Monthly Archives: August 2010

Kandahar Break (UK/Pakistan 2009)

Jamilah (Tatmain Ul Qhub) and Richard (Shaun Dooley)

Writer-director David Whitney’s first feature is an unusual beast – a British genre film set in Afghanistan in 1999. There have been relatively few recent British films dealing with UK personnel working in war zones and most of them have been serious realist dramas by name directors – Michael Winterbottom (In This World, 2002 and The Road to Guantanamo, 2006), Nick Broomfield (Battle for Haditha, 2007) and Ken Loach (whose most recent feature Route Irish screened at Cannes this year). Kandahar Break inevitably borrows something in its approach from these films, but Whitney has previously shot television material in Afghanistan so he was able to develop his own style of shooting in Baluchistan – the region of Pakistan sharing a long border with Afghanistan. He also decided to make his film part ‘thriller’ and part ‘romance’ rather than straight realist drama.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Richard (Shaun Dooley) returns to Afghanistan to work with an old friend as part of a mine-clearing operation undertaken by a UK company for the Taliban controlling the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar. But after several months away in Africa, Richard has forgotten just how sensitive the Taliban are about acceptable behaviour around women and he has to be rescued from a difficult situation by the company’s local Afghani ‘fixer’. It is clear that he has also had a relationship of some sort with one of the group’s interpreters, Jamilah (Tatmain Ul Qhub), an attractive Afghani woman who has lived in the US. If he is not careful, both he and Jamilah could find themselves in a very difficult situation. But that’s not going to happen is it? The film’s title suggests otherwise.

Commentary

Whitney’s approach works pretty well. This is much more a ‘realist thriller’ than a Hollywood-style action pic. Shooting in Baluchistan on HD with Pakistani crew members and lead actors gives the film an authenticity that can’t be faked. In fact, reality intruded just a little too much when, towards the end of the shoot, four Pakistani crew members were shot at by dissidents and Whitney had to withdraw. The few scenes that had to be completed in Tunisia are expertly blended in.

The thriller genre elements are most apparent in the way the action scenes are shot and edited, in some of the contrivances in the plotting (especially the ending), the generic music and in the acting styles. The potential problem here is that there is a clash between the more expansive/expressive style of the Pakistani film and TV actors and the more restrained performances given by Dooley and Dean Andrews (a very recognisable character actor in UK series like Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes). I worried about this at first but it is well handled and the Pakistani players, including the film’s co-producer Hameed Sheikh, acquit themselves well. Shaun Dooley is particularly well cast and he certainly delivers.

One slight irritation comes from the lack of subtitles – presumably designed not to alienate popular audiences. The film is largely in English, but it is frustrating to have lines of Pashto (?) that are not translated. OK, they aren’t crucial to the plot, but they do give an overemphasis to the ‘otherness’ of the Afghans – which the rest of the film tries to keep in check. I don’t think that the occasional subtitle would have put audiences off (they seemed to cope with Slumdog Millionaire).

The ‘romance’ that is promised in the film’s promotion is sensitively handled and cleverly scripted. Attempting to deliver a genre film with this subject matter is either brave or foolhardy given the traps of typing the Afghani characters. Though it teeters on the edge a few times, again the film comes through. It is exciting, moving and believable without having to get into Bourne or Bond territory. In addition, it is intelligent in terms of depicting a political situation without analysing it in detail. The film deserves to be widely seen and with the recent interest in the conditions facing the UK armed forces in Afghanistan it might stand a chance of attracting attention. Whether the distribution policy devised by Revolver is the best way to achieve this, I’m not sure.

It’s never much fun watching a film on a screener DVD and I would like to see this on a big screen. However, cinema screenings look to be limited in number. The film opens on September 10 in the UK (and later in the US, Australia and New Zealand – other territories tbc) but is then available on DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD (LoveFilm, Sky, iTunes and PlayStation) only three days later. I’d certainly recommend having a look.

