Monthly Archives: November 2010

Chinesisches Roulette (West Germany/France 1976)

Brigitte Mira in one of the mirror scenes in Chinese Roulette – filmed through the kitchen window as she licks her lips, looking in the mirror.

One day I hope to revisit all Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. In the present climate it’s so refreshing to be tipped back into Fassbinder’s world – it’s as invigorating as a cold shower.

Chinese Roulette dates from 1976, around the high point of Fassbinder’s output. Thomas Elsaesser, in his book Fassbinder’s Germany (1996), places it at the end of the ‘melodrama period’ of his work and the start of the ‘German history period’ suggesting that it also represents a first attempt by Fassbinder to establish himself as a European auteur. This is most evident in the casting of Anna Karina and Macha Méril (both associated with Jean-Luc Godard) alongside stalwarts of Fassbinder’s ‘stock company’ such as Margit Carstensen and Brigitte Mira. Eric Rohmer’s company Les Films du Losange was a co-production partner.

(Some spoilers follow, but only in terms of the set up.)

The scenario is straightforward and resembles the ‘country house’ melodrama/farce. A wealthy German couple in Munich have a teenage daughter, Angela who is disabled. She has a home tutor who is dumb and communicates through sign language. When the husband announces that he is going on a business trip to Oslo, he is actually meeting his lover and then taking her to his country mansion. But when he gets there, his wife is already in residence with her lover. Eventually, the daughter and tutor arrive as well – and it seems that Angela has contrived the whole thing. Everyone decides to be civilised and settles down to a weekend house party, completed by the presence of the cook/housekeeper and her son, a rather precious would-be writer.

What follows is an edgy sequence of social intercourse leading up to a game of ‘Chinese Roulette’. This involves dividing the household into two. One group decides between themselves who to choose as the ‘subject’ in the other group. They don’t reveal their choice and it is up to the other group to ask a set number of questions in order to work it out. The thrill of the game is in the questions – which follow the kinds of psychological profile type questions such as “If you were the central character in a novel, would have written the novel?”. Inevitably, given this was Fassbinder in 1976, one of the questions involves references to the Nazis and the Third Reich.

I won’t spoil any more of the plotting. If the scenario sounds rather restricted, it is. The ‘action’ is largely confined to the house. But this doesn’t mean that little happens. This is a visual treat. Fassbinder, his cinematographer, the great Michael Ballhaus and designers Helga Ballhaus, Peter Müller and Kurt Raab stage the scenes beautifully with mirrors, windows, doorways and staircases dividing up the narrative space and cutting off characters or allowing them to half emerge. There are fantastic compositions in depth through doors and glass panels etc. The playing is excellent and the whole thing moves at a brisk pace – a concise 85 mins in the cinema.

As we watched this my companion raised Chabrol as a reference and this was something that I felt as well – along with Buñuel and possibly Bergman, though I know his work less well. Almodóvar might be a more contemporary reference, especially for the gay subtext, but I find Almodóvar, even at his darkest and most surreal to be gentle in comparison with Fassbinder who could roll out films like this every few months. They are all worth seeing and he made a staggering 41 films and TV series over his all too short a career of 13 years.

(This was the Arrow Region 2 DVD)

Chak De India! (India 2007)

The diverse group of young women representing India at hockey.

I’ve now seen three films written by Jaideep Sahni and they have all been consistently interesting and enjoyable, all picking up on aspects of contemporary Indian society and developing stories that are slightly unusual but still offering mainstream entertainment. Earlier posts discuss Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh, Salesman of the Year. Chak De India! has a big star in Sharukh Khan but he gives a nuanced and restrained performance allowing the real stars, mostly unknown young women working as an ensemble, to come to the fore.

The title refers to an exhortation supporting India’s Women’s Hockey Team. The scenario is that the Shahrukh Khan character was India’s Hockey Captain in the World Championship Final against Pakistan when he missed a penalty in the dying seconds which could have taken the game into extra time. He is vilified in the press and then accused of being a traitor and handing the game to Pakistan. Because he is a Muslim, this charge is pursued throughout the media and he is forced to withdraw from the sport. Seven years later he is given the chance to return, but as the coach of the women’s team, who so far have been poorly supported by the hockey establishment. Nobody gives the team much chance of even being sent to Australia to compete in the World Championships and the little group of senior players is not initially impressed by the appointment of a new coach.

There are some interesting ideas involved in this set-up. The corruption of the sporting establishment is hinted at. The lower status of hockey in comparison with cricket becomes part of one of the many subplots when one of the young women rebuffs her boyfriend who as a cricketer in the national team assumes that his girlfriend will just abandon her ‘hobby’ to follow him. (Hockey is one of India’s main sports and there had been considerable national success for the men’s team before the women emerged at this level.) But the major issue in the film is the ‘shame/injustice’ that the coach feels about his World Championship failure and the national pride that he feels so strongly. This translates into more than just ‘team building’ – the young women must also learn to play for India first, for the team second and for themselves (or their specific state/cultural identity) only third.

As an ‘external’ viewer I haven’t quite decided if the film goes slightly too far with its patriotic zeal and nationalist fervour, but I guess I’m prepared to accept it. If this was a British film, I wouldn’t – I’m the kind of sports supporter who always roots for their own town/county team ahead of ‘England’ as a national team. So, I’d have been sent home from the hockey team. However, I can see that in India the issue is rather different.

The best part of the film for me was the sequence showing young women turning up from all over India representing different regions, ethnicities and religious affiliations. Their clashes with the old-fashioned administrators and then amongst themselves was well written, as was the struggle they faced in meeting the coach’s tough training demands. Throughout this Shahrukh Khan showed admirable restraint. The second half of the film shows the young women in Australia. If anything I would have liked more of this. I’d like to have seen them interacting more with the other teams and coming more into contact with Australian culture. As it is the games are well shot and exciting. The other teams are not demonised too much (but the script is endlessly confused by whether it is England, Great Britain or the UK which is competing – I don’t blame the writer, it is confusing). For the record, Wikipedia reports that the success of India’s women at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester was the inspiration for the film.

I tend to think of Sahni’s scripts as being a form of ‘New Bollywood’ as they don’t feature song and dance ‘spectacles’ (but the music score by Salim and Suleiman Merchant is very effective and Sahni wrote lyrics for two or three songs, including the title song). This was the first film Shimit Amin directed from a Sahni script and he does a good job. The stories take place in a recognisable fictional world and the characters are believable. I think that this is one of the best sports films that I have seen.

Children of the Beehive (Japan 1948)

The main characters in 'Children of the Beehive' (from the Zipangu Fest site)

It was odd to watch this film knowing that it was such a rare opportunity. The print from the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute in Kamakura City is possibly the only viewing print in circulation. It has been brought over to the UK by Jasper Sharp for his Zipangu Fest 2010 and will get further screenings in London and possibly Bristol. I saw it at the Breaking Boundaries Japanese Cinema Symposium and it has also received a second Leeds showing in the Leeds International Film Festival as outlined by Keith.

Shimizu Hiroshi was an experienced director based at Shochiku in the 1930s and Children of the Beehive stands up well as a product of an industry coming to terms with life under occupation up until 1952 – which meant censorship issues but also creative opportunities unavailable during the wartime period and the repression of the military authorities. The film’s story is simple. A soldier returning to Japan arrives at a railway station on his way ‘home’. Unlike all the other returnees, he is not sure where he wants to go. He befriends a gang of small boys who are operating simple scams around the station and attempts to persuade them to join him and look for work. Eventually he admits that, like them, he is an orphan and he suggests that he will take them to his old orphanage. That’s about it really – their adventures along the way (and the people they meet) create the drama.

