The Go Master

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 March 2008

Venues: ICA

Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang

Writer: Cheng Ah

Original title: Wu Quingyuan

Cast: Chen Chang, Sylvia Chang, Akira Emoto, Takayuki Inoue

China 2006

104 mins

Part of Spotlight Beijing: China in London Film Season
20 March-10 April 2008

Back in 1992, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s bleak and controversial The Blue Kite, which follows the daily lives of an ordinary Beijing family in the times of Mao’s Cultural revolution, fell victim to the hypersensitive Chinese authorities who pulled the plug after seeing the first cut of the film. The raw footage was smuggled out of China and post-production was completed without the director having seen the final cut. In this form, the film found its way into the international festival circuit where it became a major critical and commercial success. Meanwhile, the blacklisted Tian was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ and it was feared that he’d lost interest in filmmaking until he made a triumphant return with the excellent Springtime in a Small Town in 2002. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s latest film to date, The Go Master, is now opening at the ICA as the centrepiece of the China in London 2008 film programme, which features a long overdue retrospective of Tian’s small but ground-breaking body of work.

The Go Master, in contrast with his earlier films, which mainly focused on ethnic minorities in China, portrays the legendary master of the ancient board game ‘Go’, Wu Quingyuan, and his struggle to cope with life as a prodigy. The film traverses some forty years of turbulent Chinese-Japanese history, from Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s through the Second World War and into the 1960s, bringing to life the political and social upheavals of the time through the details and circumstances that shape Wu’s extraordinary existence.

Born in China in 1914, Wu moves to Japan at a young age and is soon identified as a naturally talented Go player, establishing his reputation through a long competition against a Japanese master. Tutored by a harsh mentor while also battling tuberculosis as a young man, Wu is not driven to play Go merely by his love of the game but also by a search for inner peace, which also leads him to join a Buddhist sect.

The narrative charts Wu’s turbulent life, going backwards and forwards in time as though one were browsing through his diary, which is sometimes confusing. Audiences expecting the lush imagery that is associated with contemporary Chinese cinema might be disappointed and some might find its extremely slow pace boring. However, the film is a moving, intimate domestic drama, played out with subtle intensity on the characters’ faces. Perhaps Tian’s smartest move is to focus not on the wartime turmoil or on the nature of the chess-like game, but on the immense psychological struggle the master of Go faces every time he enters a new game. Chang Chen as Wu gives an outstanding performance of quiet power and brilliantly conveys the strangeness of being a prodigy. When not confined to the game board, he maintains an almost conspicuously low profile with his pale looks and introverted temper, whereas in competition he shows the intensity of a world champion, with a laser-sharp stare and a completely unshakeable concentration. In the film’s most startling scene, when the game is interrupted by an explosion after the atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, Wu’s only concern is to resume the game without delay.

Just like his central character, Tian maintains an even mood throughout the film. The characters may not all be well shaped; and the power of the images is undermined by the sometimes confusing sequence of events; but his strategy is one of understatement and it wonderfully complements the carefully elaborated visual style to create a beautifully shot and coherent whole.

While it seems a little odd that the China in London film programme features no films by Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou, who are usually ranked first among China’s Fifth Generation film directors, the season is an opportunity to screen Tian’s lesser-known films together with other recent Chinese films. One wonders what Tian would have been able to achieve if he had not been banned from filmmaking for a decade; although The Go Master is not his masterpiece, it is an elegant biopic with sufficient psychological complexity to draw audiences deeply into the characters’ lives.

Pamela Jahn

Spotlight Beijing: China in London Film Season runs from March 20 to April 10 at the ICA, London.


The London Nobody Knows

Format: DVD

Release date: 3 March 2008

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Norman Cohen

Writer: Geoffrey S. Fletcher

UK 1967

46 mins

Long before Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd or the London Psychogeographical Association had begun beating the bounds of our capital city, there was Geoffrey Fletcher. An illustrator and columnist for the Daily Telegraph, throughout the 1960s Fletcher documented the sights, sounds and scenes of a London fast vanishing beneath the grey concrete tide of redevelopment.

