Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Watch them while you can...

I'm still jumping between my regular film watching -- TV, Satellite, DVDs, cinema as often as possible now -- and the amazing rarities I have found on YouTube. One problem with the latter is that movies which are still in copyright rather than in the public domain are often deleted by the powers that be, after complaints from interested commercial bodies. I truly believe that most of these uploads are posted in good faith (the people in question have nothing to gain by breaching copyright or perhaps do not even realise that the exchange of information is far from as free as we imagine or hope), but that does not help their longevity on YouTube.

In the last week I have watched two wonderful foreign language movies that I have long wished to see: "The Revolt of Job" (1983) and "The Crucified Lovers" (1954). The former has never been issued on DVD (and I saw an offer on Amazon to provide a new VHS copy for $999.00!) and the latter is only available on a French DVD at a pretty steep price. Both of them are currently available to view free of charge on YouTube with good quality English subtitles; however these titles are not hard-embedded, so it isn't possible to download them to watch intelligibly offline. Believe me I would if I could. Watching movies on one's computer or other electronic device is hardly the ideal way to see a film, but I would strongly advise making a beeline for these two titles while they are still there!

'Job' really warrants a place amongst the best 'Holocaust' movies ever made and given the number of fine films within this genre, it is amazing to me that it has not been more broadly available, especially since it was Oscar-nominated. Job is a relatively wealthy shepherd in rural Hungary, who like his namesake fights stoically against his destiny. He is an observant Jew and the rumblings of Hitler's armies and racist policies may not have reached his rural community in 1943, but he can see the writing on the wall. He and his aging wife have lost seven children to childhood diseases and he dearly wants an heir to whom he can leave not only his wealth but his wisdom. He goes to a nearby Christian orphanage to 'buy' a son (it was already against the law for Jews to adopt).  He takes home the initially rebellious Lacko, a boy with a 'way' with animals, who eventually comes to love his new mamma and poppa. The child also gradually learns the Jewish traditions that Job cherishes and to naively find God in all small things. When the round-up finally arrives and he sees his 'parents' being carted off to the camps, they pointedly avoid acknowledging the 'son' whom they have housed with former servants. Their heartbreak becomes ours as well. All of the casting is superb, particularly Ferenc Zenthe as Job (later a stalwart of Hungarian television drama) and non-professional Gabor Feder as the winning and inquisitive Lacko. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jews is underlined without resorting to unnecessary violence or histrionics, and it is therefore all the more powerful.

The second film is from the prolific Japanese master director Kenji Mizoguchi, made two years before his death. A fixture of the cinema scene in Japan since the late 1920s, his list of classics is endless and includes "Ugetsu Monogatari", "The Life of Oharu", and "Sansho the Bailiff". Indeed he produced three more late masterpieces after "Crucified Lovers" ("Princess Yang Kwei-fei", "The Taira Clan Saga", and "Street of Shame"). Set in l7th Century Kyoto and based on a drama from the l7th Century playwright Chikamatu) -- hence its Japanese title Chikamatu Monogatari (A Tale from Chikamatu) -- it is a tragic saga of human fallibility and doomed love. Osan has been married off to the older and miserly Ishun, the emperor's master printer, by her mother to provide for her feckless son; Osan's brother continues to beg for funds to prevent the family falling into disgrace. Meanwhile serving maid Otama harbours deep feelings for Mohei, Ishun's creative genius craftsman, while Mohei in turn would do anything to win the heart of Osan. He agrees to help her find the funds to bail out her brother yet again which would involve some financial sleight of hand with Ishun's hoarded wealth. Things come to a head when the plan is uncovered by Mohei's immediate superior who has been lining his own pockets for years.

Despite Otama's claiming that she had asked Mohei for the money, everyone is so very honourable that they will not accept any one else's lies. Ishun is furious with everyone,  threatens Mohei with jail, and will not accept Osan's pleas on his behalf. In fact he is now convinced that they are secret lovers (overlooking his own licentious approaches to Otama), despite the fact that they are both completely innocent. The fate of adulterous lovers who dare cross class boundaries is public crucifixion, as we have seen in an earlier scene, and the pair are forced to flee his wrath. Proud and greedy he wants his chattel of a wife back and deploys his minions to track them down; however he does not report the purported adultery to the police. When Osan feels that all is now hopeless and proposes to drown herself, Mohei admits his own long-repressed feelings and she finally falls into his arms. Cue a sorry end for all of the players, including Ishun whose wealth is stripped from him. This is about the only part of the tale that gives one any satisfaction, although it is lovely to see how truly happy the lost couple are together even as they face their own deaths.

I've gone into rather complicated and melodramatic plot detail perhaps unnecessarily, since the drama moves quickly and is surprisingly riveting. I seldom remember the names of many Japanese actors, but the faces remain recognizable over a range of fine films. The actress playing Osan was still active in 1993 in one of my favourite late Kurosawa films "Madadayo". Along with that director, Mizoguchi earns his place as one of Japan's truly great auteurs. Although this is a fairly formal story, fairly formally filmed, the director's eye is that of a true artist. As the lovers are shown fleeing over the water, the picture atmospherically becomes a mobile Japanese etching -- beautiful in its simplicity.

See them now!

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