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.

Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

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:

Mitsuko Delivers (Hara Ga Kore Nande, Japan 2011)

Japanese poster with Naka Riisa as Mitsuko and Nakamura Aoi as Yuichi

The Leeds Film Festival Programme tells us that writer-director Ishii Yuya is a ‘Leeds favourite’. I assume that this is a reference to the young man’s (he’s still only 27/28) previous film Sawako Decides that seems to have been very successful on the international festival circuit. In fact he has produced some eight features in six years since graduating from film school in Osaka. Mitsuko Delivers has so far been seen at Vancouver, Busan, London and Tokyo – picking up high praise from Tony Rayns and slightly bemused and fairly negative reactions from Variety and Hollywood Reporter.

I enjoyed the film very much and the fairly healthy audience at the Hyde Park seemed to be laughing along with it. I’m struggling to pin down a classification but it’s possibly a ‘comedy melodrama’? Mitsuko is coming to the end of her pregnancy. She seems unconcerned about the birth, even though her gynaecologist tells her that her pregnancy has never ‘stabilised’. In fact she isn’t phased by anything, including the fact that the father of her baby, an American GI, took her to California and then dumped her. (All she can remember about him is that he’s ” kinda big and black”. Now she is back in Tokyo, penniless and accepting eviction from her flat. Her philosophy is to find her cloud in the sky and follow it as the wind moves it. In this case it takes her back to a poor street in a forgotten area of Tokyo where she lived as a child for a period 15 years ago. A sepia-toned flashback then reveals how things were and who the significant people in her life were. The melodrama plot now brings them all back into play in the same street in the present so that Mitsuko can ‘solve’ their problems in the few days before the baby is due.

Tony Rayns suggests that the film could be “a lacerating satire of the pickled nostalgia and homey working-class stereotypes of Shochiku’s old Tora-san series, but Ishii gives it a brio and originality which transcend satire”. I haven’t seen any of the mammoth series of Tor-san films, but I did recognise all the types from comedies and social dramas over many years of Japanese Cinema, coming right up to date with the unemployed salary-man who can’t tell his wife that he’s lost his job (e.g. in Tokyo Sonata). The film works for me because of the confident handling of both the younger and older actors whose different performance styles are blended her and then further stylised. The exaggerating playing then gets a couple of boosts in the film’s climax with some absurdist touches. I’m not sure what Rayns means by his “transcends satire” comment. I think that the narrative does make you think about a nostalgia for the kind of humanist dramas we used to see and how much better the world would be with a bit more sense of looking after each other. As the agent for all of this, Mitsuko is an interesting character – both annoying and endearing at the same time. As her childhood sweetheart Yoichi says following her re-appearance in his life and her attempts to revive his moribund local restaurant, “We have lots more customers now – but the profits haven’t gone up”. Mitsuko cajoles customers in and then offers them food “on the house”.

He makes you think and he makes you laugh – as long as you approach his film in the right frame of mind. Ishii Yuya looks like a real talent to watch.

Tsai Ming-Liang in Leeds

The 'Madame Butterfly' character awakes in her hotel room.

The Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang appeared at the Leeds International Film Festival in November over a couple of days as part of an event organised by Leeds University Centre for World Cinemas and the Taipei Representative Office. On the first day he introduced a screening of his film The Wayward Cloud (2005) and on the next day he took part in a study morning at the university followed by an afternoon screening of his short film Madame Butterfly and a Q & A. Before the screening he was presented with the LIFF’s first Golden Owl Lifetime Achievement Award by the festival’s director Chris Fell.

Madame Butterfly is a 36 minute short film produced for the celebration of Puccini’s 150th anniversary in Lucca organised by the ‘Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini’. This French/Italian/Taiwan production was shot, in Malay, in Kuala Lumpur. I need to describe the short, but doing so doesn’t really offer spoilers since ‘narrative resolution’ in the conventional sense isn’t what this film is about. The scenario is very simple – a woman is seen in a Kuala Lumpur Bus Station, attempting to buy a ticket home. But she doesn’t have enough money left after paying a hotel bill that was bigger than she had budgeted for. Although the bus company are willing to accept her offer to pay slightly less, she attempts to phone her boyfriend who she blames for the size of the hotel bill. The whole film is presented in three long takes, shot by Tsai himself on a digital video format (he doesn’t tell us what format, but he implies that the camera was quite large). The first two takes cover the scenes in the bus station, ending with a close-up framing in which the woman finds a hair in the soft bread roll that she is eating. The third shot returns us to the hotel where the woman awoke earlier to find her lover already gone, leaving only a couple of hairs on the pillow.

I’m not familiar with the Madame Butterfly story, so I accepted Tsai’s explanation that his interpretation of the story is that it is about a woman waiting for her lover to return after they have parted. I’m not sure what I thought when I watched the film. I was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur’s bus station and this was effectively represented via Tsai’s camera which followed the woman as she moved through the crowds. As far as I could see, the camera was held quite low down which reminded me of the Ozu position of the child’s eye view (although of course Ozu didn’t move the camera to follow his characters in this way). I asked Tsai about this, but he denied that the camerawork was ‘designed’ in any way – he was simply trying to record what happened to the character. In the final scene, however, he told us that he waited with his actress all day in the bedroom, shooting her in bed asleep and waiting until the sun coming into the room provided the lighting that gave the image the mood or tone that he was looking for. Several critics have commented on this shot as depicting the ‘morning light’, but unless Tsai is playing with us, it must be the afternoon light.

The notion of a ‘playful’ director who tells us contradictory things about his work is something that accompanies many film ‘artists’. To sit in the wonderful surroundings of The Hyde Park Cinema in Leeds and to watch a short film and hear the director discuss his work is to experience a coherent art event. The audience, which was primarily composed of Chinese students in the stalls where I was sitting, had come to see the artist and were quite happy to listen to him for the best part of 45 mins before the Q & A proper. Tsai sees himself as an artist first rather than a filmmaker working in an industry. He isn’t worried by his relatively limited output. Now in his early 50s, Tsai has been involved in filmmaking for around twenty years in Taiwan and in that time he’s produced some twelve features and five short films or ‘segments’. That actually seems an impressive output to me but he stressed that he only works when he feels ‘creative’. (He also intimated that he felt old – God help the rest of us!).

There was surprisingly little discussion of the film as such and, as you might expect, Tsai didn’t wish to ‘explain’ it. It was clearly restricted in terms of budget and it should have used a song but the budget wouldn’t run to it. Thus one actor and the writer/director/camera operator comprised the crew. The sound is mostly ‘direct’.

Tsai was keen to promote his own status as an ‘artist’, claiming to be the only Asian film director to make ‘personal’ films and seeing the future as requiring arthouse cinemas to be more like galleries. He is clearly resigned to the death of ‘film as art’ for popular audiences suggesting that “audiences in Europe are changing – and not for the better”. The closure of traditional cinema palaces and the move to multiplexes in shopping malls means that “cinema is just another form of shopping”. (These ideas form the backdrop to Tsai’s 2003 feature Goodbye Dragon Inn, set in the last Taipei traditional cinema for its final screening – of King Hu’s 1961 classic film, Dragon Inn.) Tsai concluded that alongside galleries, universities were the only hope for future arthouse screenings. “Cinema must become culture”, he said. Perhaps we should get him into discussion with the new Culture Minister? It’s ironic that much as congratulations must go to Leeds University and the LIFF for bringing him over, elsewhere many UK university cinemas/film societies are increasingly showing mainstream films.

In the closing section, Tsai responded to the usual questions about influences, filmmakers he admires etc. In a follow-up to my Ozu question, he mentioned that Ann Hui had recently made a film that had the ‘atmosphere’ of Ozu. I think he was referring to The Way We Are (HK 2008). He confirmed his cinephilia by quoting Bazin on Chaplin and associated his decision to wait for the sun through the bedroom window in Madame Butterfly with a book written by “Kurosawa Akira’s assistant” called something like “Wait Until The Cloud Comes” – but I haven’t managed to find this title.

I had to dash for a bus so I missed the last few minutes, but it had been an entertaining afternoon and thanks must go to the Centre for World Cinemas and the LIFF and especially to the principal organiser Ming-Yeh Rawnsley who chaired the discussion and acted as translator.

Children of the Beehive (Japan 1948)

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

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

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

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

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