Eastern Promises

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 October 2007

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Pathe

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel

UK/Canada 2007

100 mins

Like his contemporary David Lynch, David Cronenberg seems to be undergoing a radical shift in direction. But where Lynch’s films are becoming ever more oblique and personal, Cronenberg seems to be burrowing deeper into the heart of the mainstream, a subversive maggot in the multiplex apple. Cronenberg has never exactly been an obscurist, but it always seemed that the films that did serious business – most notably Videodrome and The Fly – did so in spite of, rather than because of his unique and unsettling preoccupations with sexual perversion, human frailty and corporeal decay.

A History of Violence changed all that. Cronenberg’s work had been getting ‘tamer’ for some time – the input sockets in Existenz were the last hint of body horror in his work – but this was his first fully realised shot at the malls of Middle America. You can say what you like about the subversion beneath that film’s surface – the way it plays with genre conventions, tests the limits of an audience’s sympathy, explores the meanings of words like ‘family’ and ‘violence’. Without all that, the film can still be enjoyed as a simple revenge thriller, an update of those gritty Charles Bronson pictures so popular in the mid-70s: indeed, it could be argued that all the lofty critical praise heaped on A History of Violence could just as easily be applied to Death Wish. It’s all just a matter of intention.

Eastern Promises takes the subsurface concerns of A History of Violence and brings them out into the light, bolting them to an even more hysterically entertaining narrative of gangs, guns, prostitution and murder. The film centres around the London branch of a Russian criminal organisation, a world of plush restaurants and grimy suburban slave brothels, where driver Viggo Mortensen is gradually attempting to work his way into the trust and affections of boss Armin Mueller-Stahl, via his alcoholic, sexually ambiguous son Vincent Cassel. Into this hermetic universe stumbles Naomi Watts, as a hospital midwife attempting to translate the incriminating diary of a 14-year-old East European prostitute who died in childbirth.

The first half of the film is surprisingly dour. The screenplay was written by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Stephen Knight, and expands upon many of the themes present in that film: the lives of immigrants in London, their attempts to assimilate or to avoid assimilation, the grim suburban reality of organised crime. Then, for a time, it seems as though Knight’s sensibilities and Cronenberg’s are beginning to go head-to-head, as the bleak authenticity of the script is subtly undermined by the playful genre trickery of Cronenberg’s direction. Reality begins to warp, and the movies gradually intrude. By the time we reach the already infamous Turkish bath scene – a titanic smackdown in which Mortensen brutally slaughters two would-be assassins clad only in a number of intricate prison tattoos – all semblance of veracity has long since flown out the window, and we’re back in Bronson country.

The Turkish bath scene also serves to illustrate Cronenberg’s newest and most playful preoccupation, one of the only major themes in Eastern Promises that was not also present in A History of Violence: the inherent homoeroticism bubbling beneath all such male bonding stories. Using Cassel’s conflicted character as his jumping-off point, Cronenberg examines (and pokes fun at) the seething sexual tension intrinsic to the gangster genre, and to any tight, all-male organisation, on screen or off. These characters’ hatred and fear of women – as evidenced by their treatment of the innocent Watts, as well as their helpless slave-prostitutes – is offset by a desperate need for trust and companionship in their ‘business’ relationships, a confused camaraderie that Cassel expresses physically, by constantly grabbing and touching Mortensen; even, in one scene, openly watching as he takes advantage of a young hooker.

It is these quirky fixations that make Eastern Promises such a joy to watch. In the hands of almost any other director (one can imagine Stephen Frears tackling the script, or even Anthony Minghella), the film would have become a worthy parable of exploitation and integration, further brutalising its characters while softening the bone-crunching violence. But Cronenberg has the ability to see beyond the narrative, to see all the different possibilities inherent in the screenplay – not just a gritty slice-of-life or a rip-roaring gangster thriller, but everything in-between: a family melodrama, a clash of cultures, a test of an audience’s sensibilities, a critique of generic traditions, of middle-class ignorance, of urban disaffection.

