United States of Love (Zjednoczone Stany Miłości, Poland 2016)

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

The opening sequence featuring a communal meal with three of the four women in the composition

Tomasz Wasilewski, writer-director of United States of Love is a name to watch. Born in 1980 he has produced a narrative set in a Polish town in 1990. The English title of the film is ironic in two ways. It could be read as a comment directed at the desire of Poles in 1990 for the materialism and ‘freedom’ of American society. It could also refer to the sense of a community united in pursuit of the erotic or simply the possible comfort of an emotional relationship. Either way it is a dark prospect, emphasised by the film’s washed out colours and drab setting. This certainly isn’t a ‘date movie’ or a Friday night feelgood film.

We are plunged straight into the middle of a celebratory meal as Poland moves towards democracy, shot as a static scene in which everyone around a long dining table seems to be talking at once. I found it difficult to follow the subtitles and at the same time to scan the faces to work out who was who. The four principal female characters are all present for the meal as they are all neighbours in the same concrete housing block on several floors. The film narrative follows each of these four women for their own self contained narrative – and also interweaves them. Wasilewski uses a technique whereby he may repeat a scene from an earlier story and then start a new story with a different central character – so we also get a different perspective on the first story. This overlap becomes more noticeable when one story ends very badly and this time he doesn’t repeat the final scene – leaving us in limbo as to what happened next.

The four women, for me, seem to represent different groups of women in Polish society. Agata is a married woman, still young but with a young teenage daughter. She is the one who seems most aroused by the erotic urge associated with freedom. Many reviewers refer to her ‘unhappy marriage’. I’m not sure that describes her situation. Her husband is represented as a passive character not particularly keen to try anything new. In a nicely observed sequence we learn that the housing block has a thriving video club with homemade videotapes. ‘Adult films’ are popular with many residents and Agata watches a porn sequence that has been left on the end of a tape sent by the husband of one her friends working abroad. Agata is obsessed with the idea of seducing the young priest who visits the families in the block. The church provides one of the few flashes of colour in the neighbourhood, but it is also intrusive.

Iza is the headteacher of the local school and she has been having a long-term affair with a married doctor. For me she represents how, under the old regime in Poland, someone in her position as a professional with status could own her own car and have a rare form of independence – now threatened. Iza is wearing the green dress in the image above. Her careful coiffure, her pearls and fine bone structure give her an image of a 1950s glamour figure. She is single and comes across as a cold character, now out of time. The young woman standing behind her in the image is her sister Marzena, a former beauty queen now working as a PE instructor and in a spa hotel which welcomes its first German tourists. She wants to become a photographic model, but she also has become the object of desire for an older woman, a teacher at her sister’s school, Renata – the fourth principal character. These two characters represent very different women in the ‘new Poland’. Marzena has opportunities but appears vulnerable to all the evils of capitalist exploitation. Renata is in one sense now ‘free’ but in another ‘left behind’.

These four intriguing and inter-related stories offer plenty to engage the viewer but the visual style of the film is in some ways its most memorable feature. The young director did well to attract to the project the cinematographer Oleg Mutu from Romania and one of the principal creatives behind the Romanian New Wave. Mutu, Wasilewski and his designers create images drained of colour – so much so that before I looked at the trailer below or stills from the film, I had forgotten that the film was not shot in black and white. The effect is emphasised by the mise en scène which is devoid of (nearly) all those features of capitalist society that we take for granted – the advertisements, graffiti, posters, shop displays etc.  The effect of bleakness is further enhanced by Mutu’s compositions which use the space of the ‘Scope frame to isolate and also sometimes to push characters out of the frame as the camera holds the framing in a static shot. In one sequence, when Agata aggressively seduces her husband, the couple end up more or less out of the frame with just a foot pushing against a fitted sheet – an extraordinary image. Equally, in a film in which colour has been drained away, it is shocking to enter Renata’s apartment and to meet the greenery and brightly coloured birds she keeps for company. The most tragic and disturbing shot in the film is actually reminiscent of last year’s Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014) in which a tragedy is shown in an extreme long shot. Somehow, the seemingly huge distance from the tragedy emphasises our sense of being a helpless observer. I’ll remember the shot for a long time.

