El Topo

Format: Cinema

Screening at: BFI Southbank

Date: 6-19 April 2007

Also available on DVD

Release date: 14 May 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cast Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky,Mara Lorenzio, David Silva

Mexico 1971

124 minutes

The first thing that needs to be said about El Topo is, it has its longueurs but it’s a lot of fun. I had always been led to believe that this ‘metaphysical’ western, reportedly bursting with weird imagery and extreme violence, was ‘difficult’. In the end, I think there’s a danger of talking up ‘difficult’ into ‘inaccessible’, which it certainly isn’t. What El Topo certainly has been is unavailable. Applying the equation, ‘cult’ equals ‘reputation’ over ‘availability’, El Topo must score pretty highly. But there’s a danger, after such a long time in limbo, and with so much ink spilt in the meantime, that the freight of expectation could become something of an albatross.

How do you pitch El Topo? The original tagline plumps for zany and freakish: ‘See the naked young Franciscans whipped with cactus. See the bandit leader disemboweled. See the priest ride into the sunset with a midget and her newborn baby’. All of which you will indeed see í¢â‚¬â€ though I’m inclined to think the bandit leader, having been de-wigged and stripped to red silk boxer shorts, is actually castrated rather than disemboweled. At any rate, the tagline may be one way of selling the film, but it hardly does justice to the way slapstick merges seamlessly into dispassionate cruelty. And none of this explains where the ‘metaphysical’ side comes in. The dialogue does feature an element of explicit philosophising, but the mise en scí­Â¨ne seems if anything more important: vivid events, whether philosophical or silly, or both, are set against the same vast, empty and indifferent landscape. In the opening frames, a heat-blurred black spot gradually comes into focus out of the blazing expanse of desert. Once in the foreground, the bearded gunslinger clad in stylish black leather, punctuated by a less obviously heroic black umbrella, dismounts and bids his naked 7-year-old son bury his childhood í¢â‚¬â€ in the form of a teddy bear and a photo of his mother. So the solemn and the ridiculous are intertwined from the start, and this is key to Jodorowsky. If the film has anything as simple as a moral, it is arguably that El Topo has to learn to accept the ridiculous with humility. Presenting the film as either chin-scratchingly intellectual or trashily sensational misses the point of a very personal vision that marks no such distinction.

The first half of the film charts El Topo’s fall, which dates roughly from the moment he grandiloquently proclaims, ‘Soy Dios’, by way of justification for castrating the colonel. Taking oneself for a god may be a natural hazard of riding about in the desert in black leather avenging the downtrodden, especially when the opposition is so flatteringly mediocre. The problem is not just that El Topo has come to believe his own PR: he has also done too good a job of impressing the seductive but demanding Mara (Mara Lorenzio). She first persuades him to desert his son to the Franciscans, and then insists he must prove himself by defeating four ‘masters’, a succession of mystical hermit gunslingers. As he is not in fact God, he has to do so through low trickery rather than skill, cheered on enthusiastically by the results-obsessed Mara. But El Topo is tormented by the superiority of his opponents even in death, and repents at the very moment of success. At this point Mara transfers her affections to El Topo’s rival in love, the mysterious and sexy woman in black (Paula Romo), who promptly shoots loser ex-boyfriend in the belly. Left for dead by these dreadful harpies, he is found by a passing band of midgets and dragged away on a litter.

In the second half, he awakens years later under a mountain where the midgets (the deformed outcast offspring of incest, imprisoned under the mountain by the wicked townsfolk) mistakenly revere him as a god. By this point he is a dead ringer for Matthew Barney in Cremaster 3, with white candy floss hair, doll-like rouge and powder make-up, and an outsize nappy. Once restored to his senses and apprised of the plight of his new people, he embarks on a Mosaic quest to tunnel a way out for them. In the meantime, with the help of a lovely midget played beautifully by Jacqueline Luis, he earns money by clowning for the vicious, hypocritical folk of the town at the foot of the mountain; not an easy gig, given that they hunt and brand slaves for entertainment and worship the all-seeing eye from the Great Seal of the United States.

Viewed in terms of allegory, the film is quite moral, even religious. And it is the allegorical structure that feeds speculation over the film’s ‘meaning’: the two halves, as is often remarked, could correspond to Old and New Testament; each of the ‘masters’ teaches El Topo a valuable life lesson; the film ends with a sort of redemption, and a holocaust from which only a woman and El Topo’s two children escape. On the other hand, you might just as well say this last element is reminiscent of The Alamo. In any case, the ‘allegorical’ aspect is as much formal and aesthetic as anything else. As in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or classic Japanese children’s TV series Monkey (Saiyûki) for that matter, baroque monads remain patiently seated in their pavilions in the midst of a wasted landscape, waiting only for the fated challenger to happen along. The sheer lack of context makes them uncanny. There is nothing to suggest how, for example, the second master and his fortune-teller mother í¢â‚¬â€ chubby folk swathed in furs and accompanied by a lion í¢â‚¬â€ can subsist in the meantime in their hollow of bleached-out clay. The third master’s bunny farm is likewise less symbolic than visually redolent of discomfitingly improbable life.

These ‘metaphysical’ encounters also follow on from, and may to some extent be punitive replays of, the burlesque first encounter with the bandits. El Topo’s hubris is to declare himself God when all he has done is overcome a band of cackling murderous cretins straight out of Spaghetti Western. All-too human, these small-time incompetents display their grotesquely misplaced sensuality by slavering over ladies’ shoes amongst the desert scrub, dancing romantically with monks (before riding them bare-back with cactus whips) and, a little later, barking and begging like dogs for a taste of a real lady (Mara). The bandits foreshadow the town of the second half of the film. There, desire lost in the wilderness has likewise been forced to expose itself as makeshift fetishism, all the more monstrous for being carried out on a civic scale. Only a collective perversion can enthusiastically embrace a religion based on Russian roulette as a legitimate form of Christianity. The town dignifies its worst excesses with a morality summed up in the puffed-up grimace of respectability worn by the matrons of the community (probably superannuated whores), whether checking up on their husbands in the saloon in the guise of the league for decency, or applauding the torture and murder of slaves. There is perhaps another, less ‘metaphysical’ and less discussed, context at work here; Mexico’s role in the scramble to carve up the Americas, and its violent entanglement with the USA in the lawless prosecution of its ‘manifest destiny’. I found myself at some points thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-violent and sort-of metaphysical Blood Meridian, and wondering what Jodorowsky might make of it. Brutish figures decked out in outlandishly ill-assorted costumes í¢â‚¬â€ each garment the document of a murder í¢â‚¬â€ would do him very well. But in the end I think Jodorowsky would want something with more kindness and a little bit of clowning thrown in. There is some fairly brutal violence in El Topo. There are also landscapes of crystal-bright unnerving desolation. And there are some rather sweet and silly moments. All of this, mixed up but somehow cohering, is what makes Jodorowsky.

