Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bastards (Denis)
2. One Way Boogie Woogie (Benning)
3. I Married a Witch (Clair)
4. Close-Up (Kiarostami)
5. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
6. A Touch of Sin (Jia)
7. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen)
8. City Lights (Chaplin)
9. Oldboy (Park)
10. A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)

Happy Thanksgiving from White City Cinema!

Be careful with those carving forks, folks.



Now Playing: A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin
Dir: Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2013
Rating: 9.9

“I’m not an admirer of the kind of films that Zhang Yimou makes. I much prefer Jia Zhang-ke’s films, like Still Life and I Wish I Knew.”

— Chinese President Xi Jinping, quoted by Tony Rayns in Film Comment


Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is A Touch of Sin, the latest from maverick Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. This angry, provocative, disturbing and beautiful anthology film, consisting of four loosely linked vignettes, represents a triumphant return to narrative filmmaking for Jia, the most important member of the Chinese film industry’s “sixth generation.” It is the director’s first purely fictional feature since Still Life in 2006 (following a period in which he has made numerous documentaries and shorts, and one narrative/documentary hybrid, 2008’s 24 City). It is also my favorite of Jia’s movies to date and one that has convinced me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. While I was blown away by Jia’s masterful, Beijing theme-park-set epic The World in 2004, the first of his films I ever saw, I’ve had decidedly mixed feelings about all of the others, which I now concede may represent a failure of both comprehension and taste on my part. Jia makes urgent and complex movies about his rapidly and bizarrely evolving country and its leading role within late 20th century/early 21st century global culture — what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum might call “state-of-the-planet addresses.” To be confronted with works of art this new, however, can be a bit bewildering, not unlike the 21st century itself, pushing even a seasoned cinephile like me out of my typical patterns of response and judgement. Having said that, I have no reservation about calling A Touch of Sin the best film I’ve seen all year after only one viewing. A big part of what has made Jia’s latest more immediately accessible than most of his previous work, at least for me personally, is the way he makes the difficulty in adapting to modern life the explicit theme of the film. For this reason, and many others, anyone who cares about not just cinema but what it means to be a global citizen today should see this as soon as possible, and on the big screen if possible.


The four narratives comprising A Touch of Sin are linked not only by main characters who seem unable to adapt to changing times, a bit like Monica Vitti’s character in Red Desert, but also by how their various repressed frustrations lead to acts of shocking violence: a small-town resident fed up with corruption (Jiang Wu), snaps and goes on a killing spree of local politicians and business leaders; a loner in a Chicago Bulls stocking cap (Wang Baoqiang) methodically plans a robbery that seems to be merely an excuse to shoot other people, which provides him with some kind of cathartic release; a receptionist at a massage parlor (Zhao Tao), reeling from a doomed affair with a married man, stabs an overly-aggressive client; and a young man who works a series of factory and service-industry jobs in the “free trade zone” of southern China (Luo Lanshan) commits suicide by jumping to his death from the balcony of his factory dorm. Although the stories are presented consecutively and not freely intercut in the manner of Griffith, the idea of binding a quartet of stories primarily based on thematic parallels is at least as old as 1916’s Intolerance (which, thanks to the Cohen Media Group, had a triumphant re-release in 2013). What’s most shocking, indeed groundbreaking, about A Touch of Sin, has nothing to do with narrative structure nor any one of its individual moments of carnage but rather the way each eruption of violence seems the inevitable result of social, political and economic shifts, mostly relating to the PRC’s transition from the financial wasteland of the post-Cultural Revolution years to an economic superpower still in the process of privatizing and expanding: rural workers flock to big cities in search of decent wages but find their new environment dehumanizing, ordinary citizens file petitions that fall on deaf government ears, women working temp jobs to make ends meet are harassed by wealthy businessmen with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. What’s a fellow who’s mad as hell but cannot take it anymore to do but wrap a towel emblazoned with the image of a tiger around the barrel of a rifle and take matters into his own hands? This exquisite touch, which occurs in the film’s first story, is a nod to Ti Lung’s Tiger Killer Wu Sung character in Chang Cheh’s The Water Margin (1972), the first of several wuxia nods in A Touch of Sin.