In his introduction Tony Rayns warned us against thinking that the film was ‘influenced’ by Italian neo-realism. Certainly it seems highly unlikely that Shimizu would have seen any of the Italian post-war films at this point. Having said that, it is inevitable that anyone who has seen Rossellini, Visconti or de Sica will recognise many of the elements in Children of the Beehive. The most striking formal aspect is the location photography and the extreme long shots to show the group working and travelling across rural Japan. The genre most associated with children in the ruined environment of post-war combatant countries is the ‘rubble film’ – named as such in Germany, but also familiar in Italy and in Japan. Usually though, the story is set in the ruins of cities. Here, much of the narrative focuses on the roads and railways, fields and harbours, mountains and forests. (The film is a rail enthusiast’s dream.) Having said that, some of the most dramatic moments depict a march through the ruins of Hiroshima (and some early re-builds) to a hill-top overlooking the city and a dénouement in a docks area where a sign clearly announces that the area is out of bounds to Occupation Forces (the portrayal of such signs was supposedly banned by the Occupation Censors).

This is an enormously uplifting film with a positive ending. Jasper Sharp’s notes suggest that Shimizu recruited the children himself and subsequently paid for their schooling. He had previously been a director at Shochiku and a colleague of Ozu Yasujiro (they were roughly the same age). It is perhaps worth comparing this film with Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman made just a year earlier – especially in terms of how Ozu represents the Tokyo districts and how he handles the relationship of an older woman with an abandoned boy. Children of the Beehive was Shimizu’s first film as an independent director and his production company was known as ‘Beehive Films’. He made a sequel in 1950 and several films featuring children during his whole career. The ‘positive’ resolution of the narrative also suggests a comparative study with the heartbreaking anime Graveyard of the Fireflies (1988) – a story about two children’s struggle for survival in the countryside in 1944 after the fire-bombing of Kobe.

Breaking Boundaries: Japanese Film Conference, Leeds 6/11/2010

This interesting day was part of the Leeds International Film Festival, funded via the Worldwide Universities Network and organised by a consortium of academics from the White Rose East Asian Centre working through the Mixed Cinema Network. It was hosted by the World Cinemas Centre at Leeds University in the new cinema space in the Institute of Communication Studies. Professor Lúcia Nagib opened the event which was enthusiastically convened by Julian Ross.

The day followed the usual pattern of individual papers followed by brief discussion. At the end there was a panel to discuss programming Japanese films for film festivals and in the early evening a screening of the 1948 film Children of the Beehive (blogged separately).

The objective of the day, as the title indicated, was to break away from the perhaps over-familiar ways of thinking about Japanese Cinema that seem to still be prevalent in the West. There were 10 papers in all with speakers drawn from far and wide and a range of interesting ideas and illuminating research. My only criticism of the day – and it probably derives from my feeble physical and intellectual state on that Saturday – was that 10 was too many and by the second half of the afternoon I began to lose concentration. For that reason, I’ll just pick out some of the papers for detailed comment and leave out two altogether.

Margaret O'Brien appeared in this Daiei production.

One of the most useful papers for me was Chris Howard’s study of the Head of Daiei, Nagata Masaichi, and his attempts to sell his studio’s films abroad in the early 1950s. The story about Daiei’s success with Rashomon and then with the Mizoguchi jedaigeki is well-known. However, Howard was able to tell us about several of Nagata’s deals and his attempts to sell a range of films, not just those that might be deemed ‘artistic’. (Indeed, the success of Gate of Hell in 1955 was something of a millstone around Nagata’s neck.) There were gendaigeki (contemporary films) such as Futari no hitomi (Girls Hand in Hand, 1952) and exploitation films such as Brooba (Buruba) a Japanese version of Tarzan. Nagata developed reciprocal arrangements with the then ‘independent’ Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn companies which were not members of the MPAA and therefore found it difficult to break into Japan. He also made deals with Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong and Pathé in Europe to gain a foothold in a range of markets “from Sweden to Syria” and he tried to sell a 70mm Japanese film in Technirama to overseas buyers in 1962. As Howard suggested, his research demonstrates that Nagata was not so much a ‘self-Orientalising’ producer as a pragmatic businessman. It is still difficult to find the hard data which would help to flesh out some of these ideas and I felt for Chris Howard as he described his dogged attempts to trace the earnings of a Daiei feature week by week through the returns in Variety.