Stephen Thomson


The Holy Mountain

Format: Cinema

Screening at: BFI Southbank

Date: 5-14 April 2007

Also available on DVD

Release date: 14 May 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cast Alejandro Jodorowsky, Horí¡cio Salinas, Zamira Saunders, Juan Ferrara

Mexico/USA 1973

105 minutes

After years of disappointing transfers which drained the original print of colour and used optical fuzzing to cover over the film’s frequent recourse to nudity, Jodorowsky’s legendary third feature gets a UK DVD release and we can finally experience, albeit on the small screen, the glory of his first foray into cinemascope. The legend itself is well known – John Lennon and Yoko Ono liked El Topo so much they stumped up the money for The Holy Mountain which at $1,500,000 made it the most expensive Mexican production to date. Allen Klein, the Beatles manager, produced though he refused to relinquish legal rights to the film hoping to profit financially from its re-release in the eventuality of the director’s death. Jodorowsky and Klein have since made up however, and a restored print was shown (along with El Topo) at Cannes in May 2006.

Many reviewers of The Holy Mountain have thrown up their hands in dismay at its lack of unified narrative but this is merely indicative of an end-obsessed culture with an infantile craving for punishment and reward served up for years by an impoverished cinematic diet of suspense and delay. I remember the American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage explaining this was one reason he dispensed with his camera altogether and began making films just by manipulating the film stock and running it through the projector. And anyway there is narrative in The Holy Mountain if you want it and plenty of it if you really do want it that badly. Its prologue (also the title sequence) might have caused some of this anxiety. In it a black-clad figure, possibly a High Priest, ritually washes and shaves the heads of two blonde women over the soundtrack of chanting Tibetan monks. This ‘scene’ however is broken into by a series of static abstract arrangements of arcane imagery (eyeballs, peacock feathers, pearls, a snake, a Magritte-like vignette of recumbent statues above a cocooned butterfly) much of it in a striking palette of blues and greens. What to do with all this? The bringing together of a pearl and an eye reminds us of Ariel’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘Those were pearls that were his eyes’ says the spirit of Ferdinand’s drowned father; ‘Of his bones are coral made…/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange.’ I can think of no two better words than ‘rich’ and ‘strange’ to describe much of The Holy Mountain, which like the drowned man is also about the magic of transformation. In effect the prologue offers up a series of images through which we are invited to view the rest of the film and thematically metamorphosis is a central preoccupation of much that follows.

The main narrative concerns a figure whom we later learn to be a thief. We first encounter him lying unconscious on a dusty road, his face obscured by flies. Brought round by a limbless dwarf (a recurrent trope in Jodorowsky’s films) he undergoes a journey through an unnamed South American city where his physical resemblance to Christ causes him to be subjected by various unscrupulous parties to well-known scenes from the gospels and to which he initially succumbs. One of these is his own crucifixion by a group of naked pre-pubescent boys though it’s typical of Jodorowsky to have his journey begin with this event (thus reversing the Christian myth) and to have him free himself and smoke a fat spliff with the dwarf! After a further series of gruesome trials, including one in which he awakes to find himself surrounded by hundreds of life-sized casts of his crucified form – Christ awakening to the nightmare of history one might say – the thief recognises the corruption of the Church and renounces his collusion in what he realises is essentially nothing more than a theatre of cruelty.

Thus ends what might be called the first section of the film. The thief is subsequently drawn to the lair of an alchemist who impresses him by metamorphosing his shit into gold. Evidently still in thrall to the lure of worldly wealth, the alchemist tells him: ‘You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.’ He then shows him a sequence of grotesque satirical vignettes of the lives of seven other wealth-obsessed industrialists and politicians, all thieves in a different guise – a maker of cosmetics, a weapons manufacturer, an art dealer, a toy maker, an architect, a chief of police and a presidential financial adviser. Each figure points to the industrial-military complex as an illusory impediment to what the alchemist calls ‘the true alchemical work,’ the transformation of the earthly self through spiritual enlightenment. After this presentation (which shows Jodorowsky’s background in theatre – each vignette is a kind of celluloid masque-show) the alchemist summons the figures and together with the thief they all embark as pilgrims on another journey this time to the eponymous Holy Mountain where according to the alchemist they will find the secret of eternal life by seeking out and killing the Nine Masters of the Summit.

This, the third section of the film if you like, shows us the trials and tribulations of their journey as they all seek to cast off their earthly limitations. The journey is one of the overarching structural tropes of The Holy Mountain and in many cultures its physical side is imbued with a rich spiritual dimension. Interviews with Jodorowsky reveal his abiding interest in the latter. His fascination with the Tarot is well known – he even designed his own Tarot pack – and The Holy Mountain is, unsurprisingly, saturated with its esoteric symbology. At the beginning of the film beside the prostrate body of the thief we see two twinned cards of the Major Arcana, The Fool and The Crocodile. Later the Tower makes an appearance which the thief scales to reach the alchemist. The alchemist is himself an avatar of The Magician.

Knowledge of the meaning of this complex symbology is not however strictly necessary for the uninitiated (like myself) coming to The Holy Mountain. I’d argue that Jodorowsky’s placing of the image of a golden Key towards the end of the prologue is a provocation for us to see its arcane imagery as unlocking some obscure meaning at the heart of the film. Besides, Jodorowsky is as concerned with immediate historical and political context as he is with any ‘timeless’ spirituality. The city the thief wanders through at the beginning of the film is swarming with uniformed militia, reminders of South America’s turbulent colonial and post-colonial history. They parade the streets holding aloft standards bearing flayed animal carcasses. Scenes of physical violence are insanely photographed by tourists including a husband who gleefully films his wife as she is raped by a soldier. This is not simply a broad satire of the madness of consumption but also evidence of a mind acutely attuned to the erotics of power. One of the most memorable scenes is a chameleon and toad circus which depicts the Conquest of Mexico. Filmed in close-up, it’s a glorious orgy of amphibian slow motion with toads (the invading Spanish) dressed in monk’s cowls and armour clambering over gaudily dressed chameleons (the Aztecs) before the whole set (a scale model of an Aztec city complete with ziggurats) is blown to bits, all played out to a Nazi marching tune.

