Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Master (US 2012)

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd listening to her husband Lancaster giving a presentation.

The Master has all the trappings of an ‘event’ film and that is indeed what it has become. Paul Thomas Anderson made the decision to shoot his film on 65mm film, but to release it in a standard 1:1.85 ‘modern widescreen’ ratio rather than CinemaScope (1:2.35) or one of the other widescreen aspect ratios associated with the 1950s ‘roadshow picture’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (December 2012) he recognises that he has created a problem with his ‘chamber’ piece which seems to promise to be something else. He thinks that you should ideally see this work on a 70mm film print. In the UK only one cinema (in London) is showing the film in this way with every other screening offered on digital projection. Not surprisingly, the rush of cinephiles to the Odeon West End placed the film into the Top 20 on its exclusive 70mm run for the first two weeks (the Roadshow idea) and the hype built for the subsequent release to 153 digital screens. However, those 153 digital screens struggled to produce a fraction of the screen average for the 70mm print. Instead The Master now looks like a solid American Independent hit rather than a crossover hit.

I describe this distribution history and its media coverage to highlight the problems facing anyone who wants to write about the film now on release. There are already hundreds of words out there – can I justify adding any more to the pile? There are a few things that haven’t been said and some that need a greater airing so I’ll press on. I should say first that I watched the film with interest, even when I didn’t particularly feel taken by the narrative or the theme. It’s a long film (143 mins) and it requires patience. But surprisingly the time flew by. The cinematography and set design/costumes look stunning and the music soundtrack features some lovely songs some of which are on YouTube – though I didn’t notice Jonny Greenwood’s compositions as much as I did on There Will Be Blood. The central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are probably what most audiences notice first. I found them both quite disturbing (especially that of Phoenix) but they do make sense in terms of the characters. Less prominent perhaps, but very effective, is Amy Adams. There is no doubt about Anderson’s talents as a director in terms of both developing a grand vision and orchestrating all his resources. The problems I have with the film are associated more with the narrative ideas and the overall theme. This may be more to do with my increasingly dyspeptic view of American culture and American cinema generally.

If you’ve managed to miss the plot descriptions of the film, I should point out that Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US sailor who after the Second World War is unable to settle in to civilian work and who becomes a drifter – and an alcoholic – who one day stumbles onto the yacht/steamship being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a would be guru who is developing a practical philosophy about living in America entitled ‘The Cause’. He is attracted to the sailor, despite  the alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, and a strange relationship begins. Dodd’s existing family have some misgivings about accepting the new convert.

Freddie leads the crew in flaking out . . .

. . . this was in mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

. . . this was in my mind when I saw Freddie above the deck (from Battleship Potemkin)

The film is ‘about’ the struggle to marry together dreams of ‘freedom’ and the possibilities of affluence in an increasingly conservative American society in the Truman era. The specific time period I find absolutely fascinating but the narrative about ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ that is blown up to epic proportions is less attractive. It’s possible to make statements through metaphor and the stories of ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ people, but the ‘Great American Novel’ and Hollywood appear to prefer ‘big’ heroes with big aims – whether they are ‘leaders’ or ‘anti-heroes’. Freddie Quell in Joachin Phoenix’s performance offers a construction with familiar characteristics drawn from a range of famous literary characters who have in turn been personified in high-profile performances. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (an original cinema creation). I’m not claiming any direct resemblance here, rather that these are all characters either remembered from wartime or struggling in the aftermath to maintain some form of independence/freedom in the face of conformity. The difference here is that one familiar character is placed in a relationship with a second, the father figure and visionary character. The problem is that I don’t see this as a new story so much as an endless stream of references. Watching it felt like being in a kind of intertextual dream. I couldn’t work out why we were shown a scene in the desert and I started thinking about Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (US 1980). Later I read that one of the plot details in the film was based on an anecdote told to Anderson by Robards. At another point when Dodd is ‘processing’ Quell via a set of questions, I thought of Warren Beatty being subjected to propaganda films in The Parallax View (US 1974).