In this Cineuropa interview Tomasz Wasilewski talks a little about his childhood (he was 10 in 1990) and about his very negative feelings towards the communist period in Poland. In that sense his film certainly communicates how he feels. On the same day I saw his film at the Leeds Film Festival, I also saw Old Stone (China-Canada 2016). That film deals with the contemporary period in China and has a similar dystopian feel though here it is the ‘old values’ of communism that have been lost and the new values that are creating problems. It’s interesting that both films feature scenes of exercise classes for women – I haven’t worked out what that means yet! It’s also interesting to compare the historically themed art films coming out of Poland today (e.g. Ida (2013 as well as United States of Love) with the commercial pictures getting a UK release such as Planeta Singli (Poland 2016). I wonder what Wasilewski makes of these new blockbusters?

United States of Love has been released in a handful of UK cinemas and is also available on VOD from Curzon Home Cinema. In the UK it has been given an ’18’ certificate for “sexual assault, strong sex”. I’m not sure that the depiction of sexual activity merits an 18, but the unremitting bleakness might. I’d still recommend the film.

We Come as Friends (France-Austria 2014)

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

The ironic message of welcome to US visitors in South Sudan

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680I went into this screening with some trepidation. All I knew was that it was a documentary set in South Sudan. Would it be harrowing? Would I learn anything new? Could I cope at the end of a very long day? (Festivals can be a test of endurance – it isn’t always the best way to encounter films.) I needn’t have worried. This was the most surprising film I saw at LFF. It made me laugh and it made me cry and it started with Keith Shiri, the festival’s Africa expert, suggesting that the film might be about the “pathology of colonialism in Africa” – one of the topics that interests me most. The added bonus was that the director Hubert Sauper was present for the Q&A. He had several friends/’plants’ in the audience and he was on rip-roaring form. Eventually NFT2 had to throw us out as the building was closing.

The title ‘We Come as Friends’ is the age-old greeting of duplicitous invaders/occupiers/colonisers – whether in Africa or in an episode of Star Trek. It signals that this documentary is about the colonisers – though the science fiction angle is in there too. The linking agent in the narrative is the strange little ‘microlight’ aircraft that Sauper and his colleagues built with its “lawnmower engine” mounted on top of the parasol wing. This peculiar little aircraft is non-threatening and capable of landing virtually anywhere. (It flies slowly and not very high.) In this way Sauper and his crewmate Sandor landed in many unlikely places including a large Chinese oil installation as well as small villages across South Sudan. He also told us that he discovered that the trick was to have an official-looking pilot’s uniform with hat and epaulettes. Dressed like this, he was able to negotiate with military chiefs, politicians etc. – whereas in ordinary clothes he had previously been given the brush-off.

Sauper adopts a seemingly passive role as a documentarist, so that those he films and interviews allow their own arrogance/prejudicial views to come through without prompting. At other times he plants ideas and lets them develop (as in the Chinese oil base where he leads a group of Chinese into a discussion about science fiction films). His focus is always the colonisers and what they bring into South Sudan – and what they take away. Several remarkable scenes emerge. In one instance Sauper lands in a village where the local chief is about to sign away the community’s land rights in a lease lasting many years to an American-owned company for a paltry sum of money. The local man has no real idea of the value of the land or the quasi-legal status of the document. Sauper argues that these kinds of deals are being made all the time and it is very rare to see the actual documents which purport to legalise the theft of local resources. Sudan was the largest country in Africa before it was split in two in 2011 and South Sudan is still a country with rich reserves of exploitable resources and a relatively small population of around 8 million. It’s also a country where ecological damage is threatening wildlife habitats and rainforest resources.

