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Sanshiro Sugata (1943) October 28, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1940s films, Jidaigeki , 6 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Susumu Fujita; Denjiro Ookouchi; Yukiko Todoroki; Takashi Shimura Territory: Japan

Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut was made in something of a fit of enthusiasm – the script was written in one sitting and the director “was just excited” at getting his first proper directing job.  The tale tells the story of Sugata Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a young headstrong jujitsu practitioner who comes under the tutelage of judo master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) and falls in love with a rival’s daughter.  The girl’s brother, Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) quickly establishes himself as the villain (he is the only character dressed in western clothes – this film was shot during World War 2) and demands to fight the young man to the death.  

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The first thing I noticed upon watching Sanshiro Sugata is how familiar it all feels if you’ve seen even a handful of Shaw Brothers kung fu films from the 70s.  A casual viewer will feel right at home with Sanshiro Sugata – the philosophy of discipline, the teacher/pupil relationship, the fact that the hero is initially forbidden to fight the villain and the warring schools are all instantly recognisable staple elements of the genre.

The second surprise is that Kurosawa’s style is already much in evidence.  Already in place is his use of weather as a mood setter, transition wipes and dramatic camera set-ups.  Only the short montage scene of discarded shoes is clunky and forced.  Elsewhere, he seems totally at ease, effortlessly evoking tension and letting the characters propel the story along.  While judo is not at aesthetically pleasing as some more “showy” martial arts, Kurosawa does a fine job of making the bouts dramatic.

My highest expectation was to appreciate Sanshiro Sugata, not to like it.  Instead, I found it compelling and fun.  There are seventeen minutes missing due to wartime censorship – the authorities found too much in the movie that was “British-American”, but intertitles were added in the fifties’ re-issue of the film from the script (which survived) to fill in the gaps.  Although a complete cut of the movie would have been preferable, the surviving footage tells a complete, if obviously abridged, story.  And the climactic scene atop a windswept hill should be seen by all fans of Kurosawa to witness the birth of his genius.

Thirst (2009) October 25, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Horror, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Park Chan-wook  Starring: Song Kang-ho; Kim Ok-bin; Shin Ha-kyun  Territory: South Korea

ThristCatholic priest Sang-kyun (Song Kang-ho) volunteers in an experiment to create an antidote to a deadly virus, but instead becomes gravely ill.  Upon dying, Sang-kyun lies still…and then begins breathing again.  He unwittingly becomes labelled as a miracle worker, but soon finds that he needs to drink human blood to stop the virus returning.

Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly a very gifted director, and Thirst is a highly polished and accomplished piece of work.  The subject of vampirism is, however, an unfortunate one as the market is currently saturated with bloodsuckers.  But Thirst is more of a tale of love spiralling darkly to destruction, and there isn’t a gothic cathedral or tightly clutched crucifix in sight.

Sang-kyun gets attached to childhood friend Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) who is apparently abused by her idiotic boorish husband Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun).  Without giving too much away, Sang-kyun and Tae-ju begin an affair, and start on the road to ruin, with the previously pious Sang-kyun quickly getting addicted to the sins of the flesh.  The sex scenes are pretty strong (or at least unusual, with foot fetishism and passionate armpit licking more in evidence than actual nudity) and came as a bit of a surprise to tell you the truth.

Thirst is also not for the squeamish.  I don’t know why, but I was quite unsettled by the violence and gore.  I guess special effects look more realistic these days (and I was watching this in HD), or I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.  Whatever the reason, I found myself looking away from the screen an awful lot.

For all its merits, I never truly warmed to Thirst.  Park’s idea of taking bits of the vampire myth and leaving others seemed initially a masterstroke – our victim is dependent on blood, is burned by sunlight and is apparently immortal, but appears in mirrors and is indifferent to holy icons – but then started to feel half-baked.  Why, for instance, when the condition is caused by a virus, can the afflicted man suddenly start flying?  More off-putting, for me, was a shift in tone involving the moronic Kang-woo.  The inclusion of a darkly surreal comic vein to the film seemed out of place to me.

My reaction may be more muted than most, but there is no argument that Thirst was a very successful and crtically acclaimed film.  It deals maturely and thoughtfully with guilt and lust, and the tale of doomed love is one that most can at least identify with. 

The Quiet Duel (1949) October 19, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 1940s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Noriko Sengoku; Miki Sanjo  Territory: Japan

During the Second World War, doctor Kyoji (Mifune) contracts syphilis from an irresponsible patient while performing an operation.  After the war, while working in his father’s (Shimura) clinic, he is forced to give up the love of his life to shield her from the disease.

The Quiet Duel (also known as The Silent Duel) is a heavy drama about self-sacrifice and Mifune’s first bona-fide top billing in a Kurosawa film (a note of pure trivia: I realised while I was watching this that both Mifune’s first and last lead roles in a Kurosawa film were as doctors).  The problem is that it’s sandwiched between two far better films (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog) in my opinion.  However, there is a lot to like in here.  The inclusion of Shimura as Kyoji’s father is perhaps an inevitable one following their teaming in Drunken Angel, but the pair do work incredibly well together.  One scene, in which they attempt to have a chat and a smoke together is particularly effective and touching.  The film does tend to rely on melodrama at times, but the characters are all well-drawn and compelling enough to make you wish for a happy ending, even if you sense that one isn’t terribly likely.

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I have to admit that I thought that syphilis was pretty much beaten by the time this film was made, but a little research shows that the film’s premise is plausible if you assume that penicillin wasn’t as readily available in post-war Japan as it was in the west.  Although Kurosawa wasn’t quite the master he would become a little later in his career, there are some nice touches of atmosphere here, as well as his trademark weather shots.  The film even starts in the rain, but Kurosawa uses weather phenomenon throughout the film to good effect.

Thinking back on the film now a week after viewing it, I feel The Quiet Duel is definitely deeper than it first appears, and Mifune’s soul-searching speech towards the film’s climax is amazingly frank for the period.  I believe that if Kurosawa had attempted the project even twelve months later than he did, he would have nailed it.  As it is, it’s good, but he missed a timeless classic by that much.

Zatoichi at Large (1972) October 17, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1970s films, Jidaigeki , 2 comments

Director: Kazuo Mori  Starring: Shintaro Katsu; Rentaro Mikuni; Hisaya Morishige  Territory: Japan

Ten years after the first installment of Zatoichi, we find ourselves on the twenty-second sequel.  That’s right, someone sure knew how to churn out a winning formula.  Having seen none of the intervening titles in the sequence (yet), I can’t comment on their quality, but you can see that the series had travelled quite far into cheap exploitation from their relatively classy beginning.

But while Zatoichi at Large occasionally relies on toilet humour and bizarre sideshows, there is still an element of his former chivalry and honour.  Ichi is wrongly accused of robbery and murder by a swordsman he admires while saving a town from a ruthless yakuza gang.  Instead of cutting his accusers to ribbons, he instead apologises and tries to pay back the “stolen” ryo. 

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Like a lot of Japan’s action cinema from this period, the film is superficial, throwaway but still strangely enjoyable.  And of course Ichi is still a draw.  But doubters to my “Zatoichi is gay” theory will be dealt a hammer blow at the scene where he disrobes a group of men with his sword and asks them to dance naked for him.  Yes, he might say to a woman that she has a beautiful body, but he is nevertheless blind and isn’t fooling anyone.  Well, not me anyway.

Here’s a small but important point for anyone wishing to check this film out – Zatoichi at Large has been released in the UK mistakenly labelled at Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) October 13, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, Film Noir, 1960s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Kamatari Fujiwara; Masayuki Mori; Takashi Shimura  Territory: Japan

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well is the least well-known of Kurosawa’s adaptations of the Bard’s work.  Instead of placing the story in feudal Japan, Kurosawa chooses a contemporary setting in this gritty, downbeat film noir thriller.

Toshiro Mifune is Nishi, a man marrying into a major company beset with controversy surrounding the suicide of a former employee.  Suspected of marrying simply to gain power, Nishi faces suspicion and hostility as the secretary for Vice President Iwabuchi (his sozzled new brother-in-law declares at the wedding ceremony “make her unhappy and I’ll kill you”, in what must be one of the oddest wedding speeches on celluloid).  However, it turns out his motives for marrying into the family are even more sinister than power and influence as he struggles to find out the truth behind his new employers’ dark secrets.

The Bad Sleep Well
After criticising the casting of Mifune for High and Low, I have to eat humble pie and say he was absolutely perfect in this film noir masterpiece.  It really is a tragedy that The Bad Sleep Well is not among the absolutely highest regarded of Akira Kurosawa’s films – it is simply a riveting, thrill-packed ride of twists, turns and fantastically drawn characters.  What’s more, you would have to go some way to finding a film so fantastically shot as this one.  Kurosawa’s keen eye for dramatic locations is shown again and again in this film, whether in volcanic wastelands or war-torn bombed-out factories that can double up as prison cells. 

Films about corporate espionage can be convoluted and dull, and in the opening scenes of the film things can seem rather complex with lots of unfamiliar names thrown at the viewer.  But from that scene, The Bad Sleep Well settles down into a clear film with a narrative that is easy to follow.  It may be long, and not a little grim, but the story moves like a bullet and is never dull. 

This is another of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films that really must be seen by a wider audience too hung up on his samurai movies.  The Bad Sleeps Well is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.  In fact, I can’t understand why Hollywood hasn’t remade it yet.  Give it time…

Connected (2008) October 11, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Benny Chan  Starring: Louis Koo; Nick Cheung; Barbie Hsu; Liu Ye  Territory: Hong Kong

I have to confess right at the start of this review that I haven’t even heard of the US film on which Benny Chan’s Connected is based, let alone seen it.  It was called Cellular, apparently, and the remake quite refreshingly gives credit quite prominently for the fact.  Of course, at this point, alarm bells should start ringing with frequent viewers of remakes.  However, believe it or not, Connected isn’t half bad…

Grace Wong (Barbie Hsu) is kidnapped and held in a nailed-up shed with no contact with the outside world.  Luckily, she is an electronic wizard and manages to cobble a broken phone together, and, dialling a random number, manages to contact Bob (Louis Koo), a debt collector with family issues.  After convincing him that she’s not playing an elaborate hoax, and with a sceptical police force not willing to help, Bob gets embroiled in the plot and tries to help the damsel in distress.

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Connected should be a terrible movie, with over-the-top car chases, clichéd characters galore and so much misfortune heaped upon poor Bob at one point that the film seriously looks like it’s heading into spoof territory.  But taken at surface value (whatever you do, do not attempt to apply real-world logic to the events of this film) it is remarkably good fun.  Nick Cheung is a brilliant addition to the ensemble and his character (disgraced detective busted down to traffic cop, with a stupid boss promoted over his head, etc etc, rinse and repeat) is really easy to get behind.  Bob himself is never looks more than Louis Koo in oversized nerd glasses, but he does do his own stunts and some of them are particularly juicy.

While some characters’ decision-making abilities will have you screaming at the screen at their supreme dumbness and while the pace can be nothing short of exhausting, Connected is a fine no-brainer action thriller that should please anyone who wants to have a shot of pure adrenaline.

Connected is available on DVD now in the UK from Cine Asia.  Order your copy here.

High and Low (1963) October 7, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, 1960s films , 1 comment so far

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai; Kenjiro Ishiyama; Toshiro Mifune  Territory: Japan

A wealthy shoe magnate is extorted when his son’s friend is mistakenly kidnapped.  When every decision he can make will end in financial disaster for him, his hopes lay solely at the feet of the police force, who are pulling out all the stops to bring the guilty parties to justice.

Heaven and Hell is an odd film.  For a start, it doesn’t feel much like an Akira Kurosawa film, despite the presence of both Mifune and, in a relatively minor role, Takashi Shimura.  Secondly, it is essentially split into two parts: the first hour is the kidnapping drama and following that, the police force’s attempts at capturing the criminal.  With the focus shifting so abruptly and forcefully, it is sometimes hard to care as much as you should. 

High and Low
A case in point is Mifune’s character Gondo, who is, let’s not beat about the bush, quite difficult to like.  However, by the end of his story arc, I was firmly behind him as he had become much more human.  What’s more, it seems I wasn’t the only one who thought so: at the point where Gondo essentially leaves the story, one policeman turns to another and says “I never liked him at first”.  I’m also not 100% sure Mifune was the right man for the job - it sounds awfully strange to hear him talking passionately about the quality of women’s shoes.  Nevertheless, the shot of him mowing his lawn with grim determination is quite a sight.  It’s therefore hard to say who the “star” of High and Low is, but I’d say Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) deserves the top billing (although Kenjiro Ishiyama tends to steal the scenes he’s in).

That’s not to say High and Low is a bad film: far from it.  The first hour, which pretty much takes place in one room, is downright Hitchcockian in flavour, and the last half hour or so is genuinely tense.  The film’s use of music as counterpoint to the on screen action is the most pronounced I’ve seen in a long time: the tinkling muzak rendition of “It’s Now or Never” coming over a cheap radio at one critical moment should have you gripping your seat.

One thing intrigued me is the use of colour in an otherwise black and white film.  At one point, we see “pink smoke” in a black and white film – something I don’t recall seeing before.  But seeing something you’ve never seen before is what Kurosawa was all about in this, his most productive and inspired period.

Brother (2000) October 4, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Crime, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Takeshi Kitano  Starring: Takeshi Kitano; Omar Epps; Kurodo Maki  Territory: Japan

BrotherGangster Yamamoto (Kitano) flees Japan after a gang war and arrives in Los Angeles, where he regroups with his half brother and his friends (including a pre-House Omar Epps).  But soon, violence erupts again as a turf war breaks out and Yamamoto is marked for death.

It occurred to me as I started watching this that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film directed by Kitano before.  I’m going to try like hell not to let that put me off in future, but sadly Brother is not a good film. 

It may be a pet hate of mine, but when a non-English speaking director makes a film in English, you can be sure that badly delivered dialogue is not far behind, and Brother is no exception.  Thankfully, Kitano sticks to Japanese most of the time, but unfortunately his direction is also sloppy as well.  The scene where he encounters Denny (Epps) for the first time is almost amateurishly shot.

With a predicable plot, lacklustre script, directionless pacing and with several terrible performances, it’s hard to pick any good bits about Brother, but Epps gives a decent performance and the chemistry between him and Kitano is good overall.  Sadly, that’s the only bright point in this decidedly average gangster tale.

Brother is out today from Park Circus.

Ikiru (1952) October 2, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1950s films , 2 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Takashi Shimura; Shin’ichi Himori; Minoru Chiaki  Territory: Japan

Petty bureaucrat Kenji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) exists in a faceless, soulless office, whiling his life away in a world of red tape and buck-passing.  When he discovers he has terminal cancer, he struggles to find meaning to his life.  But when his own son treats him with indifference and he fails to find answers at the bottom of a bottle, he looks elsewhere for contentment.

Ikiru

Once again, Takashi Shimura shines in this tale of small-scale tragedy, proving that he was indeed the most versatile in Kurosawa’s stable of frequently used actors.  And like Scandal, Ikiru is a film that resonates as strongly today as it must have back in the 50s – the portrayal of departmental bureaucracy within local government is eerily accurate.

Watanabe’s reaction to his imminent demise is plausible (the whole project rose from Kurosawa’s morbid thoughts of his own death) as he goes from maudlin sentimentality, through self-pity and on to reckless hedonism.  But Watanabe is always a likeable figure, especially because he is usually surrounded by ugly, selfish characters.  Watanabe strikes an unlikely friendship with a young female co-worker and those around him react in disgust, thinking he’s having a mid-life crisis.  But Watanabe is clinging to her simply because of her vitality – something knocked out of him from years spent wasted at a job that doesn’t challenge him. 

If any criticism can be made of Ikiru, it is in the wake scene.  This scene, while important to the movie’s message, goes on too long and features too many squabbling, melodramatic characters.  It is, however, not surprising that without Shimura’s presence, the scene suffers.  Although Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films will never be as highly regarded as his jidaigeki films, anyone who dismisses films like Ikiru is certainly missing out on an awful lot.  It has just as much nobility and honour as any of his samurai epics.

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