Monday, March 31, 2008


Did director Yasuzo Masumura have a personal interest in s & m or did he simply find it metaphorical for the Japanese psyche? Moju (Blind Beast), based on an Edogawa Rampo story, was a cinematic treatise on sado-masochistic desire and its ramifications. Heitai Yakuza (Hoodlum Soldier) (1965) examines Japanese social hierarchy and its s & m leanings through a story of a yakuza serving in the Japanese army, stationed in Manchuria. The yakuza (played by Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro) ends up being a punching bag for almost every senior officer, all who seem to have some kind of chip on their soldier. Because of rank he's not allowed to hit back. But you know that won't last for too long. It must be tough growing up in a country where you always have to answer to someone; where concepts of seniority and superiority are so ingrained in everyday life, from family to school to the workplace and so on, that the subconcious is built for abuse or to dish it out if the chance arises. The screenplay allows Masumura to question this behavior, seemingly di rigeur for the society as a whole (imagine CEOs verbally lambasting sallarymen and senpai - kohai ijime). A subversive voice emerges through the relationship between the yakuza and an idealistic conscientious objector officer that befriends and protects him. There are Lots of beatings and fights, because the yakuza naturally is a real scrapper and takes on several men at the same time. Quite compelling and it spawned several sequels. We can thank Ian Buruma for selecting it for Asia Society's yakuza film series, which you can read more about in my article here. The whole idea of getting beaten on and then fighting back reminds me of that 70's kung fu trailer that had the tag line "he takes a licking and keeps on kicking." And I think the voice over artist on that was Adolph Caeser.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The opening and ending of a film are arguably the most crucial moments. They contain the power to express the entirety of the story in a single sequence. There is also a potential for poetry if they merge together symmetrically or harmoniously. Here are some prime examples of great openings:

Midnight Cowboy A nice complex mix of sound and visual design. The opening becomes an intricate visual metaphor for the aboutness of the movie, summed up in about 10 seconds. The sounds of a cowboy & Indians shoot em up give way to the reality of a lonely child amusing himself in an abandoned drive-in.

The Wild Angels Another succinct visual metaphor, which features a kid on a big wheel imprisoned by a white picket fence, while the appearance of motorcycle rebel Peter Fonda signifies the threat of 'otherness.'

Enter the Dragon
Hey, it opens with Bruce Lee cleaning up the mat with Sammo Hung. Ok, Sammo is fat and Bruce is buff but still, Sammo can flip and kick, they're outdoors surrounded by kung fu monks, the music is cool, Bruce is bad-ass - visceral action in its purest form.

Now, without giving too much a way, let's talk about some terrific endings:

The 400 Blows This pretty much sums up pangs of adolescence and juvenile angst to a tee. Nice use of the freeze frame. Sends quivers up my spine every time as Antoine finds himself at the edge of the earth.

Stroszek This is an incredibly powerful blend of documentary and narrative. The finale captures Americana in its most crude and pure form; a moment full of truth, if you consider the New York Chinatown arcade, which for years featured a dancing chicken.
The Harder They Come The visual storytelling in this antihero ballad triumphs over its low budget. All that has passed before in the story of Ivan the outlaw reggae singer comes together in the devastating climax as he asks for one man to come out and draw, a la the Italian western Django.

Two Lane Blacktop Possibly the greatest ending of all. It's metaphoric and incredibly powerful; formally complex and simple at the same time. Sheer genius.

Please suggest more examples...

Now I'm thinking of the greatest opening sequence ever. What is it? First one right gets a prize.

Friday, March 07, 2008

2 manly men, 1 geisha, lots of brooding and a bloody finish

Asia Society kicked off their yakuza film series, Gamblers, Gangsters and other Anti-heroes, with Tomu Uchida's 1968 version of Koyo Ozaki's oft filmed novel Jinsei Gekijo or Theatre of Life. The complete title of this version is Jinsei Gekijo: Hishakaku to Kiratsune - those are the names of the two protagonists at the end, thus the English translated title of A Tale of Two Yakuza. Series curator Ian Buruma gave an informative introduction, explaining how this was an example of the classical ninkyo yakuza films that were popular in the 60's. He mentioned discovering these films while living in Japan in the 70's and sometimes attending all night yakuza movie marathons. He also related how even the sanctuary seeking audience members who had dozed off would awake at every predictable climactic finale to urge on stars like Ken Takakura. One interesting word of encouragement he said was 'shine' (pronounced 'she nay') or 'die.' These cries weren't fueled by pure blood lust, but since the hero's death was inevitable they wanted him to die beautifully, as Mr. Buruma explained.

The movie is well constructed with meticulous plotting and structural devices, though a little bogged down dramatically. The majority of time is spent on a deliberately paced love triangle. Thankfully there's a stylish explosion of violent action at the end. This is metaphoric and cathartic for the emotional turmoil brought upon the characters by the giri ninjo dilema. Uchida frames interestingly enough on this sound stage production, adding a dash of theatrical and emotional vibrancy while remaining comfortably inside the formula. He also brings out strong performances from the all star cast, which included yakuza film icons Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta in the leads. Junko Fuji, who would go on to her own yakuza star turn in the Red Peony series, plays the geisha of their affections.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Watch out for that fork Lee!

Film Forum is giving this Richard Fleischer b-grade, color heist film, Violent Saturday a week run. Most of the time is spent on suburban soap opera, but all of it with an element of perversion lying beneath a happy Americana exterior. The nebbish bank manager is a peeping tom. When he finally confesses to the hot nurse who he's been spying on while she undresses, she flippantly laughs it off and says with a smile, 'we both learned something. From now on I'll pull down the window shade' . Lee Marvin plays one of the hold-up men and is creepy and sinister with his jittery behavior and obsessive use of a nasal inhaler. J. Carol Naish is another good villainous show-stealer who gets a great line when they rob the bank. He give a meddlesome little kid some candy and says 'put that in your kisser and suck on it.' Victor Mature is likable enough as the near flawless pedestrian hero. In a way this reminded me of Fritz Lang's Big Heat, which also features Lee Marvin - this time as a baddie who finds a sadistic use for hot coffee. The similarities are the balance of cornball Americana background and simmering angst and perversion. Neither film is a total success but each have their moments. And boy does Ernest Borgnine look well-cast as an Amish farmer. Fleishcer directs competently and predictably. Establishing shot, shot/reverse shot, pan in and pan out to emphasize the melodrama, etc. and not too much hysteria from the actors. Great title though. It will go in my festival of provocative titles, though maybe they should have saved this moniker for a more feisty heist film, like Charley Varrick.

The return of Walker

I interviewed Alex Cox on Thursday, 2/28/08. He was very gracious as we talked a lot about spaghetti westerns and the like. He was in town for Film Scoiety of Lincoln Center's Film Comment selects series. The closing night featured a screening of his 1987 political allegory Walker, his latest microfeature Searchers 2.0, and q & a with Alex and also Walker screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. Walker, which was pretty much buried on its initial theatrical release by Universal, has had something of a comeuppance with its recent Criterion DVD. It's a pretty anarchic film with Alex's loony sense of humor underlining the absurdity of the subject matter - imperialism, colonialism, and the random violence that ensues therein. There are some anachronisms thrown in for good measure too.