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Shogun Assassin (1980)
A dark and twisted masterpiece.
One of the darkest and most twisted films ever made, but very, very well made. The premise seems really silly. The sight of Igami Itto wheeling a baby carriage around while annihilating the legions of ninjas sent to kill him by the demented Shogun should be laughable, but it is not. The child, Daigoro, is not yet old enough to speak, but by making him, slightly older, the narrator you end up with a great narrative device. BE SURE TO LISTEN TO THE DUBBED VERSION AND TO WATCH IT IN ANAMORPHIC WIDESCREEN. It's one of the best voice tracks ever, and the use of lighting, close ups and camera combine with the anamorphic widescreen for an intense visual impact. The story and very graphic action never let up or disappoint.
For double bills, I would have to stay with the dark and twisted motif and recommend. GO GO SECOND TIME VIRGIN, or STENDAHL'S SYNDROME
Flandersui gae (2000)
A ten plus comedy noir about zero sum lives
This is something of a rarity, a indie Korean film. It's also Joon-ho Bong's directorial debut. It's brilliant. Slow, but impeccably paced and broadly intermixed with multiple levels of wonderful comedy, acting, atmosphere (a kind of existential (and cement) wasteland), and directing. Be warned. Pet lovers are going to be shocked, and maybe outraged. But really, don't take this too literally, Joon-ho Bong knows he is playing with your sensibilities and he knows that you know it (or you should know it by now, if you have been watching film, tv, and advertising for your entire life). This is real cinematic virtuosity.
The promotion for this film compared it to American Beauty and that was a somewhat surprising but very apt comparison. American Beauty would be a fine double bill with this. But, if you have not seen any other Korean films you should give some a try. I saw this as part of a festival with JSA (Joint Security Area), The Isle and some others, but those two were very good and would also be good for a double bill. A little farther afield might be Tsai Ming Liang's the HOLE, or even farther, (and certainly not for the fainthearted) Go Go Second Time Virgin by Kosi Wakamatsu. Both intense looks at life in barren modern times and barren apartment complexes.
Maboroshi no hikari (1995)
Full, full, full of painterly light
Steeped in the traditions of the lush visual beauties of Japanese cinema, and influenced by the likes of Taiwanese (?) director Hsiao Hsien Hou (I believe there are several fairly direct quotes) or the luminous cinematography of Bergman's long time cameraman, Sven Nykvist. This film directly mines the visual effects of some of the most glorious European painters of light like Vermeer, Caravaggio, and Georges de la Tour. From the subtitles it seems that MABOROSI means 'strange light' and Kore eda uses almost nothing but strange, rich luminosity to tell his story (although he also gets a fine, somber perfomance from his female lead). Each shot is deeply thought out and composed to the maximum. Literally, every single shot. The results are tranquil and beautiful. The story is as quiet as the light, and probably if you require your film to have a strong direct narrative you should stay away from this as the story is told very subtly using light and almost subliminal sound (it seemed to me there were ocean waves in the sub background even in the city shots, for example). It works great as cinema. I would suggest that you watch at least the first 20 minutes or so again, after watching the whole film. The same motifs cross and criss cross all through the film and it really builds a wonderful texture.
I would recommend this as a double bill with something like the Actor's Revenge by Ichikawa- also deeply steeped in lush visual beauties and light. Or else Angel Dust by Sogo Ishii-a very opposite film full of passion, madness and violence, but where you see that meticulous, relentless search for supercomposition on almost a frame for frame basis. Or lastly, the tranquil, and beautiful, and very painterly Why Has Bodhidharma Left For The East- a Korean film by Bae Yong Kyun and something of a successful Zen meditation. Well one more, Mystery of Rampo-by Kazuyoshi Okuyama- very offbeat with bewitchingly lush visual beauty. (Rampo is Japanese for Edgar Allen Poe and the first Japanese mystery writer adopted Rampo as his nom de plume)
Tengoku to jigoku (1963)
About the best police procedural you're ever likely to see
Toshiro Mifune is a businessman in a Japan that is on the brink of the Economic Miracle of the Sixties. He is an honest man who loves his job as a shoe factory exec and is in a battle for corporate control against a pack of hyenas. He has mortgaged and borrowed and scraped to raise the money for a surprise coup when his son is kidnapped. But there is a major plot twist: it is not HIS son that was taken but his son's playmate, the chauffeur's kid and the ransom demanded is astronomical. If he pays he will lose everything he has worked so hard for, but can he just sacrifice the chauffeur's child because it is not his? From here on High and Low (perhaps better translated as Heaven and Hell) is a police procedural based on an Ed McBain 87th precinct story.
Watching this film I had a rare, almost unique, experience. I saw it on a fairly screen tv, letterboxed, in a darkened room. All the preceding conditions helped contribute to put me into an objective/subjective middle ground where I had the feeling of looking through a special visor that allowed me to see the world by means of an almost perfect film as if through the eyes of a cinematic genius who is in total command of his artistic means and in total command of his subject matter. I think the key to this experience is that while High and Low is interesting as human drama, it is yet peculiarly uninvolving emotionally but very involving cinematically. These distances are important in Kurosawa's films (he is high on my list of top ten directors but after Welles). In IKIRU you probably could not be more deeply involved emotionally, while in RAN there is nothing but relentless distance.
I think a good companion film to watch with this would be Kurosawa's earlier, looser, but much more individually tense, police film STRAY DOG (this time Mifune is the cop)
Die Mörder sind unter uns (1946)
Fine German Expressionist / Noir cinematography in the ruins of Berlin
Murderers Among Us is the first film made, of a vast trove of films, in the Soviet controlled sector of post-war Germany that was to become East Germany. It is deeply and masterfully immersed in the aesthetic traditions of German Expressionism and /or Film Noir: unusual angles and picture planes, extreme lighting effects, twisted stairs, bombed-out buildings that look like jagged fingers against the sky (it was shot in the ruins of Berlin), a haunted, tormented protagonist, stark black and white atmosphere, and, above all, shadows. Shadows and more shadows of every size, shape, and density. In fact this film could serve as a text book on shadow craft: the scene where a man is screaming from within the vast shadow of a pistol wielding attacker is magnificent. I haven't seen The Third Man recently but I am sure Murderers influenced it profoundly. I would recommend the Third Man as a good double feature with this film.
Murders belongs to a genre called 'rubble films', shot in the rubble of Germany and frequently dealing with issues of German guilt after WW II. Murderers does not seek to deal overmuch with the people who gave the orders, but with the many Germans who followed them with little or no protest. Such as the wounded doctor in this film who stood by while even children were executed as reprisals against resistance fighters in occupied Poland. Plotwise the film works quite nicely, and I liked the atmosphere of renewal, and perhaps relief at the end of a nightmare, amongst all that ruin and rubble as the German people began to pick themselves up.
Ai qing wan sui (1994)
An anti-film that pulls a cinematic rabbit out of its hat
First, the video box is very deceptive. This film is NOT about intense, erotic encounters with some hidden gay voyeur taking it all in.
Somewhere in Taipei is a nice apartment. A young gay guy, (who is lonely as hell and sells cremation urns) gets the key by bolding plucking it out of the lock while no one is looking. An attractive young female real estate agent who, while trying to sell or rent the place, also uses it, checks up on it, stops in to take a crap, or a lie down, or take a guy there for hot, but causal sex. The guy she takes up there is a well off street vendor. He gets his key by swiping it from her after the sex. It is more of a situation than a story.
Vive L'Amour takes a studied, hypernaturalistic approach that is a strong style statement in itself (an effect partly due to turning up the 'natural' sounds accompanying an action a notch or two and by not using music.) And despite her good looks and movie actress head of hair, the real estate agent is presented again and again as completely nonglamourous. She is always behaving in slightly exaggerated ways that show she is just a woman like any other. This is epitomized in the crap taking scene in the apartment, but there is also the scene where she cries: beautiful women in the movies usually cry with just their eyes, but here we get rich, rolling, mucal snorts that come straight from the nose. A lot of the film is spent following her completely unromanticized daily routine trying to sell or rent properties. As counter-point, and equally deliberately, we there are little movie touches: the big hair, all the actors are attractive, little bits of romantic/comedic chatter, the comedy/buddy goings on between the guys (who of course run into each other in the apartment--more movie comedy stuff), and so on.
In the end Tsai manages to masterfully blend these contradictory forces into a climax that interweaves three (one per character) magical cinematic moments: Tenderness, Innocence, and Sadness. Vive L'Amour is fine, intelligent and moving film making.
Corridor of Mirrors (1948)
A wonderful, interesting Gothic film
This is expert, expert film making, rich in atmosphere and mood, and easily as good as the best gothics and psychological 'horror' films of the forties such as Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Seventh Veil, or the Val Lewton works. I don't think there was a single scene that did not hold my attention. I could not begin to enumerate all the little touches and flourishes of lighting, camera angle, dialog, story ideas, etc. but I particularly enjoyed the seamless interweaving of references to Lewis Carroll's Alice (when Edana Romney follows the white cat (white rabbit surrogate) through the labyrhinthine corridors of the mansion, or to Othello/Romeo and Juliet at the Venetian ball, or again to Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Some compare this film to to Cocteau (it's on the video box), with its ornate and detailed set, as well as its theme, but Corridor of Mirrors for all its fine acting, atmosphere, and mastery of technique is not genius. It is not poetically simple. But if you liked any of the films mentioned above, you will definitely enjoy watching dark, mysterious leading lady Edana Romney (who also co wrote the screenplay) search for the inner resources to free herself from the spell of an incredibly intense and psychologically compelling, but morbid, life.
Vivement dimanche! (1983)
A shaggy dog running like a greyhound
Confidentially Yours aka Vivement Dimanche is a spoof/tribute to noir/detective/Hitchcock films. Someone (it won't take you long to figure out who) commits a brutal murder and the police suspect Jean Louis Trintignant ( a real estate agent) but his secretary (a girl Friday he has just fired, perfectly played by Fanny Ardant--whose movie this is) investigates (dressed in a trench coat -- why she must wear a trench coat is one of the gags), determined to clear him.
It is a shaggy dog because it piles on the clues, close scrapes, crimes, etc. at ten times the rate of the films it salutes. It is a greyhound because it must get all that into 110 minutes, which it does with zest and comic theatricality (referenced of course by the subplot of a comic theatrical performance being given by Ardant's amateur theater group).
As film making it would have been a lot fresher if it had been made in 1964 rather than 1984, but that should not effect your viewing experience of an expertly made madcap mystery. I would have preferred the film in color. I know why it is in black and white, but it does not seem to me to have any particular aesthetic merit as a black and white film. While no masterpiece, it was perhaps not a bad way to end a directorial career with a loving look back to all those great mysteries and screwball comedies of yore.
Qiu yue (1992)
Good but failed in an important way
The situation is simple: a young Japanese man, about 25, from Tokyo (and called Tokio) comes to Hong Kong in search of cheap consumer goods, sex, and, above all, good Chinese food. He accidently meets a 15 year old, Li Piu Wai, and immediately develops an unlikely, offbeat friendship with her that borders on soul matehood. Luckily she lives alone with her grandmother who is a superb cook, a natural feeder, and who asks no questions. They communicate in somewhat pained English, as he knows no Chinese and she no Japanese. Director Law carefully shows that each has their own separate romantic and/or sexual world apart from the other. She with a Chinese high school student and he with an older Japanese woman he meets. To me, the separate relationships were more interesting that the one between Li Piu Wai and Tokio which had its moments but which also rang false fairly often, even irritatingly so at times. I still liked the film but not as much as I might have.
One interesting thing was that while it showed Hong Kong vividly (sometimes through Tokio's recently purchased video camera--which he should take back since it seems to only shoot in monochrome), it was a Hong Kong with almost no people in it. I don't remember there ever being more than 4 people on screen at once and that was rare: a singular approach to teeming Hong Kong.
Technically expert but overlong
Min and his friends are 'lost youths' living in an increasingly Westernized country which has many conflicts with its more rigid, traditional social structures and values brought about by relentless modernization. Min, (who looks somewhat like Yuen Biao) is also a natural kung fu expert and gets mixed up in street gang action much to the dismay of his dysfunctional girl friend and equally dysfunctional best friend and business partner. Technically the film is quite well done, a sort of mix of Japanimation (the motorcycle shots were right out of Akira), Hong Kong crime films, and music video/tv commercial: neon, garish lighting, sudden cuts, extreme camera angles and positions, and lots of little shot pieces edited togehter to give it a jumpy, visually nervous feel. But it is all surface and no substance. The film is a good 20 or more likely 30 minutes too long, and cutting out the kung fu/street gang plot would have been the perfect solution. Working with just the romantic and best friend relationships would have made this a much more interesting film.