Music halls, gas lamps, cemeteries, public toilets, vaults and catacombs, the horse and cart – all were preserved for eternity by Fletcher in ink and word as they slowly disappeared from view. His books – The London Nobody Knows (1962), Down Among the Meths Men (1966), London Overlooked (1964) and others – long charity shop staples, are now quite collectible, and this film version of his idiosyncratic city vision was previously only available in samizdat bootleg editions passed round by collectors. Recently adopted by thoughtful popsters St Etienne as an adjunct to their Finisterre project, it finally gets a well-deserved clean-up and reissue on DVD.

A dapper and sardonic James Mason takes on the role of Fletcher, and with lines like ‘all men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant’, it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins, this being a good thing of course. Mason’s crusty charm never fails to enchant, even when he’s doing his best Prince Charles impression, hobnobbing with toothless meths addicts at a Salvation Army Hostel. Our Masonic dérive takes us to the Camden Roundhouse, soon to be at the heart of London’s psychedelic revolution, a bustling Chapel Market, an eel and pie shop, Kensal Green cemetery, the East End and elsehwere.

It’s a mostly sober affair, bordering on grim at times, particularly the sections dealing with those who are, as Mason puts it, ‘down on their luck’ – ‘the brotherhood of the leaky boot’ who gulp down moonshine and meths as they fight and dance in the streets. Brightening the tone are a curious and probably ill-advised slapstick routine centring on an egg-shelling business, and a lively market scene set to a wonderful tape and electronics score that wouldn’t have been out of place on the first White Noise album. But for the most part the film presents an unromantic yet sympathetic portrait. Fletcher’s London is one of hidden gems buried deep within a city of dust, hardship and decay. Gems that were, and still are, being erased from maps, inch by inch, as the years roll on. Having said that, as amazing as it is to see these two-dimensional remnants of London’s past, it’s remarkable quite how much of it is still here, despite another four decades of change. This resilience is perhaps how London retains her dignity and her magic.

The London Nobody Knows is a remarkable time capsule, and a film project that should be institutionalised, perhaps something like Michael Apted’s 7-Up series for television that is updated periodically, reminding us how, as Mason remarks, ‘all these things meant something once upon a time’.

Also on the DVD is the 25-minute Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, a whimsical musical romance set in swinging Hampstead circa 1969. Draped in yellow satin and polyester, a pretty boy cycles around Hampstead Village in search of a model he’s fallen in love with after banging his head on a billboard photo. It’s a fairly unpalatable period piece, but director Douglas Hickox went on to make the immortal Theatre of Blood (1973) with Vincent Price, whose derelict London landscapes come straight from the works of Geoffrey Fletcher. So as we come full circle we can perhaps forgive him this youthful folly.

Mark Pilkington

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 February 2008

Part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The British Years box-set

Distributor: Network

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Scenario: Eliot Stannard

Based on: the novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes

Cast: Ivor Novello, Malcolm Keen, Miss June

UK 1926

Made in 1926, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was Alfred Hitchcock’s third completed feature and the one he considered to be his first real film. In spite of his inexperience, Hitchcock demonstrates a flair for building tension and creating an evocative atmosphere. This early silent establishes some of the idiosyncracies he later became famous for, notably his cameo appearances and his fixation on blonde actresses. It is also Hitchcock’s first take on the theme of the wrongly accused man, which would preoccupy him repeatedly throughout the rest of his career.

Based on the eponymous novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes, the film is set in a foggy, gloomy London terrorised by The Avenger, a killer loosely modelled on Jack the Ripper. As yet another blonde woman is found murdered, a sinister gentleman takes up lodgings at the house of an elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Bunting. Soon, the lodger’s eccentric ways make him a suspect, and this is exacerbated by his obvious interest in Daisy, the Buntings’ young and pretty blonde daughter. Daisy is also courted by a police detective working on the case, and jealousy further spurs the latter’s suspicions when Daisy appears to reciprocate the lodger’s interest in her.

Like many of Hitchcock’s crime thrillers, this is really a sexual psychodrama. The hunt for the murderer is inseparable from the amorous triangle in which Daisy – a potential victim – is pursued by both the police detective and the suspect. In this way the film suggests that the connection between sex and violence is not simply restricted to the murder case but possibly underlies all male/female relationships. There is a scene in which the detective locks his handcuffs around Daisy’s wrists, telling her he’s hoping to do the same thing to the murderer soon. He means it in a playful manner but Daisy becomes upset and complains that he’s hurting her. Through this incident the film introduces intimations of violence in the courtship, revealing the disquieting side of the detective’s desire to possess Daisy. Although the story ends well – rather unconvincingly – a disturbing reminder of this undercurrent of violence is contained within the last images. As the happy couple stand by the window of their swish apartment, the words ‘To-Night – Golden Curls’ are seen flashing on a building behind them. These very same words appear on title cards at the beginning of the film, in connection with the murders. This small, barely noticeable detail introduces a sense of menace in the conventional happy ending, as if to suggest that men’s vicious impulses towards women lie dormant in any relationship, ready to be awoken at any time.

The Lodger is also worth watching for the sense of excitement that it exudes about the possibilities of the film medium. As the story requires that the killer’s identity should remain mysterious to the end, the tension relies on what is heard rather than on what is seen. This being a silent film, Hitchcock had to find clever ways of expressing sound through images. For some of the early scenes he went as far as constructing a glass floor in order to visually convey the noise of the lodger’s footsteps as he restlessly paces up and down his room. This may be slightly over-zealous, but it is that kind of enthusiasm and inventiveness that make the film so pleasurable to watch. The title cards are also worth mentioning: featuring designs by the Cubist-influenced artist E. McKnight Kauffer, they further enhance the dynamic, modern feel of The Lodger.

Virginie Sélavy


Irma Vep

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 March 2008

Distributor Second Sight

Director: Olivier Assayas

Screenplay: Olivier Assayas

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard

France 1996

95 minutes

The idea of remaking Louis Feuillade’s legendary serial Les Vampires, with Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung in the role of the catsuited thief Irma Vep, is brilliant. What a shame then that instead of really going for it, director Olivier Assayas decided to play it safe and opted for a film-within-the-film about the impossibility of such a project.

When Cheung, playing herself, arrives from Hong Kong to start shooting, she finds a production in disarray, a constantly bickering crew and a formerly revered director, René Vidal (played by veteran French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud), now losing the plot. When Vidal has a nervous breakdown and the filming of Les Vampires comes to a halt, Cheung is left to her own devices, alone and isolated in Paris.

A bittersweet comedy about the chaotic world of filmmaking, regularly punctuated by jabs at the state of modern French cinema, Irma Vep is at best vaguely entertaining, at worst irritatingly self-absorbed. The film is interspersed with footage from Les Vampires and when Vidal attempts to recreate a scene from the original, completely failing to capture its magic, it only serves to show off Assayas’ own impotence in the face of Feuillade’s creation.

Weighed down by too much reverence for the past, Assayas is incapable of breathing life and soul into his film. Flimsy, insubstantial and bloodless, Irma Vep feels like a wasted opportunity, and you can’t help but feel sorry for the great Maggie Cheung, who does her best to liven up the picture in her modern latex catsuit. The best part of the film comes at the very end, as the crew watch the only section of footage that Vidal has completed. With scratched, flickering images accompanied by strange noises on the soundtrack, it conveys the weirdness of the original and condenses it, removing the narrative to leave only fantasized images. If only Assayas had had the vision and courage to approach the whole film in this way then Irma Vep could really have been something.

Virginie Sélavy


There Will Be Blood

Format: Cinema

Release date:8 February 2008

Distributor: Walt Disney

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Based on: Oil! by Upton Sinclair

Cast: Daniel-Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds

USA 2007

158 minutes

There Will Be Blood is a brilliant, if at times difficult, film about greed, vengeance, and the loss of faith that comes with the overwhelming, burning desire for success. The power that emanates from Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest cinematic epic has as much to do with the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis’ enthralling performance, as it does with its remarkable depiction of an America on the brink of industrialisation. Set in the early decades of the last century, it follows the sweep of the California oil boom, which helped transform the pristine, almost innocent landscape into an oil-blackened scar.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the archetypal self-made man, a silver prospector named Daniel Plainview, whose discovery of black gold in Texas leads to an enormous and corrupting change in his fortunes. Plainview builds an empire to rival the corporate giants at Standard Oil, with the help of his young adopted son, H.W., who is pivotal in helping to soften his father’s grizzled image and win over their potential victims (the charismatic H.W. is played by Dillon Freasier, a first-time actor who delivers a perfectly attuned performance). Anderson contrasts Plainview’s blood-and-grits determination with the polished capitalism that presides over America, but his tremendous success leaves only a desolate and bitter legacy.

As his fortune grows, Plainview travels to Little Boston, California, after receiving a tip about a vast, unexploited oil field. His attempts to secure a concession are challenged by the local preacher, played by Paul Dano, virtually unrecognisable from his role as a sullen, angst-ridden teenager in Little Miss Sunshine. Dano is superb as Eli Sunday, the young evangelical minister determined to bring Plainview and his oilmen into his flock. Many of the film’s best moments unfold in the confrontation between the bible-thumping Sunday and the cynical, unbelieving Plainview, who’s forced to humiliate himself in front of the preacher and his congregation in order to gain access to the ocean of oil seething below the surface of the frontier town. Their tempestuous relationship courses through the film, their hatred and contempt for each other driving them both towards the mutually-assured destruction that closes the film. Through the characters of Dano and Plainview, Anderson pitches spirituality against profit in what is essentially a study in the nature of power.

Along with the quality of the cast, much of the film’s strength lies in its iconic imagery, captured brilliantly by Robert Elswit’s fantastic cinematography, and its excellent score, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. From the entirely wordless fifteen-minute opening, the music drives the action, as we’re introduced to the filth and brutality of the silver mines and early oil-pits, and the poverty and tragedy that accompanied the gruelling work. The riveting music perfectly complements the transcendent images of a wild west: the dusty, scorched desert almost burns your eyes, while the oilmen and their rigs exist in brilliant silhouette against the enormity of the Californian sky, evoking the pioneering photography of American artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

Though epic in scope, There Will Be Blood is a lengthy character study of a vile, often despicable and alienating man. Corruption wrought by success has been an enduring theme in American cinema, from the classic Citizen Kane to the tepid Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. Day-Lewis’ riveting performance at times risks veering towards caricature, while Anderson also struggles to avoid the usual clichés. But despite its flaws, There Will Be Blood is the most evocative, visually stunning portrayal of ambition to emerge from America in decades.

Sarah Cronin


Battle For Haditha


Release date: 1 February 2008

Venues: Clapham Picture House, Renoir (London) and selected key cities from 22 February

Distributor Contender Films

Director: Nick Broomfield

Screenplay: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin, Anna Telford

Cast: Elliot Ruiz, Yasmine Hanani, Andrew McLaren

UK 2007

93 mins

Again utilising a stripped-down skeleton crew and drawing on the aesthetic of Ghosts, a harrowing and authentic account of the plight of Chinese immigrant workers in the UK, Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha is another compelling human drama drawn from real-life events. On November 19, 2005 in the western Iraqi city of Haditha twenty-four men, women and children were killed by four US Marines. Initial reports claimed that Marines had returned fire after ‘gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire’. A day after the incident, a Haditha student videotaped the scene at the local morgue and at the homes where the killings had occurred, which provoked a Time Magazine article disputing the original account. A subsequent Pentagon probe alleged a retaliatory US massacre in response to the death of a unit member in a roadside bomb attack. Commentators in certain sections of the media immediately began to refer to the event as ‘Iraq’s My Lai’.