In some ways the most terrifying group of people Sauper encountered were the American Christian evangelists who have arrived to ‘save’ the people with solar-powered talking bibles and clothing to cover the naked children! The European colonisers are still present in Africa as arms dealers and industrial developers but the Chinese and Americans are the most visible in this film and both these groups of neo-colonialists are as dangerous as the earlier European settlers and economic exploiters. This film should make any Western/’Northern’ audience uncomfortable about what we have done in the past in ‘underdeveloping Africa’. In the last couple of weeks ‘Big Pharma’ – the global drugs companies – have finally started to move on anti-viral drugs to fight ebola in West Africa. They wouldn’t move on this until the death toll rose to a high enough level to make the demand for drugs great enough to justify investing in research and production. The political crisis in South Sudan in December 2013 has led to 1.7 million displaced persons many of whom are starving as makeshift camps are ravaged by disease. So as agencies like MSF are trying to save lives and develop healthcare it is shocking to know that governments and major corporations are intent on stealing the resources of the poor. In one of the scenes in the film in a bar, a businessman/local politician is discussing the benefits of American investment while in the background the TV is showing Hilary Clinton making a speech about how American investment must ‘do good’ as well as earn profits. Sauper explained that broadcasts like this are repeated on a regular basis so it was relatively straightforward to have his camera available at the right time.

It’s very important that this film gets seen and talked about. It’s not didactic and its subtle approach worked for me. The film has won festival prizes all over the world and it has opened in cinemas in France and Austria, the two home countries of the production funders. I really hope it gets other releases. I presume that it will appear on some documentary television channels.

After the screening, the tiniest bit of research revealed my ignorance about Sauper and his colleagues. This is the third film made in Central Africa that Sauper has completed. Kisangani Diary (45 mins, 1998) investigates the plight of Rwandan refugees who fled to what was then Zaire. Darwin’s Nightmare (107 mins, 2004) is a film about globalisation and neo-colonialist exploitation of the resources of the Lake Victoria region where planes fly in with food aid and fly out with cash crops – and then return selling arms. If it is anywhere near as good as We Come as Friends I want to see it.

The excellent website for We Come as Friends is where you can begin to discover this remarkable filmmaker. There you will find this trailer and much more:

Beti and Amare (Ethiopia-Germany-Canada 2014)

Local men approach Beti offering 'protection' against the Italians.

Local men approach Beti offering ‘protection’ against the Italians.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680The two young filmmakers behind Beti and Amare were present to introduce and discuss this festival screening at the ICA. Andy Siege performs most of the technical roles and appears himself in a small but crucial role in the film. Pascal Dawson plays ‘Amare’ and generally supports his working partner. Together the two are Kalulu Entertainment and this, their first fiction feature, is a ‘speculative fiction’ set in Ethiopia in 1936.

Andy Siege was born in Kenya to German aid workers and grew up in Africa and Europe, studying film in Canada. In the Q&A he identified as ‘African’. Pascal Dawson was born in Vancouver. The others in the small cast are Ethiopians, both experienced actors and non-professionals. The production budget was just €14,000. This isn’t noticeable in terms of the film overall except possibly with the archive footage of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was known then) in 1936 – which the credits suggest came from the Internet Archive. The film does switch between monochrome and colour and I couldn’t work out why (I did miss part of the introduction, perhaps it was explained then) – but I didn’t find this a problem.

The story is simple. A young woman, ‘Beti’ returns to her home region in Southern Abyssinia hoping to avoid the Italians. She stays with her grandfather in an isolated hut. He then sets off to buy a new goat, leaving the young woman in charge. She discovers that she faces a double challenge. A group of local men on horseback want to ‘protect her’ (and one wants to marry her) and she also fears that the Italians will appear. Then one day at the waterhole she discovers a strange young man, ‘Amare’. Where has he come from? Is he ill? Did he emerge naked from an egg? Is he real or a figment of her imagination? She decides to look after him. When trouble appears there are now two of them to face it together.

This is an imaginative use of familiar genre elements in an African context. African filmmakers struggle with lack of resources and audiences who have been mainly entertained by the crudest forms of Western, Indian and Hong Kong popular cinema. Could a film like this succeed in attracting audiences in Africa? I don’t know, but it does show how a quality production can be achieved on limited resources by filmmakers who have Africa in their hearts and the knowledge and contacts to exploit new technologies efficiently. So far the film has had mainly festival screenings. It will be interesting to see if it gets a wider distribution and if Kalulu can make more films in the same manner. I certainly enjoyed the film and I hope Kalulu succeed in their ambitions.