Part of my problem is that I’ve never found Scientology or other cults particularly interesting (the Dodd character and other aspects of the plot are supposed to be informed by Ron L. Hubbard’s story). The ‘real’ story for me would be the era of the HUAC hearings and the development of conservative politics in America. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a significant number of Hollywood creatives came to the UK to escape the witch hunts in the US. The Master plotline also heads for the UK towards the end of the film and these scenes were quite surreal – and again I started to make connections, this time to the Powell & Pressburger films of 1944-46 and their American GI characters.

Whatever problems I had with the theme of the film I have to admit that the film itself has set me thinking and I feel I should watch it again. Anderson apparently took a great deal from two documentaries – one by John Huston on the ‘processing’ of veterans returning from war in 1946 titled Let There Be Light and the other by Lionel Rogosin in 1955 called On the Bowery dealing with drunks on Skid Row (see the interview with Anderson by James Bell in Sight and Sound December 2012). I suspect I might end up watching the DVD.

Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, Japan 2009)

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by  ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?

Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.

The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)

In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.

Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.

I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.

I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.

Useful web reviews:

Festival Without Borders

Asia Pacific Arts interview with Kore-eda

Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:

 

The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.

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Digital Film and Digital Cinema

A DCI compliant Christie Digital Projector in a Yelmo Cines theatre in Spain – image from http://www.christiedigital.co.uk

Global film production, post-production, distribution and exhibition has now reached a point of no return in relation to ‘digitisation’. Writing about the experience of watching films in cinemas has become problematic because the industry is in a state of flux and it is easy for any of us to get confused about what is happening. This posting is an attempt to lay out the current state of digital film and digital cinema as I understand them. Please add any other anecdotes, explanations, suggestions for additions etc. as a comment.

What we finally see on a screen as a moving image sequence depends on at least four separate processes. The first is image capture. It is often difficult to determine the exact format that was used in shooting a film. Today it is possible to shoot on virtually any known format from 16mm film through to an iPhone or a toy camera. It doesn’t really matter because anything can be digitised. Of course, the more image data that is captured (the higher the ‘resolution’), the more options are open in post-production. However, it is still possible to lose the advantage of high quality images if they are not processed correctly.

Editing is now routinely digital since all the source material has been digitised. This was the first part of the process to be converted. During the post-production process it is possible to manipulate images so that they resemble different sorts of film material. The end product of post-production is a ‘digital intermediate‘. This could still be printed back to 35mm film for distribution and projection but it is now most likely to be processed to produce a digital master and a DCP – a digital cinema package for digital cinema exhibition. The same master will also produce a range of digital formats for digital download, digital TV and DVD/Blu-ray, each of which will have different specifications. Films are now edited/post-produced in the knowledge that they must look good on several different formats  The distributor creates the DCP and the exhibitor must ‘unlock’ it and decompress and download it for projection using a Theatre Management System (TMS) which places the film in a projector menu alongside ads, trailers and other material and probably commands to mask the screen, open curtains, lower lights etc.

D-cinema

So this is the basic process. Unfortunately it isn’t quite so simple in practice. The Hollywood majors want to remain in control of distribution in the major territories and so the seven studios (reduced to six when MGM became part of Sony) set up the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) in order to create an international standard for digital cinema. You can access the specification and background details here. Any distributor or exhibitor that wants to handle Hollywood product going into cinemas must comply to the DCI standards (set by SMPTE, (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and confirmed by ISO). DCI compliant technologies are part of ‘D-cinema‘. These standards are concerned with the creation of DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Master) and DCPs and their projection. From the outset, the DCI standard was designed to include both 2K and 4K specifications. This means that either a 2K or a 4K DCP can be sent by a distributor to a cinema. The cinema may have either 2K or 4K projectors and it is possible to ‘extract’ a 2K file to project from a 4K package. Similarly, a 2K package can be ‘up-sampled’ by a 4K projector. Major cinema chains globally are now beginning to invest in 4K projectors – but most films are still being distributed in 2K DCPs.

