Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)

Sano Shûji and Tanaka Kinuyo as the re-united husband and wife

Sano Shûji and Tanaka Kinuyo as the re-united husband and wife

This is the ‘makeweight’ title in the BFI’s double package of Blu-ray/DVD versions of An Autumn Afternoon, the last film by Ozu Yasujiro in 1962. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay included in the package makes clear that A Hen in the Wind has been neglected by many critics and considered one of Ozu’s minor works. Ozu himself is reported as describing it as a ‘bad failure’. It is certainly different from the later films and very different in some respects to its immediate successor, the highly celebrated Late Spring (1949). I personally find it a very moving film and it falls into my favourite period in cinema history in the late 1940s. I’ve just been back to look at what I wrote about Record of a Tenement Gentlemanthe first film Ozu made when he returned to work in 1947 after re-patriation. My viewing of A Hen in the Wind confirms everything I wrote about the earlier film, but there are differences as well. The similarities to Italian neo-realism are again evident and the film seems in tune with what is happening in film internationally in those difficult post-war years.

One noticeable feature of A Hen in the Wind is the presence of the great Tanaka Kinuyo in the lead role. Arguably the dominant female figure in classical Japanese cinema, Tanaka is one of our heroes. Although she was best known in her later career as an actress for Mizoguchi and as a director in her own right, she did make several films for Ozu (including some in the 1930s) and it’s hard to imagine any other star in this role as the central character Tokiko – even though she played the role of a 28 year-old when she was already 38. Tokiko is effectively a single mother with a small son. Her husband has not yet returned from the war. We are never told where the husband has been stationed – perhaps in China? Re-patriation did take a long time so in itself this is not unusual. Tokiko is a dressmaker by trade but she has to stay home with the boy and can only survive by gradually selling off her kimonos to raise money for food. When the boy falls ill and needs hospital treatment she has no other resources and she turns to the only solution – selling herself for one night only to pay the medical bill. Her close friend Akiko, is furious with her (for not asking her for the money) and criticises her quite severely. She advises Tokiko to tell no-one and especially her husband about what she has done. At this point we think we know what will happen when the husband returns – which he does soon after. We dread being proved correct.

The camera follows Tokiko as she takes her son to the doctor

The camera follows Tokiko as she takes her son to the doctor

Tokiko and Akiko discuss their dreams as young women before the war while Hiroshi, recovered from his illness plays in the foreground.

Tokiko and Akiko discuss their dreams as young women before the war while the boy, Hiroshi, now recovered from his illness plays in the foreground.

A Hen in the Wind is deemed an anomaly – in both style and content. My reference to neo-realism refers to two separate issues. First of all Ozu and Shochiku were faced with logistical problems in making films at this point. A Hen in the Wind is short, 82 minutes and it avoids expensive sets or complicated location shooting. This supplies the production context (in effect the restraints) which ‘fit’ for a narrative focused on a single everyday event/social issue at a time of austerity. In plot terms the event is the sudden onset of sickness for Tokiko’s son. It is the need to find the money to pay for his treatment that creates the narrative drive (just as the theft of the bicycle propels Bicycle Thieves forward). In a sense, the same scenario could have been played out in Italy or Germany in 1948. The difference might be in the treatment of the shame attached to the act of prostitution. There is also a second social issue compounding the conflict created by the sickness – the slow repatriation of service personnel (and in the background the problems associated with the Occupation, not mentioned directly in the script). The same issues – health problems and re-patriation – are found in films by Kurosawa and Naruse during this period. What is also important is how Ozu shows us this world of austerity trying to ‘get back on its feet’. I was struck by two long tracking shots showing first Tokiko and then her husband moving through the streets of Tokyo. The evidence of bombing is still there and the urban scene can seem desolate with rubble and wrecked machinery by the side of the road. A moving camera in later Ozu films is so unusual that these shots are quite noticeable. They are also contrasted with more composed scenes set by the riverside. Both Rosenbaum and David Bordwell (Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, BFI 1988) refer to the locations as ‘slum’ areas. I think perhaps ‘slum’ means something different in the US. Tokiko’s home is the top floor of a small wooden house rented from the family who live below. Nobody has much money but the connotations of slum housing – families crushed together in unhygenic mass dwellings etc. doesn’t apply. In fact I felt that somewhere in the film there was an attempt to present this as a transitional period when Japan is recovering. The scenes by the river seem more optimistic.

The second tracking shot follows Tokiko's husnand Suichi when he retraces her journey to the brothel. (A tram will pass him on this journey – the closest Ozu offers us to his favourite railway shots.

The second tracking shot follows Tokiko’s husnand Suichi when he retraces her journey to the brothel. (A tram will pass him on this journey – the closest Ozu offers us to his favourite railway shots.)

Sound in the film is also important. Several scenes in the house are accompanied by what sounds like the thud of a machine in a factory. This contrasts with the sound of children singing in a primary school close to the brothel where Tokiko received her ‘visitor’. The singing is heard when Suichi, the returned husband, goes to the brothel and meets the young woman who works there in order to feed her family. This whole sequence offers the possibility of ‘moving on’ in some way. Music also provides one of the (surprisingly few) references to American culture in the dancehall/nightclub next to the office where Suichi eventually gets work.

The other notable element in the mise en scène of A Hen in the Wind is the ‘pre-figuring’ of action focused on the staircase leading up to Tokiko’s apartment. Staircases are rarely shown in Ozu’s later films but here the staircase is introduced, almost like a pillow shot, early on. Later it will become the site of something even more unusual in Ozu’s later films – a sequence involving violent action. It is this violent action that will perhaps signal the biggest ‘difference’ to the films of Ozu’s late period and the way the staircase is used makes us think of Hitchcock thrillers or film noir melodramas.

David Bordwell’s chapter on the film refers to Sato Tadao’s 1982 Currents in Japanese Cinema. Sato suggests that the film is essentially progressive in moving away from using easy scapegoats to represent the state of Japan in the aftermath of war. Instead of villainous militarists or weedy collaborators, Ozu offers us a woman whose shame reflects the loss of ‘purity’ in the Japanese spirit while Shoichi’s aggression comes from the brutalisin experience of war. In Ozu’s vision (as perceived by Bordwell) these ‘ordinary’ and flawed people find a way to face the future without national or personal purity but with a sense of realism – Ozu the humanist?

Overall I found this a fascinating film which deserves to be more widely seen and discussed in the context of the ‘Occupation Cinema’ in Japan. Keith’s review of the film from the Tanaka Kinuyo season a few years ago at the Leeds International Film Festival takes a slightly different approach. He focuses more on Tanaka’s performance (and gives away more of the plot details).

How Old Are You? (India 2014)

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Nirupama (Manju Warrier) with her plans for organic horticulture on rooftop terraces.

Here is a Malayalam film released in UK cinemas without English subtitles. I was surprised and slightly worried at the prospect of 141 minutes of incomprehension. But I shouldn’t have worried. This is a popular drama (but not a Bollywood-style film) and although I missed a couple of key plot points at the time, I’ve since read the Indian reviews and answered most of my own questions.

How Old Are You? asks that simple question of its female lead and then proceeds to show her first being humiliated and then recovering and ending triumphant. It has been promoted as a film of ‘female empowerment’. It is also the ‘comeback film’ of Malayali star Manju Warrier after 14 years away from the industry she conquered in the 1990s. (It somehow seems to be appropriate that what kept her away was marriage and home-making but now she is divorcing and returning to the big screen.)

Bored at  work . . .

Bored at work . . .

Nirupama is a civil servant in a typical revenue office in Kochi-Ernakulam, the largest urban area in Kerala. She has become bored by her work, the stresses of looking after her household and dealing with her school-age daughter and husband who works as a radio announcer. She is sometimes rude or offhand and she becomes egotistical when her daughter somehow ‘wins’ her the chance to meet the President of India as an ‘ordinary Indian woman’. But she embarrasses herself at the meeting and is humiliated when the incident is picked up on social media, going viral very quickly. Out of this disaster comes the chance for redemption when she is recognised by Susan (Kerala has a large Christian community), an old classmate from university who has become an important person (in business or government – I couldn’t work this out). Nirupama was an inspirational student back in 1996, leading a strike and achieving much for her classmates and Susan reminds her of what she did. Gradually she gets her confidence back and achieves something again – leading to an inevitable ending that most audiences will spot coming. The age question comes when Nirupama learns that her husband and daughter plan to migrate to Ireland, but she can only join them if she can get a job and the Irish recruiters have an age cut-off at 35 (surely illegal in the EU?). She is 36. This scene actually starts the film but I think this must be a flashforward – it’s quite difficult to pin down the chronology of events without dialogue to anchor meanings. The move to Ireland for the father and daughter is both a contributing factor to the change in Nirupama’s outlook on life and a possible obstacle when she becomes successful.

. . . and with her daughter

. . . and with her daughter

How Old Are You? has been very successful in Kerala, being seen as both a comeback for a popular and respected female star and a film about female empowerment. It has been well-received by the English language press in India but I’m not sure how widely it has been seen across the country. (If it hasn’t been dubbed/subbed in English or Hindi, I wonder how accessible it is?). In the UK the film is imported by Indian Movies UK, a Malayali distributor in India bringing films to the diaspora in the UK and Europe. I didn’t realise that there were so many Keralites in the UK. There are stories of full houses in some screenings (there were only five of us in Bradford). Malayalis have also formed important diaspora communities in the Gulf and this Facebook page details screenings of the film in Singapore as well as Dubai, US and Australia. The irony of this success is that from an outsider’s perspective Kerala is in many ways the least likely Indian state to suffer from male chauvinism or repression of women. Kerala has the highest levels of education in India and the highest rating on the ‘Human Development Index’ (HDI). The theme of the second part of the film, when Nirupama accidentally discovers the merits of organic horticulture, is however an important local issue because despite success in new technologies, Kerala is still dependent on agriculture and production of primary goods as well as tourism (with some of India’s areas of outstanding beauty).

Directed by Rosshan Andrrews and written by Bobby and Sanjay, a trio associated with three previously successful films, How Old Are You? is a good example of contemporary Malayalam filmmaking. The film looks good as lensed by R. Diwakaran but the music by Gopi Sunder was too dominant for my taste. One of the advantages of not knowing the language is that it focuses attention on the actors in terms of body language, facial gestures etc. I thought the cast was very good all round and it’s clear that Manju Warrier is the star. One of the strengths of South Indian cinema generally is that the leading actors look like ‘real people’. Malayalam cinema has historically been known for art films as well as popular genre films and I wasn’t surprised to find a conventional genre film with a serious message. How Old Are You? is a drama with only two songs, one played during the closing credits and the other as accompaniment to a montage. I can say that I was never bored over 140 minutes in which I understood only the occasional lines of English (mostly a few words inserted into the Malayalam dialogue). That must say something, although I must confess that the few weeks I spent in Kerala convinced me that it is one of my favourite regions – so I’m biased!

I’d like to watch more Malayalam films and kudos to Cineworld for showing this in Bradford. But it would be nice to know in advance if there are no English subs. Since all the Hindi and Tamil films I’ve seen in the same cinema have had subs, I think it was reasonable to expect them for this screening. The next release from Indian Movies UK, Bangalore Days, is in cinemas this week.