The official trailer:

Margarita With a Straw (India 2014)

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

Kalki Koechlin as Laila – experiencing a different kind of sexual excitement for the first time

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680(This is one of ten reports on films at the 58th London Film Festival – other reports can be found on The Case for Global Film Blog)

It will be interesting to see how this film fares on release in India. The biggest hurdle to a successful release is likely to be the presentation of lesbian sex scenes featuring a Pakistani character. Writer-director Shonali Bose appears fairly relaxed about the prospect, counting on the audience to react sensibly. She may well be proved right since the Indian audience for the film is likely to be confined to middle-class urbanites. I hope it does go wider because it isn’t an art film. I also hope that it gets a significant release in international markets.

The title refers to the alcoholic drink of preference for the film’s central character Laila, a young woman from Delhi with cerebral palsy who is determined to experience everything life has to offer. Laila’s story is a very personal project for Shonali Bose who wrote the film soon after the accidental death of her son and chose to draw on the experiences of her cousin who has cerebral palsy. The film is co-produced by Viacom 18, Jakhatia Group, Bose’s own Ishant Talkies and ADAPT (the Indian agency ‘Able Disabled All People Together’).

The star performance in the film is by Kalki Koechlin as Laila. Shonali Bose was present at the screening in Islington and she answered the inevitable question about why she hadn’t cast someone with cerebral palsy to play the lead role. She explained that she had tried to find the right person but eventually decided that because of the emotional nature of several major scenes, she needed someone with extensive acting experience. Kalki Koechlin is mesmerising and That Girl In Yellow Boots proves that she can do things that many Bollywood stars would find impossible.

The plot sees Laila, a bright and talented young woman in a Delhi college become frustrated by both the academic and creative limitations she faces. In addition she is frustrated in attempts to develop her love life – she is an ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair. Reluctantly her father agrees to her move to New York University on a scholarship. At first her mother accompanies her but soon she has teamed up with a more experienced blind Pakistani student and the two share an apartment. All goes well until the couple travel back to Delhi and several secrets are exposed.

Shonali Bose trained as a filmmaker at UCLA and this is her second film following Amu in 2005 with Konkona Sen Sharma. She spends her time between LA and Mumbai. Her first film was an international festival success but faced censorship in India (it refers to the 1984 attacks on Sikhs following the assassination of Indhira Gandhi). But whereas the first film was mainly in English, Margarita With a Straw switches between Hindi for most of the Delhi scenes and English in New York. Cast and crew are a mix of ‘international’ and Indian. The film is photographed by Anne Misawa, another Californian graduate (who also shot the Korean indie Treeless Mountain (South Korea-US 2008)). Mikey McLeary is a New Zealander working as a music composer out of Mumbai and sound design includes work by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Nilesh Maniyar is credited as co-writer and co-director though there is no indication of what this means in practice (he was at the Q&A in London). The cast includes Revathi (Asha Kutty) the experienced star of many Indian language cinemas and recently in 2 States (2014) as the Tamil mother. William Moseley is an English actor and the star of the first two Narnia films. Sayani Gupta, who plays the Pakistani young woman, is an FTII graduate and in 2012 she featured in a Bengali film Tasher Desh, part-produced by Anurag Kashyap Films. Perhaps she met Kalki Koechlin (Kashyap’s partner) at this point?

What all this adds up to I think is something rather more ‘international/global’ than Indian independent. Perhaps her two features place Shonali Bose alongside Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta as ‘diaspora filmmakers’? I enjoyed the film very much and found it very moving. I was slightly worried in the first section because the incident which partly triggers Laila’s ‘rebellion’ seemed such an obvious slight (Laila’s music group is given a prize seemingly because she is ‘disabled’). But of course such stupidity does happen. Laila, through the script and Koechlin’s performance, is a rounded human being – capable of being petty, mean and selfish as much as vivacious, loving and charming. If I have a criticism of the film it is that Laila’s acceptance by everyone she meets in the New York scenes seemed simply too good to be true. I expect that not all the bus drivers, waiters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers in New York are quite so cheery and helpful – they aren’t in London! Just a little grit and rejection would have helped, but this is a minor quibble. The film is a triumph and deserves to be widely seen. I should also mention the music since this is Laila’s unique talent – in the lyrics she writes and in the singing with her mother. The effect of this film is certainly ‘feelgood’ – but not in a contrived, artificial way. Instead we see somebody living their life and not allowing their own physical difficulties or anyone else’s preconceptions stand in their way. You can’t ask more than that in a story.