A different kind of ‘cultural exchange’ was explored by Oliver Dew in ‘Zainichi cinema in emergence’. ‘Zainichi‘ refers to the diasporic Korean population in Japan and Dew presented his ideas about how this distinctive cinema began to emerge in the mid 1970s and over twenty years had become both a recognised production category and a critical/discursive category which eventually became institutionalised via essays and festival retrospectives. Dew recognised three distinctive features of this new category – the films were authored by zainichi, they developed representations that overturned notions of ‘victim’ status and they sought and achieved distribution which brought them to mainstream Japanese audiences. This strikes me as really useful work that will help comparative studies of other diasporic communities.

One of the noir images from 'Kawaita hana' (Pale Flower)

Two papers focused in very different ways on specific films from the ‘New Wave’ of the 1960s in Japan. Peter Yacavone discussed the impact of European art cinema (especially Antonioni) and American film noir on Kawaita hana (Pale Flower) directed by Shinoda Masahiro in 1964. I haven’t seen the film, but the clips we saw were enticing. Adam Strickson is a librettist, poet and theatre director working in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries in Leeds. He explained why he had decided to adapt Masumura Yasuzo’s Red Angel (1966) as an opera set in the Civil War in the Sudan in 1991-2. (Red Angel is about a nurse sent to the front line in the Sino-Japanese War in 1937-9). I have seen this film, which I admire very much and this is a fascinating idea. I’m not sure that the time and the resources available allowed Strickson to do exactly what he wanted but he certainly made some interesting observations about Japanese theatre traditions, how these could be traced through the film and what they offered to the opera adaptor.

The third set of papers focused on gender in Japanese Cinema. These included an interesting, but again compressed, account of women in a variety of roles in Japanese Cinema from Jasper Sharp. He discussed the actors and assistant directors who became feature directors later in their careers, other directors who came up through documentary or worked in the arthouse/independent and exploitation sectors. He also explored the role of women as curators and festival organisers and as producers and distributors. Some of this proved to be surprisingly controversial when discussion covered the recent work of Kawase Naomi (see below). Alejandra Armendariz discussed two recent films written and directed by women, Sex Is No Laughing Matter, dir Iguchi Nami 2008 and Moon and Cherry, dir Tanada Yuki, 2004. These films offer the possibility of changing representations of gender positions on sex and the experience of love, in which the stereotypes of active and passive roles for men and women appear to be reversed. There were some interesting observations here and it’s frustrating not to be able to see the whole films.

Lynch Law Classroom poster

Possibly the most interesting of the gender papers was (because the films seem to circulate, at least in North America, was Alicia Kozma’s ‘Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberation’. I’m not sure how to respond to this in terms of ‘Breaking Boundaries’ but this 1970s cycle of sukeban films certainly makes for a rich case study in representation and genre. Films like Terrifying Girls High School: Lynch Law Classroom (1973) from Toei offer good examples of how a new social type emerged in manga and Japanese pink films in the early 1970s. These were ‘boss girls’ or ‘delinquent schoolgirls’ portrayed by genre stars such as Ike Reiko and Sugimoto Miki. As far as I can see this involved the young women in ‘erotic violence’ (fighting bare-chested as in the poster) and generally triumphing over middle-aged men in positions of authority. It’s not hard to work out the radical possibilities of such types in challenging dominant representations. Japanese exhibition practice apparently saw these films paired on a double bill with yakuza films, which raises the question of how they were read by male audiences. Kozma also raised another enquiry re the issue of antagonism in Japan towards bi-racial young women and the legacy of the occupation. I think that she suggested that Ike was a bi-racial star. Several of these films are available on Region 1 discs including Lynch Law Classroom.

Linked to the popularity of exploitation genres like sukeban films is the whole topic of file-sharing and fan communities. Virginia Crisp’s paper suggested ways of approaching the distribution and reception of East Asian films via file-sharing. There were some interesting ideas here around questions of the ethics of the community, the amount of work (and money) that fans spend on creating the best versions of films to share etc. Crisp rehearsed the arguments about piracy v. the ‘sampling’ effect of sharing that actually boosts consumption in the long run. I’m not sure that file-sharing is more or less of an issue re East Asian Cinemas, but this is clearly an issue that deserves to be explored more widely. I must apologise to the authors of the other two papers, Christina Zimmerman (‘The light humour of Ogigami Naoko’) and Aimee Richmond (‘Reception as a starting point in the production of contemporary Japanese Horror’). My notes aren’t adequate to do them justice and towards the end of the afternoon everything was getting more compressed. Let me just mention the festival programmers’ panel which comprised Jasper Sharp again (whose Zipangu Fest is later this month in London), Tom Vincent from the Bradford International Film Festival and Tony Rayns who programmes East Asian films for both London and Vancouver.

There are well over 400 Japanese films on domestic release each year, but only a small fraction of these reach the UK. Tom Vincent explained that he programmes over the whole year at the National Media Museum and then has the possibility of bringing a few films in for BIFF. Jasper Sharp and Tony Rayns are more focused and have the opportunity to see a wide range of films in Japan. Their interest appears to be primarily in jishu eiga or ‘independent cinema’ and this was what brought discussion back to filmmakers such as Kawase Naomi and Kurosawa Kiyoshi – who both once made small independent films but now have films which win prizes at festivals. Rayns and Sharp seemed very down on Kawase in particular. Her films have been acclaimed at festivals, but none have ever got into UK distribution. Rayns told us that the Cannes prizewinner, Mogari no mori (The Mourning Forest, 2007), had been shown in London – against his advice. Sharp and Rayns both thought that it wasn’t a film that they wanted to show. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment but the important point is that Sharp and Rayns are in effect ‘gatekeepers’ for Japanese films coming into the UK. If they don’t support a film (Jasper Sharp runs the Midnight Eye website as another of his activities) there is much less chance that a UK distributor will take it on. This is more a comment on the distribution structures in the UK than the taste of two programmer-critics, but it is an issue. We did then start an interesting discussion about cultural policies in Japan and South Korea and questioned how it was that a wider range of South Korean films seemed to get into some form of UK distribution (Korean production levels are lower at around 130 per year) but this had to be cut short as the screening beckoned (see next posting).

Overall this was an eventful, entertaining and informative day. I certainly learned a lot and I’m grateful to all the organisers and funders. More similar events please!

The plague of remakes

Hollywood is like a huge bloated leech several times larger than the smaller creatures from which it sucks the lifeblood. I refer of course to its propensity to remake films from other cultures. The remaking scenario is usually couched in terms of reverence towards the original and claims that the remake will bring a great story to a new audience who can’t or won’t read subtitles.

My usually sunny disposition has been made cloudy by three remakes discussed in the last couple of weeks and I think that I’ve already decided that I won’t go to see any of them, simply because they seem so completely unnecessary. I have to admit that I have previously watched two remakes soon after watching the originals – Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (Japan 1998) and Dark Water (Japan 2002) were remade by Gore Verbinski (2002) and Walter Salles (2005) respectively and I found both of them interesting, for different reasons. Ringu was barely seen in cinemas in the UK and not at all in the US and the film certainly ‘played’ with the idea of American teen movies and ‘the last girl’. So, it was interesting to see how it might be re-imagined as an American film. Dark Water was given more of a cinema run and the reason for seeing the re-make was mainly to see what a Brazilian director with an arthouse background would do with Disney’s money. The film flopped but I thought it was a worthwhile exercise which changed the Japanese story significantly.

(left) Jessie Matthews in 'First A Girl', photo by ITV/Rex Features, GTV Archive, (centre) Viktor und Viktoria, (right) Julie Andrews

Other acceptable remakes include films made in Hollywood many years after the originals. Back in the 1980s I was involved in an enjoyable study weekend at the BFI in which we explored the whole idea of remake culture with a focus on two versions of a German original. As I remember we showed the Jessie Matthews musical First A Girl (UK 1935) which was a remake of Viktor und Viktoria (Germany 1933) and compared it to Victor Victoria (US 1982), the Blake Edwards musical with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston. I think I later saw the German original (or at least an extract). There was also a ‘parallel’ version in French known as Georges et Georgette in 1933 and a German remake in 1957. Given that the story is about a woman pretending to be a man who impersonates a woman in his act, viewing different takes on the story over time and across cultures is a worthwhile exercise – and before the days of DVDs, films were often made in different language versions.

But what’s now happening has no justification. Let the Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are Swedish films that have been successful internationally both as translated novels and as Swedish-language films. There is no need to re-make them since the originals are available. As far as I can see the Anglo-American version of Let The Right One In is very similar to the original. If so, it is pointless. The glimpses of Let Me In (naff title!) that I’ve seen make me think that the American child actors don’t really come up to the Swedish originals (i.e poor casting – I’m sure that they are perfectly fine actors). Check out the trailer.

and the original:

It was good to see an attack on David Fincher from the Danish director of the first Stieg Larsson adaptation this week. Niels Arden Oplev commented on how Sony are attempting to build Rooney Mara up as the Lisbeth Salander at the expense of Noomi Rapace, who was a big part of the success of the original trilogy. Fincher was in Sweden recently for the shoot. Is this going to be as pointless as the Kenneth Branagh take on Wallander? You bet. And just in case you were thinking that those are the only two ‘instant remakes’ around, we are only a few weeks away from Russell Crowe as a teacher attempting to spring his wife from prison. This one is a remake of the French thriller Pour Elle (Anything For Her, 2008) and is directed by Paul Haggis. This had nothing like the exposure of the two Swedish films but it was a decent enough small thriller with a great central performance by Vincent Lindon. Crowe strikes me as completely wrong for the part, although he did prove in Michael Mann’s The Insider that he could act. Here’s the trailer for The Next Three Days which opens in North America on November 19. Pour elle was quite short at 96 mins. This bloats to 134 minutes.

and here’s the original:

When filmmakers with the reputation of a David Fincher or a Martin Scorsese (Departed?) make pointless remakes it does make you wonder at the paucity of imagination in Hollywood – and the lack of shame. If the justification is that it brings new ideas to audiences who won’t read subtitles, perhaps we (teachers) are at fault in not pursuing a more rigorous film education policy?

The Kids Are All Right (US 2010)

Lisa Cholodenko with Mia Wasikowska as Joni and Julianne Moore as Jules

This is a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy/drama with excellent performances and witty dialogue. What’s interesting, I guess, is that it is classified as an independent movie because a) it is about a lesbian couple and their family, b) it is actually co-written and directed by a lesbian director and c) it’s a low-budget film. Watching it in a sparsely-populated multiplex screen at an early evening show on a Tuesday I was struck by how the projectionist seemed to have turned down the volume so that I could hardly hear it when usually in the same multiplex I am deafened. I noticed this because the opening of the movie is relatively quiet in action terms. My feeling is that this is the kind of movie that could have been made in the era of classical Hollywood – if you took away the restraints of the Hays Code.

I did see Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature High Art (Canada/US 1998) but I confess that I don’t remember it well – though I do remember that I enjoyed it. Possibly, I would have enjoyed this latest film even more if there had been more drama. A bit more restraint on behalf of the central characters might have been interesting, but then the joke of the film seems to be, pace the title, that the adults are all over the place emotionally and the kids are quite cool.

The best jokes for me were the ones about organic gardening and I’d like to come out as a straight guy who loves Joni Mitchell and especially ‘Blue’.

So, kudos to everyone involved and thanks for a great night out. But I fear that this crowd pleasing will push out Winter’s Bone from the awards ceremony and that would certainly be a shame.