Widely acknowledged for his documentary work, and specifically for his re-invention and re-popularisation of the discipline, Broomfield has continued to use extensive research as the foundation of his recent pursuit of ‘fictive’ filmmaking and his ongoing quest for truth. Before a single page was written Broomfield and co-writers Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford spent over nine months on research, scouring government and witness reports and conducting lengthy and revealing interviews with Marines, survivors of the massacre and insurgents. The journalists who had been involved from Time Magazine and The Washington Post were also sought out and consulted. The result of this meticulous drive towards authenticity is the fact that the viewer often feels uncomfortably close to events. More importantly perhaps, it allows Broomfield to achieve his stated objective of making the film as ‘an attempt to understand the event from the three different points of view in a very human and compassionate way’.

Though still relatively low-key in terms of scale and budget, the brilliantly balanced Battle For Haditha undoubtedly operates on a broader scale than Ghosts and it is in this regard that Broomfield shows his progression as a filmmaker. Again casting non-professional actors, many of whom are actual Marines and massacre survivors who improvised dialogue under instruction, the director offers a visceral recreation of the sounds and images of combat to ultimately reveal the cost of this combat in terms of human life. There’s a startling realism to the presentation of the language of war which makes the consideration of how humanity is compromised by acts of barbarism and conflict all the weightier.

The film was shot in Jordan, where the conservative and traditional Muslim culture presented numerous problems, not least a difficulty to enlist the on-screen participation of family members and females. The incredibly diverse backgrounds of those cast to appear and the hostilities that divide them would also, one assume, make for a tempestuous filming environment but Broomfield claims that tensions were evaporated due to an incredible letting of emotion and the seizing of an opportunity to share experiences. Offering conclusive proof that the director, who cites Battle of Algiers as his inspiration, has found a method of working with which he feels entirely comfortable and which intelligently blurs the line between documentary and ‘real’ cinema, Battle For Haditha is a work of both authority and integrity.

Jason Wood

Jason Wood is the author of Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons (Faber).


My Blueberry Nights

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 February 2008

Venues: tbc

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Screenplay: Wong Kar Wai, Lawrence Block

Cast: Norah Jones, Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman

Hong Kong/China/France 2007

111 minutes

It seemed sadly inevitable that Wong Kar Wai’s first American film, starring songstress and first-time actress Norah Jones, alongside the consistently mediocre Jude Law, would be a disappointment compared to his earlier, Hong Kong-based work. Billed as a romantic road trip that explores ‘the distance between heartbreak and a new beginning’, My Blueberry Nights is a flimsy, saccharine confection that suffers from a weak script, trite dialogue and miscast actors.

In its favour, the acclaimed director’s first English-language feature does echo some of his earlier films, such as the excellent Chungking Express. His continued fascination with the nocturnal city as a symbol of alienation and loneliness is both evocative and visually striking, his actors framed by the lush hues of neon lights, reflected in the surfaces of the bars and diners in which his characters exist. However, while it may be beautiful to look at, My Blueberry Nights lacks the spontaneity and subtlety of his earlier films, while the dynamism that actors like Tony Leung, the late Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong – a singer like Norah Jones – lent them is sadly missing from this latest work.

Jones plays Elizabeth, a young woman living in New York who’s just discovered that her boyfriend has been seeing another woman. She finds solace in a café run by Jeremy (Jude Law), a charismatic expat from Manchester. Night after night, Elizabeth sits on a stool at the counter, seeking answers for her loneliness and betrayal. Jeremy, with his own story of heartbreak, feeds her banal philosophies and blueberry pie as consolation. Just as he predictably begins to fall for her, Elizabeth decides to set off across America in an attempt to ease her heartache, waitressing along the way. She encounters one miscast actor after another as she travels from New York to Nevada, with the exception of David Strathairn, who plays a cop down on his luck, drinking away his sorrows in a bar in Memphis, trying to forget his Southern bombshell of an ex-wife, played by the vampy Rachel Weisz.

Strathairn’s performance is the only one in the film that feels both natural and credible. He has a screen presence that the other actors, despite their A-list status, all seem to lack, and one that even further diminishes Jones’ acting capabilities. She may be a talented singer, but on-screen she’s incapable of conveying emotion, instead seeming listless and aloof from her own role in the film. As she travels from Memphis to Nevada, it becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with her journey from one lonely figure to another, all typically seeking some kind of redemption. In a seedy, third-rate casino, she meets a tough-talking, peroxide-blonde gambler, somewhat unconvincingly played by Natalie Portman, who, estranged from her dying father, buries her own sorrows in poker chips. Adultery, alcohol, gambling – they’re commonplace vices that should have been handled by the filmmaker with greater subtlety and dexterity, and much less banality.

While the film is visually enticing, most of the actors seem to have been cast for their fame and looks rather than their abilities. They simply aren’t strong enough to salvage the predictable, insubstantial script, co-written by Wong and Lawrence Block, who’s better known for his crime novels than his screenplays. Nothing more than a light piece of entertainment, My Blueberry Nights is a minor footnote in Wong Kar Wai’s brilliant body of work.

Sarah Cronin


The Conformist

Format: Cinema

Release date: 29 February 2007

Venue: BFI Southbank, Renoir (London)

Distributor: BFI

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Based on: novel by Alberto Moravia

Original title: Il Conformista

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda

Italy/France 1970

111 minutes

The Conformist is screening as part of a BFI season of European noir, films that take the distinctively American concepts and clichés of 1940s crime fiction and filter them through a more experimental and internalised European new wave aesthetic. In its narrative, The Conformist looks back to the early days of Italian fascism, detailing the efforts of a zealous convert to submerge himself in the new conventions of his country. But in its style and subtext the film is very much of its time, a child of the late 60s, loaded with existential questions of identity, sexuality and gender.

Marcello Clerici lives with psychological scars inflicted in boyhood, sexual traumas which have driven him to seek out the most ordinary life possible. In Mussolini’s Italy this means marriage, procreation and an unquestioning acceptance of the new political order. Eager to follow his masters’ instructions, Clerici takes his new bride to Paris, ostensibly on their honeymoon but actually to contact Professor Quadri, an old tutor who has since become a leading light in the anti-fascist movement. But when Clerici’s orders change from assignation to assassination he balks, his innate cowardice warring with his overwhelming desire to obey.

The first act of the film is restless and at times frustrating, toying with ideas and then discarding them, giving us insight into Clerici’s tortured past and newly fanatical present but struggling for coherence. Events shift back and forth in time, seemingly key characters are introduced never to reappear, and bizarre events, such as a festive dance at a local centre for the blind, cause jarring interruptions to the narrative flow. But following Clerici’s departure for Paris the main thread of the plot becomes clearer. Tension is permitted to build, characters to develop, as the narrative progresses inexorably towards its gripping, horrific conclusion.

As a central figure, Clerici is at first enigmatic, then reprehensible, then pitiable and finally simply pathetic. For Bertolucci the most terrifying face of fascism is not the sneering demagogue but the willing follower, the one who takes the path of least resistance, offering tacit support and justification. Clerici is repeatedly offered the opportunity to act – either in support or defiance of his leaders – but at every turn he does nothing, floundering in self-pity and confusion. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance is restrained but achingly effective, assuming the character of a man who has none.

But the real star of The Conformist, and justifiably so, is Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking photography. Hailed as a textbook example of the cinematographer’s art, the film luxuriates in washes of soft colour and pale, gauzy light, contrasting the hard, grey architectural edges of fascism with the warm, vulnerable contours of the human form. The climactic sequence on a remote mountain road is utterly devastating, a scene of pure savagery played out amid the towering tranquillity of the silent, shimmering forest.

The Conformist is a problematic film, in its structure and coherence, and particularly in its portrayal of women, who seem either to be brainless ditzes or predatory hunters, but who pay the price either way. But still it is regarded as a masterpiece, and with good reason. The film explores a complex and vital topic with intelligence, insight and emotional clarity, asking important and relevant questions about humanity’s desire for acceptance, while creating a visual spectacle unmatched in modern cinema.

Tom Huddleston

Naked Youth

Naked Youth
Naked Youth (aka Cruel Story of Youth)

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)DVD

Release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director Nagisa Ôshima

Writer Nagisa Ôshima

Original title: Seishun zankoku monogatari

Alternative title: Cruel Story of Youth

Cast: Yusuke Kawazu, Miyuki Kuwano

Japan 1960

96 mins

Hitching a lift from a random male, schoolgirl Makoto is molested. Student Kiyoshi turns up out of nowhere and saves her, extorting money from the sheepish gent in the process. The next day, our youthful pair meet up, are bored by a political demonstration, then turn up, inexplicably, in a speedboat in a desolate dockland of lashed-together log pontoons. When Makoto refuses Kiyoshi’s advances, he pushes her into the water and, despite the fact that she cannot swim, will not let her out again until she agrees to have sex with him. No good is going to come of this, is it? Inspired by the manner of their first meeting, they embark on a career of petty criminality, shaking down reliably predatory motorists. But, as periodic brushes with yakuza pimps hint, they are amateurs paddling in the shallows of a torrent that will carry them away.

As an essay in futility fuelled by amorphous desire and energy, Nagasi Ôshima’s ‘cruel story’ is up there with A bout de souffle (1960). This is how Naked Youth is usually read; as a contribution to the transnational sulk that envelops cinematic youth in the 1950s from The Wild One (1953) to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to, God help us, Beat Girl (1960). Closer to home, it has also been linked with the taiyozoku (tribe of the sun) genre, originating in a 1953 story by Shintaro Ishihara – now Tokyo’s colourful governor. Makoto and Kiyoshi certainly fit the bill insofar as they are young and rudderless, but they are equally, and unusually, incompetent at being glamorous. They have neither the pathos that makes James Dean a social worker’s wet dream, nor the cool insolence of Brando or Belmondo. Actually they are quite plain and frumpily clothed.

And are they even rebels, with or without a cause? Presumably teen sex is, in itself, a rebellion. But the main criticism of parental authority comes from Makoto’s older sister Yuki who wants to know why her sibling is allowed to run wild. Indeed, the older generation are every bit as clueless and compromised as the younger and, one way or another, fund their misdemeanours. The endemic motor-rapists are easy pickings, and Kiyoshi’s older mistress puts up the money for Makoto’s abortion, which is itself carried out by Yuki’s disillusioned ex-idealist ex-lover. The supreme moment of bathos for the whole idea of stylish revolt comes in a brilliant scene where our Primark Bonnie and Clyde flee Kiyoshi’s mistress in a taxi, diving down a side street too narrow for her gas-guzzler, only to discover they have no money. At this point, the mistress rolls up and settles the fare for them. Only death, the great elevator as well as leveller, makes some concession to the glamour of the genre.

The film is, however, interested in rebellion after a fashion. Dr Akimoto and Yuki have some pained words about the loss of their political ideals. Makoto and Kiyoshi’s romance itself starts from this point. Their first date is preceded by newsreel footage of the Korean student revolution of 19 April 1960, and the date itself starts at a Zenkaguren rally against the AMPO treaty with the USA. These snippets play like the files of marching troops that frame the bedroom action in Ai no corrida (1976). Ôshima’s focus is on the intense, solipsistic folie à  deux, but history is there in Naked Youth as a cry from the street. So is Oshima wagging his finger, counselling political commitment as a remedy for silly star-crossed lovers? I am unsure as to what the precise historical practices of student movements in 1950s Japan may have been, but it is interesting to note that the Zenkaguren in Naked Youth protest by linking arms and running round in circles, holding brightly-coloured balloons.

Stephen Thomson

This review was first published in 2008 for the DVD release of Naked Youth by Yume Pictures.

Watch the original theatrical trailer:

The Killers

The Killers
The Killers

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 8 December 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Robert Siodmak

Writers: Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, John Huston

Based on the short story by: Ernest Hemingway

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien

USA 1946

103 mins

‘That guy, what’s his name, the Swede, never had a chance, did he?’

The first twelve minutes of The Killers (1946) is a faithful (almost word for word) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s much-anthologised short story. Two hit men enter a diner (shot to look like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks – itself apparently inspired by Hemingway’s story), intimidating the owner, the cook and its one customer with a cruel vaudeville routine while they wait for their intended victim, ‘the Swede’. When he fails to show, the two thugs leave and Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams (the customer) runs to warn him. But the Swede refuses to flee, instead waiting passively – ‘There isn’t anything I can do about it’ – with typical Hemingway heroic fatalism. In the story he offers a simple explanation: ‘I got in wrong’; his resigned stoicism remains unexplained, his story untold. In the film (updated from 20s Chicago to New Jersey in the 40s) he claims, ‘I did something wrong… Once’. This ‘once’ (misread by Nick to mean it was something a while ago) leads to the second part of the film in which Reardon, an insurance investigator, gets witnesses to tell the story through seven flashbacks. However, in contrast with that other multiple flashback film, Citizen Kane, it is not a key to the character’s psychological make-up that he hopes to discover but the single mistake that sealed the Swede’s fate and led him along the series of events that ended with a visit from the hit men. Instead of a favourite childhood toy the clue is a green handkerchief embroidered with pictures of harps – the key to the mystery. As in Sunset Boulevard the opening murder gives the rest of the film a strong sense of fatalism – there can be only one ending for the Swede.

The Killers was directed by noir maestro Robert Siodmak back to back with The Spiral Staircase, which is often considered his masterpiece. Along with former colleagues Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Edgar G Ulmer (as well as his hero Fritz Lang) Siodmak was a refugee from Nazi Germany with a prolific career already behind him. However, unlike Lang, his reputation amongst auteurist critics was somewhat diminished by the fact that he seemed only able to make great films in one genre. It was when mixing European and American sensibilities that he was at his best. The influence of German Expressionism, especially strong in The Spiral Staircase, is also evident in The Killers where it meshes perfectly with American hard-boiled existentialism. Elwood (Woody) Bredell’s chiaroscuro cinematography is excellent and here almost rivals the great John Alton’s work on The Big Combo. It is a directing tour de force full of breathtaking shots, from the simple pan capturing the contrast between a panicking Nick and the stoic Swede at the start of the film to the virtuoso two-minute crane shot of the heist.

Siodmak was certainly aided by a first-rate cast and crew. Anthony Veiller gets the writing credit but was helped by Richard Brooks and John Huston. The final draft, Siodmak claims, was written solely by Huston (who had wanted to direct as well), but he remained uncredited as he was under contract at Warner Bros. The plot has one of the greatest twisty-turny double-crossings in film noir and the complex story is enlivened by the sparkling hard-bitten dialogue – ‘Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell’, Kitty is told – as well as a perfect ending that puts it all neatly into perspective.

The Killers is also notable for giving a first starring role to that former circus acrobat Burt Lancaster, who dominates the screen with a typically individual and naturalistic performance. Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins gives a near-iconic performance creating a noir femme fatale to rival Mary Astor and Barbara Stanwyck. At 24 she was already divorced from Mickey Rooney and set for superstardom but she was never better than here. Stealing the film from the (future) big stars is the excellent Edmond O’Brien (star of classic noirs DOA and The Hitchhiker) whose everyman appeal as the insurance investigator grounds the film and gives it its heart. While Reardon’s aim is ostensibly to recover the stolen money, the film leaves us in no doubt that what really drives him is a combination of sympathy for the Swede, a need to solve a mystery and also, crucially, to understand why a man would simply submit to his own murder.

Hemingway has gone on record to say that The Killers was his favourite of all the films based on his work and I wouldn’t disagree. There are many great film noirs and The Killers has all the necessary components to be a textbook example but beyond that it is simply an exceptional film.

This review was first published for the 2008 UK cinema re-release.

Paul Huckerby