The cast are uniformly excellent. Mueller-Stahl reprises his Shine role as the brutal overbearing father, but this time his transgressions go beyond beating his son into statutory rape and murder. Naomi Watts makes the best of a rather thankless role as the hapless suburbanite thrown into a situation she doesn’t understand, but her character only really comes to life in the final stages as she struggles to protect the illegitimate infant. Vincent Cassel’s part seems tailor-made for him – the screwed-up son of a far stronger man, lashing out helplessly at an unforgiving world, losing himself in drink and forbidden fantasies.

But this is Viggo Mortensen’s show, and he commits himself totally. Always a little too earnest, a little too obvious an actor to be taken seriously, Mortensen has been consistently written off in serious critical circles. Eastern Promises is without doubt his career highlight to date, the complete inhabitation of a complex, unforgiving character. His Russian accent is faultless – his face even seems to become more Slavic, his gestures and mannerisms unerringly authentic. He also manages to reflect the growing conflict within the film itself – in the opening scenes he is terse, convincing, frighteningly real. But as the film lets rip, so does Mortensen, becoming an angel of righteous vengeance, expanding to fill the cinema screen.

It’s hard to predict how Eastern Promises will be received when it opens the London Film Festival on October 17. It seems likely that audiences will respond to its heady mix of social realism and celebratory blood-letting, but critics may prove more sceptical. The film walks a fine line, raising some very serious contemporary issues but consistently failing to engage with them, preferring to throw in a new plot twist or another bloody murder. It’s about as subtle as a brick, and perhaps not as deep or thoughtful as it thinks it is. But the fact remains that Eastern Promises is ludicrously entertaining, playful and rebellious, the most consistently enjoyable Cronenberg film in two decades.

Tom Huddleston




Release date: 5 October 2007

Venues: Curzon Soho, Electric, Everyman, Odeon Covent Garden & Key Cities

Distributor Momentum

Director: Anton Corbijn

Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Craig Parkinson

UK/US 2007

121 mins

It’s said that Ian Curtis wrote the line, ‘Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders’, not out of some deep, existential Camus-fuelled angst but as a sly dig at fellow gloom-mongers Echo and the Bunnymen. A little joke if you like. It’s hard to imagine in a way, the arch-miserabilist having a chuckle at his contemporaries, a rare insight perhaps into another side of an icon from before the age when every two-bit minor celebrity’s every shag, shit or coke-fuelled bust-up was chronicled for our daily consumption. These days, the tabs would have him writing a blog from his hospital bed after every epileptic fit. But no, his short existence is frozen in aspic as a series of immaculate set-pieces: the moody black-and-white Anton Corbijn photographs, the elegiac Peter Saville sleeves, the desolate European bleakness of Joy Division’s meagre, curtailed output. It’s odd then that it’s Corbijn who really brings Ian Curtis to life for us in this biopic, even if he is still mooching around in highly stylised monochrome.

Based on the book Touching from a Distance by his widow Deborah, Control tells Curtis’ story from his teenage days in Macclesfield, portraying him as bright, funny and intense, if sometimes withdrawn. His romance with Deborah (an exceptional, tour-de-force performance from Samantha Morton) features heavily in these early years; by the time he’s nineteen, they’re married. After seeing The Sex Pistols play Curtis forms a band, soon signed up to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label as Joy Division. Later, things take a turn for the worse when Curtis suffers an epileptic fit on the way back from a London show, and at the same time Deborah gives birth to a daughter, adding to his responsibilities. Curtis begins an affair with a Belgian girl called Annik after she interviews the band and he’s torn apart in trying to maintain two lives without letting anyone, band, wife, lover or child, down, unwilling or unable to relinquish any part.

Given the subject matter and the art-house photography (apparently Corbijn told the actors how to pose at the end of every scene) you could be forgiven for assuming that the film might be less than a barrel of laughs but it rivals 24-Hour Party People for hilarity, the Tony Wilson (RIP) character being little more than a reprise of Steve Coogan’s portrayal in that film. The real comic turn here though is manager Rob Gretton. As the rest of Joy Division flounder on stage following another of Curtis’ grand mal attacks Gretton bribes the lead singer of Crispy Ambulance to take to the stage in his place. After the predictable bottling off he returns to ask where his money is. ‘It’s in’, says Gretton, ‘my fuck-off pocket’.

