Writers: Pang Ho-Cheung, Lam Chiu Wing, Luk Yee Sum
Cast: Chapman To, Ronald Cheng, Dada Chan, Lam Suet
Hong Kong 2012
Neither as vulgar as the title or the trailer might suggest, Vulgaria, Pang Ho-Cheung’s follow-up to Dream Home, is instead a very entertaining satire about the Hong Kong film industry. The story opens in a lecture hall, where film producer To (played by Chapman To) is giving an interview about the business in front of a crowd of college-age students (it’s a seemingly strange framing device, but one that eventually makes very clever sense). To, divorced and down on his luck, tells the students a lengthy tale about his recent efforts to get a project off the ground, while Pang makes use of flashbacks to reveal To’s convoluted, absurd and often hilarious adventure.
The producer’s only lead comes via an introduction to a shady investor, a mainland gangster called Tyrannosaurus (Ronald Cheng), who has a disturbing fondness for certain types of sex (perhaps the most classically vulgar element in the film). But he has money – and insists that To remake an old porn film using the ageing actress Yum Yum Shaw (Susan Shaw). Although Shaw agrees to star in the picture, she insists on a body double, who comes in the shape of a model nicknamed Popping Candy (Dada Chan), who eventually turns out to be not only much smarter than she first appears, but easily one of the best characters in Vulgaria.
There are genuine laugh-out-loud moments – some of the humour may be gross, some is definitely completely ridiculous. Yet, Pan certainly makes the case for the vulgarity of the industry by making fun of all the players involved – producers, directors and actors – and not to mention the audience.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) might have made millions and become a milestone in the history of cinema, but it didn’t inspire a great many films worth watching. Although spoofs and knock-offs proliferated quickly, it wasn’t until the rise of reality TV and cheap, readily available digital cameras that the format started producing interesting results, including [Rec] (2007) and its sequels (and to a lesser extent the US remake), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the Paranormal Activity films, and most recently André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter (2010). Released in 2005, Kôji Shiraishi’s The Curse (Noroi) predates all these, but strictly speaking it does not belong with the ‘found footage’ films. Instead, it’s the conceptual descendant of the BBC’s notorious 1992 Ghostwatch Halloween Special, in which another trashy ‘celebrity in a haunted house’ TV show began documenting real phenomena, both on location and in the studio. With millions of viewers convinced they were watching a live television broadcast, Ghostwatch attracted acclaim and outrage in equal proportion when the deception was finally revealed. The Curse is presented as the final work of Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), a reporter and filmmaker who specialises in documenting - rather than debunking - supernatural and occult phenomena. After finishing his latest investigation, Kobayashi disappeared and his wife died, leaving behind only the almost finished documentary and a few minutes of unseen footage - apparently shot on the night he disappeared - as a possible clue.
Kobayashi’s documentary begins with the disappearance of a possibly unhinged single mother and her introverted young son, but before long he is drawn into a world of psychic children, alien religious rituals, gruesome sacrifices, a surplus of dead pigeons, an insane visionary clad in a tin foil hat and coat, and the root cause of it all, a town that now sits at the bottom of an artificial lake. Most of the footage is shot by Kobayashi and his unseen cameraman, but the narrative is also supported by extracts from the television news and a number of clips drawn from TV shows that introduce key characters and highlight their connections to the world of the supernatural. After Kobayashi, the most important character is actress and part-time psychic Marika Matsumoto, star of Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005), and one of several guests playing themselves. Following a trip to a supposedly haunted shrine as part of a TV show, Marika finds herself becoming the focus of a steadily escalating series of supernatural events, including half-glimpsed figures on the TV footage, bizarre sleepwalking incidents and a growing number of pigeons that commit suicide by hurling themselves against her windows. As she grows increasingly frightened, Kobayashi realises there is a connection between the story he is pursuing and Marika’s otherworldly experiences.
As in a great deal of contemporary Japanese horror, much of the material in The Curse reflects the Japanese fascination with all things mysterious and unexplainable, from the occult to urban legends. The fake TV show clips that Shiraishi uses to add authenticity work mainly because they’re exceptionally realistic. Shows that test the psychic abilities of a class of schoolchildren have been seen on Japanese television, complete with tacky graphics and multi-coloured subtitles. Rising starlets like Marika Matsumoto - and Maria Takagi, who also appears - often end up as panel guests or celebrity interviewers. They might only be on screen for seconds, but you can also spot noted horror author Hiroshi Aramata, popular TV host and former AV star Ai Iijima and comedy duo The Ungirls. Wisely, Shiraishi avoids allowing these cameo appearances to dominate their scenes and distract from the main characters and the supernatural events.
Shiraishi’s approach has a definite advantage over Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’; by presenting his footage as part of a documentary, the director is free to edit, manipulate and process the material as much as he likes, in order to achieve the necessary effect. This is most apparent in the disembodied, multi-layered baby cries that can frequently be heard, as well as the muted thuds of pigeons hitting windows. Digital manipulation allows Shiraishi to insert the briefly seen ghostly figures and twisted faces that appear throughout the film. However, these are not the half-glimpsed phantoms found in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo, 2001); because The Curse is supposed to be a documentary, when such images or phenomena are caught on film the footage is sometimes replayed and analysed, reducing its impact on the viewer. Despite this, Shiraishi leaves a great deal unexplained - the pigeons, for example, or the knots - and simply allows the cumulative effect of all the horror and grotesquery to speak for itself. There’s no need for him to explicitly describe the rituals taking place since the implications are clear and the viewer’s imagination can fill in the less-than-pleasant details.
The same applies to the film’s final sequence, which is presented in full with no edits, overdubs or modifications. Without the director’s own commentary it isn’t completely clear what happens in the minutes prior to Kobayashi’s disappearance and the death of his wife, but this ambiguous conclusion is entirely appropriate for a film that documents a wealth of supernatural phenomena without managing to explain any of them. There is a slight misstep before the end, however. Like almost every found-footage film, there comes a time when one character ignores his own safety (and that of his companions) to pick up the camera and start filming. Realistically, such individuals would either run or assist their friends; preserving the event for posterity would probably not rank highly on most people’s list of priorities, selfish or otherwise. That minor glitch aside, The Curse is one of the best of its kind, competing easily with The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast (1998) and considerably better than Cloverfield or the Paranormal Activity series, including the made-in-Japan alternate sequel Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010). Unlike Tokyo Night, The Curse is a terrific example of the kind of atmospheric, well-composed horror films that Japan became famous for in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998).
Director Kôji Shiraishi has been an active figure in the world of low-budget Japanese horror since the early 2000s. He cut his teeth on the prolonged V-cinema (direct-to-video) Hontô ni atta! Noroi no bideo series before contributing to a clip show called Nihon no kowai yoru, released in the West as Dark Tales of Japan. This made-for-TV anthology project gave Shiraishi the opportunity to work alongside some of Japan’s most famous horror directors and with Takashige Ichise, the driving force behind Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series, who went on to produce The Curse. Although widely considered to be the director’s best work, it has yet to be released in Western countries, despite the continued interest in atmospheric Japanese horror. Shiraishi would visit the same genre territory again a number of times, including in Shirome (2010), which features real pop group Momoiro Clover exploring fake sites of supernatural interest, and the serial killer investigation Occult (2009). Neither has been released in an English-language version yet. Recently Shiraishi’s career has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his notorious ‘torture-porn’ effort Grotesque (2009), which was refused a certificate from the BBFC, effectively banning its release or screening in the United Kingdom.
Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.
Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.
The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.
Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.
There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.
Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.
In Chekhov’s short story ‘Peasants’, a waiter from the city has fallen sick and takes his family back to his village to be looked after, and wait for death. Almost immediately he realises this is a mistake. He’s just another mouth to feed and before long his own family are making it clear to him he should hurry up and die. The cruelty of survival is similarly the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film, based on a conflation of two short stories by Shichirô Fukazawa, each of which had already been given separate film treatments. In a remote mountain village, winters are harsh and basic survival is ground out of the earth. As a result, the elderly, on reaching 70, go up the mountain to die. Granny Orin (played by the excellent Sumiko Sakamoto) is a sturdy 69 with a mouthful of her own teeth, but feels her time has come. It is partly out of respect for tradition, partly because of religious beliefs that in that way she will see her ancestors again, but also because of a not-so-subtle societal pressure: she begins to be the butt of jokes and songs about the demon hag who has 33 teeth. The memory of her husband’s disappearance still makes her feel she has lost face.