If it seems surprising that a film so explicitly critical of what the Chinese Communist government and big business are doing to its people could be made with full state-approval, perhaps the quote at the beginning of this review (which allegedly occurred during a dinner conversation between Xi Jinping and an American diplomat several years before Xi became President) provides an explanation of how that could happen. It is more likely, however, that the Chinese film industry, which is becoming privatized along with most other sectors of Chinese business, is steadily relaxing the censorship laws that would have made the existence of A Touch of Sin unthinkable even a a decade ago (all of Jia’s work prior to The World was created independently and without government permission). That he is now making high-profile movies like this — artistically accomplished (it is shot in long-take tableaux by the great Yu Lik Wai), psychologically acute and sociologically prescient — is the strongest proof yet that a sea change is underway in Chinese cinema. I have long admired Hong Kong movies (since the pre-handover glory days) as well as those from Taiwan, and have also long been skeptical of their counterparts coming from the mainland, which tend to be safer affairs, if not outright propaganda. I’ve bitterly watched the decline of the Hong Kong film industry since 1997 and have feared that the special magic once produced by the “Hollywood of the East” would be lost forever as even the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers who have remained at home have increasingly had to look to the PRC for co-production status. As Hong Kong becomes inexorably reabsorbed by the mainland (it will supposedly cease to function as a capitalist system in 2047), however, it seems as though China may end up becoming more like Hong Kong rather than the other way around. Johnnie To’s Drug War, the first of the director’s films to be shot entirely in the mainland and every bit the equal of his great Hong Kong productions, is one encouraging sign of this. Whatever happens, when people look back at 2013 decades from now, I wonder if any snapshot of our time in any medium will look as vital as Jia’s forward-looking masterpiece.

You can view the trailer for A Touch of Sin below: 

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Nosferatu (Murnau)
2. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
3. Chungking Express (Wong)
4. The Mother and the Law (Griffith)
5. The Man You Loved to Hate (Montgomery)
6. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
7. The Fall of Babylon (Griffith)
8. The Host (Bong)
9. Memories of Murder (Bong)
10. Breathless (Godard)

My Student Tomato-Meter: 2013 Edition

A girl plays with tomato pulp during the annual Tomatina tomato fight fiesta.

Longtime readers of this blog know that, every year around this time, I post an updated “student tomato-meter,” showing the aggregated results of the ratings (on a scale from 1-10) that my students have given to every movie I’ve ever screened in my film studies classes. I’ve taught 48 classes and shown a total of 170 unique movies in the past four-and-a-half years. (While 170 titles might sound like a lot, I’m actually bothered by the fact that I’ve never presented anything by directors like Antonioni, Bava, Bergman, Cassavetes, Cronenberg, Fuller, Hou, Naruse, Ophuls, Tarkovsky, Tati, or Yang; nor have I ever shown anything from Bollywood.) Below is a list of all the films I have screened to date, presented in chronological order by original release date, along with the average ratings given by my students. Below that I’ve also included a list of the top 10 highest rated films. I’m always surprised at how much student ratings tend to fluctuate from one year to the next — as evidenced by a comparison between the current ratings with the 2012 and 2011 editions of the tomato-meter.