Lastly, how good it is to see an independent UK film coming out of the North of England rather than London. David Whitney is a young man from Bolton, the funding came from a local benefactor and his ‘Heads of Departments’ in the crew are also local. The actors are from Yorkshire. So I hope for support from across the North. Here is David Whitney on BBC North West Tonight:

and the official trailer (which gives away quite a lot of plot developments):

Official site

http://www.kandaharbreak.com/

Facebook page

(Thanks to Strike Media for DVD and info)

Skeletons (UK 2010)

Bennett (the taller one, Andrew Buckley) and Davis (Ed Gaughan) at work! (The film is in full colour, only a few sequences have this tone.)

I think this is one of my films of the year and it is a delight to find a small British independent film which, without any studio backing or major stars, more than holds its own. My only slight concern is that as part of the very strong critical welcome it has been dubbed a ‘cult film’. The tragedy is that audiences are now so cowed by conventional tastes that a film like this is assumed to be far outside the mainstream when in fact it is funny, warm and hugely enjoyable. Or perhaps it’s just me? I’ve seen references to David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Withnail and I – none of which do much for me and Ghostbusters which also seems wrong in tone. Charlie Kaufman I understand, but he’s too American. This is a very English film (despite Lottery Funding channeled through Scottish Screen – I don’t quite understand that unless it has something to do with EIFF) and I thought it was more a cross between the 1960s/70s Avengers TV series, Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, M. R. James and Michael Palin in Ripping Yarns. But even that’s not quite right. It isn’t a genre film as such but there is a strong element of gothic ghost story and British science fiction. It is being called a comedy, but I think that the comic elements are always there in certain kinds of British horror/science fiction.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Two unprepossessing characters march through a British upland landscape (the Peak District – the film is produced through EM Media) dressed in black suits and carrying small brown suitcases – the type used by craftsman to carry their tools in the 1950s. They visit remote houses and perform some kind of service – all the while discussing the death of Rasputin. As Nick pointed out after the screening we only really find out what they do after about 20 minutes or so. In the meantime we learn more about their intimate but slightly tense relationship in which Davis is the irritable and more adventurous partner and Bennett is more steady. As the title suggests their job involves the ‘skeletons in the closet’ found in many houses. The location of events is never revealed and the period setting is not defined – clothes and decor are not ‘now’ and the pair travel by train (clearly a preserved railway giving the feel of 1950s/1960s Britain). The pair’s boss is a stereotypical sergeant-major type ironically known as the ‘Colonel’ and played with vigour by Jason Isaacs. In the second half of the film, the pair are given a new job which plunges them into a family situation, prompting rather more self-reflection than appears to be good for them. But rest assured, there is a satisfactory outcome.

Commentary

Writer-director Nick Whitfield comes from an acting background and he certainly handles the cast very well. The camerawork is accomplished and the images of British landscape look very good in ‘Scope. I do wish more directors/cinematographers would use ‘Scope and ignore what it’s going to look like on TV. There is a slight sense in which the film does feel like a first time effort – perhaps some of the framings and compositions are just too textbook perfect that they seem to stand out. Research suggests that Whitfield has no specific training and his DoP Zac Nicholson is an experienced operator gradually getting bigger jobs as DoP so perhaps my analysis makes sense? This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. The project was well worth supporting (it began with a short film in 2007 using the same material) and presumably the extra support helped bring in experienced actors Jason Isaacs (something of a cult figure in British Cinema it seems) and Danish Dogme veteran Paprika Steen. I knew that I had seen Paprika Steen before, but I didn’t make the connection before looking her up. What a great casting choice – she gives the character just the faintest sense of ‘oddness’. The two leads are stand-up comedians, but Buckley also has a long list of UK television credits. I hope they both get more film roles on these performances.

Tuppence Middleton as Rebecca

The other main character is played by Tuppence Middleton who made a big impression in last year’s British ‘high school horror’ movie Tormented (which was also produced by Forward Films). She’s good again here in a rather different role and next up she is one of the teens in Nakata Hideo’s English language Chatroom. I predict big things for Ms Middleton if she gets the right parts in the next stage of her career.

Inevitably perhaps, Skeletons is being discussed as this year’s Moon, following success at Edinburgh in winning the Michael Powell Award and also encouraging festival appearances in the US. However, I’m not sure that distributor Soda Pictures has got the muscle to exploit the good audience responses that the film has garnered. When I checked the official box office figures, I found  a single print of the film had been released on July 2nd and then the film just disappeared from the charts (the UKFC chart is supposed to show all UK films, even when they make only a few pounds). What’s going on? There is a Facebook page for the film and it has clearly played at different specialist cinemas across the country and been enjoyed everywhere. We saw the film in Bradford where it has played just five times on a digital print. This is madness if the audience success is not being properly documented. If this is what happens to decent flicks while lumbering behemoths colonise the multiplexes there isn’t much hope for UK film culture. Grrr!

If Soda manage to get this onto DVD, please buy a copy. Better still, demand that your local cinema show the film on 35mm or 2K digital.

Official website

The UK trailer:

You’ll notice the music score – which I enjoyed, but others seem to have found a bit too much.

One last point, the film’s ‘concept’ has something in common with Inception – but it is much better handled!

Kurosawa #4: High and Low (Japan 1963)

A static 'tableau' of the Gondo family with the police. Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is sat at the left with his wife and son. Inspector Tokura is in the dark suit. Note the chauffeur on the extreme right of the frame in a supplicant's pose.

This is an excellent film by any criteria. It shows Kurosawa Akira at the height of his powers during the phase when he could produce ‘entertainment pictures’ which also offered another dimension of artistic achievement. High and Low is based on the crime fiction novel by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). ‘McBain’ was well known for his police procedurals (Hunter wrote non-genre novels, several of which became Hollywood movies and also other genre novels under different pseudonyms and screenplays under the Hunter name). King’s Ransom is one of the famous ’87th Precinct’ novels. It details the investigation of a kidnapping case. Kurosawa adapted various Western literary sources including Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, but I don’t think he adapted any other genre novels by Western writers (unless you count the claims that Yojimbo is based on a Dashiell Hammett story).

Plot outline (some spoilers)

Kingo Gondo is a business executive – someone who has worked his way up to Production Manager in a Japanese shoe company. The narrative opens on the night when other executives from the company have come to his house to persuade him to join them in ousting the company President and ‘modernise’ the company’s product line. Gondo (Mifune Toshiro) is in some ways an old-fashioned craftsman who doesn’t want to make cheap fashion shoes. He refuses to join the plot and when the men have gone he reveals to his aide that he has been secretly buying shares and if he does the final deal he will control the company himself.

Gondo lives in a modern house on top of a hill overlooking the port city of Yokohama. Soon after his meeting he is shocked to receive a phone call from a kidnapper who claims to have taken his son and is demanding a huge ransom of ¥30 million. But the kidnapper has made a mistake – he has taken the wrong boy and he actually has the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Nevertheless he wants his money. The police are called – led by Inspector Tokura (Nakadai Tatsuya). Gondo is faced with a terrible dilemma – does he pay the ransom to free the boy and lose all the money he has gambled on the takeover of the company? (He has mortgaged the house to get enough funds.) Or does he risk the boy being killed and save his business future?

Commentary

The original title of the Japanese film translates as Heaven and Hell, which seems very apt. To the kidnapper, Gondo’s house, the rich man’s house on the top of the hill seems to be represented as heaven. In the poorer apartments below life is certainly more hellish, especially during the oppressive heat and humidity in Summer. Kurosawa’s adaptation (co-written with several collaborators) has several clever tricks up its sleeve. The actual investigation is expertly paced and features a fascinating train sequence for the drop-off of the money and some excellent police department scenes. This is quality entertainment, but what makes the film great art is the application of two familiar Kurosawa strengths. The first is the excellent playing of the lead roles with Mifune in an unusual role in which he ‘humanises’ Gondo the businessman. The second is the decision to film most of the first section of the narrative in static tableaux of the Gondo family and the police in Gondo’s house – emphasised by the brilliant use of the CinemaScope frame as in the composition above. This is almost like a stage play with characters holding their positions and sometimes looking or staring off-screen. This is then contrasted by the much busier (and more ‘realist’) scenes of the investigation shot on location in Yokohama and on the railway.

What I think that this stylistic difference achieves is to establish a kind of distance from the events and to invite an analysis of the story in metaphorical terms. This seems like a modernist device. (A conclusion strengthened by the single use of colour in what is otherwise a black and white film at a crucial point in the investigation.) It would seem that Kurosawa certainly achieved his aim of stirring up a critical storm (if that was his intention). Some critics have criticised the film as ideologically conservative. It is certainly true that one of the platforms for the police investigation is the presentation of their work as helping Gondo’s family to protect the boy and pointedly helping the rich to stay safe. The Inspector even says at one point that he would understand if Gondo refused to pay – because he would be risking all. The critics’ disquiet is heightened by the fact that the kidnapper also faces the death penalty when he kills his accomplices and that the narrative almost seems to endorse his capture in order that he be executed (the police don’t do much to prevent a further murder). Can this be the ‘liberal’ Kurosawa of earlier films?

But it’s not as simple as that. Kurosawa undercuts the straightforward ‘support for the establishment’ message, mainly through Mifune’s performance as Gondo who first suffers a business setback and then rebuilds his career. He is embarrassed by the begging that his chauffeur performs pleading for help with his son and he is deceived by the aide he had trusted. If anything, Kurosawa critiques contemporary capitalism as he did in the earlier The Bad Sleep Well (1960). At the end of the film, Gondo meets the kidnapper twice. First he unknowingly meets the man on the street and then finally is summoned to meet the now condemned man in prison. But the kidnapper never explains his motives. He is not contrite and Gondo is left puzzled. I think Kurosawa is asking us to consider what the story is about. Who or what is to blame for this kind of criminal action?

On the down side, Kurosawa makes little use of Mrs Gondo (Kagawa Kyuko) apart from some lines of dialogue and the contrast offered by her costume in the first section of the film (traditional Japanese) and in the second (Western).

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro offers a long and detailed analysis of the film which I won’t summarise here except to note that he refers to the discourse of ‘urban geography’ – how the Japanese city looks in 1963, relating it to ‘looking’ as a general activity (several clues come from sketches of his experiences made by the kidnapped boy and the police use photography in interesting ways). The suggestion is that there is a metaphor for changing national identity at work here in the new ways of looking at society – although Kurosawa doesn’t seem convinced of a coherent new identity being formed.

I watched the BFI Region 2 DVD of the film (which is only available on 16mm film in the UK). I hope we eventually get to see a 35mm print. I understand that Martin Scorsese is executive producing a possible Hollywood remake. This is the kind of film you suspect Scorsese would admire. It is reported to be being written by Chris Rock – sounds interesting!

Nice clip from the film here:

Inception (UK/US 2010)

(Cobb) Leonardo DiCaprio and Fischer (Cillian Murphy)

I see that Inception is now No 3 on IMDB’s all-time hit list. I guess it is good that the only Summer blockbuster so far this year to offer a story for grown-ups has indeed attracted so many fans. Like everybody else, I’m not sure what all of it meant but I was impressed by the casting, the performances and the production ideas. I could do without about an hour of the action sequences – which I now realise are supposed to represent a videogame (especially the last one in the snow). I’m too old for all that and just get bored. But the ideas behind the film are interesting and for once I’m not pissed off by another poor rip-off of Phil K. Dick. I’ve seen various possible Dick novels/stories mentioned as inspiration with Ubik as frontrunner, though I think that there is another one as well. I’m sure Dick wrote about a drug you could take that had an effect on other people when you dreamed about them – but possibly my brain is frazzled!

There must be so much written about the film already and I don’t want to repeat it all, so I’ll just pull out a few observations, most of which refer to its status as ‘global film’. The first thing I noticed is that we get Ken Watanabe and a Japanese-set sequence and I wondered how deliberate this ploy was from a Warner Bros perspective. A few years ago, Warner Bros after a disappointing Batman pic in Japan started to hold premieres there with Japanese stars like Watanabe.

