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May 2008 Archives

May 26, 2008

Flowing, 1956

flowing.gifAdapted from the novel by postwar author Aya Koda (the daughter of Meiji-era novelist Koda Rohan) and filmed in the same year as the banning of prostitution in Japan, Mikio Naruse's Flowing is something of a corollary to Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame, a complex and richly textured panorama capturing a transforming way of life within a community of women whose increasingly uncertain livelihood depended on the patronage of men. This idea of place as transitional station is suggested in the establishing shots of a river, then a pedestrian bridge that is subsequently reinforced in the intersecting image of disgruntled junior geisha, Namie leaving her place of employment, the Tsuta House in Tokyo's geisha district (for what would turn out to be a permanent departure), as a middle-aged widow, Rika (Kinuyo Tanaka) arrives at the same location to apply for the job as a housemaid - the sense of a changing, but steady dynamic created by their coincidental role reversal as resident and outsider. Despite running a highly respected establishment, owner and senior geisha Otsuta (Isuzu Yamada) is facing hard times, having fallen into debt to her older sister, Otoyo (Natsuko Kahara), a money lender who took on the mortgage of the house in order to settle the debt of Otsuta's wayward lover. With fewer and fewer geishas under her management (including a fellow middle-aged geisha and neighbor, Someka (Haruko Sugimura) who has turned to her to arrange bookings), her daughter Katsuyo (Hideko Takamine) choosing not to follow in her mother's footstep in favor of finding employment outside of the industry, her younger sister Yoneko (Chieko Nakakita) moving back home with her daughter Fujiko after being spurned by her lover (Daisuke Katô), Namie's boorish uncle (Seiji Miyaguchi) threatening to sully the house's reputation when she refuses to pay him Namie's disputed back wages, and Otoya increasingly interfering in her affairs by arranging meetings with prospective clients without her consent, Otoyo is forced to turn to her former colleague, now a society matron, Mizuno, for assistance in restructuring the business that would allow Tsuta House to continue its operation (and perhaps, leave a legacy for young Fujiko) - an alliance that would also have wide-reaching consequences for the household. Similar to Late Chrysanthemums, transactions serve as a surrogate for the women's emotional interdependency: Mizuno's brokered financial assistance from Otsuta's former patron; the medical expense money offered by Yoneko's former lover when Fujiko falls ill; Someka's dispute over earnings that surfaces after separating from her younger lover. Like the assorted treats that Rika buys on a whim for her surrogate family, the enduring parting image of Otsuta and Someka's shamisen performance before their respectful apprentices - and the entire household - becomes a delicate savoring of the present, a bittersweet taste of transitory bliss.

Posted by acquarello on May 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Mikio Naruse

May 24, 2008

Rising Tide, 2004

rising_tide.gifIn a way, Robert Todd's Rising Tide represents a continuation on the themes of obsolescence and disposability that runs through Our Former Glory and In Loving Memory, a reverent, quietly observed collage on the changing face of manual labor that, like Johan van der Keuken's Springtime: Three Portraits, captures a way of life that is slowly becoming extinct in the face of technology, globalism, and mass production. Filmed around the increasingly gentrified city of Rye in suburban Westchester, New York (home of historic Rye Playland amusement park), the three-part, mixed composition structure of the film becomes, itself, a reflection of the area's transformation. The first part is a portrait of aging master watchmaker, Konrad Brzezinski and his wife Ursula who, 55 years earlier, opened the Rye Clock and Jewel repair shop. Graduating from black and white to color, silence to sound, that visually suggests the evolution of film as a metaphor for the technological revolution that now renders these artisanal, cottage industries obsolete, the fragmented montage of assorted gear works, mechanisms, fasteners, stamped metals, and watch faces are presented against the steady rhythm of ticking and chiming clocks, paralleling the motion of the time pieces with the rotation of Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds along the boardwalk - a constant reminder of progression and displacement as a marking of time.

The second part captures the ruminations of second-generation shoemaker, Tony Ioveno who has watched his fortunes rise and fall along a series of rented storefronts within the community as inexpensive, mass-produced shoes and sneakers become the staple of everyday wear. Juxtaposing shots of Ioveno at work replacing the heels and soles of shoes as he explains the circumstances that have compelled to accept a profit-sharing arrangement as a sub-store to a dry cleaning service after his original shop was burned down in a suspicious fire, Todd illustrates the ramifications of short-sighted consumerism, where a disposable economy driven by novelty and affordability has supplanted the intangible ideals of workmanship and durability.

In the third part, service station owner and Corvette restorer, Joe Lamberti places his struggle to remain financially afloat within the context of the town's rapidly transforming economic landscape, as generations-owned buildings and family businesses continue to fold, replaced by corporate chain stores capable of bankrolling increasingly prohibitive rental and operating costs. Commenting on the changing face of automotive repair that has created a highly competitive market for computer savvy mechanics capable of troubleshooting the complex electronics systems of modern day automobiles, Lamberti's observation echoes the sentiment of Brzezinski and Ioveno, a sense that craftsmanship has become outmoded and irrelevant in the conduct of day to day business in their struggle for survival, where profitability lies in impersonal, high volume transactions, indistinguishability, and planned obsolescence.

Posted by acquarello on May 24, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Robert Todd

May 14, 2008

Japanese Girls at the Harbor, 1933

japanese_harbor.gifMy first impressions of Hiroshi Shimizu's films during the Shochiku At 100 New York Film Festival sidebar were the agility of his camera movements that favorably compared to Kenji Mizoguchi's tensile dolly shots, and a lightness of touch in the development of the narrative that, like Yasujiro Ozu's cinema, converges towards gravitas without being abrupt or contrived. In hindsight, these early observations would also hold true for Shimizu's Japanese Girls at the Harbor, a film that, like his early masterpiece, Ornamental Hairpin, is propelled by a moment of carelessness that would have far reaching consequences for its characters. Set in Yokohama, Shimizu illustrates the ebb and flow of life in the port town through the opening montage - an establishing shot of an international passenger ship docked on the harbor that cuts to a pair of high school students, Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue), who stop by an overlook every afternoon on their way home from school to watch ships go by, daydreaming of exotic destinations as they wait for their life to begin, even as they resign to the mundanity of their own probable futures. "Watching ships make me feel sad. Maybe I belong here", remarks Sunako. But Sunako's destiny would lie elsewhere, away from her devoted childhood friend, as she vies for the affection of a fickle-hearted neighborhood boy, Henry (Ureo Egawa), who has fallen under the spell of a worldly temptress, Yoko Sheridan (Ranko Sawa). Driven to despair after losing Henry to her rival, Sunako's metaphoric fall from grace begins, not coincidentally, at a church - an impulsive act that would lead to her self-imposed exile. Drifting from Nagasaki to Kobe in the company of a penniless artist, Miura (Tatsuo Saito), Sunako seems destined to lead a disreputable life away from home until a fellow prostitute, Masumi (Yumeko Aizome) convinces her to make a new start in her hometown, and soon faces the ghosts of her unreconciled past. Shimizu visually reinforces the idea of resurrected ghosts by using dissolves to indicate ellipses (of exiting characters) during the latter half of the film, first in the image of the brothel patron, Harada (Yasuo Nanjo) who leaves when Sunako gives her undivided attention to Henry, then subsequently, Henry, who is chased away by Miura when he accompanies Sunako to the door of her apartment. The convergence between past and present is also reflected in the recurring, stationary shot progression - both as close-up and zoom out - that punctuates Sunako and Yoko's fateful encounters, reinforcing both the tension in their confrontation as well as their parallel destinies (a connection that is also suggested in a linear tracking shot of the two women looking out the windows of their apartments). Concluding with Ozu-like, pillow shots of mooring and discarded portraits in the harbor, the tranquil images reflect Sunako's newfound liberation and transformation, a moral redemption enabled by sacrifice, compassion, humility, and self-forgiveness.

Posted by acquarello on May 14, 2008 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2008, Hiroshi Shimizu

Katatsumori, 1994

katatsumori.gifWhile shadows and empty spaces pervade Naomi Kawase's search for her absent father in Embracing, the images in Katatsumori are tactile and suffused in light - a stark contrast that conveys Kawase's deep affection towards her 80 year old maternal great aunt and adoptive mother, Uno. In hindsight, the implied coldness of the film's preface - a shot of a letter written by Kawase's biological mother expressing birthday greetings, a reminder to be a dutiful daughter to her father at a time of crisis, and a token gift of spending money for the occasion - serves as a foil for the reverence and tenderness that would subsequently define Kawase's animated gaze. Indeed, in its collage of fragmentary snapshots of everyday life, chance conversations, and moments of levity, Katatsumori is the converse of the terse birthday note from mother to daughter that opens the film - a love letter from child to parent (whom Kawase calls "grandma") expressed through mundane images and quotidian observation. As in Embracing, Uno is often framed within the context of her garden, linking her love of gardening with her broader role in Kawase's life as kindred spirits, provider, and protector: a figurative connection between nature and nurture that is underscored in her playful request for Uno's next pea harvest (preserved from the previous year's crop) as her present, noting the coincidental convergence of her upcoming 25th birthday and the maturation of the planted seeds in the spring. Visually, Kawase illustrates their intimacy through repeated, often extreme close-ups of her great aunt, recording the idiosyncratic gestures and contours of Uno's face with the curiosity and fascination for a shared personal history: an implied connectedness (and continuity) that culminates in a shot of Kawase filming Uno while she picks peas from a garden following Uno's pensive recording over their evolving relationship. Moreover, Kawase introduces the idea of imprint as a reflection of personal legacy, initially, in a shot of Uno scrawling her name and age on a piece of clapboard, then subsequently, in the condensation of Kawase's handprint pressed against the window as she listens to a recorded message in her great aunt's absence. Juxtaposed against a shot of the pair playfully engaging in a naming game, the assignment of names represents Kawase's own journey towards her identity as well, where the arbitrariness of fate is reinforced by an act of mutual validation.

Posted by acquarello on May 14, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Naomi Kawase

May 4, 2008

Embracing, 1992

embracing.gifNaomi Kawase's Embracing is both an evocation of, and disjunction from, Jonas Mekas's diaristic memory films, a journey in search of a lost past through the empty spaces and resigned silence of an unreconciled - and incomplete - present. This sense of absence and longing is revealed in the film's opening sequence: the sight of a traditional Japanese domestic setting (and reinforced by a shot montage of meal preparation), prefaced by a lighted sign for a restaurant called "Bar Happiness", that is juxtaposed against an audio recording of Kawase's unseen maternal relative who expresses her resistance at Naomi's intention to search for her biological father who had abandoned the family, briefly alluding to Naomi's separation from her mother following her parents' divorce and adoption by her great uncle and aunt, Kaneishi and Uno Kawase. By framing her well-intentioned aunt's argument for the integrity of the extended family support system that has nurtured Naomi throughout her entire life (and the potential fissures that may unwittingly be introduced into that fragile network by dredging up the past) through the image association (and dissociation) of happiness, home, and absence, Kawase metaphorically illustrates her essential disconnection with a lost, untold history. Incorporating alternating images of nature - flowers in bloom, insects in the field, and verdant landscapes - with contemporary images of her adoptive mother as the two look for information on her father's identity through family archives and photo albums, Kawase introduces the idea of nature as an eternal, but mutable representation of human cycles. This intersection is further reinforced in a picture of Kawase's biological parents, Kiyonobu Yamashiro and Emiko Takeda as a young couple that cuts to a shot of a flower in bright sunlight, that is subsequently contrasted to the image of a similar row of flowers against the darkness of forming rain clouds as her great aunt remembers the unpleasantness of her parents' break-up. Moreover, using high contrast to frame an episode featuring a little girl playing with a tadpole in a puddle of water, Kawase not only illustrates this symbiotic relationship between nature and human history, but also conveys the sense of rupture intrinsic in the idyllic image - the apparent absence of the child's mother. Revisiting her biological father's life by tracing his residential registration records over the past twenty years, Kawase places corresponding photographs from her own childhood, initially, as a figurative bridge between past and present within a depopulated landscape, then subsequently, as a reflection of the physical and emotional separation between father and daughter (a distance that is also symbolized by the recurring images of shadows against the landscape). Restless, curious, and impulsive in its fractured images, Embracing becomes an integral representation of Kawase's own search for identity: told, not through loosely interrelated pieces of an obscured personal history, but in the unarticulated silence of a brief, but transformative connection with the living present.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2008 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2008, Naomi Kawase

2008 NY Human Rights Watch International Film Festival Line-up


The 2008 New York Human Rights Watch International Film Festival has now been posted, and unlike previous years, this year's selection is a combination of premiering films as well as highlights from previous HRWIFF selections such as Anthony Giacchino's The Camden 28, Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez's La Sierra, Rithy Pahn's S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam's Dreaming Lhasa. Also, 2007 New York Film Festival Selection, Carmen Castillo's Calle Santa Fe is featured in the program.

Two films that I'm looking forward to this year are Maria Ramos's Behave and Senain Kheshgi and Geeta V. Patel's Project Kashmir. Ramos previously appeared in the HRWIFF program in 2005 with Justice, a sobering look at the Brazilian justice system in the style of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon. Kheshgi and Patel's film was featured as a work-in-progress screening at last year's festival, an insightful look at the Kashmir conflict from the disparate perspective of Southeast Asian-Americans, Muslim Kheshgi and Hindu Patel, whose lifelong friendship is gradually strained by their immersion into the heart of the regional conflict.

Posted by acquarello on May 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Quick Notes