Part of the appeal of this scene – and part of its sophistication – is the slippage between what is played out before our eyes and what we hear. There’s no need for ‘comment’ on what’s happening as two historical eras are brought together and it ‘works’ through disjunction. It’s what the Russian Formalists called ostrananie or ‘making strange.’ It’s a concept Jodorowsky would have found as a theatre student from his reading of Brecht and Artaud and it’s a much used device throughout The Holy Mountain. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the film’s handling of violence. Rather than attempt to portray it naturalistically (as for instance in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, released four years before The Holy Mountain) Jodorowsky emphasises its strangeness. A group of young protesters are shot and have buckets of blood thrown over them. Another line of protesters are shot and bleed in yellows, blues and greens. A dead man has a length of ribbon drawn from his chest, another a chicken pulled from his stomach. In another scene a woman’s head drips blue, not from a wound but from the metal piping quite visibly attached to her temples. This is all much more surprising – much richer and stranger – than the sublimity Peckinpah was reaching for in his use of slow motion to depict on-screen carnage. It aims not for empathy – what’s the point? – but for understanding.

It is also Jodorowsky’s very evident sense of humour that should warn us not to take the film’s spirituality too seriously. Witness the camp, lederhosen-clad gatekeeper who welcomes the pilgrims to the island of the Holy Mountain – it’s Tiny Tim meets The Sound of Music! Plus the mountain itself looks more like something off a cheap alpine postcard than a possible seat of the Gods. Perhaps it’s also a light-hearted nod to Leni Riefenstahl and Arnold Fanck’s 1926 paean to Aryan health and fitness also called The Holy Mountain. It’s the very end of the film however that reveals Jodorowsky’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. As the pilgrims reach the top of the mountain the alchemist reveals that the Masters of the Summit seated at their magic round table are nothing more than lifeless, hooded manikins at which point he begins to laugh and cocks a snook at everyone. It’s infectious and laughter breaks out amongst all the assembled. He then utters the following which is worth quoting in full:

‘I promised you the great secret and I will not disappoint you. Is this the end of our adventure? Nothing has an end. We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be immortal like the Gods and here we are, mortals, more human than ever. If we have not obtained immortality at least we have obtained reality. We began in a fairy tale and we came to life, but is this life reality? No, it is a film. Zoom back camera. We are images, dreams, photographs. We must not stay here prisoners. We shall break the illusion. This is Maja. Goodbye to the Holy Mountain. Real life awaits us.’

The camera zooms out accordingly to reveal all the hidden paraphernalia of film – the lights, the sound boom, the crew. It’s the world of Fellini’s 8 1/2.

However it’s also the world of the theatre again. The alchemist’s words echo the magician Prospero at the end of The Tempest as he breaks the spell that has kept the audience confined in a magical state of suspended disbelief for the duration of the play. Just as Prospero breaks his staff and casts his magic book into the sea, the alchemist overturns the Summit Masters’ round table. It’s just a prop. What we are brought back to at the end is that we have been watching a film and in this film about the dangers of illusion we must remember that what we are seeing is also an illusion. The alchemist has of course been played all along by Jodorowsky himself. He’s the director as alchemist and magician and thinking back to his initial meeting with the thief, turning shit into gold is also what the film-maker does. It’s a metaphor for many aspects of the cinema (certainly for the industry as Hollywood sees it) and a reminder that film-making is about chemical transformation. However it’s also about transforming the viewer who leaves the cinema a changed person and the end of the film is the signal for the audience to carry on its work in the world outside of the theatre. This new DVD release will enable a new generation of viewers to take it up again, as rich and strange as it was over a quarter of a century ago.

Jeff Hilson


Fando Y Lis

Format: Cinema

Screening at: BFI Southbank

Date: 6-10 April 2007

Also available on DVD as part of the Jodorowsky Box Set

Release date: 14 May 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Based on the play by: Fernando Arrabal

Cast Sergio Kleiner, Diana Mariscal

Mexico 1968

95 minutes

Maker of fabulous worlds, Alejandro Jodorowsky is himself a wondrous, many-tentacled, creature. Born in Chile of Russian Jewish parents, he first moved to Mexico and later to France. Best known as a film-maker, he has also worked as a circus clown, stage actor, mime artist, puppeteer, author, avant-garde theatre director, graphic novelist, Tarot reader and psycho-shaman… Belonging nowhere, unfettered by the constraints of any one art form, Jodorowksy has been free to let the wildest visions sprout out of his extravagant imagination for the last forty years, distilling visceral images, provocative spirituality and lashings of abrasive humour into a head-turning bootleg firewater.

Greatly influenced by Surrealism, Jodorowsky travelled to Paris to meet André Breton in 1953 and was a fervent reader of one-time Surrealist author Antonin Artaud – one of many artists expelled from the movement by the narrow-minded, doctrinaire Breton. Artaud’s revolutionary manifesto ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’ provided the foundation for Jodorowsky’s conception of his own art. Believing that theatre had lost its emotional power, Artaud called for a violently expressive, physical theatre that would ‘restore an impassioned convulsive concept of life to theatre’. Rejecting the traditional reliance on the written text, the Theatre of Cruelty would use movement, gesture, shouts, rhythmical pounding, puppets and masks in order to transmit meaning through an urgent physicality. Shows would be like ‘exorcisms’, aiming to revive the magic, ritualistic function of theatre. Artaud’s radical views and anarchic spirit permeate all of Jodorowsky’s films, and nowhere is this clearer than in Fando & Lis.

In 1962 Jodorowsky founded the Mouvement Panique with Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal and French artist Roland Topor (author of the novel that inspired Roman Polanski’s The Tenant). The official Jodorowsky website explains that the name was chosen ‘in allusion to the god Pan, who manifests himself through three basic elements: terror, humour and simultaneity’. An anti-movement rather than a movement according to Arrabal, it brought together a bunch of contrary, irreverent individuals who embraced chaos and excess, intuition and the irrational, savage sexuality and dissent as a way of life. Billed as a Panic film, Jodorowsky’s first feature Fando & Lis was a loose adaptation of a play by Arrabal, which Jodorowsky had directed in Paris. True to Artaud’s precepts, Jodorowsky based the film solely on his recollection of the play in order to avoid following the text too closely. It premiered at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968, soon after the massacre of peaceful demonstrators by the police in Mexico City. In the resulting tense climate, the blasphemous provocations of Fando & Lis proved too much for the audience and a riot broke out in the auditorium, forcing Jodorowsky to flee the theatre. The film was subsequently banned in Mexico.

Forty years later Fando & Lis is still as inflammatory as cinema can get. It’s a scream, a punch in the guts, an eye-gouging journey through what looks like nothing less than the lowest circles of Dante’s Inferno. On a quest to find the mythical paradisiacal city of Tar, the splenetic Fando pushes his paralysed lover Lis on a four-wheel cart through a hellish world of derelict towns and barren mountains peopled by decomposing corpses, mad priests and drag queens. Bodies writhe in mud before standing up, as if emerging from the primal matter, staring at Fando and Lis like dead-eyed zombies. Jarring sounds add to the disquieting images: buzzing flies convey the stench of the rotting corpses, percussive instruments beat as loud as a panicked heart. Going round and round in the wasteland, the lovers are unable to find a way out of their nightmares, mere puppets whose strings are pulled by a cruel god-like puppeteer not unlike the one played by Jodorowsky himself in a scene from Lis’ past.

On their way to Tar, Fando and Lis come across a group of sophisticated ladies and gents drinking cocktails and playing jazz amid the rubble of a razed town. While the dapper men mock Lis’ infirmity the ladies take Fando as their sexual play thing and thoroughly humiliate him. Later a mob of towering, sullen women armed with watermelons play bowling with Fando as the pin. A crowd of sinister worshippers gather around Lis’ coffin and cut off pieces of her flesh, which they consume in a blasphemous parody of the Catholic host. A herd of drag queens carry a protesting Fando away and dress him up as a woman. Jodorowsky’s world is full of predatory packs of people that mass around exceptional individuals, wanting a piece of them – literally in Lis’ case – demanding miracles, expecting to be fulfilled or enlightened. Animal noises – or the sound of clicking scissors in the coffin scene – heighten the sense of menace. Idolisation doesn’t go without aggression and the parody of the Catholic ritual is not vacuous provocation but the revelation of its disturbing nature: what the host truly is about is nothing less than the cannibalistic consumption of the saint/saviour/master’s body to partake of its god-like quality. But while the character of Lis already announces Jodorowsky’s later preoccupations with the messianic individual in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, here the threatening gangs want less a guru than a sexual toy, an object they can play with, possess and destroy.

As in El Topo and Santa Sangre Freudian neuroses are played out in grandiloquent, baroque excess. In the desolate mountains Fando is force-fed by his dying mother, a formidable figure who is more drag queen diva than homely matriarch. Elsewhere he is assaulted by lewd, toothless old hags, one of which crushes peaches in her hands when he refuses her sexual advances. Terrorized by mother-like figures, Fando takes it out on the helpless Lis. As passive as a doll she gets dragged this way and that way, positioned and played with according to his whims. In a scene that echoes the violence to which she is subjected a man cuts an obscene hole into a doll before placing a snake inside. Misogynistic, Jodorowsky? Most definitely, at least here: in Fando Y Lis women are either castrating old witches or whimpering, impotent victims. But what makes it bearable is that Fando himself is a rather pathetic example of the male species. Traumatized by an overbearing mother, humiliated by the cocktail ladies, femininized by the drag queens, he is screwed-up, confused, insecure and as whiny and needy as Lis is.

Fando and Lis are a deviant, perverted version of the classic lovers. They can’t live without each other, so much so that Fando ends up handcuffing Lis and chaining her to the cart. They love each other until death parts them, that is… well, you’ll have to see what happens – needless to say it’s brutal and ferocious. ‘And when I wanted to separate myself from her I realised we formed one body with two heads’, reads the title of part 4. In Fando Y Lis love is a monstrous two-headed creature, a grotesque body formed by two needy, incomplete people, incapable of living apart but resenting the confines of this unnatural togetherness and wanting to strike out at their conjoined twin. In later Jodorowsky films the freakish nature of people’s dependency on each other will become literal: in Santa Sangre a son unites his body to that of his armless mother to become a glamorous mime artist while in El Topo a legless man on the back of an armless man makes one fully functioning sidekick.

Ultimately it is its Dionysiac quality that makes Fando Y Lis such a compelling experience: the sensory assault of the film, the savage violence it depicts, the sardonic bursts of hilarity are all an unleashing of primal instincts, a celebration of destructive excess, a cathartic release of explosive energy. Ignore all descriptions of Jodorowsky’s work as psychedelic ‘head trip’. There is no druggy vagueness here but a crap-cutting, exhilarating viciousness that makes the film timeless. Jodorowsky has been unfavourably compared to Luis Buí±uel and yet (oh sacrilege!) the latter’s much admired half-polite satires of the bourgeoisie are nowhere near as vital or violently surreal as Jodorowsky’s imaginings. And it is probably because of his supreme disrespect for any kind of facile world view – any political, religious or plain sentimental simplification of the world – that Jodorowsky has been made to linger in the cult ghetto while less radical artists were given full honours. Forty years later Fando Y Lis remains a triumph of lacerating audacity, a hysterical tale of fucked-up revolt that still pulses with dark life now. Conjuring dangerously potent visions, Jodorowsky throws you head first into the bottomless pit of grotesque pain that is life and makes you laugh all the way like a hyena. Enjoy.

Virginie Sélavy


This is England

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 April 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Shane Meadows

Cast Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim

UK 2007

100 minutes

You know what you get with a Shane Meadows film; more certainly than even Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, his name on the credits tells you what you’re in for: a Midlands-set working-class drama scattered with moments of real comedy and genuinely disturbing flashes of violence. Although he is still to have a commercial hit (even the ‘star-studded’ Once Upon a Time in the Midlands flopped) Shane Meadows is becoming one of this country’s major filmmakers (South Bank Show special coming soon) and he has found his own niche in British cinema. Although he is very much part of the social realist element that has run from John Grierson and the GPO (via the kitchen sink to Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke) through to Trainspotting and The Full Monty, his is a distinct voice (even his adverts for McDonalds have this feel). The main difference between Shane Meadows and this tradition is his closeness to his subject matter. Unlike Loach and Clarke, Meadows is not a middle-class filmmaker looking in. A self-taught, seemingly ‘natural’ filmmaker, he is depicting something he understands on a more instinctive level. His working-class characters are more varied and complex, often contradictory, individuals driven less by their economic situation than by their inner (often Freudian) desires.

This Is England is Shane Meadows’ fifth proper feature film and his first period ‘costume’ drama (albeit skinheads in the 1980s) and perhaps he is treading over the same ground and themes (same people just shorter hair and bigger boots) but, unlike Calverton Colliery, there’s plenty more coal in this mine. This Is England marks a return, stylistically and thematically, to his earlier films, particularly A Room for Romeo Brass (not that he’d moved very far away). It features many unknown and unprofessional actors including many Meadows alumni such as Andrew Shim and Vicky McClure, the child stars of Romeo Brass.

Like that film it is another semi-autobiographical morality tale. At times it seems like an After School Special or a Play for Today to warn children against playing with racists. But it is far more complex. The chief racist, Combo (Stephen Graham), is himself mixed-race and at times a caring and appealing character. The racists aren’t demonised and the film is all the stronger for making them more human, less mindless; and the racism all the more disturbing. However, it is the racist swearing that has, somewhat controversially, earned the film its 18 certificate.

Although based on Shane Meadows’ own experiences growing up in Uttoxeter, it is set in a nameless provincial town complete with a mixture of regional, Midlands and Northern, accents. The film was largely shot in St Ann’s in Nottingham with a few incongruous visits to the Grimsby ‘seaside’. The main character, ‘cryptically’ called Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), is a 13-year-old who becomes a mascot-like figure to a gang of older skinheads. It is a bildungsroman or rites-of-passage film in a similar vein to Franí§ois Truffaut’s 400 Blows or Lasse Hallstrí¶m’s My Life as a Dog but of course very British. The child’s point of view device is used to similar effect. We allow the character more mistakes; even misguided racism is forgivable. But it also gives the viewer an outsider’s perspective. It is through this that we can see the desirable aspects of being a skinhead, of belonging to a gang.

This Is England shows a much greater understanding of skinhead culture than Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (perhaps the only other well-known skinhead film). Most importantly it shows the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a gang, which Clarke’s film ignores. We see the skinheads through their shared identity and with all the contradictions that that entails. Combo claims to be an original skinhead from the late 60s and the soundtrack is packed with old ska tunes, mostly Toots and the Maytals. It is this paradox, how a culture based on black Jamaican music could embrace the National Front, that is central to the subculture. The late 70s and early 80s skinhead revival was based on a mixture of ska and oi punk. It is oi (well the oi-ish UK Subs) which plays as they drive off to the NF meeting in Combo’s car (complete with L-plates). At one point the contradictions seem to go too far; the scene in which Woody’s gang put on ridiculous fancy-dress costumes to go ‘hunting’ just doesn’t ring true. Do skinheads really behave like this? But then, I almost trust Shane Meadows enough to believe that it really happened – he’s such an honest filmmaker.

The film starts with a montage of 1980s iconography, a two-minute version of I love 1983, featuring Margaret Thatcher, Roland Rat, the Rubik’s Cube and the Falklands War. The footage largely comes from the ITN archives (it somehow seems fitting that Shane Meadows remembers the 80s through ITN and not the BBC). The period detail is exact and constant throughout (Ford Escorts, Grifter bikes) but without dominating the drama or playing for laughs as in Life On Mars. The period detail even stretches to attitudes. Combo asks Milky whether he feels English or Jamaican – his own version of Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. But perhaps what is most surprising is how little some things have changed, and not just the St Ann’s council estate location (not a satellite dish in sight). We have come from the Falklands War to the Iraq War, from skinheads to hoodies and from the wrong trousers (flares in 1983!) to the wrong trainers or the wrong phone. Perhaps that’s why it’s called This Is England.

It is a film full of great performances: first-time actor (in anything – including school plays) Thomas Turgoose holds the entire film together; Rosamund Hanson as Smell is hilarious and Stephen Graham deserves the skinhead equivalent of a BAFTA (an Oi! perhaps). It if wasn’t for the pleading acoustic guitars emphasising those introspective moments This Is England could be my favourite British film of the noughties and the eighties. Still, this is another great Shane Meadows film, and maybe his best so far.

Paul Huckerby


Scott Walker

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 April 2007

Distributor: Verve Pictures

Director: Stephen Kijak

UK/USA 2006

95 minutes

It’s difficult to think of another artist whose work has taken the same trajectory as that of the enigmatic Scott Walker ( Engel), from teen pop idol to avant-garde composer, from low to high art, from the universal appeal of the pop song to the altogether more uncompromising abstractions of industrial noise. Imagine if you will if Justin Timberlake were to grow tired of this pop lark, announce himself as a fan of one of the numerous wild and wonderful directors featured elsewhere on this site, and disappear from public life in order to dedicate himself to furthering Steve Reich’s work on phasing. It’s an astonishing transformation (Walker’s, not Timberlake’s – that hasn’t really happened, you can wake up now) when you consider that the Walker Brothers were little more than a boy band whose members wielded minimal artistic influence, albeit an extremely polished one thanks to Scott’s delicious baritone and access to the best songs by the best writers of the day.

Stephen Kijak’s documentary 30 Century Man tells the story of that transformation – the long and, at times, tortuous journey of artistic discovery that took Walker from accidental honey-voiced frontman to critically-acclaimed composer. It’s a story that’s difficult to fuck up, and despite a lack of period footage and any kind of flair in the storytelling, it sticks to its task and makes for compelling viewing. It’s helped enormously by the inclusion of an extremely rare interview with the man himself who comes across as likeable, articulate, intensely thoughtful and engaging. Back in the sixties Walker’s disguise of choice was a pair of shades, seemingly less of an affectation than that of most pop stars if the stories of his legendary shyness are to be believed (it’s alleged that Walker once crashed a car to avoid playing a show, though if you will wear shades in mid-winter these things are going to happen), but these days he hides beneath the brim of a baseball cap. Jarvis Cocker notes early on in the film that when Walker produced Pulp’s We Love Life album, the brim of the cap rose steadily as Walker became more comfortable with the situation. Here we get full, unfettered access to Walker sans hat, and a corresponding openness. Our unrestricted view shows Walker to be a remarkably well-preserved 63-year-old, his skin flushed with health, so much so that long-time Scott fan and the film’s executive producer David Bowie, the original ageless pop star, Sir Cliff notwithstanding, looks positively craggy by comparison.

Perhaps in a bid to compensate for the lack of archive material the movie is weighed down by a preponderance of talking heads and while Cocker is a veritable goldmine to documentary filmmakers everywhere, always ready with an interesting anecdote or angle, many of the other contributors fall into the categories of fandom or, worse, self-absorption. Sting pops up to describe Walker as ‘existential’, Damon Albarn is so damn smart as to be unintelligible, while Radiohead talk more about their own records than those of Scott’s. All in all, it’s a bit of a hotchpotch as we move from the early years of Walker Brothers mania and through Scott’s solo records and his discovery of Jacques Brel, Walker’s artistic influence increasing at every step as his commercial standing falls further and further, his TV show cancelled, his star on the wane, to arrive at the artistic highpoint of Scott 4, his undisputed masterpiece, the point of equilibrium where Scott’s intellect and pop nous exist in perfect balance… and the point where the money ran out, his sixties fanbase deserted him, and the record company’s indulgence stopped short. We pick through the detritus… fulfilling the contractually obligation: the albums of movie themes, the Walker Brothers reformation, the forays into country and the drift towards MOR… all the way to the final Walker Brothers album Nite Flights in 1977 with its four extraordinary Scott Walker compositions, where Scott throws caution to the wind in the knowledge that the band are certain to be dropped. They are. And then the film begins.

After a brief examination of 1984’s Climate Of Hunter, and of Julian Cope’s role in Scott’s rehabilitation as the compiler of the excellent Fire Escape In The Sky album, the final third of the film is given over to the making of Tilt (1995) and Walker’s latest, The Drift, released last year. Whereas the preceding part of the film has the feel of a hastily assembled TV documentary, this insight into Walker’s creative mindset is genuinely rewarding and far more involved, and if you’re left with the feeling that the price of Walker’s co-operation was this focus on his latest work, you also feel grateful that it should be so. Tilt and The Drift are innovative works of disturbing intensity that reflect our own nightmarish reality, as Walker experiments around the edges of discord, throwing his disquieting, almost abstract words into the brew. The talking heads are momentarily thrown, unsure of the correct response, victims of a practical joke. In the movie’s best moment we’re treated to the sight of Scott in the studio instructing his percussionist on the best way to punch a slab of meat for a song about the hanging corpses of Mussolini and his mistress. For a moment we’re into Spinal Tap territory, and then we hear the finished version of the song. It works.

There’s little left of Scott Walker, sixties heart-throb and greatest voice of his generation. Even the once great baritone is somewhat diminished. Walker’s infrequent forays into the world of popular entertainment, the appearances on The Tube and, latterly, on Later (let’s see you play some boogie-woogie piano to that Jools!) seem more and more incongruous. Scott Walker died sometime in 1977 and Scott Engels was reborn… by rights he should have reverted to his own name then, so little do Tilt and The Drift have in common with the sixties pop masterpieces of the band from where he took his name. Scott Walker, avant-garde composer, is finally where he always wanted to be, in complete control of his artistic destiny. It may have taken him a lifetime to get there, but there he is, occasionally dragged back into view by Sixties Scott. This film shows us a little of how he got there, and a little more of where he is now. If the Bergman-loving Scott Engels himself had been behind the lens, what a movie it could have been.

Sean Price



Format: Cinema

Release date: 5 April 2007

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh

UK 2007

107 minutes

Science fiction often requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Sunshine, the latest film from director Danny Boyle and script-writer Alex Garland, depends heavily on audiences’ willingness to overlook basic plausibility and to lose themselves in this aesthetically stunning, but curiously vacant, thriller.

Fifty years from now the sun is dying. In a desperate bid to save the Earth eight astronauts have been sent into outer space on board the ominously-named Icarus II. Their mission is to safely deliver a nuclear bomb – the ‘payload’ – into the heart of the dying star in the hope of kick-starting it back in to life. Icarus II represents the world’s last chance for salvation, following the mysterious loss of the Icarus I, which attempted the same mission seven years before.

Sunshine begins as a meditation on the fragility of the planet we live on; current fears of the consequences of global warming are both subverted and intensified. Rather than seas rising and the world over-heating, Earth is suffering from a solar winter, with cities like Sydney covered in a blanket of ice. But the cause of the crisis is not man-made; the fate of the planet depends rather on forces beyond our control, perhaps even on some kind of spiritual or metaphysical god. Delivering the payload is a last attempt by man to interfere with the omnipotence of nature.

The burden is perhaps too great; sentimentality pervades the thoughts and actions of the crew members. Mace, the ship’s engineer (played by the impressive Chris Evans) is the only character who maintains a convincing steadfast duty to complete the mission, uncompromised by his emotions. When the ship picks up a signal from Icarus I, the incongruous decision to divert Icarus II from her flight path to dock with her sister-ship is made; a decision influenced by an emotional desire to learn the fate of the original crew. The crew lose their way, mentally and physically, adrift in the infinite expanse of space. Earth’s existence is threatened by the crew’s very humanity.

The flaw with this premise is that the characters, and their actions, are simply not convincing. Cillian Murphy, who starred in 28 Days Later, the previous apocalyptic film from the Boyle-Garland team, plays Capa, the nuclear physicist who’s invented the payload and is the only crew member capable of operating the device. It seems somewhat implausible that the young, extremely attractive Murphy could be the world’s pre-eminent nuclear physicist, entrusted with the task of saving mankind. Half of the crew is made up of actors too young, too attractive, to really be credible in their roles, with the exception of Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Saneda, both extremely experienced Asian actors. Sunshine is a film for the O.C. generation: science fiction for the hipster crowd.

Throughout the film we are supposed to experience a torrent of emotions – the fear, hope and desperation that the crew feels on its fateful mission. But we know nothing about the characters or their history; instead they are virtually one-dimensional, often serving to move the plot along but without adding any real depth to the film. Most successful and gripping are the intense, dramatic close-ups of Capa, claustrophobic in his futuristic space suit, sweat dripping, his eyes darting, breathing heavily, terrified as he’s unleashed into outer space to try and repair the damaged Icarus II (and, of course, save the world). Though the actors are all convincing in portraying their terror and anguish, it is difficult to feel moved by their fate: a flaw that unfortunately diminishes the film’s emotional impact.

This is not to say that the film is without drama or excitement; rather it is the Icarus itself, and the burning, raging sun, that are crucial to the build-up of tension, the focal points of the real thrills and action in the film. The spaceship is stunning, the visual effects brilliant. The imposing, gleaming shields on Icarus are a character in themselves. It is easy to become immersed in the blazing sun, to understand the creeping madness that consumes the ship’s psychiatrist, played by Cliff Curtis, who is overwhelmed by its intensity, until he becomes a burnt-out husk of a person. An aural masterwork, the organic sounds made by the Icarus, and the score by Underworld add a palpable sense of fear to the drama, conveying a host of emotions that the sometimes trite dialogue never does. Despite its faults, Sunshine is exhilarating to watch on a visceral level, and will undoubtedly become a cult classic in the sci-fi canon.

Sarah Cronin


The Unknown

Format: Cinema

Screening at The Barbican

Date: 15 April 2007

Time 3pm

Director: Tod Browning

Cast: Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford

USA 1927

48 minutes

A unique figure in early American cinema, director Tod Browning is best known for his stupefying Freaks (1932) and for his standard-setting Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi. Between 1919 and 1930 he made eleven films with another rather singular Hollywood figure, actor Lon Chaney. Dubbed ‘the man with a thousand faces’ for his mastery of startling make-up effects, Chaney shared with Browning a fascination for the bizarre and the unconventional and for physical deformity, possibly as a result of their respective early years: Chaney’s parents were deaf-mutes while Browning allegedly worked in a circus as a clown, a contortionist and an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’.

In The Unknown, Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife-thrower in a gypsy circus in love with Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner (played by a very young Joan Crawford). Malabar, the show’s strongman, is similarly infatuated but Nanon’s intense phobia of being touched by men’s hands keeps them apart and brings her closer to Alonzo. Little does she know that Alonzo is in fact a wanted criminal. Distinguished by a deformed double thumb that would make him instantly recognizable to the police, he passes himself off as a cripple, concealing his arms under a tight corset. Desperately afraid that Nanon will reject him if she finds out the truth, he resorts to a drastic course of action and decides to have his arms cut off. While Alonzo disappears into a shady clinic, Malabar perseveres in his courting of Nanon and wins her over. On his return Alonzo learns that Nanon and Malabar are to be married. Only one thing is left to him – revenge.

There is of course an undercurrent of sexual anxiety in Nanon’s phobia and in the contrast between Malabar’s muscular limbs and Alonzo’s lack of them. But more interestingly, body parts are the currency in which love is traded between the characters. Malabar has to rely on attributes other than his arms in order to earn Nanon’s trust while Nanon learns to accept them as a sign of love and Alonzo gives up his in a trade-off which he hopes will deliver Nanon to him. Devoured by his obsession for Nanon, he is prepared to pay for her in his own flesh. Love turns him into a real cripple, physical deformity conveying the intensity of his emotions, which are literally carved into his body. Mutilation here is a poignant, literal image of the sacrifice the obsessive lover is prepared to make to be loved back.

But deformity is also an act and here we recognise Browning’s fascination for theatrical illusion. The knife-throwing number that opens the film is doubly a show: a freakish circus act on the surface, it is also Alonzo’s secret cripple impersonation, witnessed only by us and his midget sidekick Cojo. In fact, the whole of Alonzo’s relationship with Nanon is based on pretence, which does not make it any less deeply felt. When Nanon wishes that God would cut off all of men’s hands, Alonzo feigns to be genuinely hurt. When she tells him she’s getting married to Malabar after Alonzo has just mutilated his body for the love of her, he has to simulate happiness. At no point can he be sincere and at no point does she find out the truth about him. Fittingly, Alonzo dies on stage, a true performer to the end. Browning returns here to one of his favoured themes – the tragedy of the performer, who, being too good an actor for his own sake, dies utterly isolated and misunderstood.

Only with Cojo can Alonzo throw off the mask and be himself. But as the performance becomes second nature what this self truly is becomes increasingly muddled. In an astounding scene, Alonzo, distraught by the prospect that Nanon may never belong to him, smokes a cigarette with his feet, forgetting to use his arms, which are untied at that point. Over the course of the film he becomes what he was simply pretending to be at the beginning, overwhelmed by his own performance. To complicate matters, there is the fact that a body double was used for some of the scenes – Peter Dismuki, who was born without arms – so that what we see on screen is an intricate illusion where a bizarre composite of Chaney and Dismuki’s bodies pretends to be Alonzo pretending to be a cripple… In the theatrical world there is no real self – all is illusion.

As the cigarette-smoking scene shows, tragedy is never far from comedy in Browning’s cinema. While Alonzo’s despair is truly heart-rending, there is also something positively funny about that scene. Browning started his Hollywood career as a slapstick actor and some of what he learnt during those years clearly rubbed off on his work as a director. He is a true master of the grotesque, nimbly walking the fine line between repulsive and ridiculous, between horror and burlesque. In that he is seconded by Chaney’s amazing powers of expression, the actor’s craggy, lived-in face moving from hate to love, from need to menace and despair in the blink of an instant. Able to express contradictory emotions at the same time, Chaney beautifully handles the uneasy balance between tears and laughter, remaining deeply moving in the most incongruous situations. As a result, even though Alonzo is a criminal, a frighteningly possessive lover and a man driven by the darkest impulses, he is the one that you root for. This is where Browning’s heart clearly is – with the freaks, the loners and the misfits, with the anguished yearnings of troubled souls.

Virginie Sélavy

Also screening at the Barbican as part of the Lon Chaney season is The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with live accompaniment by Stephen Horne – Sunday 22 April, 4pm.



Format: DVD

Release date: 23 April 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Cast: Ayako Wakao, Kyôko Kishida, Yusuke Kawazu, Eiji Funakoshi

Japan 1964

91 minutes

Although Yasuzo Masumura was a major influence on directors such as Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, his work has been incomprehensibly neglected in the West. This is a man who was a precursor of the Japanese New Wave and a pioneer of the kind of extreme cinema that has made Takashi Miike famous, a wildly imaginative filmmaker who has no less than 58 films to his credit and is responsible for some of the most savagely beautiful, erotically-charged images ever committed to celluloid, and yet he has been treated until now as little more than a footnote in film history. Thanks to Yume Pictures some of his films are now being released on DVD for the first time in the UK, making his work available to a new generation of cinephiles.

One of these releases is Manji, a feverish tale of obsessive lesbian love, adultery and manipulation. The bored housewife of a passionless lawyer, Sonoko enrols in a women’s art school. When, one day, the women are given the task of painting the Goddess of Mercy, Sonoko’s picture so closely resembles Mitsuko, the school’s beauty, that it triggers rumours about the two women’s relationship. Deciding to ignore the gossip, they become friends. But unhappy that only the Goddess’ face in Sonoko’s picture looks like her, Mitsuko offers to pose naked to allow Sonoko to paint her whole body. During the session model and painter are irresistibly attracted to each other and they embark on a passionate affair. But while her husband grows increasingly suspicious, Sonoko for her part discovers that Mitsuko has another lover. Soon Manji is no longer simply the story of a lesbian affair: Sonoko, Mitsuko, the husband and the lover become entangled in an intricate web of love, lust, jealousy and deceit.

If the plot sounds rather melodramatic, well, it is. But what sets Masumura’s work apart from overwrought, sensationalist soap opera is his deliberate use of excess to dynamite the norms of conventional society. ‘My goal,’ wrote Masumura in a 1958 essay, ‘is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings… In Japanese society, which is essentially regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist. The theme of the Japanese film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live according to the norms of that society.’ In Masumura’s work lurid melodrama is a liberating force: it is what allows him to explore the feelings and desires that fall outside the boundaries of good taste. The jaw-dropping scene in which a hysterical Sonoko, driven mad by desire, furiously tears the sheet that hides Mitsuko’s naked body, perfectly encapsulates Masumura’s approach. It may seem fantastically over the top, but only extreme, fanatical emotions can drive Sonoko to reject the repressive code of conduct imposed by her society. And if there is such a strong focus on deviant sexuality in Masumura’s work, it is simply because sex is the domain where the most personal – and the most powerful – emotions are expressed. In a highly regulated society that places the collective good above everything else sex becomes the vital expression of individual revolt. Under someone else’s direction, the lesbian affair and love triangle of Manji – and the amputee sex of Red Angel or the sado-masochism of Blind Beast – would be the worst of exploitation cinema. But in Masumura’s work, unorthodox sexual desire is the irresistible force that spurs individuals to rebel against the strictures of convention.

In the male-dominated, chauvinistic Japan of the time, nothing could be more shocking than assertive, let alone transgressive, female sexuality. In such a context women’s desires carry an even greater rebellious charge than their male equivalent so it is little wonder that they take centre stage in Masumura’s cinema. In Manji, both Sonoko and Mitsuko firmly tell their respective male partners that they are free and won’t be tied down. They explore a kind of love from which men are excluded. Both feel some contempt for the men in their lives, one being sterile, the other a lacklustre lover. Both are entirely in control of their bodies – Sonoko knows of a way of avoiding pregnancy – and both express their desires explicitly and without shame. In a society where women are expected to be content with their roles as passive, submissive housewives, Sonoko’s sexual demands and her outspoken dissatisfaction with her husband are nothing short of revolutionary.

Rejecting the compromises of a society that only offers politely disguised unhappiness, Masumura’s characters are fanatically fighting for l’amour fou – for an absolute, radically binding emotion that leaves no room for concessions, comfort or convention, the kind of love that leaves physical as well as emotional scars and can only end with the death of one or both lovers. In Red Angel, nurse Nishi would rather brave the dangers of the front line than be separated from the doctor she loves. In Manji Sonoko manically repeats that she’d rather die than forfeit her love for Mitsuko. In Blind Beast the lovers take their passion to physically degrading extremes. In Masumura’s world, life is only worth living if it is lived to the full, with the utmost intensity, even if that intensity is ultimately crushing. Self-destruction is the inevitable and worthwhile price to pay for an instant of absolute love and unbounded freedom.

Love is a double-edged force that contains both liberation and enslavement, an idea that is evoked in the title: ‘Manji’ is the name of the Buddhist swastika, which represents the balance of opposites. A left-facing Manji, symbol of love and mercy, appeared on the original poster of the film – it has been eliminated from the UK DVD cover, possibly to avoid confusion with the Nazi symbol. Mitsuko, increasingly identified with the Goddess of Mercy, is an inscrutable, ambiguous figure that is the source of both the fulfilment and the destruction of her lovers. They become entirely subjugated, accepting the sleeping potion Mitsuko gives them every night to keep them under her control, even though it leaves them mentally and physically diminished. All is sacrificed on the altar of love, the self being the ultimate offering. While only the excessive emotion of love can free individuals from the norms that bound them, its force may also destroy the very sense of self it helped create.

For Masumura love is also deeply connected to art. Sonoko admires Mitsuko’s body as she would a painting. Just like the blind sculptor in Blind Beast who is able to ‘see’ the beauty of a statue by running his hands all over it, Sonoko’s interest in art is deeply sensual. This is not just one of the major themes of Masumura’s work but crucially, it is also how he conceives of his own art. For Masumura, art, like love, is a powerful sensory experience. While showing very little nudity, Masumura infuses Manji with a deep, dark, warm eroticism, teasingly capturing bodies just emerging from behind screens or garments, yearningly tracing the light on nude, honey-hued skin with the eye of a lustful painter. Masumura’s filming is vibrant with desire, burning with the same passion as the characters’, and it is through the tactile beauty it creates that it communicates its most subversive ideas and intense emotions. For all this Masumura deserves to be recognised as a true master of cinema.

Virginie Sélavy


Fighting Delinquents

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 March 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Alternative title Go To Hell, Hoodlums!

Director: Seijun Suzuki

Cast: Koji Wada, Chikako Hosokawa, Eitaro Ozawa, Mayumi Shimizu

Japan 1960

80 minutes

This is one of the early B-movies that Seijun Suzuki made for Nikkatsu studios before he found his stylistic feet with Youth of the Beast in 1963. A rebellious youth tale, it portrays the head-on collision between traditional and modern Japan as young orphan Sadao is revealed to be the long-lost heir to the respectable Matsudaira clan. Sadao accepts to move from the house he shares with a gang of orphans in Kobe to Awaji Island in the hope that he will meet his mother. Once there Sadao shocks the elder with his joyous lack of respect for the staid rituals and hierarchy of the clan and soon has the venerable house of his grand-mother shaking to the sounds of rock’n’roll.

Sadao is less the delinquent suggested by the title than a pretty decent young man and he uses his new-found power and money to transform the island to benefit all people. To succeed in his project he has to fight the ruthless face of capitalism represented by an unscrupulous gangster who wants to turn the island into a lucrative amusement park. In the struggle against greed old and young find a common ground and deeply-rooted class prejudices are overcome in a happy, festive finale.

Although this is Suzuki-lite, Fighting Delinquents already displays some of the director’s typical stylistic flourishes as when a scene of dramatic revelation turns into a series of coloured pop art vignettes. Shows and performances punctuate the action, from a traditional puppet theatre to bikini-clad nightclub dancers and a fantastically kitsch number sung by an unlikely throaty-voiced pop chanteuse. The master colourist of Tokyo Drifter and the eccentric iconoclast of Branded to Kill are already visible here and there is a lot of fun to be had from this exuberant, pastel-coloured retro lollipop. One for Suzuki completists or amateurs of sixties Japanese camp.

Virginie Sélavy

Also released as part of Yume Pictures’ Suzuki collection is The Flowers and the Angry Waves, a period yakuza drama set in 19th-century Tokyo.