It looks like an Indian release is planned but I’m not sure if it has been picked up for North American or UK distribution yet. Variety reported in September that WIDE Sales have a deal for Japan in 2015 and that ‘two or three’ distributors are interested for North America and two for the UK. Having wowed audiences at Toronto, Busan and now London you hope that a distributor would get behind it.

Here’s the rather good ‘International Trailer’:

Nomura #5: The Demon (Kichiku, Japan 1978)

Sokichi and Oume (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi and Oume (from DVD Beaver)

portrait-without-bleedThe final Nomura film in Bradford’s retrospective was described initially as bringing an element of horror into its crime melodrama. I’m not sure that is an appropriate description (it might have been more appropriate for The Shadow Within). The title ‘Demon‘ certainly suggests horror but I would argue that this is a melodrama featuring ‘extremes’ of cruelty and despair. Certainly there is nothing supernatural. Possibly it could be argued that the behaviour exhibited by some characters is ‘abnormal’ – but then many crimes might be the result of abnormal behaviour. The literal translation of the title is more revealing, suggesting the kind of character we eventually meet as ‘brutal’.

The earlier Nomura films based on Matsumoto stories have referred to various social issues and in this case it is the issue of marital relations and childcare coupled with low income. The central character is a married man, Sokichi (Ogata Ken, also a leading player in Castle of Sand) who fathers three children with a mistress. His own marriage is childless and he works alongside his wife Oume (Iwashita Shima) in a small-scale printing business. When money becomes tight in the failing business he can’t afford to pay for the upkeep of his children. As a consequence, the mistress appears one day, dumps the children (6, 3 and an infant) at the printshop and disappears. Oume is furious and refuses to have anything to do with them.

Sokichi with the three children (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi with the three children (from DVD Beaver)

Sokichi has a complicated problem – what to do with his children when his wife doesn’t want them. I don’t want to reveal what happens (a Region 1 DVD is available) but suffice to say his increasingly desperate attempts to rid himself of the children become more unbearable as the narrative progresses. Sokichi at first seems to care for his children (who love him as their father) but eventually he is driven to actions which deny this. At one point I thought I was going to find it difficult to watch the narrative unfold. I was then quite surprised to find that the last third of the film was gripping and in a strange way it ended as a humanist melodrama. Nomura re-visits the Noto peninsula which featured at the end of Zero no shoten for the climax of the film. Although the police do become involved, like The Shadow Within, The Demon is essentially a family drama. The film won several awards in Japan, including best actor for Ogata and best director. Ogata’s performance is extraordinary, making us feel for a man despite his despicable behaviour. Shima is equally good as a woman who has become almost the equivalent of a wicked witch in a fairy tale. I don’t think we learn whether she is actually infertile or whether she has chosen to remain childless. Certainly she shows no maternal instinct.

Like many of Matsumoto’s stories this appears to be based on a true story. Such stories are all too common in the press and on television news. It’s hard to imagine how a family story like this can be adapted so successfully but Nomura and his scriptwriter (in this case Ide Masato, who worked with Kurosawa on three films) manage the task. The film was screened on a digital format and perhaps lacked the colours of a film print but Kawamata Takashi’s camerawork is up to the same standard as in the earlier films. I didn’t notice the music because I was so engrossed by the story. I’m not sure that this was my favourite film of the five Nomuras, but the more I think about it, the more of an exceptional artistic and commercial achievement it becomes.

Nomura #4: Castle of Sand (Suna no utsuwa, Japan 1974)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The two detectives (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

portrait-without-bleedThis was presented at Bradford as the biggest hit for Nomura Yoshitaro, surprising his studio Shochiku since it was thought to be an old-fashioned film. The film is much longer than the others in the retrospective at 143 minutes. It’s an adaptation of Matsumoto’s 1961 novel. The English translation of 1989 gives the novel a new title – ‘Inspector Imanishi Investigates’. It also suggests that the direct translation of the Japanese title is ‘Vessel of Sand’. Nomura illustrates the title with a sequence in which a boy makes small castles of sand which crumble as they dry in the sun.

In one sense the film goes back to the straightforward police procedural found in Stakeout. Once again the narrative is full of train trips – criss-crossing the main island of Honshu from the North-East to the West and then to the South and the city of Ise before coming back to Tokyo. The length of the film is a result of a long final sequence in which the main suspect is engaged in playing his own composition for piano and orchestra in a public performance. As in the other films I was reminded of a Hitchcock film – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – with a grand set piece. But I didn’t get quite the ending I expected.

Inspector Imanishi is an unconventional character in the Matsumoto book who is made slightly more conventional in the film as played by Tanba Tetsuro, though he retains the book character’s doggedness and still writes poetry. He and his young assistant are called to a railway yard in Tokyo where a body has been found without any form of identification. The only clue comes from a bar assistant who had earlier heard the man talking to a second man in a ‘North-Eastern accent’. What follows is a satisfying procedural sequence in which the detectives eventually place the name the victim is supposed to have spoken in the bar and linked it to the accent, but this actually sends them West to a remote region. Another long slog, a slice of luck and good observation coupled with imagination leads them eventually to a possible suspect, a concert pianist played by Kato Go from The Shadow Within, but this time with fashionable sunglasses and looking quite suave. But still the detectives struggle to make links between their different sets of evidence. In the end it is Ryu Chisu, the great actor from Ozu’s films, who in the role of a village elder remembers a part of the long story of the murdered man that enables the detectives to finally make the breakthrough.

The 'excluded' figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

The ‘excluded’ figures venturing through the Japanese landscape (from: http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

As in Matsumoto’s other crime stories, there is an important social issue at stake in the narrative. This time it is a particular form of social exclusion that still operated in the Japanese countryside in the early war years. Nomura shows the excluded figures kept out of villages, often in settings which connote the beauty and tranquility of Japanese rural life (see above). This ironic juxtapostion is then underpinned by the orchestral music which builds up the excessive emotion of the melodrama. The stigma that underpins this narrative was still prevalent in 1974 and the film ends with an explanation that there is no basis for its continuing social impact. Tom Vincent has suggested to me that it was this issue that helped to make the film a hit and that it was widely supported for its stand in this regard. A second issue is the rebuilding of lives following the devastation of war. The detectives discover that all public records in Osaka were destroyed by Allied fire-bombing – and that they could only be recovered by allowing the survivors to verify their own identities. What more could the writer of melodrama want than the perfect narrative device for switching identities?

I was totally convinced by this melodrama/police procedural but I spoke to other members of the audience who really couldn’t cope with the final section. It’s a shame that melodrama has become such a ‘dirty word’ in the UK and I still don’t understand how it happened. I guess that Castle of Sand is an old-fashioned film even for 1974. At one point I noticed that there was hand-held camerawork in a bar-room scene. How outlandish it seemed! Old-fashioned yes, but there is such a lot to admire from the performances and the script to the wonderful journeys across so many Japanese landscapes presented in colour and ‘Scope. We were very fortunate to watch a 35mm print produced by Shochiku after digital restoration in 2009 and it looked wonderful.

Here’s a trailer for a US release:

Nomura #3: The Shadow Within (Kage no kuruma, Japan 1970)

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

One of the disturbing sights facing the protagonist in THE SHADOW WITHIN. Is that a noose fashioned by the child or is he attempting to set up a swing? (from http://rozmon.blogspot.co.uk)

portrait-without-bleedThe third Nomura film at BIFF marks something of a change in style, though the narrative content, still based on a Matsumoto story, remains consistent. The colour 16mm Scope print was less buckled but the colour had faded badly. Unfortunately this film includes some flashback footage that is subject to various visual effects and they seem to have deteriorated more than the rest of the film creating some very odd images. More disturbing for me is the soundtrack now featuring what Festival Director Tom Vincent referred to as enka music. I don’t have the knowledge and experience to discuss this Japanese popular music form of the 1970s, but I’m usually happier with orchestral classical/jazz scores. I think Tom referred to ‘lounge music’ but that was a much later term in Western music – perhaps it originated in Japan?

1970 marks a high point when Japan was more affluent and more comfortable with ‘Japaneseness’ than in the first decades after the war. It was the year of the Osaka Expo and just six years on from the Tokyo Olympiad. Japan was now on a par with many developed countries and the future looked good. Only three years later the oil crisis would temper economic growth but the economy would continue to grow again from the late 1970s. Society too was changing and gradually ‘modernising’. However, the film industry was in crisis with the major studios losing money and smaller independents gaining ground alongside foreign imports (mostly from Hollywood). One impact on the traditional crime melodramas that were Nomura’s focus is the depiction of overt sexual activity. By 1970 the so-called pinku eiga or ‘pink films’ were beginning to establish soft porn as a major genre/mode in Japanese cinema. This doesn’t mean that The Shadow Within is soft porn – far from it –but we do see the central couple in bed making passionate love, mainly under the sheets and in some shots showing much more skin than would have been possible in mainstream Japanese genres in 1961, the date of the earlier Nomura title that we watched.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

Tom Vincent and Chiaki Omori of Shochiku International gave an introduction to the film and the work of Nomura and Matsumoto before each of the last four films.

The Shadow Within is a film about adultery and the difficulties faced by single parents attempting new relationships. However, unlike the earlier two Nomura films the narrative here focuses on the man as the ‘active’ player in the narrative. Now in his thirties, Hamajima Yukio (Katô Gô) is what I assume was seen as a ‘salary man’ in 1970s Japan, though he seems to have some degree of autonomy in running a busy travel agency in Tokyo. He works long hours and doesn’t get much support and comfort at home in the suburbs – where his wife is usually busy with one of her several local business ventures, most of which seem to involve her female friends invading the house. There might be an interesting narrative about the newly entrepreneurial woman here but that isn’t what concerns Matsumoto and Nomura. The couple is childless and outside of work Yukio doesn’t have any interests. One day, on the bus home, he spots a woman he thinks he knows and when they eventually speak he realises that they were at school together. Teiko (Iwashita Shima) is now a widow with a small son and it isn’t long before Yukio is invited to her house to meet the 6 year-old son, Ken. As in many Japanese films, little is said about childcare for the boy (is he at home on his own all day?), but as their relationship develops Yukio begins to visit the house before Teiko gets home and he looks after the boy when the child’s mother is kept out late selling insurance.

The central section of the narrative shows the developing relationship. Yukio spends more and more time with Teiko and her son – his own wife is seemingly too busy to notice. But gradually, Yukio begins to get the feeling that the boy resents him. This sounds like a conventional melodrama development but Nomura manages to develop the story in several interesting ways. The child playing the son is distinctly creepy, almost like a forerunner of the late 1990s J-horror children and gradually we realise that it is having an effect on Yukio. Is he becoming paranoid or is the child really trying to harm him? Is what we see actually happening or is this Yukio’s imagination? Around this point in the narrative Nomura introduces the flashbacks which show us Yukio as a small boy in a similar situation, living with his single mother when a man joins the family group. The final section of the film then moves into a full-blown psychological family melodrama.

The Shadow Within is a melodrama in which the criminal act which eventually requires police investigation comes from within the family melodrama – i.e. it itself does not ‘drive’ the narrative. The appearance of the police is thus quite brief at the end of the film. Again it’s very difficult not to think of Hitchcock in the final scenes when, during a police interview, we are invited to watch two or three large black crows, seemingly peering in the window. I enjoyed the film as much as the others in the Nomura retrospective and I was very taken by the performance of Iwashita Shima as the woman. Katô Gô as Yukio was able to move from stolid normalcy to become the focus for paranoia as the narrative developed.

Here is the Japanese trailer (no subs) which illustrates several of the style points discussed above (the effects footage, the music, more overt sexual activity etc.):