The complete list in chronological order:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920) – 6.4
The Golem (Wegener/Boese, Germany, 1920) – 6.0
Nosferatu (Murnau, Germany, 1922) – 6.7
Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923) – 8.3
Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, USA, 1924) – 7.8
Waxworks (Leni, Germany, 1924) – 4.4
Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) – 5.2
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, USA, 1925) – 8.0
The Last Laugh (Murnau, Germany, 1925) – 7.3
The Navigator (Keaton, USA, 1925) – 8.1
Seven Chances (Keaton, USA, 1925) – 8.2
The General (Keaton, USA, 1926) – 8.1
Faust (Murnau, Germany, 1926) – 6.9
Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – 6.2
Sunrise (Murnau, USA, 1927) – 7.0
Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928) – 6.5
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France, 1928) – 7.7
Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929) – 6.0
L’age D’or (Bunuel, France, 1930) – 6.6
City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930) – 6.5
Earth (Dovzhenko, Soviet Union, 1930) – 3.2
City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931) – 8.4
M (Lang, Germany, 1931) – 8.1
L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) – 6.7
The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937) – 8.5
Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937) – 7.1
Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938) – 4.6
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, USA, 1938) – 8.5
The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939) – 8.1
Stagecoach (Ford, USA, 1939) – 7.2
The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939) – 7.1
His Girl Friday (Hawks, USA, 1940) – 8.5
The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, USA, 1940) – 7.4
Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941) – 8.3
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941) – 6.8
The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941) – 8.2
Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942) – 8.5
Cat People (Tourneur, USA, 1942) – 5.0
The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, USA, 1942) – 7.5
The More the Merrier (Stevens, USA, 1943) – 8.5
Ossessione (Visconti, Italy, 1943) – 5.2
Double Indemnity (Wilder, USA, 1944) – 8.1
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944) – 8.0
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) – 7.5
Brief Encounter (Lean, England, 1945) – 8.3
Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – 7.2
Rome, Open City (Rossellini, Italy, 1945) – 7.2
My Darling Clementine (Ford, USA, 1946) – 7.3
The Big Sleep (Hawks, USA, 1946) – 6.0
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles, USA, 1947) – 8.1
Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947) – 7.4
Pursued (Walsh, USA, 1947) – 7.0
Bicycle Thieves (de Sica, Italy 1948) – 7.9
Fort Apache (Ford, USA, 1948) – 7.5
Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948) – 6.8
The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948) – 8.3
The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949) – 8.0
White Heat (Walsh, USA, 1949) – 8.3
The African Queen (Huston, USA, 1951) – 8.3
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952) – 8.9
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953) – 8.0
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953) – 8.5
Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, USA, 1953) – 7.8
Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953) – 6.7
Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.9
Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954) – 8.3
Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954) – 7.0
Pather Panchali (S. Ray, India, 1955) – 6.4
A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – 8.0
All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956) – 7.5
Aparajito (S. Ray, India, 1956) – 6.6
Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956) – 6.8
The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – 7.4
Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 8.9
Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958) – 7.7
Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958) – 7.6
Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2
The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959) – 8.7
North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959) – 8.6
Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – 8.0
Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959) – 7.3
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959) – 6.8
Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.9
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, France, 1960) – 6.4
Breathless (Godard, France, 1960) – 7.7
Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961) – 7.0
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, France, 1962) – 7.3
Le Doulos (Melville, France, 1962) – 7.1
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962) – 8.3
Contempt (Godard, France, 1963) – 8.3
8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963) – 6.5
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964) – 8.3
Onibaba (Shindo, Japan, 1964) – 8.0
Alphaville (Godard, France, 1965) – 6.0
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966) – 8.8
Point Blank (Boorman, USA, 1966) – 7.0
The Pornographers (Imamura, Japan, 1966) – 6.9
Le Samourai (Melville, France, 1967) – 8.0
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968) – 7.6
Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970) – 7.5
Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971) – 7.5
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971) – 7.0
Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, France, 1972) – 8.6
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1973) – 7.8
Badlands (Malick, USA, 1973) – 7.6
The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973) – 7.6
Black Christmas (Clark, Canada, 1974) – 8.2
Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974) – 8.2
Young Frankenstein (Brooks, USA, 1974) – 7.6
The Irony of Fate: Or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, Russia, 1975) – 8.5
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976) – 8.5
Annie Hall (Allen, USA, 1977) – 6.6
Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978) – 7.2
Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1978) – 7.6
Raging Bull (Scorsese, USA, 1980) – 8.3
Popeye (Altman, USA, 1980) – 5.2
The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, USA, 1982) – 6.8
Bad Blood (Carax, France, 1986) – 7.1
A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988) – 8.3
The Thin Blue Line (Morris, USA, 1988) – 7.8
Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990) – 8.9
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991) – 8.0
Deep Cover (Duke, USA, 1992) – 8.7
The Player (Altman, USA, 1992) – 8.1
The Bride with White Hair (Yu, Hong Kong, 1993) – 5.1
Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993) – 8.1
Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, USA, 1993) – 8.0
Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993) – 6.3
The Piano (Campion, New Zealand, 1993) – 8.6
Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994) – 7.9
Ed Wood (Burton, USA, 1994) – 6.8
A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996) – 5.8
The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997) – 7.2
The Mirror (Panahi, Iran, 1997) – 5.1
The Bird People in China (Miike, Japan, 1998) – 6.6
Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999) – 7.6
Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999) – 5.4
Nowhere to Hide (Lee, S. Korea, 1999) – 7.3
Ravenous (Bird, UK/USA, 1999) – 8.1
Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier, Denmark/Sweden, 2000) – 7.3
The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini, Iran, 2000) – 7.5
Failan (Song, S. Korea, 2000) – 7.7
In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000) – 7.9
JSA: Joint Security Area (Park, S. Korea, 2000) – 8.2
Needing You (To, Hong Kong, 2000) – 7.1
Avalon (Oshii, Japan/Poland, 2001) – 7.6
The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, Spain/Mexico, 2001) – 8.6
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001) – 7.7
Far From Heaven (Haynes, USA, 2002) – 7.2
Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak, Hong Kong, 2002) – 7.8
The Tracker (de Heer, Australia, 2002) – 7.9
Save the Green Planet (Jang, S. Korea, 2003) – 6.8
3-Iron (Kim, S. Korea, 2004) – 8.5
Before Sunset (Linklater, USA, 2004) – 9.0
Dumplings (Chan, Hong Kong, 2004) – 6.4
Grizzly Man (Herzog, USA, 2004) – 8.1
Memories of Murder (Bong, S. Korea, 2004) – 8.7
Moolade (Sembene, Senegal, 2004) – 8.2
The Proposition (Hillcoat, Australia, 2005) – 8.1
The Host (Bong, South Korea, 2006) – 9.1
Offside (Panahi, Iran, 2006) – 7.8
Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
The Social Network (Fincher, USA, 2010) – 8.5
The Hunter (Pitts, Iran, 2010) – 6.8
Drive (Refn, USA, 2011) – 8.1
Sleeping Sickness (Kohler, Germany, 2011) – 6.6
Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012) – 8.6
Before Midnight (Linklater, USA, 2013) – 7.8

And a countdown of the current top 10 highest rated films:

10. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966) – 8.8
9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – 8.9
8. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954) – 8.9
7. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952) – 8.9
6. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958) – 8.9
5. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990) – 8.9
4. Before Sunset (Linklater, USA/France, 2004) – 9.0
3. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007) – 9.1
2. The Host (Bong, South Korea, 2006) – 9.1
1. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959) – 9.2


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Dazed and Confused (Linklater)
2. Intolerance (Griffith)
3. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
4. Evil Ed (Jacobsson)
5. Rebel Without a Cause (Ray)
6. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler)
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven)
8. Drug War (To)
9. Breathless (Godard)
10. Before Midnight (Linklater)

A Japanese New Wave Primer

Out of all the “new waves” that sprung up around the world in the wake of France’s revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, perhaps none was as explosive — politically, morally and aesthetically — and offered such a thorough repudiation of what had come before, as Japan’s Nuberu Bagu. While Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura remain far and away the best-known directors associated with this movement, many other filmmakers have been unfairly lurking in their shadows for too long. I therefore limited myself to one title per director in this list of what I consider a dozen essential Japanese New Wave movies.

The Warped Ones (Kurahara, 1960)


There are a couple of Nagisa Oshima features from 1960 (Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial) that might be considered superior to this film but Koreyoshi Kurahara’s tale of rebellious youth offers a better correlative to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in terms of form and content, and is therefore arguably the more logical starting point for a Japanese New Wave primer. The aptly-titled The Warped Ones is a fucked up movie that details the misadventures of two young thugs and their prostitute-girlfriend as they run wild through the streets of Tokyo, thieving, raping and listening to American jazz. The luscious black-and-white cinematography is amazing, at once stylized and conveying a tangible documentary-like sense of place, but the nihilistic characters (who are far more unlikable than any of their French New Wave counterparts and anticipate anti-heroes more associated with 1970s cinema) might make this a tough sell for some viewers.

Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)


This amazing tone poem of a horror flick tells the story of two women in 14th-century Japan — the wife and mother of a soldier deployed to fight in a civil war — who trap and kill wandering samurai and sell their clothes and weaponry to a black marketeer in order to survive. A deserter-friend of the soldier soon arrives bearing bad news but it’s not long before both wife and mother-in-law become romantically obsessed with him. In order to prevent the wife from meeting the young man in the middle of the night, the mother-in-law attempts to frighten her by pretending to be a demon. Written and directed by the great, underrated Kaneto Shindo, the mesmerizing Onibaba manages to be both genuinely frightening and genuinely erotic.

Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)


An entomologist from the big city travels to a rural seaside town looking to collect insects. A mysterious woman entraps him in a giant sandpit in her yard and forces him to perform the endless task of digging sand out of the pit, which solves a water supply problem for the local villagers. The captor and captive soon form a weird, erotic bond that eventually drags on for years. I’ve always felt there was something a bit too thesis-ridden about this premise (the bug expert who becomes like a trapped insect!) but there’s no denying the tactile, sensual pleasures of the lush images, which impressively manage to be sexy without the liberal use of nudity (unlike, say, Onibaba). For his effort, director Hiroshi Teshigahara was a deserving — and surprising — Best Director nominee at the 1966 Academy Awards.

A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, 1965)


I am a sucker for the “police procedural” (from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to David Fincher’s Zodiac over 75 years later) and Tomu Uchida’s 1965 masterpiece A Fugitive from the Past is one of my very favorite examples of this subgenre. Uchida isn’t technically a New Waver — he was born in the late 19th century and began directing in the silent era — yet I’ve never seen a film from the 1960s made by anyone of his generation that feels as modern as this. Uchida uses a massive, chronologically-scrambled timeline to tell two gripping, interlocking stories of a prostitute and a police detective, both of whom spend many years looking for the title fugitive for different reasons: the former because he left her an obscenely large tip, the latter because he committed a triple homicide. This was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope with a lightweight 16mm camera — resulting in incredibly-staged set pieces, one of which involves hundreds of characters, that feel simultaneously epic and intimate. What arguably impresses the most, however, is the way the suspenseful narrative holds viewers in thrall for over three hours while also subtly explicating the Buddhist precept of karma. Routinely cited by Japanese critics as one of the best Japanese movies ever, A Fugitive from the Past is tragically unknown in the West.

Red Angel (Masumura, 1966)


One of the great things about the Japanese cinema of the 1960s is how its directors exercised “new freedoms” in tackling subject matter that would have been off-limits to previous generations. A prime example is Red Angel, a highly disturbing account of the Sino-Japanese war by the diverse and underrated director Yasuzo Masumura (whose comedy Giants and Toys is one of my favorite Japanese films of he 1950s). The story follows Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), an attractive nurse who is sent to the front, where she is first raped by wounded soldiers before embarking on doomed affairs with an amputee patient and a morphine-addicted, impotent doctor. There is much pain and sorrow in this movie, which nonetheless provides a cathartic reckoning with one of the most harrowing chapters in Japan’s recent turbulent past.

Branded to Kill (Suzuki, 1967)


Seijun Suzuki is one of the boldest visual stylists the Japanese film industry has ever known. And, while this 1967 experimental/crime movie mind-fuck is regarded by many as his masterpiece, it’s better known today for the legend of how it was received upon its initial release (Suzuki was fired by longtime employer Nikkatsu on the grounds the movie was incomprehensible) than it is actually watched and appreciated. The plot has something to do with Goro Hanada, Japan’s No. 3 hitman (that’s right, this movie takes place in a world where hitmen are ranked like professional athletes), bungling his latest job, which makes him the next target of his employer. But you don’t watch Suzuki for the plot, you watch for the surrealism, the psychosexual undercurrents (Hanada, played by chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido, has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice) and the super-cool set-pieces (the film’s most famous scene sees a butterfly alighting on the barrel of Hanada’s gun). Suzuki was a master of using color symbolically and purposefully (check out Tokyo Drifter, which features an assassin-protagonist in a powder-blue suit) but Branded to Kill is equally remarkable for its expressive use of black-and-white.

Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (Hani, 1968)


Imagine that Jean-Luc Godard went to Japan and made a soft-core porn movie in the late 1960s and you’ll have some idea of what maverick independent director Susumu Hani’s best-known movie is like. Shun (Akio Takahashi), a man who was sexually abused as a child, meets and falls in love with a nude model and prostitute, the title character (Kuniko Ishii), in a series of loosely linked vignettes. Their story is told through freewheeling handheld camerawork and an aggressively non-linear editing scheme that recall the “distancing devices” of Bertolt Brecht while evoking some of the early classics of the French New Wave. But Susumi’s avant-garde sensibility is ultimately put to the service of a uniquely Japanese portrait of postwar despair, one that brims with psychological and sociological insights.

Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, 1968)


Shohei Imamura is my personal favorite filmmaker to emerge from Japan’s New Wave era. He started off as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu before carving out his own path as a writer/director in the early 60s with a series of distinctive films, alternately funny and tragic, that chronicle the frustrated lives of Japan’s contemporary working class. Profound Desires of the Gods was an epic super-production (the shooting alone lasted 18 months) that ambitiously attempted to allegorize the clash between Japan’s most ancient traditions and the influence of the modern (i.e., “western”) world. Kariya (Kazuo Kitamura) is an engineer from Tokyo tasked with digging a well for a sugar mill on a remote island whose inhabitants have had little exposure to outside influences. Upon arrival, Kariya is ensnared in the lives of the backwards and inbred Futori family, an experience that will change his life forever. Neglected upon its initial release, this indescribably beautiful 3-hour extravaganza, which juxtaposes humans and animals in a way that would make Terrence Malick envious, has been deservedly reappraised since the UK label Eureka/Masters of Cinema released a perfect Blu-ray edition in 2011.

Boy (Oshima, 1969)


Nagisa Oshima is primarily known in the west today for having directed the features In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), the former a scandalous arthouse hit featuring unsimulated sex and the latter a World War II P.O.W. camp drama starring David Bowie. But these international co-productions followed many groundbreaking films in the 1960s that captured Japan’s postwar malaise with a sometimes shocking ferocity. My favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy, based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down money from their “culprits.” Oshima’s style here is fascinatingly matter-of-fact while also sticking closest to the experiences of the older of the family’s two young sons. The end result is a film that achieves a tone of unparalleled compassion precisely because it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard.

Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)


Director Masahiro Shinoda’s great achievement in his justly celebrated Double Suicide was to take ideas familiar from other recent New Wave films focused on contemporary subjects and apply them to an 18th century period piece. The story concerns a married paper merchant and his ill-fated love affair with a courtesan, the kind of subject that Mizoguchi would have tackled, but it’s the modernist and self-reflexive execution that puts this into a class of its own. Double Suicide transitions between the “invisible style” associated with Hollywood storytelling and daring reminders that we are watching a movie (most obvious through the use of “stage hands” who manipulate sets and props but also through the dual performance of Shima Iwashita as both the courtesan and the wife). The end result is a bunraku puppet play in which the puppets have been replaced by live actors and the end result is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating.

Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida, 1969)


Although the English-language title might sound like the trashiest kind of exploitation movie, this seminal work of 1960s countercultural filmmaking is anything but. Yoshishige Yoshida’s masterwork deftly intertwines two timelines: in the 1920s, radical anarchist Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) preaches “free love” (i.e., polygamy and the importance of financial independence for both men and women), while ironically being married to a journalist, Itsuko Masaoka (Yûko Kusunoki), who supports him financially. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, a promiscuous female college student drifts through a series of casual affairs and occasionally reads and talks about Osugi and Masaoka (who were, in fact, real people). Over the course of its three-hour-plus running time, the intercutting of these stories — based on fascinating thematic parallels — achieves an awesome Griffithian velocity, although Alain Resnais might be the best point of reference: Yoshida’s complex editing patterns fragment time and space in an almost-Cubist manner and the black-and-white cinematography is frequently dazzling in its Marienbad-like brightness.

Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto, 1969)


This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, maybe the weirdest, and therefore a fitting note on which to end this list of essential Japanese New Wave films. Toshio Matsumoto’s astonishing surrealist masterpiece offers a portrait of several Tokyo subcultures (primarily the drag queen scene but also that of dopers and avant-garde filmmakers). One story thread involves Eddie, a young queen who, in a bizarre inversion of the Oedipus myth, kills his mother with a butcher knife in order to “be” with his father. Later, this same character puts out his own eyes with the same knife. As brutal and disturbing as all of this is, Matsumoto’s form is just as violent as his content: from this film, Kubrick stole several visual and aural ideas for A Clockwork Orange, including long takes seen in fast-motion accompanied by pop versions of classical music, and montages that are so rapid-fire they can only have a subliminal effect on the viewer. But while Kubrick took Matsumoto’s innovations and wedded them to commercial storytelling, they deserve to be seen here in their undiluted, experimental form. As one character says in the middle of the film: “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open.” He’s not kidding.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)
2. Shock Corridor (Fuller)
3. Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Lang)
4. Opening Night (Cassavetes)
5. Vivre sa vie (Godard)
6. Blade Runner (Scott)
7. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes)
8. Monsoon Wedding (Nair)
9. The Island of Black Mor (Laguionie)
10. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes)

Now Playing: The Island of Black Mor

The Island of Black Mor
dir: Jean-Francois Laguionie (France, 2004)
Rating: 7.9


Screening last week as part of Facets Multimedia’s invaluable Chicago International Children’s Film Festival — now in its 30th(!) year — was Jean-François Laguionie’s The Island of Black Mor, a delightful animated French film originally released in 2004. I was on the adult jury for the Animated Features category at this festival, which awarded Laguionie a lifetime achievement prize. While not particularly well-known in the U.S., the Gallic director is considered something of a pioneer in French animation, having a career that stretches all the way back to the mid-1960s and includes such acclaimed films as Rowing Across the Atlantic, which won both a Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Short film in the late 1970s. He is probably best known in the States for The Painting (2011), which received a nationwide release here, and played at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a regular two-week run last year. In spite of his longevity, however, Laguionie’s output has been relatively sparse: he has directed just seven shorts and four features in a career spanning 50 years. This is in no small part due to the painstaking work required to produce his particular brand of hand-drawn 2-D animation, which may appear simplistic next to the modern-day wizardry of Disney, Pixar et al, but which I would argue also has more of a human touch — and consequently a sense of warmth — that the digital behemoths of those companies cannot match. Everything about The Island of Black Mor feels hand-crafted and deeply satisfying — like a good craft beer.


The Island of Black Mor, set on the Cornish coast in the early 19th century, begins as a nightmarish portrait of life in a Dickensian orphanage before shifting registers to become a ripping pirate-adventure yarn about a search for buried treasure. The protagonist is an unnamed 15-year-old kid who hears tales of the pirate Black Mor from his orphanage’s religious tutor. The kid soon escapes from the orphanage, steals a boat and sets sail for the mysterious island where he believes the pirate’s treasure is buried. To help him man the ship, he assembles a motley crew of four: an escaped Sudanese slave named Taka, a comical outlaw duo known as “Beanpole” and MacGregor, and a “little Monk” who may not be what he first appears. The kid, a cocky, archetypal hero in this scenario, identifies with Black Mor and aims to fill the legendary pirate’s shoes. While this may sound like standard coming-of-age stuff, Laguionie, who also co-wrote the script, has some narrative twists up his sleeve, and the film winds up probing the themes of identity, integrity and desire in a way that feels gratifyingly wise. But the real reason to see this movie is its poetic sense of aesthetics: the story is beautifully rendered using broad planes of monochromatic color, primarily blue, gray and green, which are typically separated by thick lines (I read that Laguionie was influenced by painter Henri Rivière but his style put me more in the mind of EC comics): indelible images of ships navigating fog-enshrouded waters combine with Christophe Héral’s strings-and-piano score to create something moody, atmospheric and intoxicating (qualities in short supply in contemporary animation for children). Out of all the animated features at this year’s CICFF, this was the only one in which the visuals did not take a backseat to the story: The Island of Black Mor creates an evocative world in which one can happily get lost.


Me and my Global Cinema class from Oakton Community College at a screening of The Island of Black Mor earlier this afternoon. Laguionie’s film has unfortunately yet to be released on home video in the United States and the French DVD does not offer English subtitles. One hopes that an enterprising stateside distributor will pick it up soon.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Private Benjamin (Zieff)
2. Faces (Cassavetes)
3. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
4. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
5. Pickup on South Street (Fuller)
6. Shadows (Cassavetes)
7. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
8. Ravenous (Bird)
9. The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino)
10. Rock in Reykjavik (Fridriksson)

%d bloggers like this: