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People in a mining community are being bumped off by a mysterious white-suited hit-man and the two warring unions are blaming the murders on one another. There is no reason why the victims come back from the dead as ghosts but this mining community is a veritable ghost town. The fate of the main character in the film, a common mine worker who shifts from town to town with his young boy in search of better working conditions, is sealed when he is mistaken by the hit-man (posing as an innocuous photographer) for the secretary of one of the unions and ends up face down on a beach before the eyes of his own passive son.
The other notable inhabitant of the ghost town is a female candy-store owner who is perennially waiting for news from her far-away lover. To make ends meet, she agrees to act as a witness to the murder of the mine worker but, after being raped by a sleazy police officer, she ends up on the hit-man's list as well lest she decides to sing about her involvement in the murders. Ironically, she is killed just moments before the postman indolently delivers the longed-for letter from her lover and the sequence when her failure to clutch the letter with her fingers brings about her realization that she is in fact dead is a moving highlight. The mine worker seems resigned to his fate of suffering eternal hunger (since he died on an empty stomach!) but the woman can't accept the fact that she was taken away from this world just as her life was about to take a turn for the better; her incessant questioning and screaming after the hit-man riding away on his motorcycle is not easily shaken off.
The second half of the movie deals in more detail with the machinations of the two miners' unions which are being pitted one against the other by some unknown force. Towards the end of the film, there is a lengthy, impressive sequence of a clandestine meeting between the two secretaries (one of whom suspects the other of having hired the hit-man to terminate him) which turns into a gritty fist-fight between the two and ends with their two ghosts haunting the sea-side spot were earlier on the mine worker met his doom. This time, however, the miner's son is moved to tears by what he witnesses and, bewildered and alone, runs off aimlessly in a stunning, fluid camera move which ends the film on a high note.
The occasionally elliptical narrative may be explained by the fact that we see the events unfolding before us through the eyes of the child and the film's most arresting image is that of the boy's eye peering through a crack in the wall of the wooden shack spying on the woman being raped. PITFALL's subject matter and lack of major stars may limit its appeal but, for adventurous film fans, it's a satisfyingly existentialist and Kafkaesque journey.
What happens though when the employer wants to get rid of even those two unions, weakened by distrust, one for the other? The answer to this question is large part of what director Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Pitfall" is about. Teshigahara wasn't alone in creating this film. To be sure, "Pitfall" was also the work of author Kôbô Abe. In fact, "Pitfall" was originally a stage play by Abe. One must keep in mind when watching this film that both men were leftists, influenced by surrealism and it shows in the direction, screenplay, choice of music and cinematography. Both men saw how the social relations of capitalist class rule kept the producers weak, poor and in wage-slavery. Both also saw the existential theme of alienation between people which is part and parcel of the the system of wage-labor. But neither of them was about to produce a piece of nihilist fiction, which is what many reviewers of this film seem to think "Pitfall" is about. Teshigahara and Abe are depicting life under the rule of Capital and showing how it works to keep workers at each others' throats.
As the film opens, a father and his young boy wander a stark landscape in Kyushu, industrially pockmarked by mines and the scattered, wild remnants of a supremely indifferent Nature. This is an environment like our own, one which has suffered from the neglect of civilization's modern rulers. The father is a rootless proletarian in search of an employer and on the run because he has 'deserted'. The film's audience is never told what he has deserted from; but whatever it was, there are other workers who have deserted from it too. We know this because the father is being accompanied through part of the film by a fellow mine worker who is also on the run, a self-proclaimed 'deserter'. We also know because in one scene from a mine work-site a man is fallen upon by two other men, authorities who take him away after a scuffle. The miners who view this in a stunned, atomized silence agree: the man must have been a 'deserter'. The father's young son has been brought up as witness to the fact that authority can never be trusted. He has seen too many ordinary working people hurt in some way by people who wear the clothes and uniforms of officialdom. When he spies a man in a pristine white suit riding through the mining town on a motor scooter, the only motor vehicle around which isn't a truck, he hides.
The father, his son and their companion, the other mine worker, leave one job secretly in the night and go on the road to look for another. They fear discovery as 'deserters' as their employer seems like he might be catching on. No chances can be taken. Both land a job at another mine site some distance away and it looks to be a good job too. The father has always dreamed of working for a union mine and of the better, more comfortable and secure life this would mean. This one's not bad; but one of his supervisors tells him that a new boss awaits him at another mine with an even better job and so he and his son take off on foot with a simply sketched map in hand.
However, the new mine doesn't seem to exist. Instead, the father is led by the written map given to him by his former supervisor to an abandoned mining town where only one person lives, a woman who owns a candy/trinket store. The woman is as isolated and lonely as the father. She too is waiting for something, a letter from her ex-lover, a summons to a better place. In the course of their conversation, we find out that the ghost town has been abandoned because of all the mining accidents which have happened. Unsafe working conditions have their consequences. Still, the father wonders what went wrong with the directions he got from his old supervisor. He's sure that he's in the right place, the one given to him on a piece of paper by foreman of the mine he just left. The candy store owning woman suggests that he might be looking for another mine, just over the hill.
Be prepared for ghosts, doubles and dastardly planned murders most foul. Be prepared to see and even hear (in a jangling musical score) a movie which will intrigue and surprise and may cause you thereafter to continually question the motives of your rulers: divide et impera.
Based on a story by Kôbô Abe, PITFALL explores the myriad possibilities that emerge from the space where life and death overlap, as a poor miner is murdered under mysterious circumstances in the marshes near an old ghost town. His murderer, an alluring white-clad figure, buys off the silence of the one witness, a woman operating a candy store in the ghost town district, and disappears as mysteriously as he appeared. In the mean time the murdered man wakes up next to his corpse only to discover he's now a ghost.
While THE SIXTH SENSE milked a very similar idea for maximum mainstream appeal, shock twists and shallow thrills, Teshigahara is wise to allow his material to breathe. Even though a very pragmatic subplot about two rival labour unions introduced in the end of act two detracts from the existential nature of the story, like all great storytellers Teshigahara never settles for the convenient and tidy, refuses to explain what the viewer most needs explained. Personal interpretation is very important in any work and particularly in something as haunting as this. Who is the killer? Why is he doing it? Questions left open, the character cleverly typed as a seriocomic grim reaper of sorts riding around in his moped, a manifestation that invokes notions of fate by the very nature of his acts. Is there not meaning when one is not aware of it?
Teshigahara pits the dead against the dead, the living against the living and everybody against each other, ghosts quizically examining their corpses and wondering the reason of their deaths, the living deaf to their protestations and too busy being suspicious of each other. A world revolving around a discordant axis, thrown off balance and left for us to explore its geometry.
Teshigahara's direction reflecting the uncertainty and disorientation of the plot as much as Toru Takemitsu's dissonant score. A POV shot of a child introduced only for the child to walk inside its own POV shot. Jarring jump cuts that send characters jumping through space. Construction works photographed in all their derelict, abandonded glory, a ghost world for the dead to haunt. Notions of hell on earth. The ghost of the murdered man complaining he's hungry as winds rise in the soundtrack. A pack of dogs ascending a steep slope like other Sissyphi. Very precise, very geometric, the work of an assured visual director.
Following this, the character we thought dead rises up from the ground to a standing position. The simple technique of playing a shot backwards recalls another early 60's Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, while there it was used as a slight character moment, here it completely reinvents the film's narrative melting away all we've seen and reforming into something much more ambitious.
Pitfall contains elements of social realism, surrealist experimentation, crime procedural, conspiracy thriller, and fantasy-tragedy. Teshigahara's roots in documentary film-making and strong leftist political view provide reason for his sympathies with the struggles of miners, shown through the exploitation of the miner and his son and the two union's confrontation. Selfishness pervades the film, the individual selfishness of the exploitative old man hiring the men to do a mining job, the boy taking a candy from his dead father's corpse, and the political selfishness, as seen in the confrontation between the two unions.
Duplicity and division are chief devices in Pitfall. Cinematographically we see this through the sensual distance of Teshigahara's camera, at once close, tracking, exploring the personal space and frame of mind of the characters, other times distanced and merely observing, displacing the individual as they get lost in the harsh world around them. The lack of structure in the films cinematography is a benefit, sumptuous compositions, guerrilla hand-held movements, deep-focused long shots, erratic zooms and pans, the assortment of shots is astounding; the film is simply a visual treat. The welding of extreme social realism (at one point real documentary footage of impoverished miners is inserted) and the surrealist imagery of ghosts left in the town, carrying on their lowly routines with no effect, and of the many dead characters inspecting their own corpses, quizzically studying the circumstances of their deaths and often probing the living, creates a fusion of misery both in life, and forever in death. In ghost form the miner laments his hunger something he no doubt would've done often in life.
Despite all these many seemingly contradictory modes and random story-strands, Pitfall holds together well. As Teshigahara's first feature film, this as a major outlet for his artistic visions, and consequently the film is slightly untidy, structurally the film lacks a successful linking of the many elements at play, they seem to pop-up randomly, sometimes without reason. For example the conspiracy hints littered throughout the murder-mystery plot seem to go nowhere. Rough around the edges it may be, Pitfall is a genuinely fascinating, thrilling, involving picture from beginning to end, possessing the visual tenacity and narrative complexity of a first-time director finding his feet and unleashing his cinematic imagination.
This movie is much more about moods I think than the actual story. It is a slow moving movie especially the first half of it. But I was absorbed about wondering who was it following him and why. I did also like the boy as the silent observer where I wondered if he would interfere with the story at a time and in what way.
I would not recommend this movie to everybody. I did enjoy it a lot but I would not consider it as a masterpiece. If you are are interested in slow but moody B&W pictures then it may be for you. If you want a bit more action then choose another movie.
The DVD package, from The Criterion Collection, Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, comes with a fourth disk of supplements, the main feature of which is a documentary about Teshigahara and his Kobo Abe's lives and collaborations. There are also four short early documentaries by Teshigahara, none of which presage his fictive films. They are: Hokusai, Ikebana, Tokyo 1958, and Ako. The actual disk with Pitfall on it contains the theatrical trailer and a video essay by film critic James Quandt on it. Overall, it is a solid video package- with a few early blemishes, shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, although the lack of an English language dubbed track would have been a great help because the white subtitles blanche out against many of the ultra-white shots of the film. The booklet features a career overview by Peter Grilli, an interview with the director, and essays on the films. Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography is very daring, and the scoring, by Toru Takemitsu, is always apropos to the scene, underscoring emotions, never exaggerating them, and often adding to the scenes with an askewness to what is seen, which throws a viewer into a different state of mind, aiding the feeling of alienation many of the characters feel.
This alienation is at its greatest when one realizes that the first two murders of the miner and the candy saleswoman are incidental to the real 'meat' of the film. And, in this way, Teshigahara is offering up his version of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, wherein the character the viewer presumes is the film's main character, is not. He is merely a plot device, whose raison d'etre is left hanging. The same cannot be said for his son, who witnesses four murders and the brutal sex between the cop and the candy saleswoman. In this way, the film also neatly sunders the convention of a close father and on the road, as portrayed in such films as The Bicycle Thief and Il Grido. That both of those films were influenced by documentary forms, as was Teshigahara's work is no coincidence; as is Teshigahara's will to break with the tried and true.
Pitfall is a film that is great because it is daring, it does not bite off more than it can chew, it provides a strong narrative, but leaves enough mystery for the viewer to cogitate on through multiple viewings, is technically strong, in all areas, and provides solid enough acting (never great) that its just mentioned framework of excellence never frays. It provides a narrative for those drawn to plot first films, yet also has a philosophic heft that works on many levels- from the existential to the ethical, and touches upon identity, the layers of the self, and what is and is not private and is and is not evil. It may be a bit less daring than Teshigahara's later The Face Of Another, as well as lacking in as much razzle-dazzle and narrative complications, but it is also less flawed, and this latter quality is why it stands taller as a great work of art than the later film. However, both films evince an undeniable fact- Hiroshi Teshigahara was a force of great talent and achievement in Japanese and world cinema, and the world of art, and that at large, is poorer for his absence, and the absence of his creative descendants. Hence, sometimes less really, and only, is less.