E-cinema

Norway was the first territory to become completely digital for cinema distribution and other European territories are approaching 100%, although in larger territories with many small single screen independent cinemas the process may take longer. However, D-cinema is not the only digital cinema technology. Lower resolution digital formats have become known as ‘E-cinema‘ and in India E-cinema is in operation via satellite distribution, supplying smaller rural cinemas while in metropolitan multiplexes DCI-compliant prints are projected. The Indian satellite distribution system may produce a lower resolution image but the economics of the system make more sense and it’s possible that this form of E-cinema might be more suitable elsewhere in other parts of Asia and Africa. Since anything ‘sub 2K’ is classed as E-cinema there are already a range of E-cinema sites in Europe and North America, small community cinemas or screening rooms projecting from DVD or Blu-ray. (Sorry Keith, but for some exhibitors, Blu-ray is de facto a theatrical format.) Similarly, most film festivals now accept films on a variety of digital formats including HDCAM SR/HDCAM from Sony and the slightly lower specced DVCPRO HD from Panasonic. Unfortunately some also accept Digibeta or Beta SP. The problem is that digital projectors need careful treatment by knowledgeable projectionists to get the best out of different formats and in a festival context, even the best technicians don’t have time to tweak settings between showings so films that look great at one festival look terrible at another. (This rant from a US website offers an interesting perspective on the problems of preparing a film/digital file to show at festivals in North America – there is a lot of sensible info here and I certainly recognise the problems as seen by festival audiences.)

The unresolved question for cinemas that have still not converted is still who pays for this conversion to digital? The so-called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) is supposed to work by ‘spreading the load’ between the distributor and the exhibitor but it doesn’t work for everyone and especially for small distributors.

New distribution and exhibition practices

Rumours are circulating in the UK about the new distribution practices in a digital environment. I’ve heard stories that distributors are not maintaining the DCPs of films beyond their ‘normal’ release. The hard drives can easily be re-cycled/re-used so once a film has finished its run, the print won’t be kept. I don’t know if this is the policy but in the last couple of weeks I’ve had two education screenings. The first was for a 1990s film, a classic already re-released in the 2000s. It’s just too old to have been released as a DCP so the distributor sent a Blu-ray disc. This was an improvement on the last time I showed the film a few years ago when they sent a DVD. The Blu-ray looked very good on a very big screen. Apart from a few over-dark scenes I wouldn’t have noticed standing at the back of the auditorium. The second film was released as a ‘specialised film’ title earlier this year and I watched it on a DCP. Imagine my surprise when we were sent a slightly battered 35mm print. Fortunately, the cinema still had a working 35mm projector. The audience didn’t seem to mind but somebody asked me if the scratches had been added for authenticity and I don’t think that they were joking! The serious point here is how geared up are the distributors to handle education/festival/archive/repertory bookings? Is Blu-ray going to be what we can expect after an initial release on DCP?

Yesterday I heard about a new multiplex that has opened locally. It is completely digital and I’m told that the manager can virtually run the whole operation from his office, ‘dragging and dropping’ films and ads onto different projectors via the TMS. Pretty soon the films will arrive in the cinema by satellite in the UK and another ‘technical operation’ will be removed.

Overall, I’m happy to see the more consistent quality that we get from DCP, especially in multiplexes. But it comes at a cost in terms of employment and ‘de-skilling’ of projection staff. This was recently demonstrated in the UK by the widely-reported incident in which a projectionist in a multiplex, presumably looking after several screens at once, projected the first few scenes of a gruesome Cert 15 horror film to an audience of young children expecting a family animation. I’ve also been told horror stories about satellite links going down in live broadcasts – these now include Q & As with directors as well as live feeds of opera, ballet etc. My feeling is that satellite is a necessary evil in countries with transport problems, but I’m not totally convinced by the current technologies available in a country as densely populated as the major urban centres in the UK.

Finally, there is the important question about formats for proper film archive storage. Digital is not a good long-term storage medium since the longevity of physical discs and tapes etc. is not yet proven. But just as important, each time the technology improves, archivists will need to maintain a working example of each playback device. Keith is our local expert on archives, so I’ll leave him to write about these issues. He has already pointed us to the website of the FIAF.

The Sapphires (Australia 2012)

(from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)

I thought I would enjoy this movie and I did. What I hadn’t expected was just how emotional it would be and how rooted in the experience of the filmmakers. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year. This makes it even more distressing to see some of the inane comments on IMDB and some of the bland (even if generally favourable) reviews in the UK. So let’s be clear, this is an Australian movie from Goalpost Pictures, adapted from a stage play based on a real story about an Aboriginal girl group from the 1960s which toured Vietnam entertaining American soldiers – in itself interesting since Australian forces also fought in Vietnam. The attraction was that the women were playing to African-American troops and this is a film as much about racism in Australia as it is about ‘sweet soul music’. The Weinstein Brothers got their hands on the film after its Cannes screening earlier this year and they have been promoting it in such a way that most reviewers can’t get beyond comparing it to Dreamgirls, The Commitments or even Good Morning Vietnam. There are some elements in common with each of those films and the writers cite The Commitments as an influence on their approach, but for me The Sapphires is much more interesting.

It’s written by Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt were in the original group, directed by Wayne Blair who himself starred in the original play and photographed by Warwick Thornton who directed Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009). This trio of Aboriginal filmmakers, with co-writer Keith Thompson, were at the centre of what the producers have described as the strongest creative team on a recent Australian production. The press kit gives a great deal of background on the film and is recommended reading.

The premise of the film is simple. It’s 1968. Three young women are still living with their extended family in an Aboriginal community of Yorta Yorta people in the Murray river area which forms the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One day they are spotted by a down-at-heel Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who is working as an MC for a local pub’s talent contest. This leads in turn to a decision to audition for the US Army which is recruiting entertainers for its troops in Vietnam. So far, so conventional, but the trip to Melbourne also involves finding ‘cousin Kay’ who they haven’t seen for several years and who makes up the fourth member of the group. Kay is ‘passing for white’ in Melbourne having been ‘stolen’ by the authorities ten years earlier. This reference to the trauma of the stolen generation, both for the light-skinned children and their families, will drive several strands of the narrative during the film and provide some of the most powerful emotional sequences. The history of Australian policies towards indigenous Australians is brilliantly presented in Rabbit-Proof Fence – in which Deborah Mailman (Gail in The Sapphires) also appears. Most of the remainder of the film takes place in Vietnam with mainly predictable developments involving the girls with GIs and Chris O’Dowd as a loveable but rather hopeless manager. The war scenes were mainly reconstructed around Sydney – but some material was also shot in Vietnam.

The film isn’t perfect by any means – two of the girls have stories that don’t seem to move forward very much. But this isn’t a film about narrative complexity. To work, it needs to do two things well. The first is to give us a real insight into the relationship between the Aboriginal communities in Australia and the Civil Rights movement in America as experienced by the families – and to do this with a sense of authenticity. The second is to present great-sounding music. These two aims are linked since it was Memphis soul (alongside James Brown and Curtis Mayfield) from the late 1960s which provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. (See our posting on Talk to Me.) I can’t be a distanced observer here since I grew up with this music, but I thought the singing (and the US backing band) were excellent. The lead voice comes from Jessica Mauboy, runner-up on one of the Australian Idol shows and, I think, now a major pop music star. Perhaps more surprisingly, as a relatively unknown performer, Shari Stebbins as Kay also sings very well. These two, along with Miranda Tapsell, come from the Darwin area on the Northern tip of Australia. The producers tell us in the Press Kit of the difficulties of finding four Aboriginal women, at least one of whom had a strong lead voice and the other three having voices that produced the right harmonies. At the end of the film, we get to see the original group and the women who went to Vietnam. It’s clear that the production team chose the performers well. I should also add that Chris O’Dowd does very well to hold his own against the four women. My only regret about the film was that I’d have liked more of the group singing Merle Haggard – but perhaps I’m the only one.

