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Manji (aka Swastika)

Asian Cinema, Classic, Festival, Film Festival, Review Leave a Comment

Japanese films have this particular relation to the Western tradition and there is a mutual fascination and mirroring going on that has lasted for decades. Just think of The Magnificent Seven, one of the most iconic cowboy films in the canon, which was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. In pulp cinema too, there are parallels. This melodrama made in 1964 is a kind of harbinger of the sexual revolution but with a very Japanese twist. Its slightly lurid palette and emotional musical score recalls 1960s films from Hollywood. Partly now, some of this seems kitsch but there is something both endearing and attractive about its approach.

The heroine of the picture is a young married woman called Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), who tells her complicated tale of lust and betrayal in flashback mode. She was determined to be a dutiful wife in the terms of the day but at her art class she comes across an alluring model called Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The model’s irresistible beauty brings out a latent lesbian desire in Sonoko and the two embark on a secret affair. Sonoko’s husband is appropriately shocked and tries to coral her back into the marriage by reminding her of the weight of society’s disapproval. Sonoko becomes mildly hysterical at this point and declares that her lust for Mitsuko outweighs all rational and conventional moral considerations. Later, the two lesbian lovers engineer various schemes to draw both the husband and Mitsuko’s boyfriend into a game of plot and counter plot. This being Japan, there also has to be an element of a suicide pact that will seal the fate of the lovers.

Far from being a simple case of the transgressors getting what they deserve, and the conventional order being preserved, Yazuo Masumura’s film recognises the lover’s logic of desire and leaves the question of, which is the true morality, open. Even so, the film does take a very soft focus approach to the mechanics of their love (In the Realm of the Senses, it ain’t) but, in its chaste and histrionic way, it comes out as a plea for tolerance and a comment on the wastefulness of repressed lives.

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Thirst Street

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Thirst Street gets us in right from the word go. Its central character Gina (a superb Lindsay Burdge) is an American flight attendant, who comes home to find that her boyfriend has hanged himself. This would, needless to say, tend to unhinge anyone, but Gina is a more vulnerable and immature individual than most. She’s also the kind of person who seems incapable of reading body language or taking hints, whether they be from lovers or just people she’s boring in casual conversation…

In any event, Gina soon finds herself in Paris, at a sleazy bar/strip-joint, where she meets – and has a one-night stand with – the barman, Jerome (Damien Bonnard). She falls for him, precipitously and obsessively, and while the feeling does not appear to be mutual Jerome makes a concerted effort to be patient with her. This being basically a psychological suspense thriller, it would not do to reveal more about the plot.

Thirst Street is not Fatal Attraction revisited, and its characters are not archetypes. Gina isn’t abidingly dislikeable – we feel more sorry and embarrassed for her than anything else – and Jerome has his serious faults. This is suspenseful and nervily atmospheric cinema: we can’t look away for a second. The script is intelligent, and the accompanying sound and vision are highly effective. Whether it be Gina singing “Time Is On My Side” at karaoke, Anjelica Huston’s dry narration or the cinematographer’s use of lurid colour, everything is done to make this low-budget and understated film a believable and memorable one.

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Blue Velvet Revisited

Documentary, experimental, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Back in 1985, a young German filmmaker named Peter Braatz corresponded with director David Lynch (fresh off the ill-fated Dune) during pre-production on his upcoming film Blue Velvet and pitched the legendary artist/filmmaker the idea of documenting his new film’s production on Super 8mm. Lynch was up for it and afforded Braatz total access. What Braatz captured is the minutiae of the day to day filming, short interviews with actors such as Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch-regular Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (“I wouldn’t play this type of role for any other director”), Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern. Production crew are less forthcoming, though Braatz captures audio of almost everyone discussing aspects of the production; cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps mostly to himself, even so there’s a considerable amount of Super 8mm and stills from the set documenting (largely in chronological order) the shooting of all the key scenes.

If Blue Velvet was a film that held sway over your brain when you first experienced it and lingers still, then this film is a stream of consciousness resurgence of all the free-form dream logic that Lynch unleashed on us to mess with our brains those thirty odd years ago. Seeing the mundanity of the production that helped create it, is something of a joy to watch. The editing style is fragmented and drifts pleasantly along, audio interviews form a large part of the narration, peppered with short Super 8mm interviews that were captured by Braatz with Lynch, who gives his impressions of how the production is going.

This will absolutely appeal to fans of Lynch and Blue Velvet though the style is not the most accessible. The footage, as it stands, is phenomenally crisp and clear and the feeling of time and place is startling’ that said, it would’ve been great to hear the surviving cast members recall their experiences on the film retrospectively. This is a must see for Lynch fans and for those in the thrall of the ‘mysteries of love’.

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Ramen Shop (2018 Japanese Film Festival)

Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The power of food and travel is brought to life in this emotive drama from Singaporean director Eric Khoo. Exploring the cultural exchange between Japan and Singapore, as well as a glimpse of the troubling war time history, Ramen Shop explores the desire to understand more about personal history and identity.

The story centres on Masato (Saito), a Japanese Ramen chef driven to discover more about his parents’ past after his father passes away. Through a love of Singaporean flavours and cooking, and the following of Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) food blog, the young man takes swift steps to discover his family’s past, travelling to Singapore to find out more about his history and the country’s cooking styles.

The film delights in showcasing the various stages of preparing tasty looking dishes, but it does so with real purpose and becomes a lot more than just a food magazine show. Food and the meaning of culinary enjoyment takes on a wider scope here as Masato, with Mei Lian’s help, uncovers more of the truth and attempts to heal rifts caused by painful memories.

The pure value of food and cooking is proven as Masato finds out more about Ramen Teh – a blending of Japanese ramen and Singaporean bak kut teh, a type of tea made with pork bone. The mixture of the two nations is similarly part of his own life, with his father having left Japan for Singapore to become a chef. It is here that he met Masato’s mother (Seiko Matsuda). The couple’s relationship was not favoured by Masato’s grandmother, a proud Singaporean lady who experienced firsthand the terror of Japanese occupation during the war. Masato’s parents then left for Japan, where Masato was born and lived ever since.

It is this combination of personal history and the importance of food as a cultural signifier that makes the film both entertaining and informative. Ramen Shop does not shy away from difficult areas; an account of brutality witnessed during the occupation is heard during a visit to the city history museum, and the gravity of trying to understand history and its effects is given due gravity.

Effective too is the power of a love never known, in Masato’s case his mother’s, who became ill when he was still a young child. Her diary and notes speak to him across the void, and tells him of the soothing strength of nature and landscape. This is translated onto film in gorgeous style, with the breeze rolling across fields and meadows as her voice gently intones her poetry and life essence to Masato. Calming and thoughtful, Ramen Shop is a film to be savoured.

Image © Zhao Wei Films, Wild Orange Artists, Version Originale, Comme des Cinémas

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Putin’s Witnesses

Documentary, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

One of the titular witnesses here is the film’s director and narrator, Vitaly Mansky. “Tacit consent turns witnesses into accomplices,” he observes. And he should know, having been a key accomplice of Vladimir Putin’s from the get-go: most of the footage here was originally shot in order to help Putin’s first (2000) election campaign. Mansky has since ‘seen the light’, and now revisits that period in a mood of deep retrospective concern and apparent regret.

Anyone can change their mind, of course, but there’s something a tad uncomfortable – maybe disingenuous – here. Still, the result is interesting, and just occasionally fascinating. There is revelatory stuff – a mixture of interviews, chat and (rather too much) family footage – about Boris Yeltsin, of whom Putin was the carefully nurtured protege… some candid depiction of media manipulation…  snapshots of Kremlin life a year after Putin took power… and, most engrossing of all, an interview with Putin himself. Two things which didn’t feature much at all in the campaign were debates and promises!

Vitaly Mansky reveals that only one of Putin’s key supporters from those days is still with him, and succinctly summarises the crackdown on dissent and return to centralisation of power which have occurred. It should all have made for gripping viewing; in the event, it’s only intermittently compelling – and never anywhere near as much as The Putin Interviews by Oliver Stone.

Also screening at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, October 9 – 14, 2018