The film felt ‘not American’ in many ways. Apart from DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt, the other leading cast members are Canadian, British, Irish, Japanese and French – and Asian-American. The writer-director is British. The locations were all outside the US and the ‘feel’ was ‘international’. So, here’s my first question. Why choose a setting to be Mombasa when you know that you are actually filming in Morocco? Why not just name it as Casablanca or Rabat or Marrakesh? Perhaps because it isn’t meant to be a ‘real’ location? Mombasa is the setting where the South Asian character is introduced – which makes sense because there is an Indian diaspora population in East Africa, but this raises a number of other questions. Why not shoot in India and use one of many Indian actors who could handle a blockbuster shoot? My guess is that Hollywood style shooting is too difficult in interesting Indian city locations (unless it is a Hollywood film directed by Michael Winterbottom or Danny Boyle). And why not an African actor for a Mombasa shoot? Again I’m guessing that the casting director was unaware of African talent – it is certainly there but Hollywood tends to take African-Americans to its productions, often based in South Africa.

I’m not criticising Dileep Rao, the American-Asian actor in Inception (I haven’t seen Avatar, which I think he was in), merely noting that global film production only tends to go so far. I blame CGI and I do rather hanker after the 1950s and 1960s when shoots would move to Kenya for a month or so and show us something of a ‘real location’.

Inception has been released in India. It has been the Number 1 film in the ‘International’ film market (i.e. outside North America) for five weeks now but I wonder how the complex plot goes down in territories like India? The usual film industry assumption is that the Hollywood blockbusters that do well in India are action films with little dialogue or culturally specific knowledge required. Of course, there is a significant slice of the Indian audience that has the same viewing habits as American and European audiences and the reviews in the Indian Press reflect this with a generally high regard for the film. But I did come across one Hyderabadi poster suggesting that half the audience were asleep during the film.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is that is a 2D film able to compete with the 3D offerings. On the other hand it is also an IMAX film and I’m wondering what difference it makes to re-imagine the scenes for a much squarer albeit larger image. My own preference is to stay with ‘Scope.

Partir (Leaving France 2009)

Suzanne and Ivan find life is arduous outside the middle-class home

Partir is a superior genre film – the kind of quality film that once inhabited British cinemas in the late 1940s. These days it is what passes as an ‘art film’ because it is in French and aimed at people over 40. Several people in the audience as I left the cinema were raving about Kristin Scott Thomas and her performance. But there’s more to it than that – even if she is very good indeed.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Suzanne (Scott Thomas) is a French wife and mother who decides to return to work as a physiotherapist/reflexologist. Samuel, her husband (Yvan Attal) is not very gracious about paying for the work on her new workspace. But a new builder is hired and Suzanne falls for Ivan (Sergi Lopez) almost immediately. Samuel is not the kind of man to accept that his wife is in love with someone else, especially when she is so clearly smitten.

Commentary

There are several intriguing aspects of this short (85 mins) film. Writer-director Catherine Corsini worked with two other women, co-writer Gaëlle Macé and cinematographer Agnès Godard (often associated with Claire Denis) to produce a film which gives Scott-Thomas plenty to get her teeth into, including some believable sex scenes – which as we know are often best directed by women. Given the short running time, I was impressed by how much was crammed into the script and how the genre repertoires were exploited in different ways. Primarily a realist love story/marital drama, there are also elements of melodrama and crime film. I kicked myself at the end for not recognising how much music was in the film. Asking myself “is this a melodrama?” I was aware that I just hadn’t noticed the music until the closing sequence. Yet when the credits came up, I saw that I’d passed over music by Georges Delerue taken from several Truffaut films including Vivement dimanche!(1983) and La femme d’à côté (1981). Now I think about it there is more music including songs sung by Sergi Lopez and the children. If there is any ‘excess’ in the film, it is probably in the sensual overload offered by the scenery – Ivan and Suzanne find a love nest in the hills of Languedoc-Roussillon (the main location is Nîmes) and enjoy a trip to the beaches of Catalunya. I think the overt displays of emotion also push the film towards melodrama, though always ‘realist melodrama’.

In some ways the question to ask is why is French Cinema able to offer these kinds of roles where British Cinema can’t? Why is it seemingly easier for top quality female directors to make films in France? It isn’t just Kristin Scott Thomas either. Brenda Blethyn has just appeared in London River and Tilda Swinton in the Italian film I Am Love. Not only that, but the last French film I saw celebrated another British export to French culture, Jane Birkin, as a character. There is something wrong with British Cinema and whatever it is won’t be helped by scrapping the Film Council.

One last thought – just as in I Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas is given a back story to justify her English accent. Is this now in her contract? Over to you Des.

Kurosawa #3: Drunken Angel (Japan 1948)

Mifune (foreground) and Shimura in a scene with typical film noir lighting effects producing a ‘disturbed’ mise en scène

This is the film that many have argued put Kurosawa “on the map”. It was his first ‘personal film’ and the first film that he made with Mifune Toshiro. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it took a genuine social issue from the streets of a devastated Tokyo and fashioned it into a cinematic treatment, drawing upon the crime film/melodrama in a film noir mode then popular in Hollywood, Britain and in Europe – where similar stories could be found in the ‘rubble films’ of Germany (West and East) and the neo-realist films of Italy. It was awarded No 1 film of the year in Kinema junpo magazine.

At the centre of the film is a crusading doctor, a local practitioner with an office near the festering stagnant pool formed by a bomb crater at the centre of a community living and working in ramshackle dwellings. The doctor’s crusade is to save the locals from environmental and lifestyle diseases such as TB. But Doctor Sanada (played by Kurosawa’s other ‘go to’ actor, Shimura Takeshi) has his own fatal weakness. He’s an alcoholic forced to acquire medical alcohol from his colleagues or to visit the sleazy drinking dens in the neighbourhood. One night a garishly dressed hoodlum bursts into his surgery with a gun wound and demands treatment. This is Matsunaga (Mifune), a local gangster (yakuza) controlling the black market who turns out to have a shadow on his lung.

There are many intriguing aspects of this film. Perhaps it doesn’t all fit together – as Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro argues. Watching it on a faulty Hong Kong disc was quite difficult, but I was impressed nevertheless. Even more clearly than in the earlier Sugata Sanshiro films, Kurosawa presents his familiar master/apprentice, older/younger male pairing. The doctor sees himself in the young thug and in turn Matsunaga attacks the older man because he knows that he is right – and he can’t bear it. The film works through symbol and metaphor. The festering pool is both the source of real disease (the mosquitoes that breed there) and a metaphor for the moral and economic degradation of Japan. Sections of the narrative are separated by long shots of a young man playing a guitar seen across the pool in the moonlight. Objects are thrown into the pool. Garbage of course, but also a doll, a flower etc.

The story – by Kurosawa and his old school friend Uekusa Keinosuke – seems to me to be quite rich in the range of characters and their interrelationships. There are more female roles than in some Kurosawa films and this reflects the pressure by the Occupation authorities to promote the new democratic rights for women – which are mentioned in the dialogue. Doctor Sanada has an assistant who ‘lives in’ and she is the wife of the local yakuza boss who abused her and who has been imprisoned. When he returns, Sanada bravely tells him that his wife now has the right to refuse him. The other three female characters are perhaps generic types from the film noir crime genre. A bright and confident schoolgirl, one of Sanada’s patients, follows his advice and triumphs over her TB infection – a symbol of hope for the new Japan? Gin serves in a local corner bar. She loves Matsunaga and in some ways represents the traditional Japan, while Nanae is the typical femme fatale of the film noir – and a clear representation of the moral pollution which has arrived in Tokyo via the Occupation. (The film appears to have had some constraints in representing the Occupying forces directly.)

Perhaps the biggest strength of the film is also its biggest weakness – Mifune’s performance. Kurosawa had seen Mifune at an audition for new players to be contracted at Toho in 1946. He had supported Mifune’s selection then and cast him now as Matsunaga. Kurosawa has stated that what astonished him about Mifune’s performance skills was the sheer energy and the swiftness of his movements and his thinking. This direct style was well utilised by Kurosawa (although as he points out in his autobiography, Mifune appeared in several films for other directors before Drunken Angel). As the sick yakuza, Mifune is electrifying and brilliant though Shimura is, audiences can be forgiven in thinking that Mifune’s is the central character. He too spends much of his time drunk, but it is the doctor who is the ‘drunken angel’.

Here’s an extract from the film. It’s a nightclub sequence showing Mifune as the gangster. At the end of the sequence, a typical Kurosawa wipe takes us (very briefly) back to the surgery and Shimura as the doctor. At the opening of the clip, Nanae dances with the yakuza boss. A drunken Matsunaga (with his bandaged hand) then essays a terrifying jive with one of the hapless bar girls. [This clip has since disappeared from YouTube but I’m leaving the analysis here until I can find something else.]

The extract demonstrates the importance of music in the film – it was the first time that Kurosawa worked with Hayasaka Fumio. It also brings together some of the visual elements that are so striking. I’m not sure if the song is the one for which Kurosawa himself wrote some of the lyrics. I think it is, but Yoshimoto and Keiko McDonald seem slightly at odds on this. McDonald gives a detailed reading of all the popular songs and other musical references used in the film. I’m fascinated by both the music and the singer. I’m reminded strongly of 1930s films, especially from German and British musicals and melodramas – there is something of the stereotypical representation of the ‘jungle’ in the performance and the song here is indeed titled ‘janguru bugi‘ (‘Jungle Boogie’) and performed by Kasagi Shizuko. She was well-known at the time and this was one of her more popular numbers. I think that this nightclub scene could have come from various national cinemas at this time. China before 1949, India in the late 1940s and 1950s are just as likely as Hollywood. In a later fight scene, Mifune appears reflected in three mirrors – much as Orson Welles at the end of Lady From Shanghai. The Welles scene was also from 1948 – Kurosawa was part of what was happening in global cinema, not a ‘copyist’. I think that Drunken Angel is the first Kurosawa film which seems thoroughly ‘composed’ in terms of dramatic lighting and camerawork.

The portrayal of the doctor and the weight of expectation of death from disease is explored in at least three other Kurosawa films which would make an interesting quartet – Silent Duel, Ikuru and Red Beard. I haven’t seen Silent Duel yet and it’s a while since I saw Red Beard, but certainly it’s interesting to compare the Shimura roles in Drunken Angel and Ikuru. Kurosawa began writing Drunken Angel at a time of despondency which was visualised as the pool. The doctor is fighting to convince his patients (i.e. Japan) that there is a future for them if they change their ways and this is what happens for at least one of them. In Ikuru the Shimura character dies from the disease hanging over him – but not before he transforms the neighbourhood.

References:

Kurosawa Akira (1982) Something Like an Autobiography, Vintage

McDonald Keiko (2006) Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, University of Hawaii

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University

Global soap

Photos of the stars of the Turkish soap opera "Noor" are sold in Ramallah on the West Bank. (Muhammed Muheisen/ Associated Press, taken from the website of the Boston Globe in 2008)

The global soap opera is a phenomenon that should get much more attention in both film and media studies. TV soaps are primarily the television offspring of traditional cinematic family melodramas, albeit in ‘serial narrative’ form rather than single narratives. Their production flourishes in those countries with a heritage of film production in this genre.

The US and UK, other English-speaking countries (e.g. Australia) and much of Europe have produced soaps for home consumption and exports within their own language markets. The same is true in India (and probably East Asia – can anyone confirm this?). But the interesting development is what global media theorists refer to as the ‘contra-flow’ of exported soap operas outside the American-dominated English-language market. The Latin-American telenovela in Spanish or Portuguese conquered much of Africa and parts of Eastern Europe decades ago, but it has competition from another source – the Arabic-language soaps primarily from Egypt, but according to a recent news report also in dubbed form from Turkey.

Noor is a Turkish soap which when it finished its run was attracting up to 80 million viewers from “Morocco to Palestine” according to the Guardian and which is now promoting tourism from Arab countries to Istanbul. This looks like an effective move into ‘soft power’ as Turkey seeks leadership across the countries of North Africa and Western Asia. It goes well with the recent resurgence of Turkish Cinema. Researching this story, I’m all too well aware of my ignorance of a programme that has become a cultural phenomenon in the Arab world through showings first on the MBC channel.

Here’s a BBC business report on the success of Turkish soaps: