, but the conditions of that beauty also change–from the etheral delicacy of its beginning (before the kidnapping), through the dark masses of the Bailiff’s compound, to the ordered perspectives of Kyoto and the governor’s palace, and finally to the spare symbolic horizons at the end.

In effect, it moves from easy poetry to difficult poetry. Its impulses, which are profound but not transcendental, follow an esthetic program that is also a moral progression, and that emerges, with supreme lucidity, only from the greatest art.

People talked that way then, with good reason.

 

Choreography all the way down

I didn’t see much Mizoguchi in the years following. There wasn’t much available. (And Ozu was unknown to us.) I did see Ugetsu and Street of Shame, though they didn’t grab me as fast as Sansho had. Fairly soon, though, New Yorker Films and Audio-Brandon made prints of other Mizoguchi titles available. I started using Mizoguchi films in my teaching, and the more I studied them the more I admired them. I was also inspired by critics Robin Wood and Noël Burch, who sought to explain the emotional and cinematic force of this filmmaker.

I began studying Mizoguchi’s films, traveling to Europe to see them all and make frames from prints. Eventually that work would inform my chapter on his staging in Figures Traced in Light. Although there he bested me two falls out of three, I think that discussion made some headway in analyzing his unique visual strategies. I tried to develop those ideas further in an online supplement to that chapter and in the blog entries “Secrets of the Exquisite Image” and “Sleeves.”

More skilfully and subtly than nearly anybody else, Mizoguchi arranges bodies in space to create powerful pictures. Yet his gorgeous shots aren’t just decoration. He never lets the images, elegant as they are, distract from the dramatic issues arising among the characters. The result, I argue, achieves the sort of “hypnotic power” that Mizoguchi claimed to seek.

In Mizoguchi, I suggest, a fairly dense image “becomes a story” as its elements start to mingle and separate out, letting our eye discover (with guidance) a drama as it emerges. A situation precipitates out of a rich mass of material, and the result is an accumulating tension that’s at once dramatic and pictorial. He evidently learned a lot from von Sternberg, but I think this thickening-and-release dynamic of story and style is reminiscent of Hitchcock or Lang as well.

The students were right: Mizoguchi is a master of the long take. The long take, he said, “allows me to work all the spectator’s perceptual capacities to the utmost.”

But we shouldn’t think of this technique in the sort of marathon-competition terms people apply to long takes nowadays. (The current example is Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.) Today’s long takes are often virtuoso traveling shots. While Mizo made wonderful use of camera movement, he knew the power of stillness. He showed that you can just clamp the camera on the tripod (or the crane) and sculpt the action in front of it.

Among Mizoguchians, there are some who find his later films stylistically  compromised.  Genroku Chushingura (1941-1942; below) and Loves of the Actress Sumako (1947), with their far-off figures and impeccable, “all-over” compositions, merge austerity and density in ways almost inconceivable today.

Given this radical approach, his greater reliance on closer views in the 1950s work can seem a step backward.

But Mizoguchi was a pluralistic director from his earliest days forward. As I try to show in Figures, he fitted his visual design to the needs of a scene, and even the most severe films draw on diverse techniques. Street of Shame shows his endless resourcefulness in enriching three-shots and two-shots and singles. He found choreographic possibilities at every shot scale, with small gestures and glances becoming as important as characters shifting around the set. In the last shot of the last film he made, a single darting eye commands the image and carries the drama.

Given the sustained shot, Mizoguchi fills it and drains it, re-fills it and thins it out and channels it to a climax, all with a graceful, unobtrusive choreography always driven by the emotions pulsing through the scene. I go back constantly to Philippe Demonsablon: “He emits a note so pure that the slightest variation becomes expressive.”

 

Mizoguchi works in melodrama. Some directors, such as Sirk, take intense situations and amp them up. But Mizoguchi, like Stahl and Preminger, is always banking the fires. His style presents hot emotions in a cool way, betting that detachment and restraint give the emotions a sort of stark purity. If more filmmakers studied his work, who knows what kind of cinema we might have? I hope you have a chance to check in on this entry.


We’re grateful as usual to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, and the whole fine Criterion team, and to Erik Gunneson of the UW Department of Communication Arts.

Street of Shame is also available on a generous Criterion Eclipse DVD set. Some years back Masters of Cinema series gave us beautiful Blu-ray transfers of many Mizoguchi films. The Street of Shame edition has a fine feature-length audio commentary by Tony Rayns. Alas, the set including the film has apparently gone out of print.

Robin Wood’s influential essay on Mizoguchi is “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” in Personal Views: Explorations in Film (Gordon Fraser, 1976), 224-248. Noël Burch’s revisionist account of Japanese cinema is To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in Japanese Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), where chapter 20 is devoted to Mizoguchi. (The book is available online here.) Roger Greenspun’s review, “‘Bailiff’ Returns,” appeared in the New York Times (17 December 1969), 61.

For more on the place of Japanese directors in film culture, you can try this entry on Kurosawa and this one on Shimizu.

Street of Shame (1956). The sign reads “Cooperative Association Members” and “Confidential Membership.” Thanks to Steve Ridgely for the translation.

Vancouver 2018: Landscapes, real and imagined

Shoplifters (Kore-eda, 2018).

DB here:

We’ve been attending the Vancouver International Film Festival since 2004. (The entries are tagged here.) It’s provided us many of our happiest viewing experiences, and this year is proving just as exciting. In particular, the festival’s long commitment to new films from Asia hasn’t flagged. Thanks to programmers Shelly Kraicer and Maggie Lee there has been plenty to showcase trends in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and other lands. We won’t, unfortunately, be here for Hong Sangsoo’s Grass, but here are interim reflections on four items that we’ve seen in our first days.

 

Families, fraught and fragile

Shoplifters.

Girls Always Happy is a quiet but ingratiating first feature from Yang Ming Ming. Mother and daughter are both writers, and they struggle to live together in harmony while hoping for a legacy from Grandfather and for some resolution in their love lives. Yang says that she based the film on her own life, which rings true when you consider the range of emotions that well up. The two women tease each other, insult each other, ravenously devour meals together, shop partly to annoy sales staff, and sometimes burst out in screams. Reconciliations may be temporary but are still heartfelt.

With the two of them jammed together in a hutong, a neighborhood of cramped old ground-floor apartments, their jousts take on an intensity captured by Yang’s exceptionally tight framings and rapid cutting. Yang storyboarded the entire film, which allowed her quite precise control of composition and focus.

     

The relentless close-ups allow both psychological intimacy and subtle performances, as well as comparison of eating styles. Trips outside—Wu on her scooter or in her lover’s modern apartment, the mother at a hair salon—provide a respite from what’s essentially a series of escalating two-handed combats. The final shot is a lengthy take that carries our heroines forward into their city. Yang explained in the Q & A that after a film full of fast cutting and lots of talk she decided to end with the sort of long take Chinese filmmakers favor. In this context, with a canny use of a bus’s rearview mirror, the shot becomes an exhilarating, floating passage into the Beijing night.

Girls Always Happy came to VIFF garlanded with awards, including prizes from both the Berlinale and the Hong Kong Film Festival. Even more honored was the latest by Kore-eda Hirozaku, The Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It’s another of his family dramas (we’ve discussed Still Walking,  I WishLike Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, and After the Storm), but here the notion of family is given an uncanny twist at the end.

Each member, as per Kore-eda’s habit, is given a specific, respectful delineation. There’s the happy-go-lucky Osamu, a day laborer who both coddles the boy Shota and leads him into petty crime. There’s the maternal Nobuyo who works at a dry-cleaning facility and pilfers what she finds in pockets. Twentysomething Aki works at a sex club flashing her breasts and bottom at men crouched behind one-way mirrors. Grandma keeps the group going with her pension, her pachinko-playing, and some secret sources of income. Into this household comes Yuri, an abused child brought home like an abandoned cat.

Like Tsai Ming-liang’s more somber Rain Dogs, this is a film about people on the margins. The kids don’t go to school; Shota teaches Yuri the tricks of shoplifting, while Aki warms to a sex-club client. As in Girls Always Happy, interiors are sharply distinguished from exteriors, but not by close framings and shifting focus. Instead, master shots fill the frame with the detritus of seven people jammed in together. (See shot above.)

In a film so concentrated on characterization, we naturally get the sort of privileged moments that Kore-eda excels in. Osamu pauses in his construction work to stand looking around an unfinished apartment—a modest one, but a home he can never have. The young kids collect cicadas. Aki cradles a lonely punter in her lap. Nobuyo consoles Yuri by comparing the girl’s scars to burns Nobuyo has accumulated from ironing clothes. Grandma, watching her charges play on the beach, pours sand to cover the age spots on her legs. The ensemble comes together in moments of shared joy at the seaside or watching the fireworks at the Sumida River festival.

But these moments don’t prepare us for the unsettling revelations about the characters’ pasts that we get in the last half hour. Even here, though, the details of behavior remain indelible. One astonishing shot turns a cinematic staple—a woman trying to wipe away tears—into a tour de force of facial performance by Ando Sakura.

The Shoplifters reminded me of Ozu’s Passing Fancy and Inn in Tokyo, obliquely but sharply condemning the economic conditions that push people into wayward lives. It’s a gently subversive film about people flung together resourcefully trying to survive and find happiness by flouting the comfortable norms of middle-class morality.

 

Time out of mind

A Land Imagined.

Lush Reeds, by Yang Yishu, has plenty of the long takes that Girls Always Happy avoids. In nearly abstract framings, newspaper reporter Xiayin moves through minimalist offices and country lanes, bleak apartments and dense foliage.

     

As in many postwar films, drama sometimes becomes subordinate to the walks taken by the protagonist into an overwhelming, mysterious environment.

Against the wishes of her politically cautious editor Xiayin inquires into complaints of rural pollution. At the same time, she’s pregnant and is growing distant from her fairly cold husband. Her visit to the countryside becomes a threatening experience that brings to light parallels between the death of a villager and the apparent suicide of a fellow reporter.

The film is less linear than I suggest. Yang breaks up the story into midsize chunks and sets them out of order, so that some images–a little girl who meets Xiayin in the village, a shoe on a riverbank, the rescue of a suitcase from a rubbish depot–could fit into one time frame or another. Yang is even so bold as to run the title credit again midway through the film, suggesting that what follows might be backstory, or imagination, or an alternative film, or something in between.

A similar ambiguity pervades  A Land Imagined (2018), another prize-winner (Golden Leopard, Locarno). It centers on a migrant worker Wang working at a Singapore site devoted to extending the coastline with sand dredged up or brought from other countries. Wang has disappeared, and the investigating cop Lok soon learns that Wang’s Bengali friend Ajit has vanished as well. A flashback takes us into the backstory, showing Wang spendiing his nights at a cybercafé and getting harassed by a troll who invades his videogame screen. Wang also begins a chaste affair with the tough gamine Mindy who oversees the game parlor. Eventually the flashback turns into a parallel, dreamlike narrative, with Ajit by turns dead and alive and Lok reenacting scenes involving Wang.

Director Yeo Siew Hua has given this noirish tale an appropriately lustrous treatment, with saturated long shots of black derricks looming against a red sky or sunk in sickly orange murk. Lyrical slow-motion musical interludes enhance the dreamlike ambience, and there’s a post-Wong-Kar-wai freedom of camera placement in the candy-colored cybercafé.

In his comments after the screening, Yeo spoke of trying to provide a counter-image to “the postcard, Crazy Rich Asians” depiction of Singapore. The shifting time frames and uncertain stretches of subjectivity are connected, for Yeo, with a sleeplessness suffered not only by the main characters but also by the population at large. The “land imagined” isn’t only the sand that expands the contours of the shoreline but also the hallucination of a hypermodern city state built on the labor of workers who can conveniently go missing.


Thanks as ever to the tireless staff of the Vancouver International Film Festival, above all Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Jenny Lee Craig for their help in our visit.

Snapshots of festival activities are on our Instagram page.

Girls Always Happy.

Venice 2017: Crimes, no misdemeanors

Outrage cars 600

Outrage Coda (2017).

DB here:

The period from 1985-1995 was a sterling era for world cinema. Whatever you think of Hollywood of that time (it wasn’t as bad as they say), American independent film was flourishing then. On the global stage, things were even better, as witness the rising careers of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang Dechang, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Abbas Kiarostami, and Wong Kar-wai. It was exhilarating to watch these and other directors turn out splendid work like City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day, Police Story, Project A Part II, Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon a Time in China, The Blade, Where Is the Friend’s Home?, Through the Olive Trees, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and more.

That’s not all. In Hong Kong, John Woo was redefining the urban action film with the flamboyant, romantic A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard-Boiled (1992). In Japan, a standup comedian known as “Beat” Takeshi Kitano took over the helming of a crime thriller, Violent Cop (1989), and decided to continue directing, turning out not only the bored-hitman saga Sonatine (1993) but also the lyrical A Scene at the Sea (1991). Another Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu, launched his career with the meditative, Hou-ish Maborosi (1995).

I loved these films, and still do. Woo and Kitano belong to an older generation (mine, actually), while Kore-eda is younger. None has gone away. All came to Venice 74 with murder on their minds.

 

Confessed, but to what?

Third Murder 500

The Third Murder (2017).

The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin) is Kore-eda’s first venture into the crime genre, and he brings to it the same steady humanism we find in all his work. I’ve elsewhere recorded my uneasiness with his current visual style. Unlike the grave, long-take Maborosi, his films of the last decade or so are pictorially conventional, even academic, with their big close-ups, needlessly sidling camera moves, and other features of intensified continuity. But he continues to take narrative risks, and his almost Renoirian willingness to see many moral and psychological points of view make every film fairly gripping.

The Third Murder begins abruptly. An unseen victim is bludgeoned and the body is burned. The killer is the man we’ll come to know as Misumi. He’s captured. Like 99% of people charged with crimes in Japan, he readily confesses. His lawyers face only the question of sentencing: Should they try to get him life imprisonment rather than execution? When one attorney, Shigemori, decides to investigate more closely, he peels back layers of uncertainty about the circumstances, the victim, and the motive(s). Like many a victim in crime fiction, this businessman needed killing.

Following conventions of the investigative procedural, the plot relies on secrets, viewpoint shifts that drop hints, twists that frustrate simple understanding, and flashbacks that make us question what we thought we knew. Shooting in anamorphic widescreen, Kore-eda produces some extreme framings reminiscent of Kurosawa’s High and Low, one of the films he studied while preparing the project. Despite occasionally flashy moments, it’s a soberly told tale, emphasizing characterization and social critique. By the end, Misumi acquires a weary, radiant dignity, while entrepreneurial capitalism and the justice system are revealed as compromised. (In this respect it recalls I Just Didn’t Do It2007, by another 80s-90s director, Suo Masayuki.) In moving to the sordid terrain of the crime story, The Third Murder shows that Kore-eda hasn’t given up his sympathetic probing of human nature and his praise for un-grandiose self-sacrifice.

 

Bullets to the head and elsewhere

Manhunt 500 alt

Manhunt (2017).

Sober and un-grandiose don’t apply to Manhunt (Zhuibu), John Woo’s return to bloody brotherhood and outsize ordnance. After prestige Hollywood efforts like Windtalkers (2002), the nationalistic costume picture Red Cliff (2008-2009), and the ensemble-disaster movie The Crossing (2014-2015), Woo is back with what he does best: showing many people firing many guns, dodging bullets (bad guys have bad aim), diving for cover in slow-motion, floating through hazes of cordite, and instantly recovering from wounds that would finish off you and me. These characters also run endlessly, hop into the path of trains, overturn vehicles, and set loose unconscionable numbers of pigeons.

1990s Hong Kong directors could make cheap pictures look expensive; given bigger budgets, they made expensive pictures look cheap. Here that cheapness shows most in some video-generated shots that recall the bad old days of edge enhancement. But who has time to study such problems when you’re smacked by a fusillade of 3000-plus shots in 105 minutes? Resistance is futile, and the pace doesn’t relent. When the fights and pursuits pause, the dialogue scenes flash by in a flurry of cuts and unfortunate lapses into English. (Much of the soundtrack recalls the eerily dubbed voices on US videos of The Killer.)

You’ve got no time to worry much about all this after an opening that drops us straight into an ambush. Ultra-cool Du Qiu drifts into a bar and quotes yakuza movies before leaving the hostesses to slaughter the gangsters dining there. It does get your attention, and it encourages you to sit through the exposition showing Du as the trusted lawyer for a corrupt pharmaceutical company. He proceeds to be framed for murder and goes on the run. Meanwhile stalwart detective Yamura, charged with bringing Du in, begins to suspect that there’s a bigger scheme afoot. Of course he is right.

This is all completely preposterous and continually enjoyable, with constantly startling action choreography and an overheated soundtrack that at one point breaks into Turandot. Here those damn pigeons don’t just soar into the sky; thanks to CGI, they flap annoyingly into the middle of fight scenes, spoiling a punch or a gunman’s aim. We have, besides our twinned heroes, one corrupt cop, one psychopathic son, one fairly mad scientist, two expert hitwomen (one played by Woo’s daughter), a fleet of black-suited motorcycle assassins, and two docile women who acquire some non-negligible lethality. In the press conference, Woo emphasized his eagerness to create women warriors, and he hasn’t stinted. There are hallucinatory images of a bloody wedding dress to enhance the feminine mystique.

Manhunt is a kind of palimpsest of Asian action movies. It’s a remake of a 1978 Takakura Ken movie released to great popularity in China during the 1980s. Woo, in Hong Kong, had already succumbed to that actor’s spell. What Alain Delon was to The Killer, Takakura is to this, and the steelly self-possession of Zhang Hanyu gives the film a solemnity amid all the flamboyance.

Manhunt 400

Woo has turned the Japanese original into a real Hong Kong movie, vintage 1992. It lacks the mournful homoeroticism of his prime-period work; these two men don’t gaze moistly at each other, but fire quips and complaints in the Lethal Weapon manner. (The bonding is strongest between the duo of female killers.) Still, it’s very welcome, with its proudly retro air and fanboy in-jokes. It earns the right to begin with a reference to a Japanese classic and conclude with a wink to A Better Tomorrow, as if that movie were the next link in a grand tradition.  “Old movies always end this way,” says one of the survivors of the carnage. I wish more new movies did the same.

 

Hitmen in cars getting shot

Otomo Ichikawa 500

Outrage Coda (2017).

Compared to Woo, Kitano is brutally laconic. In Outrage Coda, except for one Wooish slow-mo massacre, violence is brusque, shocking, and over fast. In a film full of bland pans following yakuza cars here and there, the end of one panning movement  bursts into shooting before you realize it’s happening, and it ends just as suddenly. Kitano likes his confrontations, for sure, and sometimes there’s a buildup, but mostly the blood just erupts, punctuating long scenes of gangster intrigue.

Here that intrigue involves three rival gangs, each with bosses capable of remarkable lip contortions: the Hanabishi yakuza family, its once-powerful subsidiary the Sanno group, and a gang of fixers operating in Japan and Korea under the auspices of boss Chang. Add in two cops, one ready to knuckle to corrupt superiors, the other raging against them, and you have the world through which Otomo (Kitano) and his sidekick Ichikawa move. Normal life, as it’s commonly known, has no place here.

The action bristles with schemes, shifting alliances, double-crosses, faked deaths, and power grabs.”Your methods,” remarks one boss to a co-conspirator, “are increasingly more intricate.” Remarkably, after an introduction humiliating the not-so-bright Hanaba during a sexcapade, Otomo isn’t seen that much. Two-thirds of the running time are devoted to the machinations of the gangs and the cops. Otomo and Ichikawa swing into action rather late, their task being to chop through the knots of plot and counterplot.

