Friday, October 2, 2015

Lost and found: an unofficial trilogy of films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Quiet, understated works, flawed though they may be, deserve to be praised in this louder-by-the-minute era. Thus my love for the work of filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), whom I interviewed on the Funhouse several years ago.

Kurosawa has kept on making haunting films since that moment in the early 2000s when a festival of his work made the rounds of the U.S. thanks to the now-defunct distributor Cowboy Booking International. One of his later pictures, Tokyo Sonata (2008), received strong reviews, but his other recent works since 2001 have either sunk without a trace in America or, thankfully, gotten some attention on DVD (my review of the U.S. release of his 2012 TV miniseries Penance, can be found here).

His latest film, Journey to the Shore, just played at the New York Film Festival and, as of this writing, has no U.S. distributor. He received the director’s prize for the film at the “Certain Regard” section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. The film’s first half is as touching and profound as Kurosawa’s best works. The second half is uneven in tone, but even KK’s flawed films need to be seen by dedicated cinephiles.

The plot concerns a piano teacher (Eri Fukatsu) who is visited by her dead husband (Tadanobu Asano). He promptly takes her on a series of short trips to encounter people he wants to see again. As the film proceeds, we learn that there are other dead souls dwelling among us, and that their post-mortem existences are guided by certain “rules.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The first half of the film, in which the husband’s reappearance is not explained at all (he defines the situation simply by telling his wife that he died and didn’t abandon her, as she suspected), is reminiscent of Anthony Minghella’s beautiful Truly Madly Deeply (1990), in which a mourning woman is visited by the spirit of her dead boyfriend — with no explicit explanation given for his intact, corporeal condition. All that matters in both films are the emotions felt by the grieving female lead.

Like Penance, this new work by Kurosawa is based on a novel. Thus one assumption is that the less than compelling rules governing the dead characters come from the book. They move the film in a different direction, one in which honest understatement (that word again, the perfect label for KK’s work) is set aside in favor of a more conventional, more sentimental tone, as Fukatsu’s character beings to wonder how long her husband will remain among the living.

The aspect that must have drawn Kurosawa to adapt the novel is the theme of “getting back” a lost loved one. Journey stands as the third entry in an unofficial trilogy that includes KK’s first non-genre drama, License to Live (1998) and his more recent, Chris Marker-like, Real (2013).

License remains one of my favorite KK films because it because it hit me quite hard when I first saw it, right after the death of a close relative. The film concerns a young man who comes out of a decade-long coma in his 20s, causing his family (which has disintegrated while he has been in the hospital) to reform, to show him they care about his “rebirth.”

The film is a low-key drama that eschews what I call “the Spielberg Squeeze,” in which a director shamelessly tries to move the viewer to tears. Instead, Kurosawa involves the viewer in the story by depicting the world around the young man in an alien and static fashion, as he sees it. The only note of reality and honesty in the young man's life is supplied by a down-to-earth fishing instructor (played by Kurosawa stalwart Koji Yakusho).

Real offers romance as fantasy, but it has much in common with License and the first half of Journey. A young man wants to rouse his comatose lover back to consciousness by entering into her thoughts; a major twist follows near the midpoint, with all that we have seen being turned upside down.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa has made several crime and horror films, this is one of his oddest creations, since it is a raw, touching melodrama that is punctuated by computer graphics — these effects supply some fascinating imagery for most of the film, but result in a surprisingly bizarre, out-there moment in the final sequence. Aside from that moment, though, the focus here, as always with KK, is on the characters’ emotions, not a Spielbergian childlike sense of “wonder.”

As was the case with License and Real, the most poignant moments in Journey all concern that moment when the bereaved individual is able to be with their “lost” love again. License is alone in offering the POV of the “lost” individual, which is what makes it so singular and effective.

In my interview with Kurosawa he spoke about having a major admiration for John Cassavetes. That connection is clear in Journey, especially if one keeps in mind JC’s last films (Opening Night, Love Streams), which included potent doses of magical realism. Kurosawa continues to avoid mawkish sentimentality, but here the plot dictates that he indulge in over-the-top fantasy as the film moves on.

Thus the film is a bit of a bumpy ride encompassing both gorgeous moments of genuine emotion and plot exposition that seem closer to the tiresome American tearjerker Ghost than Truly Madly Deeply.

The musical soundtrack by Naoko Eto and Yoshihide Otomo is conventionally emotional, but the lead performance by Fukatsu is superb, keeping the film on an even keel from its earliest moments to the higher-key finale.

Kurosawa was unable to attend the NYFF, but sent tapes to be shown before and after the film. The introductory one was curious, in that he didn’t want to give away the fact that the husband is dead (one of the first things the husband says to his wife is to acknowledge that… he’s dead). The one after the film was really interesting, in that: a.) no one had announced the tape would appear, so only the people who sat through *all* the credits caught it; b.) he focused entirely on a moment I confess I missed entirely — the shadow of a bird that appears over a character in the climactic moment.

He revealed that the end of the novel is majestic and bigger than life, but that he did not want to use computer graphics for the moment, so he chose simply to accomplish the same effect with editing. He was overjoyed that a bird happened to fly over at that exact minute since, he noted, it was a beautiful touch that he never would’ve thought of adding on his own.

One hopes that Journey and the other “missing” Kurosawa films acquire U.S. distribution. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is too talented an artist to be overlooked.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What I did this summer (and spring, and…): DVD reviews and articles

I have several blog posts in the offing, but since it's been so long since I put something up here, I wanted to spotlight the other writing I'm doing on the Net. The readership for this blog is most likely unaware that these reviews and articles are up – the Internet being (as I note repeatedly) that wood where many trees are falling and you can't hear a sound. Unless, that is, someone points out a tree coming down and yells “jeezis, will ya look at that!"

This is my attempt to make a little sound.

The Eclipse/Criterion box of films made by the “grandma of French independent cinema” when she was living on the West Coast (Lions Love is a particularly freaky favorite), Agnes Varda in California.

Marco Ferreri's classic dark comedy about a quartet of haute bourgeois men who decide to eat themselves to death, La Grande Bouffe. With many new and amazing supplements.

Wim Wenders' documentary about a photographer friend, Salt of the Earth.

The DVD release of episodes from Joan Rivers' daytime talk-show (discussed here on this blog) as a box set. See Joan before she became caustic, watch late Sixties celebs talk about mundane topics, catch a glimpse of the “girl talk” daytime format intended for housewife viewers, in That Show With Joan Rivers.

The Criterion package that includes both big-screen versions of The Killers, with many terrific extras, including a student film by Tarkovsky (the most exact reproduction of the original Hemingway story).

The infinitely trippy Czech cult movie Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, with many wonderful supplements exploring the film's symbolism (coming of age, loss of virginity, the lecherous nature of the clergy – it's not that hard to figure out), plus a new alternative music soundtrack for the film.

Yves Montand is superb in Costa-Gavras' controversial The Confession, where the Leftist director explores the horrors of the Stalin regime via a “show trial.”

Jean-Pierre Melville's first film, and first masterwork, La Silence de la Mer.

Silent Ozu: Three Crime Dramas is a trio of silent features by the legendary Japanese director, focusing on thieves, gangsters, and their molls.

Cheesy, sleazy widescreen exploitation, The Beat Generation is a cash-in effort by producer Albert Zugsmith that at least has the sight of Vampira as a beatnik poet and Mamie Van Doren as a crooked chick in a sweater.

Resnais' last film The Life of Riley isn't as perfect as his next-to-last (You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet), but it still contains some beautiful visuals and lovely musings on romance, old age, and death.

Robert Montgomery's Ride a Pink Horse is a grim little noir that finally has received the DVD release it deserves.

Godard's “comeback film” Every Man For Himself makes its home-entertainment debut with a terrific Criterion package, spotlighting Uncle Jean when he consented to many on-camera interviews – and he even smiled!

Rivette's Le Pont du Nord also received its first U.S. home-entertainment release this year. The film is a great “late” Rivette that features both terrific location photography and a wonderfully paranoid scenario.

Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a man willingly trapped in his hometown? Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg offers a fantasia based on real events (and a bunch Guy made up) from that snowy burg.

The DVD re-release of Fassbinder's sublime The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant includes new documentaries and featurettes.

The relationship between softcore legend Joe Sarno and his wife Peggy is the focus of A Life in Dirty Movies. The film provides valuable background on Joe's career – some of it coming from a talking-head film historian who looks a lot like me.

Liliana Cavani's extremely controversial chronicle of l'amour tres fou, The Night Porter remains a subject of debate but, whatever your take on the plot, the performances and direction are flawless.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's TV miniseries adaptation of a popular novel Penance is a fascinating mix of melodrama, thriller, horror, satire, and a bitter critique of the Japanese notion of honor.

Finally bowing on DVD (do you sense a trend here?), Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean was Altman's first “theatrical film.” It contains Altman's trademark “gliding” camerawork and is a great showcase for its six-woman ensemble.

Billy Wilder's last great movie, Fedora is an exploration of the Garbo mythos in the form of a variation on Sunset Boulevard. The final plot twist is a good one, and William Holden makes a great mouthpiece for Wilder's embittered opinions about the “new Hollywood" of the Seventies (those “kids with beards”).

Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang got a DVD re-release that included both a restored print of the film and a full documentary on Carax.

The Python reunion is a strange affair, in which two of the ensemble seem to be having a great time and the other three gents are just along for the ride (and the paycheck). Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go

Chris Marker's Level Five is his final feature. An essay about memory, the Battle of Okinawa, and Laura, among other things, it's an uneven affair... but uneven Marker is better than most folks' best.

John Ford's My Darling Clementine get the Criterion treatment with featurettes discussing Ford, Wyatt Earp, and the alternate version of the film.

Polanski's Venus in Fur is a minimal affair that is both kinky and intellectual. Mathieu Amalric (as a Polanski surrogate) and Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's real-life wife) are both terrific. 

The Midnight Special box set is a mind-warping flashback to the Seventies when the Top 40 contained standard soft pop, hard rock, country, funk, “new wave,” and disco. This late-night TV show had all of the genres, with nearly all the performers playing live. 

The Betty Boop Essential Collection, Volume 4 finishes up Olive's carefully curated set of the non-public domain Boop cartoons from the Fleischer Studios. The pre-code entries in the series continue to be mind-blowingly weird (and oddly sexy).

I spoke to Armando Iannucci when he was doing press for Veep. The print version of the interview, found here, focuses mostly on that much-lauded HBO show and its amazing source (The Thick of It), but in the full interview (which will appear on the Funhouse TV show soon), I got him to talk about his older creations, including I'm Alan Partridge, The Armando Iannucci Shows, and the stunning The Day Today with Chris Morris

My interview with the wonderfully talented comedic filmmaker Roy Andersson appeared in print in a much-abbreviated version to promote a screening of his latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, in Buffalo.

Mike Leigh is considered notoriously “difficult” by the press (the British press in particular, it seems), but he was incredibly nice to me (albeit extremely intense and thoroughly focused, dissecting my questions as he answered them). The print version of the interview ran here.

A piece discussing the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, a master of showing alternate realities, and a man who (along with his wife) really enjoyed the thought of women in bondage. 

A review of the “high-concept”documentary Listen to Me Marlon. Brando's audio recordings are presented in a somewhat linear fashion (as linear as the thoughts of the great eccentric could ever be). The verdict: he was a pretty depressed human being.