Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Culture Vulture

Oh how we suffer for our art! One hears about suffering artists, but one can also 'suffer' for one's enthusiasms. Every so often I am tempted to book tickets for a film about which I know absolutely nothing but which sounds like something very special.  So was the case with:

The Tale of Genji (1951):  The hook for this Japanese film is that it is based on "the world's first true novel", written over l000 years ago by Murasaki Shikibu ('Lady Murasaki'), a court lady of the Heian Era. Both the original work and the film derived from it consist of episodes from the life of a bastard son of the Mikado who has been raised as a nobleman, the Genji of the title.  These episodes are largely an account of his erotic adventures at court and beyond -- a sort of Japanese Casanova if you will.  It starts with his pregnant courtesan mother being driven away by the hostility of the Mikado's jealous older official wife, and continues with his country childhood until his mother's early death (presumably from grief), his recall to court, and his seduction of a number of comely wenches, despite having officially married his own jealous wife.  His behaviour continues to anger the original old shrew, and he is temporarily and tactfully exiled to the back of beyond after he manages to impregnate both his wife and his favourite mistress.  There he faces assassins sent by political rivals and falls in love with a local noble monk's daughter, who in fact is in love with another -- not that this stops her licking the blood from his wounds in a notable scene.

Directed by Kozabura Yoshimura of whom I know nothing, Genji is played by Kazuo Hasegura, purportedly a matinee idol of the day. He was meant to be beautiful, graceful, and generally irresistible, but rising 43 years at the time and tending to run to fat, I found the actor decidedly ill-cast.  Nevertheless, this movie was apparently the top-grossing Japanese film to date, as schoolteachers brought students by the busload to view this classic, historical drama.  At well over two hours, all this hothouse romance became a little tedious, especially since all of the women (to my Western eye) looked virtually identical with their formal dress, pale make-up, and incredibly long hair tumbling nearly to the ground.  However as each episode faded to black, the framing scenery emerged beautifully, with each new image resembling a fine artistic print.  Had the film been made in colour, it probably would have been even more remarkable, but the formal artistry of the photography did help to compensate for the melodrama of the story.

Moving literally to the other side of the world, Film Four recently held a mini-African season and I still have several left to watch among my backlog.  However, two of these films are worth mentioning, if only in the briefest detail:

Xala (1975):  The title translates as "The Curse" and is one of the first African films to receive international attention.  Written and directed by Sengalese auteur Ousmane Sembene, it is a sharp satire on the country of the day.  Newly independent from France, the new rulers are shown to be every bit as greedy and corrupt as their predecessors, leaving their first official meeting with an attache case full of crisp, new notes.  We follow the story of one of them who is about to take on his third wife -- completely acceptable in his 'religion' -- who is financing the lavish wedding festivities by selling government-aid wheat to a shady dealer -- not unlike the equal corruption of his cohorts.  However, on his wedding night, he is unable to 'perform' and word soon spreads that he has been lumbered with the Xala of the title.  After insisting that the street near his office be cleared of all of its heart-breaking and crippled beggars, his life goes from bad to worse, especially after the cheque he has given a local shaman to restore his manhood bounces.  By the end of the movie he has lost nearly everything -- he is dismissed from the ruling Council and both his second and third wives decamp -- and he is standing naked enduring the disdain and spit of the beggars who have now camped in his house. The cleverness of this film rests in demonstrating how the new bigwigs are as pretentious as the old, both in their formal garb and by their insistence of carrying on their meetings in French, rather than in their native Wolof language.

"Johnny Mad Dog" (2008): I nearly gave up on this one as the subject matter was so distasteful, especially as told in its documentary-style format.  In an unnamed African country, young boys are  forced into the rebel army, given the choice to kill their fathers or themselves be killed, and taught the ways of looting, murder, rape, mayhem, and intimidation.  Their leader's mantra is "You don't want to die, don't be born" and the youngsters, with their new nicknames, have lost their original identities and follow blindly.  Although played by actors, some of the cast were once such 'soldiers' themselves and it is hard to watch the cruelty that they were taught.  The Johnny of the title eventually sees his own world and promise of riches collapse, as his 'General' is happy to revert to being a supporting lower officer in the new regime, and he is reduced to acting as a guard at a local refugee camp.  There he is brought down even lower by a spunky girl of his own age who has spent the film trying to save her young brother and legless wounded father.  Very strong stuff and far from an easy watch.      
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