The opening few minutes spread out the key motifs. A fishing scene displaying Kitano’s characteristic love for boyish pastimes is interrupted by the discovery of a pistol. The credits sequence announces the importance of cars with gorgeous shots of Otomo being driven through neon-lit streets, his ride seen from straight down as lights play over it. Throughout, deals are struck or broken in cars, and one memorable execution makes creative use of a Toyota. Even that banal filler, shots of cars pulling up and disgorging their riders, gets played for variations: distant thunder when bosses arrive for a conference, abstract configurations when rival forces meet on a rooftop.

During the 1990s Kitano was one of those directors working with what I’ve called planimetric staging and compass-point editing. (Wes Anderson, Terence Davies, and others worked the same territory.) Characters face the camera in medium shot, and shots change along the lens axis or at 90 degrees to it. It’s as if we were in between the characters. When I asked Kitano about the technique back then, he claimed that it was his effort at realism, capturing how people faced one another in conversation.  He added that he didn’t know how to direct a scene, and this was the easiest way.

I thought that his images’ paper-doll simplicity suggested a naivete suited to Kitano’s childish hitmen. Moreover, this rigorous, geometrical technique takes on special impact when presenting mobster shootouts. Instead of ducking for cover as Woo’s heroes do, Kitano’s stand up and keep blasting, firing straight out at the viewer in tit-for-tate exchanges. His unflinching framing, refusing Woo’s camera arabesques, gives these encounters a ceremonial gravity, turning them into rituals of professional righteousness. Last man standing, indeed.

The face-to-face shootouts in Outrage Coda adhere to this style, and early in the film so do the conversations. Here is Otomo discovering Hanada in his masochistic rig.

Otomo 500     Hamada 500

But for many dialogue scenes Kitano has gone with more orthodox staging and shooting. We get over-the-shoulder shots for conversation, tight close-ups to emphasize character reactions, and even that commonplace of modern cinematography, the arcing movement around a speaker to pick up a listener in the background. These choices allow Kitano to expose the ripe performances of the two conspiratorial dons Nishino (Nishida Toshiyuki) and Nakata (Shiomi Sansei); their leathery skin, slip-sliding jaws, and shouted outbursts gain a lot from this treatment. Not that I’m really complaining. In a slightly longer film than Manhunt, Kitano gives us around 700 shots, less than a quarter of Woo’s outlay. Each image carries a lot of weight.

Outrage Coda concludes a trilogy, and at the press conference Kitano said that he conceived this and Outrage Beyond (2012) as one continuous phase of the story. He wanted the series to finish. The ending of this installment will fuel much speculation about his next move, and he hinted that he might adapt a forthcoming novel, one that’s a love story. He’s done one before in A Scene at the Sea, and arguably in Kikujiro (1999). His fans, who mobbed him at the panel, are certainly ready for whatever he comes up with.


Thanks as ever to all those at the Venice Film Festival who made our stay so enjoyable. Special thanks to Peter Cowie, Alberto Barbera,  Michela Nazzarin, Jasna Zoranovich, and our colleagues at the Biennale College Cinema endeavor.

For more on John Woo’s style of action cinema, see my book Planet Hong Kong. I discuss planimetric staging and compass-point editing in On the History of Film Style and several blog entries, notably the persistently popular Shot-consciousness (which has side notes on Kitano) as well as entries on Wes Anderson.

Woo 400     Kitano 400

John Woo and Kitano Takeshi satisfy their fans.

Ritrovato 2017: Many faces, many places

Varda and JR

Agnès Varda and JR, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 1 July. Photo: DB.

DB here:

This final post from Il Cinema Ritrovato is no less a miscellany than the others. With over 500 films screened, Kristin and I invariably missed things that others raved about. Still, we saw enough powerful cinema to make us want to flag some key items for you.

 

Silents, please

Kristin has already mentioned one of the most startling items we saw, Le Coupable (1917) by André Antoine. I’m still processing the audacity of this film. The prosecutor in a murder trial abruptly claims the defendant as his son. We then get the familiar flashback format, shifting from the courtroom to the events leading up to the crime and the arrest. But the shifts between present and past are so quick, and the bits we see of the trial are given in such intense, stark singles, that they gain an astonishingly modern pulse.

Prosec 300     Defendant 300

Add in marvelous use of locations, real alleys and corridors and cafes, and you have a very impressive movie.

Hallway 300     Cafe 300

Once more, 1917 proves to be dynamite.

From the same year came Furcht (Fear), by Robert Wiene. Count Grevin wanders anxiously through his castle for about sixteen minutes of screen time before we realize, thanks to a flashback, that he’s haunted by his theft of a precious Indian statue, stolen from a temple. Soon a priest materializes, either on the castle grounds or in Grevin’s imagination, to declare that he has only seven years to enjoy life before vengeance strikes. Which it does, of course. Conrad Veidt plays the priest with the smoldering glare, and ambitious superimpositions show how committed German cinema was to special effects. Dr. Caligari was three years off.

Secrets 250Not that other years should be slighted. Le Collier de la danseuse (The Dancer’s Necklace, 1912) was an agreeably preposterous crime movie. (The thief has a jacket with fake hands dangling from the sleeves, just the thing for escaping handcuffs.) The film boasted the low, almost Ozuesque, camera height typical of other Pathé productions of the year.

Borzage’s Secrets (1924) traces a marriage through three large flashbacks, with the first emphasizing romantic comedy, the second suspense, and the third family melodrama. Norma Talmadge, who savored a split-personality role in De Luxe Annie (1918), gets to play a woman at three ages here. The central section, devoted to a Griffithian siege on a lonely frontier cabin, showed Borzage’s ability to whip up enormous excitement, with an unexpectedly sad twist. The whole movie has over 11oo shots, indicating just how committed American filmmakers had become to fine-grained scene breakdowns.

All in all, the silent films on display this year were as revelatory as ever.

 

Cinematic geometries

ABE CLAN29

The Abe Clan (1938).

For some years Ritrovato has included a Japanese sidebar curated by Alexander Jacoby  and Johan Nordström. This year the theme was socially critical jidai-geki, or historical films. Some of them were fairly familiar to Western cinephiles because copies were circulated by the Japan Film Library Council from the 1970s onward. Examples include The Abe Clan (1938) and Fallen Blossoms (1938), both very good films. Along with these, the Bologna series gave the Yamanaka Sadao classic Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) another well-deserved airing.

Some of these are fairly intimate dramas, others use a lot of spectacle. The image from Abe Clan above is fairly typical of the monumental turn some jidai-geki took in the late 1930s. Several of the films starred members of the left-wing Zenshinza kabuki troupe, perhaps best known to aficionados from Mizoguchi’s staggering Genroku Chushingura (1941-1942).

Three of the other films showed the range of this genre during Japan’s “dark valley,” its turn to authoritarian rule and imperial warfare. The Rise of Bandits (1937), by Takizawa Eisuke, was a rousing but melancholy Robin Hood tale. A lord’s honest son tries to save a shipment of gold from marauders, but he’s framed by his duplicitous brother. So he becomes the outlaws’ leader, at the cost of his wife’s life and his father’s trust. Some superb action sequences, including a fiery final assault on the castle, alternate with semicomic scenes among the bandits, with the hero’s cynical sidekick twisting not-too-bright thugs around his finger.

Night Before 300

Hagiwara Ryo’s The Night Before (1939, production still above) was based on a Yamanaka script, and like Humanity and Paper Balloons, it braids together several characters’ fates. As rival samurai factions struggle during the Meiji restoration, ordinary people–an artist, a family running an inn, a young man wanting to make his name as a warrior, a bitter and disenchanted samurai–try to get by. One of the innkeeper’s daughters is attracted to the youth, another daughter who works as a geisha eyes the artist, and the old man seems to escape into endless games of shogi with a neighbor. The film has a panic-stricken climax, in which the factions collide in darkness along the riverside and innocents get swept up in the violence. As with many films in the series, the critique of mindless militarism isn’t far below the surface.

The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday (1941), by the great Masahiro Makino, is a murder mystery. An unpleasant landlord is the victim, and there are plenty of suspects. The scattered clues didn’t seem to me to play entirely fair, but the investigation is largely a pretext to explore adjacent households and obfuscate what turns out to be complicated post-murder maneuvers. At the climax, all the suspects are seated in a single line to hear the magistrate’s solution, just as if they were in Nero Wolfe’s office.

Makino’s style accentuates the spatial layout through a remarkable ten zoom-ins that yank us to one or another suspect as the explanation is given, sometimes with flashbacks. Camera zooms (as opposed to optical-printer ones, as in Citizen Kane) are rare in any national cinema of this period, and Makino uses them almost in the spirit of Hong Sangsoo, more to perk up our attention than to enlarge anything for closer scrutiny. (Admittedly, the last one rivets us on the guilty party.) The same geometrical impulse encloses the tale: an opening crane shot down, a closing one upward. As often in Japanese cinema, The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday marks and repeats film techniques to give a decorative flourish to the story.

Technique also comes to the fore, of course, in Divine (1935), a French production directed by Max Ophüls. The attraction isn’t just the dizzying camera movements, swimming through a tangle of backstage paraphernalia and crawling up stairways. Max is more than a master of the tracking shot. In one witty passage, framing and cutting coordinate to stretch the distance between a couple who can’t tear themselves away from each other. (In my last frame, the milkman’s head slides almost out of frame.)

1 300     2 300     3 300     4 300     5 300     6 300

The plot centers on a country girl who becomes a follies performer and is framed as a drug dealer by a Lothario and a lesbian. This contraption seems more or less a pretext for Ophüls to indulge his endless fascination with women striking poses for men while asserting their own demands. The abrupt and unexplained happy ending is the logical wrapup for a film less concerned with a plausible plot than a display of Woman in all her dazzling divinity. There. How’s that for a Sarris sentence?

 

Bigger than life

Visages postman 400

Although there were some repeats on Sunday, the final big event of the festival was the screening, to some 3000 people on the Piazza Maggiore, of the new film by Agnès Varda and JR. Kelley Conway reviewed its Cannes premiere for us earlier, and now that we’ve seen it, we like it a lot.

Varda has the ability to take a whimsical, borderline-cutesy idea and turn it into something poignant, as in Daguerreotypes and Opéra-mouffe. (Nursery-rhyming titles, like Mur Murs and Sans toit ni loi, encapsulate her attitude.) Her latest, an associational documentary along the lines of The Gleaners and I, depends on the premise of traveling through France and making enormous photographic portraits of ordinary people. These are then mounted on buildings in their home town–hence the title Visages Villages.

The result is both intimate and monumental. A postal clerk or a woman truck driver take on the billboard proportions of politicians and pop stars.  Without any sense of slumming, Varda and JR can memorialize a woman living in a building about to be demolished, and can spare time for a haggard hermit who has dropped out of the system. It’s as powerful a populism as any you’ll see, but done with humor, genuine curiosity, and respect for the integrity of each subject. A playful approach to art can yield serious emotional effect.

As Visages Villages goes on, it turns introspective. Varda recalls episodes from her life and tries to incorporate one of her photos, a casual shot of Guy Bourdin, into a skewed tipsy WWII bunker rusting on a beach. She recalls young days with Godard and Karina, so that now when Godard dodges a meeting, she becomes rueful (“The rat!”). This lady gleaner is always gathering fragments, and we’re lucky she shares them with us.

 

Again Bologna gave excellent, overwhelming value. The surprises never stopped. Dropping into a film I hadn’t seen in three decades, Rancho Notorious, I not only had fun but realized once more Lang’s diabolical genius. A peculiar insert of a boot slipped into a stirrup puzzled me, but after an hour I got it. (Forgive me, Fritzie, for I knew not what I did.) Long may this festival flourish.


Thanks as ever to the vast and dedicated staff of Il Cinema Ritrovato, particularly Guy Borlée, Gian Luca Farinelli, and Mariann Lewinsky.

I discuss the trend toward monumental jidai-geki in chapters 12 and 15 of Poetics of Cinema. More detailed analysis can be found in Darrell William Davis’s book Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Cinema.

Visages Villages (aka Faces, Places) is distributed by the Cohen Media Group.

Agnes JR

Agnés Varda and JR. Photo: DB.

David Bordwell
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