If there’s a criticism to be made it’s in the pacing of the final third. We watch Curtis’ descent into depression, unable to overcome his guilt, all the while haunted by the possibility of further fits, and in essence we’re waiting for the inevitable grim ending. Perhaps a more experienced director than Corbijn would have played it differently. It’s a small gripe though when, with the aid of Morton and Sam Riley who plays Curtis, he so successfully brings his main characters to life. We feel Deborah’s pain equally as much as Ian’s, a tribute to Morton’s performance and the way she illustrates the crushing effect on her of Curtis’ behaviour. A visual treat then, but far more than mere iconography.

Sean Price


The Counterfeiters

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 October 2007

Venue: Nationwide

Distributor Metrodome

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

Original title:Die Fälscher

Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow

Austria/Germany 2007

98 minutes

In the dying years of World War II the Nazis launched the secretive Operation Bernhard, a last-ditch, desperate attempt to destroy the economies of the Allied countries by flooding their markets with forged bank notes. It was history’s largest counterfeiting operation, run out of barracks 19 and 20 in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s compelling film explores the terrible dilemma that confronted the Jewish prisoners recruited for the operation. He has crafted a unique approach to the Holocaust genre, forsaking sentimentality for moral ambiguity, probing the motives of both the prisoners and their Nazi captors, in and out of the camps.

‘Sally’ Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Russian Jew living in the decadent, bohemian Berlin of the pre-war years. A night club owner, loan shark, artist and counterfeiter, he forges passports for Jews trying to flee the country for financial gain or sexual favours, not solidarity. He is seemingly nonchalant about the anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany. When a guest at one of his parties derides him for being Jewish, he casually suggests that she might want to spit out the Rothschild champagne she is drinking. Finally arrested for fraud, Sally is sent to Mauthausen, a slave labour camp, where he paints portraits for the Nazis in exchange for food and a relatively comfortable existence.

Eight years later, the man who arrested him, Friedrich Herzog (the excellent Devid Striesow) – now an SS Sturmbannfí¼hrer – selects him for Operation Bernhard, along with a number of more respectable members of Jewish society – fellow artists, bank managers, craftsmen. They are isolated from the rest of the camp, given soft beds, hot meals, even a ping-pong table. But Sally’s willingness to collaborate with the Nazis is challenged by Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a young, idealistic printer who has also been recruited for the project. Fervently opposed to aiding the Germans with their war effort, he is determined to sabotage the operation, putting the lives of his colleagues at risk. He rejects Sally’s pragmatism, identifying solely with the suffering of the prisoners outside the barrack walls. Burger becomes the very embodiment of guilt, simply for being a survivor.

The casual brutality and ritual humiliation suffered by Jews under the Nazi regime never ceases to be shocking or repulsive. There are the persistent insults, the constant threats of violence, the sadistic guard who urinates on Sally while he’s forced to scrub toilets. However, Ruzowitzky does not confine his contempt to the Germans, but subtly explores the complexities that haunted Jews like Sally and his colleague Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young artist and fellow Russian. They are caught between two impossible ideologies, National Socialism and Communism, embodied by two terrifying regimes. Sally speaks German rather than Russian, alluding to a life and a family in Russia that have been torn away from him. He is utterly contemptuous of Burger’s socialist ideals, his own destroyed, replaced by a selfish instinct for survival. Sally, like millions of others, has been utterly eviscerated by the twin horrors that raged through Europe in those pivotal decades.

Stylishly filmed and superbly acted, The Counterfeiters is a film that manages to be suspenseful, entertaining and provocative, perfectly capturing the agonising decisions that tormented the men in Sachsenhausen.

Sarah Cronin



Format: Cinema

Screening: 21 October 2007

With Un chant d’amour + Querelle

Venue Barbican, London

Director: Kenneth Anger

US 1947

In the spring of 1947, Mr and Mrs Anglemyer travelled from LA to Pittsburgh to attend an uncle’s funeral, leaving their 17-year-old son home alone for 72 hours. The young man put the time to good use: he turned the family home into a movie studio and shot a 14-minute B&W film on his parents’ 16mm Kodak camera. The result was Fireworks, a landmark in experimental and gay cinema. And the budding filmmaker was Kenneth Anger, one of American cinema’s most influential artists.

At the 1949 Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz, France, Jean Cocteau described Fireworks as ‘coming from that beautiful night from which emerge all true works’. And promptly awarded it the Festival’s Poetic Film prize. At its LA premiere, Tennessee Williams believed it to be ‘the most exciting use of cinema I’ve seen’. And Dr Alfred C Kinsey snapped up a print for his Institute For Sexual Research. Not bad for three days’ work.

The fresh-faced director plays the protagonist, The Dreamer. He awakes naked in bed with what appears to be a mighty erection: it is revealed to be an African talisman under the bed sheet. The Dreamer walks through a door labelled ‘GENTS’, he asks an acrobatic sailor for a light, and is savagely beaten by a group of chain-wielding sailors in a back alley. Blood spurts from The Dreamer’s smashed nose, milk runs down his chin and neck, and his chest is ripped open to reveal a ticking electric meter. Multiple photographs of The Dreamer in a sailor’s arms deteriorate in flames. In the final scenes a sailor ignites a Roman candle attached to his crotch, ejaculating a burst of sparks. The Dreamer is transformed into a levitating tinsel-covered Christmas tree. He is back in bed but this time with a naked lover, whose face is obscured by a bright halo.

Anger describes the film as ‘a dream of a dream’; the imagery of Fireworks came to him in his sleep. Its trance-like depiction of visceral brutality and sexual fantasy evokes a subconscious state in which external influences come into play. The Dreamer’s narcissistic mirror gazing is a nod to Cocteau’s 1930 surreal masterpiece Le Sang d’un poí­Â¨te, in which the sleepwalking protagonist dives into his reflection. And the film’s metaphorical search for light springs from Anger’s lifelong study of occult icon Aleister Crowley and Lucifer, the Bringer of Light; an obsession made explicit in later works such as Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970-81).

Gangs of US sailors went on the rampage in 1944, attacking the snappily dressed Mexicans; these violent clashes became known as The Zoot Suit Riots. The strapping All-American boys in crisp white naval uniforms had a powerful effect on Anger. His striking fetishising of the sailor has since gone on to become an established queer aesthetic: from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Genet-adaptation Querelle (1982) through to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s ad campaigns. With 1963’s Scorpio Rising, Anger transferred his erotic stare to the leather-clad biker community, predating the dress code for gay S&M scenesters.

Fireworks is a deeply personal confession of liberated desire, orgasmic violence and salvation through love. But it is not just an on-screen ‘coming out’ party for Kenneth Anger the man. It is also a creative bursting forth of Anger the cine-magician.

Ben Cobb

Fireworks is screening on 21 October as part of the Barbican’s Sex and Censorship in Cinema, a season of films that were cut or banned by the British censors, which runs from Oct 18 to 25. We have 3 pairs of tickets to give away to any film of the Sex and Censorship season, subject to availability, courtesy of the Barbican. To enter, just spin our Film Roulette!



Format: DVD

Release date: 13 August 2007

Distributor: Tartan

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Titles: Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October

Original Titles: Stachka, Bronenosets Potyomkin, Oktyabr

USSR 1925-1928

Eisenstein’s celebrated use of montage, fast cutting, and odd abstract counterpoints to brutal action have guaranteed him lasting fame and respect. The abattoir scene intercut with the slaughter of innocent workers in Strike is still bold and nasty. Perhaps his most famous shot of all is the baby’s buggy trundling disastrously down the Odessa Steps as advancing lines of infantry indifferently mow down unarmed workers, women and children alike (Battleship Potemkin). It is a remarkable scene in its casual cruelty, and remains a benchmark in spectatorial helplessness. It even survives Brian De Palma’s ‘homage’ in The Untouchables. Indeed, the very banality and irrelevance of De Palma’s use of the scene rests on its fundamentally cinematic quality, its irresponsibility as spectacle.

To be honest, I probably first heard of Eisenstein through De Palma; either that or thanks to a reproduction photo of Eisenstein himself shaking hands with Mickey Mouse given away with the Glasgow magazine The List in the mid-80s. In either case, it is a curious consequence of frenetic cutting that a director should be largely remembered through a number of brilliant stand-out shots and scenes. For a long time before I had seen a single second of moving footage, I knew Eisenstein through stills of weeping women in crowds, and the back-tilted head of a man with an extremely pointy beard in which Roland Barthes sees his enigmatic ‘third sense’. I have never been able to work out what this is supposed to be: I think it has something to do with the beard. But the proof of the power of the image lies in its ability to suggest something just beyond our understanding is taking place.

Coming to view the full chaos of the films can, then, be an unsettling experience. There are many moments of lyrical beauty and weirdness, but they are caught up in the rush of events and there is never much time to dwell on them. In October, as the bridges are raised to cut off the workers’ quarter, the still-warm body of a woman rests on the brink, her hair briefly raised in a last moment of animation after death; a dead white horse slides slowly over the edge, dangling from its harness, held poised by the counterweight of the carriage it was pulling, before finally falling like a gravity-afflicted ghost into the water of the Neva. One is left divided, between the surge of narrative and the desire to capture the moment.

These are also odd moments of pity, punctuating an otherwise remorseless march of history that divides up humanity with the moral subtlety of a run-of-the-mill Western. The lackeys of the state jeer uncontrollably as they stick the boot into vigorous but defenceless workers. Reactionary ladies are particularly dangerous, whether in the form of the Women’s Death Battalion, or merely the frilly pleasure-cruising creatures who butcher an insurgent with parasols. Political moderates, whether Kerensky cowering by a telephone in the Winter Palace, or the Mensheviks with their ridiculous call to avoid bloodshed, are met with scorn. The triumph of the workers is a glorious if indecorous affair: a proletarian child grins uncontrollably as he rolls around in the vacant throne in the Winter Palace. The absent royal family are, indeed, represented only by their vacant thrones: the Csarina’s toilet, the Csar’s bidet. These crude devices are often funny, but they suggest montage is not always very clever.

This has at least as much to do with the propagandistic nature of these three films í¢â‚¬â€ commemorating events in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 í¢â‚¬â€ as with the formal matter of montage. The standard critical response has generally been to cast Eisenstein as an experimentalist forced to adapt his art to the demands of the revolution. Yet this underplays a degree of complicity between technique and subject. The films were indeed criticised by the authorities for not telling the story straight. But the frenetic succession of spinning machinery, marching feet, a statesman’s cowardly retreat seen as the diplomatic flag on his speeding car, crowds teeming over ceremonial architecture, and (dis)heartening slogans í¢â‚¬â€ ‘Down with the lackeys of the bourgeoisie!’ í¢â‚¬â€ also mark the point where modernism and propaganda meet. As with the Futurists, the shoutiness of Eisenstein is a direct consequence of montage. What Eisenstein might have done with the technique had he been left a free hand remains a moot point.

Watching these films again, I was constantly led back to Fritz Lang. In Strike, the leering secret policeman with his wide-brimmed hat and spectacles, skulking through the city, peering into the window of a café, reflected upside down in a glass ball as a carriage rolls past; the marking out of districts on a map in October; the constant themes of pursuit and struggle for the territory of the city; all bring to mind the differently political M. Lang’s film holds itself in troubled pity before an individual psychosis, and asks, what is to become of our children? Eisenstein’s films are already quite sure that our children are being butchered by a senseless administration devoid of psychology. The future in these films is identical to the present of their making: ‘the revolution’, a period as well as a sudden event, paradoxically holds history in suspension, answers all its questions.

As I suggested earlier, the abiding fascination of Eisenstein lies in weird moments that escape this rationalism-run-riot, and suggest something more like the unease of the world of The Testament of Dr Mabuse. The eerie self-reassembly of the statue of Alexander III in October may ‘represent’ the betrayal of the Provisional Government, but it is the sheer strangeness of the lighting and the teetering of the head back onto its socket that command attention. Likewise, in Potemkin, once the mutinous sailors have fled execution by firing squad, the sheet used to cover them lies empty, billowing ominously on the deck. As with the woman’s hair and the dead horse caught on the bridge in October, it is left to the uncanny animation of the dead and the inhuman to introduce a pity alien to the bug-eyed belief in humanity’s ability to determine its progress.

The most bizarre scene in Strike has to be where the secret policeman mounts a hill crowned with a gibbet for dead cats before his rendezvous with the king of the slums, who summons his ramshackle Lumpenproletariat out of a ‘cemetery of barrels’. What they are all doing there, other than uncannily anticipating Samuel Beckett and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, is never explained. These moments belong neither with the square-jawed determination of the workers, nor with the weaselly perfidy of the bourgeoisie. They haunt the films with a sense of a properly cinematic phantasmagoria that ‘the revolution’ cannot control, and indeed scarcely thinks of, unless in its nightmares.