The film has done well in Australia taking over $14 million. In the UK it is distributed by eONE Entertainment, the newly expanded Canadian major. According to Screendaily the film was released on 233 screens for No. 7 in the UK chart and a weekend total of just over $500,000. Strangely, in West Yorkshire it was on only one screen at the Showcase in Birstall. Where are all the other screens?

If you like soul music, you’ll like this – but do read the Press Kit afterwards. This is what works as a Friday night feelgood movie for me.

Interesting report on the film from The Australian.

Here’s the Australian trailer:

La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012)

The fishing boat with its captain and 30 passengers is not really equipped to travel long distances in Atlantic waters.

Pirogue is a general term to describe boats such as canoes or ‘dugouts’. On the West African coast large versions of the traditional canoe shape, powered by a single motor, are used for fishing. The local fishing industry is in decline from overfishing (including factory fishing by trawlers from the EU) and this gives a further impetus to the attempts to leave the region and migrate to where there might be jobs. Thousands have left the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania in open boats, attempting to reach European beaches. Most of those who have survived the trip have ended up in the Canaries, part of Spain. This film ends with a title informing us that 1 in 6 of these illegal migrants fails to survive – and many of the others are then ‘repatriated’ back to their home country.

Moussa Touré’s film is based on a novel and it tells the tale of one such journey from Dakar. In one sense the narrative is familiar, comprising a mix of the standard illegal migration story (what motivates both the migrants and the people who transport them?) and the ‘forced community trapped in a boat’ genre typified by the Hollywood disaster movie. One of the earliest examples of the latter was Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. The tragedy of La pirogue is that the travellers have chosen this ordeal. Some of them know the dangers, others are so desperate to leave that they probably don’t want to know.

Accommodation is rudimentary in the pirogue.

The film is handsomely mounted and looks good in a CinemaScope presentation. The narrative provides us with two main groups: the boat’s captain and his brother plus the trip’s organiser and others in their circle as opposed to the passengers who represent people from the interior including some from Guinea who speak a different language. Allied to these differences are familiar oppositions of young and old, secular and religious. There is enough potential narrative conflict to sustain the film’s relatively short running time and I found it gripping. If I’m honest though, I did think that as a suspense film – who will survive the trip, what kinds of dangers will the boat face? – there were too many clues to what might happen and I found myself in that familiar position of admonishing characters for not being careful enough with essential items of equipment. It will be interesting to see how the film goes down with audiences. It’s a mainstream popular film from Senegal with production values commensurate with European funding and technical support. My fear is that it might fall between two stools – perhaps not enough excitement for the mainstream but possibly not quite enough characterisation and observation for the arthouse. So far, it hasn’t got UK distribution, though it has opened in France and I think it is booked for North America. The people in the boat are a divided community and I’m not sure what this says about Senegal if the film is in any way metaphorical. I think it’s this thought that makes me wish that we found out more about the individual characters and their problems. But despite my slight misgivings I urge you to see this if you get the chance.

La pirogue opens the Bristol-based Afrika Eye Film Festival tonight November 9 and it screens as part of the Cornerhouse ‘French Connections’ season on Monday November 12.

Leeds IFF 2012: Tanaka Kinuyo Workshop

Tanaka Kinuyo as star in 1940s Japan

Tanaka Kinuyo (1909-77) was one of the first female stars of Japanese cinema, achieving true star status in the 1930s when Japanese studios produced more films than Hollywood. Her stardom lasted into the 1950s when she became known to international audiences for her roles in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji which won prizes at Venice. But, just as important, she was only the second Japanese woman to direct a feature film and went on to direct a total of six titles in the 1950s and 1960s.

Leeds Film Festival is mounting a five film retrospective of Tanaka’s acting and directorial career with one film each from Mizoguchi, Ozu (see Keith’s review of A Hen in the Wind) and Naruse (see Keith’s review of Mother) and two by Tanaka herself. A half-day workshop was organised by the University of Leeds Centre for World Cinemas and the Mixed Cinema Network with the support of the Japan Foundation and the Sasakawa Foundation.

The workshop was introduced by Michael Smith from the University of Leeds, who sketched out Tanaka’s career as both actor and director and argued strongly for her importance in world cinema – which has not, as yet, received appropriate recognition. He argued that her relevance was three-fold: she was the first woman to develop a body of work as a director, she worked over a long period when the lives of Japanese women were changing at a faster rate than ever before and she made films as both actor and director that focused on women’s lives. Smith’s introduction ably served to provide the context for the more focused papers of the other three speakers to work effectively. He told us about Tanaka’s trip to Hollywood in 1949 (a ‘goodwill’ trip during the period of Occupation) and how on her return she was criticised because she appeared to have picked up American mannerisms. Tanaka’s star image had developed in such a way that she could represent both the ‘modern’ and the traditional Japanese  woman – the girl next door and the proto-feminist career woman. As such her star image was important to Japanese audiences.

An image from the 1955 film A Moon Has Risen, directed by Tanaka Kinuyo from a script by Ozu and starring Ryu Chisu

Irene Gonzalez from SOAS then explored the two Tanaka-directed films in the festival programme in terms of their themes of women’s lives in the context of Japan in the 1950s. The Eternal Breasts (1955) is a romance melodrama about a young poet who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 1930s. Girls of the Dark (1961) is a story about young women and prostitution that refers to the earlier genre cycle of panpan films about the officially sanctioned prostitution during the Occupation. Prostitution was made illegal in 1958 but by then it was well-established institutionally. Both films were written by Tanaka Sumie (no relation), a ‘Christian feminist’. Gonzalez looked in detail at a sequence from Eternal Breasts in which she questioned the ‘female gaze’ in terms of both one woman looking at another on-screen, but also a female filmmaker creating an image of a potentially sexualised woman for the gaze of a cinema audience. This was then taken into a discussion of Tanaka’s approach to the ‘taboos’ of breast cancer and the daily lives of prostitutes. The conclusion was that though Tanaka was relatively conservative in her aesthetics (she was influenced by the great directors she had worked for as an actress) she was certainly prepared to take on the taboo subjects. Irene Gonzalez explained that the original novel for Girls of  the Dark included explicit homosexual relationships between the women. Tanaka Sumie’s script avoided homosexuality altogether, but Tanaka deals with it without being explicit. Two other points were made by Gonzalez that I thought were interesting. The first female Japanese filmmaker was Sakane Tazuko who made a feature in 1936 but then went (was sent?) to Manchuko (Manchuria), presumably to work in the Japanese film studio there. She made no further films when she returned from Manchuria after 1945. The actress who played the luminous star role in The Eternal Breasts was Tsukioka Yumeji, Nikkatsu’s main female star of the period. I’d have liked more about the industrial context of Tanaka’s work – perhaps I need to do some digging.

The third paper by Lauri Kitsnik from the University of Cambridge was entitled ‘Dancer, Doctor, Virgin, Wife: early star image of Tanaka Kinuyo’. This was a most enjoyable presentation in which Lauri’s enthusiasm was matched by the clips from early silent films including Dragnet Girl (1933) and later films of the 1930s including Yearning Laurel (Tree of Love, 1938) in which Tanaka is a nurse singled out to sing at a concert. Another, Kinuyo, the Lady Doctor (which I haven’t managed to find on IMDB) showed Tanaka in what I presume was a romantic comedy with an almost slapstick scene. Lauri Kitsnik certainly opened our eyes to the diversity of Tanaka’s career and raised all kinds of questions about how her star image was handled in the 1930s – again I wanted to know more about how the studios handled their stars like Tanaka. In the early 1930s she was making as many as seven or eight films a year. Many have been lost but some estimates suggest that she made over 200 features.

