Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 2015: A Month In Asia

This month I thought I'd do something different. I knew I wanted to watch Ugetsu as means of the Blind Spot Challenge. I also decided to start off the month with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. So I decided why not just focus on the whole of Asian cinema for this month. Sure I can watch some American films in between, but I wanted to delve into the cultures of this continent.

Film has the ability to give us access to the culture of the country from which the film is produced. For example, the rich history of China is documented in the microcosm of opera in Farewell, My Concubine. The Edo Period and the bushido code is looked at in Harakiri. They are gateways to other places. The vitality and urgency of films coming out of these countries shows how important it is to study these films. Never mind the period. Seven Samurai is just as alive as the new films coming out of South Korea in the 2000s. Who cares if you have to read the subtitles. 


Akira Kurosawa

If there's ever a director who dominated this month, it would be the Master of Japanese Cinema, Akira Kurosawa. I had already seen Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, Stray Dog and Ran. This month I took in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, The Bad Sleep Well, The Hidden Fortress and Red Beard. I can't wait to take on another batch of his films.

In addition to digging deeper into his filmography, I learned much about his life story, how he rose to prominence and how he reshaped the language of cinema.

Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi earned a spot on my list of favorite directors after watching both Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu. His Life of Oharu only confirmed his spot there. These are three of the most powerful works I have experienced in any language.

Yasujiro Ozu

Ozu, like Bresson, makes things simple that you think you can pull off that camera set up or scene. But its anything but simple. One of his most revered works, Late Spring and his final work An Autumn Afternoon allowed me to discover the poetry of his world.

Masako Kobayashi

Not as highly regarded as the three masters above but every bit as important. His most known work, Harakiri, is a masterful evocation of the bushido code. A critique of feudalism and authoritarian power, Harakiri is set in the Edo period of Japan which lasted from 1600 to 1868. It tells the story of Tsugumo Hanshiro, a ronin (samurai without a master) whose family was wronged by the Ily clan. A wonderful performance by Tatsuya Nakadai and masterful direction by Kobayashi, Harakiri  jumped into my Top 100 when I saw it. I look forward to his nine part epic The Human Condition as well as Samurai Rebellion. 

Hiroshi Teshihagara

Sand. Skin. Water. Teshihagara's direction in his masterwork Woman In the Dunes is all about textures and moods. The haunting score that slowly builds to tribal beats is excellently composed by Toru Takemitsu. Owes as much to impressionist painting as it does to existentialism. Criterion, I suggest you get to work on the blu ray transfer. 

Shohei Imamura

Vengeance Is Mine impressed me greatly when I saw it. So I decided to take on Ballad of Narayama. Keisuke Kinoshita did a version of this story in 1958. Imamura updated it in 1983. I have yet to see Kinoshita's take but Imamura's version did impress. His camera never makes any judgments. Allowing us to simply observe, think and feel.



Chen Kaige

My first experience with Asian cinema. In the 90s, China was churning out a bevvy of dramatic pictures that gained critical acclaim. Farewell My Concubine is considered one of the premier works of the 90's so why not start at the top? This is a film whose scope few American films can match as far as history goes. 6 decades of Chinese history is set against the backdrop of Peking Opera.

Period epics can be often daunting. Yet the story was so compelling and costumes were so ravishing, it was hard not to take my eyes off the screen. Absorbing in many ways.

Edward Yang
Yi Yi would be my next stop. It being another epic drama but this time not of in period but rather in family drama. The first hour gave me some troubles as far as pacing goes. But after becoming enveloped by the character of Yang- Yang, the little boy with big questions, it became clear that this was a work of quiet thoughtfulness. It's as close to capturing everyday life on film as anything from America. Incredibly subtle and immensely rewarding.


Wong Kar-Wai

Every once in a while, I have to make a stop at Chungking Express. Not only to fawn over Faye Wong, but just to fall in love with this movie and experience its many gifts.

Takashi Kitano

Kitano's Fireworks is a movie long out of print and one I hope Criterion picks up for release one day. Bearing that, I was delighted a film of his, Sonatine, was on NetFlix. Probably the most usual Japanese film for me to seek out given that it is a crime picture. Yet it's stylized in a way that makes me want to see Fireworks all the more. Fun fact: Yes, this is the teacher from Battle Royale.

Hirokazu Koreeda

I did an entry earlier in my blog about this contemporary master. All I can say is watch Nobody Knows. Or Like Father Like Son. Or Still Walking. More than just the heir to Ozu. An important, original filmmaker in his own regard. 

Other films: 

Infernal Affairs is a film I was keen on seeing just as a means of seeing where The Departed sprang from. Turns out this film holds it's own and it is easy to see why Scorsese was drawn to the material. 

I also enjoyed Yojiro Takita's Departures. About a cellist who is laid off after a financial crisis. Thinking he is applying to a travel agency, he  discovers he is applying for an position as undertaker's assistant.


Kim Ki-duk

I have delved deep into the films of Park Chan Wok, Bong Jon Ho and Kim Jee-Woon prior to this. All three releasing some of my favorite films of the past ten years. I haven't really explored Korean cinema outside of genre film though. Kim Ki-duk was the perfect director to do this. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring was a film I had on my watchlist for years after hearing Ebert rave about it. After being blown away by it I sought out 3 Iron. It proved to me this director isn't a one trick pony and that his compositions and filmmaking are deeply admirable. Both wound up becoming two of my favorite movies.

Filmmakers I plan on checking out next time: Nagisa Oshima, Keisuke Kinoshita, Seijun Suzuki, Masahiro Shinoda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa


Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Harakiri (1962, Masako Kobayashi)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003, Kim Ki-Duk)
Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Woman In the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshihagara)
Nobody Knows (2004, Hirokazu Koreeda)
Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa)
Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang)
3-Iron (2004, Kim Ki-Duk)
Late Spring (1949, Yasajiro Ozu)


Note: A * indicates I have watched the movie before.

3/1- Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003, Kim Ki-Duk) (A+)
        House of Cards (3 episodes)

3/2- Nobody Knows (2004, Hirokazu Koreeda) (A-)
       House of Cards (4 episodes)
       Pina (2011, Wim Wenders) (B-)
       Like Father, Like Son (2013, Hirokazu Kore-eda) (A-)

3/3- Better Call Saul
       House of Cards (3 episodes)
       Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa) (A)
       Sanjuro (1962, Akira Kurosawa) (B+)

3/4- L'Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) (A-)
       La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini) (A-)

3/5- A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) (A+)
       The Ladykillers (1955, Alexander MacKendrick) (B+)
       Howl's Moving Castle (2004, Hiyao Miyazaki) (B)

3/6- Assault On Precinct 13 (1976, John Carpenter) (B)*
       RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven) (A)*
       Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton) (A+)*

3/7- Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) (A+)*
       Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

3/8- F For Fake (1973, Orson Welles) (B+)
       Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) (A+)
       The Virgin Spring (1960, Ingmar Bergman) (B+)
       Gun Crazy (1950, Joseph H. Lewis) (B)

3/9- Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel) (B)
       Kagemusha (1980, Akira Kurosawa) (A-)
       Better Call Saul

3/10- Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) (A)

3/11- The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Akira Kurosawa) (A-)
          Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) (A+)*

3/12- Gimme Shelter (1970, Albert and David Maysles) (A)*

3/13- Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars Von Trier) (A+)
         La Jetee (1962, Chris Marker) (A)
         Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker) (A)

3/14- Bringing Out the Dead (1999, Martin Scorsese) (A-)*
         The Hidden Fortress (1958, Akira Kurosawa) (A-)
         Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) (A+)

3/15- Clown (2014, Jon Watts) (C)

3/16- The Jinx: The Lifes and Deaths of Robert Durst (4 episodes)

3/17- Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky) (B+)

3/18- Sonatine (1993, Takeshi Kitano) (B+)
         Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, Thom Anderson) (A-)
         Red Beard (1965, Akira Kurosawa) (A)

3/19- The Kid With A Bike (2011, Jean- Pierre and Luc Dardenne) (B)
          Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder) (A+)*

3/20- Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg) (B+)*
          Park Row (1952, Samuel Fuller) (A-)
          Farewell, My Concubine (1993, Chen Kaige) (A-)

3/21- High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa) (A+)*
         Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan) (A+)*

3/22- High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa) (A+)*
          Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) (A+)

3/23- Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa) (A+)*

3/24- Yi Yi (2000, Edward Yang) (A)
         3-Iron (2004, Kim Ki-Duk) (A)

3/25- Alice (1988, Jan Svankmajer) (B+)
         Infernal Affairs (2002, Andrew Lau Wai-Keng, Alan Mak) (B+)
         Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock) (A+)*

3/26- The Commitments (1991, Alan Parker) (B)
          Digging Up the Marrow (2015, Adam Green) (B)

3/27- The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi) (A)
         An Autumn Afternoon (1962, Yasujiro Ozu) (B)

3/28- The Thin Blue Line (1988, Errol Morris) (A+)*

3/29- Departures (2008, Yojiro Takita) (A-)
         The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (2013, Ned Benson)
         The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (2013, Ned Benson)

3/30- Harakiri (1962, Masaki Kobayashi) (A+)
         Woman In the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara) (A+)

3/31- The Ballad of Narayama (1983, Shohei Imamura) (B+)

I'd love to talk more, but I'm late for my flight to Italy...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Top 10 Akira Kurosawa Films

10. The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Rescued from obscurity after George Lucas acknowledged it as an influence on Star Wars, Hidden Fortress shows the director using widescreen, or TohoScope in Japan, for the first time. It's an action picture but it also share elements of the road movie and the American western. John Ford was a major influence on Kurosawa and it can definitely be felt here.

9. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

A tale of revenge that combines elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet with film noir. It's a film that gets its hooks in you with the first 10 minutes. Kurosawa examines the dangers of corporate ladder climbing. Imagine Billy Wilder's The Apartment turned into a murder mystery. It has some of the most interesting shots to boot. But I'll let Tony Zhou explain that further:

8. Throne of Blood (1957)
An adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Throne of Blood represents one of the most brutal films in the director's filmography. It's relentless pace. The absolutely balls to the wall performance of Toshiro Mifune. The haunting scene with the And of course those final ten minutes. How the hell that was pulled off or how anyone wasn't hurt is one of life's great mysteries.

7. Red Beard (1965)
Kurosawa's last collaboration with Mifune proved to be one of the best. Red Beard is an overlooked film in Kurosawa's canon. A three hour medical drama set in feudal times about a physician, Noboru Yasumoto, who is sent to an infirmary to visit. He soon learns he has to stay and this sets his character off. Here we see the director take on humane themes through gentle, sweeping drama. A key section of the film deals with the story of a poor boy and Otoyo, a young female patient whom Noboru helps recover from her unhealthy domestic situation.

6. Yojimbo (1961)
The influence of Kurosawa takes on a cyclical nature when examined. The director greatly admired John Ford and the western. So he took that influence to the set of Yojimbo. This film in turn inspired Sergio Leone to create A Fistful of Dollars. What many consider to be one of the first spaghetti westerns.

The character of Sanjuro (played by Toshiro Mifune) is fed up with the corruption of his town and engineers a rivalry between two of the towns clans. Movie cool was not born with Pulp Fiction. Kurosawa was doing that decades before. Yojimbo is proof.

5. Ran (1985)
The director's visual peak as far as scope goes. Kurosawa began using color in 1970 with Dodo-saken. It was a failure at the box office and led the director to attempt to take his own life. He then moved to Russia to work on Dersu Urzula. A project that rejuvenated him. He wasn't as prolific as his "golden period" in the 50's. The work he churned out though showed him using color in new and interesting ways. Kurosawa doesn't allow any easy solution on this production as far as color. King Lear, from which the story was adapted, is an incredibly dark work. Yet the color is over saturated. Making for unforgettable images. There's never been anything like these images in film before or since. On this scale and sheer composition.

Ran could never have been made by Akira at the age he was at Samurai. There is a sense of old age wisdom with his use of long lenses and camerawork. There's no close ups or reaction shots. No dolly shots. Yet what he captures has the vitality of one of his pictures from the 50's. He was fearless. More importantly as this film proves, his work is timeless.

4. High and Low (1963)

A thriller that starts out as a game of cat and mouse and morphs into a police procedural. Akira's influence from Western cinema is apparent here as he adapts an American novel from Ed McBain. But he doesn't stop when the book does. He deliberately goes beyond the page and creates more story from the perspective of the kidnapper. It's an underappreciated work that is as every bit as fascinating as the next film I will be talking about...

3. Seven Samurai (1954)
Kurosawa's use of history in Seven Samurai has contemporary relevance. Honor, responsibility, the hierarchy of social classes. By going into the past he uncovers these truths. Beyond just historical narrative, the film is also a how to manual for the cinematic craft.

The use of silence. The flawless editing, particularly during the samurai battles. The staging and compositions. Seven Samurai is a film school where countless lessons can be received from the master. Want to learn how to make a good action movie? Want to learn how to make good movies in general? Watch Seven Samurai.

2. Ikiru (1952)
Kurosawa can be described as a humanist. No more is it apparent than Ikiru.

The story of an aging bureaucrat with stomach cancer, Ikiru examines the exploration of life through the eyes of this dying man. It's a universal theme that I find myself coming back to again and again and one I wish to explore in my own work.

As much as I love Toshiro Mifune's multiple roles in Kurosawa's films, I have to go with Takashi Shimura as the protagonist Kanji Watanabe as my favorite performance in Kurosawa's work. It's a film that poses a delicate question: If you had 6 months to live, what would you do?

1. Rashomon (1950)
When Rashomon opened at the Venice Film Festival it stunned audiences. Here was a film so radical in design, no one had seen anything like it. Set in 11th century Japan in order to explore the extremities of human behavior. The nonlinear narrative that employs flashbacks to show the crimes of those involved. The use of perspective through each of the four characters being examined. The effect, later dubbed the Rashomon effect has been used in countless stories. In Rashomon though, Kurosawa never lets us know which perspective is true. There are no answers. Only more questions.

In his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, he lets us know that the film is in fact not about subjectivity of truth but about the quicksand of ego. It's a milestone of filmmaking.

He was also a master of movement.

Akira Kurosawa left behind a remarkable body of work that continues to inspire and teach filmmakers to this day. From his humanist fables Rashomon, Ikiru and Red Beard to his samurai epics Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Hidden Fortress to his thrillers such as High and Low. Like the sun whose rays beamed through the forest in Rashomon, Akira was a man who brought hope in a dark place.

Happy 105th birthday, Master.

Blind Spot Series: Ugetsu

Hauntingly beautiful. Exquisite. Sublime. These superlatives have cropped up whenever this movie is brought up. It's a film that, along with Rashomon, help introduce Japanese cinema to American audiences. When I first watched it I knew it was special but it had this elusive quality to it. It was only until I watched it again that its qualities seized me.

Kenji Mizoguchi's best known work announced him as someone who filmmakers and critics would revere. Ugetsu adapts the stories of  Ueda Akinari, first published in 1771, and casts its characters in the midst of a civil war in 16th century Japan. It tells us parallel stories of women who are confounded by social mores and the greed of the men they love.

Rather than it be a reflection of reality, something Yasujiro Ozu, another Japanese filmmaker seemed more attuned to with Tokyo Story, Mizoguchi creates a fairy tale-esque world. The kind of stuff that would have Guillermo Del Toro giggling to himself in ghoulish glee.

Filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda commented that Mizoguchi was a supreme realist while also being a supreme fantasist. Quite so. With Ugetsu, Mizoguchi broke through the barriers confined to realism and sought out to create a fantastical realm around the subjects he was depicting. This type of narrative is intoxicating in the way the director uses it. The narrative blends reality, memory and fantasy seamlessly so the viewer is always kept of their toes. We've seen this type of storytelling before in European cinema with Jean Vigo's L'Atalante and Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast where the fantastical overwhelms the realistic. Now Eastern Asia cinema tackles it in a hauntingly lyrical way. It blends the two together in a way that unites them. It's as if Mizoguchi is saying that this is one world.

Another thing to note with Mizoguchi is the moving camera. As opposed to Yasujiro Ozu who keeps his camera locked down, Mizoguchi allows his camera to roam freely. Kazuo Miyagawa who shot Kurosawa's Rashomon and Yojimbo, along with some of Ozu's work, was Mizoguchi's cameraman at the time.

Mizoguchi once said to his cameraman, Miyagawa "Movies are like picture scrolls." With the help of his roaming camera, exquisite imagery and haunting tones, Mizoguchi helped created a scroll of indelible images that have captured the minds of filmmakers and audiences alike.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The widescreen framing of High and Low

Akira Kurosawa is one of the few directors considered not to have made just one masterpiece, but 7. Even his lower works are films to be studied for their impeccable craft. The film that is not nearly sung on high as much as Seven Samurai, Rashomon or Ran is High and Low. Like Scorsese, who is sometimes seen as the master of gangster/crime movies, Kurosawa is seen as the guy who is the master of samurai movies. Which is unfair to both. Kurosawa was equally as interested in Japanese contemporary life. This translated into him making some seriously great dramas and thrillers alongside his noted samurai classics.

Today, I'm going to talk about how Kurosawa mastered the use of widescreen framing using the example of High and Low. A film that ranks alongside Rashomon as one of his best.  

High and Low is about a wealthy industrialist played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifine, whose family becomes the target of a kidnapper. Originally a book by Ed McBain, Kurosawa experimented with the structure going beyond the ending of the novel to create another section that allows High and Low to morph into a game of cat and mouse into a police procedural.

The first half takes places in a Gondo's (Toshiro Mifune) hilltop mansion. It's important to note the location as Kurosawa would later shoot the mansion as a house over looking all the villages below it. A place of wealth and importance. Throughout the first half, the frame is filled with up to eight to ten characters. How does one take that and turn it into something that isn't complete chaos? Blocking and choreography. A great director is also a great blocker and choreographer of character movement within the frame.

Yet none of these shots call attention to themselves. They are not flashy like the tracking shots in cinema that would later become masturbation material for film nerds later on.

Take a look at this frame and how Akira sets it up:

The protagonist, Gondo,  is receiving a call from the kidnapper. This takes us into the heart of the film's first section. Thus, Gondo is centered in the frame as to being to most important to this section. Gondo's wife to the right and one of his associates to the left. Structurally, the location of these shots are confined to the house because it becomes an expression of Gondo's isolation to society. 

Now let's take a shot when the police arrive:

Detective Tokura (dressed in black) is at the center of the frame. The frame is densely packed and is congested. This takes into account the suffocating pressure Gondo is feeling. Notice Gondo all the way to the far left of the frame sitting down. His place in the social hierarchy is also altered. He is now being used by the police to solve this crime. These compositions continue throughout this section and are used to show how he is responsible to everyone else in the room. No longer is he the powerful industrialist. He is constrained by the demands of everyone else. 

Notice how the kidnapper in the second half is shot unlike anyone else in the movie. Shot in tight closeups and is hemmed in. Or how the lower class is depicted throughout the second in contrast to the upper class. The dynamics of the frame and the importance of who is in it and how they are represented through their location inside of it are all traits that you want in a good film. 

These widescreen compositions are used to express the ideas of the film. High class and low class. Grand and mundane. Heaven and hell.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Man Escaped: The importance of sound

Today, I'm going to tackle Robert Bresson's 1956 masterpiece A Man Escaped. Without even telling you the story, we already know the outcome of the film just by the title. So the question isn't why or when, but rather how. This question is explored through the use of sound. It serves a number of functions. Whether it is through sound effects, Fontaine's narration, through motifs, or through music. All contribute to the whole of the film.

Based on the story of a French Resistance leader captured by Germans during WWII, A Man Escaped marked Bresson's third movie. Bresson wisely chooses not to profile any German soldier unless absolutely necessary. Allowing us to experience the full subjectivity of Fontaine's experience. We see what he sees. We hear what he hears. It's being submerged in the routine of the prisoner and the patience of the process eventually pays off.

Fontaine's narration carries us through his experience. Yet, the images don't match up with his commentary. We are aware that he will escape his prison. So the question doesn't become whether or not he will escape but how he will escape. This allows us to train our mind on the ordinary objects he uses to break out.

Sound is also used to fill in our imaginations. For example, the opening scene shows Fontaine escaping out of car. The camera holds on the passenger who was sitting next to him and stays inside the car rather than follow Fontaine out. We hear feet running and then gunshots. We can guess how it went down because the sound guides our expectations. Even though the camera does not show them. This happens a few more times in the movie.

A Man Escaped, along with Hitchcock's The Birds and Scorsese's Raging Bull, is one of the key films to study in regards to the use of sound and how it shapes the process of storytelling.

For further reading, David Bordwell has a great analysis of how sound is used in the film:


Criterion Collection also included excerpts of the essay on their blu ray:

Monday, March 9, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New Discovery: Hirokazu Koreeda

Said to have picked up where Yasujiro Ozu (more on him this month) left off, Hirokazu Koreeda explores domestic situations and territory that was once explored by the legendary auteur. It's best to find a starting point to the emotional mazes of Koreeda's films. So let's start at Nobody Knows.

Based on the Sugamo Child Abandonment news story from the late 1980's, Nobody Knows tells the story of a mother and her four children and how one day she decides to abandon them. Survival thus becomes a crucial element to the children as the eldest boy, Akira (played by the immensely talented Yuya Yagira), ends up getting the rest of his siblings food and water just to make it through the day.

We empathize with these characters in a way that builds naturally and subtly. Koreeda's crisp compositions and shot selection elevate the material to the sublime. Where a simple pottery plant falling to the ground or a kid throwing up a bottle of water and catching it has such poignancy. The restraint shown here is extraordinary. As the realism of the situation is never sacrificed in favor of emotional gimmicks. Koreeda simply lets it play out.

The next Koreeda film I watched was Like Father, Like Son. Documenting the domestic situation again but this time from a different perspective. From that of two families and  two children caught in the middle. This film delves into the topic of babies being switched at birth and asks the question: If you raised a kid for 6 years and discovered it was not your biological son, would you switch it with the family that has the biological son.

Most movies would start and stop at the question. Koreeda wisely lets the story unfold and allows more question to be built on that one: How would each kid react? What led to the swap in the first place? What emotional burden would the parent carry who decided to swap the kid?

There's no melodrama to be found here. Emotions are internalized. Actions are hidden away. The portrayal of the characters lay upon the shoulders of truly gifted actors Masaharu Fukuyama, Yoko Maki, Jun Kunimura, Kirin Kiki, and Machiko Oko.

Both films establish Koreeda as a new director to be taken seriously and one whose filmography I will be going through.

Both Nobody Knows and Like Father Like Son are streaming on NetFlix Instant.