Stephen Thomson

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

Female Prisoner Scorpion 3
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Part of Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection limited edition box-set

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Shunya Itô

Writer: Hirō Matsuda

Based on a manga by: Toru Shinohara

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Mikio Narita, Reisen Lee, Yayoi Watanabe

Original title: Joshû sasori: Kemono-beya

Japan 1973

87 minutes

Shunya Itô’s third film in the acclaimed Female Prisoner series is a heady mix of fierce attitude, visual potency, and unflinching violence.

Shunya Itô’s third film in the acclaimed Female Prisoner series is a heady mix of fierce attitude, visual potency, and unflinching violence. While the series was later sullied by an inferior director who made a number of second-rate sequels, Itô here creates a stylish slice of Japanese exploitation cinema that also helped cement the fiendishly cool Meiko Kaji’s status as an iconic screen siren.

Since escaping from prison, life on the run hasn’t been easy for Scorpion. After an outrageous opening sequence in which she hacks the arm off the steely-eyed Detective Kondo to avoid capture, Scorpion finds refuge with Yuki, a tragic and desperate prostitute who personally satiates her brain-damaged brother’s sexual appetites to keep him in order. Attempting to live a modest and inconspicuous life, Scorpion is soon in the clutches of a vicious prostitute gang led by Katsu, an ex-cellmate drunk on power and in the mood for revenge. Drugged and locked in a cage with menacing crows for company, she wakes to find herself next to the body of an abused young prostitute, and thereafter seeks to escape and exact vengeance. Scorpion is certainly a formidable predator, skilfully despatching her enemies in the blink of an eye and never looking back. But will the determined Detective Kondo catch up with her before she has executed her deadly rampage?

Beast Stable is forthright in confronting taboo themes such as abortion and incest, yet Ito handles them deftly, creating affecting scenes without being overly gratuitous. One such scene juxtaposes two abortions so that the composure of one highlights the viciousness of the other. And although the women in the film suffer at the hands of brutish men, the puppet master is Katsu, the evil queen-style villainess who wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney film. In spite of her abhorrent cruelty, once stripped of her accoutrements and without the help of her henchmen her superficiality and weakness are exposed. This is in stark contrast to the almost ethereal Scorpion, for whom action speaks louder than words. Indeed, Kaji barely utters two lines in the entire film and everything is communicated through the intensity of her eyes: they are her ultimate weapon, eventually sending Katsu round the bend.

There are moment when stunning cinematography lends the film a fairy-tale atmosphere, for instance, the fiery cascade of matches Yuki releases into the sewer; or the bird’s eye view of Scorpion and the dead prostitute lying face to face. This is further enhanced by Scorpion’s Houdini-esque feats. Even while on the run Scorpion is always imprisoned in some way, but each time she inexplicably escapes, and such narrative flaws only add to her mythology. A gentler side of Scorpion is also explored through an unlikely bond with Yuki. Solidarity is formed out of the adversity of the situation, but mutual trust gives rise to moments of unexpected tenderness, and as Yuki becomes instrumental in Scorpion’s fight for survival, Scorpion seems to give Yuki strength, even if her future looks bleak.

Despite sitting comfortably in the niche market of 70s exploitation, Beast Stable is also surprisingly restrained yet inventive, and still feels fresh today. What it lacks in explicit violence it makes up for in style. No wonder then that it has its part in influencing contemporary filmmakers (I won’t mention any names). Beast Stable has enough bite to stand independently, but fall under its spell and it won’t be long until you seek out its predecessors.

Lindsay Tudor

This review was first published in October 2007 in connection with the DVD release of Female Prisoner Scorpion. Beast Stable by Eureka Entertainment.



Format: DVD

Release date: 23 July 2007

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

Adapted from a novel by: Junichirô Tanizaki

Cast: Ayako Wakao, Hakio Hasegawa, Gaku Yamamoto, Kei Sato

Japan 1966

86 minutes

‘Between man and woman, it’s a fight to the death’, declares one of her many lovers to Otsuya, Irezumi‘s geisha heroine. This piece of fierce wisdom informs many of Yasuzo Masumura’s films, from Blind Beast, which climaxes in a frenzied S&M coupling, to Manji, in which a married couple’s rivalry for the love of a young woman leads them to self-destruct, but nowhere is it as clear as in Irezumi, the story of a woman turned predatory prostitute.

The daughter of a wealthy pawnbroker, Otsuya is a beautiful, spirited young woman, who one night prompts her lover, Shinsuke, a shy young man who works as her father’s apprentice, to elope with her. Much more respectful of the social order than the free-spirited Otsuya, Shinsuke has misgivings about the whole venture but is spurned on by Otsuya’s rebuke, as she derides him as a coward. They find refuge at Gonji’s house, who has agreed to take them in, but he soon betrays them and sells Otsuya off as a geisha.

In the hands of fellow Japanese directors Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse such a premise would have been the occasion for a beautifully nuanced drama about the plight of women in Japanese society. Instead, Masumura goes for the jugular and confronts head-on the complex and conflictual reality of male/female relationships. The film opens as a tattoo artist paints a spider on Otsuya’s back, marking her as a geisha and casting her out of respectable society for ever. In contrast to the heroines of Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Otsuya is not seen as a victim but rather gains power and independence from her forced prostitution. Liberated from convention, she uses her beauty to make money and ultimately leaves the geisha house to set up on her own.

This independence, however, is coupled with cruelty, selfishness, a manipulative streak and a ferocious drive for murderous revenge. To all the men around her she is a frightening man-eater, increasingly resembling the spider on her back. Otsuya’s transformation from lively young girl to frightful predator is explained by her being possessed by the tattoo. But as that tattoo was ordered by the geisha master and painted by a male artist, does this mean that Otsuya is simply the monstrous creation of the men around her? Or rather, as Otsuya shows signs of being strong and independent from the start, does the spider simply reveal her true nature, a nature that appears horrifying and threatening to men?

It is hard to say whether Masumura is simply reflecting or actively sharing the deep male unease at increased female emancipation and Otsuya can be seen equally as a powerful female figure and as a misogynistic creation. Whatever the case, and despite an undeniable ambivalence towards Otsuya’s character, Masumura doesn’t portray women as victims, and it is this that makes Irezumi a much more satisfying film to a female audience than The Life of Oharu or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, which offer no hope, only resignation, to downtrodden women. Otsuya may be ruthless and manipulative at times, but she takes control of her destiny, and is paradoxically much freer from the demands of society than men. Surrounded by timid, mediocre males she shines as the most rebellious, individualistic and alive character in the film. If this is misogyny, I can live with it.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 August 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Hiroyuki Okiura

Writer: Mamoru Oshii

Original title: Jin Rô

Japan 1998

102 mins

Finally available to watch on British DVD almost a decade after production began, Jin-Roh is a moving and beguiling animé that is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of celebrated Japanese director Mamoru Oshii. Part of the epic Kerberos saga that Oshii has been working on for over twenty years, this is a subtle and elegiac film that can be enjoyed without further knowledge of the wider multimedia project of which it is a part.

Set in an alternate Japan where Germany won the Second World War and then occupied parts of Asia, the film depicts 1950s Tokyo as a city on the brink of civil war as protesters clash with militarised police amid volleys of Molotov cocktails, and Panzer Cops wearing dehumanising uniforms patrol the tunnels beneath the city looking for terrorists. One such cop, Kazuki Fuse, corners a prepubescent female suicide bomber in the sewers and, finding himself unable to shoot, fails to prevent her from detonating a satchel full of explosives. Although Fuse’s colleagues rescue him from the blast, the Panzer Cop is traumatised by the event. Demoted, he seeks to befriend the dead girl’s sister in order to come to terms with the tragedy.

Although the opening scenes of urban warfare are spectacular and disturbing in equal measure, it is perhaps appropriate that Oshii chose not to direct his own screenplay, deferring instead to Hiroyuki Okiura, an animator who worked on Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor 2; the more extravagant directorial style Oshii displayed in those films may not have suited the material here. That said, a number of noticeable visual influences add intriguing anachronisms to the tale; the mixture of Asian and Germanic military styles recall the Taiwanese revolutionary army (who received Teutonic armaments and training in the 1940s) as well as the demonic shock troops in An American Werewolf in London. Elsewhere, the subterranean pursuit of suspects and the way the characters continually cross and double-cross one another inevitably recall The Third Man.

However, the most insistent leitmotif throughout the film is the Little Red Riding Hood theme, with references ranging from the prosaic – the name given to the young female terrorists – to the inspired – the nightmares that plague Fuse show the dead girl being torn apart by wolves. This is no Angela Carter-style deconstruction of feminine identity, though, rather a comment on the inability of soldiers to relate to supposed innocents mobilised by an enemy during wartime. Fuse is both woodcutter and wolf, and so is paralysed when faced with a Red Riding Hood who is more deadly than any wolf in Granny’s clothing. Needless to say, there is no fairy-tale happy ending to this film.

Although Jin-Roh began production well before September 11, the ‘war against terror’ that has unfolded worldwide over the past six years makes dystopian science fiction such as this increasingly uncomfortable viewing. While the somewhat glacial pace and maudlin tone may make the film hard going for many animé fans, this is a treat for Oshii aficionados teased by the concurrent release of the underwhelming Solid State Society. With the imminent release of its semi-sequel Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, Jin-Roh is an ideal introduction to the director’s alternate Earth saga which can be explored further through manga and live action films that will hopefully also enjoy a release on these shores.

Alex Fitch


The True Story of Jesse James

Format: DVD

Release date: 3 September 2007

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Nicholas Ray

Cast: Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Agnes Moorehead

US 1957

93 mins

Disillusioned with Hollywood, by 1957 Nicholas Ray was ready to head to Europe where he would go on to make the brilliant Bitter Victory. But before he could leave America behind, he had to make one more film for 20th Century Fox. The studio suggested a remake of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).

The ‘True Story’ of the title is less a statement of historical accuracy than one of narrative form – the biopic. The life of Jesse James (Robert Wagner) is told in flashback (signified by clouds of pink smoke added by the studio against Ray’s wishes) with multiple points of view. The disastrous Northfield Minnesota raid is shown twice, once from the point of view of the townsfolk and later from the James Gang’s. Every character, it seems, has an opinion. A newspaperman, in a scene reminiscent of Citizen Kane, wonders what could be the ‘key’ to Jesse James. In the eyes of his dying mother and his wife Zee Jesse can do no wrong. To others he is simply a robber and a murderer. In the dime novel gang member Cole Younger reads aloud, he is a folk hero, a Robin Hood. That book inspires Jesse’s famous moment of philanthropy: he gives $600 to a poor woman, only to steal it back from her bailiff. The ‘true story’ is a deliberately muddled one with Ray refusing to iron out any ambiguities.

The ‘key’ to Jesse James in this film is perhaps that he is ‘the Nicholas Ray hero’. A character that is pretty much the same (often thought to be based on Ray himself) whether he is Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause), Jesse James or Jesus Christ (King of Kings was famously nicknamed ‘I was a Teenage Jesus’). The cult of James Dean is perhaps really the cult of the Ray hero (it owes little to his great performance as the balding oil baron in Giant). Had Robert Wagner died in a car crash and James Dean gone on to make Hart to Hart many a teenage bedroom wall may have featured a different face. Jim Stark’s adolescent anguish is shared by the young Jesse even though, unlike the typical Ray hero, Jesse is surrounded by a loving family, his wife, his Ma and most importantly his brother Frank. The legendary outlaw is of course a doomed character – his death is a famous one waiting to happen. Pictures hang on the wall ominously. He destroys the possibility of an amnesty with a revenge killing and eventually even pushes his brother away. It is only when this death-wish subsides that he renounces his life of crime and hands his guns to Bob and Charlie Ford – the consequences of which are sung in the folk ballad at the end. Through these characters Ray explores the great American conflict between individualism and a conformist society. It is Jesse’s entrepreneurial spirit that makes him and destroys him.

The film bears all the hallmarks of a classic 50s Western – De-Luxe color, Cinemascope, day-for-night filters and Brylcreem quiffs. Although the studio interference caused the director to dismiss the film, it is a worthy addition to the Ray canon, reinforcing his reputation as a Hollywood auteur who turned any studio assignment into a thoughtful and personal work of art.

Paul Huckerby