Tanaka Kinuyo in Mizoguchi’s ‘The Life of Oharu’ (1952)

The final paper by Alex Jacoby broached the whole issue of how we understand Tanaka’s performances in terms of the ideologies of the films themselves – and by extension what we might learn by focusing directly on Tanaka rather than on other readings which might be predicated on what we know about the films’ acknowledged ‘auteur directors’. Jacoby’s strategy was to look again at the two famous award-winning films by Mizoguchi Kenji, Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu (1954) but to focus on Tanaka rather than the usual readings of the films’ resolutions as undertaken by scholars in the West. He then moved to consider other Tanaka films in the 1940s and 1950s, some for Mizoguchi but also for other directors. This was an interesting exercise but I would need to see some of the other films again – or for the first time – to really appreciate what might be learned. However, it was clear that this was a worthwhile project and one which pointed towards a more general re-assessment of directors such as Mizoguchi, taking into account the use of star performers. This paper reinforced the earlier demands for a general reassessment of Japanese stars in the classical period.

Many thanks to Michael Smith and Prof. Lúcia Naguib from the Centre for World Cinemas for hosting the event. Great lunch too!

The 2010 Workshop run by the Centre for World Cinemas in the Leeds Film Festival is covered on this post.

Leeds IFF 2012: In Another Country (Da-reun na-ra-e-suh, South Korea-France 2012)

Isabelle Huppert as Anne with the lifeguard and the umbrella – two recurring features of ‘In Another Country’

I chose this screening based on Isabelle Huppert’s appearance and the vague recollection that the writer-director Hong Sang-Soo was important. I wonder what I might have written if I wasn’t aware of the director’s pedigree? I later realised that this was one of the films in competition for the Palme d’Or in 2012 and that Hong is a celebrated figure on the festival circuit. As I watched the film I had mixed feelings – but I kept watching.

This is a classic ‘festival film’, aiming to please very specific audiences. I would be surprised if Hong’s films get much distribution beyond festivals, but who knows? A low-budget offering, this features a total of seven actors, most of whom play roughly the same characters in three separate scenarios set in an attractive seaside location – little more than a few houses and a hotel/bar in a small bay with a beach. The scenarios are presented through the device of a young woman writing them out – as short stories I thought, but I later read that they were meant to be screenplay ideas. The writer works with her mother in a small hotel/B&B.

In each scenario Isabelle Huppert plays a Frenchwoman called Anne who stays in the B&B and who is first a film director, then a married woman meeting her lover and finally a woman who has just been divorced. Each scenario involves similar characters and settings – a walk to the shops, a stroll on the beach, an encounter with a lifeguard and an altercation with another Korean man involving accusations of infidelity. Huppert speaks English throughout and, since this is ostensibly a comedy, there are several interchanges between characters which depend on mis-communication. The serious discourse underpinning the encounters appears to be a satire on Korean men’s attraction to foreign women and the social consequences of the over-polite exchanges between men and women. I confess that the humour didn’t completely work for me – I could see that it was clever and it was at times amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The repetition of similar jokes and the play around getting drunk on soju began to get tedious after a while.

Isabelle Huppert, who presumably met the director at Cannes (where he has been ‘in competition’ five times) relishes the opportunity to play against type, skittering along on heels or slouching in flats clutching a soju bottle. The overall look and feel of the film is certainly attractive but I was irritated by the abrupt camera zooms (a familiar trait in the director’s style it would appear) and I wanted more about cultural differences in adultery and small talk. I’m clearly not the ideal festival audience. Hong Sang-Soo has won many awards at festivals across the world since the 1990s so I’m probably missing something. Here’s a sequence from the film used as a trailer at Cannes: