Saturday, 26 October 2013

Floating Clouds (1955)

Patty gets the boot! To start with an update on my fitness, the cast has finally been removed after nearly seven weeks, but the ankle is not quite oven-ready. So I have been given a surgical boot, a knee-high non-fashion item, which looks like it is more suitable for walking on the moon. I go back to the hospital in a few weeks for the next lot of prognoses. Meanwhile I am able to shuffle about (only with support let it be said) which is not quite the same as walking on the earth or the moon.

Mikio Naruse is one of the least-known in the West major Japanese directors, unlike his equally talented peers Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Kurosawa. From humble beginnings, he joined a film studio in 1920 as a prop man and worked his way up to directing ten years later. His career spanned 37 years and 91 films, but I must admit to having seen only one of his movies ("When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" - 1960) before this week, although several others were languishing on my famous 'must see' list. Like buses, you wait for one for a long time, and then two arrive together -- the above-captioned film and l954's "Late Chrysanthemums", both of which received television airings within the last week. So now I have seen three and wonder why he is so little known, as his films are both beautifully constructed and socially relevant.

Not for him the Japan of pomp and samurai; during Naruse's peak years (post World War II) he focuses on the depression, disappointments, and hand-to-mouth struggle of a defeated country and the wide-spread ill-treatment of its women. The radiant actress Hideko Takamine who starred in 17 Naruse films plays the young woman who, after being raped by her uncle, takes a wartime secretarial job on a sunny island in Indo-China. There she begins an affair with a married government forestry expert, Masayuki Mori, who promises that he will divorce his wife on their return to Japan and marry her. After Japan surrenders and they are separately repatriated, she seeks him out to discover that he has little intention of leaving his long-suffering wife. Destitute, cold, and hungry, unable to find work, Takamine becomes the mistress of an American G.I., but Mori doesn't baulk at finding her to borrow money and to perhaps spend the night.

It is soon apparent that she is hopelessly in love with him, whereas he is unable to resist both drink and any young, available flesh. The years march on, and even after his wife dies and she falls pregnant, he does not seek to regularise their relationship. She endures indignity after indignity, including having to live with the ex-rapist uncle, who now has a lucrative side-line in phony faith-healing. She steals some 300,000 yen from his 'church' and offers both the cash and herself to the faithless Mori, discovering that he has accepted a two-year forestry contract on a remote and rainy island. She begs to go with him, if only for a few months, promising to finally give him up. 'You'll be happy when I leave', she says; 'There are women everywhere' is his half-joking reply. He adds that romance died when the war ended and that they are now too old to live on dreams. However when she falls ill and finally does leave him, he begins to comprehend what indeed he has spurned and lost. As the end title has it:
     "The life of a flower is so brief, yet it must suffer much grief".

With his unobtrusive camera and minimal sets, the film is still far from static, and one becomes deeply concerned about these flawed, yet interesting characters. The lovely music by Ichiro Saito helps to rouse our emotions, from his incorporation of 'The Internationale' to an oriental rendering of "Auld Lang Syne" as the boat departs for their final rainy world.

"Late Chrysanthemums", a reworking of a 1937 film by Mizoguchi, traces the fates and largely miserable lives of four aging ex-geishas in the years following the war. One is a lonely and hard-faced money-lender, one an incorrigible drunkard, and the other two lead typically hardscrabble lives, watching the ungrateful children they have sacrificed to raise marching off to more comfortable futures. It's far from a feel-good film, but beautifully rendered and another fine example of Naruse's concerns. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Joys (Not) of Being an Invalid

So who's a lazy lady? Pretty Pink Patty, that*s who. I can not believe how all this sitting/lying about has sapped my energy and enthusiasm. I understand when the cast comes off (hopefully in eight days' time), I will not be skipping about like a two-year old but rather flapping about weakly like a new-born kitten. However I am determined not to make a permanent invalid of myself and hope with some serious physio to be back to my fighting weight a.s.a.p.

Despite everything I manage to remain cheerful most of the time and to take in the requisite few films a day. So what, if anything, has impressed me of late? Herewith some movies at random from the last few days which have helped to eke out the hours:

Monsieur Lazhar (2011): This French-Canadian film was nominated as best foreign language film of its year, and while it did not win any American awards, it is really a nicely tuned, small gem of a movie. It's yet another tale of an inspiring teacher getting the best from a class, but with a number of twists on the usual formula. Played by the sad-eyed Mohamed Fellag, his character Bachir Lazhar (translates as 'lucky' and 'tell the good news' he informs his new sixth grade class), has been reluctantly hired after their beloved former teacher chose to hang herself in their classroom during school hours. He pretends that he is a legal Canadian resident with teaching experience back in Algeria, when in fact his request for asylum has not yet been granted and he was previously a restaurant manager. Slowly, however, we learn the details of his flight to Canada and the horrific story of the death of his wife and children.

While he may seem an unlikely substitute teacher for a group of youngsters, still largely traumatised by grief, he manages to reach out to them from the most awkward of beginnings to reconcile both his loss and theirs. The children making up the class are without exception a remarkable bunch of young actors, led by stand-out performances from Sophie Nelisse as the precocious and bossy Alice and Emillien Neron as the troubled Simon, who may or may not have been the cause of their teacher's suicide. This is a modern-day tale in which teachers must refrain from any physical contact with their students, even much-needed hugs. When the truth of Lazhar's resident status and lack of experience emerges, he is promptly sacked, but insists upon one last day with his class to tell them 'good-bye' in his own way through a thinly veiled fable that he has composed. It's an abrupt ending to the film, but thoroughly devastating in its own small way.

Alex Cross (2012): I had no hopes for this film whatsoever since the title character is played by Tyler Perry, a multi-hyphenate actor/writer/director and cult figure amongst black viewers, none of whose films I have ever seen. He usually plays his alter ego Madea, a pistol-packing grandma, in what I believe are largely comic movies. So this was a real change of pace for him, playing a hard-bitten Detroit detective en route to becoming an FBI criminal profiler, in a prequel to 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and 2001's "Along Came a Spider", where the role was taken up by the much older Morgan Freeman with requisite gravitas. This movie was not well-received and in fact was nominated for several Razzies, but it's really not that bad. Cross and his partner, (Ed Burns) get up to some preposterous action after their wife and girlfriend respectively are murdered by a tricky assassin, played with malicious glee by Matthew Fox. Fox is nearly unrecognizable with his shaved head and anorexic frame, but his slimy character is what keeps one watching this nonsense. And then there's Jean Reno thrown in for good measure as a would-be saviour of the decaying city and veteran Cecily Tyson as Cross' Nana Mama. I've seen far worse.

"Merrily we Live (1938): Knowing my penchant for screwball comedies of the 1930s, I caught up with this one on You Tube, but despite the occasional felicity, it is really one of the lesser-spotted variety. Constance Bennett plays the oldest child of a wealthy family (Bonita Granville is her truly annoying younger sister), whose flighty mother (Billy Burke) is always taking in strays and hobos. Her latest project has just absconded with the family silver, but still she promptly employs Brian Aherne (who knocked on the door in tatters after a car wreck to use the phone) as the new chauffeur. Obviously he is not really a 'down-and-out' as everyone assumes and sparks soon fly between him and Bennett. Alan Mowbray is the butler who keeps threatening to quit and Patsy Kelly is the cook, but despite a lot of frantic business with the characters flailing themselves into pratfalls, this film is just trying a little too hard to be a comic masterpiece. It isn't, but it's watchable despite that, and I'm glad to have finally seen it.

More next time, whenever that will be...