In her final dispatch from Berlin, Pamela Jahn reports on the Asian films in the programme, including new works by Zhang Yimou and Kôji Wakamatsu.
There is traditionally a strong Asian presence in the Forum section, and after last year’s inventive Korean features (including Baek Seung-bin’s debut feature Members of the Funeral) I was hoping for another batch of exciting films this year. Unfortunately, I missed the two Korean films on offer, but the most original of the four Japanese entries in the section was undoubtedly Sabu’s Kanikōsen. A witty, ferociously crafted screen adaptation of Takeji Kobayashi’s 1929 agitprop novel, the film mainly takes place on a battered cannery ship in imperialist Japan. The set is somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, and the film tells a similar story, focusing on a crew of downtrodden workers who eventually rise up against their tyrannical oppressors. As one would expect from a filmmaker who is known for fast-paced action-comedies and anarchic satire, Kanikōsen is informed by a pitch-black sense of humour that at times turns into slapstick; yet Sabu manages to make the novel’s fundamental and still relevant critique clear by keeping the right balance between theatrical elements, brutality and idiosyncratic ingenuity. Employing an anti-realist approach to the historical context, Kanikōsen is a bizarre and often claustrophobic cinematic experience where Brecht meets Chaplin on the high sea.
Diving into the abyss of modern Japanese society, Isao Yukisada’s Parade is an often comical but increasingly gloomy urban tale revolving around the phenomenon of people in their mid-20s who refuse to grow up and face life. At first, the narrative is driven merely by dialogue and the infrequent actions taking place in a household of four troubled Tokyo drifters, but it sparks up the moment a homeless teenage hustler suddenly takes over the couch in the living room. The film is roughly divided into four chapters, each focusing on one of the tenants and his or her private obsession, and the dark nature of the story is emphasised by the soundtrack and sublime twists that carefully hint at the film’s surprise ending. Although Parade lacks the drive, visual subtlety and thoughtfulness that made Yukisada’s 2001 teen drama Go such a compelling watch, just following these offbeat, gentle dreamers is a pleasure, and it made this somewhat overwrought film stand out as one of the wittier and more honest works on show in the Panorama section.
Excoriated as a ‘national disgrace’ in the Japanese press at the time, Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secrets Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto) caused a stir when it premiered at the Berlinale in 1965, which ultimately helped push the pinku eiga pioneer to fame home and abroad. Forty-five years later, Wakamatsu’s eagerly awaited new feature Caterpillar – a loose follow-up to his 2007 monstrous docu-fiction drama United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) – was screening in competition, but although it confirms Wakamatsu’s credentials as one of Japan’s most fiercely independent directors/producers to date, the style and backdrop of his latest effort are quite different from his earlier work. Set in a rural village during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1940, Caterpillar tells the story of severely disabled war veteran Lieutenant Kyuzo Kurokawa (Shima Ohnishi) who returns home disfigured and dumb, and with no arms and legs, but highly decorated, with three medals paying tribute to his heroic deeds. For his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima), however, he is less a ‘war god’ than a burden, as rude and demanding with her as he was before he was maimed, and while carrying out her duty as the docile peasant, sacrificing herself by caring for the glorified soldier and taking him out for public display, her meek patience is thinning rapidly and eventually turns into a desire for revenge. Caterpillar uses documentary war footage, radio propaganda and excessive, brutal imagery that hint at the violently, sexually and politically provocative spirit of Wakamatsu’s previous work, but the film is strongest in its meticulous depiction of the strained relationship between Kyozu and Shigeko. Overall, it makes a fitting addition to the 73-year-old director’s remarkable oeuvre, which now stands at 100 films.
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi)
Undeniably the most colourful entry in this year’s programme was Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop – a remake of sorts of the Coen Brothers’ 1984 debut Blood Simple. Moving the action to northern China in the imperial age, the film follows Ni Dahong, the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of the desert, who pays a killer to murder both his unfaithful wife and her squeamish lover. It’s a shame that the banal slapstick and oddball jokes that Zhang decided to employ instead of the black humour of the original inevitably turn his ambitious venture into a comic farce as the plot rolls on, and it is only in the film’s showdown that he manages to get back on solid ground. There are plenty of things wrong with this film, including the wildly varied and exaggerated acting on display, but A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nonetheless a visual treat throughout, from the luridly coloured landscapes and floral costumes to the film’s deft cinematography that are clear reminders of Zhang’s earlier work.
Golden Slumber (Goruden Suramba)
With no more major surprises to be expected after a week of enjoying an inspiring, yet patchy festival programme, my last choice turned out to be something of a lucky draw. Golden Slumber is essentially a Japanese indie man-on-the-run conspiracy thriller that follows the conventions of the genre, but the imagery of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s film is all his own. Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver, is meeting up with his old college friend Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when the new prime minister is assassinated in a bomb attack during a procession through the streets of the Japanese city of Sendai, and, through some far-fetched coincidences, Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. Nakamura deftly hurls his unobtrusive hero from one hair’s breadth escape to another, filling in his background in comic-style fashion, and even though the story feels a bit longwinded in the middle, it lays the groundwork for the triumphant climax. A witty, refreshing genre treat, and arguably one of the most easily enjoyable films at the Berlinale this year.