As in the Chekhov short story, there is a shocking frankness about death and the need for a society on the edge of survival to get rid of its excess baggage, even when these are your relatives. Female babies are sold to the visiting salt merchant, unwanted children are killed on birth. A new born babe that is found in the field sets off a quarrel, not about murder, but about fly-tipping: ‘I don’t need that kind of fertilizer,’ an aggrieved peasant complains. Sexual behaviour is also restricted, with only the eldest son allowed to marry and the other men having to make do with what sex they can grab. Risuke, Granny Orin’s smelly second son, makes do with the neighbour’s dog when the urge takes him.
Imamura unashamedly places the village in the context of a nature that is drippingly red in tooth and claw. As humans hunt, so do eagles, sometimes stealing the same prey; as human rut, so do frogs; as humans are cruel, so we see the murderous affections of the praying mantis. And their survival is genuinely on a knife’s edge. This is not a Malthusian abstraction, or a Logan’s Run dystopia. Each family continually keeps track of the mouths to feed and does the math. They watch as potatoes are counted out and infractions are punished with an appalling severity. ‘I wonder if we’ll survive this winter,’ one villager muses aloud.
And yet for all the harshness and difficulty this is a bizarrely beautiful film, as it follows the village through its four seasons, from winter on. The change of the light, the landscape with the dominating and death-threatening mountain as well as the fire-lit interiors are beautifully rendered, without ever appearing anything other than real.
Before going up the mountain Granny Orin needs to resolve some unfinished business. Her eldest son’s wife has died and he needs a replacement. Stinky Risuke, who uses his breath as a weapon, also needs to have some sex otherwise the neighbours are going to find out about why their dog is so unhappy. The younger son is in a relationship with a girl from a bad family, who are suspected of thieving. The fall of this family is precipitous and is anticipated by the snake that serves as their house god abandoning their hut.
The main relationship is between Granny and Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), her eldest son. She fears he is soft-hearted, too much like his father, and he is reluctant to let her go up the mountain. It is partly to convince him that she is ageing that Orin bashes her own teeth out, the actress having her own front teeth removed for the purposes of the film with an admirable commitment to realism. However, Tatsuhei is a complex character, troubled literally by ghosts from the past, and although he might demur from carrying out a punishment one day, on another he might well participate. And in the end it will be Tatsuhei who will carry Granny Orin up to her final resting place as the first snows threaten to fall.
Imamura’s achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. And yet this is not of mere anthropological interest, he is neither romanticising nor patronising the villagers. There is broad comedy and deep tragedy, both the beauty and the cruel indifference of nature, tenderness, humour, love and cruelty. Our understanding of the village is never allowed the privileged position of judgement. The last 30 minutes of the film are as moving and magical as anything I’ve ever seen.
Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is the loser’s loser, down on his luck at the mah-jong tables, leading a pitiful life as an ethnic Korean in Yanbian, China. His wife left for Korea in search of work months ago and he hasn’t heard from her since, he is unable to support his child, and the debts have long spiralled beyond his ability to pay. Then local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok) offers him a chance to wipe the slate clean: all he has to do is cross the Yellow Sea to Seoul and kill a businessman. He is understandably reluctant, but this seems his only way out, and offers him a chance to track down his wife.
Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong.
Na Hong-jin’s exhilarating film is pretty much a game of two halves. For the first hour or so it’s a wholly credible portrait of a desperate life. Gu-nam lives in a crappy world, he is well aware of his status as a ‘josenjok’, unwanted and despised. Everything seems to be on its last legs, everyone is heartless and on the make. His days in the shabby milieu of Yanbian, the gruelling smuggling operation that gets him to Korea, his cold and hunger and increasing frustration and stress are graphically evoked in blues and greys, through clipped sparse dialogue and sharp editing, as he plans to kill a man he does not know.
From the clusterfuck assassination onwards, however, the film evolves into a high-octane gore-flecked black comic shocker as Gu-nam goes on the run from hordes of cops, the Korean gangster behind the hit, and Myun-ga, who re-enters the picture to cut a bloody swathe through the last hour with a butcher’s knife and hatchet. The carefully built sense of verisimilitude is first strained, then shattered, as our fugitive changes from a pitiful nobody into a resourceful killer with nine lives. This never stops the film from being entertaining, however. Na Hong-jin clearly knows what he’s doing with a camera and there are a series of pulse-pounding audacious action sequences. Moreover, his sense of telling detail and street-level scuzz never deserts him. I enjoyed the town mouse/country mouse disdain that the Seoul gangsters feel for the Yanbian mob, and Myun-ga’s appalling grasp of housekeeping. It’s just that the poignancy and sad irony that the film aims for at its resolution seem oddly misplaced after all that Fargo via Simpson/Bruckheimer bloody chaos.
This is a common feature in a lot of Eastern cinema (‘the Asian Gear-Change’?). Many kung fu dramas crunched from Laurel and Hardy slapstick to grim Deathwish revenge thriller after the third reel. Fans of this stuff aren’t going to bat an eyelid at the wildly different tones that The Yellow Sea goes through, but it just seems odd to me, like James Toback’s Fingers being spliced with The Last Boy Scout. Ah well. Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo hold the screen well, I was never bored, it’s fast and funny and edge-of-the-seat tense; it’s just that I’d still like to see the end of the film it started off being.
The Yellow Sea screens at the London Korean Film Festival on November 9. The LKFF runs from 3 to 17 November 2011. More details on the LKFF website.
Masaki Kobayashi, most often celebrated in the west for Kwaidan, his ghost story omnibus film, more typically made films of violent conflict reflecting his pacifist convictions. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Doing what little he could to resist Japanese militarism as a soldier in WWII, as a filmmaker Kobayashi threw himself into demonstrating the futility of armed struggle. In movies like Samurai Rebellion (1967) and 1962’s Seppuku (just released in the UK on DVD under its more common Western title, Harakiri), the director plays a cunning game, building up a cauldron of seething dramatic tension that finally explodes in a bloody climax, satisfying the demands of a genre audience who require chanbara swordplay, yet resulting in no beneficial effects, for anybody.
Crucially, Kobayashi isn’t opposed to the enjoyment of violent movies, so he doesn’t see any need to destroy audience involvement or render the battle scenes overly unpleasant with excessive gore, or unexciting via distanciation effects. His fights are stunning spectacles and absolutely thrilling to behold, especially after the hours of slow-mounting pressure that build up to them. For tales of defeat, in which not even the memory of a heroic effort will go recorded by history, these movies are surprisingly pleasurable, even at their grimmest.
What Kobayashi is opposed to, and very strongly, is the whole samurai tradition, and its continuing celebration in Japanese cinema. While some filmmakers, notably Kurosawa, were almost wholly approving of the idea of the noble warrior class, and others seem to have been largely agnostic on the subject, seeing it as purely a commercial genre element to be exploited, Kobayashi is devoted, in his period films, to destroying the pernicious myth of an honourable tradition of chivalrous combat and feudal rule. He does so mercilessly, though the tradition, here aptly embodied by an empty suit of armour, always remains at the film’s end, undefeatable. It’s a surprise to see that Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel, also worked on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
This slow, savage destruction of the mythic code of the samurai is delivered via a series of flashbacks, embedded in the action to produce an illusion of indirection - in fact, the story moves as directly and ruthlessly as a sword thrust. But the ingenious structure allows an incremental build-up of tension, the weaving of several narrative lines, and a final, cataclysmic coming together of all that’s been set up, resulting in a highly cathartic outburst of action.
Along with Kobayashi’s eschewing of delicacy and ellipsis, there’s an avoidance of humour, except for the very blackest sort, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai’s sepulchral performance. The film is deliberately heavy and sombre and truly downbeat, yet it never feels weighed down, depressing or turgid: because it’s an embodiment of the true cinematic urge, the evocation of ideas with image and sound, delivered with passion and anger by a fearless and resourceful filmmaker.
See the original before Takashi Miike’s version of the same story hits UK screens in October.
A young boy in a white shirt and shorts races up the stairs of a department store. The camera closes in on the boy’s eyes, his hand on a banister, his feet on the steps. He stops only in front of a display case containing a butterfly; after, in a field of ferns and birch trees, he chases his prey with a white net, the rushing, soaring camera capturing both his point of view and the fluttering butterfly’s. But the object of his desire, the Nagasaki ageha, is not found in Hokkaido. Thus begins a journey: the director Kuroki Kazuo takes the audience on a trip across Japan, following the path of a larva as it evolves into a caterpillar and finally a butterfly, dipping into various people’s troubled lives as it’s carried from its home in Nagasaki to Hiroshima, Osaka, Yokohama, and finally to Hokkaido - all places of significance in Japan.
The premise and story alone don’t do justice to the true nature of Kuroki’s ground-breaking 1967 film, an elliptical, experimental, abstract and poetic vision that also mixes genres, from documentary to road movie and spy thriller, with stylistic elements of the nouvelle vague. The elusive butterfly is symbolised by the gorgeous Kaga Mariko, who plays a number of enigmatic characters; in the beginning, she’s an ethereal figure shrouded in a white mist; in the end, a woman clothed in a long, black dress, seemingly in mourning. In Hiroshima, she flits through a crowd wearing glamorous European dress, chased by her lover; it’s a beautifully choreographed scene, echoing the boy’s pursuit of the butterfly. She later performs a musical number with an umbrella, dancing through a temple. In Osaka, she appears only as a model, her face peering out from a billboard.
While Kuroki later acknowledged that the film’s politics were overshadowed by its poetry, the war is an important presence, reflected in the choice of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as locations. Kuroki mixes footage of the bombed-out cities with scenes of protest and remembrance and, in a gorgeous use of black and white, a memorial service where people float glittering paper lanterns on a flowing river. Survivors recount their stories on the soundtrack as Mariko stumbles through ruins. An atomic bomb explodes. The caterpillar becomes a pawn in a mysterious game of espionage. Kuroki cuts together footage straight out of a thriller with shots of Japan’s military industrial complex, to the sounds of jazz and sirens (the soundtrack is as important and experimental as the visuals). A man is assassinated; as he lies face down in the middle of the road, the caterpillar is seen an inch from his lips, as if exhaled by the dying man.
Silence Has No Wings seems to become ever more abstract the longer it goes on; it’s a beautifully filmed allegory, a puzzle with reoccurring motifs that are slowly pieced together. There might be clues in the words ‘Butterfly is eagle and flies between swans’, which appear on screen twice, but it would take more than one viewing to really get to the heart of Kuroki’s first feature film.
Produced by a subsidiary of Toho, who were hoping for a commercial success, the controversial film sat on the shelf for a year before it was picked up and screened by the Art Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG) - yet another testament to the importance of that alternative production and distribution organisation in the history of Japanese cinema.
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Eri Fukatsu, Masaki Okada, Hikari Mitsushima, Kirin Kiki
Villain is distributed by the small specialist distributor Third Window Films. They (as well as many other small UK film distributors) have had all of their stock destroyed in the Sony warehouse fire during the riots on August 8. Please help support them by going to see the award-winning Villain.
A young man with dyed, dirty-blond hair sits in a car in a petrol station. While Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) waits for the tank to be filled up, he watches a video on his mobile phone of an attractive girl, lying on a bed in her underwear. The girl, Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), works for an insurance company, lives in a dormitory, and has her heart set on the cool, attractive playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada), but toys with the socially awkward Yuichi in the meantime. When the girl is found dead, it’s easy for the audience to guess who must be responsible for her murder - either the working-class loser who lives with his grandmother (terrifically played by Kirin Kiki), or the popular, charismatic Masuo.
But Yuichi’s relationship with the murdered girl isn’t really the key to Lee Sang-il’s Villain, which won five of the top prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards - four of them for acting. Rather, the story swirls around Yuichi’s relationship with Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), who leads her own lonely and depressed life, working in a stuffy men’s clothing store in a town that she’s never left. When she’s alone at home in the apartment she shares with her more popular sister, Mitsuyo sits at the low table, tucked up in blankets, shovelling huge forkfuls of cake into her mouth. Her encounter with Yuichi, whom she meets on an online dating web site, will change everything. She’s so desperate for love that she will do anything to protect him.
While Lee, who based the film on a hugely popular 2007 novel, leaves little doubt in the minds of the audience about who’s guilty, he does plant the seeds of doubt in the search for motive and circumstance. As events unfold and clues are dropped, moral ambiguity takes hold. Masuo goes on the run; finally found by the police alone in a love hotel, he’s their first suspect. When the police turn their attention to Yuichi, Masuo is hounded by Yoshino’s distraught father (Akira Emoto), who’s enraged when he catches sight of him soon after, laughing and drinking in a bar, surrounded by friends, while his daughter lies on a slab in the morgue. Whoever the murderer is, it becomes ever clearer that there is more than just one villain in the story and that no one is wholly innocent.
Set in winter, the film has a cold, bleak feel, the only real touches of beauty found when Mitsuyo and Yuichi reach the isolated lighthouse where the final tragic scenes will play out. Despite the murder and unravelling mystery at the heart of the film, Villain is not a thriller; it’s a slow-burning drama, restrained in its emotions, building in intensity, drawing in the audience as details are revealed. Lee has crafted a sparse, elegant portrait of loneliness, grief and desperation, with some brilliantly convincing performances adding to the film’s appeal.
Original title:Arakajime ushinawareta koibitotchiyo
Cast: Momoi Kaori, Ishibashi Renji, Kano Tenmei
Mostly unknown to UK audiences, Tahara Sôichirô and Shimizu Kunio’s debut Lost Lovers (1971) perfectly encapsulates the spirit and function of the production company that enabled its creation. Formed in 1961, the Art Theatre Guild of Japan became a counter-cultural refuge for voices frustrated by Japan’s mainstream film industries and an exciting place of convergence for different artistic mediums. Lost Lovers brought together a TV documentarist (Sôichirô) and avant-garde playwright (Kunio) to produce an allegorical portrait of Japan’s youth in the wake of the 1960s’ failed student protests, a startlingly relevant subject matter in current times. The influence of both mediums is keenly felt; physical theatricality from the lead actors and elaborate staging are teamed with a voyeuristic, unobtrusive style of camera work, reminiscent of direct or free cinema. This impassive cinematography is particularly apparent at the outset of the film as the camera lurks among passengers on a bus or surveys dead fish heads at a food market.
The film follows a former champion pole-vaulter, Ko (Ishibashi Renji), on a rootless journey through desolate sand dunes and apocalyptically abandoned US army bases in Northern Japan. Carrying a canvas bag large enough to smuggle a human body, Ko is first seen strolling down an empty highway, Stetson hat cocked at a rakish angle, all Spaghetti Western outlaw swagger. But his cool is deflated when a speeding bus knocks him over in the dust. Ko lies, sprawled out, hugging his bag and crying out a girl’s name, ‘Chiko!’ From the start, Ko is a somewhat hapless and naive anti-hero, chattering endlessly and moving with a rubber, cartoonish physicality, with a hint of Malcolm McDowell’s charisma in Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy.
A jobless vagrant, Ko robs two of his fellow bus passengers - a suitably bourgeois middle-class couple - to make his way. He may be a petty thief but Ko commits the crime without violence and with a charmingly mischievous streak, throwing their trousers and skirt off the road bridge into the river below. While Ko is essentially harmless to society, society soon reveals itself to be a malignant force. After an unfortunate encounter in the food market, Ko is falsely accused of rape by a woman looking for sex and chased by members of the public, who dishonestly attest that they saw him commit the crime, and the police, who dismiss his strong protestations of innocence. Locked up in a cell, Ko looks out to the dark street below. A crowd gathers and fills the screen, holding glowing lanterns in their hands. Ko reaches out to the onlookers with words of protest: ‘I’m a domestic lion. I have no memory of the savannah. All I know is this small cage. My voice may be small but I will roar for you.’ Without a word in response, the crowd silently turns away and disperses from view.
Released and outraged by his treatment, Ko stages a one-man protest backed by a band playing Purple Haze-style riffs. As Ko makes an impassioned speech against the ‘sweet home of violence’ once again, disinterested listeners depart until a lone girl remains. Ko promptly gives up his rhetoric and attempts to have sex with his reluctant fellow protestor. In a self-fulfilling cycle, the victim becomes the aggressor. ‘Go away old bags,’ he shouts at two elderly women who are witness to his actions; and, to explain his sexual harassment, he cries, ‘We’re of the same generation’. From the outset of the film, Ko represents the unharnessed impulses of youth and their isolation from society. His failed attempts at speech-making symbolise the failure of the student protests and the inability of Japanese society to understand the grievances of its younger generation. It’s a fairly standard portrait of disenchanted 60s youth.
It is when Ko meets a young deaf-dumb couple that his odyssey really begins and the film becomes increasingly opaque and bleak, as well as witty and beautiful. Composed of a non-actor (the film’s stills photographer) and a newcomer, the deaf-dumb pair is wholly mesmerising. The isolated bubble they create as they float through the film, impervious to Ko’s nattering and unflinching in the face of various obstacles and dangers, is a magnificent achievement. Momoi Kaori is especially captivating as the enigmatic beauty, whom Ko swiftly falls for, and the ensuing love triangle takes precedence as society gradually disappears from the film’s frames. The trio swim in the sea and run across the sands, hiding out in the disused army bases, making a home in the barren wasteland. Ko learns to bury his chatter and use non-verbal forms of communication, learning from the sensual connection of the two lovers. When society begins to re-appear in the latter part of the film, it does so in increasingly bizarre and sinister ways: a group of men are invited by a rejected Ko to watch the deaf-dumb couple having sex; Kaori is kidnapped by the same shady group who arrested Ko in the food market; and the army marches over the dunes to test deadly weapons. The trio lie naked in the sand together before explosions wake them from their reverie and blind the young couple, blood pouring from their eyes. The final shot of Ko helping his deaf, dumb and blind friends along the sand is an inspired ending. A car speeds straight at the group but swerves at the very last minute, leaving the three heroes to continue their journey into the unknown horizon while it crashes and burns in the background. The protective shield of the couple’s missing senses has saved their lives.
Made a decade after ATG’s inception and several years after the student uprising, Lost Lovers reveals an anxiety about the state of Japanese society and also an attempt to build something out of defeat. Towards the end of the film, Ko talks about being ‘free from all languages’ and not denying his physical existence. He says he wants ‘to use confused thought and make a leap into the future’. Yelling out these sentences to the sea, he eventually sees how his words are lost, tossed out to the waves. His angry, ineffectual speech-making gives way to a new kind of protest: a determined refusal to carry on and find different ways to exist in a hostile world. ATG offered outcast Japanese filmmakers a retreat from the mainstream and, in doing so, provided an environment to develop innovative modes of expression. The film is an allegory not only of the political situation but also of the artistic process. When audiences fail to listen, the speaker must find fresh ways of making him or herself heard or new paths to follow.
High-concept is an Orwellian phrase when it comes to cinema, usually meaning one concept, as in one idea, which can be pitched, tag-lined and sold. And most high-concept films have a job getting that one idea off the ground. So we should celebrate this month’s screening of Funeral Parade of Roses, a film crammed with ideas, from soup to nuts. Released in 1969 and shot in black and white, the film has the temperament and daring of an underground art film, but without any of the drawbacks. The acting is uniformly excellent, from the young transsexual Eddie, played in his debut role by Pîtâ, with more than a passing resemblance to Edie Sedgwick, to a series of well-established Japanese stars (one of the samurai from The Seven Samurai no less) and TV personalities, who both play roles and appear in the film as themselves.
The story takes on the arc of an Oedipal tragedy, which sees the young Eddie quietly but tenaciously rising through the gay scene to become a madam of his own gay bar, only to subsequently suffer a horrifying downfall. There are flashbacks of a childhood trauma, but also a film within a film as a documentary is being made about the gay scene, with lots of interviews about what it means to be a queen. The tone shifts radically from breathless gay erotica to Chaplinesque knockabout comedy, Godardian reflexivity to Hitchcockian suspense. Marnie (1964) seems to have been particularly in mind, but also Psycho (1960). The speeded-up sections and the use of flash imagery and ironic music are testament to the film’s impact on Kubrick, who cited it as a direct influence on A Clockwork Orange (1971). The rush of the film makes it slippery and difficult to pin down. The attitude to homosexuality is likewise playful and evasive. On one hand, it offers a sympathetic platform for the film’s interviewees and an affectionate, if not glamorous, portrait of a scene, while on the other, it follows a tragic trajectory that sees homosexuality born of violence and trauma - the ‘death to the vagina’ murder of the mother is particularly disturbing - and heads towards an inevitably tragic dénouement. But even this cannot be safely summed up. After a particularly gruesome murder, there is a frame-breaking interview with the actor, who says he likes being in the film as ‘Gay life is portrayed beautifully’. Defying expectations at every turn, Matsumoto constantly wrong-foots his audience, starting with the opening sex scene, shot beautifully in a gleaming white image. Melodrama is undercut with irony, the detachment of the documentarian is relieved by the madcap ‘happenings’, with the camera crew apparently flinging themselves into the action with abandon. Even the tragic conclusion is not immune. Ultimately, this is a film to watch and watch again. Genuinely high-concept.
Funeral Parade of Roses is available on DVD from Eureka Entertainment.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews