Kon Ichikawa, Im Kwon-taek, Shohei Imamura, Otar Iosseliani, Katsuhito Ishii, Joris Ivens, Shunji Iwai  



Iannucci, Armando


IN THE LOOP                                                          B+                   91

Great Britain  (106 mi)  2009


“Fuck off, Frodo.”  Lt. General George Miller (James Gandolfini)


From what I can tell, this guy’s been writing TV shows all his life, and this first feature film is no different as it has the feel of a free-wheeling, expletive driven cable TV show, as it’s fueled by nonstop profanity which explode like bombs in and around the rooms of government with such frequency they may as well be heat-seeking missiles.  Without ever mentioning names, this adrenaline-laced political farce resembles the behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the Bush White House leading up to the Iraqi invasion, as no one wants to go on record as talking about an impending war, so they disguise every word they use with subterfuge, denying anything remotely resembling the truth while inventing theories or spreading false rumors to send reporters scurrying in the wrong direction.  Based on a British TV show The Thick of It, which uses a similar (the most foul-mouthed) main character and has been running since 2005, this film mixes the bumbling political operatives working on both sides of the ocean, both the British and the Americans, each more dysfunctional than the next.  Starting with Tom Hollander as Simon Foster, British Minister for International Development, a low level bureaucrat who doesn’t stand for anything, who’s always on the verge of standing for something, but when the cameras are rolling has a tendency to offer delectable sound bites that instantly pique the interest of the opposite shores.  When asked during a live BBC broadcast about impending war in the Middle East, Foster blurts out “war is unforeseeable,” a seemingly innocuous phrase that is immediately seized upon as a break from the Prime Minister’s views, where attack dog Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, from the TV show), communications director from the Prime Minister’s office, hurls the first of his series of neverending invectives to shut him up, as well as anyone else that stands in his way.  Tucker’s character is easily the most hilarious, as in typical John Cleese fashion, he never tires of inventing the most personalized profanity laden insults ever hurled.  The phrase has already captured the attention of a liberal American cabinet assistant Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her bright assistant, Anna Chlumsky, who actually authored a paper outlining the pros and cons of going to war, heavier on the reasons to avoid invasion.  A political firestorm ensues. 


Foster, however, after getting thoroughly chewed out, in an attempt to backtrack and sound completely ambiguous, utters the phrase “Britain must be ready to climb the mountain of conflict,” which puts him at the center of the conflict and gets him an invite to a Congressional committee hearing room led by the Rumsfeld-like warmonger David Rasche playing state department secretary Linton Barwick, whose first order of business after the meeting is over is to officially change the notes from what was actually said to what he felt they intended to say.  Added into the mix is James Gandolfini as a Colin Powell-esque Lt. General Miller, who is adamantly against war, claiming:  ”Once you’ve been there, once you’ve seen it, you never want to go back unless you have tolike France,” using his intelligence sources just to find where the meeting was held, as it was disguised under a fictitious name.  Gandolfini can hurl the invectives as good as the next guy, so for awhile this feels like a testosterone heavy profanity contest, creating an entirely new language spoken behind closed doors in the halls of government.  While it is outrageously funny, the tone moves from manic to screwball comedy to farce, the one-liner zingers are uttered fast and furiously, where after awhile you reach a saturation point as it all starts to sound the same.  While there’s little actual politics in evidence, or any real discussion, instead everything takes place behind the scenes in an attempt to undermine, outmaneuver, or even annihilate the opposition, as it’s all about being top dog, forcing others to be subservient to you.  This is the role Barwick cherishes, even as he has no qualms using fabricated intelligence, which, for sheer idiocy, turns out to be a rewritten hack job of Chlumsky’s paper now advocating going to war, claiming this is classified British intelligence.  This film exposes the lunacy of this kind of secrecy and backstabbing, where they’re so busy falsifying evidence and bullying the opposition that the world of deceit and power is all they understand, not the one the rest of us live in. 


While this is obviously a satirical spoof, where the frenetic pace of the film is a nonstop charade of getting the jump on the next guy, continuously feeding others a pile of lies and misdirection, it’s also uttering only meaningless phrases on camera while maintaining an undetected secret agenda behind the scenes, spending one’s entire career mastering deceit, having no interest whatsoever in one’s constituency, as real people may not like what you’re doing.  Instead, this accurately describes how people invent the kind of world they live in, building a simulated parallel universe, one that is acceptable to the TV public, while behind the scenes fucking over anyone that gets in their way.   This film specializes in those close up, behind the scene moments, which are a rare glimpse at just how vulgar our leaders can be, as they likely got to where they are by being better at intimidating and browbeating others.  In the world of government, it’s all about who can threaten others successfully and get away with it, or who’s the biggest bully on the block.  Showing tenacious insight into comic material, where the key is the relentless use of ever more colorful profanity, there is a myriad of characters that collectively become a combustible force, as there’s something more powerful here than any of us realize.  That’s the part that doesn’t get written about, or examined, or subject to investigative scrutiny, and that’s the raw verbiage of high-powered political operators as they try to outscheme their opponents “by any means necessary, ” a phrase popularized by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the 1960’s.   Never in their wildest dreams did they think it would be the reactionary right wing law and order advocates who would secretly usurp their methodology in advancing the nation’s case for going to war.                  


In the Loop  JR Jones from The Reader


Adapted from the BBC series The Thick of It, this enormously witty satire follows a British diplomatic staff as they fly to Washington to confer with their U.S. counterparts, who are secretly ginning up an invasion of the Middle East. Tom Hollander is the foreign office administrator whose hapless press statements on the matter inflame speculation and enrage the prime minister’s communications director, a brilliantly vulgar Scot played by Peter Capaldi. On the American side, a general who’s trying to slow the rush to war (James Gandolfini) is smoothly outflanked by the State Department’s assistant secretary for policy (David Rasche), an airy asshole plainly based on Donald Rumsfeld. Cowardice and incompetence are endlessly ripe subjects for comedy, and the movie mercilessly indicts the careerists on both sides of the Atlantic who let the Iraq war happen. Armando Iannucci directed; with Steve Coogan. R, 106 min.


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review

Armando Iannucci's political satire moves so fast and fires off so many jokes that it may seem cleverer than it really is. But it's definitely a good time. It starts just prior to an armed conflict not unlike the current Iraq fiasco, when a small-time British government minister (Tom Hollander) gives an interview and remarks, "War is unforeseeable." From there, it's a frantic political chess game with all kinds of British and American spin doctors trying to save their jobs and make sure they appear on the side that's winning. (The joke is that none of these people particularly care if anyone goes to war or not.) Peter Capaldi reprises his role of Malcolm Tucker from the BBC TV series "In the Thick of It," the communications director for the Prime Minister; he blusters around in a constant state of superior anger, firing F-bombs as often as he exhales. James Gandolfini is particularly superb as a pentagon desk general. Anna Chlumsky, who was once a little girl in My Girl (1991), also stars in a definite grown-up role.

Lessons of Darkness [Nick Schager]

In the Loop offers a fictionalized backstage look at American and British diplomatic and government machinations during the build-up to a Middle East war, its scathing Colbert Report-by-way-of-Dr. Strangelove screwball comedy energized by rat-a-tat-tat verbal zingers. Armando Iannucci’s feature debut (expanded from his BBC comedy The Thick of It) is a razor-sharp farce that imparts insights from all directions – the unwarranted egomania of mid-level politicos, the cunning deceptions of spin doctors, the bluster of militaristic suits, and the cutthroat selfishness and hard-partying wildness of young, hungry staffers and assistants. Iannucci’s story concerns the fallout from Minister for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) giving an unauthorized opinion on radio that war is “unforeseeable,” a statement that sends his boss, the Prime Minster’s Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Scottish scene-stealer Peter Capaldi), into fits of apoplectic profanity. Capaldi’s barrage of hilariously inventive vulgarity gives In the Loop its nasty edge, while Foster and his new assistant Toby (Chris Addison) lend the material its awkward Office-style drollness. Just about everyone involved is in top form, including James Gandolfini as an American Lieutenant General opposed to conflict, Anna Chlumsky as the right-hand-woman to US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), and David Rasche as a Rumsfeldian blowhard with no qualms about fudging evidence to help his warmongering aims. In its portrait of the myriad competing and/or parallel self-interests that help drive national policy to fruition, Iannucci’s film gets not only the big picture right but also the details, laying out, with more quotable bon mots than any film in recent memory, the intricate, often nonsensical series of deals, subterfuge, and compromises that form the backbone of our seriously screwy – and screwed-up – democratic systems.

Review: In The Loop  Keith Phipps from The Onion A.V. Club

One word acts as a match dropped on a pile of oily rags in the political satire In The Loop: “Unforeseeable.” Playing Britain’s Secretary Of State For International Development, Tom Hollander drops it in the midst of a radio interview about the possibility of a war in the Middle East, suspecting nothing about the firestorm to follow. By the next day, the flames have grown too hot to ignore. Having run afoul of the Prime Minister’s official message, Hollander becomes the target of Scottish spin doctor Peter Capaldi, and the focus of attention for anti-war American diplomat Karen Clarke. Sensing he’s in the middle of a transatlantic game of tug-of-war, Hollander tries to hold his ground. Instead, he gets hopelessly tangled.
Reduced to a bare plot description, Armando Iannucci’s movie sounds like pure political farce. It’s nothing so clean or neat. Filled out by a dozen or so memorable supporting characters, shot with seemingly the shakiest cameras available, and edited with garden shears, In The Loop floats above its chaotic world on wave after wave of beautifully profane dialogue. Words serve as weapons for political blood sport. No one plays the game as aggressively as Capaldi, who offers up a series of lines that are unquotable in polite company, unless that polite company is comfortable with references to “lubricated horse cock.” But his isn’t the only way to play, and the film’s swirling approach captures the different styles of maneuvering, manipulation, deceit, and abuse that low- to mid-level politicians engage in just to remain part of the process.
A British TV veteran making his feature directorial debut, Iannucci expands on his TV series The Thick Of It, keeping some of the cast and characters while bringing in some game American collaborators, including a grown-up Anna Chlumsky, veteran character actor David Rasche as a serenely assured warmonger, and James Gandolfini as a war-averse general. (“Once you’ve been there, you never want to go again unless you absolutely have to. It’s like France.”) Iannucci has made a mercilessly funny film that, beneath the laughs, chillingly falls on the believable side of how politics really gets done. Flawed, distracted people bicker, sidestep, and deceive one another. They shout and sharpen their wits rather than finding common ground. They let personal grudges and stubbornness dictate policy. All the while, the world drifts toward war.


Christian Science Monitor (Peter Rainer) review [A]

In The Loop" is hands down the funniest movie I've seen all year and also the smartest. A political satire set in London and Washington, it manages to skewer so many targets that, by the end, nothing is left standing. The film spins off the BBC series "The Thick of It," which was also directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, and which, like "In the Loop," features Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister's frenetically foul-mouthed communications director. (Tucker is reputedly based on former Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief strategizer, Alastair Campbell, who coined the phrase "the people's princess" for Princess Diana). "The Thick of It" was confined to the messy precincts of London politics. "In the Loop" enlarges the madness to ground zero – the White House.

The lunacy begins when Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development, mistakenly goes off script during a radio interview in which he is asked about the possibility of a US war in the Middle East. He calls the possibility "unforeseen," which riles the prime minister's people and gladdens Washington's war hawks. Damage control only results in further damage, as Simon is dispatched to D.C. to clear the air and succeeds only in fogging it up.

Not since the heyday of Preston Sturges has there been such whiplash dialogue bouncing off the walls of the asylum. Iannucci and his co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche encouraged the cast to improvise and the zingers come thick and fast. There's clearly a visceral thrill for the actors in delivering lines this good. As in the best satires, the characters they play are both universal and sui generis. Simon, the fusty bureaucrat, is matched by his opposite, Malcolm, whose Type A personality should really be upgraded to Triple A. His Washington counterparts, a dovish but bullish Pentagon general (James Gandolfini) and a smiling cobra State Dept. bigwig (David Rasche), throw their weight around, secure in the knowledge that Britain needs America much more than America needs Britain. (Among many other things, "In the Loop" is a scathing slam on the pretense of US-British amity.)

The rest of the marvelous cast includes Chris Addison as Simon's young adviser, Mimi Kennedy as US assistant secretary for diplomacy (diplomacy – there's a laugh), Anna Chlumsky as the assistant's assistant, Gina McKee as Simon's director of communications (communications – there's another laugh), and Steve Coogan as a loony citizen from Simon's constituency of Southampton. There isn't an actor in this film, not even a walk on, who isn't perfection.

Although "In the Loop" does not have a pretentious bone in its body, allow me my pretensions when I say that, in its own screw-loose way, this is one of the best antiwar comedies in ages (since "Wag the Dog," in fact). The run-up to the war here is not-so-loosely based on the Iraq situation. Despite all the hectoring and bad-mouthing and spittle, not once do any of these bureaucrats mention the human cost in lives. Politics isn't just deadly funny in "In the Loop," it's also deadly

Twitch (Todd Brown) review


SpoutBlog [Karina Longworth] 


Moving Pictures magazine [Mike D'Angelo]


Sublimated Misogyny In the Loop  zunguzungu March 30, 2010


Cinematical (James Rocchi) review


Salon (Stephanie Zacharek) review (Jay Seaver) review [5/5] (Norm Schrager) review [3.5/5]


Village Voice (Melissa Anderson) review


The New Yorker (Anthony Lane) review (Mel Valentin) review [4/5]


Twitch (Simon Abrams) review


Slant Magazine review [3.5/4]  Adam Keleman


Screen International review  David D’Arcy


CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review


sneersnipe (David Perilli) review


Little White Lies magazine  Jonas Milk


Review: In the Loop  Bill Stamets from New City


Entertainment Weekly review [B+]  Lisa Schwarzbaum


Variety (Dennis Harvey) review


The Independent (Jonathan Romney) review


The Independent (Anthony Quinn) review [3/5]


The Daily Telegraph (Sukhdev Sandhu) review [3/5]


Time Out London (Dave Calhoun) review [5/6]


Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf) review [4/6]


Time Out Chicago (Ben Kenigsberg) review [3/6]


The Boston Phoenix (Peter Keough) review


Boston Globe review [3.5/4]  Ty Burr


San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle) review [4/4]


Los Angeles Times (Michael Ordoña) review


Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review


The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review


Watch an exclusive deleted scene from In the Loop  on YouTube (51 seconds)


Ibanez, Gabe



Spain  (90 mi)  2009


Todd Brown  Twitch

How’s this for a bit of pressure to lay on a new director:  Gabe Ibanez’s debut feature Hierro boasts the writer of King of the Hill (El Rey De La Montana), the producers of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, and Guillermo Del Toro himself in the credits.  These, my friends, are some big names and big expectations to live up to.  Thankfully, Ibanez is up to the challenge, Hierro immediately and firmly establishing him as one of the most striking new visual talents to arrive on the scene is quite some time.  While the film is not without its problems it is absolutely gorgeous to look at from start to finish and blessed with many more strengths than weaknesses.

Marine biologist Maria is the loving single mother of Diego, the five year old boy who she dotes upon and who responds in kind to her.  They adore one another and their home is a happy one, happy at least until the pair go on vacation to the island of Hierro.  Exhausted, Maria falls asleep while on the ferry to the island and while she dozes, Diego disappears.  Searches turn up nothing, public appeals for help likewise, and soon the police have no choice but to confront Maria with the reality that all of their options have been exhausted without turning up a single lead.

Six months later, Maria is a broken women.  The incident has left her with serious phobias of both sleep and water, that latter being a major obstacle to her working life.  The absence of her son dominates Maria every bit as much as his presence had and she is teetering on the edge of both obsession and nervous exhaustion, a situation pushed even farther when the police call from Hierro to tell her that they have found a body that may be Diego.  She must come and identify it.  The police are certain that the body is Diego’s, so certain that they have not made provisions for DNA testing, assuming that Maria will confirm their suspicions, and so when she refuses to do so they are forced to keep her on the island for three more days until a judge can come to approve the sampling of DNA from the corpse.  And a lot can happen in three days.

The story of a mother’s loss and obsessive need to find her child, Hierro deftly takes the audience inside Maria’s mind as her obsessions increasingly cloud her judgement.  She begins to see conspiracies all around her while vividly realized nightmares plague her with an ever-flowing stream of omens and warnings.  The film never quite decides whether it wants to be a character study of Maria’s slipping grasp on reality first, or whether the whodunit into the mystery of Diego’s disappearance should take priority, which leads to some logic jumps and what seems to be overly-simple moves from point to point on occasion but it is very clear here that Ibanez is a major new talent, a genius behind the camera with a keen eye ad uncommon ability to create disturbingly hyper-real images, his dream sequences in particular being incredibly effective.

Is Hierro the next Pan’s Labyrinth or The Orphanage?  No, it’s not, the inconsistencies of the film keeping it from ever reaching that level.  But there is no doubt at all that Ibanez’ next film very well could be.  Expect great things.

Hierro   Allan Hunter at Cannes from Screendaily

Spain’s reputation as a breeding ground for classy supernatural tales is given further credence by the slickly executed feature debut of commercials director Gabe Ibanez. Hierro is atmospheric and intriguing but never especially scary, which could prove problematic when it comes to attracting genre fans. Ibanez takes a confident approach to the depiction of psychological torment but his attempts at more traditional horror tricks feel very familiar and uninspired.

The story by Javier Gullon is cleverly constructed but baffling for so much of the running time that it may also prove offputting for mainstream audiences who don’t want to work that hard for their thrills. Hierro certainly doesn’t cast the same spell as The Orphange or Pan’s Labyrinth but it could still attract a modicum of interest from international arthouse distributors looking to support an emerging talent in a fashionable genre.

Ibanez does have an ace to play in his use of the remote island of El Hierro, Europe’s southernmost point. A barren, unwelcoming landscape with beaches of black, volcanic ash, it provides a spectacular backdrop to the main story instantly suggesting the elemental power of a world that seems to conspire against grief-stricken mother Maria (Elena Anaya).

Maria is heading to El Hierro on a holiday ferry with her five year-old son Diego (Kaiet Rodriguez) when the boy vanishes. The obvious assumption is that the child has been swept overboard. Six months later, Maria is called back to the island. A child’s body has been discovered and it matches the description of Diego. When her sister is called home, Maria is left alone on the island with only her wild imaginings for company. She remains convinced that the boy may still be alive, an impression increased by the discovery of posters seeking information on another young boy missing since a tragic car accident.

Ibanez has an eye for unusual locations (a giant greenhouse, a penguin enclosure in a deep sea world attraction) and a fondness for Lynchian oddness most obviously revealed in the scurrying footsteps and sinister corridors that Maria encounters during her hotel stay in El Hierro.

But his more direct attempts to create terror never succeed. Slamming doors, howling winds and sudden appearances from shady characters may jolt the heart rate of the unsuspecting but generally feel half-hearted. Matters are not helped by a thunderous, Bernard Herrmann-style score from composer Zacarias M.De la Riva that jangles the nerves, misleadingly generating expectations of full-scale horror that the film simply does not deliver.

The plot of Hierro does ultimately make sense but is never as suspenseful nor satisfying as one might hope. Elena Anaya is in virtually every scene of the film and gives a physically committed performance. We always want to know what happens next but we are never that emotionally involved in her plight even as she is forced to fight impossible odds to follow the logic of her deepest fears.

Running a trim 90 minutes, Hierro leaves the impression that more clarity in the storytelling and more time to develop our interest in Maria may have resulted in a more audience-friendly chiller.

Cannes. "Hierro"  David Hudson at Cannes from The IFC Blog, May 19, 2009

Rob Nelson  at Cannes from Variety, May 19, 2009


Ichikawa, Jun


THE MANGA APARTMENT (Tokiwa-so no seishun)

Japan  (110 mi)  1996


Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment / Tokiwaso no seishun   Aaron Gerow from The Daily Yomiuri


Any red-blooded fan of manga, or Japanese comics, has to have heard of the Tokiwaso. In the minuscule rooms of that rickety wooden apartment house in Tokyo's Toshima Ward once dwelled some of the greats of postwar manga history, like Tezuka Osamu, Ishinomori Shotaro, Akatsuka Fujio, and the Fujio Fujiko combo.

Drawn like flies to Tezuka's awesome presence in room 14, many aspiring young artists in the mid-1950s moved into that two-story building to etch out a new manga history. For many comic readers, Tokiwaso is a symbol of a fondly remembered youth full of dreams and hope.

Director Ichikawa Jun's movie version of this legend in Tokiwa: The Manga Apartment is pleasantly steeped in this nostalgia. Yet Ichikawa, more than recalling the heroic deeds of the leading players of this manga revolution, instead offers his own, often fictionalized interpretation of a comic book youth in 1950s Japan.

His hero is neither Tezuka, who leaves early in the film, nor any of the more illustrious residents, but the lesser known Terada Hiroo (serenely played by Motoki Masahiro), author of Number "0" ("Sebango '0'") and other baseball manga. Like an older brother to his neighbors, Terada represents an earlier, more naive worldview embodied in his simple but pure baseball comics, one which is confronted by very different era.

The film's style represents these changes. The first half of the movie is like a document of Showa history, interspersing an episodic narration with 1950s popular songs and documentary images. Ichikawa also combined fiction with documentary in his celebrated Dying at a Hospital ("Byoin de shinu to iu koto," 1993), but he does it in a different way this time. The gentle narrative is subdued, almost non-existent; big events are excised to leave only the plain life of poor artists pursuing a dream.

While Ishikawa's long shot, long take camera and his abridged editing style are visible in his other work, in this film they almost becomes a cinematic approximation of the narrative structure of Terada's old-style comics. Yet as the younger artists start to gain fame and success, the film begins to change. The pace turns brisk and the narrative more linear, as if embodying the more cinematic structure of 1950s story manga that Tezuka pioneered and his disciples developed.

Tokiwa celebrates the new generation's success but registers regret at Terada's world that has been left behind. While the others draw exciting action that will sell, Terada steadfastly ignores pragmatic reality to pursue his own, utterly innocent truth and vision.

In emphasizing Terada's dedication to his world, Ichikawa links him with another individualistic artist, Tsuge Yoshiharu. Tsuge may have been Terada's opposite, revolutionizing manga by inserting the grime of an imperfect and personally disturbed reality into his work, but here he shares him a relationship with Tokiwa-so and its manga utopia.

Ichikawa's architectural cinematography constructs Tokiwaso as a dream world, an idyllic realm which is incompletely connected to reality through the windows and stairs the film often focuses on. Bland and lusterless, Tokiwaso still produces comic books full of color and hope.

Tsuge, however, cannot live in that building and soon refuses to even visit. He and his work are too grounded in reality to enter into that dream-like space. Terada, too, must leave in the end. But while his younger colleagues can sketch out this paradise on the second floor, only to set it aside whenever they leave the building, Terada is different. In an exquisite last shot that condenses all the purity of his childlike vision, Terada returns a white baseball to an innocent baseball youth bearing on his back the number "0". Only Terada can leave Tokiwaso and bring his manga dream world with him.

TOKYO  LULLABY (Tôkyô yakyoku)

Japan  (85 mi)  1997  ‘Scope


Tokyo yakyoku   Aaron Gerow from The Daily Yomiuri


The city symphony was one of the hallmarks of classical film, as directors such as Walter Ruttmann, Dziga Vertov and Rene Clair tried to weild all the tools the new medium had to offer to compose broad-sweeping cinematic collages of life in the modern city.

But whereas their films treated the individual city dweller as parts that illustrate the whole, Ichikawa Jun's own Tokyo symphony, Tokyo yakyoku (literally "Tokyo Nocturne"), lets the streets, rivers and trains of the metropolis speak for the individual human heart.

This is because the characters on their own say little about themselves. The film's plot, as with many Ichikawa films, begins already in progress and proceeds in an episodic fashion that purposely excises much of the narrative detail.

Hamanaka Koichi (Nagatsuka Kyozo) returns to his wife Hisako (Baisho Mitsuko) and family in a sadder, run-down section of eastern Tokyo after having run away from home years before. He gives no explanation of his absence and his family asks no questions. It is only through the questions that a young writer named Asakura (Kamikawa Takaya), who is secretly in love with Hisako, poses of local shop owners, that we learn that Hamanaka's disappearance may be related to the fact that the woman everyone thought he would marry, Tami (Mamoi Kaori) - who runs the cafe across the street from the Hamanaka electric store - had ended up tying the knot with another man who died soon thereafter.

Ichikawa, however, does not offer up this information in one fell swoop; he spreads it throughout the film, often combining these tales told in voice-over with images of Hamanaka, Tami and Hisako continuing their everyday lives. Their story of love and acceptance is in effect told by the chorus of voices of the urban community that surrounds them.

But the central trio remains resolutely silent, seldom talking to each other and saying very little when they do. Their communication is more cinematic, revealed in the concerto of close-ups and glances that Ichikawa conducts on film.

Rarely showing any location with an initial full shot, instead he builds space and character relations through the precise editing of looks between people. The fitful renewal of Hamanaka and Tami's affair is thus played out through their attempts to catch or avoid the other's eyes over a distance, often through the window panes of their facing shops.

And when they finally do temporarily overcome the gap between them - when Tami finally asks Hamanaka to have a bite to eat with her - Ichikawa does not show us his answer, but rather views of the town, streets, and canals that surround the two. Here, more than anywhere else, it is the city that gives his answer, that speaks for the characters and articulates what they remain silent about.

Ichikawa delicately punctuates his film with refrains of city images, particularly the means of transportation like canals, roads, and trains that tie together this community of individuals. The story is given a larger significance but not without losing its particular focus. Ichikawa points his camera at other generations and at other affairs of love and rejection both to emphasize the greater life cycle and to underline what the heroes themselves are feeling.

But it is perhaps the overwhelming presence of the community that proves a burden to 1970s veterans like Hamanaka and Tami. Ichikawa shows the two at one point watching Tahara Soichiro and Shimizu Haruo's Arakajime ushinawareta koibitotachi yo (1971) - Momoi's first major film role - a film that posed silence as the only form of rebellion or resistance against an oppressive society. But surrounded by talkative neighbors and an inquisitive novelist, the trio's silence seems destined to defeat. People will talk, so Tami must in the end leave this city environment for the countryside.

Trapped in this flow of city spaces, all that remains for the trio is the quiet melancholy and alienation that are a bit too typical of Ichikawa's world. One could just as much say that they are caught in the mathematically precise rythms and melodies of Tokyo yakyoku's perfectly composed town. It may be an impressive new version of the city symphony, but one that at times too predictably falls into the patterns of Ichikawa's work.

TONY TAKITANI (Tonî Takitani)

Japan  (75 mi)  2005


The Boston Phoenix    Chris Fujiwara

This adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story chronicles the life of an illustrator (Issey Ogata) who breaks the pattern of his solitary existence by marrying a 15-years-younger colleague (Rie Miyazawa). She proves the ideal companion in every respect but for her compulsion to buy designer clothes. In director Jun Ichikawa’s punctilious but soothing mise-en-scène, people and furniture appear cut out against fields of bland color. Ichikawa makes superb use of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s depressive piano score and of sparse voiceover narration that sometimes gets out of synch with the action (as in Bresson’s Une femme douce, with which Tony Takitani invites comparison). The anti-fetishism of the director’s style seems paradoxical for a film about clothes, but it suits one that’s also about loss and disconnection. The way Ichikawa shows things invites the audience to possess them, but only as a flat image in which no intervention is possible or even desirable.

Tony Takitani  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

In addition to being a truly exquisite visual experience, Tony Takitani is one of the most rigorous, intelligent solutions to the problem of literary adaptation that I have ever seen. Traditionally, voiceover narration, especially that which consists of read-aloud portions of the original text, is the last refuge for hapless directors and/or hack screenwriters incapable of translating the lilt of stylized language into plausible dialogue or cinematic imagery. Ichikawa, like a proper deconstructionist, plunges right into the heart of the voiceover problem, coming out on the other side. Haruki Murakami's short story is an ever-present refrain throughout Ichikawa's film, half mumbled half whispered like an incantation. And, in the director's biggest gambit, the narration continually spills over into the diegesis, with actors (or characters? I'm not exactly sure how to read it) picking up dropped lines or completing implied paragraphs. Ichikawa foregrounds his tender fealty to the Murakami text, creating a hushed, hovering poem of a film, one that circles around themes of loneliness, isolation, and the power of unsaid words. And aside from a few missteps, such as an overly literal backstory for Takitani using archival photographs, Ichikawa achieves the perfect tone with every directorial decision and filmic element. The visual style of Takitani unfolds like calligraphy, modular interiors rendered hazy and indistinct via washed-out color schemes and mid-field focus, most shots unfurled via slow left-to-right pans. The overall visual effect recalls elements of Mizoguchi, Hou, and Sokurov, all harmonized through a general sense of always-already-vanishing, forms and words and gestures lightly asserted and then almost immediately rescinded, as if shamefacedly acknowledging their inadequacy to the task. Even Ryuichi Sakamoto's piano score (at times reminiscent of the music of Morton Feldman) seems to dole out notes with a tentative tickle of the keys, hesitant to break the silence. At the center of all this carefully modulated stasis is Issey Ogata, delivering a performance of recessive, dancerly grace. As he did in Sokurov's The Sun, Ogata invests the tiniest micro-gesture, the slightest tensing of facial musculature, with astonishing communicative potential. But as Hirohito in The Sun, Ogata portrayed a sequestered manchild grappling with the fact that history had caught up to him. As Tony Takitani, Ogata is an entirely different kind of hollow man, dedicated to a life of pure surface as a compensatory salve for never having found his place in the world, or recognizing it after it was too late. In short, Hirohito and Takitani are Ogata's recto-verso embodiments of the Japanese 20th century: innocence and experience.

Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

Adapted from Haruki Murakami's 1992 novella, Jun Ichikawa's mournful miniature is as delicate and elemental as a paper crane. It's the kind of movie where a major character's death takes place almost imperceptibly offscreen but the camera lingers on a shot of her empty closets, her absence felt more keenly than anyone left behind can express. The son of an itinerant jazz musician, Tony Takitani (Issei Ogata) is a mechanical draftsman who dislikes the "immature" work of his art school classmates for being "adorned with artistry and ideas." Tony Takitani certainly contains both, but Ichikawa labors to make it look unadorned, as if the camera were just passing through a man's life, leaving nothing in its wake.

Flooded with natural light, Tony Takitani's rectilinear spaces evoke the ritual beauty and stifling conformity of traditional Japanese life. Their carefully controlled environment protects the movie's characters, but it leaves them helpless when they venture, or are thrust, outside it. Moving left to right in evenly paced tracking shots, Taishi Hirokawa's camera is as inexorable as time, as implacable as fate. Although it runs barely and hour and a quarter, the movie gives you the sense of a life fully captured, its signal moments chosen with Bressonian exactitude.

Ichikawa doesn't totally surrender to his characters' formalism; a few self-referential touches serve as release valves. Ogata plays both Tony and his jazzbo father, Shozaburo, while the same actress, Rie Miyazawa, appears as Eiko, Tony's shopaholic wife, and Hisako, the assistant who takes her place. Tony and his father often finish the narrator's sentences, and once Eiko interrupts a crying jag to take over the story herself, a pirouette Miyazawa handles with flawless grace.

Inevitably, Tony Takitani will be subject to charges of airlessness, that it's as suffocating as the characters it portrays. But the movie's sleek modernism is subtly distinct from their silent anguish. When Tony muses, "I never thought I was particularly lonely," the city skyline that stretches out beyond his silhouetted figure conveys a self-awareness he may never reach. Unfortunately, the import of such shots is badly dulled by the fact that the movie's distributor chose to forgo a press screening and make the film available to reviewers only as a badly compressed DVD — a shame, since to all appearances Tony Takitani is a movie that needs to be seen in a theater, where its images might be more enveloping and less asphyxiating.

Tony Takitani | The New Yorker  Haruki Murakami

Tony Takitani | Film at The Digital Fix  Noel Megahey

The Village Voice [Dennis Lim]

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]

Austin Chronicle [Marrit Ingman]

The Lumière Reader  Tim Wong [Andrew O'Hehir]

Back to the future, or the vanguard meets the rearguard  Bert Cardullo from Jump Cut, Spring 2007

Last Night With Riviera [Matt Riviera]

Raging Bull [Mike Lorefice]

Slant Magazine [Ed Gonzalez]

Jigsaw Lounge [Neil Young]


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz] (Chris Dashiell)


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Film Journal International (David Noh)


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New York Times (registration req'd)  Manohla Dargis [Gary W. Tooze]


Ichikawa, Kon

Ichikawa, Kon  World Cinema
After graduating from a commercial school, he studied animation and made his entry into Japanese cinema in 1946 with a puppet film, A Girl of Dojo Temple, the negative of which was confiscated and destroyed by the American Occupation authorities. His early feature films were often satirical comedies, a rarity in Japanese cinema, and revealed a wry sense of humour that prompted some local critics to call him the "Japanese Frank Capra." He continued injecting doses of black humour into many of his later films, but made his greatest impact on Western audiences with a number of rather bleak dramas of the late 50s and early 60s, which were typically peopled with obsessional characters at odds with a spiritually aberrant environment. Especially notable are his two powerful antiwar films, The Burmese Harp (1956), in which a soldier experiences a Buddhist spiritual awakening and becomes obsessed with the need to bury the war dead, and Fires on the Plain (1959), which depicts the horrors of war in graphic, chilling terms, showing cannibalism among defeated Japanese soldiers.

Among his other major films are Enjo / Conflagration (1958), about a student priest who burns down his temple to save it from becoming contaminated by industrial pollution; Odd Obsession (1959), which deals with the sexual aspect of obsession; Alone on the Pacific / My Enemy the Sea (1963), which explores heroism with a light touch; and An Actor's Revenge (also 1963), the story of a Kabuki impersonator in which Ichikawa surpasses his own high standards of technical brilliance. Ichikawa is a highly proficient film craftsman with a keen eye for visual texture. He is ameticulous technician who labours long and carefully on every scene in advance of production. Even though few of his films have been widely exhibited in the West, his reputation as one of the leading directors of Japanese and world cinema is secure.                  

— Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia

Glass houses - director Kon Ichikawa - Statistical Data Included  Olaf Möller for Film Comment: 

Scorned in the East, forgotten in the West, the once-legendary Kon Ichikawa ignores his critics and continues to do what he does best: make films, remake films, and hold a mirror up to Japanese tradition. Olaf Moller finds the true auteur in the so-called hack.

During the past two decades of his prestigious and adventurous career as a director -- spanning now more than half a century with over 70 features and still going strong -- Kon Ichikawa, once hailed as one of the world's greatest directors for films like The Harp of Burma (56), Fires on the Plain (59), and An Actor's Revenge (62), has become an embarrassing bate noire for most Japanese critics. Today he's regarded as a master who's lost his touch, a relic from another era stubbornly refusing to retire, and, worst of all, a sellout.

At first glance, this sobering verdict of a brilliant career gone down the tubes is corroborated by his work's trajectory. From the mid-Fifties, beginning with The Heart (Kokoro, 55), to the mid-Seventies, ending with I Am a Cat (75), Ichikawa seemed virtually incapable of directing anything less than a great film -- it's actually easier to count the potboilers. There are also major films to be found both before and after the main phase of his career. In Ichikawa's apprenticeship period, starting with his now-lost debut, the unreleased puppet animation A Girl at Dojo Temple (45), and ending with his last film prior to The Heart, Ghost Story of Youth (55), there are a handful of remarkably good films, and the same holds true for the post--I Am a Cat period. There are surely other discoveries to be made among Ichikawa's rarely shown early works, and doubtless many of his later films will look much better in hindsight.

Considering his age, it comes as a surprise to hear that Ichikawa was a sickly child. Born in 1915 in Uji-Yamada, the son of a kimono merchant, he was housebound for much of his childhood, and learned to draw at an early age. He discovered Chaplin and Disney, and through them, a passion for the cinema. Animation seemed to be his calling, as it combined his two major interests, drawing and filmmaking. In 1933, after finishing technical school, Ichikawa became an apprentice at the animation department of J.O. (Jenkins/Osawa) studios. When J.O. was taken over by Toho, then a distribution company that owned a movie-house chain, the animation department was dissolved, and Ichikawa became an assistant director on live-action films. He was lucky enough to apprentice with four stylistically distinct directors: Yutaka "Jacky" Abe, a Hollywood-trained professional with a knack for fast-paced action and sophisticated comedy; Tamizo Ishida, a flaneur and womanizer; Nobuo Nakagawa, a horror-film eccentric; and Mansaku Itami, a social satirist and film theoretician.

Ichikawa's time came in 1947, after he shifted from the strike-tom Toho to Shintoho, its upstart breakaway. (He actually pieced together Shintoho's first film, a promotional production called 1001 Nights with Toho.) By the time he made his true debut feature, a melodrama called A Flower Blooms (48), Shintoho had become an independent operation in dire need of a hit -- which Ichikawa delivered later that year with 365 Nights (48). He would eventually return to Toho, which produced his first major works, Mr. Lucky and The Woman Who Touched Legs (both 52). Later, after a stint at Nikkatsu, where he directed his 1956 international breakthrough, Harp of Burma, he moved to Daiei, where he made most of his generally acknowledged masterpieces. Then, from 1964 on, Ichikawa worked as a freelance director, with Toho co-producing most of his later films.

Opinions differ about when and why things started to go wrong for Ichikawa. Some say it began when he parted with Daiei; some say just a little bit later, with the retirement of Natto Wada, his wife and most important collaborator, after Tokyo Olympiad (65); but just about everybody agrees that there is a break in his work after his 1976 box-office smash The Inugami Family. Ichikawa was 61, and his home, the Japanese studio system, was breaking down. According to conventional critical wisdom, this would have been the perfect moment to step down and behave like a good elder statesman of Japanese cinema: Ichikawa either should have retired, making a comeback with one or two deeply personal projects, or shifted gears to make bigger-budgeted, commemorative message movies for an elderly middle-class audience in dire need of "culture." Instead, Ichikawa directed five adaptations of Seishi Yokomizo mysteries in a row from 1976 to 1979, and then went on to make "important films" at the rate of one every two years, with other diverse excursions thrown in for good measure. In other words, Ichikawa simply kept on working, and began to seem like the superior hack he has often been described as.

Just as it is for Claude Chabrol, filmmaking is a way of life for Ichikawa, bordering on obsession -- the latter being his great theme. This has confused critics, who associate compulsive productivity with B-films and expect A-list filmmakers like Ichikawa to be steadfast, working toward an ever-finer mastery of their art while remaining deeply engaged, regardless of whether they are making a living.

What confused many critics and finally made them turn away from Ichikawa was his versatility, the wide range of subjects and moods in his work, which is often mistaken for an unruly eclecticism. (This is surprising in Japanese film culture, which values directors who take risks and try new aesthetic approaches.) The sheer breadth of Ichikawa's body of work is dazzling in terms of sources, techniques, genres, styles, and moods. His oeuvre is like a house with many openings (doors, windows, trapdoors, and trompes l'oeil apertures), a multitude of different but interconnected spaces and rooms.

This structure is, in turn, intrinsically connected to Japanese cinema as a whole, with its tradition of remakes and reworkings of stories. Ichikawa has made not only live-action films but also (occasionally experimental) documentaries, animated features and television programs; he has adapted everything from genre best-sellers (Yokomizo, Ed McBain) to works by virtually every major 20th-century Japanese writer (Yukio Mishima, Jun-ichiro Tanizaki, Soseki Natsume, Yasunari Kawabata, and Kyoka Izumi), to Kabuki plays and reworkings of other traditional theatrical forms, to Murasaki Shikibu's court-classic The Tale of Genji, not to mention his frequent collaborations with the eminent poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. The result is an array of admirably different films: works of social satire (Mr. Pu, 53), solemn social outrage (The Outcast, aka The Broken Commandnasnt, 62), sophisticated comedy (The Woman Who Touched Legs), ironic mysteries (Ten Dark Women, 61), heartfelt family dramas (Her Brother, 60), strange, erratic dissections of human foibles (The Key, 58), and brooding, nihilistic tales of passion and despair (The Heart). All are handled with equal ease and mastery.

That's not to say that these films have nothing in common. There's an encompassing vision behind Ichikawa's work, but not one that can be described by simply identifying common themes and issues. Nevertheless, there are subjects that obviously hold deep interest for him, most important among them being The Family. Whether he adapts Yokomizo (The Inugami Family) or Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters, 83), his films always become dissections of family values, which, implicitly, always reflect the inner state of Japan itself. Ichikawa's work forms a single entity that is full of life, intelligent and open-minded, yet riven with doubt, idiosyncrasy, and contradiction. This also manifests itself in Ichikawa's passion for mixing genres, his penchant for working with convoluted, twisty plots prone to turning in on themselves self-reflexively and break into shards, while the director maintains a careful distance.

To approach things from yet another angle: it is a telling and thoroughly Ichikawan irony that he was both discovered in the West and granted master status in Japan for a film whose solemn seriousness makes it an anomaly in his oeuvre. The Harp of Burma (released in the U.S. as The Burmese Harp) was originally scheduled to be directed by Nikkatsu's art-film-auteur-in-residence, the devoted Buddhist, humanist, wartime-propaganda movie-meister, and Hiroshima survivor Tomotaka Tasaka, who fell ill during preproduction and had to be replaced. Under Tasaka's direction, The Harp of Burma might have been a true masterpiece rather than simply a great film: a cry from the depths of the Japanese heart. Ichikawa's distinctly distant treatment forestalls that -- in this case not necessarily to the work's advantage, as it reduces the film to a simplistic War Is Bad statement.

In a certain way, all of Ichikawa's films from the Eighties and Nineties are a skeptical return to and reflection on his work from the Fifties to the Seventies. As well as his obligatory remake of 47 Ronin in 1994 -- a story that has been remade more than 100 times -- he directed The Harp of Burma for the second time in 1985. This sense of distance, of reflection, and the process of presenting things from different angles and returning to them, is perhaps the key to his genius. Ichikawa reinforces this detachment with the immaculate beauty of his images: their forceful composition, stark black-and-white contrast or carefully nuanced color schemes, and their cool, unsettling indifference to the characters in the frame. They are glacial images. Critics instinctively react to this artful sense of distance when they dismiss Ichikawa -- to his delight -- as an illustrator. He acknowledges that there is indeed an obvious gap between what is said and how it is said, and that to willfully ignore this is to fall into it. This abyss is his films' true subject.

The house of Ichikawa is a hall of mirrors, an inside-out fun house of human ambitions, around and through which the filmmaker walks, mounting new mirrors here and there and uttering, "What fools these mortals be."

This, in the end, might be the real reason for Ichikawa's fall from critical grace. His oeuvre is neither affirmative nor inspirational. It's negative, coolly formal, and dispassionate. It is a cinema of reflective surfaces -- and so, implicitly, always more about the viewer than the director, still less the film's characters -- and it's also a cinema of despair, the most open-minded, udcondescending form of humanism. A cinema that ironically always verges on coming too close to the heart of the matter: us.

The Essential Ichikawa

1. Mr. Pu, aka Pu-san (1953)

A perfect example of Ichikawa's early social satires; in postwar Japan, ronin students drag their poor slob of a math teacher to a political rally, and inadvertently transform him into a political undesirable.

2. The Heart (1955)

Observed by his student, a teacher's obsessive wallowing in guilt and self-hatred finds its cruelest expression in his coldness toward his devoted wife. Adapted from a novel by Soseki, it marks the beginning of Ichikawa's 20 years of pure genius.

3. Conflagration, aka Enjo (1958)

Young Mizoguchi's quest for purity leads him to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, where he becomes disillusioned with society's postwar corruption and succumbs to self disgust. Adapting Mishima's classic historical novel, Ichikawa gives the story a psychological spin and an ironic, excessive beauty.

4. The Key, aka Odd Obsession (1959)

Obsessed with satisfying his beautiful young wife, an impotent, wealthy old lecher bribes his son-in-law to have an affair with hex; recording his dirty thoughts in a diary that lie hides for his wife to find and read. A classic of modern literature reconceived as a gleefully disgusted comedy of masks and pretensions, a hall of mirrors in which art and life reflect each other endlessly.

5. Fires on the Plain (1959)

While Ichikawa couldn't -- or didn't want to -- eliminate the Buddhist sentiments in The Harp, of Burma, his adaptation of Shohei Ooka's novel purges most of its Christian overtones. This is not your usual peace-mongering antiwar film: this is a had-ass mother of a war movie that grabs you and rubs your face -- frame by hauntingly detached, beautiful frame -- in man's degradation.

6. Ten Dark Women (1961)

A spineless man's nine mistresses join forces in an attempt to kill him, but their own mind games and backstabbing trip them up. This prime example of Ichikawa's penchant for spiking crime-fiction plots with social satire gels into a weirdly nihilistic film consisting of a succession of ridiculously embarrassing implosions.

7. I Am Two, aka Being Two Isn't Easy (1962)

Life, love, toilet training, and death as seen through the eyes of Taro, the world's most analytical and verbose toddler. One of Ichikawa's strangest -- and out of artistic necessity, uneven -- works. A shamelessly positive and unabashedly life-affirming film in which Ichikawa regresses to a state of blissful ignorance.

8. An Actor's Revenge (1963)

Commercial filmmaking seldom comes closer to producing an experimental work of art than in this flamboyant, big-budget exercise in camp as content, subtext, and metafiction in which a Kabuki female impersonator (superstar Kazuo Hasegawa) avenges the death of his parents. Total cinema at its most outrageous.

9. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

The most beautiful Olympic Games documentary ever made -- but only in its rarely seen original 165-minute version. What disturbed viewers at the time of the film's release, and was accordingly cut, was Ichikawa's interest in the spectators, to which he devotes a great deal of screentime.

10. The Wanderers (1973)

Three dumb-ass swordsmen attempt to make their mark as chivalrous commoners in mid-19th-century Japan. The first croaks from a gangrenous foot; the second -- while discussing one of the finer points of yakuza honor -- falls off a cliff; the third, thinking the second has gone to take a dump, simply walks on. Ichikawa's venomous comment on the then-current yakuza movie craze and the student rebellions that were disrupting Japanese society. Stylistically perhaps his loosest, rawest work, it's youthful in a way that has nothing to do with age but everything to do with vision -- which is precisely what the film's protagonists lack.

Kon Ichikawa | Biography, Movie Highlights and Photos | AllMovie  bio from Jonathan Crow


Overview for Kon Ichikawa -  biography


BBC Four Profile  by Clare Norton-Smith


Kon Ichikawa • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema   Alexander Jacoby from Senses of Cinema, April 22, 2004  


Kon Ichikawa - Director - Films as Director:, Other Film:, Publications  Patricia Erens from Film Reference


Kon Ichikawa - Strictly Film School  Acquarello


Kon Ichikawa - Movies, Bio and Lists on MUBI


The Best Movies Directed by Kon Ichikawa - Flickchart


The History of Cinema. Kon Ichikawa: biography, filmography, reviews ...  Piero Scaruffi, 1999


Magnificent Obsessions | Village Voice  Elliot Stein, September 4, 2001


The work of Kon Ichikawa | World news | The Guardian  Derek Malcolm, August 6, 2002


An Actor's Revenge • Senses of Cinema  Acquarello, March 21, 2003


Obituary: Kon Ichikawa | Film | The Guardian  Ronald Bergan, February 13, 2008


Kon Ichikawa, Japanese Film Director, Dies at 92 - The New York Times  February 14, 2008


I Am a Cat | Village Voice   Elliot Stein, July 2, 2008


Midnight Eye review: Her Brother (Otouto, 1960, Kon ICHIKAWA)  December 15, 2008


Midnight Eye review: Alone Across the Pacific (Taiheiyo Hitoribotchi ...  June 2, 2009


Fires on the Plain | Village Voice   J. Hoberman, December 1, 2010


Portrait of a Time Already Gone in Japanese Family ... - Village Voice  Nick Pinkerton, May 4, 2011


The Burmese Harp • Senses of Cinema  Manjari Kaul, June 18, 2012


Kokoro • Senses of Cinema   Darragh O’Donoghue, June 21, 2012


20 Essential Films From The Japanese New Wave « Taste of Cinema ...  Matthew Carter, May 25, 2014


Tokyo Olympiad, a Film by Kon Ichikawa – The Olympians  Roy Tomizawa, June 11, 2015


Kon Ichikawa's Masterpiece 'An Actor's Revenge ... - Village Voice  Simon Abrams, October 13, 2015


Restored and rediscovered Kon Ichikawa films to screen at TIFF | The ...  Mark Schilling from The Japan Times, October 14, 2015


Japan Society Reintroduces the Filmmaker Kon Ichikawa - The New ...   The New York Times, October 15, 2015


Ichikawa, Kon  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


Kon Ichikawa - Wikipedia


THE BURMESE HARP (Biruma no tategoto)
aka:  Harp of Burma
Japan  (116 mi)  1956


Garrett Chaffin-Quiray from 1001 MOVIES YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE:

Although Akira Kurosawa may be the most famous Japanese filmmaker in the West, his contemporary Kon Ichikawa has displayed equal artistry in literally dozens of films, among them The Burmese Harp, his elegy for lost innocence. Opening at the end of World War II, Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) leads his platoon into Burma with a healthy mix of discipline and musical instruction. Having trained his soldiers to fight, but also to sing, they are an odd assortment of conscripts who eventually collide with Armistice Day.

Held in a British internment camp awaiting repatriation, they hear rumors about anisolated group of Japanese refusing to surrender. As Inouye’s harp player and the center of his platoon’s spiritual life, Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) volunteers to talk down the soldiers rather than let them die in an artillery barrage.  Unimpressed with his entreaties, the entrenched force is killed and Mizushima assumed lost but for rumors his platoon clings to about his survival.

What follows is a touching journey as Mizushima awakens from ther attack, injured and afraid. Aided by peasants, he begins making his way back to Inouye but gradually realizes a higher purpose. Garbed as a Buddhist monk he sets about burying the dead strewn across Southeast Asia without funerary attention or final messages home. He recognizes the need to mourn, but also how the peace will be based on mutual care and personal loyalty, and so forsakes his old life to walk the earth bringing small labors to bear where they’re needed. He subsequently crosses paths with Inouye on several occasions but finally explains his cause as a lasting tribute to the dead, both innocent and guilty, good and evil, because it’s upon their backs the future will rise.

A breath of warm sentiment inserted over a macabre scenario, The Burmese Harp retains every bit of dignity associated with gentility and kindness. Burma itself becomes a passive supporting character but the idea of a spiritual renewal, presented without dogma or propagandistic impulses, proves a likable epilogue to the horrors of World War II in this, Ichikawa’s early masterpiece. 

Channel 4 Film   Ceri Thomas

At the end of WWII, a Japanese soldier is confronted with the true horror of war and death. Classic lyrical drama from acclaimed Japanese director Kon Ichikawa

Beautifully constructed and immaculately paced, it's almost impossible not to be moved by Kon Ichikawa's heartfelt look at the aftermath of battle.

Set in Burma at the end of WWII, it begins with a platoon of Japanese soldiers singing as they march through the jungle. Encountering the British army, they prepare for combat only to find out that the war is over, Japan has surrendered and the Brits are there to escort them to a POW camp.

But first one member of the troop, the harp-playing corporal Mizushima (Yasui), must carry out a final mission. Deep in the mountains one last Japanese platoon is hiding out, so he's sent to convince them that the war is over. The mission is a failure and ends in terrifying bloodshed.

This is where the film kicks into another gear, as Mizushima struggles to recover from his physical and emotional wounds. Lost and isolated, he begins by trying to find his way back to his old platoon, but ends by finding a new and powerful spiritual calling.

Understated and solemn where other war films might have been bombastic and excessive, The Burmese Harp combines a fine central performance from Yasui with some truly stunning visuals - the landscape really does feel like an extra character. The result is an account of a physical and spiritual journey that stays with you for a long time after the end credits roll. It's got some great singing too.

From start to finish, there's a stirring humanism to Ichikawa's little seen classic. A powerful and affecting anti-war movie.

Film Commentary by CGK

The film takes place at the end of WWII in the country of Burma where a group of Japanese soldiers learn of their nation's surrender and are sent to a POW camp in the town of Mudon. One of them, Mizushima, is sent on a mission to inform another unit of the surrender and to convince them to stop fighting. The unit refuses to give up, and they are killed by the British army; Mizushima is the only survivor. He takes the guise of a Buddhist monk and travels across the region in search of his unit. Along the way, Mizushima encounters many deceased Japanese soldiers and tries to bury some of them. He gradually becomes obsessed with burying and honoring the dead and cannot go back to Japan with his unit, choosing a more spiritual life in Burma.

The Burmese Harp deals with war and its effects, but there is very little battle footage. The film takes a more contemplative and pensive tone in describing how war can traumatize its participants. These soldiers are not presented as emotionless, conditioned killers who are eager for battle. Mizushima's particular unit is shown to be concerned for each other and even sensitive. The captain of the group has a background in music and has passed his interest on to his men; Mizushima has become an expert at playing the harp. Even as war pulls people apart, music brings them together--even those on opposing sides, such as the British troops who join the Japanese to sing at the war's end. The film has a certain sentimentality, but it manages to balance this well with the portrait of a man horrified and ultimately changed by the aftermath of war.

The choice of a more passive and spiritual lifestyle over a pragmatic one is central to the film. Initially, Mizhushima is inspired by his captain's speech about returning to Japan to rebuild the ravaged country. The trapped unit that he tries to persuade to surrender, contrastingly, sees no point in doing anything but fighting to the death. Their notion of war as a win-or-die contest conflicts with Mizushima's more sensible solution; he tells them their deaths would serve no purpose. This statement holds true, and the purposelessness that Mizushima now associates with all the bodies he finds on his journey moves him to a transformation. At first he hides his eyes from the corpses that line the region and psychologically treats all of them as one. However, in an important sequence, Mizushima stops by a dead soldier to pick up a photo of the man with a child, and he realizes that each of the numerous bodies was an individual person whose death affects many people. He sees no reason for the death of the Japanese soldiers and can only show respect by burying the bodies--there is nothing else to do. Mizushima realizes and states at the end of the film that man cannot know why suffering exists but should try to ease the pain it inflicts. Having the functional purpose of war shattered by witnessing the tragic waste of life, he develops a more spiritual perspective.

The film utilizes numerous long shots, particularly when Mizushima makes his trek back to Mudon and becomes aware of the great number of unburied bodies along the beaches and mountains of Burma. The camera places him alone in the larger context of the otherwise beautiful landscapes of the country, signifying his development as an individual and his place as part of the more natural Burmese countryside. His compatriots, meanwhile, are framed behind barbed-wire fences and always move as a group. At the film's conclusion, the unit sails back toward Japan, and the captain reads Mizushima's letter explaining why he couldn't return with them. The camera is turned toward the expansive and constant ocean, emphasizing the importance and wisdom of his statements. The men are moved by his letter, but their thoughts eagerly turn to their return home. The final shot shows Mizushima continuing along his spiritual path through the Burmese plains, looking to transcend rather than return. The Burmese Harp is a film which, even while dealing with war and all its senseless tragedy, refuses to cheapen life and maintains the importance of death.

The Burmese Harp   Criterion essay by Audie Bock, January 27, 1993


The Burmese Harp: Unknown Soldiers   Criterion essay by Tony Rayns, March 16, 2007


The Burmese Harp (1956) - The Criterion Collection


The Burmese Harp • Senses of Cinema  Manjari Kaul, June 18, 2012


The Burmese Harp -  Jeff Stafford


Kon Ichikawa's 'The Burmese Harp': A Search for Redemption  Thomas Storey from Culture Trip


Old School Reviews [John Nesbit]


The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto) (1956) | PopMatters  Michael Buening


The Burmese Harp | Film Review | Slant Magazine  Eric Henderson


The IFC Blog [Michael Atkinson]


DVD Verdict [Dan Mancini]


CineScene [Howard Schumann]


Thomas E. Billings


REVIEW The Burmese Harp (1956) - Decent Films  Steven D. Greydanus


The Burmese Harp   Acquarello also reviews Conflagration, Fires on the Plain, The Key, An Actor's Revenge and The Makioka Sisters from Strictly Film School  


The Burmese Harp, directed by Kon Ichikawa | Film review - Time Out  Geoff Andrew [Gary W. Tooze]


The Burmese Harp Blu-ray - DVD Beaver


The Burmese Harp (1956 film) - Wikipedia



aka:  Conflagration

Japan  (99 mi)  1958  ‘Scope


Time Out

Yukio Mishima's acclaimed 1956 novel Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) was inspired by an actual incident in 1950 when a disturbed monk burned down one of Kyoto's most beautiful temple buildings. The temple requested that the name be changed to Shukakuji for this adaptation, which opens out the book's internal monologue, structuring the anguished protagonist's progress towards final conflagration through flashbacks as the police piece together their investigation. Raizo Ichikawa's central performance attracts sympathy for this stuttering temple acolyte from a broken family, who sees in the Golden Pavilion a purity of beauty in direct contrast to his own imperfect existence. It's a purity in danger of being defiled, however, as post-war occupation and reconstruction open the site to tourism, so he resolves to destroy pavilion in order to preserve it. Ichikawa's fragmented direction draws together this awful logic, leaving the audience dangling exquisitely between understanding and outright horror as flames obliterate a priceless cultural monument. The director's favourite among his own films.

ENJO (Kon Ichikawa, 1958) | Dennis Grunes

Based on Yukio Mishima’s 1956 novel Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Enjo (a.k.a. Conflagration and Flame of Torment) unfolds as the unimpeded flashback of a stuttering boy, Goichi Mizoguchi, who has been apprehended by police for burning down Kyoto’s 14th-century Soenji Temple, where he had apprenticed to the head priest, Tayama, after the death of his father, a provincial monk who revered the building. Tayama had seemed to the boy as pure as the temple itself; after a series of disillusionments regarding the temple either directly or symbolically (although the structure had eluded Allied bombing, U.S. occupiers defiled it by using it as an ad hoc brothel; the Japanese themselves commercialized it later on), Goichi learns that his mentor has a mistress and commits his irrevocable criminal act. If the temple proved too pure an ideal to exist in so tarnished a world, neither can the latter sustain his own youthful idealism. Goichi commits suicide.

Something is rotten in the state of Japan; Goichi’s arson assaults the betrayal of Japanese fathers and traditions. The boy bears his father’s mark: the stutter, according to Goichi’s narration in the book, that “placed an obstacle between [him] and the outside world.” His father’s death, then, has strengthened, not diluted, the filial bond. But his feelings are even more complex than this suggests, for the beauty of the temple makes Goichi feel that his own existence “was a thing estranged from beauty” (Mishima). Japan’s betrayed past—its betrayed fathers—now taunts the youth, also contributing to his destruction of the Buddhist temple.     

In the film, the temple isn’t much to look at; this underscores its subjective beauty for Goichi. The whole drama is a thing of his mind. Ichikawa’s austere, precise, analytical images are among the most beautiful in cinema.

Film Review: Kon Ichikawa's “Conflagration” / “Enjo” (炎上)  Rex Baylon


Berlinale Blog: Kon Ichikawa's timeless social criticism - Goethe-Institut


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


Conflagration (1958) - Articles -  Frank Miller


Enjô / Conflagration (1958) Kon Ichikawa, Raizô Ichikawa, Ganjirô ...  photo stills


Movie Review - - Japan's 'Enjo' -  Howard Thompson


Enjō - Wikipedia



aka:  Odd Obsession

aka:  The Key

Japan  (96 mi)  1959  ‘Scope


Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)


Kon Ichikawa's kinky black comedy in 'Scope (1959, 96 min.) adapts the powerful Junichiro Tanizaki novel The Key, in which an old man tries to revive his virility by arranging various sexual encounters for his own vicarious enjoyment--especially one between his younger wife and a doctor. The novel alternates between the old man's diary entries and the wife's; Ichikawa's more straightforward narrative method doesn't do justice to all the ironies, but this is a still a singular and memorable movie, and the great Machiko Kyo is a particular standout as the wife. Almost a quarter century later, Ichikawa returned to Tanizaki's work for The Makioka Sisters. In Japanese with subtitles.


Time Out

When first published in 1956, the sexual explicitness of Junichiro Tanizaki's novel Kagi (The Key) provoked a scandal; it was, however, most resourcefully adapted by Ichikawa, his screenwriter spouse Wada and their collaborator Hasebe. Out went the revealing husband and wife diaries that shaped a psycho-sexual power struggle; in came a serious comedy of desire, as elderly antiquarian Nakamura engineers his wife Kyo's infidelity with their daughter's medic fiancé Nakadai in the hope that jealousy will revive his flagging virility. The film cannily shifts through different points of view, as separate personal agendas (the wife's controlling lubriciousness, the doctor's scheming ambition) emerge in a bitterly witty quadrille, where the older partners are decidedly more daring than the younger generation. Actually, the film's wry observation allows for little sense of the grotesque, opting instead for the ultimate irony - one mixed with compassion and sly admiration - that such rejuvenating vivacity may not be altogether good for one's health. [Sylvia Stralberg Bagley]


Kon Ichikawa’s provocative black comedy — based on a novel by famed Japanese author Junichirio Tanizaki — makes for fascinating yet challenging viewing. Since characters’ motivations aren’t always clear, we never know what to expect from them, and thus we’re kept in suspense from beginning to end. Kyô’s wifely character is particularly inscrutable — how much does she know about her husband’s plans? — and Ichikawa’s choice not to let us know what’s running through her mind differs radically from the novel (which consists of alternating diary entries written by both husband and wife).


As highly charged as the eroticism is in Kago, it’s implied rather than flaunted: the characters never explicitly state what’s going on, and instead we must rely on their facial reactions to guess the content of racy photographs, or to understand that a particular character has no clothing on. Symbolism also prevails: in one unusually provocative shot, the aging husband’s dark-rimmed glasses fall onto his wife’s pale chest, hinting at the distance that exists between his lustful gaze and her sensuous availability. While not all of Ichikawa’s stylistic choices work — his freeze frames near the beginning of the film seem like mere affect, for instance — his unique sensibility ultimately adds just the right flavor of absurdity to this darkly comic tale.


Magnificent Obsessions | Village Voice  Elliot Stein, September 4, 2001


Strictly Film School  Acquarello



Japan  (108 mi)  1959  ‘Scope


Fires on the Plain | Chicago Reader   Dave Kehr


Wandering in dazed retreat from the advancing American army, a Japanese soldier crosses the appalling devastation of a Philippine island, his life spared only because his tubercular condition makes him unfit for consumption by the starving, dehumanized masses who hide in the rubble. No other film on the horrors of war has gone anywhere near as far as Kon Ichikawa's 1959 Japanese feature; it's obsessionally fixed on the sheer horror of human existence, and the terror and hopelessness keep mounting. With Eiji Funakoshi, Osamu Takizawa, and Mickey Curtis; based on a novel by Shohei Ooka. In Japanese with subtitles. 105 min. DVD review [Ken Dubois]

Both guts-and-glory and anti-war movies are typically populated with characters who have a purpose - or at the least some place to go. But the bedraggled Japanese soldiers in Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain plod on pointlessly, a parade of walking ghosts without expression or emotion, hanging between life and death with little interest in which category they might fall. Set in the Philippines at the end of War World II, it focuses on the legions of emaciated, exhausted troops left by the Japanese army to fend for themselves in a surreal, barren landscape where a few scrawny yams or chucks of salts are the most prized possessions of all. It's a slow crawl into degradation, in which, scene by scene, we are asked to consider: How low can human beings really go?

Fires on the Plain has no ideology or agenda, and little dialogue or character development, but it's a powerful description of war in the details it does present. The film focuses on three main characters, among thousands of the near-dead, whose entire world is based on the few objects they carry or wear. Hand grenades, rifles, and boots become less relevant every day, and one character finally throws them away. Others keep their weapons only as protection against their comrades, whose sunken eyes belie a freakishly desperate mind-set. All that matters, finally, is food. Some characters have chunks of "monkey meat," though no one claims to have seen any monkeys. In a typically macabre conversation between two soldiers, one of them holds up his thin arm, points to it and offers: "When I'm dead, you can eat this."

In 2005, director Ichikawa discussed Fires on the Plain in a videotaped interview for this Criterion DVD release, and it's a fascinating visit with this brilliant and articulate creator. He explains that his mother and sisters had been in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, and had somehow managed to survive, and that the devastation of that attack was essential to his lifelong commitment to speak out against war.

The anti-war novel Fires on the Plain appealed to Ichikawa's sensibilities, so he did a screenplay adaptation with his wife, Natto Wada, and amped up the pathos; they also stripped away the novel's references to Christianity and killed off a main character who survived in the book. He told his actors to prepare for filming by getting very thin, but the method actor in his cast, Eiji Funakoshi, went too far and stopped eating altogether. Funakoshi collapsed on the first day of filming and was hospitalized for malnutrition.

Also on this disc is a recent interview with Mickey Curtis, who starred in Fires on the Plain when he was nineteen years old. Curtis was a self-proclaimed "rock and roll idol" in Japan at the time, and he freely admits he couldn't really act, but the style of the film was "natural," so he never had to think much about what he was doing. On the set, Curtis says, Ichikawa would briefly explain what he wanted in the scene, and they'd shoot it without rehearsal or discussion.

Also on this disc is an excellent video interview with Japanese-film historian Donald Richie, who praises the style of Fires on the Plain as "high art" built around pure description: "It's like a documentary," he says. "The film has no agenda."

Ichikawa began his career directing enormously successful Japanese comedies, Richie explains, before moving on to mysteries, film noir and other styles, and probably would be more of a "brand" name, like Akira Kurosawa, if he hadn't tried so many genres. Still, Richie says, "This film has a shelf life that is going to go on forever."

Like Full Metal Jacket, Fires on the Plain has wonderful moments of dark comedy, and like the 1998 version of The Thin Red Line, the cinematography is often breathtaking, even in some of the most depressing scenes. Those skillful touches make Ichikawa's movie something special, but its power lies in its unrelenting focus, and the point of view that war, at its most basic level, is completely disconnected from political, religious, or moral concerns. The theme of Fires on the Plain, Ichikawa says, is "that war is an absolute evil. And to this day that feeling remains embedded deep in my heart."

Fires on the Plain (1962) - Home Video Reviews -   Sean Axmaker

The Kon Ichikawa never secured the international reputation of fellow studio professionals Akira Kurisawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yasijiro Ozu, but the versatile director made an indelible mark with two of the most powerful anti-war dramas made in or out of Japan. The lyrical and introspective The Burmese Harp (1956) follows the odyssey of a Japanese soldier in Burma during the waning months of World War II who steals the robes of a Buddhist monk to make his way back to his platoon and undergoes a spiritual transformation as he witnesses the destruction and wholesale death left in the wake of battle. After a career of studio assignments, largely satirical comedies and melodramas, this passion project from Ichikawa made an impression on critics in Japan and became his first film to be seen outside the country, picking up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and securing distribution in the U.S. and Europe.

Fires on the Plain made three years later, stands in stark contrast, stark being the operative word. Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka (who drew from his personal experiences as a soldier and POW) and scripted by Ichikawa's wife and collaborator, Natto Wada, it too takes the form of soldier's journey through the battlefields of World War II, this time an island in the Philippines in 1945 as the Americans drive the Japanese out. The striking photography and imagery is the unmistakable work of the same creative artist, but otherwise Ichikawa takes a very different path. Where the serenity amidst death of The Burmese Harp is about the healing of wounds caused by the war, Fires on the Plain is a grim and gruesome and at times macabre autopsy of its (selectively Japanese) victims.

Ichikawa opens the film with, literally, a slap in the face in startling close-up. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) is too weak from tuberculosis to fight. His barking commanding officer berates him for his uselessness and orders him to the hospital, where he must gain admittance (and thus become their problem to feed) or use his grenade on himself. "I don't care if you're coughing blood," the administrator of the overstuffed hospital tells him. "If you can walk, you're not a patient." He joins a nearby group of soldiers similarly in limbo and waits to be captured by the Americans or die. At least until the camp is bombed and his will to survive kicks in, sending him trudging through the jungles with his fellow survivors.

According to Ichikawa, Funakoshi prepared for the role with a resolution that would make a die-hard Method actor think twice. Starving himself to a cadaverous dimensions, the production had to delay its start due to Funakoshi's malnutrition. Even after he "bulked up" to a healthier state and production restarted, he looks like the walking dead from the first frame, his sunken eyes half closed with exhaustion and his uniform hanging off his emaciated frame like a second hand costume on a weathered scarecrow. He barely speaks through the film, letting his hollow eyes speak for him as he witnesses the horrors of war.

Tamura wanders into an empty village – everyone is either dead (the corpses mere piles of uniforms and bones on the steps of a church) or fled – and even his best intentions backfire when he panics during a confrontation with a young Filipino couple. He joins the zombie march of scattered soldiers trying to reach the evacuation point and crosses paths with the dregs of the army's survivors: bullies, profiteers, mercenaries, and those who sacrifice their dignity and consciences to attach themselves to these schemers. As the numbers dwindle, he joins a particularly feral pair (Osamu Takizawa as a gangrenous hyena and Mickey Curtis as his amoral leech of an accomplice) hiding in the jungle and surviving on "monkey meat" and witnesses the human animal at its worst, a horror so barbaric that even his dead eyes recoil with revulsion.

"I began as a painter and I think like one," Ichikawa once remarked, and his roots as a graphic artist and cartoonist can be seen in his eye for composition and imagery on his black and white widescreen canvas. The imagery of Fires on the Plain has a primal beauty that becomes increasingly stark and severe through the course of the film, with scenes are so brutally beautiful and bizarre you'll not soon forget them: crippled patients squirming like worms to escape the bombing of a hospital, smoke clearing to reveal the rag-doll bodies strewn across an old battlefield, a platoon of soldiers crawling across an open road under cover of night like an army of insects scrambling for cover, and of course the plumes of smoke in the distance from the fires on the plain, like an obscure signal that every soldier reads differently.

The film was even more successful than The Burmese Harp, though it has been criticized for focusing on the Japanese suffering while neglecting the well documented atrocities that the Japanese perpetrated during their brutal occupation. At best Ichikawa suggests the terrible history through the terrified reactions of the Filipinos he meets along the way. But like Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, Fires on the Plain uses the Japanese experience in the final days of World War II as a microcosm for the way war destroys the soul and spirit of all involved, how the will to survive can drive men to acts of cruelty and brutality that make death look kind.

Japanese film scholar Donald Richie offers historical perspective on the film and an illuminating overview on the career of Ichikawa in his 12-minute introduction. He explains that it was Ichikawa's versatility and genre-jumping that kept him from establishing himself as a kind of artistic brand name along the lines of Kurosawa.

Criterion's disc also features new interviews with Ichikawa (who, at over 90 years old, is still actively directing) and co-star Mickey Curtis, a one-time pop idol cast (according to Ichikawa) because he was "thin." Curtis (who speaks fluent English) recalls with a laugh that he was cast because they thought he looked like Jesus Christ! An accompanying booklet features a new essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. The anamorphic widescreen disc features a crisp and clear transfer of an excellent B&W print with strong contrasts.

Fires on the Plain   Criterion essay by Terrence Rafferty, November 14, 1995


Fires on the Plain: Both Ends Burning    Criterion essay by Chuck Stephens, March 12, 2007


Fires on the Plain (1959) - The Criterion Collection


Fires on the Plain | Village Voice   J. Hoberman, December 1, 2010


DVD Verdict - Criterion Collection [Dan Mancini]


DVD Talk - Criterion edition [Jamie S. Rich] (Chris Dashiell)


Fires on the Plain | Film Review | Slant Magazine   Fernando F. Croce


DVD Town (Christopher Long)


The DVD Journal | Quick Reviews: Fires on the Plain: The Criterion ... (Don Willmott) (Jeff Wilson)


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


REVIEW Fires on the Plain (1959) - Decent Films  Steven G. Greydanus


'Fires on the Plain' Film Review: A War Movie for the Fangoria Crowd ...   Variety


Fires on the Plain: Venice film festival review – brilliantly bonkers ...  Xan Brooks from The Guardian


A second look at bloody WWII novel 'Fires on the Plain' | The Japan ...  Mark Schilling from The Japan Times


Read the New York Times Review »   Bosley Crowther, also seen here:  Fires on the Plain - The New York Times [Gary W. Tooze]


Fires on the Plain (1959 film) - Wikipedia


AN ACTOR’S REVENGE (Yukinojô henge)

Japan  (113 mi)  1963  ‘Scope


Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)


Kon Ichikawa's 1963 masterpiece, one of the most dazzling and stylistically audacious Japanese films ever made, has to be seen to be believed--though in Japan, interestingly enough, it's never been regarded as anything but a potboiler. The film was putatively made to celebrate the 300th film appearance of box-office idol Kazuo Hasegawa, and is in fact a remake of a 1938 film by Teinosuke Kinugasa that featured Hasegawa in the same parts. Ichikawa uses it as an unprecedented opportunity for unbridled stylistic play (the film's use of 'Scope and color is breathtaking), Shakespearean complication (Hasegawa plays two parts, one of them in drag), and a fascinating investigation into the relationship between theater and cinema. The hero is a Kabuki female impersonator out to avenge the death of his parents, and the plot proceeds somewhat like a film noir (with revelatory flashbacks), while adroitly mixing onstage and offstage action. To make the campy mixture even weirder, Ichikawa periodically uses contemporary jazz on the sound track. One can easily see here why Disney is one of Ichikawa's favorite filmmakers, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this singular experiment is its demonstration that theater and film are more kissing cousins than distant relations--the more stage bound the film gets, the more cinematic it becomes. If you've never seen this, prepare to be stunned. In Japanese with subtitles. 114 min.


Movierapture [Keith Allen]

In 1836, in Tokugawa Japan, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa), a Kabuki actor specializing in female roles, arrives with his troupe in Edo. There he sets in motion a complex plot designed first to ruin and then to kill three men who had themselves caused his parents' deaths years before.

Kon Ichikawa's An Actor's Revenge is both visually stunning and profoundly affecting. The director has fashioned such a truly lovely movie that the viewer cannot help but be so enthralled by the experience of watching it that he is made to feel all the anger and sadness of its characters with a terrible poignancy.

An Actor's Revenge is absolutely, strikingly gorgeous. Every scene of the movie is skillfully filmed, perfectly staged, and suffused with a diverse array of vibrant colors. Beginning with a sumptuous presentation of a moment from a Kabuki play being performed by Yukinojo's troupe, which is so enchantingly realized that the viewer is likely to be astonished by the sensitivity with which it has been brought to the screen, Ichikawa proceeds to unveil a dreamlike world charged with an almost painful beauty.

This loveliness is made all the more affecting by the film's artificiality. Rather than moving from the rarefied landscape of the stylized play which is presented in its first scene to that of ordinary experience, An Actor's Revenge maintains a feeling of unreality throughout. Ichikawa never tries to trick the viewer into believing that he is looking at some place in the real world by mimicking the objects of ordinary experience, but rather allows the moviegoer to relish the innate beauty of each of the film's elegant sets. The viewer is, consequently, always reminded that he is watching a movie and not looking through a window at the doings of ordinary persons. Being so able to engage directly with the film, he is transported to and immersed in a world of uncanny loveliness.

This intoxicating sense of otherworldliness is further heightened by the director's having Kazuo Hasegawa appear not only as Yukinojo but also as a thief named Yamitaro, with whom the former frequently interacts. Not content so to divide one man between two roles and, thereby, blur his individuality, Ichikawa also blurs the line dividing his actors from his audience. To do so, the director often places Yamitaro on a rooftop or atop a wall overlooking the other actors so that, while he remains a participant in the story, he is also able to watch them as though he were an outside observer. Ichikawa even allows the moviegoer to participate in his characters' inner lives by having the actors speak the thoughts of the persons they are playing.

By presenting the viewer with such a complex, liminal world, the director, rather than conjuring up some unstable illusion and trying to use it to fool the viewer into identifying with imaginary persons, instead allows him to engage directly with the work of art he has crafted. We can, consequently, approach the film's characters immediately, rather than as shadowy creatures being used only to indicate some supposedly real persons in whose existence elsewhere we are meant to believe. The movie is all the more affecting as a result.

The feelings of sorrow, indignation, hatred, and wrath that are intensified by this approach are, themselves, consistently skillfully evoked. Ichikawa is able to engage the viewer with Yukinojo and the other persons appearing in An Actor's Revenge so that he experiences not only the protagonist's suffering and anger, which have resulted from the wrongs done to his family when he was a boy, but also his uncertainties. We are made aware of the character's doubts about going through with his revenge when we see how he regrets the hurts he himself is doing others as he carries out his plot. We are even allowed to feel the passions and sufferings both of the innocent persons Yukinojo is harming and of those guilty individuals who, in the past, had caused him so much pain. Having been shown, for example, how the daughter of one of the men Yukinojo desires to destroy is seduced by him, and how, having been made to love him, she is herself brought to ruin, we are able to experience not only her ardor and her sorrow, but Yukinojo's regrets and feelings of guilt as well.

An Actor's Revenge is one of the most profoundly affecting and stunningly beautiful films I have ever encountered. It is a true masterpiece.


An Actor's Revenge • Senses of Cinema  Acquarello, March 21, 2003


Midnight Eye review: An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1962, Kon ...  Jasper Sharp


Film Review: Kon Ichikawa's “An Actor's Revenge” - Meniscus Magazine   Rex Baylon


Actor's Revenge, An (1963) - Home Video Reviews -  Glenn Erickson


Film @ The Digital Fix - An Actor's Revenge  Anthony Nield


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


Movie Review - - Film: 'Actor's Revenge':Tale of Old Japan - NYTimes ...  Howard Thompson - Full Graphic Review [Gary Tooze]


TOKYO OLYMPIAD (Tôkyô orinpikku)

Japan  (170 mi)  1965  ‘Scope


Washington Post [Hal Hinson]

"Tokyo Olympiad," Kon Ichikawa's 1965 documentary on the 18th Olympic Games, is one of the most compelling records of sport on film, and as an expression of the mind of the athlete, it is unsurpassed. The film's greatness lies in the director's ability to abandon the conventional big-game, crucial-moment approach of most sports movies and concentrate on the stories within the Games.

Watching it, what we identify with most in the athletes isn't their superhumanness but their concentration, their extraordinary effort and their fallibility. It's a film in which the sound track emerges out of obscure, "found" noises, like the sound of flags slapping against their poles, and in which the cheers of the crowd seem distant, as if in the heat of the competitionthe athlete had somehow forgotten that he is not alone with his task.

Ichikawa, like Leni Riefenstahl in her 1938 "Olympia," has a deep appreciation for the abstract beauty of bodies in motion, and he pays close attention to the pole vaulter's graceful arc as he lifts himself over the bar and to the patterns the swimmers make in the water. In this sense, the film's not about sports at all -- it's about why sports interest us in the first place.

Even at 154 minutes, the film doesn't strain to be definitive. It's the fascinating detail, not the gargantuan spectacle of the event, that's grabbed the director's attention -- the dove in the opening ceremony that flies away only after coaxing from a Canadian athlete wearing a ten-gallon hat; the jittery compulsiveness of the Soviet hammer thrower as he fidgets with the corner of the number that's come unstitched from the front of his jersey; the exhilarating trajectory of the javelin; the logistics of retrieving the shot put after the throw.

This is not to say that the film deprives the event of its full dimension. The opening and closing ceremonies, and the epic quality of the finalmarathon race through the Tokyo streets, are given a sweeping grandeur. The picture itself, which is now being released here for the first time in its full uncut form, was an epic undertaking, involving 164 cameramen operating 1,031 cameras, and a staff of more than 500. In all, Ichikawa and his team exposed more than 400,000 feet of film.

But in each event, the director places the emphasis on finding the telling nuance that puts us inside the athlete's mind. Sports coverage is almost always designed to humanize its events by reducing them to the moment of individual triumph or defeat. And though Ichikawa takes this humanizing approach, he refuses to limit the sporting life to a matter of winning or losing. (The awards ceremonies, where the victorious receive their medals, are the only indifferently directed sequences in the film.)

Ichikawa's approach is drier. What interests him about his athletes is their near-obsessive dedication, not their places in the final standings. The Chadian runner, one of two athletes from a country that has just recently come into existence, hardly figures at all in the final statistics. He is not "great" in any sense of the term, but to Ichikawa he is notable for his gentle self-containment.

The film's other main character, the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila, takes the gold medal in his event (as he had four years earlier), but at the finish he allows himself only the tiniest of smiles, and that more out of relief than exuberance. Near the end of the race, we're given a long, stunning close-up of the athlete as he finishes his run, and if he is aware of anything more of the outside world than the point where his feet strike the pavement, his face doesn't show it.

During this race, we are nearly desperate for some expression of personality, of emotion. But what Ichikawa seems to appreciate in his subjects are control, execution, the attention to technique -- precisely the virtues he displays in his own work. And as he presents it, the similarities between the artist's goals and the athletes' are clearly drawn.

In this sense, the film focuses less on the Games themselves than on the individual stories within the Games. Some competitions -- like the lengthy battle between the West German and the American pole vaulters -- are followed through from beginning to end, but this is the exception. The producers of the film, in fact, were distressed with the final product when they saw it, fearing that audiences would prefer a more traditional approach. But by plunging us into the action, Ichikawa creates a unique intimacy between athlete and audience. Even after countless hours of watching televised sports, the effect is revelatory.

Images Movie Journal  David Ng


The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]


DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson)


Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick) [Christopher Null]


Apollo Movie Guide [Scott Weinberg]


DVD Town (Yunda Eddie Feng)


DVD Talk (Gil Jawetz)


DVD Talk (Matt Langdon)


not coming to a theater near you (Matt Bailey) (Mark Zimmer)


Washington Post [Desson Howe]


Movie Review - - Screen: 'The Defector,' - The New York Times  Bosley Crowther - Full Graphic Review [Gary W. Tooze]



Japan  (140 mi)  1983


Chicago Reader (Pat Graham)

Kon Ichikawa's 1983 film of the celebrated Tanizaki novel tells the story of four sisters in 1920s Japan, the elder two loyal to old traditions, the younger ones drifting toward Western lifestyles. As the foremost literary adapter of the Japanese postwar cinema (I Am a Cat, Fires on the Plain), Ichikawa has always been a difficult director to pin down. His work here seems to inhabit a static, novelistic space, but the final result is personal and elegantly filled out. In Japanese with subtitles. 140 min.

Time Out

A prestige literary adaptation (from Tanizaki's 1948 family saga Sasameyuki, sometimes known as A Light Snowfall) produced by the Toho studio to mark their 50th anniversary, becomes in Ichikawa's hands an imposing tribute to classical Japanese cinema. There's certainly a strong tinge of Ozu in this stately tale, set in 1938 and structured around a series of marriage interviews in which an aristocratic Osaka family research a suitable prospect for the youngest but one of five sisters. The legacy of past scandal, the Makiokas' diminishing status in increasingly industrialised Japan, the sniping for supremacy between the quintet of siblings, and the rumble of approaching conflict, all make for a complex narrative, micro-managed with authority by Ichikawa, who omits the the great Kobe flood that constitutes the novel's key dramatic episode, and instead draws the viewer in through the elliptical release of significant personal detail. The film's visual pleasures meanwhile (exquisite kimonos and cherry blossoms, elegant traditional interiors shimmering in low key lighting), are positively luxuriant, celebrating traditional Japanese aesthetics while recording the passing of a cossetted, gilded world. Pity about the horrid synthesizer score marking the changes. Anyone who dismisses late Ichikawa just isn't paying attention. This is masterly.

The Makioka Sisters -  Margarita Landazuri

Based on Junichiro Tanizaki's 1948 epic novel about four sisters navigating the turbulent era between the depression and World War II, Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters is a sweeping family saga that Japanese cinema scholar Audie Bock has compared to Gone With the Wind. That may seem a bit of a stretch -- The Makioka Sisters remains resolutely small in scope, taking place over the course of a year, mostly in homes, without any of GWTW's huge set pieces -- but it shares that epic's focus on how war and the decreased emphasis on tradition affects a family.

The film (the third adaptation of the novel) begins the spring of 1938, as the sisters gather for a family ritual, a trip to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms. The women are the daughters of a well-to-do Osaka industrialist, now deceased. The family fortune has been considerably reduced, and all that's left is dowries for the two unmarried daughters, who live with second sister, Sachiko, and her husband, Teinosuke. The real purpose of the gathering, though, is to come up with a plan to find husbands for the unmarried sisters. The youngest, wild child Taeko, has no lack of boyfriends; however, they are unsuitable, and Taeko wants to get away from her more conservative older siblings and to spend her dowry on her creative craft of dollmaking. But there is a problem: tradition demands that third sister Yukiko marry first. And Yukiko, in her own quiet way, is very particular.

The Makioka Sisters was a late career high point for Ichikawa, who directed his first feature in 1945. When his wife and collaborator, screenwriter Natto Wada, retired in 1965, he moved away from features and concentrated on documentaries and animated films (Wada died as Ichikawa was preparing for the production of The Makioka Sisters). Although he had since returned to drama and had a history of successful adaptations of literary works, The Makioka Sisters was a much more ambitious undertaking than most of his recent films. According to Bock, the studio, Toho, was "notoriously tightfisted," and that may have played a part in Ichikawa's decision to keep his focus narrow. Even if world events were partly responsible for the family's reduced circumstances and changing mores, the film mostly takes place in homes, or at family events such as the cherry blossom trip. The outside world is rarely seen, and the director's choice to concentrate on traditions and family interaction is very effective. Critic and film historian Michael Sragow notes that Ichikawa's best films, including The Makioka Sisters, "reward viewers with both a renewed appreciation of surfaces and an ironic awareness of depths."

In the novel, the source of the family's wealth is never specified. According to Bock, Ichikawa and his co-screenwriter Shinya Hidaka made the business a kimono factory "to show off his actresses... to fabulous advantage in their rich silks and brocades. Some critics have disparaged the film as a mere kimono show, but the celebration of this traditional art is very much in keeping with the book's tone of cultural nostalgia."

The sisters were played by three established stars and one relative newcomer. The best-known to western audiences is Keiko Kishi, who began her film career in the early 1950s and who plays the eldest, most traditional sister. Among her films are Ozu's Early Spring (1956), Ichikawa's Her Brother (1960), and Sydney Pollack's Japan-set noir The Yakuza (1974), co-starring Robert Mitchum. By the time Yoshiko Sakuma appeared in The Makioka Sisters as second sister Sachiko, her film career, which had begun in 1959, was winding down. She worked more frequently in television into the 21st century, with an occasional film role. Sayuri Yoshinaga (Yukiko) also made her film debut in 1959, and became one of Japan's leading actresses. Her performance in Ichikawa's Ohan (1985) earned her the first of her four Japan Academy Awards. Taeko, the youngest sister, was one of the first important film roles for Yuko Kotegawa, who made her film debut in 1976. She has had a very successful career in Japanese television, film, and anime voice acting. Juzo Itami, who plays Tsuruko's assertive husband, made his debut as a director the following year. He became well-known for comic films such as Tampopo) (1985. Koji Ishizaka plays Sachiko's mild-mannered husband, who nurses a quiet crush on Yukiko. The role was a departure for the actor, who had shot to fame as a 19th century detective Kindaichi in Ichikawa's hugely successful series of five films in the 1970s.

For New York Times critic Vincent Canby, something was apparently lost in translation. He was impressed by The Makioka Sisters, but not moved, calling it "a rather sad comedy of manners," and "always beautiful to look at, [it] is more stately than emotionally or intellectually involving. " Decades later, crtic Michael Sragow better understood the nuances, calling the film "a magisterial achievement: a barbed, poignant and seductive elegy....[a] lyric and moving remembrance of Japan past."

Portrait of a Time Already Gone in Japanese Family ... - Village Voice  Nick Pinkerton, May 4, 2011


Midnight Eye review: The Makioka Sisters (Sasameyuki, 1983, Kon ...   Jasper Sharp


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


The Makioka Sisters | Metrograph


Movie Review - - FILM: 'MAKIOKA SISTERS,' BY ICHIKAWA ...  Vincent Canby from The New York Times


Im Kwon-taek discussion forums - Printer friendly page, topic ID ...  an overview from the Chicago Humanities Festival retrospective from the Korean Film Page

Im Kwon-Taek’s unique devotion to humanism has separated his work from traditional Korean cinema, generating immense international interest and bitter national controversy. Inspired by his own family’s experiences in the Korean War and after, his films present honest, emotional portraits of “the greatest sin against humanity” and its aftermath. Although Im’s refusal to glorify war caused the Korean government to ban several of his earlier films, his recent international success has silenced many of his countrymen’s objections.

His most recent film, Chihwaseon, for which he won the Prix de la mise en scène (best director award) at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, is the saga of an unconventional painter living in turbulent 19th century Korea. With poetry and vividness, Im traces the life of Ohwon, a “Jackson Pollock” of his own time and culture, beautifully integrating his passionate nature into the political instability of the Chosun Dynasty. Chihwaseon has been praised for its acute attention to Korea’s cultural history as well as its cinematic quality.

Chunhyang (2001), the first Korean film to be accepted for entry into the Cannes Festival, is Im’s unique retelling of a beloved fairy tale in which a soon-to-be governor falls in love with the daughter of a courtesan. Through inventive, tastefully integrated imagery and a soundtrack of rock & roll, Im lends contemporary relevance and cultural depth to this classic tale.

Though Im’s reputation as a filmmaker has evolved from a commercial giant to a master of art cinema, he continues to make genre films for mass consumption to satisfy the Korean government. In what he refers to as his “honest” or more serious art films, Im endeavors to define a Korean national identity through untangling the country’s neo-colonial past.

All-Movie Guide  bio from Jonathan Crow

Widely considered Korea's foremost filmmaker, Im Kwon-Taek has become a major international figure in the realm of world cinema. A remarkably prolific director who has over 100 titles to his credit, Im's films are renowned for their remarkable visual beauty, technical innovation, and intellectual depth.

Born on May 2, 1936, into a family of noted leftists, Im Kwon-Taek grew up and completed his schooling in the southern city of Kwangju. As a result of the Korean war, his family's fortunes were decimated and he was forced to work, first as a day-laborer, and as a businessman reselling U.S. Army boots. In 1956, he moved to Seoul where he happened to meet film director Chung Chang-Wha, who offered him room and board in exchange for work as a production assistant. Though Im had no great ambitions to become a filmmaker, he took the job, working on the set was a means of survival when work for people with leftist ties was few and far between. Five years later, Chung recommended that Im direct and in 1962, he made his debut with Dumangang-a Jal Ikkora.

Im's career parallels that of John Ford, who learned filmmaking on the set and then found his own distinctive artistic vision. By his own admission, for the first ten years of his filmmaking career, Im thought of movies as strictly a means to a paycheck for his family. This started to change in the 1970s. Korean critics first started to notice Im after the release of his 1973 film Jabcho and with his 1978 opus Chokpo (aka Genealogy), Im's growing desire to make an artistically accomplished work came to fruitition. His philosophical outlook recalls the existential humanism that marks Akira Kurosawa's finest works. Like Hou Hsiao Hsien, Im's films are investigations of the society of a nation marked by a turbulent, sometimes repressive, recent history. Without seeming provincial or overly nationalistic, Im's work explores elements of Korean culture imperiled by that country's drive to modernize. Pul ui Ttal (aka Daughters of the Flame) looks at Korea's long tradition of shamanism, framed amid the story of a failing marriage; Mandala concerns itself with the meaning and relevance of Buddhism the modern world; and Sopyonje focuses on Korea's dying folk song tradition.

LA Weekly Article (2001)  Remembering Things Past, by David Chute, Januray 12 – 18, 2001

A Book Review of Im Kwon-taek   Adam Hartzell reviews the book, Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, from the Korean Film Page


Im Kwon-taek  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They



South Korea  (110 mi)  1978


Genealogy, The  Adam Hartzell from the Korean Film Page

The Quality Films Record System of 1973, a revision of the Motion Picture Law during Park Chung-hee's regime, gave film companies that produced "quality films" privileged access to importing and distributing foreign films. Such access was highly sought after since Hollywood films were dominating South Korea's box office at this time. The "quality films" the Park regime desired included those that promoted their ideas about national identity and high artistic merit. Although Im Kwon-taek had made a decision prior to this time to forgo competing against Hollywood fare by producing "serious" films, beginning with The Deserted Widow, interspersing with commercial fare such as The General's Son, around this time, he identified a need to have Korean films travel abroad for non-Koreans to learn about Korea. This need either meshed with the tenets of this revision of the Motion Picture Law, or, as Chungmoo Choi argues in her chapter in Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, was "motivated" by this revision. Regardless of where Im's full intent lay, this policy makes The Genealogy an important one since The Genealogy was where he began to focus on creating Korean cinema that would interest foreign audiences.

Im has said that he "realized that films I wanted to send abroad required topics from the period in our history that I myself have experienced." For The Genealogy, Im chose to present a topic he experienced while in elementary school, the "Name Change Order." On February 11, 1940, the Japanese colonial administration imposed the Name Change Order on all Koreans, requiring them to change their Korean names to Japanese ones. As Choi notes, 84% of Koreans complied. One person who resisted was Sol Jin-hyeong, whom Choi states is the person upon whom the patriarch in The Genealogy is based. Sol (played by Joo Seon-tae) is portrayed as a wise and reverent man. Rather than depicting his protest as reactionary, it is portrayed as a delicate balancing of the pros and cons of Modernization.

However, Sol is not the main character of this film, which leads to another important aspect of The Genealogy. The film is adapted from a short story by Kajiyama Toshiyuki. The main character is Tani (Ha Myeong-joong), a Japanese man who, in order to avoid conscription, has joined on with the Japanese colonial administration offices. Tani is sent to Sol's house to convince him to abide by the Name Change Order. What makes Tani unique in South Korean cinema and literature, according to Korean Film scholar Kyung Hyun Kim, is that he is portrayed sympathetically. He is not portrayed as a tyrant or fascist, but as a man who respects Korean culture and is deeply troubled by the actions of his own government. Tani is an artist who shows a great appreciation for Korean craftsmanship and artistry. Sol and Tani connect on this level and Sol embraces him as a son, or more like a son-in-law considering how comfortable Sol is in presenting his already engaged daughter, Ok-sun (Han Hye-sook), to Tani. In respect for Sol, Tani attempts to intervene in holding off the pressure on Sol, along w/ successfully impeding Ok-sun's enforcement into sexual slavery. It is this mutual respect conveyed towards a Japanese that is perhaps the most important aspect of including The Genealogy in any survey of the Korean canon.

As Choi has argued, Tani is also based on a real-life person, art critic Yanagi Muneyoshi, known by Koreans as Yanagi Soetsu. Yanagi's art critiques stood against the imperialist intents of the Japanese government at the time. Choi notes that even though some Korean intellectuals would later accuse Yanagi of holding a colonialist mindset himself, in 1984 Yanagi was posthumously awarded the South Korean Jeweled Crown Culture Medal. Im appears to have found a kindred spirit in Yanagi's take on Korean art. Choi summarizes Yanagi's identification of "the most salient element in Korean art as the beauty of the curving line that symbolizes Koreans' sorrow, sadness and hunger for love (from the people of other nations) . . ." Furthermore, Yanagi expressed deep remorse over the loss of Korean traditional aesthetics due to his country's occupation of Korea. As we know from Im's oeuvre, Im shares this view of associating Korea with sorrow, sadness, and loss. Yet, along with his usual focus on the Korean landscape in The Genealogy, Im also focuses on celadon ceramics. Although my first exposure to Korean arts was through the gorgeous resonance of the seafoam-ish, chartreuse-y celadon for which Korea is quite respected, this is the only film I've seen that singles out this aspect of Korean culture, presenting yet another unique aspect to this film. As David James and Choi both note, a passage written by Yanagi is invoked by Sol while looking at his collection of celadon ceramics.

Although not what I would consider one of Im's better films, The Genealogy's origins in the film policies of South Korea, its portrayal of a sympathetic Japanese, and its rare cinematic celebration of Korean celadon ceramics places it as an important one to display on the cinematic shelf and to occasionally bring down from that shelf for further viewing.   


South Korea  (117 mi)  1980


Time Out   

This breakthrough film by South Korea's best known director is a leisurely, chiefly lyrical account of the friendship between two notably different Buddhist monks - Pobun, a somewhat pessimistic young ascetic fleeing the commitment demanded by his girlfriend, and the old Jisan, whose unorthodox preference for alcohol and an active sex life belie an easy-going wisdom repressed by his stricter, seemingly more devout peers. The film also works as an unexpectedly tough appraisal of the tenets and practices of a living philosophy. Woolly mindedness and poetic overkill are, on the whole, avoided, while enlightenment is presented as often resulting from - or leading to - loneliness, masochism and self-denial. A film whose spiritual integrity is reflected in the mantric calm of its measured rhythms and elegant imagery, it's nevertheless rooted in a recognisably modern, material world, so that you don't need a special interest in Buddhism for its quiet virtues to work their spell.

User reviews from imdb Author: nedifico from Ann Arbor, MI

I found this to be a very interesting movie; however, it is extremely frustrating in that watching it not once but twice still was not enough for me to feel that I really have a good grasp of what was happening in the movie and what everything was supposed to symbolize.

First of all, it was unbelievably clear that this movie was trying indirectly to give a portrait of the life of Wonhyo. (Perhaps if I were not taking a course on Korean Buddhism then this may not have been so obvious, but as it stands now the comparison to Wonhyo was easy to see.) Looking up the word 'mandala' in my Korean-English dictionary, it read "Buddha's picture," and this movie seemed to me to be a question of what being a Buddha really was. In other words, given the contradictory images of Wonhyo that we know, is the image of Wonhyo as a (pardon the cliché) 'mad monk' - i.e. the image of a Buddha as a diamond in the rough - correct, or was he actually just a monk with a particularly poor ability to follow the vinaya?

It was interesting, although not unexpected (given the place of Uisang in history, and given the cliché nature of the situation) to see the juxtaposition of Jisan and Pobun as monks. The duality of the two was thoroughly evident - one disgraced then exiled by the sangha, one a member of the sangha; one epitome of what the vinaya instructs against, one attempting to follow the vinaya as best he possibly can; one fully certain of the dharma, one struggling to accept it and to use it to view the world. However, the part of film regarding this duality that I could really appreciate was that, unlike the texts we have read so far, this film made it a point of emphasis that these two "opposites" were not really the extremes that it is so easy to categorize them as.

As could be seen from the constant questioning going on in Pobun's mind, he was not so sure of the precepts as he made himself out to be. In fact, it almost seemed that if he were in a power struggle with his will, and that the main reason that he did not stray from the vinaya was for fear that if his will wavered in one problem, it would bend and fall at the mercy of others. So, he was in effect just trying to keep himself away from attachments for fear that he would indulge in them. (However, in doing so he created a great degree of attachments - e.g. to the vinaya - and aversions - to anything that the vinaya taught against.)

With respect to Jisan, he was not such the fool he was not such the cliché mad monk he was made out to be. From the very start, Pobun vouches that Jisan is a monk, asserting that no fake monk could chant sutras as well as Jisan did. When it comes to blessing the new Buddhist temple in the mountains, Jisan knows that one has to be of rank in the sangha to do that, and he admits that he is not. These and a few other examples lead me to believe that, in fact, Jisan could follow the vinaya to the letter, but he chooses not to. My guess is that he does this believing that the Buddha is not found in the vinaya, but that the vinaya is found in the Buddha. In other words, if you are on the right path, strict attachments to the vinaya are just like any other attachments, and what makes one a Buddha is what is change inside of him, not change through external regimens.

So, dismissing the concept of an extremist view of Jisan and Pobun (and Wonhyo) as members of some polar opposites club, I would say that the intention of the film is twofold. On one hand, these ideas are intended to dispel the notion of Wonhyo as some mad monk who has some frenetic method to his madness. More likely, he may have done some crazy stuff, but it was not with regularity that practiced it; he did it some of the time, just like everybody else. On the other hand, I think that this is an intended message about all of Buddhism, that your method - whether it be going left or right, being celibate or promiscuous, being sober or drunken, being a solemn introvert or an easygoing extrovert - is not the important thing. The important thing is not the vehicle in which you drive but the destination at which you arrive.


South Korea  (118 mi)  1987


Chicago Reader     Hank Sartin

When a noble but poor family marries off a mute daughter, Adada, we brace for the worst. The marriage is breaking up a sweet friendship she has with a local peasant boy, and her husband's family cares only about how much land it'll get in the deal. Her husband is surprisingly tender, but the family dynamics keep shifting, with Adada bearing the brunt of everyone's anger and frustration at their lot in life. With each new twist, this 1998 Korean feature becomes a more profound look at the changeability of people and the power of greed. Director Im Kwon-taek seduces us into liking each character in turn, only to expose his or her weaknesses. Adada suffers through it all with a saintliness that makes her little more than a symbol, yet the film manages to be quite moving as it progresses toward a seemingly inevitable tragic end. Im seems most in his element shooting out-of-doors, where he captures haunting images of people dwarfed by the landscape. In Korean with subtitles. 120 min.

Adada  Adam Hartzell from the Korean Film Page

The opening scene of Im Kwon-taek's Adada, where a single white hand signs against a black background as a voice-over narrates, generates praise from many. The audience learns about a woman whom others failed to understand. This woman is Adada (Shin Hye-soo of Life and Death of the Hollywood Kid) a Deaf woman who was communicating all along, but those receiving her messages were unable to translate them, ignoring her words, and by extension, ignoring her personhood.

Based on a short story by Kye Yong-muk, "Idiot Adada", the original title shows Korea was no different from other countries in mislabeling the Deaf as "dumb." In Im's Adada, she is married off to a noble but poor family for her desirable dowry of rice fields. Initially, the family is warm to Adada, attempting to learn Korean Sign Language - with unrealistic speed - in order to help her transition into their family. However, as the fields and Adada's labor bring greater riches, Adada's husband (played by Han Ji-il of Aje Aje Para Aje) becomes greedier, eventually stumbling into the Manchurian drug trade. This all leads to a painful dismantling of Adada's placement in the family. Although Adada's in-laws appear sympathetic to her plight, they begin to relish their son's new found status, however illegitimate, and place the responsibility of reconciliation on Adada. Adada's family also refuses to offer support, deferring to Confucian tenets of a woman's proper place in Korean society. Even when she reunites with a childhood friend (played by Lee Kyeong-young of Out To the World), this too turns into something unsupportive.

Again, we have Im using a woman's suffering as metaphor for the suffering of Korea. As Eunsun Cho states in her chapter in Im Kwon-taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema, "The severity of patriarchy enforces her silence, locking her up in an inaudible han." And Cho goes on to further note that this han, or suffering, comes to replace, or further suppress, the realized suffering of women, leading Cho to indict ". . . the cruelty of Korean national cinema that fabricates beauty out of that cruelty."

Cho's point can be extended as not just concealing the realities of women, but also of the Disabled. In her groundbreaking Illness as Metaphor and AIDS as Metaphor, Susan Sontag notes the harm often caused by metaphors surrounding disease for those diagnosed. Such similarly affects the Disabled. Looking at their bodies as metaphors of loss or contamination rather than the complicated humans they are, they risk further disenfranchisement. (I must confess that I'm just as guilty of this, metaphoring the word "cripple" in the last paragraph of my review of When I Turned Nine.) Keeping in mind that the Disabled are only disabled because the rest of the world is not structured around their frames, the metaphoring of Disability as a loss, or in this case a "silence", fails to hold. Even the scene at the beginning, however aesthetically pleasing, begs to be complicated by the fact that the Deaf do not communicate solely with two hands, let alone just one. The head, shoulders, torso, and facial expressions are just as important to communicating properly through Sign. Without such parts of the body visible to the reader, itwouldbesomethingliketypingtherestofthissentencewithnospacestodifferentiatethewords. For example, check out the Deaf storytelling in Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon. Hands are not the sole active part of Deaf languages.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Im's default metaphor. As Cho notes, by muting and deafening Adada, her body communicates like few of Im's female protagonists. (The only one comparable, as Cho argues, is Ok-nyo in Surrogate Mother the year before.) Adada is anything but "voiceless." She is presented as a competent Signer for whom quite a few individuals make efforts to learn her language rather than force her to speak. And her inability to learn spoken Japanese from her husband can be seen as her body's resistance to colonial oppression, of the Japanese and the Hearing. This is probably unintentional, but Im's results challenge stereotypes of the Deaf as unable to experience music. Borrowing a sound clip from his film The Genealogy where a woman beats her laundry dry by pounding it with wooden rods, Adada is shown doing the same, thus, quite capable of performing a complicated musical rhythm.

I'm not aware of how the Deaf Korean community received this portrayal. The immense suffering Adada bears may be received negatively as perpetuating infantilizing images of the Deaf. However, this portrayal may have had a reception similar to that of Johnny Belinda, for which Jane Wyman won an Oscar for her Deaf portrayal. As noted by John S. Schuchman in Hollywood Speakrs, although the film is seen as paternalistic by today's Deaf community, the Deaf press at the time was delighted to see an image of a Deaf person on screen. Later, as more and more portrayals of Deaf characters appeared in Hollywood films, Deaf activists began to demand that actual Deaf people play such roles, hence the boycott around the 1979 film, Voices. I'm not an ardent essentialist, but I can understand how underrepresented groups would want to fight for greater representation. And the limited access for Disabled actors/actresses to play Disabled roles is compounded by the fact that such roles are coveted by able-bodied actors/actresses since they almost guarantee an awards nomination if not the outright awards, such as those won by Wyman and Daniel Day Lewis at the Oscars, Moon So-ri at Venice, and Shin herself at Montreal. Still, I'm not aware if the Korean Deaf community was equally upset by a Hearing person playing a Deaf person in Adada. Further adding to the complex nature of Deaf portrayals is how Schuchman, a Hearing CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), received Voices differently from the Deaf activists, since it was the first time he had heard a Deaf voice authentically represented on screen, something Shin also convincingly accomplishes.

Keeping all this in mind, I see Adada as a complicated portrayal of a Deaf woman's experience considering the time in Korea's cinematic history it was produced. Although many of Im's problematic tropes are still present, (add to the list his discomforting images of women losing their virginity), there is an opening for a more liberated portrayal than in most of Im's films through underscoring the language of our bodies. Metaphors can free or freeze us and Adada fluctuates between the two poles enough to allow for hope amongst oppression.


South Korea  (100 mi)  1987


Time Out

Im's first international prize-winner (best actress for Kang at Venice) is a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger attack on the principles of male lineage and ancestor worship in the traditional Korean family. It's set in the late Yi Dynasty (late 19th century) to stress how deep rooted these things are, but its resonances are squarely contemporary. The well-born Shin and his wife are happy but lack an heir; behind his back, the family conspires with his wife to bring in a surrogate to bear him a son. Their choice is Ok-Nyo (Kang), a free-spirited girl who endures various physiological and sexual indignities (intended to ensure that she produces a boy) because she comes to like Shin and enjoy the relatively pampered life - forgetting she is there only as a servant. The emphasis on female suffering has come in for some critical stick, but Im's analysis of Confucian blockages in the Korean psyche seems all too cogent. And his mastery of image, tone and rhythm is unassailable.

User reviews from imdb Author: poikkeus from San Francisco

Surrogate Woman is South Korean master Im Kwon-Taek's breakout international success, a film that would in many ways presage his critically acclaimed Chunhyang. The period drama occurs in the Yi dynasty, and covers the progress of a love affair gone terribly awry. Shin, a young heir, is given a surrogate wife to bear his child. However, Ok-nyo becomes more than this for him, and the couple soon become passionate lovers. The woman may have the social status of a servant, but the relationship changes both of them -- at least for a time. Lead actress Kang Soo-Yeon has been widely acclaimed in her role as the surrogate mother. Unfortunately, the film frequently wears its heart on its sleeve, almost forcing its emotionalism on you in the process. The events are traumatic, to be sure, and one is set to wonder about the plight of so many women even less fortunate than Ok-nyo. The overwhelming feeling is that a woman's emotional core has been gutted and spread out for all to see; it's more wrenching than many a blood and guts actioner. It lacks the distance of his later masterpieces like Sopyonje and Festival -- both equally tragic.

Surrogate Mother  Adam Hartzell from the Korean Film Page

After seeing Sibaji (Surrogate Mother) for the first time, a friend of mine, who is a 1.5 generation Korean-American, exclaimed, "I'm so proud of Korea." Indeed, Korea had much to be proud of in this film. Besides being shown at the 44th Venice Film Festival, Kang Soo-yeon received the Best Actress Award. Set some time during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), Sibaji is the tale of Ok-nyo, a young Sibaji, or Surrogate Mother. Ok-nyo has been chosen as the Sibaji to bear a male child for an aristocratic, or yangban, couple, Shin Sang-gyu and his wife Yun, who are unable to conceive themselves. Ok-nyo and Sang-gyu eventually fall in love while Yun exhibits sorority-hazing like behavior upon Ok-nyo, forcing Ok-nyo to go through all the torturous rituals she had to endure to encourage the gestation of a male child. Of course, in the modern era, we know that it is the male who determines the gender of the child so all these rituals and switching of partners are moot. Herein lies one of the themes of Sibaji, the pointless painful rituals the Sibaji, and women in general, have to go through to appease the anxieties and desires of others.

Kang Soo-yeon plays Ok-nyo and her performance is worthy of the award she received. Ok-nyo's vibrant spirit is what causes her to be picked as the couple's Sibaji and Kang's portrayal appears to be the precedent for Lee Hyo-jeong's portrayal of Chunhyang in Im Kwon-taek's film of the same name in 2000. Kang's talent is most demonstrated in the excruciating experience of witnessing the rituals Ok-nyo must endure to "ensure" a male child. She is forced to bear coals on her stomach, to stand on a burning hot pot cover, and to hold her breath while gazing at the moon until she almost passes out. Part of showing these rituals is Im's way of preserving Korean traditions by showing them meticulously carried out on screen.

Yet, upon further viewings, another reason for showing these images appears to be to appease the Orientalist gaze of some festival-goers and Western audiences. When I saw this film most recently with Bucoy Brown, the managing editor of the Queer Asian-American magazine Noodle, he had this to say, "Kinda soft-porn-y wasn't it?" The Chosun Dynasty-era versions of wet t-shirts and wet panties are displayed in abundance. The expressions on Ok-nyo's face when she loses her virginity, when she is forced to endure the rituals, and when she makes love with Sang-gyu all appear almost identical. Im appears to be pandering to Western sentiments on two levels of the "exotic" in cinema: strange rituals and sexual objectification. The trope of Korean women suffering as stand-ins for Korea's suffering runs through most of Im's films. At the least, this gets old, at the worst, it's arguably misogynistic. However, Sang-gyu, played by Lee Ku-su, is presented as sympathetic to Ok-nyo's plight. Also, there is a difference in this film compared to most of Im's films that only ruining the ending can illuminate. Suffice it to say there are troubling analyses that one runs into when viewing this film, as is the case in many of Im's films.

That said, Sibaji can leave you torn. It is a powerful tale, yet you wish Im would leave out the soft-porn. Still, in my mind, one of the most indelible Im images occurs in Sibaji. It is the Korean mask dance sequence, in which male performers hidden behind masks are able to ridicule the yangban through the anonymity of the covered face and the spectacle they create. The dance itself depicts a birthing that parallels Ok-nyo's. The masked dancers speak for Ok-nyo when she can't speak for herself.  

COME COME COME UPWARD (Aje aje bara aje)

South Korea  (134 mi)  1989


Time Out

A female companion-piece to Im's classic Mandala, this too rests on a contrast between sacred and profane approaches to Buddhist enlightenment. Sun-Nyo (Kang, superb) runs away from her broken home and her crush on a teacher to become a nun, expecting to pray and meditate. But the convent sends her out into the world, where she mixes with the poor and desperate and forms one sexual attachment after another with rough working-class men. Im compares her self-abasement with the more orthodox asceticism of another young nun, whose retreat from worldly things results in a brutal rape. The drama is rooted in a clear sense of social and psychological realities but lifted above mere social realism by Gu Joong-Mu's sensationally beautiful cinematography, mostly in shades of blue and grey.

Chicago Reader (Ted Shen)

Sort of a distaff companion to his Mandala, this 1989 Korean drama by Im Kwon-taek chronicles the spiritual progress of two Buddhist nuns under the tutelage of a wise abbess. Kang Su-yeon plays a novice who's been expelled from high school for a dalliance with her teacher; banished from the temple after saving a man from suicide, she follows him to a shanty town as his wife, but a series of misfortunes tests her faith in men and her desire to minister to the poor. Im contrasts her journey with that of another novice who pursues an ascetic existence, traveling to remote islands and caves while resisting earthly concerns (which include the infamous student crackdown in Kwangju). As in the earlier film Im sets up provocative dichotomies, yet he clearly values active caring over passive religiosity. In Korean with subtitles. 95 min.

User reviews from imbd Author liehtzu from Korea

This is that OTHER movie made about Buddhist monastic life in Korea in 1989. Im Kwon-taek's film is far more conventional and has neither the depth or the strange, quiet poetry of One Shot Wonder Bae Yong-kyun's "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For the East?" The main character of "Come, Come, Come Upward" (Kang Soo-yeong, who won best actress at the Venice Film Festival for Im's "The Surrogate Woman") is expelled from high school after wrongly being accused of having an affair with her teacher and decides to join a nunnery. The head nun has doubts about Kang's sincerity and devotion to the Way and casts her back into the real world after a crazed man becomes obsessed with her and starts to cause ripples in the serenity of temple life. The film eventually breaks off into two trajectories, one following another young, surer nun of serene countenance as she, too, is forced by the head nun as a test of devotion to face the evils and temptations of the outside world. One woman is destined to return to the monastery, and the other to forever live outside. Elegantly shot, as all Im's films are, but underdeveloped on the narrative level, as many of Im's films are, "Come Upward" never achieves the sublime heights of its similarly-themed counterpart in the same year. "Bodhi-Dharma" tried to convey the experience of Buddhist temple life through images, parable, and mystery; "Come Upward" is more literal, and plainer.


South Korea  (146 mi)  1991


Fly High Run Far   Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader

A beautiful and powerful spiritual epic from South Korea (1991), directed by Im Kwon-taek--Korea's most famous and popular film director, whose filmography runs to 80-odd titles--from an ambitious script by Kim Yong-ok. Covering roughly four decades from the 1860s through the 1890s, the film charts the growth and eventual stamping out of Kae Byok (from which comes the film's original Korean title), a radically humanist and egalitarian religious sect founded on the belief that God is everyone and everything; in particular it focuses on the sect's charismatic leader, Hae-Wol (very effectively played by Lee Duk-hwa), who was born a poor farmer, and his three wives. Though closer in some ways to a historical pageant than a conventional narrative, with numerous printed titles inserted at the beginning of various episodes to explain their historical contexts, the film is anything but slow or ponderous. Composed mainly of short, economical scenes, flurries of action against breathtaking landscapes that stunningly reflect the seasons, this makes more intoxicating use of color than any Asian film I've seen since Mizoguchi's New Tales of the Taira Clan, and the story itself has an epic grandeur worthy of Mizoguchi. The movie was a box-office flop in Korea despite its hefty budget and was obviously made as a labor of love rather than a commercial project, yet its beauty as spectacle and its spiritual message couldn't be more universal. In short, this is the greatest Korean movie I've ever seen.

SOPYONJE (Seopyeonje)

South Korea  (112 mi)  1993


Time Out

This heart-rending and accessible melodrama concerns the relationship between two children and their adoptive 'father'/master, a travelling - necessarily poor - pansori musician. The pansori, a traditional music of aching love laments or upbeat festive songs, performed to the accompaniment of a lone drum, gives the movie its elegiac tone. Flashing back to the early '50s, it follows the three on their journeys through the loving photographed by Korean landscapes, in all seasons, as they fight for a living, while their music is literally drowned out by the emerging fashion for Western sounds. It's a film of looks, rhythms, intimations and feelings, expressed in pure cinematic terms, and it's almost impossible not to be moved by it. The sopyonje is a song described as sorrowful and tender - there are few films more tender, if not more sorrowful than this. Unmissable.

Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)

It isn't a patch on Im Kwon-taek's previous Fly High Run Far, though unlike that masterpiece, this 1993 feature made a killing at the Korean box office. How you respond to it will probably have a lot to do with how you respond to pansori, a traditional dirgelike Korean song form; the story recounts the travails of an itinerant pansori singer and the sacrifices made by his family, including two adopted children, over many years to sustain that art. With Kim Kyu-chul and Kim Myung-gon. In Korean with subtitles. 112 min.

DVDBeaver    Gary W. Tooze

Director Im Kwon Taek is regarded by many as the father of modern Korean Cinema, and certainly the first director to receive global critical acclaim. With around a hundred films to his credit, in a career spanning five decades, Im has crafted some of Korea's most revered, and successful films. Seopyonje, originally released in 1993, became one of the most successful Korean films of the decade. Using the traditional Korean music of pansori, Seopyonje is a rich examination of the country's modernization due to Western influence in the 1950s. 

A lone pansori singer, Dong Ho, roams the countryside of South West Korea, searching for the young orphan girl he grew up with. They were raised together by an elderly pansori master, but Dong Ho ran away to explore Seoul when he was still a youngster. The girl however, has since lost her sight, and apparently still wanders the land singing pansori. Im's film is poetic in tone, beautiful to look at and the pansori soundtrack is a delight. Not only is Seopyonje one of Im's finest films, but a genuine classic of Korean Cinema.

Beyond Hollywood    Nix


What makes "Sopyonje" stand out is its unflinching look and interpretation of a Korea under assault -- not assault from foreign attacks or invaders, but from something just as deadly: cultural imperialism. It is impossible to gauge the low-level intensity of the acting, the directing, and the progress of the story narrative and not realize that "Sopyonje" is a gem.


The world of "Sopyonje" is set sometime around the 1960s or 1970s; there are flashbacks to the 1940s, just as Korea was emerging from Japanese colonization and after the end of World War II. We follow the life of Youbong, a pansori singer and his two adopted children, Dong-ho and Songwha.


(Pansori, for those who don't know, is a kind of Korean folk music, much like blues or blue grass in America. It is distinctively Korean, and has lost favor in the 20th century with the coming of modernization. The voluntary lost of pansori also marks the passing of traditional Korean culture.) 

Youbong is the kind of man who doesn't give up easily and refuses to change along with the world around him. If he was smart, many people advise him, he would give up the notion of continuing with pansori and find "a real occupation". 

True to his nature, Youbong is unwilling to allow pansori to flee his life, and thus struggles to maintain it even as overwhelming odds close in on him. He makes a meager living at the profession, providing an art to a country that no longer cares for it -- or for him.

Even as modernization slowly but surely pushes pansori (along with the Korean that once embraced it) into the shadows, Youbong holds steadfast, certain in his beliefs. So obsessed with training the perfect pansori singer that Youbong is willing to blind his daughter in order to "teach her about grief", all the more to strengthen her ability to convey emotion. It's a horrific act, to be sure, but hate for the man is simply not easy to come by.

At once sad, depressing, beautiful, and exhilarating in its embrace of a dying art, "Sopyonje" is a masterful work. The daughter's singing continues to haunt me to this day.

I cannot recommend "Sopyonje" enough. It is a treasure of modern cinema, but unfortunately like the movie's topic, the film has faded into history. It's impossible to locate a DVD or VHS copy anywhere, and I would be grateful if someone out there could point me in the right direction.

Washington Post (Peter Y. Hong)

American films are among the hottest exports to Korea. But one Korean film, "Sopyonje," is making a small dent in Korea's entertainment trade deficit.

Earlier this month four screenings of "Sopyonje," by Korea's best-known director, Im Kwon-Taek, sold out two weeks in advance and hundreds were turned away at the Kennedy Center's American Film Institute Theater, according to Raymond D. Barry, AFI's deputy director of exhibitions. Because of this smash debut, it returns for two afternoon shows this weekend at the Lincoln Theatre.

The story of a family of roaming pansori (a sort of Korean folk opera) singers' struggles in postwar Korea, "Sopyonje" was an unlikely hit even in Korea, where audiences flock to see the same big-studio blockbusters that are popular here.

While it might not top "Jurassic Park" at the box office, "Sopyonje" has been filling theaters in Korea since its opening in April, setting a new attendance record for a Korean film. It's also been a critical favorite, winning six Grand Bell Awards, the Korean counterpart to the Academy Awards, and six Korean Film Critics' Awards.

Internationally, "Sopyonje" took the prizes for best director and best actress at this year's Shanghai International Film Festival and drew 40,000 people for a three-week run in Los Angeles. Such plaudits prompted the Korean press to coin a term for the film's runaway popularity: "Sopyonje" syndrome.

The praise is nothing new for Im. Several of his earlier works, including the 1981 "Mandala and the Surrogate Mother," released in 1986, were hits with critics and on the film festival circuit.

Like those of Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum," Im's films are rooted in traditional culture but set in modern times. "Sopyonje" begins in the confusing period just after the Korean War and continues into the 1960s.

Korea then was facing an identity crisis stemming from the end of 35 years as a Japanese colony, followed by the country's division at the hands of the United States and Soviet Union. Part of the film's appeal might be that Korea is still going through major social upheavals as it settles into an industrialized democracy after years as a Third World dictatorship.

Yubong, a pansori master obsessed with his art, is relegated to a nomad's life. With the two adopted children he hopes will follow in his footsteps, Yubong walks from village to village, squatting in war-abandoned houses and practicing pansori constantly.

Their travails are an allegory of the intrusion of foreign influences into Korean culture. Pansori is a centuries-old art that was performed in both rural villages and the royal palace until the Japanese occupation in 1910, and many of its librettos are based on the most well-known Korean folk tales.

But in postwar Korea, Yubong and his children use their art to drum up business for medicine shows and to entertain in restaurants.

None of these travails deter Yubong, who sees the family's struggles as building han, a bitterness that can be channeled into sublime singing. It's a belief not unlike the jazz and blues musicians' adage: "If you haven't lived it, you can't blow it out of your horn."

Yubong's dedication becomes obsessive, however, when his son runs away and his daughter loses her desire to sing. Thinking that she just needs an extra dose of han, he feeds her a drug that makes her go blind.

The cast studied with some of Korea's top pansori singers and performs most of the film's pansori renditions. Indeed, those performances have been a large part of the film's appeal. They make "Sopyonje" a good introduction to an art form bewildering to the uninitiated.  

Sopyonje  Adam Hartzell from the Korean Film Page



South Korea  (168 mi)  1994


South Korean Films About the Korean War   Darcy Paquet from the Korean Film Page

Based on a famous and controversial Korean novel by Cho Jeong-rae, this 168-minute epic chronicles a guerilla campaign waged by pro-leftist forces both before and during the war. Based on real events, the film centers around Mt. Jiri in southwestern Korea, which provided a natural refuge for the leftist rebels. Veteran director Im Kwon-taek interweaves the experiences of a wide variety of characters to give a more balanced portrait of the conflict than earlier films made under the military government can provide.

User reviews from imdb Author poikkeus from San Francisco

This Korean drama is set in a period of Korean schism, approximately 1948, when political forces both within and without are rending the country in two. Just as the Communists begin to seize vital centers to begin their expansion, the United States covertly supports militias standing at the opposite of the political spectrum; the result is a tug of war that leaves thousands of innocents dead. The conflict is dramatized in the relationship between two brothers, one who tries to liberate land for the peasants, the other a functionary of the military. While destitute farmers are lulled into pipe-dreams by leftists, this affiliation becomes their very ruin, and the conflict soon slips well out of control of either side. Although strongly political, this film remains remarkably low-key -- at times almost anti-dramatic. Taebek Mountains seems to be aiming for a certain clear-headed honesty amidst the slogans and propaganda. It also reaffirms the South Korean film industry's willingness to deal with old wounds in a manner that's cinematic and instructive. It's well worth your attention.


South Korea  (108 mi)  1996


Festival  Adam Hartzell from the Korean Film Page

Director Hinar Saleem's film Vodka Lemon (2003) has one of those unforgettable opening scenes. As quick as the crunching of the snow we hear upon the scene's arrival, an old man is dragged through the snowy streets of an Armenian village while still in his bed, a surreal scene that causes the viewer to stutter in their head wondering 'Huh?' We eventually discover this immobile man was being taken to a funeral to play his wind instrument. As he plays another man sings in Armenian. Brought back to the reality displayed in this fiction, I found myself reflecting on the fact that many foreign films released in the United States refuse to subtitle funeral songs. Funeral singing has been deemed something unnecessary to translate for United States viewers since, with the graves foregrounded, we get the picture. This makes Im Kwon-taek's Festival all the more unusual since not only are the funeral songs subtitled, but Korean viewers were offered titles that identified each step of the burial traditions, and English-viewers were provided with even more non-dialogue, ethnographic subtitles that documented the rationale behind each multi-theistic tradition.

Korean film scholar Han Ju Kwak states Festival is based on the writings of writer Yi Chong-jun. The film based on these stories follows a fictional author named Joon-sup (Ahn Sung-ki -- from The Housemaid to Arahan) who has returned to his home village due to the death of his mother. Upon leaving, his daughter Un-ji (Baek Jin-a) asks innocently "Grandma's dead again?", noting that there have been false alarms before. And it turns out Joon-sup's Mother fooled everyone again, because she is alive upon his arrival. (The actress playing Joon-sup's Mother is Han Eun-jin, who passed away in July 2003. She has been in close to 200 films, making me wonder, 'Should call her the Im Kwon-taek of Korean actresses or, since she outdoes Im twofold, if we should call Im the Han Eun-jin of Korean directors?' She debuted in 1939 in Mujeong and is most recognizable from Surrogate Mother.) However, Joon-sup's Mother does eventually pass away, bringing to the home family members, business associates, government officials, fellow villagers, and conflict. Much of the conflict involves impressions others have of Yong-sun (Oh Jeong-hae -- Sopyonje) and Hae-lim (Jeong Kyung-soon -- Taebaek Mountains, Segimal). Yong-sun is a niece whom Joon-sup's older brother had with a local prostitute. After Joon-sup's brother killed himself, Joon-sup's Mother insisted that the family take in Yong-sun. Yong-sun always felt like an outsider to the family, exacerbating this outsider status by stealing money from the family when she left for Seoul, and returning wearing garish makeup and clothes. Hae-lim is a magazine reporter who has followed Joon-sup's career and has come to the funeral to write an article. It is suggested that their relationship is more than just professional, and Hae-lim's presence discomforts Joon-sup's wife as much as the hole in the butt of her jeans delights the young children.

Along with this straight, realist narrative, Im includes flashbacks of Joon-sup's Mother's gradual, developing dementia, along with fantasy sequences narrating Joon-sup's first children's book where, told from Un-ji's perspective, grandmother's dementia is described as her passing on her wisdom to her granddaughter. These fantasy sequences are presented as stage-like, with a background of fake scenery, to differentiate them from both the flashbacks and the regular narrative, which Han Ju Kwak notes is a "rare formal experiment in Im's filmography." These scenes serve several purposes. Besides helping Un-ji understand her grandmother's transformations and deal with her passing, they also serve as wish-fulfillment for Joon-sup since, unlike what is presented in the children's story, he did not take his mother into his home during her illness. Also, since Im himself has said that he regrets not performing hyodo, or filial duty to one's parents, for his mother, we can see this story within the story, as well as the entire work of Festival itself, as Im's attempts to resolve the guilt he himself carried.

Many films allow wonderful comparison prospects for Festival. Although Juzo Itami's The Funeral (1984) would be the one that would come to most world cinema viewers, in Korean cinema, Park Chul-soo's Farewell, My Darling is perhaps the most interesting comparison since it was released in the very same year and is a funeral film with which the director is equally, intimately entwined by the very fact that Park plays the character of a director returning home to his father's funeral. Yet, Im's eminent status as the present patriarch of Korean cinema, representing the national cinema on the world stage, causes me to reflect back and forth upon Festival's relation to the The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the masterpiece of Iran's premiere director Abbas Kiarostami. Both films are, in a sense, self-critiques; however, I find myself preferring Kiarostami's because we do not end up with a white-washing, positive view of Kiarostami's director surrogate, but a complicated one. Whereas, Im's novelist surrogate ends up being the hero that patriarchally leads everyone back to their rightful place in the family, a source of major contradictions that Han Ju Kwak finds in the film in his chapter for the book Im Kwon-Taek: The Making of a Korean National Cinema.

Festival is not one of Im's better films. All the films I've compared Festival with here in this review are much more accomplished works. The portrayal of Joon-sup's brother's widow Wedong-taek (Baek Seung-tae -- Chihwaseon, Silmido) comes off as choppy, as does much of the stage play entrances and line deliveries directed of some of the performers. Yong-sun's reconciliation with a family member who has nagged her throughout the film arises too implausibly. As a result, the film doesn't hold my heightened attention as does Park's. What Im has accomplished here is a studied detailing of the burial traditions. Interestingly, these pre-modern traditions, being a mix of Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and even Taoism, present a lie to the belief that Post-Modern collaging of cultural influences is anything new. Just as Han Ju Kwak notes that Joon-sup's mother's delayed deaths suggest "...the possibility that she is still alive, even after her actual death", Im's documentation presents how these traditions are still with us in hidden and visible forms, assimilating with and accommodating of the contemporary in order to survive along with us.   


aka:  Downfall

South Korea  (105 mi)  1997


Filmbrain  from Like Ana Karina’s Sweater

Though his directing career dates back to 1962, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that Im Kwon-taek began to receive international recognition as one of Korea's true masters of cinema. Popular on the festival circuit, films such as Gilsoddeum (1986), The Surrogate Mother (1987), and his greatest achievement , Seopyeonje (1993) received critical praise (plus a few awards), but rarely found their way to these shores. Im's breakthrough in the States would come in 2000 with the release of Chunhyang, followed by 2002's Chihwaseon – two very good films, but certainly not his best.

Prior to Chunhyang, Im wrote and directed his 96th film, Chang (aka Downfall), a flawed but earnest melodrama from 1997 that tackles Korean history from the rise of industrialism in the 70s to the economic slump of the 90s, as viewed from the underworld of brothels and prostitutes.

The film begins during the great modernization period under the Park Chung Hee regime – a time, as we learn, when women were mostly forced, or coerced into prostitution. Such is the case with teenaged orphan Young-eun (Shin Eun-kyung), who mistakenly believes she is being hired simply to sell soda in exchange for room and board. Raped by the brothel owners, and threatened with physical violence if she runs, Young-eun is quickly transformed from an innocent teen full of terror and disgust to just another savvy, desensitized professional working the narrow, crowded street. The sudden shift is a bit disconcerting, though it's a far cry from the misogynistic fantasies dreamed up by Kim Ki-duk in films like Bad Guy or Samaria.

Like the "hostess films" that were popular in the 70s, Chang chronicles Young-eun's many vicissitudes, including several aborted attempts at marriage, and a brief stint as a brothel owner herself. It also follows her long-term friendship with Gil-young, a kind, selfless man she no doubt truly loves, but can never be with. If the film offered nothing more than this, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another formulaic melodrama, but fortunately Im brings much more to the proceedings.

Key events in Korea's history during the film's twenty years period – including the assassination of President Park, the military coup that led to the rise of President Chun Doo-hwan, and the 1988 Olympics – appear on cheap televisions located in the brothels. The women are indifferent to these events, and most don't even bother paying attention, yet not out of apathy. As societal outsiders their role is limited to generating capital with their bodies, and paying back a seemingly never-ending debt to the brother owners. Political and social changes are meaningless to them, unless of course it affects their trade (as the introduction of AIDS will, late in the film.) Economic swings, however, are mirrored in their industry – during the peak years we learn that the demand for prostitutes was at a record high, and that there were 400,000 brothels, and over one million women working in them.

It would be wrong to consider Chang progressive in its views. In fact in some ways it is downright regressive – in both it's method of storytelling, as well as its conceit of representing Korea's tumultuous history through the commodification of women. Its sexual explicitness is anything but erotic, and at times feels vaguely exploitative. Yet even with these flaws, Chang finds Im in top form as a director, and it is visually one of his most fascinating films.

Shot primarily in tight, cramped spaces, Chang is the aesthetic opposite of Seopyeonje, which emphasizes the vastness of the landscape, and often maintains a distance from its characters. Here Im often crowds his frame, placing characters simultaneously in fore- and background, and making great use of deep focus. (The film requires several viewings just to catch everything.) His compositions are nothing short of masterly (see above, bottom picture), and his framing is strangely reminiscent of Fassbinder's. The use of cutaway walls allows for epic tracking shots through the brothels, and the end result is chillingly powerful. The few scenes shot outside the city draw sharp distinctions in light – the almost blinding rays of the sun versus the dim, artificially colored glow of the brothels. Im also utilizes several visual motifs that are repeated throughout the film – an extremely nice touch.

Though closer in tone to his early genre films than to his masterpieces of the 80s and 90s, Chang is still worth seeking out for the visuals, as well as a remarkable lead performance by Shin Eun-kyung. A subtitled Korean-released DVD, which looks great, is available here.

CHUNHYANG (Chunhyangdyun)                                  A-                    93

South Korea  (120 mi)  2000


Chunhyang   Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader

Set in the late 18th century, this dazzling epic by Im Kwon-taek (Fly High Run Far) concerns the love between a prostitute's daughter and the son of a provincial governor, who marry in secret but are then driven apart. Im is Korea's most prestigious filmmaker (with about 100 features to his credit), and his stirring 2000 drama is both historically resonant and strikingly modern, remarkable for its deft and spellbinding narrative, its breathtaking color, and above all its traditional sung narration, which he periodically shows being performed with drum accompaniment before a contemporary audience. This is one of those masterpieces that would qualify as a musical if Hollywood propagandists hadn't claimed the genre as their personal property. A must-see. 120 min.

Chunhyang   Patrick Z. McGavin from the Reader
A lyrically dazzling work by South Korean filmmaker Im Kwon-taek, whose visual imagination, deft storytelling, and sumptuous period detail transform familiar material into high art. Set in the late 18th century, the film traces the unbreakable love between the son of a provincial governor and the title character, whose mother is a dignified prostitute. After the young man accompanies his father to Seoul, Chunhyang spurns the advances of the brutal new governor, and he orders his guards to attack and imprison her. The movie is framed by the beautifully sung narration of a pansori (a traditional Korean storyteller) accompanied by drums, and the musical numbers throughout--about longing, regret, and ambition--allow an intimate, graceful shading of character that plays well against the movie's grand scale. Chunhyang succeeds on many levels--as a mood piece, as a formal achievement, and as a blistering critique on the subjugation of women. In Korean with subtitles. 120 min.


Chunhyang  David Denby from the New Yorker


Imagine a cross between a Homeric rhapsode, chanting one of the epics in front of a roaring fire, and the blues singer Muddy Waters. That's roughly the sound produced by the great Korean entertainer Cho Sang Hyun. As the film opens, he sits onstage before a contemporary audience and sings of an eighteenth-century Korean Romeo and Juliet. Then we see the tale: in Namwon Province, the governor's son—fifteen-year-old Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo), who has a man's voice and a man's determination—falls in love with, pursues, and immediately marries Chunhyang (Lee Hyo Jung), the beautiful daughter of a courtesan. The scenes of the slender teen-agers courting and making love have a delicate erotic strength—a mixture of shyness and lust—that is nearly unimaginable in a modern Western setting. When Mongryong goes away to Seoul to study, his bride falls into the hands of the evil new provincial governor, who wants to turn her into a courtesan. Throughout, the story is sung to us—it's a lyrical epic—so we accept the absence of psychological realism and the abrupt plot turns. Directed by Im Kwon Taek, who has made more than ninety films. In Korean. - Graphic Review [Gary W. Tooze]

Director Im Kwon Taek is regarded by many as the father of modern Korean Cinema, and certainly the first director to receive global critical acclaim. With around a hundred films to his credit, in a career spanning five decades, Im has crafted some of Korea's most revered, and successful films.

Chunhyung received its World Premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Korean film to ever to be selected for the official competition. Two years later, Im would win the Best Director prize for his film Chiwaseon.

Based on a classic Korean tale, Chunhyung tells the story of a privileged governor's son, Mongryong (Cho Seung Woo - Marathon), who falls in love with the beautiful Chunhyung (Lee Hyo Jung), the daughter of a proud former courtesan. The two fall in love and marry in secret. But soon afterwards, Mongryong is ordered back to Seoul to complete his schooling. He leaves his betrothed reluctantly, promising to return as soon as he has completed his studies. However, while he is away a new governor is appointed, an evil, vindictive man who takes an instant liking to Chunhyung. But when she refuses his advances, the governor imprisons her and sentences her to death. Chunhyung's only hope is that Mongryong will return from Seoul in time to save her.

Like with his classic film Seopyonje, Im again employs the ancient Korean tradition of pansori to retell this classic story. The effects are dazzling and Chunhyung can claim responsibility for helping to announce the birth of a new wave of Korean cinema to rest of the World.

"Steeped in poetic beauty and deep-rooted culture, Chunhyang is a fascinating escape into a traditional Korean love story based on the opera of the same name. A gem of a viewing experience, this is a film that will stay with you for quite some time. Beautifully shot, it adeptly reflects the intrinsic essence of the characters emotions of loyalty as well as the ancient class structure of power, control and its abuse."

NOTE: A "pansori" (on which this movie is based) was a four to six-hour long musical poem performed by a singer and a drummer.

The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]

Adapted from an 18th-century Korean folk song about a fairytale romance between the son of a provincial governor and the stubborn daughter of a lowly courtesan, Im Kwon-taek's Chunhyang looks ready for acquisition by The Walt Disney Company. The most lavish production ever mounted in South Korea, with more than 8,000 extras and 12,000 period costumes, it's a superficially dazzling piece of escapism, seducing the eye with colorful spectacle while peddling a star-crossed love affair as reliably formulaic as Romeo & Juliet. Eminently accessible and timelessly universal, it could be bound in hardcover and labeled My First Foreign Film, and it's an ideal primer for audiences scared off by subtitles. But just because Chunhyang's pleasures run skin deep doesn't mean they aren't real pleasures: Kwon-taek's storytelling talents imbue his classical elements with confidence and authority. His most audacious touch finds him including the strained, operatic vocals of a traditional Pansori singer who relays the story to a contemporary audience in a crowded theater. At times, the framing device is a major distraction from the epic's opulent sweep, with shots of enthusiastic dancing and applause providing viewers with cheap emotional cues. But taken alone, the vocals add gravity and cultural flavor to the musty tale of a romance that dares to cross well-guarded class boundaries. Cho Seung-Woo plays the governor's son, a highly educated 16-year-old who yearns to see the world outside his family's vast estate. On his first tour to the countryside, Seung-Woo spots the beautiful Lee Hyo-Jeong on a swing and is so thunderstruck that he soon declares his everlasting love and promises to marry her once he receives his commission from the king. But when he and his father are sent away to Seoul, the sadistic new governor demands that Hyo-Jeong, a courtesan's daughter, satisfy his needs. Thematically bare and psychologically empty, Chunhyang exists solely to celebrate its own shimmering radiance and the irresistible pull of a classic story well told. Its ambitions are all on the surface, in plain sight, but its postcard-pretty compositions and impossibly silken young leads are too lovely to resist. Designed for broad appeal on the international market, Chunhyang puts an attractive front on a Korean film scene better known for its darker corners.

Chunhyang  Darcy Paquet from Korean Film Page

It made perfect sense that Im Kwon-taek would choose to direct this story. With over 90 films to his credit, Im has become somewhat of a father figure in the film industry, revered particularly for the manner in which he celebrates the arts and traditions of old Korea. With his 1993 film Sopyonje he created a feature that, for some, represents the very essence of Korean tradition. Therefore it seemed only fitting that his latest effort would be based on Korea's most famous and best-loved folk tale, Chunhyang.

People often compare this folk tale to Romeo and Juliet, both for its thematic content (teenage lovers secretly married, but separated by class) and for its stature within Korean culture. It has been filmed over a dozen times, notably as Korea's first sound film and then later as a mid-1950's box-office smash that revived the film industry after the war. The character of Chunhyang has become a national icon, admired as much for her beauty and virtue as for her resistance against corrupt authority.

This particular adaptation, however, is not simply a retelling of the story; it is built around a pansori narration of the tale. Viewers who have seen Sopyonje will be familiar with the vocal art of pansori, a style of narrative song developed in Korea's countryside. Whereas in Sopyonje viewers were introduced to the beauty of the singing, in Chunhyang the pansori is far more moving, because we follow the story's narration together with the intense swells of the music. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of this film, that it gives us such access to a little-known but remarkable form of art. The film is structured as a 'story within a concert' where we move between shots of the performer and the story he narrates; and unlike many narratives of this kind, the 'story' and its 'frame' interact to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

This movie features two teenage actors making their debuts: Cho Seung-woo as the earnest but somewhat inconsiderate Mong-ryong, and Lee Hyo-jeong playing Chunhyang, the embodiment of virtue, intelligence, and stubborn will. The screen time they share together is delightful, from Mong-ryong's painting on Chunhyang's dress to their adolescent sexual romping. Another breathtaking aspect of the film are its visuals, shot by veteran cinematographer Jung Il-sung, who has worked closely together with the director in the past.

Although I personally have not been impressed with much of Im's recent work, Chunhyang is a real find. It is the most accessible film of Im's late career, and one of his best ever.     

Addendum: In May 2000, Chunhyang became the first Korean feature film ever to participate in the Competition Section at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was very well received, with some naming it a darkhorse contender for the Palme d'Or, although it ended up not winning a prize.

Epinions [metalluk]


Nitrate Online (Elias Savada)


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson)


The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]


Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams] (John Nesbit) (Chris Dashiell) [Tor Thorsen]


PopMatters  Dale Leech


Macresarf1's Epinions Review of CHUNHYANG. DVD review [Pam Grady]


James Berardinelli's ReelViews


The Japan Times [Mark Schilling]


New York Times (registration req'd)  Elvis Mitchell, also seen here:  FILM REVIEW - The New York Times


CHIHWASEON                                            B+                   91

aka: Painted Fire

South Korea  (117 mi)  2002  (Trailer: 300k)


Chihwaseon   Shelly Kraicer from the Reader

Korean master Im Kwon-taek shared the best director prize at Cannes in 2002 for this old-fashioned, beautifully crafted biopic of painter Jang Seung-up, who was born in 1843 and disappeared 54 years later. Jang's life provides more than enough drama and historical incident for this rich evocation of Korea's past; against the backdrop of Chinese and Japanese colonization, political reform, and popular revolt, his career as a rebel artist plays out in a brisk series of episodes, and this telegraphic narrative, with elegant ellipses separating precisely delineated moments, becomes a perfect analogue to his vibrantly impressionistic brushwork. Choi Min-sik, Korea's finest screen actor, gives a vibrant, full-bodied performance as the hard-drinking, prodigiously lustful, defiantly austere painter, whose radical creativity was contradicted by his willingness to produce gorgeous paintings, screens, and fans for well-connected connoisseurs. Ultimately this triumph of cinematography and art direction, which translates easily into Western art-house fare, remains vulnerable to its own internal critique of art as commodity. In Korean with subtitles. 117 min.

Slant Magazine   Ed Gonzalez


In Chihwaseon, director Im Kwon-Taek (Chunhyang) recounts the life of 19th-century Korean painter Jang "Ohwon" Seung-Ub (Choi Min-Sik) with the workmanlike precision one might expect from someone who's made nearly 100 features in 40 years. For his latest old-man epic, Im shared this year's Cannes Best Director prize with Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Punch-Drunk Love will also have its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Ohwon's drunken rages and fits of creative energy are the film's major focus, though Im's dialectic is to point to the symbiotic relationship between the man and his country's ever-changing political upheavals. While his talents are highly regarded, Ohwon strives to distance himself from the masters he's accused of copying, and as played by Choi, Ohwon is so uncomfortable within his own flesh, tortured by his constant frustration (both creative and sexual), that he spends the duration of the film fumbling his way toward an elusive transcendence. Im's humanism is unmistakable but his recollection of Ohwon's life feels cold at times. The director's nature shots are ravishing (in one scene, the wilderness seemingly loses its color in response to one of Ohwon's violent uproars) though he fails to elucidate the complicated relationship between artist and nature that Ohwon's paintings suggest.


The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]

"If you want to paint," advises 19th-century Korean artist Jang Seung-Up in Im Kwon-Taek's disjointed period opus Chi-hwa-seon, "you must first learn how to drink." Never has the rocky history of artist biopics been summed up more succinctly: If most of the movies about great painters are to be believed, aspiring young masters should know that an understanding of art history and a rigorous commitment to craft are not prerequisites, but boozing and womanizing are essential. Much like Pollock, Ed Harris' overwrought imagining of Jackson Pollock, Chi-hwa-seon casts Jang (who was better known under the pseudonym Ohwon) as a tempestuous, self-destructive outsider who challenges the art elite, but spends his downtime getting loaded and smashing things, including his own delicate canvases. The suggestion behind all this rock-star misbehavior seems to be that behind every austere masterpiece are a thousand trashed hotel rooms, a cliché that Im's movie has now confirmed as universal. Having made nearly 100 films over four decades, Im has earned his status as South Korea's aging grandmaster. That lends some gravity to Chi-hwa-seon's closing scenes, when history deposits the once-revered visionary back where he began, in poverty and obscurity. But more often, the simple clarity of Im's previous effort, 2000's sumptuous fairytale Chunhyang, gives way to a murky and confusing treatment of the same period, cluttered with jarring flashbacks, characters that drop in and out of sight, and a woozy depiction of the changing political tides. In an impassioned and ultimately dignified turn, Choi Min-Sik plays Ohwon as an erratic genius whose natural gifts were constantly at war with his fiery temperament and lack of social graces. Chi-hwa-seon traces his roots as a beggar on the streets of Seoul, where a benevolent stranger (Ahn Sung-ki) saves him from a beating and in return receives a drawing that testifies to the boy's prodigious talent. As a young adult, Ohwon gains a reputation for infusing meticulous copies of old Chinese drawings with his own exquisite melancholy, but his problems with nobility are exacerbated by his discomfort in negotiating art with commerce. His lusty desire for pleasure to inform his work presents another obstacle when the woman he loves (Yu Ho-jung) is forced to flee from Catholic persecution. In the scope of things, Ohwon's story is a route into the larger story of an uncertain and tumultuous period in Korea, and it's here that Chi-hwa-seon loses its grip: For those unschooled in 19th-century Korean history, events such as a peasant revolt, a battle between Conservative and Reform movements, and several invasions from China and Japan will seem like a hopeless jumble. With poor Ohwon left twisting in the wind, a slave to the random vicissitudes of politics and fate, it's no wonder he turns to the bottle.

BFI | Sight & Sound | Chihwaseon Drunk on Women and Poetry (2002)  Geoffrey Macnab, June 2003

South Korea, the 1850s. Jang Seung-ub (Choi Min-sik), a young orphan, is saved by painting master Kim Byung-moon (Ahn Sung-ki) from a beating. A grateful Jang draws him a picture; Kim immediately recognises the boy's potential and becomes his mentor. Jang soon runs away. Some years later Jang renews his apprenticeship. Sent to study at the home of a Chinese nobleman, he falls for his master's sister So-woon (Son Ye-jin). She is attracted to him, but their relationship has no future because of Jang's lowly class status. He leaves and begins to hang out in bars, painting pastiches of Chinese art to make a living. These grow popular and eventually Jang is persuaded to study further at an art school run by acclaimed master Yoo-sook. His career blossoms. He meets Mae-hyang (You Ho-jeong), a noblewoman suffering hard times. He falls in love with her and paints her a screen but, she is a Catholic and is forced to flee to escape anti-Catholic persecution.

Jang's sadness is compounded by the death of So-woon. He embarks on a long journey. In his absence his work continues to be popular. On his return Kim gives him a prestigious pen name Oh-Won. Even so, he encounters hostility from artists and nobles because of his humble roots. Jang is furious to learn that one of his lovers Jin-hong (Kim Yeo-jin) has been unfaithful to him; in a drunken stupor that night he paints a monkey using his fingers instead of a brush. Frustrated with how his art is developing, he goes on the road and tries to teach himself to see the natural world in a new way. By coincidence he has a brief reunion with Mae-hyang. His fame is such that he is invited, along with other leading artists, to paint for the king. The other artists are appalled that he is allowed to make the first brush stroke, even before his master. He is taken to the king's palace to do a painting for a Chinese general, but refuses to work to order. Eventually he runs away.

During a peasants' uprising Jang is almost killed by the mob, which regards him as a parasite living off the aristocracy. Shocked, he goes on the road again, hoping to track down Mae-hyang. During his journey he meets with his master Kim, an exile now living modestly. Returning to Seoul, he has a final reunion with Mae-hyang. His health broken, he takes a job painting ceramics. Alone, he crawls into the furnace. Intertitles reveal that it is not known what finally became of Jang.


Screen lives of the great artists constitute a mini-genre, one in which there are no fixed rules. Many films about painters, however, may be grouped under one of two approaches: some, such as Vincente Minnelli's Van Gogh portrait Lust for Life (1956), celebrate the artist as tortured, visionary genius, a figure who transcends his immediate social circumstances; others, notably Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 epic about the icon painter Andrei Rublev, seek to show the era in which the artist lived. Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon combines elements of both approaches. It is a closely focused study of 19th-century Korean artist Jang Seung-ub a rebel from a poor background, looked down on by the art establishment; a sensualist who finds his inspiration in booze and women. But also, perhaps because there is so little now known about Jang, Im makes this outsider figure witness to some of the tumultuous events affecting Korean society at the time.

Chihwaseon offers an impressionistic, if slightly confusing account of the key moments in Jang's life, from his childhood to his eventual success. Throughout Im touches obliquely on the social and political chaos of late-19th-century Korea, as peasants revolt, Catholics are persecuted and the Japanese threaten invasion. None of this turbulence finds its way directly into Jang's exquisite paintings of birds, trees and flowers, but we're always made aware of the context in which he is working. In one scene we see him being beaten up because he has refused to kneel in the presence of an aristocrat; in another he is sneered at by peasants as a lackey of the old regime. He is a paradoxical figure: driven and ambitious, but so little interested in worldly success that he often gives away his most elaborate and ambitious paintings. Choi Min-sik plays him as a man of huge curiosity and voracious appetites, with a Rabelaisian zest slightly reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune.

Some commentators have described Chihwaseon as a companion piece to Im's 2000 feature Chunhyang. In terms of the lavish production design, period detail and close attention Im pays to the natural world, there are obvious overlaps. A love story set in the 18th century, Chunhyang has a narrative structure every bit as elliptical as that of its successor. (It is 'narrated' by a balladeer, singing out the story to a contemporary audience.) Again, Im takes what seems like a piece of folklore and uses it to make trenchant points about class, oppression and the relations between the sexes. However, Chihwaseon for all the zest of the central performance is a darker, more melancholy affair. By focusing so intently on the restless perfectionism of his artist protagonist, Im allows little room for the upbeat romanticism which characterises the earlier film.

Showing painters at work is obviously central to any artist biopic, but there's a risk that such a delicate, painstaking process can seem boring or ridiculous when depicted on screen (Ed Harris acknowledged as much when discussing his film Pollock). Im has no qualms about including frequent shots of Jang painting, and these prove to be among the most richly involving sequences in the film. Often the first brush strokes will be thick, seemingly clumsy, but these will give way to extraordinarily delicate renderings of the natural world. There's a sense of mirroring and of competition throughout, with Im and his virtuoso cinematographer Jung Il-sung trying to match Jang's work with the images they capture on film. There's an astonishing sequence in which we see a flock of thousands of birds swooping through the sky before being shown Jang's rendition of it.

There are obvious flaws in the narrative structure: certain characters most notably the different women with whom Jang becomes entangled enter his life in disconcertingly abrupt fashion. Im introduces various sub-plots for instance, the anti-Catholic persecution and peasants' revolt without elaborating the effect they had on society as a whole. The stated parallels between Im's struggles as a film-maker and Jang's as an artist are also likely to be lost on western audiences, for whom both Im and Jang are little-known figures. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating, consummately crafted and ultimately moving study of a man who conforms surprisingly closely to western archetypes of the artist as rebel and hedonist.

Chihwaseon Darcy Paquet from the Korean Film Page


The Village Voice [Ed Park]


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson)




FILM IN REVIEW; 'Chihwaseon (Painted Fire)' - The New York Times  A.O. Scott


Los Angeles Times (Manohla Dargis) [Donald Brown]


Im Sang-soon


THE HOUSEMAID (Hanyo)                                  B                     84

South Korea  (107 mi)  2010  ‘Scope


Actually I have seen the original 1960 Kim Ki-Young film, which was an exercise in sexual hysteria and delirium, something of a cult phenomenon, a metaphor for the rapidly changing urban industrialization, with the accompanying collapse of traditional values.  For some, Kim Ki-Young’s writing may recall flashes of Ed Wood in how simple-minded and totally implausible the story is and how far removed from reality.  But then, perhaps that’s the point.  Sometimes the hyper-exaggerated techniques get the most laughs and are what provide the most memorable entertainment.  The original story revolves around a wealthy, upper class family who unsuspectingly hires a deranged housemaid with a fatal attraction for the husband, wreaking havoc with some rat poison, where the audience was prompted to scream “Kill the bitch” at the screen, featuring highly exaggerated music to accentuate the action, nearly all of which takes place in the family home, where this is something out of a horror chamber drama, high marks for sustained tension and humor in an otherwise low-grade look.  The remake is high gloss and coolly detached, where the controlling tone, while melodramatically over the top in spots, is much more somber, changing the storyline so that the deranged housemaid is actually a decent person, and it’s the rich family she lives with who have deranged psychotic elements.  Im Sang-soo’s version is an examination of social classes that shows how the rich have connections, receive favorable treatment, and can easily get away with murder in a more conservatively uptight and sexually repressed Korean society that values above all things money.


In this version, the housemaid is played by Jeon Do-yeon, a Cannes best actress from Lee Chang-dong’s SECRET SUNSHINE (2007), who works in a cheap restaurant sharing a tiny apartment with her only friend.  When she is offered the job to be the nanny for the hugely pregnant wife of the ultra-rich Hoon family, living on the premises of their immense estate with her own room, she enters as if in a dream, easily befriending their young daughter.  The husband, Lee Jung-jae was raised by a family that gave him whatever he wanted, so when sex with his pregnant wife left him wanting more, he sought out the new maid, as if she were his own personal property, where wealth gives him a sense of entitlement.  Meanwhile the house servant who has been serving the family for 25 years, Mrs. Woo (Seo Woo), peeps behind closed doors, eventually discovering the young maid is pregnant, and can be seen sharing this information with the mother-in-law (Moon So-ri), a throwback to a special kind of cruelty, whose lust for wealth and power have drained her of any humanity, the deranged mastermind who intentionally pushes the maid off a ladder and down a staircase, but she miraculously survives with her baby intact, where the mother-in-law’s sole regret was that she didn’t push her from higher up.


Mrs. Woo may be the most interesting character in the film, as she flip flops back and forth between the slavishly devoted servant and a down-to-earth woman behind closed doors who detests the family she works for, finding her work nauseating.  While we thoroughly expect the maid to exact her revenge, in character with the original story, as if ever a family needed to receive their comeuppance, it is this one.  But that moment never arrives, as the maid is simply too decent a person, which actually takes some of the sting out of the movie, as the original version was a centerpiece for cinematic delirium, providing new meaning to the word “deranged,” where nowadays the lady in Miike’s AUDITION (1999) comes to mind.  Im Sang-soo’s version emphasizes the spacious emptiness of their architecturally enormous home (allegedly the largest set ever constructed for a Korean film), exposing the callous and hollow lives of the upper class, who don’t even bat an eye at the horrors they inflict on the lives of others.   


Cinema Autopsy (Thomas Caldwell) capsule review [3/5]

I also saw The Housemaid last night and wasn’t as impressed by it as I was hoping I would be. Director Im Sang-soo was at the screening to introduce his film, and also took questions afterwards, and he frequently talked about how it is a critique of South Korean society, in particular the gap between a new class of super rich and the working classes. This is certainly reflected in The Housemaid where a young maid becomes seemingly gladly subservient to a wealthy family, including making herself sexually available to the husband. All of this was fine and the film was very engaging but I found it increasingly heavy handed, obvious and melodramatic. That may have been the point I suppose and possibly exactly what other people have liked about it but it left me feeling a little unsatisfied.

The House Next Door [Matt Noller]

I have not seen Kim Ki-young's reportedly amazing (and amazingly nuts) 1960 thriller The Housemaid, so I cannot personally confirm or deny that Im Sang-soo's adaptation is a back-asswards inversion of everything that makes the original so special. But since nearly everyone who has seen Kim's film is saying that, I'm willing to accept it. Im keeps the premise of Kim's film—Eun-yi, a poor young woman, becomes a maid for a wealthy married couple and sleeps with the husband, at which point chaos reigns—but completely reverses the dynamics within that setup. The maid (Jeon Do-yeon), the psychopathic aggressor in Kim's film, is here a passive victim, seduced by the husband (Lee Jung-Jae) and summarily exposed to mental and physical abuse by his wife (Seo Woo) and mother-in-law (Moon So-ri). I can't comment on how these changes affect the movie in relation to the original, but even without knowledge of Kim's film, the remake is a leaden, unsubtle mess. Im fashions the narrative into a blunt-force assault on class inequality, a point that is made satisfactorily within the first 15 minutes then run into the ground for another hour and a half. ("You don't even think of me as human," Eun-yi tells the husband, who then turns to his family and says, "That's just how those people are.") It's not even especially entertaining; there's no real structure or pace, and even the supposedly controversial sex scenes are too outrageously stylized to carry much subversive charge. Only in its gleefully nasty conclusion—and even more so in the hilariously nonsensical bugfuck epilogue (or whatever) that follows—does the film come to any sort of actual life.

Rich On Film [Richard Haridy]


How does one value a film that is more interesting to read about and discuss than to actually watch? That is the dilemma I faced when trying to work out the worth of The Housemaid. Im Sang-soo’s film is a remake of a classic Korean film from 1960, except he cleverly inverts the story.


The basics are still present. A young woman takes a job as a maid for a rich family and begins to have an affair with the husband. The original was purportedly a fatal attraction style thriller where the maid slowly terrorises the family but Sang-soo switches things and turns the maid into a passive, naive character who ends up getting destroyed by the women in the family after they discover she is pregnant with the husband's baby.


It’s an interesting twist and probably echoes plenty of sentiment about Sang-soo’s attitudes towards the value shifts in Korean society over the past 50 years. Unfortunately the film lacks momentum in its story and the melodramatic characteristics of the plot are played a little too broadly.


It’s not all bad though. Sang-soo has a brilliant grasp of technique and the film plays with classic visual troupes of the genre recalling at various points, Hitchcock, Welles and even Kubrick. There is a great aesthetic at work here as the camera gleefully indulges in the opulence of the character's lives, voyeuristically treating food and sex in fascinatingly tactile ways.


Sang-soo also picks up his game with a wonderfully nasty climax and an strangely surreal epilogue that made one yearn for more of that type of extremity across the rest of the film. When The Housemaid sours it is truly sensational filmmaking but more often than not it just lumbers along, overtly stating its themes without building enough suspense to truly satisfy.


Twitch [Todd Brown]

Slick, polished and sexy, Im Sangsoo's The Housemaid is the sort of film simply not made in Hollywood any more. Directed with the same icy precision displayed by the coldly amoral family at its center, The Housemaid is an entirely grown-up thriller - one driven by lust, boredom, and not particularly subtle manipulation. And the general feeling on the street is that it's also the best film to screen in Cannes so far.

A remake of a 1960 classic, The Housemaid revolves around Lee Euny. A lower class, sweetly naive divorcee, Lee begins the film working in the kitchen of a cheap restaurant and sharing a tiny apartment with her only friend. Is it any wonder that she jumps at the opportunity to become the new nanny for the enormously wealthy Hoon family? If nothing else, she'll no longer have to share a bed with her friend.

The Hoon's are outwardly perfect. He is handsome and successful, a true power broker despite his youth. She is young and beautiful and heavily pregnant with twins, new siblings for the couple's young daughter. The daughter? Obviously very intelligent and mature beyond her years in truly adorable fashion. But you know what they say about perfection ... give it a scratch and who knows what may lie beneath.

In short, what lies beneath here is Mr Hoon's penis. Despite his smooth manners, the man has the sense of entitlement that comes from having been raised in extreme wealth, with everything he has ever wanted handed to him on a platter by a servant. Literally. Add to that an absolute lack of morals and is it any surprise that when his pregnant wife is unable to finish sex the way he likes Hoon soon finds his way into Lee's bed? And whether through naivite, loneliness or an equivalent lack of scruples, Lee welcomes him there. This, of course, does not end well and the women of the family prove to be far more vicious and uncaring than even Hoon himself.

Impeccably crafted and beautifully photographed, Im has created her a true piece of cinema, a work of art buffed and polished in all the right ways while still retaining a very true sense of character and balancing all of that out with just the appropriate dash of entertainer's showmanship. The script is very good, indeed, and the entire cast virtually flawless, though Park Ji-Young deserves special mention for the coldly brutal grace with which she imbues her performance as Hoon's vengeful mother in law.

Elegant when called for, savage once you dip beneath the surface, The Housemaid is a triumph for Im and one of the strongest thrillers to emerge from Korea in the past several years.

The Housemaid -- Film Review - The Hollywood Reporter  Maggie Lee at Cannes, May 14, 2010

CANNES -- Kim Ki-young's "The Housemaid," about a domestic helper's revenge after her affair with the master goes sour, is a gem of Korean cinema. Im Sang-soo's version, far from being a masterpiece, is not even subtle. Yet, he deserves credit for his gutsy departure from the original, rather than doing a carbon copy "remake" a la Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." The outcome is a flamingly sexy soap opera whose satire on high society is sometimes as savage as Claude Chabrol's "La ceremonie."

Presold by Mirovision to French distributor Pretty Pictures in March, the film could have a crack at both art house and genre markets in Europe as well as limited runs in the U.S.

Admittedly, the film has serious flaws, notably the abrupt and awkward character transition of the lead role, plot developments are glaringly melodramatic, exploding in an ending that not only defies script logic but is sure to incense pro-Kim purists. But the three female leads' high voltage chemistry, the sumptuous mis en scene (the biggest set in Korean film history), stylish symmetric compositions and lilting (perhaps Wong Kar-wai influenced) string score offers such sensory pleasure while pacing is so smooth that two hours seem to glide by imperceptibly.

When Euny (Jeon Do-yeon) is hired as a nanny and housemaid by a wealthy household, she is treated with perfunctory courtesy by the pregnant mistress Hera (Seo Woo), the cultivated master Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and the fastidious housekeeper Choi Byung-shik (Youn Yuh-jung). But after succumbing to Hoon's brazen seduction, she gets pregnant. Hera and her mother conspire to remove this marital threat at all costs.

In the 1960 original, the family has toiled for years to fulfill their bourgeois dream, and half the drama is driven by the socially marginal housemaid's vengeful destruction of that dream. Im's class dynamic is more extreme, dwelling on the decadent rich's oppression of Euny, and highlighting the futility of her defiance. The most sardonic moment occurs when young miss Nami casually tells Euny that her dad taught her to be polite to people as a strategy to get one's selfish way.

In Kim Ki-young's gothic rendition of unchecked female sexuality as a destructive force, the male protagonist is seen fending off young working women. Im, whose previous works used sex to draw attention to women's exploitation and repression in Korean society, humanizes Euny by making Hoon the seducer. Despite the tastefully erotic way in which the sex scenes are shot, Hoon's chauvinism is apparent in the imperious tone of his language and sexual demands.

However even with Jeon's calibrated performance, Euny's characterization is problematic. Her innocence is supposed to set her employers calculation in bold relief, but the absence in motivation of her behavior does not really convince. Seo makes a stunning presence with her brittle beauty, which renders her role's scheming nature all the more chilling. It is Youn, star a 1970 film by Kim, who dominates in the most complex role, providing suspense and a moral compass via her struggles with her conscience and shifting allegiances.

The film abounds with references to the original's famous cinematic tropes -- the staircase, the piano, the windows, but without the same impact as social and psychological signifiers. Instead, Im expresses danger and discord through an alternative mis en scene with ravishing color contrasts (stark black and white playing against Wedgewood blue and gray) and palatial interiors whose harmony is deliberately disrupted by murals of severe lines or cubic shapes.

Nick's Flick Picks (Nick Davis) review [C+]


SBS Film [Simon Foster]

User reviews  from imdb Author: etvltd from Canada

User reviews  from imdb Author: Harry T. Yung ( from Hong Kong

OneMetal [David Cox] review [2.5/5]  Eric Lavallee


Plume Noire review  Moland Fengkov


The Housemaid (Hanyo) | Review | Screen  Lee Marshall at Cannes from Screendaily


Housemaid, The   Patrick McGavin at Cannes from Emanuelle Levy

The Housemaid  Aaron Hillis at Cannes from Moving Pictures magazine, May 14, 2010


Cannes 2010. Im Sang-soo's "The Housemaid"  David Hudson at Cannes from The Auteurs, May 11, 2010

Cannes '10: Day Two   Mike D’Angelo at Cannes from The Onion A.V. Club, May 14, 2010

Cannes Film Festival 2010: Day Two  Matt Noller from The House Next Door, May 14, 2010


RopeofSilicon (Brad Brevet) review [B] review  Mark Lavercombe


exclaim! [Robert Bell]


Dave's Film & DVD Reviews [David Brook]


Toronto Film Scene [Andrea Nene]


Lee Ji-Hye  Interview with the director from 10Asia, May 4, 2010


Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim  Interview with actress Jeon Do-yeon from The Hollywood Reporter, April 26, 2010


Variety (Justin Chang) review


Time Out Online (Geoff Andrew) review [3/5]


The Globe and Mail (Liam Lacey) capsule review [2/4]  (Page 2)


Lee Hyo-won  The Korean Times, May 6, 2010


Sung So-young  JoongAng Daily, May 7, 2010


Cannes '10 Day 2: Old maids, old masters   Wesley Morris at Cannes from The Boston Globe, May 14, 2010



South Korea  (114 mi)  2012


The Taste Of Money  Dan Fainaru at Cannes from Screendaily

As deep and profound as a comic book printed on glossy paper, Im Sang-soo’s latest portrait of lust and corruption, power plays and violence at the highest echelons of Korea’s society has all the style and luster of his previous works, with brilliantly lighted spectacular sets, glorious photography, fast paced action and plenty of Korean star power. But there is no real story to tell here, just a bunch of old fashioned, tired clichés spiced with references to various sensational front-page scandals, all of it reprocessed to look like an original script.

Two years ago, Im Sang-soo made quite a splash in Cannes with his new, flashy, version of the Korean classic The Housemaid, a sexy and perverse allegory of decadence and deceit, taking place in a huge mansion which was said at the time to be the biggest set ever built in that country.  

The Taste Of Money (Do-nui Mat), which quotes not only The Housemaid (2010) but also Kim Ki-young’s original 1960 version, most probably has even bigger and more sumptuous sets. The story, however, takes the allegory all the way into the realm of the absurd, a farfetched parody woven around the wealthiest family in Korea where every one of its members plotting against the others and every one of its servants lurking in the shadows to get a piece of the action.

The worst of the tribe is Mme Baek (Yoon Yeo-Jeong of The Housemaid fame, in a largely over-the-top performance). She is the desiccated elderly daughter of a decrepit old lecher who puts on occasional appearances in a wheelchair with a sturdy nurse next to him to feed him oxygen every time he gets too excited.

The entire film evolves around Mme Baek’s aging husband, Yoon (Baek Yun-shik), who falls for the Filipino maid Eva (Maui Taylor) and intends to start a new life with her. But his demonic wife immediately sets out to prevent his departure.

Presentable young hulk Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) services Madame in times of distress and makes eyes at Madame’s divorced daughter and heir apparent, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin). Madame has also a son, Chul (On Ju-wan) who seems to be in constant trouble with the law and who plans to get away with a chunk of the family fortune to start a stash of his own. How all this is supposed to happen, is largely unclear.

In between the gaps of this skeletal plot, nude girls galore run around as they devotedly tend to their customers, every piece of scenery around them - interiors or exterior - seems ripped out of designers’ magazines, and every once in a while there is another blurt of intrigue that makes no sense, whether it is about opening accounts in once place, closing them in another; buying politicians at the drop of the hat or visiting warehouses filled with mountains of fresh banknotes.

By the end of the film there is no doubt that Im Sang-soo is a brilliant craftsman who knows his work inside out and also that he has little respect or admiration for the leaders of his country. But there is precious little here that hasn’t been said before. Size, noise and special effects are not enough, though it is true that ultimately, this kind of portrait could describe not only South Korea, but most other countries around the world.

Deborah Young at Cannes from The Hollywood Reporter, May 27, 2012

The Korean film from writer-director Im Sang-soo is a stylized tale of two employees of the filthy rich on the brink of upper class rot.

The Taste of Money is a natural rhyme with a taste of honey and indeed, it’s cash and sex that dominate this icy, stylized tale of two employees of the filthy rich who totter dangerously on the brink of upper class rot. Korean writer-director Im Sang-soo, whose 2010 The Housemaid first brought him to competition in Cannes, revisits the themes of power and the powerless as though making a deliberate variation on the previous film, but it doesn’t seem like he has a whole lot more to say on the subject. Pretty to look at and dressed up with high fashion, amusing characters and stylish sex, the film holds its camp potential always a tempting hair’s-breadth away.  When moralizing drama finally prevails, ennui resurfaces, leaving disappointment in its wake.

The uncertain groping for tone is fast becoming a trademark of Im’s style, keeping the audience guessing what strange turns the story may take and how events are to be interpreted. But in the end, nothing very surprising occurs, and the financial thriller promised in the opening scenes, when company president Joon (Baek Yoon-sik) swings open the steel door of the family bank vault before the dazzled eyes of his private secretary Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo), quickly dissolves into a family melodrama, Dynasty-style.

Pater familias Joon was seduced by the taste of money long ago, and has paid for it with a lifetime of emptiness at the side of his elegant but ruthless consort Keum-ok (a coolly villainous Youn Yuh-jung), who has taken the reigns from her ancient-looking father. The latter pops up at intervals in his wheelchair, attended by a burly Sphinx-like nurse, with fine comic timing.  

Entrenched in palatial modern luxury in a sprawling home of glass, steel and stone, the family and its help close ranks in their claustrophobic gilded cage. The grown son Chul (On Ju-wan) is a churlish scion of wealth and power, too clumsy at passing out the moneybags to politicians and journalists to stay out of jail. He risks ruin in an obviously iffy deal with a free-wheeling American businessman who wisely trusts none of them.

The one honest member of the family is lovely divorcée Nami (Kim Hyo-jin), who looks perpetually surprised at the nefarious goings-on around her. Her attraction to the strapping “salary man” Young-jak is thwarted by the unwelcome attention he attracts of her mother. The slender, gray-coifed Keum-ok forces herself on him one night in an expertly-shot scene that reverses male-female roles while reinforcing power games.

Keum-ok is madly jealous of Eva, their Catholic Filippino maid with two young children who has won the heart of her husband Yoon. It’s not just a fling, as it was in The Housemaid (scenes of the old and new versions are glimpsed in the family home theater to underscore) but a serious love affair, and she calls in four men in black to prevent them from finding happiness together.

The silently bowing Young-jak makes a good center point, his muscular torso framed in the same meaty way as Eva’s naked breasts. Both are positive, believably acted characters poised between victimization and choice. Too bad the final scenes close proceedings with unsatisfying ease. 

Playing a key role in establishing the gilded cage that imprisons everybody, villains included, is the cold luxury of Kim Young-hee and Kim June’s sets, caressed by Kim Sung-kyu’s sumptuous lensing in grays and blacks.

Simon Abrams at Cannes from indieWIRE Press Play, May 27, 2012


DAILY | Cannes 2012 | Im Sang-soo’s THE TASTE OF MONEY »  David Hudson at Cannes from Fandor, May 27, 2012


Q&A: Korea's Im Sang-Soo Returns to Cannes With Timely 'Taste Of ...  Rebecca Leffler interview at Cannes from The Hollywood Reporter, May 25, 2012


Maggie Lee at Cannes from Variety


Imamura, Shôhei

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.

The Japanese did not change as a result of the Pacific War—they haven’t changed in thousands of years!    —Shohei Imamura

Imamura, Shohei  World Cinema
After failing his entrance exams for agricultural studies at the university, he attended a technical school to avoid the draft, then majored in Occidental history at Tokyo's Waseda University. On graduating, in 1951, he went to work for the Ofuna Studios of the Sochiku film copmany as an assistant director, serving his apprenticeship under Yasujiro Ozu and others. Frustrated by the company's rigid promotion system, which hindered his progress, he moved over in 1954 to the Nikkatsu studios, where he was finally given his first chance to direct in 1958. From the start, Imamura's films displayed some of the qualities that would later characterize his work: robust energy, sensuous earthiness, and a ribald, often outrageously off-color, sense of humour. Gradually he emerged as one of the leading figures of postwar Japanese cinema, an insightful, creative artist with a near-scientific interest in Japanese culture and society, new and old, and a flair for depicting the human condition audaciously and entertainingly. He is known as a slow and meticulous worker who spends a great deal of time researching and planning his projects. His films are often peopled with strong female protagonists who outperform males in the battle for survival. Bold eroticism, even incest, are recurring elements. But his films vary widely in theme and style. He collaborated on his own scripts and on several films by other directors. In 1965 he formed his own company, Imamura Productions, and subsequently often served as his own producer. Imamura won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for The Ballad of Narayama (1983). In recent years, he has focussed much of his attention on administering and teaching at the Broadcast and Film Institute, which he founded in Yokohama in 1975.   — Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia
Imamura, Shohei   Art and Culture


When Boston's Museum of Fine Arts launched a retrospective of Imamura's films, it was entitled, "Pigs, Pimps and Pornographers: The Films of Shohei Imamura." The films' brutal sexuality and unsparing scrutiny of a certain Japanese underbelly have made Imamura one of the most controversial filmmakers in Japan. With the death of Kurosawa in 1998, some also consider him Japan's greatest living director.
As actor Ken Ogata explains, "The themes of Imamura-san's pictures are: lamentation of people living at the bottom of the social scale, crawling over the ground, and their strong energy to survive." Imamura pulls back the pristine curtain of Japanese society, exposing the inner workings of a people on the brink. In Imamura's paradigm, though, humanity overcomes the suffering thrust in its path and discovers a bold nobility.
In "The Ballad of Narayama" Imamura turns back the clock 100 years to delve into the inner workings of a mountain-dwelling feudal society. This world, like the one in Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," is governed by brutal customs: male babies serve as fertilizer; the punishment for theft is live burial; and according to religious dictates, all 70-year-olds are cast out onto Narayama mountain to die of exposure. Coming from a generation whose consciousness is dominated by the atomic devastation of Hiroshima, Imamura questions whether we are really any different now than we were in our supposedly less civilized and more ruthless stages.
Imamura is one of only four directors to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes twice: for "The Ballad" in 1983 and "The Eel" in 1997. Drawing on his own experiences selling liquor and cigarettes on the black market after World War II, Imamura's films shock and disturb, portraying life's inherent cruelty with brutal verisimilitude. Treating his characters with humor and redemption, however, Imamura infuses these unsympathetic environments with a vitality that overcomes horror like a beautiful sunset prevailing over a bloody battlefield.


Film Reference  Richard Peña


Outrageous, insightful, sensuous, and great fun to watch, the films of Shohei Imamura are among the greatest glories of postwar Japanese cinema, yet Imamura remains largely unknown outside of Japan. Part of the reason, to be sure, lies in the fact that Imamura has until recently worked for small studios such as Nikkatsu or on his own independently financed productions. But it may also be because Imamura's films fly so furiously in the face of what most Westerners have come to expect of Japanese films.
After some amateur experience as a theater actor and director, Imamura joined Shochiku Studios in 1951 as an assistant director, where he worked under, among others, Yasujiro Ozu. His first important work, My Second Brother, an uncharacteristically gentle tale set among Korean orphans living in postwar Japan, earned him third place in the annual Kinema Jumpo "Best Japanese Film of the Year" poll, and from then on Imamura's place within the Japanese industry was established. Between 1970 and 1978, Imamura "retired" from feature filmmaking, concentrating his efforts instead on a series of remarkable television documentaries that explored little-known sides of postwar Japan. In 1978, Imamura returned to features with his greatest commercial and critical success, Vengeance Is Mine, a complex, absorbing study of a cold-blooded killer. In 1983, his film The Ballad of Narayama was awarded the Gold Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, symbolizing Imamura's belated discovery by the international film community.
Imamura has stated that he likes to make "messy films," and it is the explosive, at times anarchic quality of his work that makes him appear "uncharacteristically Japanese" when seen in the context of Ozu, Mizoguchi, or Kurosawa. Perhaps no other filmmaker anywhere has taken up Jean-Luc Godard's challenge to end the distinction between "documentary" and "fiction" films. In preparation for filming, Imamura will conduct exhaustive research on the people whose story he will tell, holding long interviews to extract information and to become familiar with different regional vocabularies and accents (many of his films are set in remote regions of Japan). Insisting always on location shooting and direct sound, Imamura has been referred to as the "cultural anthropologist" of the Japanese cinema. Even the titles of some of his films—The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology and The Insect Woman (whose Japanese title literally translates to "Chronicle of a Japanese Insect")—seem to reinforce the "scientific" spirit of these works. Yet, if anything, Imamura's films argue against an overly clinical approach to understanding Japan, as they often celebrate the irrational and instinctual aspects of Japanese culture.
Strong female protagonists are usually at the center of Imamura's films, yet it would be difficult to read these films as "women's films" in the way that critics describe works by Mizoguchi or Naruse. Rather, women in Imamura's films are always the ones more directly linked to "ur-Japan,"—a kind of primordial fantasy of Japan not only preceeding "westernization" but before any contact with the outside world. In The Profound Desire of the Gods, a brother and sister on a small southern island fall in love and unconsciously attempt to recreate the myth of Izanagi and Izanami, sibling gods whose union founded the Japanese race. Incest, a subject which might usually be seen as shocking, is treated as a perfectly natural expression, becoming a crime only due to the influence of "westernized" Japanese who have come to civilize the island. Imamura's characters indulge freely and frequently in sexual activity, and sexual relations tend to act as a kind of barometer for larger, unseen social forces. The lurid, erotic spectacles in Eijanaika, for example, are the clearest indication of growing frustrations that finally explode in massive riots in the film's conclusion.


All-Movie Guide   bio from Jonathan Crow


Shohei Imamura   Nelson Kim from Senses of Cinema


Shohei Imamura: The Insect's Game  Jairo Ferreira published in 1967, from Rouge


Robert Fulford’s Column about Shohei Imamura   Globe and Mail, November 12, 1997


Prince of Porno   Peter Keough from the Boston Phoenix, January 22 – 29, 1998


Austin Chronicle Article (1999)  Pigs, Pimps, and Pornographers, by Salvatore Botti, October 29, 1999


Age Article (2007)  Japan’s Poet of the Perverse, by Jake Wilson for The Age, July 23, 2007

Tony Rayns' Imamura obituary  written for the Independent June 1, 2006, from Masters of Cinema
Strictly Film School   Acquarello reviews Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, The Pornographers, Vengeance Is Mine, The Ballad of Narayama, and Black Rain


Imamura, Shohei  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


World Socialist Web Site Interview (2000)  by Richard Phillips, September 19, 2000



Japan  (108 mi)  1961  ‘Scope


Pigs and Battleships  Eleanor Mannikka from All Movie Guide

Long before he gained fame for winning the 1983 Cannes Golden Palm award for The Ballad of Narayama, director Shohei Imamura created this superbly crafted, sardonic drama about the yakuza (Japanese Mafia) and the modernization of Japan after World War II. Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) is caught in the mesh of poverty and opts out by joining the local yakuza gang. His greed draws him into the drug dealing, pimping, and racketeering that fill the gang's coffers. One day he is given the legit job of tending the pigs owned by his mob boss, who live on the slop thrown out by the neighborhood's American military base. Kinta's girlfriend begs him to go straight and settle down, but he can't see a future in it. As the final denouement nears, increasingly acerbic commentary, mixed with pointed symbolism, decries American treatment of Japan and the Japanese' own moral corruption. ~ Eleanor Mannikka, All Movie Guide

Time Out

Imamura's fifth film kicks off with hordes of uniformed American sailors running rampant through the neon lit streets of Yokosuka, and closes with a stampede of pigs doing much the same: a rather wonderful bracketing device pinpointing the twin poles of the slum town's economic life. Kinta (Nagato), like every other young punk in town, has his heart set on making a favourable impression with the gangsters, whose main racket involves exploiting the local pig trade. By contrast his girlfriend Haruko (Yoshimura) is one of the few women to think twice about prostituting herself to the steady influx of Yanks flush with money and booze. She wants them both to quit town while they can. Around this familiar set-up Imamura spins a hectic, furious portrait of a melting pot of deadend low-lives, which, with its restless tracking and panning shots, high contrast 'Scope photography and gothic secondary characters, recalls the corrupt, sweaty universe captured by Welles in Touch of Evil. Imamura plays fast and loose with the plotting (he likes his films 'messy'), but if some of the finer narrative details are opaque, the over-arching vision of life as a meat market is abundantly clear.

Pigs and Battleships [Ryan Wu]

Before Bruno Dumont put homo sapiens up in cages and primed the species for dissection, cinema's foremost zoologist was (and is, I suppose) Shohei Imamura. This awesomely titled picture, one of Imamura's earliest films, is very typical of his (considerably more limited) 60s stuff. In stunning b & w scope, Imamura shows humanity at its most base. It's life lived in the "lower orders" -- peasants who live by instinct and are concerned only with eating, sex, and idleness, preferably in the most vulgar ways -- in diametric opposition to his sensei Ozu's focus on middle class society and its manners. Pigs works in an extended metaphor between the gangsters who run a hog operation and the pig themselves, making the point that parasitic Japanese lives are no better than pigs in a pen. Exceptionally pungent, and filled with astonishing scenes, especially that climax with pigs overrunning the town, if not altogether coherent (Imamura's never been a good storyteller) -- the best part of the movie is the setting. Set in a Japanese town catering to an American naval base in Japan, Imamura views the Japanese there as leeches, either whores selling themselves out to Americans or, worse, two-bit hoods who are good for nothing except squeezing Japanese parasites for some dough -- the bloodsuckers of mosquitos. This movie is ultimately about that most compelling of themes: the community as prison, from which one must escape or die.

Oggs' Movie Thoughts


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


FILM - IMAMURA'S 'PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS' -  Joan Mellon, July 9, 1986


Postwar Japan on Film - The New York Times  April 22, 1979


Carnal Knowledge Running Amok - The New York Times  May 22, 2009


Pigs and Battleships - Wikipedia


THE INSECT WOMAN (Nippon konchûki)

Japan  (123 mi)  1963  ‘Scope


The Insect Woman  Hal Erickson from All Movie Guide

The Insect Woman covers 45 years in the life of long-suffering Japanese woman Tome Matsuki, played brilliantly by Sachiko Hidari. Thrust into the cold world at age 20, the pregnant Tome takes a factory job. She gives this up for the relative comfort of the life of an American GI's mistress. Once her American benefactor heads home, she seeks shelter in a house of prostitution, eventually becoming the Madam. Late in life, she is introduced to the daughter she'd abandoned years earlier, whose life has followed pretty much the same path as her mother's had. The winner of 14 Japanese film awards, The Insect Woman details the decline of cultural values as mirrored by one single misspent life.

Chicago Reader (Fred Camper)
Shohei Imamura’s darkly elegant 1963 film about a rural Japanese woman drawn into a life of prostitution compares the lead character to an insect for her persistence in the face of adversity--it even begins with an insect climbing a hill. At the same time Imamura presents the social forces that shape his characters' actions: the woman’s difficult family life (including an incestuous relationship with a stepfather) and the economic hardships following World War II pull her into the streets but also help elevate her to become a powerful madam. The insect metaphor extends into the film's rhythms: the movements of the woman--and of groups of characters seen in tableaux as they eat or talk--often seem as jittery and reflex-driven as a bug's. But the film is stylistically muddled, many scenes ending in freeze-frames that sometimes comment on the narrative by leaving characters in midstream but other times seem affected.


Oggs' Movie Thoughts


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


The Insect Woman - The New York Times  A.H. Weiler

Japan  (150 mi)  1964  ‘Scope


Chicago Reader (Dave Kehr)


Shohei Imamura's 1964 film is another of his half-ironic, half-awed tributes to brute instinct as a means of survival, though unlike the better-known Pigs and Battleships and Eijanaika, this one is couched in intimate rather than epic terms. His heroine is a pudgy, blank-faced housemaid who has become the common-law wife of a prissy bureaucrat; her dull life is upset when she's raped by a burglar, who then returns to profess his love for her as the mother he never had. She survives the abuse of these whimpering males through an inner strength of neither character nor intellect, but of sheer stolidity. Imamura's wide-screen, black-and-white images combine descriptive and metaphorical elements in a single space, pushing a documentary style toward an expressionistic impact. Though slow going in spots, the film is a fascinating example of an alternative current in Japanese cinema, far removed from the serenity and spiritualism of Ozu and Mizoguchi.


Midnight Eye [Jasper Sharp]

Approaching Shohei Imamura's Intentions of Murder both requires and rewards the greatest of patience on the behalf of the viewer. At almost two and a half hours in length, its tale of a low-caste household drudge who transcends her lowly situation - not through any reaction against it, but rather by accepting her place within the order of things - will provide rather an endurance test for those unfamiliar with the ethos of the director. However, it also marks the most complete consolidation of the themes that inform his initial cycle of features in the late 50s and early 60s, and also puts forward a strangely subversive view of "modern" Japan, at odds with the image promoted in other films of the time.

Born of peasant stock Sadako (Harakawa), the dull-witted and lumpen lynchpin of the piece, leads a thankless day-to-day existence tending the tumbledown shanty dwelling that she inhabits with her unaffectionate common-law husband Koichi (Nishimura) whilst playing mother to his son Masaru, a child from a former marriage whom she cares for as if her own. Her prostitute grandmother and her lowly café waitress mother now dead (the latter having hung herself), Sadako dutifully and uncomplainingly accepts her tenuous position within a society that she is only marginally a part of, as Koichi's shrewish mother regularly reminds her how lucky she is to have been taken in by her son.

One day, when her husband is away on a work conference, the house is broken into by a thief, Hiraoka (Tsuyuguchi, who later appeared as searching for the missing man in the Imamura's A Man Vanishes / Ningen Johatsu, 1967). The intruder rapes her and leaves with the words "If you tell no one, no one will know". When Hiraoka returns a few days later she yields once more. Finding herself pregnant by him, she allows herself to be tempted by his offer to leave her cramped and oppressive environment to start a new life in Tokyo with him. But is an uncertain future with a neurotic fugitive with a heart condition really what she desires?

The dim-witted Sadako makes for an unlikely heroine, a typically earthy Imamurian creation running counter to standard depictions of the female role within the Japanese family structure, that of either mothers or wives - indeed, Imamura's adhoc family unit is the complete antithesis of the middle-class nuclear families being portrayed, for example, in the well-mannered and immaculately turned-out works of his early mentor Ozu.

Yet despite her pudgy features and her slow and unaffected manner, the director obviously has a lot of respect and affection for his honest and well meaning lead. Her unsophisticated yet vital presence is at odds with those of the weedy, devious men that surround her - her partner Koichi is a sickly man often seen wearing a pollution mask, and Masaru's ability to continue the family name is later called into question. Koichi refuses to grant her any official status through marriage, nor any legal claim to Masaru, and is meanwhile conducting an affair with his bookish and bespectacled library assistant.

Sensual and instinctive, her presence embodies a conflict between desire and duty, underscoring Imamura's recurrent maxim that there is a world of difference between the public face that the Japanese put forward and of the individual, more instinctive side. Her giving herself to pleasure during the initial assault is no male wish-fulfilment fantasy, but an entirely credible emotional reaction given her purely functional role within the makeshift family unit on which she is dependent upon for her (albeit lowly) social position.

This conflict between simple biological urges and societal demands is immediately underscored when after being raped the first time, she retires to commit suicide, as custom dictates. As she prepares the knife with which to fulfil her duty, she is distracted by the rumbling of her stomach, and so she gets up to prepare some food. By the time she has fed herself, Masaru has returned from school and its back to domesticity again, her original intention forgotten.

Typically for the director, our heroine's plight is objectified by way of reference to the animal kingdom, most overtly in Masaru's pet white mouse that futilely spins around in its wheel in the corner of the cluttered apartment symbolising her inability to escape from the cycle forged by her female predecessors, whilst adding a further dynamism to the already busy shot compositions (Masaru is constantly hyper-active, running or leaping in the background in the domestic scenes in the cramped living room). The silkworm motif is also crucial. After being raped, Sadako has a flashback to her childhood, where she is angrily scolded by her mother for playing with one that is crawling along her thigh. The meaning of this cryptic image becomes a lot clearer at the film's coda.

Another dimension is added by Imamura's focus on the encroachment of the new technology running concurrent with Japan's rapid modernisation upon the lives of his characters. The frequent crashing past of the express train along the track that borders the bottom of the garden, ominously sounding its horn at key dramatic points in the film initially suggests that such new developments are to be seen as an oppressive force, hemming in Sadako and with her the lower class neighbours in their cramped rows of houses - compare this with the rather low-key approach taken by Ozu in his 1959 film Good Morning (Ohayo), where the arrival of television in its middle class household is merely utilised as a method to elicit its simple, yet charming drama. However, when Sadako flees with Hiraoka by this means of transport, the film opens up considerably into a stunningly shot snowscape, hinting that these same forces can also provide an escape root. Similarly, in an early scene the heroine is seen failing to cope with the new sowing machine delivered to the house, though by the end of the film, she has mastered it. The message seems to be that though the ceaseless march of progress is inevitable, it is necessary to come to terms with these changes to survive.

Despite being beautifully photographed in widescreen monochrome and technically perfect, upon an initial viewing Imamura's film seems unwieldy, cluttered and unfocused, with a plethora of flashbacks, narrative dead ends and dream sequences permeating its lengthy running time. Though admittedly overlong, upon further analysis it is a faultlessly constructed model of sophistication, which uses its messy appearance to suggest that beneath the ordered chaos of modernity with all of its artificial constraints, it is characters such as Sadako that provide the beating heart that enables society to continue.

Intentions of Murder  Eugene Archer from The New York Times

THE PORNOGRAPHERS (Erogotoshi-tachi yori: Jinruigaku nyûmon)              B+                   91

Japan  (128 mi)  1966  ‘Scope


Cynical and somewhat incomprehensible look at the Japanese porno industry as seen through the eyes of a small-time porno producer who lives with and loves his mistress, but also her kinky daughter, using sexuality in many forms as a metaphor for human progress.  In this case, the sexuality is interrupted by his mistress’s pet carp.  She insists it embodies her late husband’s spirit, so he throws it away several times, but it always returns.  The film features some visually inventive camera angles peering through windows and fish tanks, which provides a unique visual representation of his mistress’s descent into madness and death.  His outlet is hedonism, the pursuit of a perfect mate, which he discovers is a wood-carved doll of a voluptuous woman.  He becomes so enraptured with her creation that nothing else matters.  In the end, he becomes more and more detached from his life, lost and alone on a small boat, carving his doll, oblivious and adrift.


Chicago Reader [Dave Kehr]


Shohei Imamura's 1966 film is unusual among his work for its focus on a male character: a man who supplements his income by making 8-millimeter porno shorts becomes so disgusted by his business that he takes refuge in another kind of erotic image--a department store dummy dressed as the woman he loved and lost. Reportedly, Imamura proposed the subject as a joke, but was eventually assigned to direct it himself. With Shoichi Ozawa, Sumiko Sakamoto, and Keiko Sagawa.


Chicago Reader [Jonathan Rosenbaum]


The visual brilliance of Shohei Imamura's kinky and satirical black-and-white 'Scope feature (1966), about a man who makes 8-millimeter porno loops, often suggests the inventiveness of the French New Wave, but not so much the New Wave features of auteurs like Godard and Truffaut as the more illustrative offshoots of that movement, like Sundays and Cybele and Zazie, that applied its dazzling visceral techniques like fresh coats of paint to the material at hand. Often framing his action through windows and fish tanks, punctuating his action with abrupt freeze-frames and fantasy interludes, Imamura attacks the whole question of contemporary eroticism with mordant intelligence, though his style here seems not so much organic as a witty and independent form of commentary.
The Pornographers  Michael Hastings from All Movie Guide

A small-time purveyor of blue movies has to defend his livelihood against thieves, authorities, and his widowed girlfriend and her family in Shohei Imamura's dark satire. The Pornographers concerns the exploits of the hapless Subu (Shoichi Ozawa), an impotent (in every sense of the word) middle-aged entrepreneur employing a small crew in the back room of a barbershop. When not staging stag films in garages and secluded fields, Subu lives with the unhinged Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), her Oedipal, high-minded son Koichi (Masaomi Kondo), and her impudent teenage daughter Keiko (Keiko Sagawa). Though he lusts after Keiko, the girl -- all too aware of her sexual power over men -- rebuffs his advances in an increasingly cruel manner, leaving Subu to channel his frustrations into the plots of his movies. As Subu's life grows even more lurid than his profession, local yakuza, the opportunistic Koichi, and the police all struggle to get in on the action. All the while, the family's machinations take place under the watchful eye of a giant carp, whom Haru believes to be the reincarnation of her late husband.

DVD Movie Central  Ed Nguyen
Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is known for creating films of a provocative nature.  Early in his career, he had served as an assistant to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu before making his own directorial debut in 1958.  But whereas Ozu was a classical master of the minimalist style of filmmaking, Imamura's style might reasonably be compared to the trippy works of an imaginary distant Asian cousin of David Lynch.  Imamura, in his own right, quickly developed a reputation as one of the most creative, if idiosyncratic, filmmakers in Japan's post-war era.
The Pornographers (Jinruigako Nyumon or The Amorists) was Imamura's first film for his new production company.  Based on Akiyuki Nozaka's best-selling novel, this 1966 film was an abstract but wryly amusing tale about a common man, Subu Ogata, with an uncommon profession.
Subu (Ozawa), it turns out, is a maker of pornographic films.  Even as he acknowledges the immoral (not to mention illegal) implications of his trade, he still proclaims that he provides a fundamental need to the carnal and base desires of all Japanese men.  And if he can make a little money on the side, is there anything truly wrong with that?  Sure, Subu has a few amusing run-ins with law enforcement and the mob (usually complete with bumps and bruises, too) yet he always bounces back on his feet.
Subu lives with what initially appears to be a normal Japanese family which soon reveals itself as anything but.  Initially a boarder in the house, he has since married the landlady Haru (Sakamoto), who keeps a large carp in a fish tank in their bedroom.  She insists that the fish is the reincarnation of her former dead husband and firmly believes that he is displeased that she has not remained a widow.  Haru has two children, a son and a daughter.  However, her college-aged son Koichi (Kondo) isn't terribly interested in attending college and appears to have Oedipal issues of his own, while her teen-age daughter Keiko (Sagawa) has Lolita-like aspirations for Subu.  And while no one is very pleased with Subu's secret profession when they discover the truth, it doesn't prevent them from taking his money.
Money makes the world go round, after all.  In The Pornographers, it is the source of a recurring joke for Subu.  Always a little short of cash, he is constantly hit on for monetary support by others who assume him to be filthy-rich from his pornographic endeavors.  The mob steals his films.  His step-son steals his money.  His step-daughter sabotages his works.  His partner even runs off with the equipment.  Yet throughout, Subu maintains an upbeat outlook.  He is like a little man who doesn't know when he's beat but always pops back up for more.
It all makes for a discreetly funny film.  One wonders if Stanley Kubrick, in his own earlier Lolita, might not have aimed for a similar effect had the American censors allowed it at the time.  The Pornographers, fortunately, doesn't get too carried away in pushing the envelope.  The audience never actually sees blatant nudity or the porn footage itself, which is probably a good thing, as it allows us to focus on the humor of Subu's plight rather than the lurid nature of his profession.
Despite its provocative title, The Pornographers is really a black comedy.  It is really about the misadventures of Subu and his efforts to find happiness and a niche for himself.  The Pornographers is rather avant-garde as well, reflecting sentiments which may have been hush-hush in the 1960's but which today run rampant throughout society.  While the film's themes are somewhat racy, the execution is relatively tame by today's standards and has an occasional self-mocking tone.  In fact, there is even a supernatural undercurrent in the film, symbolized through widow's dead husband, whether as the mysteriously vanishing-reappearing carp or as a determined spirit resistant to exorcism from the widow's home.  Subu himself appears somewhat ghostly and possessed in a number of scenes in which, guilt-ridden, he eerily drapes himself with a cloth and rigorously rubs his head.
Imamura chose to frame his story in an interesting manner, almost as though it were a film-within-a-film.  His cinematography further emphasizes the voyeuristic aspect of The Pornographers.  Many shots are constructed in such a manner that the audience views scenes under window sills, across metal gratings or jail bars, through fish tanks and glass panes, and so on.  The audience is always peering in on the action in some fashion (when one thinks about it, all motion pictures are voyeuristic in some sense).
Many sequences, such as those involving an insane woman or an orgy, have a weird, other-worldly quality to them.  My favorite scene involves a surreal moment in which the son introduces his common-law wife as she slowly walks across a long, dark hallway, removing her garments down to her black lingerie.  Overhead, the lights fade in and out, and the camera slowly tilts so that when she finally arrives, the camera is actually peering up at her face from a perpendicular angle, as though staring up from the floor.  It is weird, it is unexpected, and it is but one of many numerous shots which keep the film lively.  Imamura even surprises on a few occasions with the introduction of catchy pop music into his film.  Matched with the quirky visuals, it makes for many Fellini-esque moments indeed!
By the mid-1960's, Japanese cinema was undergoing remarkable changes.  Influenced by world cinema, particularly the French New Wave (as in Hiroshima Mon Amour), Japanese films were becoming more contemporary and more daring in nature.  Innovative films such as Hiroshi Teshiqahara's Woman of the Dunes or Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan were appearing more regularly.  Shohei Imamura was near the forefront of this fresh burst of originality.  His name may not be as recognizable in western cultures as some of his contemporaries, but his films were at the cutting edge for their time (yet always remained rooted in Japanese culture and social mores).  The Pornographers is one of Imamura's earlier works, but it is certainly one of his most engaging films and represents the director near the height of his creativity.

The Pornographers is a black comedy with a racy, tongue-in-cheek audacity that was rather atypical of Japanese films of that era.  At times charming and at times quirky, it is an imaginative work of originality that finds director Shohei Imamura in top form.

The Pornographers  Criterion essay by J. Hoberman, August 04, 2003


The Pornographers (1966) - The Criterion Collection


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DVD Verdict - Criterion Collection  Bill Gibron (John Nesbit)


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THE PORNOGRAPHERS - The New York Times  Janet Maslin - Graphic Review [Gary W. Tooze]


DEEP DESIRE OF GODS (Kamigami no fukaki yokubô)
aka:  The Profound Desire of the Gods
aka:  Kuragejima – Legends from a Southern Island

Japan  (172 mi)  1968  ‘Scope


The Ledgers of Life (Greg Murphy)

Shohei Imamura's first color film, THE PROFOUND DESIRE OF THE GODS [1968] {KAMIGAMI NO FUKAKI YOKUBO}, also finds him tackling a more epic story.  The central focus is still a family, but here their interactions with the larger community are given more weight than their relationships with one another.  Basically centered around the conflict between a superstitious, more primitive island culture and the modern influence of mainland Japan, as seems to be usual in his work many other issues are also brought out: incest, greed, and, as the title would suggest, a variety of religious traditions.  His animal fixation is also quite obviously continued, as he uses cutaway shots of the various creatures on the island as punctuation for many scenes, and the story's main family are constantly referred to as "beasts" by the others for their taboo- and rule-breaking ways.  Despite this density of themes, however, the story moves along fluidly and in general is presented with a more straightforward approach than the other films of his I've seen.  Not the most cheerful movie I'll ever see, but Imamura's mastery of his craft is never in question.

The New York Times (Janet Maslin)

The robust good looks of Shohei Imamura's 1968 Cinemascope epic ''The Profound Desire of the Gods'' only heighten the perverse quality of the action, and Mr. Imamura's ribald, casually comic direction has much the same effect. This three-hour film, which will begin the Film Forum 2's Imamura retrospective, makes an ideal introduction to the maverick qualities of this film maker's idiosyncratic style.

The robust good looks of Shohei Imamura's 1968 Cinemascope epic ''The Profound Desire of the Gods'' only heighten the perverse quality of the action, and Mr. Imamura's ribald, casually comic direction has much the same effect. This three-hour film, which will begin the Film Forum 2's Imamura retrospective, makes an ideal introduction to the maverick qualities of this film maker's idiosyncratic style.

At some moments sounding a note of bizarre domestic comedy, and at other times attempting tragedy of mythic proportions, ''The Profound Desire of the Gods'' is nothing if not far-reaching. It unfolds on the tiny, remote island paradise of Kuragejima, in the Ryukyu Islands, and it concerns the Futori family, who are widely regarded as beasts by their neighbors. As the film demonstrates, there is a certain amount of justification for this. The Futori family history is rich with incestuous unions, forbidden practices and punishments from both fellow islanders and the gods.

So one of the family members, a man named Nekichi (Rentaro Mikuni), has been chained in a pit for his crimes; his sister and onetime lover, Uma (Yasuko Matsui), has become the much-abused mistress of the manager (Yoshi Kato) of a local mill. Another Futori is the wanton, feebleminded Toriko (Hideko Okiyama), who scampers about happily in a burlap sack and is much too popular with the local men. There are also a venerable, mischievous grandfather and a grandson named Kametaro (Choichiro Kawarazaki), who remains understandably confused about his lineage. And there is a certain majesty to all this squalor, for the gods who founded Kuragejima are said to have been as incestuous as the Futoris themselves.

The early parts of the film unfold in a sunny, unhurried, halfway humorous style, as Mr. Imamura documents the peculiarities of the Futori household and conveys the elements of myth and superstition that color the islanders' lives. He does this in typically unpredictable fashion, often switching abruptly from the matter-of-fact to the fanciful with no warning. And there are frequent shots of the exotic sea and land creatures that live side by side with the islanders, suggestive of another dimension. Indeed, these glimpses of nature are specifically equated with divinity, and the film creates a strong sense of all-knowing, ever-present unseen powers. In one scene, the village storyteller sings of Kuragejima's gods and goddesses to a group of children, while a snake slithers placidly in the foreground.

If the best parts of the films are those that convey the mixture of real and spiritual elements in the life of this unspoiled island, the more commonplace ingredient is a notion of civilization's corrupting influence. This takes the form of a subplot (which along with a fleeting reference to Vietnam is the only thing that makes the film seem dated) introducing a bespectabled engineer (Kazuo Kitamura) who has come from Tokyo to help modernize Kuragejima. Having no understanding of the local people's deep superstitious and religious convictions, this engineer is a ready source of low-keyed comedy as he tries to adapt his plans to the local customs.

The easygoing style in which these events unfold doesn't entirely pave the way for the divine retribution that is exacted from the Futoris by the film's conclusion, but in a way that makes these climactic events even more disturbing. Less successful is a coda that depicts the island five years later in its newly civilized state, with abundant Coca-Cola signs to overstate the point.

This film, and others in this well-deserved retrospective, amply emphasize the prophetic qualities of Mr. Imamura's work as well as the more erratic ones. Twenty years ago, he was helping to pioneer the break with traditionalism that has brought about such a flowering of iconoclastic Japanese cinema today.

Manavendra K. Thakur

VENGEANCE IS MINE (Fukushû suru wa ware ni ari)         A                     96
Japan (140 mi)  1979


A truly off-beat look at a serial killer, based on a real life murder spree in 1963 which held the nation captive for three months or so, featuring Ken Ogata, Imamura’s favorite actor, as the killer wearing Clark Kent glasses.  In a brilliant blend of sexual and criminal compulsive behavior, the film opens with several gruesome and graphically brutal murders, followed by the murderer’s capture and incarceration.  He initially refuses to participate in the interrogation, but then he selfishly begins to take an interest in himself.  His past is retold in a series of extraordinary flashbacks which brilliantly and scientifically reveal the complexity of an unsympathetic, compulsive murderer who is no victim of society, and is seen as an ordinary man. 


The film seduces the viewer just as the murderer seduces his subjects without ever revealing any remorse or providing any satisfactory explanation.  Eventually he becomes caught in his own web, hiding out in an inn where he ravishes the innkeeper’s wife, also her daughter, linking his passion for murder with his insatiable appetite for sex.  At the same time, making matters even more murky, the murderer’s wife has a secret passion for his father, who is himself an innkeeper, revealing a very intimate and tender side of the family, revealed in scenes where they wash each other’s backs in a Japanese bath.  Their underlying desires call into question ethical behavior and their own sense of morality, told with a terrific sense of storytelling, a superb unraveling narrative, one of the best crime films to ever come out of Japan, chilling and believable. 


Time Out

The serial-killer subgenre is pretty limited and, recently at least, not particularly fertile. But Imamura’s 1979 case history of a murderous con-man on the loose in 1960s Japan is, like ‘Roberto Succo’, free of facile psychology and moral judgement; and like ‘M’ or ‘10 Rillington Place’, it’s concerned less with the individual than with how his acts illuminate the society that spawned him. The discovery of two victims prompts a police investigation that reveals the apparent root of Iwao Enokizu’s sociopathy: a childhood incident involving his devoutly  Catholic father. Imamura chronicles the growth of his unpredictable, brutal behaviour: Japan may have undergone a remarkable postwar revival, but Enokizu (Ken Ogata) introduces us to an underclass involved in prostitution, blackmail, fraud, rape and murder. We’re finally left wondering: is anyone here not in pain, not living a lie? Are compromise, oppression, madness, violence and a death wish par for the Japanese course? At once darkly comic and quasi-tragic, Imamura’s often brilliant tale of Eros and Thanatos is perverse, powerful and subversive.

VENGEANCE IS MINE DVD review  Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion

On the surface, Shohei Imamura's serial-killer drama Vengeance is Mine is deceptively cold. Imamura subtitled his earlier film, The Pornographers, "An Introduction to Anthropology." In 1979's Vengeance, his pose of scientific detachment coexists with an undercurrent of seething rage. Imamura doesn't show his anti-hero, Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), as a mere product of unfortunate circumstances, but neither does he portray him as a monster whose evil exists outside humanity.

Vengeance is Mine begins with Iwao's arrest in 1964. From there, it adopts a complex structure to relate the story of his life. Busted several times for theft and fraud, Iwao adopted a Clark Kent facade; dressing in a suit and horn-rimmed glasses, he posed as a lawyer or professor, though his real background was blue-collar. After killing two men, he went on a seventy-eight-day murder spree before getting caught.

Imamura's distance is evident in his choice of camera set-ups and avoidance of prurient violence. There are few close-ups in Vengeance is Mine. Although he preferred Cinemascope in his '60s films, he shot Vengeance is Mine in the narrower aspect ratio of 1.66. But the effect is much the same: a frame crammed with information and movement.

For much of Vengeance is Mine, Iwao remains an enigma, but as the film hurtles towards a conclusion, it focuses on two traumas involving his father. Though Vengeance is Mine doesn't explicitly blame these events for Iwao's murderous behavior, it comes dangerously close to a facile psychological explanation. But it never allows the audience to get an easy read on Iwao. As critic Dave Kehr suggests, his behavior is merely the bluntest expression of a social Darwinism underpinning the whole of Japanese culture.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 

Vengeance is Mine" is the lurid title of a violent, shocking and uncommonly engrossing new film that won the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Award for the best movie of 1979. It plays in Chicago this weekend as part of the long-running Japanese Cinema showcase which Omar Kaihatsu has been booking at the Francis Parker School for nearly a decade.

The movie has been described as a Japanese "In Cold Blood," and that will do for starters, I suppose. But the Richard Brooks film of "In Cold Blood" went for a black and white, grimly realistic documentary look, while director Shohei Imamura has wider concerns in "Vengeance is Mine." His film is based on the true story of real crimes, to be sure, but it is also a cry of despair and hopelessness on behalf of its insane hero.

The hero (who is heroic in the same doomed sense as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) is Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata). We learn that he went on a killing rampage in the early '60s, murdering two railroad employees for their money and then fleeing across Japan - killing, committing fraud, posing as a university professor, somehow eluding the police for 78 days.

The film begins with bloody scenes showing his early crimes, and then flashes back to a traumatic childhood incident in which his father, devoutly religious, is shamed in the young son's eyes by a naval officer. This sort of instant psychoanalysis is about as convincing as the angel from heaven whose arrival was expected momentarily in. "In Cold Blood." But Imamura doesn't insist on the motivations of his character. Instead, he follows him across Japan and through several relationships, including one with a prostitute and another with a woman innkeeper who comes to love him and offers to share his fate.

There are also scenes combining violence with the terrible madness that possesses Enokizu. An encounter with an elderly lawyer on a train, for example, leads to a murder and then to a grisly and unspeakably depressing scene in the lawyer's apartment: The killer tapes up a closet containing the victim's body, and then sits down to drink himself senseless.

Movies about actual crimes are usually frustrating because, limited to the facts, they pretend that the facts are enough. (This was also the flaw of Norman Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore, "The Executioner's Song.") "Vengeance is Mine" transcends those limitations and gives us a portrait of a killer that is poignant, tragic and banal enough to deserve the comparison with Crime and Punishment. DVD review [Jim Hemphill]

When Japanese director Shohei Imamura directed the brilliant Vengeance is Mine in 1979, he was returning to fiction film after a decade spent in the world of documentaries. His work on anthropological studies like The History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess clearly influenced his approach to all forms of moviemaking, for one of the many remarkable things about Vengeance is Mine is the sense of authenticity that defines every scene. This true-crime drama tells the story of Iwao Enokizu, a sociopath on a 78-day crime spree that includes several horribly brutal murders and thefts. Imamura begins the film with Enokizu's capture and works his way backward, so that the movie never becomes a conventional thriller—it generates suspense not by asking questions about Enokizu's situation, but about his character.

That character is one of the most unsettling creations in 20th-century cinema, a multi-faceted killer who invites neither our sympathy nor our contempt. Imamura shoots Enokizu with a detached, dryly observant style that keeps the antihero at an emotional and physical distance from the audience, yet the sheer accumulation of details about the character's life makes him oddly compelling. Imamura's journalistic approach to the characters and their surroundings allows him to present a fully realized portrait of the contemporary Japan in which Enokizu lives—when he stays in a hotel we learn everything there is to know about how that hotel operates and why, and the relationships between the characters are rendered with as much specificity as their settings. The odd romance between Enokizu and the woman who runs his hotel is particularly powerful, especially since throughout the film Enokizu clearly feels that connecting with women will somehow exorcise the beast inside him. He has vigorous, lengthy sexual encounters whenever he can, but when he finally forms a real bond with a woman he doesn't know what to do with her.

Imamura is one of the most purely enjoyable of Japanese masters, an art-house director with a Hollywood pro's sense of pacing and humor. In Vengeance is Mine, Imamura and screenwriter Masaru Baba jump back and forth through time in a highly complex, convoluted manner, but the clarity of the storytelling is such that the film never becomes confusing or loses its momentum. It's riveting from the first scene to the last, and feels significantly shorter than its 140-minute running time. It also feels stunningly modern. More 10 years before Tarantino, Imamura welded the conventions of the classic crime movie to a French New Wave structure to create a new kind of thriller. Vengeance is Mine offers many of the same pleasures as Pulp Fiction in its jigsaw plotting, juxtaposition of black humor and violence, and consistently witty dialogue. Yet it's also a much darker film—there are few sly pop culture references here, and no last-minute redemption.

Ultimately Imamura's vision is deeply, profoundly bleak, because it extends beyond the level of character study to become an indictment of an entire culture. Like his countryman Nagisha Oshima, Imamura made a career out of exploring the schism between Japanese tradition and post-WWII modernity, and Vengeance is Mine is one of his most scathing commentaries. In it he presents Enokizu as a symptom of his society's hypocrisies; the killer is a deeply Catholic figure who snaps under the weight of religious and cultural repression and allows his inner rage to express itself in the most chilling ways imaginable. Yet what's most frightening about the hero of Vengeance is Mine is the fact that he's barely distinguishable from most of the other characters in the film: every family we come across is seriously dysfunctional, and the movie is permeated by rapes, blackmail, and other crimes that are presented so matter-of-factly that they seem to be part of the fabric of everyday life.

As usual, the good folks at the Criterion Collection have provided supplements on the DVD of Vengeance of Mine to provide historical context. There are a couple of nifty trailers from the film's original theatrical release, and a 10-minute interview with Imamura from 1999. A 32-page booklet containing articles by and about Imamura contains additional insights. The only disappointing thing about the package is that there isn't more of it; surely this is a rich enough film to justify a commentary track by a Japanese film scholar. Yet what's here is terrific: a gorgeous transfer of a landmark movie that belongs on any serious cinephile's shelf.

Vengeance Is Mine   Criterion essay by David Ehrenstein, July 11, 1988


Vengeance Is Mine: Civilization and Its Discontents   Criterion essay by Michael Atkinson, August 26, 2014


Vengeance Is Mine (1979) - The Criterion Collection


Not Coming to a Theater Near You [Leo Goldsmith]


Midnight Eye review: Vengeance Is Mine (Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni ...   Jasper Sharp


Vengeance Is Mine · Film Review With Vengeance Is Mine, Imamura ...  David Ehrlich from The Onion A.V. Club


Vengeance Is Mine | Blu-ray Review | Slant Magazine  Clayton Dillard


Film Freak Central - Vengeance is Mine (1979) [The Criterion ...  Walter Chaw


Criterion Confessions: VENGEANCE IS MINE - #384  Jamie S. Rich


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Vengeance Is Mine (1979 film) - Wikipedia


EIJANAIKA                                                   A                     97

aka:  Why Not?

aka:  What the Hell?

Japan  (151 mi)  1981  ‘Scope


The title translates to “What the hell?”, a masterful, unforgettable historical epic about the eijanaika riots in 1867, displaying a brief glimpse of people power in the Edo era as the Tokugawa Shogunate gave way to the Meiji Restoration while doors to the West were just starting to crack open.  Some of this was difficult to follow, as you couldn’t keep track of which side each character was on, as local warlords and masterless samurai were battling the Emperor for control of the country.  This is an extremely revealing and cynical look at how both government and business collude with soldiers and thugs, whoever is available, to protect their interests, while the underclasses scurry about trying not to be crushed by the changing vanguards of power.  In this film, political loyalties and personal relationships disintegrate.  The only certainty is money, money is power, but power is constantly shifting.


The story follows Genji, poor and rootless, who dreams of migrating to America where he can be a farmer and own his own land, also his more self-centered wife, Ine, who performs revealing sexual acts at a street carnival owned by local criminal business interests.  Everyone seems to be owned and controlled and manipulated by corrupt powers outside themselves.  Moral behavior, rules of a civilized society, are nowhere to be found.  Absent is the refined, more controlled aristocratic Buddhist culture, which reveals what it means to be Japanese as seen through the eyes of Ozu, who mentored Imamura, or Mizoguchi, rendered completely powerless and artificial in this world, replaced by a Shinto spirit that is more magical, raw and primitive, revealing a lower class world of frenzied sexuality and irrepressible energy, driven by forces outside themselves to criminal behavior, and ultimately to a class revolution, spurring the open acts of rebellion and riots shown at the end of the film.


Ine opens a French Can-Can revue which takes to the streets, like a 1960’s living theater, singing and dancing and cavorting in a display of sexually explicit, orgiastic revelry rivaling any Mardi Gras revue, which makes for an astonishing film experience, filling the screen with an explosion of colors bursting with energy as the streets are filled by the carnivalesque, clownish revelers who continuously dance and sing “Eijanaika,” throwing flowers at the armed to the hilt authorities, flaunting their freedom in numbers by refusing to disperse, overflowing across a bridge which separates Edo’s rich and poor districts.  The women moon the rifle-toting army challenging them to shoot, creating a moment of “empty” freedom, a freedom of those who have lost everything and have nothing to lose, where government authority is meaningless, where only anarchy exists.   


Chicago Reader (Dave Kehr)


This 1981 nihilist epic from Japan's Shohei Imamura is witty, grotesque, relentless, and beautifully engineered. The setting is the Edo era, when local warlords battle the emperor for control of the country, and all of Japan is under cultural pressure from its long delayed opening to the West. Political loyalties and personal loves disintegrate; the only certainty is money, and even that is crumbling. Imamura follows eight major characters through a bright, bursting, impossibly dynamic mise-en-scene, leading up to the Eijanaika ("What the hell?") riots--a frightening, exhilarating explosion of empty freedom, the freedom of those who have lost everything. A very important film, and possibly a great one.


Time Out


THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (Narayama bushikô)            A                     99

Japan  (128 mi)  1983


The film begins in winter with a slow, exquisitely beautiful view of a peaceful mountainside covered in snow, a small village is tucked beneath large drifts, and inside, huddled near the fires, impoverished families living 100 years ago, but it could have been 1000 years ago or more as the primitive imagery is startling, almost like cave dwellers.  There is barely enough food, so they speak to the gods on top of Mount Narayama, the mountain where those citizens who reach age 70 are taken by their children and left to die in order that the village survivors have sufficient food.  The film reveals life’s rituals with a mechanical precision, eating, sleeping, hunting, working in the fields, communal work and gossip with rather primitive views of women, who are frequently sold for money.  Marriages are arranged by the families, and the hardness of this life reveals plenty of cruelty.  Yet the villagers are always surrounded by their natural environment, various animals become central characters, humans engage in sex with each other, with dogs or horses, and the camera follows frogs copulating, or snakes or moths, a remote society whose values mirror the ways of animals.  When one family continues to steal food, the town decides to put them all to death, literally burying them alive. 


Sumiko Sakamoto plays the 70-year old mother of Ken Ogata, but she is the picture of health, so in a startlingly brutal scene, she smashes her front teeth on a rock so she can reveal to the villagers bleeding teeth, a sign of bad health.  The village elders drink sake and reveal the rules for Narayama.  The eldest son carries his mother on his back.  No one may speak on the mountain.  They must leave under cover of night, he must not look back, and the ascent begins into the mountainside in autumn with music of a repeated classical march, haunting and serene, beautiful captivating music to match the extraordinary tenderness shown between mother and son in one of the more deeply affecting moments in all of film. 


When they reach the top, there is a field of skeletons and bones, a killing field, with carrion birds everywhere.  The son is in anguish at the thought of leaving his mother, but she insists, and he walks away, only to view another son with his mother tied into a roped bundle, and he throws her off the edge of a cliff in a violent death, a contrast to his own inner grief.  Then the snow begins to fall, and he screams with delight as the snow matches the words to a folk song passed down through generations.  So he runs back to his mother, who is praying, and he shares his joy at the falling snow.  She smiles, but waves him away, and the snow continues to fall, blanketing the village in drifts of snow as the film ends as it begins, in a spiritual mystery, a breathtaking, harmonious bewilderment.  Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or in 1983.


Time Out

A remote village in the foothills of a great mountain, sometime in the past. A widow is approaching her 70th birthday - the age at which village law says she must go up to the mountain to die. She faces this prospect with surprising equanimity, but there are some things she wants to take care of first: to find a good new wife for her widowed eldest son, to help her runtish second son get laid for the first and only time in his life, to take her brattish eldest grandson down several pegs. The process whereby she sets about these tasks, while preparing herself serenely for her own death, amounts to a story of her personal fulfilment the like of which the cinema has rarely seen. Her society is one that is in most ways the antithesis of our own. Imamura realises this vision with shocking humour and immediacy, and then challenges us to say whether this fictitious community is more or less humane than ours. Awe-inspiring.

Edinburgh U Film Society [Spiros Gangas]

The great legacy of Japanese cinema finds in Imamura a gifted heir. From Mizogushi and Ozu to Kurosawa and Oshima, Japanese film-making has created a whole tradition which has acquired universal acclaim due to its immense insight and contribution to world cinema. Imamura retains and above all preserves most of the elements typical of the Japanese cinematic culture, having already created some astonishing pieces of work. From the magnificent The Profund Desire of the Gods to Eijanaika and his latest compelling Black Rain (not to be confused with Ridley Scott's film) Imamura has already established himself as Japan's finest contemporary director.

The Balled of Narayama is an exemplary feature of Imamura's cinematic genre. Indeterminately set in the past, it highlights the traditions and mores of an isolated mountainous village which dictate to a seventy-year old widow that she has to go up to the mountain and await her death. This does not inhibit her from concerning herself with the future of her sons. One has to find a new wife since he's widowed, another hasn't been with a woman before, and the third one needs to be taught manners. The director focuses on the processes by which she attempts to realize these tasks in juxtaposition with her obligation to the laws of her community.

All the strengths of Imamura's previous films achieve here a strange functional unity, while the primitive humour combined with the characteristic Japanese witticism and explicit eroticism make The Ballad of Narayama a fascinating amalgam of valuable insights into an alien culture.

The Ballad of Narayama  Zach Campbell from Slant magazine


However you slice up postwar Japanese cinema, Shohei Imamura is one of its premiere figures. Though he worked as an assistant director under Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura possesses a style that is in many ways the complete opposite of Ozu. Early on, he developed an affinity (in his personal and professional life) for the lower classes and with what he saw as their honest engagement with human nature. Now a venerable old master himself, Imamura's sly observation of mores, values, and customs continues to take off in a variety of exciting directions. Made well after the director established himself but before he became a wise old man who wasn't supposed to make the gleefully sensual films he does, 1983 Palm d'Or winner The Ballad of Narayama is one of Imamura's most famous works. Based on a story about a poor, remote village where the elderly are taken to a mountain to die to ease the burden of life on the rest of the villagers, the film is a tonally and thematically expansive one whose narrative elements (ranging from infanticide to bestiality to filial piety) are a perfect springboard for Imamura's high-art vulgarity.

There's a startling moment in The Ballad of Narayama where the villagers, who have decided to eliminate a thieving family from their hungry ranks, throw several screaming bodies into a mass grave late at night. The scene and its build-up come off with heightened intensity, the music and camera angles capturing chaos and desperation. But as the villagers fill the grave, Imamura shifts gears drastically: We notice the camera has stopped, the music has given way to the sounds of hurried labor, and in long shot the villagers wordlessly fill in the grave and scurry off to their homes. We've been taken out of the moment and, firmly but subtly, have been put into a position to contemplate it. Imamura's risky balancing act between dramatic immediacy and sociological detachment is what one comes to expect in his work.

The astounding lead-up to the film's climax follows the protagonist's journey with his mother to Narayama. The long sequence plays out with very little dialogue and an overall feeling (if not a reality) of pure observation—such as in the son's quiet, unrushed struggle to carry his mother up a particularly steep hill. Imamura works to gradually set up the appropriate tone for the final scene, where a harsh sense of both resignation and transcendence blankets the viewer like the climactic snow. "Transcendence" is a good word to bring up, in fact. The second half of the film has inexplicable, perhaps supernatural elements. Are these sightings real? Imamura doesn't seem to indicate that they are at all out of place. It seems to me that we are allowed a glimpse of these "sightings" because we have come to understand their context through the first half of the film. Slowly one realizes that, even as we're constantly reminded to look at these characters sociologically (almost zoologically, as the frequent intercutting of animals suggests), Imamura has slowly immersed us in their social framework all along. Slyly and powerfully, like Hitchcock's famous Vertigo zoom, The Ballad of Narayama lures in our gaze even as he pulls us back.

'BALLAD OF NARAYAMA' BY SHOHEI IMAMURA - The New York Times   Vincent Canby in 1984

NATURE is so rich and the life force so rampant in Shohei Imamura's ''The Ballad of Narayama'' that, after a preview screening, I was almost relieved to walk out into the man-made pollution of Times Square. Nature, thus prettified by Mr. Imamura, is almost as artifical as a world in which a virgin forest has been removed to make way for a cement-paved parking lot.

The new Japanese film, based on the same Shichiro Fukazawa stories that inspired Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 film of the same name, means to be an ironic but life-affirming commentary on our so-called civilization by contrasting it with the manners and customs in a primitive Japanese mountain village 100 years ago.

Existence is not easy in the mountain village. Famine always threatens. The population is controlled mainly by tossing out newborn male children to die in the rice paddies. Female babies are retained for potential childbearing. If, by chance, a village elder has not died by age 70, the eldest child must carry the old person to a secret place near the summit of Mount Narayama, where the ancient one is left to die of starvation and exposure. In this fashion the community makes sure that there will be enough food for the survival of the rest of the villagers.

Like the Kinoshita film, Mr. Imamura's is concerned mainly with a hard-working, tough, 69-year-old woman named Orin, whose family includes two grown sons, one a widower and one a possibly simple-minded bachelor, and assorted grandchildren. Though she's in remarkably good shape, Orin feels that it's time she made the journey to Narayama.

She's lived long enough and she's tired. Once she has found a new wife for her widowed son, as well as a woman who will consent to make love with the other son, she insists that Tatsuhei, the widower, carry out his obligations to her, the family and the community by making the trip up Narayama.

This is the principal story of ''The Ballad of Narayama,'' which also includes subplots about the villagers' merciless punishment of a family of thieves - they are buried alive - and a somewhat more light-hearted one about a young woman whose dying father insists that she sleep with every man in the village to atone for his own incestuous indiscretion.

Mr. Imamura is not a subtle film maker. He attempts to shock the audience into the realization that though this life order is harsh, it is beautiful in an efficiency that's prompted as much by love as by material needs. At one point, we watch old Orin as she systematically smashes out her teeth to be able to convince Tatsuhei that her years of usefulness are over.

The director puts great store by visual repetitions that emphasize the oneness of all nature. When a young man and a young woman are making frantic love in a field, he shows us snakes, frogs, grasshoppers and birds engaged in similar pursuits. Unfortunately, an image of frogs, even in an amorous condition, evokes less wonder than amusement. In this world, it's not dog-eat-dog but snake-eat-rat and then, to balance things, rat-eat- snake, all seen in tight, nature-movie close-ups.

He's also fond of sequences that announce the changing of the seasons. The winter landscape melts toward spring and climaxes in an explosion of buds and grass, accompanied by the chirping of birds and the babbling of brooks containing frisky trout.

Though the performances are good, especially Sumiko Sakamoto's as Orin and Ken Ogata's as Tatsuhei, ''The Ballad of Narayama'' is too picturesque to reflect the simple austerity of the story it tells.

The sophisticated photographic techniques, including the long, lovely helicopter shot of snow-covered mountains that opens the film, have little to do with the primitive lives contained in the movie itself. The ultimate effect is not to celebrate nature, or to shock us out of our civilized lethargy, but to exploit nature in a manner designed to impress jaded audiences without actually disturbing them.

I'm not at all surprised that the movie won the grand prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival where, as I see it in my imagination, the audience applauded it madly and then went off to dine at three-star restaurants.

Epinions [metalluk]  Jeremy Heilman

Strictly Film School  Acquarello [Gary W. Tooze]

ZEGEN                                                          B-                    82

aka:  The Pimp

Japan  (124 mi)  1987


“Japanese ‘comfort girls’ were the first line of invasion prior to World War II.”  —S. Imamura


Extremely well made, technically and structurally, and while there are historical truths being told, it’s all a metaphor with very little human interest.  There is a disconnection from any sense of importance or significance here, as the film doesn’t really deal with the point of view of women, though it is supposedly based on a true story of a Japanese hairdresser.  Ken Ogata, sent to Manchuria to spy on the Russians, where he was taught Japanese nationalism was Japanese expansionism, as Japan was a small island that would need to expand beyond its borders to provide for its people, that a duty to the Emperor was establishing commerce outside of Japan so that footholds could be established prior to impending Japanese invasions, so he sets up a chain of brothels across Southeast Asia. 


But he becomes ridiculed and irrelevant after the war when Japan decides it needs to change its image by expanding into international markets, supposedly a dark satire on Japanese colonialism and commerce.  It all comes across as beautifully made, lots of pretty naked girls, but pretty silly and stupid.  Matsuko Baisho gives a terrific performance as the woman who really ran his operations while Ogata smiled, wore white suits, and was called the Big Boss of the South Seas. 


User reviews from imdb Author: Carl-17 from Tokyo, Japan

This movie is black satire of Japanese imperial ambitions in the 20th century. In Meiji era Japan (1868-1910), the Japanese state sought to establish itself as an empire as a way to both catch up to and remain free from the West. These activities also lay the foundation for the disasters to come mid-century. This movie satirizes those efforts from a mid-1980s perspective, giving it an obvious subtext of being a commentary on the efforts of late 20th century Japanese businessmen abroad as well. The "hero" is a businessman who, realizing that the Japanese armed forces will likely soon be advancing across Asia, decides that they will require brothels wherever they go as well and so sets up shop in Southeast Asia. A very black comedy from one of Japan's finest film satirists (cf. "Pigs and Battleships," "The Pornographers") best known abroad ca. 1999 for "The Eel" and "Black Rain" (the film based on the novel about Hiroshima, not the Michael Douglas flick).

Midnight Eye review: Zegen (, 1987, Shohei IMAMURA)  Jasper Sharp

One of the less often mentioned works by the two-time Cannes-winning director of The Ballad of Narayama and The Eel, Zegen is an amusing satire on Japan's rather aggressive attempts at empire building during the early decades of the 20th century, suggesting why they ultimately failed so disastrously. Based on the autobiography of Iheiji Muraoka, a fervent patriot who set up a string of brothels stretching across South East Asia in anticipation of servicing the emperor's invading forces, it builds upon a number of the director's key themes as well as showcasing his keen eye for the ridiculous and the grotesque.

Imamura regular Ken Ogata plays Iheiji, who in 1901 jumps ship and is washed up in Hong Kong penniless and destitute. Here he assimilates into the sizeable Japanese expatriate community where he is soon set up as an apprentice barber. However, the Japanese Consulate there has higher goals for him in mind, and he is sent out to spy on Russian military activity in the Chinese province of Manchuria (which despite China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War ten years previously, later ended up in the hands of Russia, then Japan's main rival in East Asia). His loyalty to the emperor proven, the mission earns Iheiji enough to invest in his first brothel, and in the following years he sets up a lucrative string of them running all the way down to Malaysia. Meanwhile his mother country's military activities, beginning with the war against the Russians in 1904 and continuing with the merciless sweep across Asia, begin to impinge seriously on both Iheiji and the girls who work for him.

Long concerned with highlighting the shortcomings of "official" history, the colourful life-story of this Meiji-period Hugh Hefner seems to have been tailor made for the director. It provides an illuminating point of view to this crucial period in the nation's fortunes, firstly from a perspective based entirely outside of the country (there are no scenes inside Japan), and secondly from the grassroots level of this isolated Malaysian-based pocket of prostitutes and their panderer. In this respect Zegen is very much informed by Imamura's previous work, especially his 1975 documentary Karayuki-San, The Making of a Prostitute, which focused on "comfort women" forced abroad during the war years who have chosen not to return to their country.

Imamura suggests that the Japanese collective personality traits of national pride and duty coupled with an ignorance and indifference to its expatriate communities were ultimately responsible for its failure at expansionism. If colonialism ultimately equates to imposing an ideology onto another culture, then the less flexible that ideology in the first place, the more aggressively it needs to be imposed. Iheiji and his doxeys are all blindly loyal to their country, and in one scene he is quite taken aback when he is given a bit of a dressing down by a British diplomat who, on behalf of the international community, mentions that the world is beginning to get a little worried by Japan's militarism.

And so in this way, Iheiji and his extended family of prostitutes find themselves ostracised by the Malaysian locals. When his long-term love Shiho begins to stray, he decides to pitch himself into the task of expanding his own Japanese empire on foreign soil by vigorous attempts at procreating with his harem. After flashing forwards to 1941 he has seemingly achieved his goal by setting up his own microcosm of Japanese society, surrounded by hordes of obediently submissive offspring. But the fruitlessness of his blind loyalty is revealed when the now old man is brushed aside by the Japanese troops that he runs to greet as they invade Kuala Lumpur.

Zegen assumes some background on Asian history at the beginning of the 20th Century, and without this requisite knowledge it may seem a little heavy going at times. Imamura's usual stylistic trope of maintaining an ironic distance by way of a series of scenes consisting of unbroken long or medium long shots result in a film that unfolds rather prosaically at first but whose episodic structure soon gathers weight towards the end whilst providing some memorable images in the meantime. Zegen is perhaps not a pivotal work in Imamura's oeuvre, but it fits neatly into the world vision developed throughout the rest of his body of work, and for that reason alone it is well worth a look.

BLACK RAIN (Kuroi ame)

Japan  (123 mi)  1989


Channel 4 Film

A very Japanese look at the aftermath of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It follows Yasuko (Tanaka), a young woman present in the city when the bomb was dropped, and appears to have been unharmed by it. However, when her aunt and uncle (Ichihara and Kitamura) try to find her a husband, the eligible men refuse to marry her because of suspicions about her health. Imamura's direction is a thing of beauty - there are nightmarishly gorgeous flashbacks to the explosion - but the point he's getting across is not simplistic 'Poisoning people with radiation is wrong', rather it's a cry to the Japanese themselves to look at how they treat each other. Highly impressive stuff.

Washington Post [Hal Hinson]

There are moments in Shohei Imamura's "Black Rain" that are so beautiful that they pull on your insides like the deep, sonorous chords of a cello. The movie, which is based on the novel by Masuji Ibuse, opens on the eve of the bombing of Hiroshima, and initially its tone is one of watchful suspense. We know what is coming, and the shots of mundane, everyday life Imamura gives us -- of people crowding on a train, a scampering dog -- seem charged with a kind of haunting density.

But when the blast finally comes, the tone remains the same, as if somehow time had become suspended in the instant just before the explosion. The effects of the bomb are harrowing, but the manner in which the director shows them to us avoids sensationalism, even though the images on-screen are of total devastation: victims with melting skin -- almost unrecognizable as human -- fire, rubble and panic.

Among the thousands who roam the streets in the horrific aftermath of the explosion are Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), her aunt, Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara) and her uncle, Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura). Of the three, only Shigematsu was injured, receiving a small burn on his face. But when the story picks up five years later, the effects of the event have worked their way into every aspect of their lives and the lives of the people around them. Both physically and spiritually, the survivors have become victims of the blast. Yasuko, who has come to live with her aunt and uncle, has grown well into her marrying years without a proposal because of doubts about her health. At the time of the explosion, Yasuko was outside the city, and during her trip in to find her relatives was tarred with the droplets of black rain. Every time a suitor appears, Shigematsu attempts to confirm her excellent health, assuring them that effects of the rain were not poisonous.

But though Yasuko's marriage is of the most intense importance to her uncle, for the 20-year-old woman herself the thought of leaving her home to marry, and breaking up what she calls their "community bound by the bomb" is excruciating.

Imamura has an exquisite sense of camera placement, and in shot after shot the details of Yasuko's life with her aunt and uncle are patiently registered. Gradually, as the film progresses, Shigematsu's friends fall away from radiation sickness and Yasuko's suitors all but vanish. What we're shown is a slow decline, a slow, stately death by stages. And the director lays out these scenes with a masterly restraint that is at times rapturous, at times enervating.

Periodically during the film, the Japanese director revisits the scene just after the bomb, as if his camera were having a bad dream it cannot shake. But the reminders aren't really necessary. The force of the devastation is in every frame.

For all its stately, classical rectitude and poise, there seems to be something missing from the film. Imamura's impudent vigor, which was so much a part of "The Ballad of Narayama" and "Vengeance Is Mine," seems to have been abandoned here for the sake of an important subject. And while we grant him that the subject is important, in telling this story he doesn't seem to be quite himself.

There is a kind of ecstasy behind the images, though, an ecstasy that's held close and cherished, the way these radiation-damaged survivors guard and protect their energy and health. It's an ecstasy that's allowed to come to the surface only once, when Yasuko and her uncle, having lost nearly everyone near to them, sit on the bank of the river, watching a carp jump majestically out of the water. And in that sublime moment, the film's measured beauty is overwhelming.

Midnight Eye - japan_cult_cinema   Jasper Sharp


Talking Pictures (Howard Schumann)


Raging Bull [Mike Lorefice]


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


That Cow (Andrew Bradford)


Washington Post [Desson Howe]


Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) [Gary W. Tooze]


THE EEL (Unagi)                                                    A                     97

Japan  (117 mi)  1997


A hauntingly tender film with an inner grace, a humility that reveals so much dramatic, emotional power in what is not revealed, or what is not being said, but one is left with layers of hidden feelings, beautiful textured discoveries from this relatively simple and humorous story adapted from Akira Yoshimura’s novel, Sparkles in the Darkness.  Once more, as with all the Imamura films I’ve seen, there is an unusual use of music to advance and develop the story, which develops into a manic, comical farce, but then subsides.  This film adds a few unusual dimensions, suggestions of dream sequences, hallucinations, flashbacks, all of which add layers of inner disturbance and complexity to the apparent simplicity taking place on screen, kind of like what’s happening underneath the ordinary expressions of a Jane Smiley novel.  This was a shared winner, with Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY, for the 1997 Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or. 

Philadelphia City Paper  Sam Adams

Shohei Imamura's Palme d'Or winner is a strange mixture of uninflected melodrama and poetic reverie, shifting gears without notice in a way that's either suggestive or incoherent depending on point of view. It's the story of Yamashita (Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance?) a man released from prison after murdering his wife in a jealous rage, and his attempt to recivilize himself. He brings an eel home from prison with him, and at first it's the thing he can talk to. Here, Yakusha's performance is all silent strength, emotionally coiled, and the film's subtle style seems to mirror his state of being. At one point, he even disappears Trainspotting-like into the eel's tank. But after he meets a woman (Misa Shimizu) and begins trying to humanize himself again, the film tends too much toward bland realism, only dropping in the odd fantasy shot here and there. Like the world of the eel and the world of people, Imamura keeps his cinematic styles separate, where the interesting approach would seem to be to intermingle the two more fully.

The Eel  Jonathan Crow from All Movie Guide

Veteran filmmaker and perennial iconoclast Shohei Imamura directs this darkly comic tale about love, redemption, and a man's beloved pet eel. The film opens with Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho), a seemingly normal salaryman, learning that his wife might be having an affair. When he catches the couple in flaganto delicto, he freaks out and brutally stabs them both to death. Eight years later, Yamashita is released on parole into the care of a Buddhist priest living in rural Chiba prefecture. Far away from his former life, yet still plagued with memories of his crime, Yamashita decides to start anew by opening a barbershop on a quiet road next to a canal. Though inward looking and self-conscious, he eventually befriends a bumptious but good-hearted day laborer, and a construction worker who's obsessed with UFOs. His most fateful encounter though is with a woman named Keiko (Misa Shimizu), who he discovers unconscious following a suicide attempt. Looking to put a few of her own demons to bed, Keiko decides to stay in this sleepy corner of Japan and help her savior with his barbershop. Initially against the idea -- she bears a striking resemblance to his dead spouse -- he eventually agrees and even grows to like having her around. This film won the Grand Prix at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

Austin Chronicle [Marc Savlov]

Co-winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997, The Eel by Shohei Imamura (Black Rain) is the director's thoughtful meditation on love, death, and, well, eels. It's a film that works at any level you wish to view it, but more importantly, Imamura's colorful, occasionally caustic view of modern-day Japan is a departure from pre-fabricated Western ideals of the inscrutable East. Imamura's characters play out their extraordinary lives against a backdrop of drama, comedy, and the surreal that rivals Twin Peaks for sheer oddity. Unlike Lynch's disquieting version of small-town life, however, Imamura treats his characters with a sublime, gentle wit. Yakusho (Shall We Dance?) plays Takuro Yamashita, a drone salaryman who, as the film opens, has received an anonymous note informing him that his young wife (Shimizu) is having an affair. Maintaining his calm routine, Takuro bids farewell to his wife one night, goes off on his regular weekend fishing trip, but returns home early, and discovers that the inflammatory note is indeed the truth. In a jealous rage he stabs his wife to death, and then pedals his bicycle to the police station and turns himself in. Eight years later, he is released, with his pet eel -- his only friend from prison -- in tow. His parole officer, a Buddhist priest, helps him start up a barbershop in a remote Japanese village, and though Takuro remains silent and cool on the murder, he slowly begins life again, talking to his pet eel and renovating his new home. Into this placid dream walks Keiko (Shimizu), a beautiful young woman who bears a curious resemblance to the deceased, and who takes a job as Takuro's assistant, eventually falling in love with him. Across this redemptive canvas, Imamura splashes an assortment of oddball characters, including Takuro's UFO-obsessed neighbor, a sport fisherman who knows even more about the hidden lives of eels than Takuro, and two antagonistic forces, one from Takuro's dark past, and the other from Keiko's. Can the sins of the past be washed away by the love of the present? That's what Imamura is asking, and though his answers are -- at best -- vague, The Eel has a playful sentimentality that overrides its dark underpinnings. Yakusho and Shimizu are both enormously engaging -- he of the stoic grace and guilt, and she of the flitting hesitancy -- but together they're a wonder. Likewise Imamura's film, which relies heavily on some breathtaking camerawork by director of photography Shigeru Komatsubara. Like watercolors on rice paper, The Eel has a formalist look to it, the dark blues of Takuro's nighttime fishing expeditions colliding with the bright tones of his barbershop. It's no wonder Imamura has now collected not one but two Palmes d'Ors; The Eel is a flash of quiet brilliance that resonates long after the images have faded from the screen.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader


Epinions [metalluk]


Albuquerque Alibi (Devin D. O'Leary)


Epinions [Stephen O. Murray]


Long Pauses  Darren Hughes


Midnight Eye review: The Eel (Unagi, 1997, Shohei IMAMURA)  Tom Mes


Village Voice (J. Hoberman)


The Eel  Gerald Peary

The Eel / Unagi   Aaron Gerow from The Daily Yomiuri


Ozus' World Movie Reviews (Dennis Schwartz)


Reverse Shot   indieWIRE features several Reverse Shot writers in a Cannes Fest wrap up


"Unagi," Shohei Imamura  Film Festival revue


The Onion A.V. Club [Joshua Klein]


Goatdog's Movies [Michael W. Phillips, Jr.]


World Socialist Web Site  Peter Symonds


Daily Yomiuri review by Aaron Gerow (8k)


Read the New York Times Review »   Lawrence Van Gelder


DVDBeaver - Review [Gary W. Tooze]


DR. AKAGI (Kanzô sensei)                                              A-                    93

Japan  France  (129 mi)  1998


Philadelphia City Paper  Sam Adams

Imamura Shohei follows up his Palme d'Or winner The Eel with the agreeably rambling story of a small-town Japanese doctor carrying on his work as WWII draws to a close. Imamura uses shots of Akagi (Emoto Akira), clad in white suit and black bow tie, running from house to house as a motif to link the film's vignettes together, and it's that sense of velocity which allows Dr. Akagi to take on its wide array of characters and tones. Perhaps the closest comparison can be made to Hope and Glory, which similarly finds comedy in the chaos of war, but Dr. Akagi makes room for tragedy as well; it has a child's sense of wonder, but an old man's randy cynicism as well. Akagi—nicknamed "Dr. Liver"—is obsessed with curing what he sees as a outbreak of hepatitis, and diagnoses it everywhere he goes; despite the mockery he receives, he's eventually proven right, which seems to serve as a reward for sticking to his small-town ways in the face of militarization and dehumanization. Adapting the wide-eyed wonder of magic realism while only occasionally resorting to its flourishes, Imamura shows Akagi as both protagonist and witness, to a community threatened with the extinction of its soul.

Dr Akagi    Jonathan Crow from All Movie Guide

Following up on his acclaimed and Cannes Grand Prix-winning Unagi, veteran iconoclast Shohei Imamura directs this gleefully ragged tale about one very dedicated, though defiantly eccentric, doctor during the waning days of the Second World War. Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) is a small-town physician who sports a prim white suit and straw hat as he runs at full gallop from one case to the next. His diagnosis is always the same no matter the symptom: hepatitis. Along the way, he enlists the help of a young lass named Sonoko (Kumiko Asou) whose mother is a prostitute. Before she leaves home, mom gives her this kernel of maternal wisdom: give your physical devotion away to only your true love, make everyone else pay. She decides that the lucky recipient will be Dr. Akagi. Unfortunately, he has little interest in anything other than finding a cure for hepatitis. One day he happens upon a bruised and battered Dutch soldier (Jacques Gamblin) who escaped from the local POW camp. Realizing that returning to the camp would spell death for the lanky escapee, the doctor hides him with the aid of drug-addled fellow doctor (Kotsuke Sera) and an alcoholic Buddhist priest (Juro Kara). In gratitude to Dr. Akagi's kind act, the Dutchman, a lens crafter in quieter times, helps to fashion him a microscope so that the doctor may look at the very hepatitis germ itself. This film was intended as Imamura's swansong, but in 2001 he came out of retirement to direct the surrealist romance Akai Hashi Noshitano Nurui Mizu.

Austin Chronicle [Marc Savlov]

Two-time Palm d'Or recipient Inamura (1983's The Ballad of Naramaya and 1997's The Eel) is a riveting creative force both visually and in the manner he fashions his smallish, personal tales of domestic confusion and fractured emotions. Like the work of Martin Scorsese in America and Germany's Wim Wenders, Inamura's films are instantly recognizable; his crisp, clear shooting style and vaguely surrealistic storylines are part fantasy, part morality lesson, but never less than ultimately celebratory examinations of the day-to-day machinations of his characters. Dr. Akagi, set in a small harbor island in the waning days of WWII-era Japan, opens with the good doctor reciting his father's philosophy of the profession: “Being a family doctor is all legs. If one leg is broken he will run on the other. If both legs are broken he will run on his hands.” And indeed, there goes Akagi (Emoto), racing across the beach -- past the tussling couple of local prostitute Sonoko (Aso) and the accountant who loves her (Sankichi) -- clad in a creamy white suit and straw election hat, into the village, to treat yet another case of hepatitis, which has reached epidemic proportions during the war. Akagi focuses his practice almost entirely on the virus, which everyone seems to have, and as he races about looking like nothing so much as a sad-faced, comical hybrid of Pop-N-Fresh and Teddy Roosevelt, he stops now and again to dole out free diagnoses and recommend bed rest. Into this flurry of medical activity comes Sonoko, whose mother begs Akagi to take her on as his assistant, and the morphine-addicted surgeon Toriumi, who also assists the doctor in his researches. Because of his comical appearance and the single-minded zeal of his mission, Akagi is mocked by the townspeople, and only Sonoko seems to understand his true nature, which is akin to some war-torn, earthbound angel. Accordingly, she promptly falls in love with the doctor, though he is unable to reciprocate the affection. She loves him so much, she says, she'll even catch him a whale. There's much about Dr. Akagi that feels almost like a fairy tale, though one with a decidedly anarchic bent. Inamura, as he did in The Eel, maps the human heart through a series of grimly comic vignettes, all of which are inscrutably linked together to form an emotional cartography. The film itself feels like some sort of hyper-realistic dream, with rampant symbolism and an ending that must be seen to be believed. Still, Inamura's work is always deeply personal, and it's that very introspection that lends Dr. Akagi its ultimately hopeful tone. Sheer pleasure to watch, Inamura's film is a smallish work about the complexities inherent in simple people dealing with their own epic emotions.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader


Village Voice (J. Hoberman)


DR. AKAGI   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion


Film Journal International (Richard Porton)


Nitrate Online (Capsule)  Eddie Cockrell


World Socialist Web Site  David Walsh


The Onion A.V. Club [Joshua Klein]


Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson)


Ozus' World Movie Reviews (Dennis Schwartz)


Mike D'Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much


The Nation (Stuart Klawans)


New York Observer (Andrew Sarris)


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Read the New York Times Review »   Janet Maslin


DVDBeaver    Gary W. Tooze


WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE (Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu)   B                     83

Japan  France  (119 mi)  2001  


I may have completely missed what was happening here, but the Argentinian tango music arranged in a modern classical Japanese arrangement was certainly disorienting to me, as my mind kept drifting away from the screen.  What was that music?  I felt it was futuristic and other-worldly, with a sci-fi twist, but perhaps that’s completely off-base, as this film doesn’t really fit into any categorization or label.  Perhaps it was just a simple love story and I kept reading a nuclear disaster mutant offspring element into it.  I do know that frisky animals frolicked and filled the water and skies with heightened activity every time some special water flowed, fishermen were happy, vampires and monsters were referenced, humans grew agitated and did not understand, and an old woman sat by the side of the road waiting for the return of something that never came, eventually, under piles of concrete pylons, humans themselves became the buried treasure that they were seeking, birds filled the sky, and peace prevailed.  Koji Yakusho was the winner of Best Actor Award at the Chicago Film fest. 


East Asian films at the 26th Toronto International Film Festival ...  Shelly Kraicer from Senses of Cinema

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge/Akai hashi noshitano nurui mizu (Shohei Imamura, 2001) is, in a certain way, the quite the opposite of All About Lily Chou-Chou: it is the smoothly crafted product of a master working at slightly less than full power. Shohei Imamura has concocted a wildly improbable tale, a fable, really, of romance, misfits, and an oddly concrete sort of passion. Koji Yakusho plays an unemployed man in his forties searching for a treasure hidden in an old house. The treasure he ends up discovering is the house's resident, played by Misa Shimizu. Her spectacular orgasms (he soon finds out) are accompanied by jets of water that spurt out of her, through her house, into the canal next door where they attract the neighbourhood carp, much to the delight of the neighbourhood fisherman. A microcosm in which female passion, nature, ecology, and human society coexist in perfect harmony. Perhaps this is what Imamura is getting at when he claims, in an accompanying director's note, that "the 21st century will also be the era of women"? Imamura's world is populated with the usual humorously eccentric misfits, oddballs, and strangely colourful characters (though the African runners-in-training who whiz by from time to time evoke a certain discomfortingly archaic form of ethnic stereotype). The film remains engrossing despite its length, thanks to the engagingly subtle comic performances of the two leads, and the clear, warm, richly coloured cinematography of Shigeru Komatsubara. Warm Water may not have the breadth, the anger, or the daring political revisionism of Imamura's recent Dr. Akagi/Kanzo sensei (1998). It is nevertheless as beguiling as a master jazz player's elegantly extended riff, as satisfying as the burnished glow of a genial mid-period Brahms symphony.
WARM WATER UNDER A RED BRIDGE  Steve Erickson from Chronicle of Passion
The title of Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge doesn’t lie. It takes place in a Japanese port full of fluids, bodily as well as natural. Even the red bridge has a double meaning: it dominates the port, but it also represents the vagina of Saeko (Misa Shimizu), a woman who ejaculates huge streams of water when she has an orgasm or when sexual tension becomes too great. Disgruntled ex–salary man Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) searches for treasure by the red bridge, but the real gold turns out to lie in Saeko.
At the beginning of the film, Yosuke is at the end of his rope. Out of a job after his company is downsized, he dejectedly keeps going to interviews. The homeless Taro tells Yosuke that he once stole a gold Buddhist statue; when Taro dies, Yosuke heads to the town where Taro claimed to have hidden it. There his attention is drawn to Saeko while she’s shoplifting — but he’s attracted more by the puddle under her legs than by her crime.
Even in interiors, Imamura likes to divide the screen into several distinct spaces (the houses here are often shown in long shot and depicted as cluttered but neat). But the divide between land and water is the main one — and for all his fascination with Saeko, Yosuke is one of the few characters who can’t navigate it. On his first stint as a fisherman, he pukes and stumbles around the boat. An African student who fishes with a net gets chased around town, as much for his temerity in breaking the fishermen’s rules as out of racism. Not only does Saeko coat the window — and Yosuke’s clothes — with water when she comes but her water makes flowers bloom and draws fish from the sea.
Yosuke doesn’t quite find what he’s looking for, but he does discover a refuge from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Imamura has always been attracted to small-town Japan, seeing it as an alternative to the materialist, ultramodern culture of big cities and their consequent dehumanizing anomie. The late French film critic Serge Daney described Imamura’s 1979 Vengeance Is Mine as the tale of a man who has to kill in order to say no. To paraphrase Daney, The Eel (which shared the 1997 Cannes Palme d’Or with Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry) is the tale of a man who has to kill in order to say yes. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is gentler: a man simply has to find a place among a community of eccentrics in order to say yes.
Imamura’s recent rosy portraits of Japanese backwaters stems more from his imagination than from reality. Even if a threat of violence hangs overhead or kicks off the story, his past three films have all been about misfits finding solace among one another. (The only instance of violence in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is pretty mild compared to the bloodshed in The Eel and 1999’s Dr. Akagi.) As seductive as these visions are, he’s repeating himself. At worst, Warm Water overdoses on its own cuteness.
Imamura started off as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu, but when he began making his own films, he rebelled against his mentor’s placidity. Along with Nagisa Oshima, who began making films around the same time, his work in the late ’50s and ’60s made it clear that Angry Young Filmmakers were emerging everywhere in the world .
Still, the Angry Young Men of the ’60s have mellowed (except for Jean-Luc Godard, who has evolved into a Cranky Old Man). Imamura is no exception. Like Oshima, he has suffered several major interruptions in his career: in the early ’70s, he turned to documentaries, and eight years passed after 1989’s Black Rain. The Eel launched a new period, and it’s no insult to call these films the work of an old man.
Still, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge seems a little tired. Its whimsy is forced and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Homeless people and senile grandmothers are merely colorful, and racism is a joke. Much of the movie’s gravity falls on the shoulders of Koji Yakusho, a Kiyoshi Kurosawa regular who links Imamura to the new generation of Japanese filmmakers. (No one since Peter Falk in Columbo and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner has made a trenchcoat look so cool.) Despite this director’s professed admiration for strong women (it’s most evident in ’60s films like Intentions of Murder and The Insect Woman), Saeko’s desires get largely pushed aside until the end. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge is Imamura’s most relaxed work. It’s also his most complacent.
PopMatters  Jody Beth Rosen

Director Shohei Imamura might be Japanese cinema's answer to Tom Waits. For several decades, both artists have concerned themselves with society's wretched refuse: drifters, freaks, mystics, philosophers, wanton women, and the bottom rungs of the working class. The septuagenarian Imamura has a few years on baby-boomer Waits, and this makes it easier to forgive the discrepancy between the miraculously high quality of Waits' recent work and the triteness of the humor and symbolism in Imamura's newest film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

Adapted from a novel by Yo Henmi, Warm Water follows a newly unemployed Tokyo office drone named Yosuke (Koji Yakusho) to a small fishing village near Kyoto, in search of a stolen Buddha statue a friend claims is hidden in a seaside house there. Upon arriving, he meets a young woman in a supermarket. Saeko (Misa Shimizu) is attractive but peculiar -- for one thing, she's shoplifting when he finds her. But even more bizarre is the water pouring out from between her legs, collecting in puddles at her feet.

Yosuke follows Saeko to her home, where he is greeted by her grandmother, who is senile but blessed with the ability to tell fortunes with uncanny accuracy. With no time wasted and no formalities, Yosuke and Saeko are soon having sweaty, animalistic sex -- and again, here comes the flood. It's a longstanding problem for Saeko, not only a sign of her arousal, but also a source of great embarrassment. She worries she's nothing more than a novelty for the men who make love to her.

This lends itself to some interesting ideas about the subversion of gender roles. Saeko regularly becomes "backed up" and needs to release this "life force" within her. But as her relationship with Yosuke progresses, he's under constant pressure to ease her biological ills. It's rare for a male filmmaker to examine the bedroom politics of obligation, and Imamura is gutsy for turning the tables.

Unfortunately, this theme exists alongside a more explicit message: the importance of asserting one's masculinity (free will) against the monstrous women whose gale-force sexuality feminizes men and drains them of their strength and "vital essence." Imamura articulates the very things men dread: impotence, and the sense of being "whipped."

Saeko's early scenes with Yosuke are beautiful, tugging at the awkward sweetness of attraction, the moment-to-moment flip-flop between the shy and the sexual. Watching them copulate for the first time seems as voyeuristic and dirty as cheap homemade porno, but there's almost an innocence to how they go about it. The suit-and-tie, staid Yosuke comes alive in the thrall of this woman. It's the best sex he's ever had. Relationships often start out this way: fresh, unpredictable, breathtaking. You take the plunge in the spirit of experimentation, and try to withhold judgment about your partner's perversities. Saeko would be lucky if she were just, "HOT WET HORNY AND WAITING FOR YOU!!!," as the e-mail spam messages say. But her flow is so heavy she's become a fetishized freak show.

But as a couple, these two don't have much to go on besides Yosuke's unusual fetish and Saeko's need to fulfill that through release, and as a result, we don't have much to watch. The shock wears off almost immediately, but Imamura insists on making Saeko's "water" a running gag. The contrast between pleasure and eventual discomfort isn't stark enough to illustrate any underlying message Imamura might hope to express about the politics of sexuality.

There's a side plot involving Yosuke finding temporary work with a crew of fishermen. It's here that Imamura unleashes some potent visual commentary, with a glimpse of the lifestyle and politics of the blue-collar Japanese fishing culture. Imamura is not afraid of including a little dirt, and the fishing boat is caked in slime, the crates slathered with mud in every crevice. These scenes are awash in a ruddy, Godardian sense of socially observant neorealism.

Warm Water's feminine half is softer but never Hollywood-slick. The color palette offers subtle blues and sea-greens, pale yellows, eggshell whites, and a few hints of vibrant red. We see the stunning gleam of refracted sunlight -- off a mirror, off the camera lens. It's like amateur photography, but in the best sense: It's the beauty of human error and natural interference with the sanctity of the shot. Imamura's small town looks like exactly the kind of small town it represents -- peeling paint, rotting wood, bums, nothing quaint and cute designed to draw tourists. The sea is ever-present; the life of the villagers depends on it, and we are invited to enter this world.

Modest as this existence is, it's incredibly charming, sometimes too charming (for instance, the recurring presence of an African marathon runner, serving no obvious purpose other than to provide comic relief, sort of like Eddie Murphy's talking donkey in Shrek). The psychic grandma and her exotic bird are cloying too, although it is the grandma who is the subject of one of the movie's significant (and blatantly obvious) punch-lines.

I was hoping for some mixture of pop-erotica, science fiction, social statement, and magical realism, and expecting more by way of the latter three. Two scenes deliver: one among the cloudy lights of a blue-green spiral tunnel inside a water-research facility, and one in a fetal position surrounded by psychedelically colored chakras. Regardless of how well the scenes work with the story (the story's a mess -- it doesn't know whether to be an Amélie-style sugary gumdrop, a Marxist manifesto, or a Philip Roth novel), they create some lovely intervals, a change of scenery, a chance to take stock of everything going on in the film.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, like its title, is overbearingly precious and pretentious. Yet Warm Water is brave, ambitious, philosophical, visually striking, and often funny. It's terrific conversation fodder, to be sure -- even a cursory plot summary will inspire marvel, laughter, or disgust.

Ultimately, I'll have to file this one away as a companion piece to David Lynch's epic fever-dream Mulholland Drive: Both films promise so much, sparking and crackling with the potential to be white-hot classic, but neither ever quite manages to burn the house down. (Lee Wong) (Jeremiah Kipp)


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Ingram, Rex



USA  (132 mi)  1921


Cine-List - CINE-FILE Chicago  Michael Glover Smith

In 1968’s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this 1921 masterpiece—an epic World War I/family drama adapted by June Mathis from a recently published Vicente Blasco Ibanez novel. Ingram builds on the narrative and technical innovations of D.W. Griffith (elaborate cross­cutting, dynamic alternation between long shots, medium shots and close­ups, and, best of all, innovative lighting effects courtesy of cinematographer John Seitz) but adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first major role, plays a rich ne’er­do­well of Argentinean descent who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he soon finds himself face to face with his own German cousin... Among the many memorable images are recurring shots of the titular characters galloping across the night sky (an image that would influence the opening of F.W. Murnau’s FAUST five years later), and Valentino’s prototypical “Latin Lover” character tangoing in a smoky bar. Sadly, Rex Ingram is still a subject for further research in 2016, as his movies remain difficult to see in good quality; this seems particularly unfortunate in the case of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE given the stylistic and thematic affinities it shares with other readily available anti­war epics from the silent era (i.e., THE BIG PARADE and WINGS). If anything, THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE—with its depiction of a tragically and arbitrarily divided Europe—looks timelier than ever in our post­“Brexit” era. Needless to say, this should probably be viewed at all costs when the opportunity arises—even if that means catching an outdoor screening of a projected DVD­R. Screening as part of Comfort Station’s “Silent Films and Loud Music” series with a live score by Sara Goodman and Reid Karris.

An Argentinian cattle baron (Pomeroy Cannon) with two European son-in-laws — a Frenchman (Josef Swickard) and a German (Alan Hale) — favors his rakish French grandson Julio (Rudolph Valentino) over all others. Meanwhile, the arrival of World War I wreaks havoc on the family’s tenuous ties, as well as Julio’s love affair with the wife (Alice Terry) of an older attorney (John St. Polis).

Based on a “mystical” novel by Spanish author Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, this epic silent film (directed by Rex Ingram) broke all box office records the year of its release (it was the first film to gross more than one million dollars), and became the sixth highest grossing silent film of all time. It’s widely known as the film that brought “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino (real name: Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla!!!) into the spotlight as a leading man, and his charisma is clearly evident — at one point, while in the midst of seducing a woman, he actually turns to the camera in a quick aside, as though to wink at the audience! His early, sultry tango scenes — not part of the original novel — are so sensual and evocative that they made the dance a hit craze for a while.

As far as the story goes, it’s a fairly standard overblown saga of forbidden romance, family feuds, and the inevitable tragedy of war — with Germans emerging as the definite baddies of the bunch (it was released, after all, just three years after the end of World War I, when sentiments were still raw). Meanwhile, the integration of a “mystical” element into the story — embodied by a wacky neighbor (Nigel De Brulier) who foretells the coming of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” (hence the film’s title) — is simply silly and heavy-handed. But Ingram has a fine directorial hand, framing his scenes carefully and adding unique visual touches — many of which are quite memorable (see stills below); and the “DeMille”-ian amounts of money spent on the production seem to have been put to good use, given Ingram’s ability to effectively present the devastation of war (see also stills below). Remade by Vincent Minnelli (!) in 1962, with Glenn Ford (!) starring as Julio.

CineScene Review  Chris Dashiell, also seen here:

A sprawling epic following the fortunes of an Argentine family, one side of which is French in origin, the other German, that ends up on opposite sides of World War One. Most of the story has to do with the French side - a feckless patriarch (Josef Swickard), disappointed in his wastrel of a son (Rudolph Valentino) who gets involved in a scandalous affair with a married woman (Alice Terry).

Ingram was one of the most artistic directors of the silent era. If you are resigned to the usual excesses and longeurs in dramatic films of the early 20s, the crisp editing, attention to detail, and nuanced performances in The Four Horsemen will come as a pleasant surprise. Best of all is Valentino, in his first major role. It is obvious why he was such a success - the camera loves him, and he holds the attention with complete authority despite his limited acting chops. The love scenes with Terry have a natural quality, which really makes the passion convincing - and this was a new thing in movies at the time. The picture was an incredible success, a major hit worldwide that singlehandedly rescued Metro from impending financial ruin. A lot of that had to do with Valentino, of course, but the film also had some rather impressive war sequences (blowing things up well was also a new thing) and an epic sweep.

The bad aspects of Four Horsemen (you knew there had to be some, right?) were inherited by the writer June Mathis from the source novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. It involves a lot of hooey about the Book of Revelation (thus the title) in which a quasi-mystical figure (Nigel de Brulier) makes prophetic connections between the coming World War and the fiery horsemen of the Apocalypse - whom we then see galloping about in the sky at various points in the film.

The picture attempts to convey a pacifist message, while contradicting itself with this fatalistic theme of scriptural inevitability. At the same time it resurrects all the wartime hatreds by depicting the Germans as perpetrators of lustful atrocities and the French as idealistic good guys. Succumbing to the crowd-pleasing ethos of valiant self-sacrifice, the film piles on the religious symbolism - an element that has no thematic continuity with the rest of the story - to the point of nausea.

In a way, it's a fascinating symptom of the confused state of mind that must have been prevalent in the years following the Great War. But although its spiritual and political perspective has not worn well, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is still one of the more accomplished Hollywood films of its time, notable especially for the emergence of Valentino.

TCM Article  Eleanor Quin

In the era of the silent film, directors were king; the recipients of top billing, they were often better known than the film's actors. A handful of men were at the forefront of the Hollywood game during those years, including D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Erich von Stroheim. Add to that list Rex Ingram, who has been called the master of silent cinema, but is better known today as the director who introduced Rudolph Valentino to the world. In an ironic twist, the focal shift from director to star by film audiences began following the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which ignited an unparalleled worship of Valentino. The film was helmed by Ingram, and starred the beautiful Alice Terry, but Valentino stole the show by demonstrating his skills with - summed up in two words - the tango.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an epic tale of an Argentinean family who becomes divided and ends up fighting on opposite sides during WWI. The film, based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, grew into a mammoth production: over $1 million was poured into it and over 12,000 people were involved. Yet the film's existence can be traced back to one woman, June Mathis. As the head of Metro's script department, Mathis, realizing the film potential of the best-selling novel, persuaded then-president Richard Rowland to buy the rights. She also convinced the studio to hire Ingram on as director; realizing her passion for the project, Metro also gave her screenwriting duties. As the final coup de grace, Mathis insisted on casting an unknown actor in the featured role of Julio. In a 1921 interview with famed columnist Louella Parsons, Valentino says of Mathis, "She discovered me. Anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me." Mathis had spotted Valentino in a bit part in the film Eyes of Youth (1919), and her instincts told her he was a star. Those instincts resulted in one of the most successful films of its time, grossing over $4 million, and catapulted "The Great Lover" into cinematic history as the first screen idol.

An Italian immigrant, Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D'Antonguolla arrived in New York City in 1913, adopted the soon-to-be-famous name of Rudolph Valentino and struggled to support himself doing odd jobs like gardening, dishwashing and waiting tables. He was, however, a good dancer, which proved to be his break into movies via his friend and occasional dance partner Alla Nazimova. The tango scene from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was embellished and expanded to optimally display Valentino's talents in the sensual dance. Since the role of Julio was a feature part, Valentino was originally paid $100 per week; this was soon increased to $350 per week. After the release of the film and the resulting "Valentino mania," Metro still refused to increase his salary to a starring player's rate. Metro may have been truly unaware of Valentino's massive potential, or perhaps they were wishfully hoping to keep him on at bargain basement prices. At any rate, Valentino called their bluff and moved over to Paramount, which quickly released The Sheik (1921), sealing Valentino's celebrity status. Rudy would star in nine more films before succumbing to peritonitis in 1926; his death sparked mass hysteria and near riots when fans learned the news.

During the filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, however, Valentino was still new to the publicity game. Director Ingram found him one day on the back of the lot, posing for informal photographs. Unfortunately, the heroic image he was trying to project astride a horse was compromised by the saddle being on backwards, so Ingram kept a close eye on Valentino's publicity throughout the remainder of the production. Ingram also takes credit for extending the tango scene, claiming that he reused a scene from one of his earlier Universal pictures and transposed it into the Horsemen plot. Given Mathis' influence and initiative with the project, however, one is inclined to think that the scene was a cooperative effort at the very least. Ingram did have an expert crew to work with, led by editor Guy Whytock and cinematographer John Seitz. Whytock often worked with Ingram, and was well prepared to deal with the director's propensity to overshoot production.The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ended up with half a million feet of raw footage for Whytock to sort through. Seitz, nominated for his work on such films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a pioneer in his field with such contributions as the matte shot and his trademark usage of low-key lighting.

Although the presence of Valentino dominates The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, there are other actors of note featured. Alice Terry, the billed star as well as Ingram's wife, was a popular actress of her day. She would be cast in the next Ingram/Valentino flick rushed out in the same year before Rudy's jump to Paramount, The Conquering Power (1921). Alan Hale appears in a supporting role; he was perhaps best known as Errol Flynn's sidekick in numerous films, his role of Little John in several Robin Hood flicks, and as the father of Hale, Jr., who played the Skipper on the television series Gilligan's Island.

Edwin Jahiel


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Ionesco, Eva



France  (105 mi)  2011


My Little Princess  Allan Hunter at Cannes from Screendaily, May 17, 2011

Painful personal experience is distilled into poignant drama in Eva Ionesco’s promising first feature My Little Princess. Autobiographical events from the 1970s are shaped into a fairytale-like narrative illuminating the abusive nature of Ionesco’s relationship with her mother Irina and eternal arguments over the limits of artistic freedom.

The notoriety of the Ionesco family history in France allied to the powerful performances of Isabelle Huppert and stunning newcomer Anamaria Vartolomei should gain the film wide attention domestically and there are enough marketable elements to lend it some modest cachet for international arthouse distributors.

In the 1970s, Ionesco’s mother rocked the Paris art world with photographs of her naked, pre-pubescent daughter. Ionesco recalls that the mother began posing her when she was just four. In My Little Princess, Violetta (Vartolomei) is ten when wildly unconventional mother Hanna (Huppert) takes the fun of dressing up in old clothes to a different level. Soon, Hanna has the career and acclaim she has always desired whilst Violetta is both seduced and appalled by her sudden elevation into an adoring adult world.

The core of My Little Princess is the love/hate relationship between mother and daughter who clash so frequently because they seem so alike in temperament. Huppert brings a feverish edge to Hanna suggesting the restlessness of an older woman perhaps only too aware that time and society are not on her side. The character takes her inspiration from the glamour of old Hollywood and in her frizzy blonde hair and lushly coloured gowns, Huppert’s Hanna is like a cross between Jean Harlow and Baby Jane.

Anamaria Vartolomei was only 10 when the film was shot, but brings an astonishing emotional maturity to her character, conveying the conflicting emotions within Violetta and the righteous anger that may have saved her from her mother’s clutches.  Violetta has been encouraged to admire the beauty and tenacity of a Marlene Dietrich so it seems entirely plausible that she responds so enthusiastically to dressing and posing in the manner of The Blue Angel.

Her mother’s need for her as a model invests Hanna with a sense of power and self-worth but also steals the innocence of her childhood and removes her from the world of her peers.

As the mother increasingly chooses to sexualise the daughter, Violetta turns into a Lolita figure, standing forlornly in the school playground in tight hot pants, swaggering into the classroom in full make-up and the kind of clothes that could only be deemed inappropriate. Throughout the film costume designer Catherine Baba does a fantastic job of finding clothes and accessories that define the characters and reflect the changes in their lives.

Ionesco directs the film with a pensive detachment and never judges the characters. She shies away from the more experimental sensibility that a director like Todd Haynes or Tom Kalin might have brought to the transgressive material creating a more conventional but also more accessible piece of storytelling. She captures a genuine sense of the affection that permeates these troubled, claustrophobic lives making what happens to them all the more upsetting.

Iosseliani, Otar

All-Movie Guide  bio from Yuri German

Otar Iosseliani was born in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, where he studied at the State Conservatory and graduated in 1952 with a diploma in composition, conducting and piano. In 1953 he went to Moscow to study at the faculty of mathematics, but in two years he quit and entered the State Film Institute (VGIK) where his teachers were Alexander Dovzhenko and Mikhail Chiaureli. While still a student, he began working at the Gruziafilm studios in Tbilisi, first as an assistant director and then as an editor of documentaries. In 1958 he directed his first short film Akvarel. In 1961 he graduated from VGIK with a diploma in film direction. When his medium-length film Aprili (1961) was denied theatrical distribution, Iosseliani abandoned filmmaking and in 1963-1965 worked first as a sailor on a fishing boat and then at the Rustavi metallurgical factory. Aprili was finally released only in 1972. In 1966 he directed his first feature film Giorgobistve that was presented at the Critics' Week at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival and won a FIPRESCI award there. When his 1976 film Pastorali was shelved for a few years and then granted only a limited distribution, Iosseliani grew sceptical about getting any artistic freedom in his homeland. Following Pastorali's success at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival, the director moved to France where in 1984 he made Les Favoris de la Lune. The film was distinguished with a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Since then Venice became a showcase for all his subsequent films. In 1989 he again received a Special Jury Prize for Et la Lumiere Fut and in 1992 the Pasinetti Award for Best Direction for La Chasse aux Papillons. After the disruption of the Soviet Union he continued to work in France where he made the documentary Seule Georgie (1994) which was followed by the sardonic and allegorical Brigands - Chapitre VII (1996).

Stimulated Faculties: Otar Iosseliani: The man who loved birds    The Man Who Loved Birds: Otar Iosseliani’s Cinema of Kindness, Quintín from Cinema Scope, November 10, 2011, also seen here:  By Quintín 

A couple of years ago Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentine filmmaker who has lived in Paris for the last 40 years, said that nothing important was happening in France culturally but, at the same time, artists were still welcome to live and work there. Otar Iosseliani was born in 1934 in Tbilisi, and moved from Georgia to Paris in the early ‘80s, after censorship halted his career as a Soviet filmmaker in Georgia, where he made three features plus shorts and documentaries. In France he started anew, and so far he has made seven features, as well as a number of docs and shorts. Iosseliani is one of the adopted French filmmakers, a category that includes the likes of Raúl Ruiz and Eugène Green, and can be understood to encompass Manoel de Oliveira, Michael Haneke, and Ousmane Sembène. (It’s likewise tempting to describe the Swiss Jean-Luc Godard as a foreign filmmaker who sometimes works in France.)

Iosseliani once said, “Culture, in the sense of a well-constructed system of human relations, has collapsed [in Georgia]. Maybe it was one of the last countries. But everything collapsed, practically, with the departure of the previous generation.” He was talking about the devastation of war and communism, but the statement could well apply to the subjects of many of his films—such as And Then There Was Light (1989), a film about the destruction of an African village by the arrival of so-called progress. Iosseliani’s films are parables, and parables have many possible meanings. Also, in the director’s words, “the secret of your vision dies with you.” But his new feature, Jardins en automne, seems mainly to comment on the dissolution of the French film community, at least in the form he knew it when he became one of its members in 1984, the year of his first French-made film, Les Favoris de la Lune.

Sharing the designation which Ruiz frequently ascribes to himself, Iosseliani can be called “the best known of the unknown directors.” Ruiz is seven years younger than Iosseliani, but emigrated to Paris seven years earlier, fleeing from the Chilean dictatorship. Both are considered minor masters in the French nomenklatur, and they share a sense of subtlety, irony, a love of long shots and a hatred for explanation, psychology, and conventional storytelling. In a way, they are complementary: while Ruiz is definitively urban, nature is very important in Iosseliani’s work. And while both share an interest for the fine arts and the pleasures of alcohol, Ruiz opts for literature and philosophy while Iosseliani is deeply immersed in music. A pianist and composer in his own right, music plays an essential part not only in Iosseliani’s soundtracks, but also in his plots. Iosseliani’s films are musical in their form and structure, and music is the link between his usually disjointed scenes. But mostly, Iosseliani is a tonal filmmaker. His films can be thought of as the movements of a unique, consistent musical oeuvre.

This tone has to do with Iosseliani’s unique pace, which is rhapsodic and joyful, but with a paradoxical grace that follows from detachment and a lack of sentimentality. Iosseliani’s primary Western influence is Tati, with whom he shares a peculiar serendipity in the contact between people, objects, and animals. He prefers non-professional actors, and because of this, coupled with his lack of attention to dialogue, his fiction films aren’t far away stylistically from his documentaries. Some motifs are common to all of Iosseliani’s films: love for drinking, talking and singing amongst friends; hatred of work in any routine sense; the despising of bureaucrats; love for women as long as they are friends and lovers and never wives or mistresses; the presence of plants and animals among the human.

On this last count, Iosseliani can be acclaimed for bringing some of the best birds to the silver screen, with a high point being the gigantic, unbelievable, and hilarious stork from Adieu, plancher des vaches! (1999). But in Iosseliani’s films, birds are more than just birds—they illustrate an aesthetic principle. In Brigands, chapitre VII (1996), a medieval tyrant is poisoned by his mistress. The man falls down in agony, and she says, “Die you lousy swine!” But the man doesn’t die, and a parrot that hears the words and repeats them is used as a key witness in the mistress’ trial. So, without realizing it, the animal plays an important part in history. In Iosseliani’s films, you can see birds and quadrupeds like the boars that, alive or in photographs, punctuate Jardins en automne (together with a caged bird that’s called “the bird of truth”). These untamed animals are a presence that we humans cannot understand, and we look at their mysterious nature with the same perplexity as they might look at us. Maybe that’s the secret of Iosseliani’s view of human affairs: his camera shows people from the point of view of an animal, and, like men see animals, it finds humans weird, colourful, and potentially dangerous.

Over that basic layer of strangeness and involuntary cruelty, civilization tries to build a network between isolated individuals. But “civilization” doesn’t mean technology nor political order, but a series of rites and traditions that appeal to a much more primitive and, at the same time, sophisticated bond among equals—one that can be named kindness. Kindness is what leads to affection, to communication, to the pleasure of sharing. It has elementary manifestations in the ways to greet people, to ask for a match, to continuously offer cigarettes and drinks to others (Jarmusch!). Kindness is what contradicts brutality, the arrogance of dictators, the sadism of bureaucrats, the greed of capitalists, the pettiness of spouses, and all the other evils in Iosseliani’s films.

The balance of forces is uneven, however. As shown in Brigands, Iosseliani’s most political film, brute force prevails, and the autocrats, the party members, and the arms dealers impose their ignoble rule over tenderness and joy, dispossess the innocent, the rebels, and even the bad guys from their jobs, their homes, and their lives. Not much can be done against the determination of wrongdoers. In There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970), a masterpiece from the Georgian period, the main character is a musician who needs to be in perpetual motion and whose optimism and joy of life contradicts his boss’ desire to make him ordinary and disciplined. In the end, a car hits the young man, revealing that the director, in spite of the film’s light, bubbling atmosphere, doesn’t share his character’s naiveté.

As a result, Iosseliani’s films are far from being optimistic. On the contrary, they convey a deep sadness that has been especially apparent in his last few films. Although the filmmaker is very reluctant to show the actual death of his characters, there is a bleak cloud hanging over them, a sense of vague melancholy, of a loss with no precise object. In Jardins en automne, events go smoothly and nothing terrible happens; we seem to be watching a gentle comedy about an ex-politician who finds himself fully free to play the guitar, party with friends, and make love to women. The film’s protagonist, Vincent (a spectacular performance by Séverin Blanchet), is a minister in the French government, whose official duties seem to consist of keeping up with protocol. He’s bored with his job and his mistress. One day he’s fired and finds himself alone, with no job, no home, no girl, and no money. It’s the ideal Iosseliani situation, like in Adieu, plancher des vaches! or Lundi matin (2002). So, he behaves like he’s supposed to: he meets his old pals and girlfriends, and goes around drinking.

But there is a new element this time. Vincent has a rich mother, played by none other than Michel Piccoli, from whom he demands protection, shelter, and money. This is, to say the least, very unusual casting, and it’s almost impossible to avoid giving a meaning attached to this choice. This peculiar lady lives in a huge mansion with a big park, almost a palace, where she gives parties and conducts official ceremonies. In one of these ceremonies, she calls out the names of some soldiers, like Lt. Pierre Grandrieux and Sgt. Philippe Léon, who happen to be dead in the battlefields—Philippe Grandrieux and Pierre Léon are two French filmmakers, younger than Iosseliani, and in the hardcore cinephile camp. On the other hand, one of Vincent’s pals is legendary Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean Douchet, and another is Iosseliani himself, who plays Arnaud, a character interested in painting, music, and gardening (and a transparent liquid that probably is vodka).

During the party the house is attacked, and Vincent and his friends are beaten. It’s very tempting to see Piccoli as a symbol for the French cinema (the actor, also a director himself, has worked with every major French director, and was even cast by Godard as the grey eminence of 1995’s Deux fois cinquante ans de cinéma français) and to see the attack on the house as a metaphor for the state of film in France, where people like Iosseliani seem not to matter any more. Vincent’s loss of privileges, yet with some remnants of his former official protection, speaks to the fragile situation and threatened careers of Iosseliani and his cineaste colleagues. A crowd sings Marxists hymns and throws tomatoes at Vincent, like they used to do in Stalinist Georgia. He is dispossessed of his official ministerial residence, as well as from his private apartment by squatters. The bistro where the group hangs around is shut down. The walls of the café, full of drawings made by Arnaud, are painted over. The new owner of the house tells the painter to “eliminate all that crap.” It’s an obvious reference to the oblivion to which Iosseliani’s images will be thrown in the future. This is not just a goodbye—it’s a dark one.

To contradict that view, at the end of the film we see another party in a garden, where all Vincent’s lovers, friends, and relatives are talking, drinking, and having fun. They all seem very relaxed, very happy. Then the camera turns up, showing the blue of the sky and the green of the trees. It’s a beautiful shot, full of lyricism and tenderness, one that perfectly integrates with the bright spirit of the last meeting. Then the screen turns black for a moment, and the credits begin to roll. At that point, the viewer might very well remember that the first shot of the film, a prologue that precedes the title, is a long shot in the shop of a coffin-maker, where Douchet, among other people, is trying to buy a casket that will fit him. With this in mind, the last shot becomes one of overwhelming sadness, and the party a definitive farewell.

About 12 years ago, another adopted French filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski, completed his famous Three Colours trilogy, which was supposed to comment on the keywords of the French revolution. Iosseliani once said “the problems of a foreign country can never become truly, intimately yours… For you they will never have the same concreteness as they do for a real human community of people that are born and raised within that community.” However, this foreigner who saw his country destroyed to the verge of the unrecognizable and has, since then, been a well-treated guest—but with very limited recognition—in his new home, has not only showed today’s crisis in French cinema in a way that his native colleagues don’t dare, but deals in a clever way (and in a much less pompous one than Kieslowski) with the principles of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Something is happening in Paris, after all. The problem is that the French don’t see it.

Home Sweet Homeless: The Harmonious Dissonance of Otar Iosseliani  Celluloid Liberation Front

“Censorship in the west is like everywhere else, it forces my colleagues to follow certain rules—the first rule being the box office.”—Otar Iosseliani

Almost unnoticed, bucolically roaming the canting bustle that is the film industry, where smiles range from vile to servile and vainglory is king, the cinema of Otar Iosseliani has stared amusedly at this pathetic travesty for over fifty years. Within this pitiful scenario, where imagination is degraded and arrogance ennobled, Iosseliani has cultivated an indolent and melancholic cinema that lingers on small details to reveal the wonder and absurdity of life. Storylines are evanescent pretexts, narrative excuses to explore the ethical and aesthetic implications of paradoxes. Whether it is a young musician in Soviet Georgia repeatedly not turning up at orchestra rehearsal or a politician in Paris rediscovering the humble joys of daily life after years locked away in the cage of democracy, Iosseliani’s films favour diversions. His oeuvre may not always be easily likable but it is hypnotic and absorbing, contemplatively pausing in front of the modest and seemingly irrelevant aspects of human life (often measured against the astonished indifference of animal life). Iosseliani’s enlightened detachment avoids declamations to pursue the instincts of a vision, without ever trying to impress a vain authorial signature upon his films. Iosseliani, if anything, is a sab-auteur, undermining the presumptions of art cinema to reaffirm the vanishing wisdom of craftsmanship.

The rootless cultural matrix of Iosseliani’s cinema, where a glass of wine is as noble as a painting, is simultaneously palpable and unfathomable, neither Georgian nor French, epic like an aimless dalliance. A transitory feeling traverses all his films, as if nothing could ever happen for the first or last time. The protagonists of Iosseliani’s films, caught in an ironic dream state of cinematic indeterminacy, mind their own business and ignore the audience’s anxious expectations. Instead of offering an interpretation, a guide or an (ideo)logical key, the director return his actors’ gaze, staring back at them with penetrating indolence. Iosseliani discloses the submerged essence of expression within the frame, which so much cinema often blacks out in its frantic effort to give meaning to that which is meaningless. His films gather coincidences rather than orchestrating consequential narratives; different stories pass through the frame, leaving the impression of a ceaseless continuing elsewhere. As in life, nothing is fully accomplished; everything is impeccably imperfect. An unfashionable kind of elegance characterizes all of his films, a sort of aristocratic formalism: the aristocracy of the dispossessed.

Born in Tblisi, Georgia in 1934, Otar Iosseliani studied music at the Tblisi conservatory from 1944 to 1953, graduating in piano, composition and orchestra lead. From 1953 to 1955, he studied math at the University of Moscow before studying directing at the pan-Soviet film school VGIK at a time when the early masters of Soviet cinema were sent there to teach, as their work did not fit the mould of Stalinist socialist realism and was therefore unsuitable for propaganda. Among Iosseliani’s teachers were Alexander Dovzhenko, Mikheil Chiaureli, Lev Kuleshov, Mikhail Romm, and Grigori Kozintsev. After having diligently and enthusiastically served the revolutionary cause, all of these artists had started to become aware of the unimaginative nightmare the Soviet Union had turned into; and so, according to Iosseliani, the state film school ironically began to form future dissidents, as these ex-revolutionaries began to pass their disillusionment on to the next generation.

After completing two student shorts—Akvarel (1958), an irreverent exercise in socialist surrealism, and Song About a Flower (1959), a vernacular symphony of floral dynamism and stubborn resolve—Iosseliani graduated in 1961. His first professional short, April (1962), a tale of denied intimacy, was immediately censored—according to Iosseliani, because “it’s a fairy tale, and fairy tales are extremely dangerous for totalitarian systems […] it’s the eternal struggle between artists and the powers that be, it didn’t only happen under Hitler or Stalin.” Iosseliani temporarily abandoned cinema, working first on a fishing boat first and then a metallurgical factory; the latter experience would be captured in Tudzhi (1964), a short documentary that marked Iosseliani’s return behind the camera. His first feature, Falling Leaves, was presented at the Cannes Critics Week in 1967, where it won the FIPRESCI prize. The story of two young friends working in a wine cooperative—the one honest and idealistic, the other petty and self-serving—the film is less an allegorical parable than a look at the petty miseries and artless delights of communal life and work. Similarly, while the film world was busy fighting against “le cinéma de papa,” with Georgian Ancient Songs (1968), Iosseliani composed a tiny, melodious short which is also a plea for the preservation of an ancient tradition then threatened by an overbearing Soviet presence.

In 1971 Iossliani made his international breakthrough with There Once Was a Singing Blackbird. Ghia, a young timpanist at the Tblisi opera theatre, seems preoccupied with everything else except his place in the orchestra, which he nonetheless honours with (im)perfect timing, always turning up at the last minute. Constantly reprimanded, Ghia keeps missing appointments while drifting with eager abandonment across the city, forever lured by sparks but oblivious to the fires they might start. He starts to court a girl but fails to turn up for their date; after a series of liberating if inadvertent derelictions, he gets run over by a truck, so that the universal clock can keep tick-tocking without further disruption.

To this day Iosseliani’s career is characterized by generous intervals, as if life and inactivity were as important to tend to as work. Five years passed after his critical success with Blackbird before his follow-up Pastorale (1976), an ode to the fruitful dissonance of urban life meeting the rhythms of rural life. A group of musicians moves to the countryside from the city looking for a quiet place to rehearse. There they encounter, are seduced by and eventually depart from a different universe, leaving behind but a faint trace of their passage. In 1979, Iosseliani moved to France, where he made two shorts. Sept piéces pour cinéma noir et blanc (1982) is an audio-visual counterpoint that orchestrates glimpses of Parisian life into a joyful cacophony. Removed from its inherent political dimension, Euzkadi eté 1982 (1983) documents the festive mood of the eponymous Basque country town, its interpretation of life and art conveying a profound sense of cultural autonomy. In 1984, Les favoris de la lune (its title referring to Shakespeare’s definition of thieves, “moon’s favourites”), Iosseliani’s first feature-length film since moving to France, won the jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. The Parisian anthill teems with ordinary extravagance, with characters bumping into each other in the frantic construction and destruction that is urban life. It’s a chorus of unpredictable actions whose mutual incompatibility somehow constitutes the very (dis)harmony of city-dwelling that Iosseliani observes amusedly, noticing what usually goes unnoticed. Multiple characters chase after a fleeting happiness, which keeps eluding them, sentencing them to a perpetual sate of aimless search. The film posits itself at the centre of this spinning madness while simultaneously framing it from the outside, both participating and detached, anxious and amused.

Four years of silence and life were followed by Un petit monastére en Toscane (1988), where Iosseliani hooks up with a cheerful bunch of monks in Tuscany and shares with them the pleasures of wine and good cuisine. Hunting, singing and the rituals of monastic life open themselves to the camera and to mutual contamination. His next film, Et la lumiére fut (1989), probably counts as the sole instance of a white filmmaker filming Africa and its inhabitants with neither liberal-progressive guilt, anthropologic pretension, or emancipatory aspirations. A beautiful woman getting tired of her lazy husband, a group of idiotic defoliators coming to the village, empty wells that get magically filled with water, and the arcane rites “civilization” can do without are the tangential protagonists of this unassuming story. It’s Africa, but Iosseliani films it as if it were a Parisian neighbourhood, a picturesque spot of the Georgian capital or a monastery: a place inhabited by people busy dealing with the convoluted simplicities of life.

After La chasse aux papillons (1992) and Seule, Géorgie (1994), a documentary about the history and culture of his native land, Iosseliani returned to Georgia to make Brigands Chapitre VII (1996). Back in France, in Farewell, Home Sweet Home (1999) Iosseliani serves up extravagant sketches of Parisian life, capturing the anonymous and discreet beauty of a city that countless directors have crudely worshipped but never observed. The son of an aristocratic family works as a dishwasher while his mother performs with herons in front of distinguished guests and conducts business from a helicopter. The father spends his merry days drinking alone in his room, until one day his son brings home a cheerful bunch of drunken drifters with whom he will immediately strike up a heartfelt friendship. The ostensible serenity conceals a calm neurosis; with elegant aplomb, the unresolved vexations of daily urban life are brought to the surface, not to resolve them but to look at them for what they are, escapable contingencies.

While most of Iosseliani’s cinema has been concerned with the static nature of ordinary movements and routines, Monday Morning (2002) is a pleasant detour that follows a middle-aged family man who, in order to be closer to his family, leaves it behind. Iosseliani’s films his protagonist’s trip to Venice as if through the character’s own eyes, sharing with him his longing for a different landscape. Once again Iosseliani manages to film a city vulgarized by too many postcards from a magical, nameless perspective where every occurrence exudes wonder and every encounter is revelatory. Regenerated by his journey, the father will return to his home and family: his son spots him while hand-gliding over their family turf, a Rhône valley inhabited by crocodiles. From the French countryside back to Paris in Jardins en automne (2006), the government’s Minister of Agriculture loses his job and has to go back to a terrestrial reality, one he initially struggles with but eventually finds far more fulfilling than his previous career; now in his fifties, he is finally free to hang out with friends and old lovers, and start a new life far from the regal constraints of institutional politics. Like a garden blossoming in autumn, the protagonist finds a new reason to live late in his life, enjoys once again the company of his old mother (a great performance from Michel Piccoli), and dedicate his time to flowers, wine and friends.

Iosseliani’s latest film, Chantrapa (2010), is a parodic, autobiographical take on the hardships of making films under censorial restraints, in Soviet Georgia as well as in democratic France. A young filmmaker struggles to have his film made, first in his native Georgia and then in France, where he migrates in the hopes of greater artistic freedom. After many hilarious vicissitudes, where censorship appears as both comical and obtuse, the young filmmaker will finally have his film premiered; only one elderly spectator (played by Iosseliani himself) and his beautiful wife will stay to the end.

“When a film is successful, I think, it’s always a bad sign,” Iosseliani ponders. “As far as I’m concerned to make ‘great cinema’ is absolutely impossible, the very idea repels me. These are my criteria, there is nothing I can do about it.” For perhaps nothing can be done about many things except comprehending the charming insanity of human life on earth in all its meaningless beauty. The meditative irony of Iosseliani’s cinema stands out for its unexpected angle that somehow manages to show a familiar thing in a completely different light. The surreal animal presences that populate many of his movies seem to suggest the awe and shock with which animals must look at us, a perspective that Iosseliani’s look whimsically conveys. As modern life accelerates beyond any limit, depriving life of the time it requires, Iosseliani’s cinema is a timely reminder of how vital idleness is. He is, after all, a director who films the ineluctable fate of objects and wo/men in all its absurd, painful and ridiculous magnificence while trying to salvage the time we don’t seem to have, let alone master. An inconspicuous, charming anti-conformist whose simple and profound cinema feels more like friendships than films, evoking the fading art and pleasure of conviviality.

Locarno Interview: Otar Iosseliani Chant D'Hiver - Film Comment  Nick Pinkerton interview, August 19, 2015

While the France-based Georgian director Otar Iosseliani has somewhat passed out of fashion in the Euro fest circuit, he’s never even had his moment with North American audiences. His Adieu, plancher des vaches! won the Prix Louis Delluc in 1999; under the title Farewell, Home Sweet Home, it’s one of a handful of Iosseliani films available on home video with English subtitles. Now Chant d’hiver, the octogenarian’s first film since Chantrapas was an official selection in Cannes in 2010, premiered at Locarno in competition for the Golden Leopard. A supremely relaxed film made with a tender, steady touch, the movement of the characters nudging the frame this way and that, it never appeared to be anyone’s frontrunner to win anything, but one cannot imagine that this fact much disturbed Iosseliani who seems, in art as in life, inclined to take the long view.

Iosseliani was born in Tblisi, Georgia, in 1934, and he was trained in music at the Tblisi conservatory until 1953, after which he lit off for the University of Moscow to study math—both early vocations would crucially inform his future practice. He next proceeded to the VGIK film school which, during the smothering years in which Socialist Realism was the official aesthetic of the Soviet-influenced world, had become a hotbed of dissident thought. After achieving an international reputation with such films as Falling Leaves (67) and There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (71), Iosseliani emigrated to France in search of greater creative freedom, re-establishing himself after one of the periodic hiatuses which would characterize his career with 1984’s Favorites of the Moon (Les Favoris de la lune). Tending towards the use of a withdrawn, observational perspective and the patient development of minutely-calibrated non-gag gags, Iosseliani works in a mode which we might indulge in calling Tati-esque, if only to give the vaguest idea of how his films play. This shorthand, however, fails to account for Iosseliani’s occasional incursions into the realm of fairy tale logic—as in a moment in Chant d’hiver when a passage which appears magically in a grotty suburban wall opens onto an Arcadian grove—or his peculiar political perspective, a sort of bemused outrage.

Chant d’hiver (“Winter Song”) opens with two juxtaposed prologues—one set during the Post-Revolutionary Terror in Paris, another during what is presumably the 2008 Russo-Georgian War—then settles in to focus on the comings and goings of the various residents of a Parisian apartment building and their tertiary acquaintances, most prominently the concierge, Rufus, who carries on a sideline of trading bazookas for antiquarian books. The ensemble includes Enrico Ghezzi, playing a down-at-the-heels gentryman whose family keep is about to become property of the state, Mathieu Amalric as a tramp constructing his own shelter from stray rubble which he will decorate with his family’s promissory notes as a finishing touch, and the actor-director Pierre Etaix, a Jeff to Rufus’s Augustus Mutt. Add to this a band of roller-skating pickpockets, a police chief with the profile of Della Francesca’s Duke of Urbino, and a hobo being pancaked, Looney Tunes–style, by a steamroller that may as well be ACME brand, and you have a small sense of Iosseliani’s quiet-yet-bustling film, which has something like the perspective of the world observed from a park bench.

I met Iosseliani at the Ramada Hotel La Palma during the Locarno Film Festival, in his suite facing onto Lake Maggiore, bright blue and scintillating with sunshine—though he preferred to converse indoors, with the curtains drawn. I had been told that he was a very bibulous man given to extravagant discourses on history and literature, and neither of these things proved untrue, though I don’t mean it as a pejorative. Upon my arrival, he hastily buttoned his shirt over a Georgian cross pendant, freshly uncorked a bottle of red wine, and splashed a dash into the bottom of two glasses.

It’s a Georgian tradition to pour a little taste first, to make certain it’s not poisoned. This is a gift from the Russians so… It was the Sicilian mafia who sent a letter to someone along with some wine, saying “Don’t be afraid to drink it.”

Thank you. So, let’s start where Chant d’hiver starts, which is where all of your films start: with the war. Each time it’s the same, and each time it’s different.

War is always useless, it doesn’t change anything. War between neighbors, between political parties, between states, war to conquer territories—it has no use whatsoever. Starting from the First World War, filmmakers have been laughing at war, mocking it, starting with Charlie Chaplin. The only result of war is pillage. So what I had fun with was the image of soldiers taking away a water closet on their truck as loot, along with an old mattress and tents. Also the image of the army priest, who is clearly also part of the invading horde, who’s completely covered with tattoos, baptizing these awful men, the worst of men, in the clear water of the river. And what is the war trophy? What did the soldiers get from all that? Nothing at all. A water closet, mattresses, broken clocks, a piano, it’s all it’s there… And as usual in the army, there is always an idiot who can only play piano with two fingers. And he plays a sentimental song, which is the same song that comes at the end of the film.

It seems like they’re pillaging trash not because it has any value in and of itself, but in keeping with a tradition of pillaging independent of any actual value of the items—an arbitrary gesture.

It’s rubbish. And then of course there’s the guillotine.

Yes, you place images from the French Revolution right next to those from the Russo-Georgian War.

Several years ago, the French celebrated the bicentennial of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lake of blood flowing, just… blood. But instead of having a day of mourning for the bicentennial, they had a party. Though it might look like a paradox, they celebrate instead of crying. They beheaded Louis XVI, an innocent clockmaker. They beheaded Marie Antoinette, who didn’t understand anything about what was happening. Though what was interesting is that the Terror didn’t take place during Louis XIV’s reign… But the guillotine was obligatory for my film. It was just to give some clues about the story. You don’t know where the concierge character that Rufus plays comes from, but you understand that he’s an ex-aristocrat who now is a professional speculator, trading books for weapons or weapons for books. He’s an intellectual and an aristocrat, making business with these things. The good thing about him is he’s poor, so he’s an honest aristocrat, which is usually not the case with the aristocracy—they’re not honest, quite arrogant, snobbish, illiterate. Today most castles and noble mansions are rented out for Japanese or Chinese weddings, these big wedding events. We have found a way of amusing ourselves with all the bizarre, absurd things that have happened on this planet, and during the short time we are given to live on the planet, we never stop doing those stupid things, silly things. [Indicating the interviewer’s too-dainty sip of wine] Drink, drink! It’s no poison, you can drink safely!

And the nobleman we see being beheaded in the Terror at the beginning, with pipe in mouth, is a distant relation of some of the character who we encounter in the present day?

In my script it was written that he was Balthazar the First, followed by Balthazar the Second, the Third, the Fourth, onto the Sixth. When Balthazar the First is decapitated, a woman who is knitting next to the guillotine collects his head and tucks it into her apron. These women who would knit beside the guillotine between executions were called the knitters [les tricoteuses]. Years later, a little wicked girl who is a descendant of that woman knitting has that skull as her legacy. And just by chance, the neighbor of the main character, Balthazar, is a anthropologist who looks, checks, and analyzes the skull, and guesses whose head it was. And he reconstructs the head and the traits of his friend, who is now a concierge. I mean, cinema is something very serious, but sometimes it’s fun building these kinds of puzzles.

All of this backstory with the multiple generations, the means whereby this skull is passed through different hands and eventually comes back into this same apartment building where a distant relation is living and working… It’s implicit, maybe, but it’s not in the film, per se. You seem to have written a lot of backstory that isn’t actually incorporated into the movie, but is there for, perhaps, the performers to know.

You see, there are multiple methods to telling a story. The first one is the drama, whereby you tell the story of the character and everything—George Sand’s novel Consuelo or Dickens’s Dombey and Son, there you really narrate the story, give the whole history of the character or characters, and you tend to identify with them. In Hamlet, you don’t know the whole story of Mr. Hamlet’s character; you only know that he wants to know the truth. So he’s asking himself some general metaphysical questions, the famous monologue: “To be or not to be.” Or, for instance, in Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, you don’t know either Gargantua or Pantagruel’s characters. So there’s also another method, which consists of analyzing the phenomena that occur on the earth. An example would be Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), or Chekhov. In Chekhov, this very wicked, savage satire of society is kind of camouflaged, hidden, concealed behind the helplessness of the characters, the helplessness of people confronted with the phenomena of life. From this perspective, all of Emile Zola’s novels are satirical, but the satire is concealed within this apparent helplessness of people. Did you ever read Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers?

I did.

It’s a satire. To tell you the use of satirical things: Churchill, at the Tehran Conference, would smoke a cigar when he was sitting with Stalin and Roosevelt. So, during the Tehran Conference, Churchill was smoking a cigar, and there was a Russian colonel who walks into the hall, and he has a cigarette. And Churchill was keeping a long hunk of ash on the end of his cigar, just keeping it in place, just keeping it from falling, and here comes the Russian colonel who says, “Can you give me a light?” In this moment, Churchill was a member of the Pickwick Club. So Churchill says “No,” he keeps his ash in place, doesn’t offer the cigar, and Stalin must take a matchbox out of his pocket, light a match, and offer: “Hey Colonel, come here.” I think all of these stories of people with power are funny. Another example: at the conference in Tehran, Churchill decided to arrive late. Because when Stalin would walk in, everybody would stand up, except Roosevelt, presumably because he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t stand up. And Churchill was so full of amour-propre that he wanted to be late so that everybody would stand up including Stalin, who was already there. Churchill wrote about it in his memoir, and that this was kind of a bet. But he lost it because when he walked in, Stalin was pouring himself a drink, so he was already standing. They’re like kids. It was all a game.

It’s interesting that you mention Dickens, among others, because it seems to be that the world that your films create—certainly Chant d’hiver does—is an early 19th-century world, where you have your aristocrats in disguise, your vagabonds, and your wastrels, and nothing really in between. The middle-class… I won’t say it doesn’t exist in the film, but it doesn’t seem to be of much interest to you.

No, there actually is a middle-class, a bourgeoisie, and it’s the character of the head cop, this big guy who is constantly directing and giving orders—to kick the homeless out of their shelters, for example. He also gives orders to his daughter, who plays the violin very badly. The institution of the French clochard [urban tramp], in fact, really starts with Victor Hugo’s description of the petit clochard Gavroche.1 Gavroche is a little aristocrat. He wants nothing. He’s got his principles.

Gavroche is an instance of a very particular type of high-low character that you’re attracted to. Chaplin’s Tramp is another one, a vagabond, but with an air of the aristocrat about him. Another is Churchill, an actual aristocrat of the Dukes of Marlborough, but who had this sort of rumpled bearing of a bum about him.

The funniest of all is the Queen of England, with her hats, and their very bad taste, and worst-of-all-taste outfit. It’s quite rare that a head of state is killed, like Lincoln, killed with a pistol while watching a play. Or John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was killed because he had become unbearable. We don’t know whether he was killed by the Russians or by the mafia. He got on the nerves of the Russians and the mafia. The example of what happens to two honest people. So everything looks like a marionette show, hence the greatness of the Italian commedia dell’arte. There’s a writer I really recommend you to read, Gianni Rodari, an Italian writer who wrote a story about a guy who was not allowed to sit. As soon as he sits down, he starts growing old. So he tries to never sit down, but sometimes he’s obliged to do so: to pay honor to someone, or to caress someone who’s sick in bed. So every time he sits down, he grows a little bit older. It’s like Balzac’s novella Peau de chagrin, in which the character becomes smaller and smaller, or The Picture of Dorian Gray.

So, anyways, I’m trying not to use the drama, the first storytelling method I mentioned. I try to put together the puzzle with conflicting pieces. Of course, it’s kind of difficult for the spectator to watch films like that. Because if you want to watch such a film, you need to have some background. It’s not an everyday film consumer who may like these kind of films. Even if you only want to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, you’ve got to do some work with your brain, you’ve got to carry out some intellectual work. And intellectual work is not fashionable these days because it requires some kind of spiritual effort. What does it mean to be a pessimist? A pessimist is a well-informed optimist.

There is a phrase in in American English, the Rube Goldberg machine, which refers to a grand mechanism made up of innumerable moving parts. There’s an element of this to your films. The first half, roughly, is setting up and establishing all these characters with their various motives, and then the second part is just sort of letting them bounce off of one and another and watching what course they take. Once all of the balls have been set in motion, they almost take on a life of their own.

I really try to conduct a sort of propaganda campaign, saying that each person who wishes to take a pen to write, or take a paintbrush to paint, or start composing music, must know at least some of the rules of the form. So everyone should be a little bit of a mathematician. If we take music… Music is probably the closest art to mathematics. In music, you have a polyphonic composition, and then you have the counterpart. You’ll never come across a sonata by Beethoven, Prokofiev, even Shostakovich or Gershwin, that doesn’t have a structure. Structure is the most important thing. It’s the skeleton of the work. So my film is first of all written to charm the people who have the means to fund this idiocy. Then the real structuring process starts. All of my films are designed and conceived from the beginning until the end. I don’t like to do shot-reverse shots. I don’t like to film people in close-ups. Because the close-up shows human nature, and it becomes very concrete. And I don’t like working with famous actors, because that destroys the narrative. Take for example Gérard Depardieu. Imagine for a second that Depardieu plays in my film, or Catherine Deneuve…

But here you’re working with both Mathieu Amalric, who has become quite a celebrity since you first featured him in Favorites of the Moon, and Pierre Etaix…

Yes, but Pierre is not a film star. He’s a very, very good actor, and he knows his job. And the actor who plays the anthropologist, he’s a professional actor. But when you see Depardieu on the screen, you think about all the roles he played. But I really like Gregory Peck, for instance. He’s Georgian, the name was “Peckiashvli.”2 George Balanchine is also Georgian, the real name is “Balanchivadze.” I would love to have Gregory Peck in my film, but it’s impossible. I love Audrey Hepburn, but it’s impossible for her to be in my film. They would destroy my set. What’s important for the structure of the film is that the spectators don’t know the people in the film except as what they play in the film. Take my friend Michel Piccoli. I made him play a woman once, in Jardins en automne [“Gardens in Autumn”]. I showed my film to someone who knew a great deal about films, and he said “Michel Piccoli was somewhere in there, but I’m not sure where he was.” Had it not been for the journalists who wrote that Michel Piccoli was playing a woman, nobody would have guessed. So I tend to prefer that such actors use a mask. And the first mask… was the fig leaf. [Pantomimes a fig leaf over his groin]

It’s interesting that you brought up the parallel with mathematics when talking about structure because it seems to me that in this film in particular, there are a lot of elements from your previous films—Favorites of the Moon, for instance—but reordered and placed in new relationships… The figures stay the same, but the equation is different.

Yes, you are perfectly right. My friend Tarkovsky once said that you can’t do a different film every time. You keep making the same film, but with time that film changes. When you’re looking at an object from different viewpoints, the object won’t change but you may look at the object this way, that way, upwards, downwards, in detail or from afar, etcetera. But the object is the same. And whatever we do comes from very long ago, all the way from Homer, from Sophocles, Rabelais, Dante. We are like the bridge made up of everything we’ve absorbed in the past. We are the result of what has been done and absorbed all the way to us. We are here as a bridge to pass on the things that we have absorbed, with our point of view added to it. This includes Mark Twain, Flaubert, Anatole France, all that has been thought and communicated; we absorbed it and we digested it. Though I must admit that I couldn’t get beyond the halfway point of James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I know what it’s all about. It made me tired. I got tired, because I know what it’s all about. And I never read Don Quixote. But I know the story.

I’ve always heard it said that the Georgians boast of being the one people who had a continuous link to Antiquity, a direct, unbroken line to Greek and Mediterranean cultures. Hearing you talk like this, I believe it.

First of all, Georgian writing is only the 14th successful attempt at a method to put thinking down onto paper. In Georgia, we have no dictation at school, because you write exactly the way you pronounce. For each sound, you have a letter. So there’s no need to have dictations. For instance, we don’t have that crazy thing they have in French… They have four dissonant ways of writing “e.” My name for instance is spelled with one “s” only. And it would be pronounced as “Iozeliani.” So you have to write it down with two “s” for the French to read it as “Ioseliani.” Unlike other cultures, the Georgians don’t have an oral storytelling tradition, but a sung tradition, based on intertwining polyphonic singing. First voice [sings a snatch of tune], second voice [sings another section], third voice [sings another]… Again, an example of how I feel like a bridge. Without that knowledge of polyphonics, I wouldn’t be able to make my films.

1. Iosseliani refers to 1862’s Les Misérables.

2. I could find no hard evidence whatsoever to support this claim, though it seems that there is a long-standing, unsubstantiated rumor that Peck has distant Armenian roots. (George Clooney and Saddam Hussein have also been variously tagged as stealth Armenians.) Given that Tblisi’s population was largely Armenian at the beginning of the 19th century, I suppose that this is what Iosseliani is referring to.

Otar Iosseliani Biography | Fandango


Otar Ioseliani - Director - Films as Director ... - Film Reference   Michel Ciment


Facets Multi-Media Article  overview by Susan Doll


Otar Iosseliani - Movies, Bio and Lists on MUBI


The Best Movies Directed by Otar Iosseliani - Flickchart


A Soviet Treasure Trove: Georgian Film and the Publications of ...   Josephine Sedgwick from BAMPFA, 1988


4 Films by Otar Iosseliani - DVD Beaver  March 11, 2005


Stimulating cinema: Otar Iosseliani FilmFest Day 1...   John V. from Stimulating Faculties, November 10, 2011


Stimulating cinema: Otar Iosseliani FilmFest Day 2...  John V. from Stimulating Faculties, November 10, 2011


Stimulating cinema: Otar Iosseliani FilmFest Day 3...    John V. from Stimulating Faculties, November 10, 2011


Arsenal: Otar Iosseliani Retrospective  March 2012


Otar Iosseliani: Early Shorts, 1958–64 | MoMA  December 2, 2014


Silence in Otar Iosseliani's "Fallen Leaves": An Exploration of Negative ...   An Exploration of Negative Space in Soviet Film History, 28-page essay by Anna Tropnikova, May 11, 2016  (pdf)


Music for the Deaf: Pastorali by Otar Iosseliani - Jugend ohne Film    Patrick Holzapfel, June 8, 2016


TSPDT - Otar Iosseliani  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


[ | The Topics :: Otar Ioseliani Interviewed by Mikhail ...   Mikhail Lemkhin interview in 1991 in San Francisco, first published by the Russian daily newspaper Novoie Russkoe Slovo, September 11, 1993


Otar Iosseliani - Wikipedia


APRIL (Aprili)

Russia  (46 mi)  1961  also (30 mi version)

User reviews from imdb Author: philipdavies from United Kingdom

This short film, from Iosseliani's apprentice years during the Soviet era in his native Georgia, is a charming, humorous, yet barbed, contemporary fable of modern life and traditional values.

It shows the age-old tension between the tender intimacy of young love and the blundering officiousness of serious adult society. Along the way it shows the public mobilization of Labour in conflict with the private need for space in which to cultivate the personal, be it physical or musical culture, or the mutual rapture of intimacy. Indeed, the film may be said to deplore the increasing 'meuble-isation' of Soviet society, as its 'embourgement' proceeds apace to stuff the clean modern apartments of the new worker's housing development with heavy black furniture and fragile glass ornaments.

As little old men dressed in dingy black overalls and flat caps begin to infest the streets and corridors of the lover's home town with the increasingly distracting noise and bustle of unwanted deliveries of unwanted, ugly, old-fashioned, furniture, Iosselliani's whimsical yet shrewd penchant for Tati-esquire comedy is given much scope. But there is a native Georgian poetry in his heart, also.

The young couple move into one of the new apartments, and are delighted with its clean, uncluttered modernity: All the modern conveniences of daily living, such as the running water on tap in the kitchen, the large gas-range, and the electric light are welcomed with the same innocent wonder as the traditional beauties of Georgian nature, in which the lovers originally had their tryst. Indeed, so magical are these socialist goods, that the bulb lights, the water flows, and the gas rings leap with flame merely in sympathetic response to the lover's desire!

But all soon goes wrong, as the couple sit, alienated from each other, in their now hopelessly cluttered flat, by the obstacle of possessions, with a jail-like array of locks and padlocks and chains and bolts on the entrance to secure the imposed paranoia of this materialist burden. No longer do the bulb, the gas, and the water glow and dance and sparkle at will for them!

Sadly, the ancient tree, where lovers must have met for generations before ours were born and came to meet there themselves in happier days, is chopped down by the little, Kafkaesque, human furniture-beetles, in order to inflict yet more hideous appurtenances of an uncomfortable existence on the already cramped lives of the people.

However, in a joyous rebellion against all such pointless and restricting formalism, whereby the most trivial details of private life have somehow been unsympathetically dictated without any prior consultation, the inhabitants begin throwing their furniture out of the windows, satisfactorily reducing it to matchwood below! (The Soviet censors took a dim view of such anti-social waste.)

Even the young Iosselliani has a wonderfully keen eye, and there are wonderful scenes, both comic and piquant. He also possesses a remarkable cinematic intelligence, demonstrating here a superb technical finesse in the construction and cinematography of his film. The use of sound, in what is essentially an example of 'Cinema muto,' is particularly brilliant, and orchestrated to a degree that again puts us in mind of Tati. The use of people as mimes of the director's intentions, rather than as actors in their own right, is also reminiscent of Tati's approach to film performance.

The whole effect is dreamlike and magical, leaving one with the sense only folk-tales can give, of having recollected the story from somewhere - perhaps one's earliest years - and never really forgotten it. I had the strange feeling that I had seen it somewhere before, long ago ... and yet I know this cannot be possible.

There is a timelessness in the world Iosselliani has conjured up here which has been patiently awaiting our return to consciousness of it. And thanks to Cahiers du Cinema and 'blaq out' it awaits anyone who wishes to have it, since it has been issued in France as part of a wonderful boxed set of 7 DVD recordings of a lifetime of Iosseliani films.

The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz] [Rob Janik]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani


FALLING LEAVES (Giorgobistve)

Russia  (91 mi)  1966 [Rob Janik]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani

Multi award-winner at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin Film Festivals, Otar Iosseliani is a Georgian filmmaker whose works feel like 'silent talkies'. They contain a unique sense of nostalgia and a poetic casualness that is characterized by the 'joyous pessimism' of his universe. In 1962, the short film completed at the end of his studies, 'April', was immediately banned by the Soviet authorities. His first three features: 'Falling Leaves' (1966), 'There Once Was a Singing Blackbird' (1970), 'Pastorale' (1976), were similarly banned or restricted severely on release...

The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani



aka:  Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird

Russia  (85 mi)  1970


The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani

The still-underappreciated—and never American-distributed—Georgian master has been living and working in France for almost 30 years, but here come, on two discs, his long-sought Soviet films, each of them distinguished by Iosseliani's comic nonchalance and casual inventiveness. The nearly mute, Tati-esque featurette April (1961)—in which a tumbledown village is transformed into a community of rabid apartment house materialists—is both openly socialist and the first of the filmmaker's films to be censored; Falling Leaves (1968) established his rhythmic realism, following a young bureaucrat into Caucasian wine country. There Once Was a Singing Blackbird (1970)—bearing a stock Georgian-fairy-tale title—might be the world-beater, fondly and hilariously considering its restless, immature antihero-schnook as he flits around Tbilisi unable to get a stranglehold on life's demands and at the same time reveling in virtually everyone's company for its own sake. The aptly yet ironically titled Pastorale (1975) is just as anti-authoritarian, detailing the collision between a spite-filled rural hamlet and a visiting string quartet—except that there is no collision, only glancing intersections, unspoken impressions, and wry relationships, painting a blithe portrait of cultural disconnection that had distinctly anti-state implications. Supplements are unnecessary, but a bit of context is provided: a taped exegesis by a Moscovite scholar and film school contemporary of Iosseliani. [Rob Janik]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani



aka:  Pastoral

Georgia  Russia  (95 mi)  1975


User reviews from imdb Author: rwilson-7 from San Francisco CA

The plot is very simple. For some bizarre reason, a string quartet from Tbilisi is sent to spend a summer in a very rural community. The incomprehension is mutual. The community is in the throes of some obscure ancient enmities and hasn't the time to worry about the weird sophisticates who have dropped in. The musicians suddenly find themselves as reluctant anthropologists trying to find a way to function in what they thought was their country. The only connection between these two groups is a girl who is entranced by the music but who knows all too well the enmities. The resolution is of all these conflicts is touching without being even remotely sentimental.

To give you some idea of how good this movie is, you should know that I saw it a year after it was made, in Georgian, without subtitles or a translator. At the end of the film, the audience at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives rose as one and applauded. It is a wonderful movie.

User reviews from imdb Author: ( from Germany

I loved this film for its simplicity , typically Russian , Tarkoswki style shots and some great music . a group of musicians from Tbilisi are sent to a remote village in Georgia to practice and there with the medium of a rural girl they try to get to know the people who are totally different than them , but still are their countrymen !

I loved the shot when a train from Russia was passing by and the gazes of all the soldiers and " chic" city people was encountering with those of this poor village .... the characters of the village people are quite funny , very simple, still humorous and humble ...

it showed how different people from different backgrounds can be and how simply they could get to understand their different lifestyles ... the curious way the girl was playing the piano and how anxiously she put the record given by a cellist to her to play was really awesome , i loved this movie !!

PASTORALI (Otar Iosseliani, 1976) | Dennis Grunes

Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.

— Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, German Professor of Things in General

I have seen three earlier films of his (April, 1961; Falling Leaves, 1968; Once Sung a Thrush, 1970), but the great Georgian film artist Otar Iosseliani’s first truly signature work is Pastorali. Typically, Pastorali ran afoul of Soviet complaints and censorship, and by the time it saw the light of public showings Iosseliani had already fled to France, where he currently resides. (He returned home, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to make the remarkable 1996 Brigands, Chapter VII.) Otar Mekhrishvili and Revaz Inanishvili co-authored the script of his that Iosseliani brilliantly directed.

Pastorali opens in the city—Iosseliani’s own Tbilisi, in fact—where arrangements are being made for a string quartet to spend the summer in the country. The reason? As usual, Iosseliani doesn’t bother us (or himself) with details of plot. Who can say why the four young musicians—two guys, two gals—leave the city, civilization as they know it, for a half-dozen fortnights. When they arrive at their arranged lodgings, at the home of kolhozniks, they rehearse, so perhaps they left Tbilisi for what they (inaccurately) anticipated would be the sheer quiet and tranquility of a rural setting. Perhaps they desired to enrich their classical reflexes by immersing themselves in the folk musical traditions that prevail in farm country. While there, they end up becoming cultural anthropologists by recording the kolhozniks’ singing. But we have no way of knowing, because Iosseliani doesn’t tell us, whether doing this was a motive for their visit or something that came to them once, there, they had been swept up by the enchantment of the local music. And, of course, Iosseliani is right not to tell us. This is a film about what people do, not about why they do it.

What people do in this film is work. Only once have I seen a film in which people do so much work, of so many different kinds. (The other occasion: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1928.) Oh, the village men quarrel a bit (well, a lot, then), and there is a communal feast replete with song and spirits; but, mostly, the collective farmers and their womenfolk work—as, mostly, do their guests from Tbilisi. Iosseliani doesn’t suffocate us with plot, but his film richly details the work that the characters do.

A good deal of the labor that the film shows is farm work: chopping this, hauling that, shepherding animals, milking a cow, and so on. Perhaps the Soviet authorities, still angling to promote the fantasy of a workers’ paradise, were upset by Iosseliani’s implicit exposure of the fact that, in this “socialist” society, kolhozniks competed with one another for more or less income based on the amount they produce—although by this time the state had instituted income guarantees, and more and more farmers worked their own plots rather than state-owned land. (In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nearly 44% of farms throughout the nation and its Eastern bloc satellites chose to remain state-owned rather than becoming privatized.) But I digress from my own work here. When the four musicians from the city arrive, one of them kicks aside a bottle that had been upright in the road. Later, in this wondrous comedy that’s chock-full of Tatiesque moments, a farmer lugging a hill of hay so huge that it completely conceals his or her identity pauses at the spot in order to reset the kicked bottle into an upright position—if you will, work inside other work. (It is also a lovely human moment interrupting what might otherwise seem labor akin to animal labor.) The women are shown endlessly engaged in cooking and housecleaning. Moreover, activities that we normally do not consider work impress us as such in the context of working that the film provides. For instance, a teenaged daughter in the family that is hosting the musicians takes an immediate shine to the younger male in the quartet. We see her grooming her hair while looking into a mirror so she can look her best, in hopes of catching his attention. Her intentness, her earnestness, her concentration as she goes about this ordinary task converts it into pressing work. It’s a revelatory moment.

As is his delightful wont, Iosseliani has fashioned a mostly silent film. (It is also in black and white, and beautifully cinematographed by Abessalom Maisuradze.) There is minimal dialogue. The sounds we hear in the film are mainly those of musical instruments and voices in song, and the squawking, mooing, oinking, barking and chattering of all kinds of animals—farm, domestic and wild. There are wonderful shots of these animals. In an early one, a herd of pigs of all sizes move along, away from the camera. It is a very funny shot. Later, when a skinned pig is roasted for a feast, the discretion of the camera placement, retroactively, lends unexpected poignancy to the earlier shot. Another shot features a large herd of sheep crossing a road. A bus disturbs the orderly procession of part of the herd up ahead, while in the same shot another part of the herd, closer to the camera, remains uniformly intact. The image is visually complex and, like so much of this film, it delights. We cannot help but relate the two different forms in which the party of sheep appears to forms of humanity as they also appear in the film: lives structured and controlled by the work they must attend to, and boisterous lives bursting out of this structure and control.

This is also a film of faces, in which Iosseliani directs his camera to find what is distinctive in the face of each ordinary person. Iosseliani shows great affection for all his characters, who come in all ages, sizes and shapes. Concerning the musicians, Pastorali avoids “fish-out-of-water” material; neither city nor country is used to give the other a comical beating. The guests are treated graciously and courteously by the villagers, and they remain guests; there’s no sentimental nonsense here, where these four become new members of an extended country family. One guest mingles, giving the teenaged girl a piano lesson that draws from her an unexpected warm smile; another refuses to socialize on account of the hosts’ “cheap wine.” The latter remark, along with the bottle-kicking incident, helps underscore the different worlds to which these two groups of people belong, and this in turn helps spare the conclusion, with the musicians back in Tbilisi, of a bogus feeling of regret for having left behind them some idyllic summer. Pastorali sticks to reality and condescends to no one, including us the audience.

I am reminded of Tennyson’s Ulysses: “He works his work; I, mine.”

But then what doesn’t remind me of Tennyson’s Ulysses?

Music for the Deaf: Pastorali by Otar Iosseliani - Jugend ohne Film    Patrick Holzapfel, June 8, 2016


Martin Teller


Ozus' World Movie Reviews [Dennis Schwartz]


The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]  4 films by Otar Iosseliani


DVDBeaver   4 films by Otar Iosseliani by Rob Janik


FAVORITES OF THE MOON (Les favoris de la lune)

France  Italy  Russia  (105 mi)  1984

Spirituality & Practice [Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat]

Otar Iosseliani's idiosyncratic French movie Favorites of the Moon is a charming and consistently interesting meditation on the bizarre twists of fate that draws people and possessions together and then apart again. The film could be subtitled "adventures of a 19th-century painting and an 18th-century porcelain dinner service." These objects pass in and out of the hectic, zany, ordinary, depressing and confusing lives of an art dealer, a thief, a chief inspector of police, a gun dealer, an inventor, a beautician, several bums, and a crazy old man. With quaint patience, the director creates a spellbinding drama about the serendipity of life and the evanescence of things.

Time Out

The lunatic dance which constitutes the action need trouble no one who remembers the pool-table ploy of Nashville by which an endless supply of characters are cannoned off each other. More difficult is the remoteness and enigma which mark many of the episodes; the moods are fragile and often shifting. The tale woven by the crossing paths of these thieves and lovers may be about the way that, as the price of a work of art increases, so art itself is devalued, but this is pursued tenuously, allowing many crazed asides. What unifies the episodes is a patient moral scourging of our greed and futile desires; but where the British would use satire, this opts for the French form of Tatiesque anarchy and fun. And fun it certainly is.

Chicago Reader (Dave Kehr)


Director Otar Iosseliani calls his film an "abstract comedy," and it's clear what he means: it isn't the actors who are funny (most of them are nonprofessionals), and neither do they say funny things. Instead, the wit depends on a dryly distanced global vision of the infinite interconnectedness of people, things, and events. Iosseliani (Pastorale), a native of the former Soviet Georgia, chose Paris as the setting for his first non-Russian film, and the city has rarely looked so vibrantly alive as it does in this curious outsider's view. Among the characters are a bomb manufacturer, his manicurist girl friend, an anarchist schoolteacher, a baby-faced police chief, a gentleman thief, a punk rock singer, and assorted prostitutes and bums; their lives intersect in unpredictable, complex, and ironic patterns. The closest reference point is, perhaps, Tati.


CHASING BUTTERFLIES (La chasse aux papillons)

France  Italy  Germany  (115 mi)  1992


Time Out

In a quiet French village bursting with châteaux and devoted to music (despite everyone apparently being tone-deaf), riding, selling off the antique furniture and putting up with Hare Krishna folk, two elderly women are determined to hang on to their family home, despite interest from Japanese hoteliers. Then time takes its toll… Another enormously charming, melancholic-comic meditation on changes in the modern world, with Iosseliani turning up as a friendly phantom and a nice brief interlude in argumentative Georgia. Cherishably idiosyncratic.

Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)


An elegant if rather remote ironic comedy (1993) by Otar Iosseliani (Favorites of the Moon), a Georgian filmmaker based mostly in France in recent years. Like Tati, Iosseliani films his characters and their whimsical behavior almost exclusively in medium and long shots, and like Bunuel, he seems more than a little amused by decadent aristocrats. But unlike these masters, he doesn't really qualify as a social observer; the worlds of his recent films suggest parables or allegories dreamed up by an expatriate more than concrete engagements with French life. I didn't much like this picture, though I feel I should have; I just couldn't get into the detached humor.


Strictly Film School  Acquarello

At a picturesque, provincial town in the French countryside, a train arrives at the station to the unusual sight of a maharaja (Sacha Piatigorsky) disembarking his private car and being greeted with minor fanfare by a small, receptive crowd accompanying a deliberately mannered esquire named Henri der Lampadere (Alexandre Tscherkassoff), before the dignitary is chauffeured away to der Lampadere's estate for a holiday visit. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a peripatetic elderly woman named Solange (Narda Blanchet), whisks through the routine of her morning errands in the village - buying fresh leeks from a produce cart merchant and a baguette from the boulangerie - before returning home in time to wake her neighbor, a disorganized, alcoholic priest named Andre (Emmanuel de Chauvigny) with a chronic hangover, for morning church services at the local parish (who, upon arriving late, quickly deflects the scriptural reading to a parishioner conveniently standing nearby as he sits down to rest and collect his thoughts). After mass, Solange then travels on her trusty bicycle to a grand chateau where a group of camped out, incessantly chanting hari-krishnans and an errant tenant farmer with a noisy, oversized tractor seem to have overrun the estate grounds from the eccentric chateau owner, Solange's frail, wheelchair-bound, gun toting, sharp-shooting cousin, Marie-Agnes de Bayonette (Thamara Tarassachvili) and her docile housekeeper, Valerie (Pierette Pompom Bailhache). The muted, oddly surreal opening images set an appropriately idiosyncratic and surreal tone to the droll, but incisive interconnected vignettes into the everyday affairs and chagrined reality of fading aristocracy, as the neighboring chateau owners, der Lampadere and de Bayonette, cordially engage in petty territoriality, concoct ways to finance the expensive upkeep of their deteriorating ancestral property, fend off greedy opportunists eager to swindle the gullible, idle rich on the sale of priceless antiques languishing in their chateaus, and resist the ever-increasing temptation to sell the lucrative property to international investors.

Georgian born, Soviet expatriate Otar Iosseliani, having studied under famed Russian silent film pioneer Aleksandr Dovzhenko at the All Russia State Institute for Cinematography (VGIK), expounds on his cinematic mentor's innately poetic narrative and precise attention to indigenous specificity to create a lyrical and wickedly observant, farcical social comedy in Chasing Butterflies. Unfolding in elegant long shots with the near wordless - though not silent - physical precision and empathetic situational absurdity that recalls the films of Jacques Tati (whom Ioselliani greatly admired and immediately sought out after immigrating to France), Ioselliani's self-described abstract comedy captures the entrenched - and increasingly outmoded - societal milieu of the bourgeoisie and idle aristocracy in modern day France through implicit irony, incisive observation of cultural minutiae, and patently offbeat surrealism: the news broadcast of random terrorist acts that presages an indirectly consequential bombing (in an uncoincidental scenario that evokes the social irreverence of Luis Buñuel, specifically, his final film, That Obscure Object of Desire); the repeated sounds of a ploddingly downbeat, musically lethargic brass and percussion band that contribute to the film's carnivalesque atmosphere and situational absurdity; the cursory, tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of a woman of African descent, the resourceful Caprice der Lampadere's (Maimouna N'Diaye) guided tour through her forefathers' family estate; Solange's morning routine that is subsequently mirrored in the humorous shot of a group of Japanese businessmen on bicycles. Through understatedly eloquent and wry human observation, Chasing Butterflies is as an evocative metaphor for society's ephemeral, untenable, and self-exhausting cycle of materialistic competition and privileged one-upmanship.

Read the New York Times Review »   Vincent Canby


BRIGANDS:  CHAPTER VII (Brigands, chapitre VII)             A                     97

France  Georgia  Russia  Italy  Switzerland  (129 mi)  1996


A French, Russian, Italian, Swiss production, the first since the liberation of the Soviet republics, this Georgian filmmaker currently resides in Paris, France to avoid Russian censorship, and the result is a brilliantly innovative film.  Combining three different eras of Georgian history, moving back and forth between the present and  16th century Georgia, the king is played by Amiran Amiranachvil, who places a locked chastity belt on his wife, then beheads her when she’s smart enough to have another key made to remove the belt.  Oh, and she sleeps with another man, the same actor is featured in Georgia in the 1930’s as a successful pickpocket enlisted by the communists, only to become a high ranking Stalinist Soviet official, and appears again as a modern day homeless drunk who dodges bullets in Georgia for vodka in Paris. 


All eras are thematically combined by the singing of songs, by the same actors, and by repeating conditions of brutality, expressed as a culture that attempts to torture its enemies “pitilessly.”  There is a musical chairs of power exchanging hands.  The graphic torture scenes are both horrific and hilarious, as the torturers bring their children to watch and learn.  The dark humor pervades every era, and in an unbelievably original cinematic style, considering the seriousness of the subject matter, this film is almost completely without dialogue, adding an almost Paradjanov style, but with an absolute rage against how indiscriminately ruthless and murderous Russian history is.  We are bombarded by images of authoritarianism run amok, innocent people lined up and shot, or tortured.  Lives are wasted for sport.  But be careful what you teach your children, as they’re likely to turn against you with what you’ve taught them, in this case, how to kill and kill ruthlessly.  But the homeless wino at the end expresses the Dostoevskian idiot, the evolution of the Russian spirit, and can only sing about a world he remembers as a youth, a fable really, as he’s forgotten how to live or hope for anything in this world.


Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum)


The Paris-based Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani has made about a dozen quirky features to date, and this ambitious 1996 fresco--a French-Russian-Italian-Swiss production--is the best of those I've seen. Moving back and forth between 16th-century Georgia, Stalinist Georgia, contemporary Georgia, and contemporary Paris, each of which solicits a somewhat different directorial style, the movie might be regarded as a mordant, witty variation on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance--a view of warfare and political corruption over the past four centuries, with the same actors playing different parts in all four periods. (The lead, Amiran Amiranachvil, plays a king in the 16th century, an early-20th-century pickpocket enlisted by communists, and a Paris clochard, for instance.) Keeping his camera at a certain measured distance from his action, Iosseliani's bleak view of human behavior is complex and amused enough to make this something more than a bitter tract; this picture is much closer to Tati or Buñuel than to Kubrick, and for all the horrors it depicts, it's never difficult to watch.


Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

Otar Iosseliani is sometimes called the "Georgian Jacques Tati," but the black humor of his 1996 feature Brigands, Chapter VII is closer to Luis Buñuel; Iosseliani even opens with a paying tribute to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by machine-gunning his cast during a dinner party. Then, however, the scene shifts to a projection booth, where the drunk projectionist is loudly cursed out for getting the reels in the wrong order and showing the film's ending first. As Brigands demonstrates, though, history, like a reel of film, runs in circles. In various eras, Brigands' protagonist, Vano (Amiran Amiranachvili), is a despotic medieval tyrant, a Stalinist official and a homeless man roaming the streets of present-day Paris. Recalling the time-shifting of Emir Kusturica's Underground, Iossseliani cuts deftly between eras, and between betrayals: Evil king Vano locks his wife in a chastity belt before heading off to battle, whereupon she promptly throws an extra key to the stable boy waiting below; Stalinist torturer Vano teaches his son to be such a good little communist that he promptly reports his parents for vaguely anti-government threats. The film's tone is one of forbearance rather than acceptance; with its knowledge that history can't change human nature comes a faith that tyrants inevitably sow the seeds of their own downfall. Regarded as a major figure overseas, Iosseliani is ill-represented in this country: Only one other film, Monday Morning, is available on video. Those with deep pockets and region-free players may want to shell out for a French box set collecting 10 of Iossliani's features, reportedly with English subtitles.

Desperate Measures [OUT OF SIGHT & THE BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII]    Jonathan Rosenbaum, July 3, 1998


New York Times (registration req'd)  Lawrence Van Gelder


FAREWELL, HOME SWEET HOME (Adieu, plancher des vaches!)          B+                   92

France  Switzerland  Italy  (118 mi)  1999


Farewell, Home Sweet Home, directed by Otar Iosseliani | Film review  Geoff Andrew from Time Out London

Iosseliani's wholly delightful, assured and typically idiosyncratic fable tells of the various reversals of fortune that affect a well to do 19-year-old, who rebels against his culture-vulture businesswoman mother and boozily indolent father. He forsakes the family chateau for café 'society, preferring the company of its denizens - Parisian dropouts, immigrants, barstaff - to home life. As ever, the jigsaw narrative slowly pieces itself together, and the overall dearth of dialogue means that the audience has to work for its pleasures. But it's a hugely charming piece, wondrously inventive, consistently witty, engaging in its devotion to the joys of wine, women and song, and somewhat deeper than it first appears.

San Francisco Examiner [G. Allen Johnson]

Disguised as a piece of quirky fluff, "Farewell, Home Sweet Home" is actually a most personal film for Iosseliani, a Russian-born director (from Georgia) who escaped the Iron Curtain in the late '70s and has been comfortably making films in France ever since. It's a good one, though its prize from international critics as best European film of 1999 seems excessive.

Like Iosseliani himself, who plays a supporting role as the alcoholic patriarch of an eccentric rich family, his characters quietly try to escape their fates.

The patriarch's wife (Lily Lavina) is a powerful businesswoman who commutes by helicopter and entertains dinner-party guests with a pet stork. Their son (Nico Tarielashvili) secretly goes to Paris each day, working as a dishwasher and hanging out with vagrants.

The rich want to be poor, the poor - the family maid, a waitress at a cafe, a working-class boy who lives in a closet - want to be important. Each character has a daily means of escape.

Episodic, seemingly plotless with fluid tracking shots that reveal destiny at work (or, more accurately, at play), it's too bad the film is not known by its French title, "Adieu, plancher des vaches," which translates to "Goodbye to the cow floor." It's a phrase 19th century sailors used whenever they left port, flippantly and optimistically suggesting the place they are going will be better than the place they are leaving.

The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]

A giant pet stork, with scanning eyes that quietly observe the human folly surrounding it, lends sanity and stability to Otar Ioseliani's cracked comic roundelay Farewell, Home Sweet Home, perhaps because it's the only character comfortable with its lot in life. The others, mainly members of a wealthy Parisian family, are leading absurd double lives in secret, illustrating the cliché, "the grass is greener on the other side." With exceptionally fluid camerawork and a gently mocking touch, Ioseliani's virtually plotless slice-of-life borrows elements from several great directors at once, combining the class-conscious irony of Luis Buñuel and the near-silent comedy of Jacques Tati with the daisy-chain elegance of Max Ophüls' The Earrings Of Madame De... It takes time to get oriented to the peculiar rhythms of Ioseliani's world, which establishes characters through behavior rather than dialogue, and takes only a slightly skewed perspective on the repetition and tedium of everyday life. There are no punchlines, no dramatic outbursts, and no traditional three-act structure, just an association of events that poke fun at the fickleness of human nature. Centering on the inhabitants of a suburban château, the characters attempt to escape their own lives by taking on separate identities. A well-to-do 19-year-old (Nico Tarielashvili) moonlights as a lowly dishwasher at a Paris bistro and hangs out with scruffy beggars; his mother (Lily Lavina), a businesswoman who flies to and from work in a helicopter, fancies herself a singer; and her father (Ioseliani) plays with a child's train set while drinking himself into a stupor. Meanwhile, a penniless sailor (Philippe Bas) dresses up in a suit and picks up women in a rented Harley Davidson, including a pretty barmaid (Stephanie Hainque) who rebuffs Tarielashvili's advances. There are at least another dozen other minor players, connected by the gliding camera movements that seamlessly link one comic vignette to the next. With its assured, breezily unassuming design, mapped out with architectural precision, Farewell, Home Sweet Home may sound like the work of an egghead formalist. But Ioseliani's warm, open-ended style, combined with his remarkably adroit use of non-actors, impresses with the unpracticed spontaneity of real life.

DVD Talk (Matt Langdon)


AboutFilm    Jeff Vorndam just didn’t like it at all


The Village Voice [Michael Atkinson]  also reviewing MONDAY MORNING


MONDAY MORNING (Lundi Matin)                    B+                   92                   

France  Italy  (120 mi)  2002


A quiet, slow-moving, gentle, and near wordless film, filled with absurdist humor, sort of a cross between Tati and the Kuarismaki’s, while also offering the feeling of the emotional isolation of a man living in exile, a stranger in a strange land.  Iosseliani is of Georgian descent living in Paris.  We follow the daily routine of a factory worker whose life seems dreary and meaningless.  The workers stand in front of the plant, all smoking in front of these giant no smoking signs, while billowing, toxic clouds spew out filth from the smokestacks behind them.  Largely ignored by his own family as well, we follow our hero as he disappears on a journey to Venice, immediately discovering a new extended family when he walks into a lively bar scene where all the patrons are singing Georgian folk songs.  They ply him with drinks, which is only the beginning of a non-stop, drunken escapade that seems to last for days.  Enjoying themselves by crawling on rooftops to drink, spying on bare-legged, gardening nuns, or barbequing in cemeteries, this merry band of brothers is never at a loss for music or drink.  But our hero must return to his family and his factory, escapist images fill the screen, integrated with a return to his daily routine, and life goes on.  The observations here are wise and compelling, and always filled with a biting sense of humor.


Time Out

This typically taciturn and droll comedy of modern manners from Paris-based Georgian auteur Iosseliani is in some respects a companion piece to his delightful, neglected Farewell, Home Sweet Home. Vincent (Bidou) lives with his wife, kids and mother in a French farming village; every Monday, he undergoes the routine of waking up, taking the train to town, and starting another week's work as a welder in a noisy, fume-filled factory. The job and the demands of an unappreciative family hardly leave time to pursue his passion for painting. Then a visit to his ailing black-sheep father revives forgotten dreams of travel; suddenly and without warning, Vincent's off on a voyage of self-discovery and indulgence, leaving his folk to fend for themselves. The narrative ambles at a pleasingly gentle pace, even making a brief diversion from Vincent's odyssey to take in his village's somewhat eccentric inhabitants, before rejoining him for a visit to Venice and a wonderfully wry account of male camaraderie. The humour is mainly physical, gestural and spatial, naturalistic in tone yet faintly surreal, and imbued throughout with an understanding of our need to be true to ourselves, to slip free once in a while, and to resist - but, alas, finally accept - life's inevitable compromises.

Slant Magazine  Ed Gonzalez

Vincent (Jacques Bidou) works as a welder at a local factory with a strict non-smoking policy. Ignored by his wife and children, this alienated would-be painter leaves for Venice looking for spiritual enlightenment. What follows is Otar Iosseliani's homage to Jacques Tati: Vincent leaves for work Mon Oncle-style; his voyage to Italy is like M. Hulot's Holiday; and a very ordinary day at work could be seen as a deleted Playtime. Despite these unmistakable shout-outs, Iosseliani avoids copying Tati's formal stylistics. In fact, there's a greater sense of realism at work here; no sound effects accompany any of the film's endless sight gags, and Iosseliani's use of long shot never calls too much attention to itself. Monday Morning isn't quite as ideological as Playtime yet Iosseliani is still concerned with our enslavement to technology, and while his use of mise-en-scène is uncluttered by Tati standards, Iosseliani's remarkable use of silence and overlapping action recalls Tati's fascination with the soullessness of repetition and drudgery of middle-class living. If Vincent doesn't make for a particularly memorable everyman, Iosseliani's playful obsession with everyday events makes his hero's trip to Italy that much more exceptional. This is where Monday Morning separates itself from Playtime: This life-affirming comedy actually contemplates our freedom from the machine.

The Horse [Jack Seale]
THE VISUAL GAG is advanced comedy - writing a funny line is much easier than doing a funny thing. So hail sexagenarian Georgian Otar Iosseliani, whose rapturous Lundi Matin is a hilarious film with virtually no dialogue, but with all the elegance and sadness of the great silent comedians.

One Monday, a weary spot-welder named Vincent (Jacques Bidou) tires of his job, wife, mother and kids, and goes on an alcoholic odyssey to see a friend in Venice. His nearest and dearest barely notice he's gone - like the rest of the people in the village, they're too busy performing the con tricks and deceptions that get them through the quiet desperation of trivial, everyday life.

The secret of a film that's wicked but heartfelt, exaggerated but precisely observed is a shared confession - that all of us cut corners every day of our lives, out of boredom, laziness or simply human nature. Iosseliani's boyish, mischievous imagination dreams up a seemingly infinite number of ways for his characters to get one over on each other - like Roy Andersson's Songs From The Second Floor, he gives reality the faintest of twists to create an absurd universe, governed by petty rules and peopled by idiots. Lundi Matin provides a survival guide for that world, underpinned by the warmth and compassion of a life-long cynic.

 Jigsaw Lounge [Neil Young]

At 68, Otar Iosseliani may well be the cinematic genius who somehow fell through history’s cracks, ending up marginalised, underrated, passed over. Many people, if they know him at all, probably think he’s Italian – he’s Georgian, though he’s been living and working in France since the early eighties: his first French feature was the dazzlingly freewheeling Favourites of the Moon (1984), which was his ‘international breakthrough’.

Having seen that movie, this movie, and having read reviews of his debut, April (made in 1961, banned by the Soviet authorities, and only shown in the US in 2001), I’d say his output has been remarkably consistent over the years, full of casual, deadpan, but magesterial comedies that positively demand careful, repeated viewing to pick up all the layers of nuance.

Newcomers may well be startled to stumble across such an adult, confident, director who knows exactly what he wants to say, and exactly how he wants to say it in words, images, and silences – even if that message turns out to be ‘modern life is rubbish’. Fiftysomething factory worker Vincent (in a typical Iosseliani touch, producer Jacques Bidou had never acted before) impulsively breaks free from his predictable 9-5 existence and heads first to Venice, then farther afield, before finally returning home.

Though there’s one showstopping, impeccably timed, unambiguously hilarious sequence featuring the director himself as a down-at-heel Venetian marquis, the humour is generally so unforced that inattentive viewers may take it all as serious drama, or even tragedy. Not that they’d necessarily be wrong: Lundi Matin works on several different levels – personal, political, psychological - without any sign of breaking sweat, steady in its own careful rhythms. You wonder what would happen if Iosseliani actually pushed himself for once…

Monday Morning | Film at The Digital Fix  Noel Megahey


Spirituality & Health (Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat)


DVD Talk (Matt Langdon)


Movie Martyr (Jeremy Heilman)




GARDENS IN AUTUMN (Jardins en automne)

France  Italy  Russia (115 mi)   2006


Time Out

Opening with a wonderfully funny scene in a coffin factory, Iosselliani’s typically eccentric and enjoyable comedy deploys a meandering narrative made up of primarily visual (as opposed to verbal) scenes to chart the progress of a government minister sacked for some unspecified error (or, more probably, mere negligence caused by what seems to be a bizarre obsession with farm animals). Abandoned by his wife, unforgiven by his mistress, his home taken over by a host of African squatters, he takes refuge with his ancient but still adoring mother and with drinking pals of every hue. Subtle, slily subversive, and boasting countless delightful sight-gags, this is absurdist/surrealist movie-making at its most poetic, stoic and sceptical of political change. As often, Iosselliani himself contributes a droll portrait of a boozy gardener, though the laurels surely go to Michel Piccoli, clearly enjoying the role of a lifetime.

Gardens in Autumn  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack


Iosseliani's film begins with a pre-credits prologue in which three of the film's characters fight a handcrafted coffin, the argument partly hinging on whose body is best suited to the upright box. This scene proved more confusing, not less, upon having reached the end of Gardens in Autumn. Is Otar intentionally planning career suicide? Seeming to serve as an oblique commentary on the 2005 banlieue riots in Paris, one that becomes less and less oblique as the film slides into outright reactionary politics, Gardens is a film I really tried to hang with, grapple with, afford the benefit of the doubt, before finally throwing up my hands. Following Monday Morning, Iosseliani's joyous, life-affirming ode to truancy, Gardens solidifies claims made by the filmmaker's detractors and even sometimes reluctantly allowed by his fans -- that he is an old white European man solely concerned with the bourgeois quest for individual freedom. Here, we follow the fragmented, ambling journey of Vincent (Séverin Blanchet), a government minister forced into resignation by some unspecified political gaffe. (The TV set and the gates beyond the ministry office are seething with angry protesters whom Iosseliani depicts with a level of disdain that would be comparable to that which Rohmer lavished on the sans-culottes, were it not so flippant.) In one of the film's only noteworthy sight-gags, the first proper scene finds Vincent visiting what appears to be a zoo but is in fact an unspecified African nation, hobnobbing with diffident, almost childlike dignitaries. The respect Vincent shows these people is meant to tell us from the outset what a great guy he is. Later, after he's kicked out of his official home, his clotheshorse wife leaving him for his bald, beefy political advisor, Vincent ventures through the city and into the village of his youth. He finds it a hotbed of squatting, uncouth noir immigrants, and nearly twenty of said invaders have commandeered his vacant apartment. The cops are called in to clear the place out, but Vincent is more concerned with making sure some nice paintings exit the premises unbesmirched by the rabble. After all, they empty their chamber pots out the second story window and onto the street, once even dousing Vincent with West African piss.


Recalling that Iosseliani is himself an immigrant, I actually toyed with the idea that all this nonsense was tongue-in-cheek, like a conceptual rethink of Amélie with the winsome gamine replaced by the fat, smug Old Worlder she covertly represented. But as blithe sexism and racism continue to alight on Iosseliani's palette throughout the film, it becomes clear that a conservative streak has been lying there all along. Other, earlier films pit modernity and traditionalism against each other like opposing chess pieces and, like Otar's master Jacques Tati, asked us to enjoy the game, consider the loss of the old ways while acknowledging the ultimate virtues of change. Here, as if mortified by all those angry blacks and Arabs who haven't shown adequate courtesy to their adoptive "host" country, Iosseliani takes the gloves off, fairly trumpeting the superiority of gentile European civility and camaraderie, the chummy confidence that people are reasonable, or at least should be, and that everything can and should be hashed out over a nice bottle of burgundy. Iosseliani has long been considered something of a philosopher-filmmaker, and Gardens reads like a blinkered Habermasian response to the rise of the oppressed. Chill out, we'll talk about it, but for God's sake, calm down! And, if by and large other commentators are not taking the same lessons from this film, it could be due to Iosseliani's technique, usually deft and effortlessly masterful but crude and unformed here. Scenes are staged in slack, shambolic ways; nothing seems to link to anything else, but not by any abstractionist design. Gardens evokes Renoir, certainly another of Iosseliani's governing spirits, but the open frame and airy, anti-deterministic mise-en-scène that defines Renoir's cinema here becomes a hovering, tentative miasma -- the cinema of pussyfooting. From moment to moment, it's hard to discern where individual scenes are going to go, much less grasp the overall action plan. But this isn't an "open text." Instead, it uses modernist techniques -- roving camerawork, ever-so-stylized performances, spatial discontinuity -- as avoidance strategies, to dollop its questionable content out like light meringue, so that the viewer can't find firm enough footing to dissent. This may be by design, or it may be that formally speaking this the weakest, most half-assed Iosseliani film I've ever seen (this time, even the great William Lubtchansky seems asleep at the wheel), but the result is a sort of amiable, avuncular cloud of cigar smoke. It took me a full two hours to realize that I couldn't breathe in it.


Reverse Shot [James Crawford]


not coming to a theater near you (Jenny Jediny)


Floatation Suite [Sheila Seacroft]


d+kaz [Daniel Kasman]


Gardens in Autumn | Film at The Digital Fix  Noel Megahey


Strictly Film School  Acquarello


Cinematical [Erik Davis]



France  Georgia  (122 mi)  2010

Chantrapas  Dan Fainaru at Cannes from Screendaily

Welcome to the private, whimsical world of Otar Iosseliani. Access permitted only for those who share his constant thirst for any liquid containing alcohol, the stronger the better, for his ironic outlook of the world around him and his immense sympathy for the human race, despite its countless shortcomings.

The film is cut by Iosseliani in his typical easy-going manner, suggesting that telling the story in a cogent manner.

Unbelievers would better stay away, for they will never quite grasp the spirit of this satirical sketch, autobiographical to be sure, though, as Iosseliani himself points out, reflecting not only his own past (he claims to have been luckier than the film’s hero), but that of many others, from Alexander Askoldov to Andrei Tarkovski.

Probably one of the more personal pages in Iosseliani’s family album, this is bound as usual to be welcome only in festivals and art houses, but luckily, there are plenty of those around.

The two sections of the plot are quite similar, though the first part takes place in Iosseliani’s native Georgia, the second in France, the country he has lived in since the early 1980s. It starts with the illicit projection of a film sequence (in reality a Iosseliani short of 1959 never shown before) and it goes on to follow Niko (Tarielashvili), an aspiring filmmaker, facing ideologues who are only too happy to explain officially their objections to his work, and to congratulate him secretly for his talents.

There is a brief flashback to Nicholas’ childhood and plenty of insights into the particular nature of his family and his neighbors, not to mention a glimpse or two into his filmmaking and his clashes with the filmmaking system.

Once it is clear there is no future for him at home, he tries his luck in Paris, sweeps the streets, cleans the zoo, feeds the elephants and the bears and finely meets a producer who offers him the chance to direct a film in France, at which point he discovers that the free-spirited West puts no fewer obstacles on his way than the indoctrinated censors of home.

The plot, however, has never held much of an interest for Iosseliani, it is the details on the road that have always delighted his admirers in the past, and will probably charm them all over again. A poet at heart whose visual imagination is always at work - watch one shot young Niko sets up which starts with an orchestra playing on a balcony and ends with an officer being blown-up by a bomb behind a tree - as he delivers his running commentary on the world we live in, embracing one and all in a warm, gentle hug and rejecting any such sentiments as spite or revenge, which would make life so much more miserable to live.

Around brief guest performances by Iosseliani himself (he claims the actor for whom the role was intended died just before the shooting), Bulle Ogier and celebrated actor/director Pierre Etaix in a great send-up of a French producer, the cast consists, as usual, of non-professionals who fit perfectly in the mood, with lead Tarielashvili quite reminiscent of the young Iosseliani.

Homogenously shot by two different cinematographers, one in Georgia the other in France, the film is cut by Iosseliani in his typical easy-going manner, suggesting that telling the story in a cogent manner has never been an essential quality in his eyes.

Otar Iosseliani: Chantrapas - KinoKultura  Andrei Rogatchevski

Recounting a Life of Disobedience  Joan Dupont from The New York Times, May 21, 2010


WINTER SONG (Chant d”hiver)

France  (117 mi)  2015                          Official site [Japan]


Winter Song - Film Society of Lincoln Center

There’s no mistaking the tone and structure of a film by the 81-year-old Georgian director Otar Iosseliani: caustic, mordant, detached, extremely funny, and dizzyingly panoramic. Like several of his earlier films, Winter Song doesn’t center on a single figure so much as a dense cluster of interrelated characters, all united by objects (an executed aristocrat’s skull), places (the apartment building where most of them live), historical events (from the French Revolution to the Russo-Georgian War), and pure coincidence. An aging upper-crust patriarch burning his letters; a tramp hoping to avoid the advances of a steamroller; an 18th-century nobleman who insists on taking his pipe to the guillotine: Winter Song is a well-stocked encyclopedia of human variety, eccentricity, and folly, elevated by an exquisite cast that include Rufus, Pierre Étaix, and Mathieu Amalric.

Film of the Week: Winter Song | Otar Iosseliani - Film Comment   Jonathan Romney, March 9, 2016, also seen here:  Film Comment: Jonathan Romney

All human life is present in Otar Iosseliani’s films—and a fair amount of animal life, too. In any given work of his you might find dogs, goats, cows, even the odd leopard, and in Farewell, Home Sweet Home (99), the undisputed star of the show was a highly unpredictable—and no doubt undirectable—marabou stork. His interest in this bestiary might lead you to think that Iosseliani has more patience with animals than with humans—and it’s true that the Paris-based Georgian veteran, now aged 82, is one of cinema’s great curmudgeons. I’ve seen him cause scowls at a London screening by complaining that young people no longer care about art—it was a predominantly young audience—and raise eyebrows in Cannes with a stunningly off-message onstage grumble about who gets to decide what is and isn’t real cinema. That latter address came across as all the more peevish considering that it was Iosseliani’s introduction to his least memorable recent film, Chantrapas (10), essentially an autobiographical comic lament on how true artists—the hero is a young Georgian artist—are bound to be misunderstood, whether by philistines in the East or in the West.

On screen, however, Iosseliani not only suffers fools a lot more gladly than in real life, he positively revels in the rich variety of human fallibility. His is not a compliant good humor, however. It can be savage, and deeply angry—which is certainly the case in his latest film, Winter Song, screening March 11 in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

It starts with a beheading, continues with the wartime rape of a civilian woman, and goes on to depict a world of robbery, gun-running, surveillance, forcible evictions, and general abuse of power. But you’ll have a good time. The film’s bottom line is, “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” but since it’s Iosseliani who’s creating and orchestrating these fools, he makes sure that they’re charming, in the best cases, and in the worst, at least entertaining.

Where Chantrapas was—unusually for Iosseliani’s latter-day films—focused on a central character, Winter Song is the sort of rambling, multi-stranded crazily populous ensemble frieze that he has specialized in since moving from Georgia to France for 1984’s Favorites of the Moon. It’s an entirely sui generis form, wholly Iosseliani’s own—although there are trace elements of Renoir, and at times echoes of Altman’s decentered cinema of the ’70s (Iosseliani outdoes Altman’s overlapping dialogue with the use of often inscrutable layered muttering), and at times it resembles less any familiar form of cinema than it does a sort of sprawling, melancholic circus performance.

Winter Song connects diverse historic moments, much as Iosseliani did in his extraordinary Brigands-Chapter VII (96), which gave us scenes of brutishness and skullduggery both medieval and modern, with the director’s dapperly bearded acteur-fétiche Amiran Amiranashvili appearing in both strands. Amiranashvili is also prominent in Winter Song, but the real connecting thread to this film is the figure played by a bald, bony French actor named Rufus, whom you may recognize from various Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies. Rufus first turns up in the opening episode, as an aristocrat beheaded during the French Revolution, who goes to his death with his pipe determinedly clamped in his mouth. It stays there even when his head is severed. This, Iosseliani seems to be saying, is authentic class. In what follows, a social panorama inhabited by aristos, bourgeois, and modern-day sans-culottes alike, the quality of true aristocracy for this director seems to reside in a general grace, elegance and ease, whether the person in question has a château roof over their head or just a sheet of yesterday’s Le Monde.

Winter Song then cuts to a war zone—in Eastern Europe, apparently—where soldiers sack, pillage, and burn before being cleansed of their sins in a river by an Orthodox priest. He’s also played by Rufus—and, under his holy robes, he turns out to be an officer too, tattooed torso and all. A younger soldier is then seen giving a bit of war-sacked jewelry to his girlfriend, with whom he shares a picnic. These two next appear on the streets of Paris, where the man is working as a majordomo and in-house spy to a large bald man (Mathias Jung) who’s listed in the credits as “the Prefect.” But I’m not entirely sure whether the bald man is always the same character whenever we see him (he appears variously in a silk dressing gown and some sort of military regalia), or whether his employee really is the young soldier—any more than Rufus is playing the same character when he appears in different guises through the ages, and across a single era. I’m fairly sure, though not 100 percent certain, that Rufus plays both a concierge in the contemporary Paris section, and a man who gets flattened by a steamroller in one of the film’s goofier gags. Identity is remarkably fluid here, possibly as a result of an extended joke in the film about the arbitrariness of movie casting and getting the maximum value out of versatile actors.

If it’s possible to sum up what follows, it runs something like this: Rufus plays the concierge of an apartment block that has clearly once been grand, but now is just one of those slightly shabby, cluttered Parisian buildings that proudly carries the signs of its history. Other residents include the concierge’s drinking buddy (Amiranashvili), an antiquarian who collects skulls and is currently remodeling one into a replica of his friend’s head; a man who repairs musical instruments, whose wife or girlfriend is extremely loud and extremely discontented; and the bald man, who uses various surveillance devices to keep an eye on everyone, including his daughter, a classical violinist (Fiona Monbet). Also passing through the building are a group of young people who roller-skate around the streets, robbing passersby (sometimes just of their hats); an underworld figure (played by Romany filmmaker Tony Gatlif) involved with the concierge in a dubious traffic, swapping firearms for literary first editions; and a down-at-heel baron, about to be evicted with his family from the crumbling pile they inhabit in the country. (The baron is played by Italian critic Enrico Ghezzi; having seen him around the festival circuit, I’ve long thought of him as “that guy who looks vaguely like Jean-Luc Godard.” Here, he doesn’t really.) Also involved intermittently is a man played by Mathieu Amalric, if only because it’s a long-standing tradition for Amalric to turn up briefly in Iosseliani films.

Characters come and go, crossing paths unexpectedly, and occasionally turn up in different combinations at the site of some event, catastrophic or celebratory. Evictions, whether of the formerly rich or the chronically poor, are a consistent marker of change in Iosseliani’s universe: here we see protests against the forcible closure of a homeless people’s camp (an especially telling spectacle following the clearance of the Calais refugee camp known as the “Jungle”), and the driving out of the Baron’s family because they can’t afford the maintenance on their castle (or the upkeep on their keep).

In this world, all is uncertainty and flux, but by way of balance, after a fashion, Iosseliani likes to stage social events where the grand and wealthy happily rub shoulders with the poor. Here we get a party held by an elderly grande dame, attended by a group of snooty dowagers as well as assorted habitués of the street—including a pavement vendor of medals, played by the veteran comic maestro Pierre Etaix (whose inimitably delicate gestures are surely the epitome of la classe, as celebrated by Iosseliani). It’s this party that culminates in the film’s most farcical sequence—although Iosseliani always treats farce with a kind of distracted finesse—as the concierge and the antiquarian, both old flames of the chatelaine giving the party, have a spat, before the Amiranashvili character gets beaten up in the woods by the dowagers.

There’s never a dull moment in Iosseliani’s world, and rarely any point at which the shift and twitch of events settles into any kind of stability. It’s a world in which traps often open up as if by magic under characters’ feet—late in the film, Iosseliani makes magnificent use of the old unseen-manhole routine. Occasionally, too, we witness a surreal, barely explicable magic. At one point, a hidden door opens up in a nondescript city wall, behind which the concierge discovers a lush garden, with parakeets and pelicans and an elegant woman who seems happy to see him: you’re reminded of that utopian slogan of Paris 1968, “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Beneath the pavement, the beach!”). Typically for today, that paradise is lost here because of a mobile phone call.

It’s a world in which high and low not only interact, but at different times are one and the same—a carnivalesque world of total fluidity, typified by the character played by Iosseliani’s producer Martine Marignac (credited as la princesse-clocharde), at once an aristocrat and a hobo living out of dustbins. This is a world of permanent revolution, of universal mutability elevated to a cosmic principle that transcends the historical facts of specific revolutions, such as those that result in the slaughter of innocents or the decapitation of classy pipe-smokers. (It’s no coincidence that this part of the action takes place near a certain Metro station—where else but Bastille?)

It’s a world of horror and absurdity, where war is always being waged underneath the surface of civilization. But it also reveals a constant background hum, a sort of laconic joyousness in which the human folly and the melancholy of mortality are at least mitigated by friendship, drink, and the pleasures of close harmony singing, and the redemptive, civilizing poetry of a neatly executed sight gag. Iosseliani remains a master of a form that arguably only he practices these days, although Etaix was a past master in his day. It’s an almost forgotten cinematic art, but an unmistakably noble one: philosophical slapstick.

Locarno Review: Satire and Surrealism Meet in Otar Iosseliani's ...  Eric Kohn from indieWIRE


Parasite Party: Otar Iosseliani's 'Winter Song' - Hyperallergic  Daniel Witkin


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MUBI's Notebook: Daniel Kasman   August 10, 2015


Filmmaker: Giovanni Marchini Camia   August 19, 2015


Senses of Cinema: Jaimey Fisher   September 15, 2015


Chant d'hiver – Surviving Time - Festival del film Locarno


Film Comment: Nick Pinkerton    Nick Pinkerton interview, August 19, 2015


'Winter Song' ('Chant d'hiver'): Locarno Review | Hollywood Reporter  Neil Young


Irving, Judy



USA  (83 mi)  2005


Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

It would be easy to treat Judy Irving's portrait of Mark Bittner, a San Franciscan who has spent years caring for a flock of cherry-headed conjures, with skepticism. But if you do, you'll wind up looking like the pinch-faced passer-by who accosts Bittner in the movie's opening scenes. Better to let the movie's obvious love for its subject wash over you, and make sure you go with someone who won't tease you for crying when Bittner and his flock say goodbye. Irving deliberately buries her lead to avoid sensationalizing the fact that Bittner, a roving musician who came to S.F. looking for a place between the beats and the hippies, developed his relationship with the parrots while living on the street, a tactic in keeping with the movie's gentle tone. By the time it's over, you'll be calling the parrots by name, whether you like it or not.

The Village Voice [Ed Park]

An intimate companion piece to 2002's epic, globe-spanning Winged Migration, Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill tracks a flock of cherry-headed conures, several of whom emerge with distinct personalities. It's also a portrait of Mark Bittner, the quasi-Saint Francis of San Francisco, who monitors, feeds, and—simply put—loves these green-fledged creatures, while rigorously insisting on their essential freedom. Bittner came to the city on the Beat-hippie cusp with dreams of being a musician; marching to his own drum, he still seems to exist on air and complimentary Italian carbohydrates.

Several sharp jolts give the doc its dramatic shape, and one episode in particular, caught with a neighbor's lens, will make you gasp with grief. The conures' shadowy origins are explored, but pale next to the fundamental mysteries of the friendship between man and bird. The fate of the flock is, necessarily, left up in the air, and though there's a quite surprising resolution for the humans in this film, we're free to imagine the fate of the conures outside the frame—cryptically darting en masse to some unknown goal, their bodies the same green as the leaves on the trees.

Slant Magazine [Josh Vasquez]

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a documentary of quiet, introspective charm centered around the story of Mark Bittner, a bohemian outsider living in San Francisco who developed a relationship with a flock of wild parrots living near his home at the time. Bittner, an ex-street musician, ruminates quite eloquently on both the tangible reality and philosophical truth of the impact that the birds have had on his life. Judy Irving's film is at its best when she just lets her "star" wax unobtrusively poetical; Bittner has a soothing ease about him, a stillness that lends his raggedy figure an almost pastoral quality. The film engages with the notion that there are perhaps more parallels than we might think between our society and that of the birds, particularly in regard to the universal need of all living things for friendship, love, and the assurance of certain primal insecurities. While not a terribly groundbreaking theme, Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill distinguishes itself through the articulate simplicity of its approach. For the most part this approach holds true, but the film does misstep, marred by a sappy and unnecessary soundtrack, an ending that is strangely self-serving and far too rushed, seeming more like a gimmick than a thematic resolution, and by a few surprisingly poor formal choices on Irving's part. Of particular note is her overwrought utilization of silly slow motion sequences and freeze frames during some key moments; Irving's mistake is that she occasionally forgets to let her material speak for itself. Yet if Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is to be judged a slight work and minor achievement, it is pleasantly so.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

It's taken me a while to get around to composing this review, since I'm not really sure how to articulate my approval of this film. I suspect my reaction to it is idiosyncratic, and I wouldn't necessarily expect others to share my qualified enthusiasm since I'm fully cognizant of the film's flaws. They include an overall San Francisco new-agey vibe, a noodly, Windham Hill type guitar soundtrack, and an irritating preciousness that pervades Irving's editing scheme -- a one-to-one correspondence wherein amateur parrot enthusiast Mark Bittner will announce that sometimes the conures do thus-and-so, and Irving always has just the footage to verify the claim. And for much of the film, I was unnerved by Bittner's unabashed anthropomorphizing of the birds and the film's shaping of these observations into character arcs (Mingus, the wild parrot who wants to be tamed; Connor, the lone-wolf blue-crested conure, a strong, silent type defending the flock at a stoic remove like a Clint Eastwood character; Sophie, the frail lady bird who's lost without her mate). But what is pleasantly surprising and ultimately moving about Wild Parrots is that over the course of its running time, Bittner and Irving directly address this problem of ethnographic / ornithological distance. Bittner concludes by explaining that he'd tried to maintain a detached hobbyist's attitude toward the parrots so that he, with his long hair and rent-free squatting and itinerant employment, wouldn't look like a kook. But in relating the story of his relationship with one single bird, he provides a touching argument in favor of abandoning the framework of disinterested observation and allowing the object of your curiosity to really change you. The utterly unexpected final revelation, which at first seemed rather silly and out of place, is in fact a perfect gesture, enfolding Irving's own project into Bittner's insight. Wild Parrots is the rare documentary that is willing to end up somewhere quite far from where it began. DVD review [Pam Grady] [Andrew O'Hehir]


PopMatters   Bill Gibron


The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]


Exclaim! [Travis Mackenzie Hoover]


DVD Town [Christopher Long]


DVD Verdict [Jonathan Weiss]


Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice   Phil Hall


Film Freak Central Review [Walter Chaw]


DVD Talk [Stuart Galbraith IV]


Talking Pictures [Howard Schumann] (Jay Seaver)


Film Monthly (Dianne Lawrence)


Edwin Jahiel




Austin Chronicle [Marrit Ingman]


Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan)


Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


New York Times (registration req'd)  Stephen Holden                          


Ishii, Katsuhito


SHARP SKIN MAN AND PEACH HIP GIRL (Samehada otoko to momojiri onna)

Japan  (108 mi)  1998


Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl  Mike D’Angelo from Time Out New York

As the title suggests, accoutrements are paramount in Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, a tiresome collection of self-consciously wacky attitudes and fashion statements in search of a movie, or a point, or just the handful of people who still think Guy Ritchie is cool. Indeed, if you're willing to entertain the dubious notion that Ritchie watches obscure Japanese festival fare, you might conclude that this frantic bid for cult notoriety inspired Mr. Madonna's entire career. All the hollow, testosterone-fueled stylistic nonsense one associates with latter-day "laddish" cinema is here, from the propulsive opening credits sequence—designed to introduce us to the film's bewildering array of one-note, unmemorable characters—to the utterly meaningless "revelation" that passes for the movie's climax.

There is a difference, however. Shark Skin Man, a simple lovers-on-the-run story tricked up with a needlessly convoluted narrative structure (baffling prologue, withheld details, achronology), features Peach Hip Girl (Kohinata), an actual woman...though her primary function is to remove her glasses, let her hair down and run around the forest clad in underwear and knee-high leather boots. Her relationship with Samehada (Asano), ostensibly the movie's focus, never gets a chance to develop, as Ishii keeps cutting to the bizarrely effete hit man on their tail, or the blond gangster with the olfactory prowess of a bloodhound, or the dozen interchangeable yakuza thugs who exist only to spout lame sub-Tarantino patter. Only when our heroes try on various outré outfits does the film momentarily spring to life. Get these ciphers off the screen and give them a runway.

Film Journal International (Rod Granger)

Touches of Tarantino color this highly stylized, sporadically entertaining live-action manga, or Japanese comic book. The chase is the thing as Samehada (Tadanobu Asano), who is running away from the yakuza after stealing some of their money, and Toshiko (Ittoku Kishibe), who is running away from her cruel uncle, team up. They flee together from a series of eccentric, dangerous and not always terribly interesting characters. Sometimes confusing narrative sleight of hand and culture obstacles may slow this one down at the box office.

Samehada, the ne'er-do-well who steals 100 million yen from the mob, and Toshiko, the not-so-innocent girl who has had enough abuse from her uncle, have a "cute" but violent meet. Literally caught with his pants down by his former employers while involved in a sexual episode, Samehada runs through the woods in his underwear at the same time that Toshiko is escaping in a car. As Samehada is about to be caught, Toshiko accidentally crashes into his pursuers' car. Samehada takes advantage of the confusion to drive away from the scene, with Toshiko unconscious in the passenger seat. Thus begins the loud and chaotic Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, which unfolds as a kind of Badlands on Ecstasy.

From this point on, Samehada and Toshiko work fast to outmaneuver the cast of crazies coming after them, which includes the psychotic Yamada (Tatsuya Gasyuin), hired by Toshiko's uncle, as well as the yakuza team, led by crime lord Sawada and the boss' son, who is able to track his prey through smell. The faster they run, the closer Samehada and Toshiko get, and Asano and Kohinata do have the necessary chemistry that sets the stage for their ultimate third-act risk-taking.

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is director Katsuhito Ishii's feature film debut, and he demonstrates a flair for pacing and screen composition. There is a particularly effective scene early on in which the yakuza members sit in a car discussing their formative childhood experiences (one says that he thought that a tattoo grew on everyone's back as they got older), but most of the film relies on music-video velocity that can be a bit too jarring, even for a live-action cartoon.   Nix   RainDog


Sharkskin Man And Peach Hip Girl   Chris Nelson from Dreamlogic

The Village Voice [Ed Park]

Close-Up Film [Richard Badley] - Dvd review with images of the film   Peter Zsurka and Janick Neveu - Asian Movie Reviews  Andrew Dobbs

New York Times (registration req'd)  Dave Kehr


Japan  (104 mi)  2000 [Chris Nelson]

Initially I wasn’t going to review this, but seeing as Party 7 will be released by Synapse in 2007, I know some of you will be interested. Straight off, Party 7 is definitely the least of Katsuhito Ishii’s films. The tale of seven people, and a suitcase of cash, converging in a seedy hotel (thoughtfully equipped with a peeping room), has a lot of comedic potential, but somehow turns a lengthy misfire. It’s unfortunate too, since the base material is quite funny. First, you have Captain Banana, a costumed super peeper (whose hideout is the aforementioned room), and Dreamlogic fave, Tadanobu Asano, as a pervert just released from prison, and Banana’s new best friend. Then there’s Masatoshi Nagase (Stereo Future) as a rockabilly thief, and the afro sporting assassin and stone cold gangster on his tail. You also have a grossly mismatched odd couple: a tragically un-hip uber nerd and his sexy girlfriend (Akemi Kobayashi, Antena), whose interests may or may not be entirely of the gold-digging kind. Oh yah, and then there’s the tale of the shit from the sky (most certainly not a tossed shit, as the trajectory was not a parabolic arc) that bookends the whole piece. The whole thing is technically and artistically sound, with excellent camera work, lighting, direction, and acting, but, like a tale told by a class clown that loves his own jokes, everything is a little too drawn out for its own good. We’ve seen Party 7 twice now, in the past three years, and I will admit it was far better with its second viewing, but when compared to A Taste of Tea and Sharkskin Man And Peach Hip Girl it really falls short (Note: we’ve yet to see Funky Forest).

Midnight Eye - japan_cult_cinema   Tom Mes

For his second feature film, former animator Katsuhito Ishii once again decides to stay close to his roots and adapt a comic book. The moderately successful Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (Samehada Otoko To Momojiri Onna, 1998) showed that the young director had a flair of visual storytelling and colourful characters, and with Party 7 he has simply decided to take it up a few notches.

The film kicks off with a terrific turbo-speed animated credit sequence which introduces each of the main characters, then turns into a colour-saturated collection of comic book characters come to life, all of whom are gathering in and around mega-kitsch Hotel New Mexico somewhere in the deserted countryside. So far so good: you've got colourful characters, an interesting setting, and the promise of that dynamic credit sequence. So why does the rest of the film consist of these characters sitting in a hotel room yelling at each other?

Clearly the objective here is to deliver an old-fashioned farce, full of slamming doors, heated arguments and exaggerated acting. But everything about Party 7 feels forced and strained, even for a genre which thrives on exaggeration: the constant yelling, hammy performances, overabundance of useless characters, right down to the inflated tire-sized collagen lips of the pretty but bland Akemi Kobayashi. It also seems that Ishii has learned nothing from the result of his debut film. The pacing problems that marred Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl have only increased with Party 7, while the dialogue continues to consist of the kind of hollow claptrap of the post-Tarantino generation that make the first film feel so dated only three years after its release.

Party 7 utterly fails to deliver and Ishii handles the potential of the material with underwhelming shortsightedness. Surely something could have been done with these characters that would have made the film at least entertaining, rather than having them yell at each other in a hotel room for close to two hours? Now it all adds up to a big, overblown piece of nothing, which nevertheless leaves you feeling drained and worn-out at the end.

Late Film  Inglorious Bastard


THE TASTE OF TEA (Cha no aji)                                   A                     95

Japan  (143 mi)  2004                            Official site


It's more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.
In something of a gentle homage to Japanese master Yasuhirô Ozu, Ishii has concocted one of the most original family dramas ever conceived on celluloid, though the story is simplicity itself.  Offering more a series of vignettes than a narrative, all this film does is follow a Japanese family around for awhile in their small mountain village surrounded by rice fields, allowing each one to explore their own individuality.  Style-wise, this is a brilliant screenplay and a hilariously inventive film, not afraid to use surreal, out of body experiences, or subtitled sections when no one is saying anything, films within the film, or brilliant animé imagery side by side with other kinds of colorful animation.  What works here is that these techniques are not just used for show, but they are essential in revealing character.  This film is such a joy to watch that you don’t even realize, until the end of the film, how well you have come to know each of the members of the Haruno family, something of an astonishing surprise.  Mood is essential, and each of the characters has their own carefully defined world, where collectively, through them, we are fascinated to learn about ourselves in the process, as it taps into places in our own subconscious where we’re not used to looking, where perhaps unintentionally, a prominent theme of the film is revealed when a character makes an off-the-cuff remark about the music they’re listening to, “It's more cool than weird, and it stays in your head.”

What’s perhaps most remarkable is the transformative use of the imagination that is nothing less than revitalizing, using surrealistic flourishes where a train comes out of Hajime’s (Takahiro Sato) forehead and flies off into the sky, expressed as a real train is taking his secret crush off into the distance without him, a high school girl he longs for but is terrified to speak to, where Hajime is seen pedaling his bike furiously through the rice fields, often shouting out to the heavens, or the hilarious use of 8-year old Sachiko’s (Maya Banno) growing annoyance at constantly seeing giant images of her head wherever she goes, often floating outside her classroom, hovering just outside the window, continuously interrupting her “real” life.  The pace of the film is perfect, as each sequence flows so effortlessly into the next, weaving in and out of everyone’s lives.  It’s a quiet yet jubilant evolution balancing comical moments with the meditative imagery of a river or of mountains or of a still moment.  While we might have some quibbles, and some may think perhaps this film is too cute, but this is how the film explores the interior worlds, with an unusually poignant visual flair, and we are never disappointed, where despite the length, the film is constantly reinventing itself.  Oddly, it would probably be appreciated just as much by children aged 8 and above, as there’s certainly something in it for everyone.  Ishii is known for the animation sequence in Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL 1 (2003), but here he’s allowed the freedom to develop his own story, to just let it go and air out his imagination.   


To its credit, the film doesn't have a "target" audience, as there isn't even a hint of commercialism, yet it's nationalistic to the core, where praising the small quirks or the individuality of the family is in the Ozu school of Japanese cinema, yet where Ozu simply observes ordinary life objectively, often without an ounce of sentimentality, this film focuses on the internal worlds of the rather eccentric (not dysfunctional) characters by allowing them to open up and soar through highly inventive animated techniques, to explore the limits of their imaginations without being condescending to the characters.  Ishii offers a wonderful perspective on aging while also celebrating the worth of elders to their families, such as the elderly grandpa (Tatsuya Gashuin), by recognizing their memories in a highly personal, yet uncustomary fashion, while at the same time celebrating the isolation of youth, where they feel left out and misunderstood, being the youngest (Sachiko), or from the first crush to adolescent detachment (Hajime).  The director also explores the mid-life crisis, where an absent uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano) returns after being away for years and searches for a lost love, while the mother (Satomi Tezuka) is stuck as a career professional, deciding instead to branch out on her own and attempt something artistic with her life, which may only be understood and appreciated by a small community of other artists.  In this family, through rich character development, everyone's point of view is explored and is equally valid, where the ultimately transcendent film becomes an expression of love by demonstrating that a tolerance of others is as significant as celebrating your own unique individuality, which is given such an unusual visual flourish that it is only minimally used, so as not to dominate the overall mood of the film, which focuses on the meditations of a quiet life in the country.   


Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune (link lost):

The most charming comedy in town, writer-director-editor Katsuhito Ishii's 2003 piece is a modern Japanese variation on "You Can't Take It With You," with some lovely fantastical flourishes. In their bucolic rural home outside Tokyo, the extended Haruno family goes about its business and its various pursuits of artistic and romantic fulfillment. Dad is a hypnotist; Mom re-enters the anime profession (she's an illustrator) after staying home with her children, preteen Sachiko (who is gently but persistently hounded by a giant version of herself) and her older, lovelorn brother, moony over the new girl in school. Grandpa spends his time on his own musical and art projects, the latter paying off with an unexpectedly moving finale.

Director Ishii handled the anime sequence in the first "Kill Bill," but the one here--we see the mother's film project, with sound effects provided by her classmates--is truly beguiling. The whole film is, even with its leisurely stretches. Shot and acted in a poker-faced style recalling everyone from Aki Kaurismaki to Wes Anderson, "The Taste of Tea" takes a familiar gambit, in which everyone under the same roof does their own thing and plays it for both laughs and sweetness. To ensure the sweetness doesn't get to be too much, "The Taste of Tea" also takes time to include one of the funnier onscreen butt-kickings in recent memory. Moral: When your co-worker cheats on her husband, do not rat her out.

THE TASTE OF TEA  Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion


In a better world, "The Taste of Tea" would reap the box office and award bonanza garnered by "Little Miss Sunshine." It pushes whimsy past mere quirkiness into the realms of the genuinely visionary. Were it made in the '70s, where its stoner-friendly sensibility and nods to "2001: A Space Odyssey" might have fit right in, it could have played midnight shows for months.

In 2007 America, it took three years to get a release, which will undoubtedly be limited to one-week engagements in a few cities and an eventual DVD gathering dust at Netflix. Director Katushito Ishii's even odder follow-up "Funky Forest: The First Contact" may wind up going completely undistributed in this country.
Recent Japanese films like Tetsuya Nakashima's "Kamikaze Girls" and Gen Sekiguchi's "Survive Style 5+" seem as influenced by manga and music videos as cinema itself. In many respects, "The Taste of Tea" shares their hyper-stylized ethos. As it happens, Ishii has a background in animation, having directed the cartoon segments in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Volume 1."

Its presence is felt in "The Taste of Tea" - one character makes an animated short, which is incorporated into the film, and another draws manga. Ishii's extensive use of CGI is particularly imaginative. However, he also draws on classical Japanese cinema, especially the films of Yasujiro Ozu. "The Taste of Tea" looks nothing like Ozu's austere family dramas, but it feels similar to them. It's a real UFO; I've never seen another Japanese film that connects the dots between contemporary pop culture and the country's more traditional values quite this way.

"The Taste of Tea" doesn't have much narrative momentum; its 143 minutes proceed slowly. Set in a small town, it depicts the life of the Haruno family. Grandpa (Tatsuya Gasuyin) practices martial arts moves, works on his drawing, and dreams of recording his own songs. Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) spends her spare time making a hand-drawn short, hoping to regain the directorial career she sacrificed to raise a family. Her husband Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura) is a hypnotherapist. Nine-year-old Sachiko (Maya Banno) is haunted by the appearance of her giant visage staring at her. Her brother Hajime (Takahiro Sato) plays go and lusts after one of his classmates.

Takashi Miike's perverse but ultimately sincere salutes to family values in "Visitor Q" and "The Happiness of the Katakuris" are the only obvious Japanese precursors to "The Taste of Tea." The same undercurrents run through "The Taste of Tea," which has one major difference from most American films covering similar ground. The Haruno family isn't dysfunctional, just harmlessly eccentric. It's hard to picture an American director, especially one with dreams of Sundance in mind, depicting a similar family without throwing in at least a hint of incest or drug abuse. However, "The Taste of Tea" is as gentle as it is weird.

Its major weakness is an overextended running time, which stems from a tendency to construct the film as a series of privileged moments. The dazzling first third is a string of peaks, many digressive. A slacker uncle tells a lengthy story about being haunted by a gangster's ghost after shitting on his skull, which he mistook for a giant, partially buried egg. On a train, two men dressed as robots argue. While Nobuo practices hypnosis on his own family, a feral woman attacks a man on live TV.

All the same, the film includes several quiet, equally striking moments. A visit by the uncle to an ex-girlfriend carries as much weight as the flashier scenes.
Despite his roots in animation and the film's tendency to push stylization to cartoonish extremes, Ishii also shows a love for the world as it is. Full of panoramic long shots of nature, "The Taste of Tea" celebrates the Japanese countryside's beauty. If the film's sensibility seems so distinct, one reason is that it embraces the rural wholeheartedly.

Just when "The Taste of Tea" seems to be running out of steam and stretching its thin story to the breaking point, something major finally happens to the Haruno family. In its final reel, the Ozu references start making sense.

Like his predecessor, Ishii doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, but his surface restraint conceals plenty of emotion. All kidding - much of it brilliant - aside, "The Taste of Tea" is after something larger than a postmodern mash-up. When a backflip takes on cosmic significance, Ishii is still joking around on some level; on another, the film and its characters achieve a genuine, well-earned measure of peace.


Slant Magazine [Rob Humanick]


The Taste of Tea is refreshingly unreserved. This is the film I wanted Me and You and Everyone We Know to be—a messy, heartfelt entanglement of tangential indulgences into the wild eccentricities of human behavior. Unfolding like a series of rough sketches, the film—through its observation of a small multitude of characters, young and old, at various points of intersection in their lives—suggests that the experience of growing up is not unlike constantly traveling from one point to the next, and life itself is a constantly evolving act of creation. Too many films falsely pretend that people aren't inherently weird; here, that quality is the one most celebrated.

Set in the Japanese countryside, the film's intertwined characters and their relationships to one another take on a rhythmic ebb and flow, suggesting an inherently natural cycle of the world. Unlike Babel or Crash, The Taste of Tea doesn't bend over backward connecting dots as a means of legitimating its intended profundity; instead, it allows its various components to stand on their own, loosely connected within the larger tapestry, just waiting to be felt out. Contrary to those Oscar-heralded pieces of garbage, this tilt-a-whirl of a movie doesn't structure its characters into the confines of a narrative pie chart—it understands that, like a plate full of noodles, the magic of these countless actions and reactions, causes and effects, would be lost if they were spread out into a dull schematic line. Often deviating from one pseudo-storyline to another with little indication, the film forgoes a traditional narrative structure so as to better obey its inner emotional impulses.

Throughout, adults are regularly seen gazing at the antics of the young—boys talking about sex at a local restaurant, a little girl attempting a back flip for the first time at a secluded playground. The Taste of Tea understands the impulsive irrationality of childhood, from the escape provided by an imaginative mind to the first flutter of the heartstrings to the ways in which the most seemingly trivial of moments greatly impact the people we become later on. Likewise, it accesses with ease the longing for youth that sets in once we come to understand how much we've really lost. The pain, the embarrassment, and the utter absurdity that accompanies the process of growing up are offered up here in the fashion of a living photo album. Unlike Running with Scissors, The Taste of Tea doesn't treat these individual experiences as manipulated moments for the audience to laugh at, but as a collective recollection we can all fondly recall as at least partially our own. My personal favorite: the painfully hilarious "Convenience Store Incident," in which the young Hajime's (Takahiro Sato) dwindling attraction to the opposite sex finds itself in the absolute wrong place at the absolute wrong time as regards an unfortunate example of spousal abuse.

Writer-director Katsuhito Ishii embellishes the film with a grab bag of fanciful CGI flourishes that obtusely render the thoughts and feelings of his characters, appropriately complementing their already joyously extroverted natures. Ever-so-slightly schizo, its lack of restraint only proves problematic when it is finally required to bring everything together for the inevitable close; otherwise, its popping aesthetic is a small wonder to behold. A character remarks (in regard to what will hopefully amount to a classic musical sequence): "It's more cool than weird, and it stays in your head." Perhaps unintentionally, The Taste of Tea encapsulates its own kinky allure in this line of dialogue. As sweet as the lives it celebrates, it is something to savor time and time anew.


The Taste of Tea (Cha no Aji) / 茶の味 - Lunapark6  also seen here:  Lunapark6 


Midnight Eye [Tom Mes]


Film Journal International (Nicole V. Gagne)


Cinema Strikes Back [David Austin] [Chris Nelson]


Twitch  Todd


Twitch Review #2  Mark Mann


Seattle Post-Intelligencer [Sean Axmaker] (Don Willmott) (Jay Seaver)


DVD Verdict [Brendan Babish] [Rudy Joggerst]


Subway Cinema


film > Tracking Shots: 'The Taste of Tea' by ...   Michelle Orange of the Village Voice


Read the New York Times Review »   Neil Genzlinger


DVDBeaver [Gary Tooze]


FUNKY FOREST:  THE FIRST CONTACT (Naisu no mori: The First Contact)

Japan  (150 mi)  2005


Lunapark6  Luna6


This is one of those movies where words really can’t do the movie justice. Katsuhito Ishii, along with two of his pals, takes elements from his previous films (Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Party 7, A Taste of Tea) to create an utterly surreal omnibus that ranges from the utterly bizarre to the unbelievably funny. Some of the more bizarre characters you will encounter in Funky Forest are Alien Piko-Riko, Bloodsuckers, and Pero the dog director. The movie’s narration is as unorthodox as these characters. The film is split into an A-Side and B-Side and includes a 3 minute intermission during the half way point in the film. Also, the film is told through non-linear sketches that contains recurring characters and themes. The main recurring characters would be :
The Mole Brothers : Futuristic / Alien comedy brothers.
The Unpopular With Women Brothers : The Guitar Brother tries to learn to play the guitar to pick up chicks, while his older brother, Tanaka, tries to learn a Kabuki dance to pick up chicks. They also have a younger brother, who is Caucasian and loves Snicker candy bars.
Notti & Takefumi : Takefumi is a bookish high school teacher, that loves to DJ and has a crush on his student Notti. Notti is a dreamy high school student, that enjoys the company of Takefumi, but hasn’t physiologically encountered love.
The Hot Spring Vixen Babes : Two sales lady and their friend Nico. Nico happens to be friends with Takefumi and has revealed to her friends that Takefumi has 2 uvula’s and has claimed to have seen Alien Piko-Riko.
With these characters you have Funky Forest: The First Contact. A true mind f*ck of a movie, that has just so many layers of impressive things occurring in the film. Beyond the wacky visuals and storyline, you have a cast that is as recognizable as it is enjoyable. You will notice that quite a few characters from A Taste Of Tea are cast in a Funky Forest. Some of the more notable ones would be : Maya Banno, who played Little Hataru (she played the young girl in A Taste Of Tea that saw a bigger than life version of herself in the sky), Tabanobu Asano played the Guitar Brother (he played the Uncle in A Taste Of Tea), and Takahiro Sato who played a student in the “Homeroom” segments (played the son in A Taste Of Tea). Also the freakish blond haired dancer from A Taste Of Tea makes a recurring dance performance in Funky Forest. There is also that weird Cartoon Artist that appeared in A Taste Of Tea. On top of these actors, I did spot some other well known faces, like Chizuru Ikewaki who played one of the Hot Spring Vixen Babes. She was amazing in Josee, The Tiger and The Fish (as the insular handicapped girl) and in Funky Forest she gets to cut loose as a talkative and always in control young lady. Also, I did spot one of the girls from Swing Girls appearing briefly in Notti’s dream sequence.
Although I won’t attempt to quantify what exactly the movie is about, there definitely is a plot in Funky Forest. That plot just so happens to be cut up in a non-linear fashion like William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But, don’t let that scare you away. The sketches in Funky Forest are just so funny or just so weird that you wont really have time to worry about the story (the Hot Spring Vixen Babes in particular had me cracking up!). One criticism with the film would be with the film’s long run time. As with A Taste Of Tea, I did feel that Funky Forest would have made an even bigger impact if it was condensed in length. In particular ,the last 1/3 of this film seemed to lack the humor and excitement that the rest of the film contained.
Besides the criticism about length of the film, I don’t have a single negative word to say about this wonderfully flaky film. Funky Forest : The First Contact is just a pure blast to see and experience. Check this one out at the first opportunity! Funky Forest: The First Contact is one of the most unique and original films I have seen to date.
Cinema Strikes Back [David Austin]


Twitch   Jungwhan Lah (Jay Seaver)


Cinema-Repose  M. Douglas


Subway Cinema


Movie Patron [Andrew James]


Nippon Cinema


Ivens, Joris


film > Cinema Without Borders: The Films Of Joris ...   Elliot Stein from the Village Voice


Joris Ivens died in 1989 at age 90, just as his luminous final film, A Tale of the Wind, was making the rounds. This militant "Flying Dutchman" had seen more of the 20th century's crucial events than any other filmmaker: the Chinese revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Vietnam and Laos. For over 60 years he had pursued the troubles of the world, working as a teacher with students and production collectives in Chile, Poland, Cuba, and Germany. The Walter Reade's retro includes 16 key works from his 80-film oeuvre and an exhibition of rare stills.

Ivens was born in Nigmegen, the Netherlands, where his family had been involved with photography for two generations. His protean career began to take shape with two impressionistic film poems, The Bridge (1928) and Rain (1929). In 1932, he became the first foreigner invited to shoot a movie in the Soviet Union: Song of Heroes, a tribute to young workers building a blast furnace in the Urals. During the 1930s, he continued to derive powerful films from Popular Front politics. The Spanish Earth (1937), produced with funds raised by a group of American writers (Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker), concerns the Republican defense of the main road to Madrid. Ernest Hemingway voice-overs the moving commentary he wrote for it. A year later, with The 400 Million, Ivens called world attention to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Power and the Land (1941), a New Deal propaganda piece on rural electrification, is—against all odds—a little masterpiece. This account of the life of an Ohio family before and after the arrival of electrical power in their town, stunningly photographed by the great Floyd Crosby, turned out an indelible portrait of heartland America—Norman Rockwell without the mush.

After the Second World War, Ivens was appointed film commissioner of the Dutch East Indies, but resigned, taking a stand in support of Indonesian independence. Deprived of his Dutch passport as punishment, he spent a decade in Eastern Europe, then settled in Paris. The Seine Meets Paris (1957), a valentine to his second home, assumes the form of an exuberant barge journey up the river. While teaching in Chile, Ivens shot A Valparaiso (1963), a lively city symphony and one of his most poetic films, with a trenchantly ironic commentary by Chris Marker. Made mostly in crisp black and white, it bursts into color for a lyrical final sequence. In A Tale of the Wind (1988), co-directed with his wife, Marceline Loridan, Ivens turns the camera on his own life. This cryptic, painterly film, shot in his beloved China, takes place (according to the director) "in a no-man's land somewhere between reality and imagination." His cinematic testament, it bears some affinity to Jean Cocteau's confessional last film, The Testament of Orpheus. In one extraordinary scene, Ivens becomes a passenger on a rocket to the moon. That's one of the few places he never actually visited.

Introduction from the Joris Ivens European Foundation:  also seen here:  Joris Ivens (1898 - 1989) - Movie List on


Joris Ivens (1898 Nijmegen -1989 Parijs) made more then 80 films and filmed between 1912 and 1988 in over 20 countries. His life and work provide a unique insight in the turbulent 20th century, exploring the world with his camera in an era in which new means of communication and transportation like film, radio, TV, trains, cars and planes made the world visible and within reach, while world wars, global migration, revolutions and world trade made people share their fate. The era of Ivens was the age of film, telegram, typewriter and air plane, the period between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the era of the rise and fall of the artistic and political vanguard.

Being raised in a family of photographers in which observing was important, he tried to record this new world in an innovative and modern film language. With his bourgeois background of entrepreneurs he became a communist for many years and as a world citizen supported struggles for social progress, for national independence in the Third World, against colonialism and fascism. A steady faith in a happy ending made him for a long time blind for the seduction of totalitarianism. Besides films, full of social-political engagement, we also find a different approach in his work, the side of the emotional person and the poet, who can catch, and even play with, the very essence of something as illusive as a rain shower or the wind in just ten minutes. These aspects stem from the same passion for movement and moving images. In Ivens` personality his romantic attitude towards nature and the position of an artist fights with his rational attitude of a modernist and entrepreneur. He had the skills to adept very easily to people with different social backgrounds, to different spheres, cultures, countries and technical developments and yet remain himself 

Looking back one can state that Ivens was an oeuvre builder, who recorded the extreme turns of the 20th century: the shocking transformation of a seven thousand years old agricultural world into a modern industrialised society. A change that occured in a short while with most violent circumstances. Whether it concerns the reclamation of the Zuiderzee in the Netherlands, the furnaces in Russia, the electrification of the rural area in the USA or irrigation by farmers in China and Vietnam, Ivens documents this worldwide revolution, in the East and West, in the North or South. It explains why Ivens could as easily work for trade unions as for capitalist multinationals. When seventy years of age Ivens was filming in the trenches of Vietnam, after having filmed four war frontiers before, ending his film career at the age of 88 with a film fairy tale on the wind and the history of Chinese culture. `Filming the impossible is the most wonderful thing there is`, Ivens stated. 

His status in film history is still undisputed, being one of the great inventors of documentary film and many modern day filmmakers claim Ivens was of great influence to their work.

Ephraïm Katz, in `The Film Encyclopedia":

      "Although his reputation in the West suffered as a result of his self-limiting political commitments, Ivens is still regarded as the most important documentarist of his period"


Erik Barnouw, in `Documentary, a History of the Non-fiction film`:
      "From the start, the documentary had been represented by artists moving from continent to continent: the Lumière cinematographers; then Flaherty, Grierson, Cavalcanti, Karmen, and others. The film of advocacy produced an especially striking example, in a single career linking nations, genres, and eras. This was the leading film maker of
Holland, Joris Ivens"


Robert Sklar: in `Film, an international history of the medium`:

      "the most important political moviemaker of the decade, perhaps of the century"


European Foundation Joris Ivens  in Dutch and English, also seen here:  Home - European Foundation Joris Ivens


European Foundation Joris Ivens  an English language version of the Ivens website


Inventory of the Joris Ivens Archives - biographical introduction


Joris Ivens papers


Joris Ivens - Wikiwand  extensive biography


Joris Ivens: Documenting History | Voices Education Project   extensive biography


All-Movie Guide   bio from Sandra Brennan


Joris Ivens | Dutch director |  biography


Joris Ivens  brief profile


Joris Ivens - Director - Films as Director:, Other Films ... - Film Reference   profile by Dorothee Verdaasdonk


Joris Ivens Film Program | RED DIAPER PRODUCTIONS


Films directed by Joris Ivens • Letterboxd


Joris Ivens - Movies, Bio and Lists on MUBI


Watch the films directed by Joris Ivens on Fandor


Joris Ivens' work in Cuba by Thomas Waugh -   Thomas Waugh, May 1980


Joris Ivens, 90, Dutch Documentary Film Maker -   Peter B. Flint, June 30, 1989, also seen here:  Joris Ivens -


The Films of Joris Ivens - Boston Phoenix   The Good Earth, by Chris Fujiwara, April 11 – 18, 2002, also seen here:  Boston Phoenix Article (2002) 


Film review: The films of Joris Ivens – People's World  April 12, 2002


Joris Ivens's Labor-Intensive Industrials | Jonathan Rosenbaum  May 10, 2002, also seen here:  Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2002: Joris Ivens`s Labor-Intensive Industrials. The Films of Joris Ivens (in The Chicago Reader)


Joris Ivens • Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema   Ian Mundell from Senses of Cinema, October 20, 2005  


A Revolutionary Boxed: Joris Ivens Collection on DVD - Ons Erfdeel  December 3, 2008


Joris Ivens and the Role of Film in the Indonesian Independence ...   Drew Cottle and Angela Keys from Asia-Pacific Journal, January 12, 2009


Tom Waugh's definitive book on Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens now on ...   May 16, 2016, also seen here:  The Conscience of Cinema


Joris Ivens: Stalin's and Mao's Riefenstahl | Useful Stooges   February 13, 2017


TSPDT - Joris Ivens  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They


Joris Ivens and the Documentary Project   José Manuel Costa


website of Ivens-biographer Hans Schoots


Joris Ivens - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


De Brug (The Bridge), Regen (Rain), The Spanish Earth, and The 400 Million  films may be seen at Google Video


THE BRIDGE (De brug)

Netherlands  (11 mi)  1928




This landmark abstract study of a massive iron bridge in Rotterdam, with its stark black & white montages and fluid camera, was described in the British journal CLOSEUP (1928) as a “pure visual symphony”.


1928 / The Bridge  European Foundation

The vertical lift-bridge in Rotterdam is the object of study in The Bridge. Normally it seems to be a very static object, but Joris Ivens made a very dynamic film out of it. "For me, the bridge consisted of a laboratory of movements, tints, forms, contrasts, rythms and the relationship between all these phenomena". The film was immediately recognised as a masterpiece by international critics and colleague filmmakers; Joris Ivens was at once the most famous avant-garde filmmaker of the Netherlands.

RAIN (Regen)

Netherlands  (12 mi)  1929




Ivens’ first abstract film is a beautiful and evocative portrait of his native city of Amsterdam. Together with THE BRIDGE, these two early films established Ivens’ international reputation as a visual poet of the cinema.


1929 (5) / Rain  European Foundation

Rain is a film poem (Cine Poème) about the rise and demise of a rain shower in Amsterdam, as many capitals were filmed by avant-garde filmmakers in the 1920's (a.o. Moskow, Berlin, Paris, New York). The film is impressionistic and composed following musical guidelines. It took Ivens over two years to shoot enough rain showers on different locations in the city to be able to compose this film.

In 1932/33 Helen van Dongen made a sound version of Rain with music from Lou Lichtveld (alias from Albert Helman). Afterwards more composers would be inspired to write music to this film, like Hanns Eisler in 1941 with Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben.

Raging Bull [Mike Lorefice] 


Beautiful, intertitleless, lyrical poetic short of rain in the city somewhat in the vein of Dziga Vertov. It's one of those films that says everything or nothing depending on your perspective; it's plotless and in a way devoid of logic yet it's extremely evocative. It 's very slow (you are given time to reflect), but extremely fast (less than 15 minutes). The mastery of Ivens here is in creating a work where something as simple as rainfall can dictate the rhythm, tempo, pacing, and ultimately mood of the piece. The imaginative photography is exquisite, with so many perspectives achieved of the same thing (rain landing) that actually reveal quite different things because of what we see in (reflection) or through (window).


Joris Ivens - Regen (Rain, 1929) on Vimeo (8:59)



Netherlands  (36 mi)  1931

1931 (2) - Philips Radio  European Foundation

Philips Radio is considered the third important Dutch avant-garde film of Joris Ivens, after The Bridge and Rain. The film was commissioned by Philips in order to show the modern production process of radio's in the factories and offices in Eindhoven. Only in a later stage of the shootings it was decided to use the latest film sound technologies in studios in France and make the first Dutch sound film.



The first Dutch sound film, PHILIPS RADIO was made as a company film for the Eindhoven factory, which produced radio sets. Ivens constructed a striking visual symphony from the structures and workers inside the factory space, and simultaneously critiqued the monotony of the workers’ conditions. This social critique scandalized the Philips management at the time. Now a classic of film history for its elegant abstraction and lively editing, PHILLIPS RADIO also created one of the earliest soundtracks, combining music and factory sounds into a kind of industrial symphony.



Soviet Union  (50 mi)  1932




Made as a tribute to young socialist workers and their labor, KOMSOMOL portrays the building of a blast furnace in early 1930s Magnitogorsk, in the Ural Mountains. Using a dramatic opening montage, Ivens focuses on the spirit and idealism of the young USSR and its Communist youth organisation. Again combining documentary footage with re-enactments, and working with composer Hanns Eisler, Ivens managed to create a lyrical portrait of a key moment in Russian history.


1932 (2) - Komsomol / Song of Heroes  European Foundation

Documentary about the building of blast furnaces by the communist youth workers organisation Komsomol, constructed as part of the first five year plan of Stalin's Soviet Union. The film is set Magnitogorsk in the de Ural, where an industrial city of over 200.000 people was built in just a few years, and in the Kubas basin in Siberia. The film is a tribute to the achievements of the volunteers, the Komsomol, but does not show the dark side of history: the thousands of imprisoned Kulach doing hard labour under terrible conditions. Influenced by the Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin, Ivens tells the story by following one non-fiction character, a non-actor, who re-enacted the scenes. this form of 'personalised story', which we would call docudrama, reappears after this first attempt in Komsomol in many Ivens films.

[Note:  The premiere in Moscow January 2, 1933 was in the presence of Pudovhin]

Films by Joris Ivens, program one  Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader


Two early and key sound documentaries by the great Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. Komsomol (1932, 50 min.), which I haven't seen, is a tribute to young workers in the Soviet Union as they build a blast furnace in the Ural Mountains. Also known as Song of Heroes, it was the first collaboration between Ivens and composer Hanns Eisler, and reportedly the first film ever made by a foreigner in the USSR. Power and the Land (1940, 33 min.), the first of Ivens's many American films during the 40s, was commissioned by Pare Lorentz for the U.S. Film Service, cowritten by Ivens, Edwin Locke, and Stephen Vincent Benet, shot in part by the great Floyd Crosby, and scored by Douglas Moore. A stirring look at the coming of electricity to post-Depression farms, it concentrates on a particular family in Ohio that Ivens lived with, and it's not unworthy of James Agee and Walker Evans's classic book about Depression sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Critic Elliott Stein has rightly called it "Norman Rockwell without the mush."


NEW EARTH (Nieuwe gronden)

Netherlands  (30 mi)  1933




For this film, Ivens expanded an already impressive sequence of WE ARE BUILDING (1930), about the construction of the Zuiderzee dykes near Amsterdam, which produced abundant new land for farming. NEW EARTH is an eloquent portrayal of the catastrophes subsequently visited upon Dutch workers by the necessary closing of these dykes. The loss of the reclaimed land and the grain it produced, was devastating. Combining dramatic re-enactments, stock footage, and documentary materials with a stirring score by German composer Hanns Eisler, NEW EARTH is a classic of political documentary.


1933 - New Earth  European Foundation

The Zuiderzee Works episode of We Are Building was elaborated to the much longer film Zuiderzee by Joris Ivens in 1930. In 1934 Ivens used the same material, and additional footage, to make another version: New Earth. This time the film got a political message, and the editing became more compact and stronger, sustained by the stirring Music of Hanns Eisler. After the part on the reclamation and the closing of the dyke the film continues with images of the economic crisis and the poverty among labourers. Ivens opposes this with the speculation on the market: those who helped with the reclamation of new land for agriculture are now unemployed and starving, while grain is dumped at see to keep the prices up. The closing of the dyke is still one of the strongest editing sequences in the films of Joris Ivens.

User reviews from imdb Author Walter Boers ( from Leuven, Belgium

This film is a strange mixture of a documentary and a political pamphlet. Ivens first shows how thousands of courageous workmen toiled for years to give Holland new fertile soil to grow wheat on. When you see the first harvest, you think the film is over, but suddenly the tone changes dramatically: "but we all know wheat isn't grown for eating, but for speculating". The last ten minutes of the film are a strident accusation against the industrialists who rather burn wheat or throw it into the sea than lower the price so poor people can afford to buy it. At the time millions of people in Europe and America were ruined because of the economic depression and there was also a famine in Manchuria. Ivens shows images of hunger marches in New York and London and corpses of starved Manchurians, accompanied by the endless repetition of the word of an anonymous industrialist: "We stikken in het graan" (we're smothered by wheat). A very effective movie, also thanks to the vigorous music by Eisler, and very useful in reminding us that destroying good food while people are starving was, is and will always be plain murder, whatever the economical reasons behind it may be.


Belgium (36 mi)  1933  co-director: Henri Storck



Co-directed with Belgian filmmaker Henri Storck, this film portrays the painful aftermath of the revolutionary 1932 miners’ strike in the Borinage region. Moving away from his earlier poetic style, Ivens structured the film as a social critique and staged several scenes as dramatic reenactments of the strike. Described as having “accusatory aesthetics,” BORINAGE suffered political censorship for many years, but remains an impressive example of Ivens’ early socialist realist style and themes.

1934 (1) - Borinage  European Foundation

In 1933 Henri Storck, who was one of the leading figures of the Belgium film avant-garde, asked Joris Ivens to help him to make a film about the social consequences of the miners strike in the Borinage the year before. Arriving at this mine region Storck and Ivens forgot about aesthetics. As Henri Storck tells: " We stopped thinking about cinema and how to frame shots and instead bacame dominated by the irrepressible need to produce images as stark, bare, and sincere as possible to fit the cruel facts reality had thrown at us." In a sober style the film confronts the spectator with the misery of the miners; unemployed or exploited by the mine companies they were, with their families, expelled from their homes if they couldn't afford the rent. Ivens used the method of re-enactment to incorporate the miners strike of 1932 in the film.


USA  (52 mi)  1937




Considered one of the great war films, THE SPANISH EARTH was produced with funds raised by a group of American intellectuals, including poet Archibald McLeash, writer Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, and composer Virgil Thomson. Its main theme concerns the defense of the road to Madrid, and the parallel efforts of the village farmers to irrigate fields and produce food for their soldiers. Stunningly shot, often in dangerous battle areas, THE SPANISH EARTH is scored by Virgil Thomson and Mark Blitzstein. On location with Ivens were John Dos Passos, Robert Capa, and Ernest Hemingway, who contributed the powerful commentary. Upon its New York City opening in 1934, THE SPANISH EARTH was declared one of the “most significant and timely documents of our time.”


The Spanish Earth   Pat Graham from the Reader

Joris Ivens, venerable agitprop documentarist for a variety of left-leaning and third-world causes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains, The Threatening Sky), created this 1937 Spanish civil war documentary with the assistance of some heavy celebrity artillery, including Lillian Hellman, Archibald MacLeish, and Dorothy Parker among the umbrella group of American producers and Ernest Hemingway as the voice-over narrator. The film develops parallel connections between farmers creating an irrigation system and civilian defenders of the besieged Spanish republic, and includes footage of Dolores Ibarruri (La Pasionaria of Republican legend) and other Loyalist leaders. 52 min.

Films by Joris Ivens, program three  Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader

Joris Ivens's fine and powerful The Spanish Earth (1937, 52 min.)--possibly the best documentary we have about the Spanish civil war, along with Andre Malraux's L'espoir--has music by Virgil Thomson and Marc Blitzstein and commentary written as well as read by Ernest Hemingway (it was originally read by Orson Welles, and at least one print of that version still exists). Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, John Dos Passos, and Dorothy Parker raised money to make the film, which is showing with the equally celebrated 1939 Ivens documentary The 400 Million, a 53-minute account of China preparing to struggle against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria that includes rare footage of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

1937 - The Spanish Earth  European Foundation

The production company Contemporary Historians was set up to raise money for a documentary about the Spanish civil war, filmed on the spot. With John Ferno and initially with John Dos Passos, who when he left the crew, was replaced by Ernest Hemingway, Joris Ivens went to Fuenteduena, near Madrid, to film on the front of the republican armies. It has become one of the major films on the Spanish Civil War and one of the most important films in Ivens' career. Like in many other films Ivens finds a balance between the daily life of people and their struggle to survive.

The strong photography, mainly by John Ferno, combined with the powerful editing by Helen van Dongen and the commentary of Ernest Hemingway make the film a masterpiece of documentary film making. In a first version the commentary was spoken by Orson Welles, but his voice was considered 'too beautiful' to be combined with the film, so it was decided that Hemingway did himself the commentary. One year later Jean Renoir made a French version, in a different editing which destroyed most of the power of the film.

Raging Bull [Mike Lorefice]


Ivens was a great auteur who largely worked in the documentary genre because he believed in causes and could do more for their urgent needs there than by making pure fiction. This documentary on the Spanish Civil War looks like neorealism and doesn't bother with interviews; Ivens would find the images that fit his point of view and comment on them himself. In a sense he made his documentaries like people who have something to say make their features. More concerned with the message than the authenticity, he sometimes reenacted or even staged events to either get them on film at all or to make them come across in a more moving way. Ivens was also at odds with the "documentary" school of his day for his propensity to follow the subjects, utilize close-ups, and incorporate Soviet style montage editing, all unacceptable in the stagnant newsreel world of standing steady at a respectable distance and waiting for the action to come to you. Regardless of your definition of documentary, there's a truth that comes from the heart of Ivens work that is undeniable. Even if various problems such as budgetary limitations, political ideologies, and the reasons his work got funded might be said to interfere with the credibility, Ivens captured the humanity of these people in a way that few others did. Spanish Earth looks quite creaky, it was his first film in the US and typically underfunded, but there are several impressive images as Ivens could also do avant garde and certainly was not afraid to experiment. Ivens captures many images that would make great stills, and I suppose that's not surprising considering his father owned a photographic shop and Ivens was poised to succeed him there. Spanish Earth was designed to get Americans to give money to the left for ambulances, and the war footage is quite startling for the time as this was before news crews were regularly amidst the fighting and bringing it home for our mealtime pleasure. The harsh battle footage is nicely balanced by following a soldier who isn't fighting at the moment but rather working on irrigation to reclaim land that has been laid waste by enemy bombing. Land and water represent good much more than the soldier, who for the most part is glorified by association to them. Ernest Hemingway wrote the commentary, and delivered it after key collaborators such as Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker found Orson Welles voice too smooth for the material. Certainly Hemingway's influence is apparent with the concise to the point narration.



USA  China  (52 mi)  1939




Made by THE SPANISH EARTH team of Ivens, Robert Capa, and editor Helene van Dongen, this is a story of a fight for freedom against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1938. Opening with a stunning montage of scenes depicting the bombing of coastal cities, the film then takes us on an eloquent tour of the history, landscape, and art of the old China. The last section portrays modernization underway throughout the country, linking its struggle to those in the West for democracy. With amazing footage of Sun Yat Sen, Chang Kai Shek. THE 400 MILLION was described in the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE as “brilliant! The Hanns Eisler score affords a rich musical fabric for attention.”


1939 - The Four Hundred Million  European Foundation


Documentary about the resistance of the Chinese against the Japanese invasion and occupation from Manchuria. The Chinese had joined forces against this common enemy. The nationalistic Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-sjek and the communist party cooperated, at least on paper.

The film opens with a Japanese bombardment of Hankow, shows all aspects of warfare: the field battles, the refugees, dead and wounded, fear and human suffering. The film also places the resistance in the context of China's ancient culture. With images from a.o. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-sjek, his wife Song Meiling and the future prime minister Zhou-enLai. Ivens cooperates again with cameraman John Fernhout (Ferno) and with photographer Robert Capa, as he did making The Spanish Earth. The music by Hanns Eisler is the first score composed with the twelve tone technique of Eisler's teacher Arnold Schönberg.



USA  (38 mi)  1940




Commissioned by famous American documentarian Pare Lorentz during the period of the New Deal, POWER AND THE LAND was Ivens’ contribution to that period of rapid growth and modernization. Heading out to the Midwest, he created an engaging portrait of an American family in the post-Depression USA. The film documents the life of this farm family before and after the coming of electrical power to the town. With a musical score by composer Douglas Moore, POWER AND THE LAND became one of the most famous American social documentaries.


1940 (2) - Power and the Land  European Foundation

Information film that was an important part of the rural electrification campaign, set up as part of the New Deal policies of president F.D. Roosevelt. Privatised electricity companies of the U.S. cities saw no profit in bringing electricity all the way to the sparsely populated countryside, so the ministry of Agriculture tried to convince farmers to set up co-operations which in turn could buy power from the government.

Ivens selected a model farm and family, the Parkinsons, and shows the daily life on the farm before and after the installation of electricity. The films was seen by over 6 million people until 1961 and houses besides the two main components of American culture (untamed pastoral nature versus industrial progress) many autobiographical aspects. The whole film is staged with the farmer's family acting as themselves. Today we'd call this a docudrama. The Parkinson's farm had already been electrified several months before the shooting.

Films by Joris Ivens, program one   Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader


Two early and key sound documentaries by the great Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. Komsomol (1932, 50 min.), which I haven't seen, is a tribute to young workers in the Soviet Union as they build a blast furnace in the Ural Mountains. Also known as Song of Heroes, it was the first collaboration between Ivens and composer Hanns Eisler, and reportedly the first film ever made by a foreigner in the USSR. Power and the Land (1940, 33 min.), the first of Ivens's many American films during the 40s, was commissioned by Pare Lorentz for the U.S. Film Service, cowritten by Ivens, Edwin Locke, and Stephen Vincent Benet, shot in part by the great Floyd Crosby, and scored by Douglas Moore. A stirring look at the coming of electricity to post-Depression farms, it concentrates on a particular family in Ohio that Ivens lived with, and it's not unworthy of James Agee and Walker Evans's classic book about Depression sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Critic Elliott Stein has rightly called it "Norman Rockwell without the mush."



Australia  (15 mi)  1946




Ivens was appointed Film Commissioner of the Dutch East Indies in 1944 to film the liberation of Indonesia. Upon realizing the Dutch government had no intention of liberation, Ivens resigned. Instead he made this film as a contribution to Indonesian independence. Shot in clandestine circumstances, the film became quite infamous, causing Ivens to lose his Dutch passport for several months.


1946 - Indonesia Calling!  European Foundation

Appointed by the Dutch government as a Film Commissioner of the Dutch East Indies, Joris Ivens was supposed make educational and informational films and to film the liberation of Indonesia. However, when he arrived in Sydney and found out that the Dutch government had no intentions to make Indonesia an independent country, but restore the pre-war colonial situation in Indonesia, if necessary with military violence, and this being in contradiction with the information he'd been given and the Atlantic Charter treaty, Joris Ivens resigned his post and made this film. He stated that the Dutch were not working on Indonesia's independence, but on a re-colonization of it. The film is clandestinely shot in the harbours of Sydney, where the port workers unions boycot the Dutch ships filled with military supplies and summon the workers to turn down labour on these ships.

Katherine Duncan, 1948: As Others See Us (in Sight and Sound)   Deanne Williams essay from Screening the Past  (excerpt)

In early 1945 Duncan heard through various contacts that Joris Ivens was on his way to Australia to head up the Dutch East Indies Film Unit, at that time situated in Melbourne. Duncan had seen Ivens's films such as Rain (1929), Borinage (1933) New earth (1934) and in particular Spanish earth (1937) and decided that she wanted to work with him and approached the Unit about obtaining a position. Although she was not officially offered a position with Ivens's group she did obtain work writing commentaries for the newsreel productions of the Film and Photo Unit of the Dutch East Indies Government in Exile making, basically, propaganda films to be screened in the Dutch colony. [9] Ivens was appointed Film Commissioner of the Dutch East Indies, employed to "film the liberation of Indonesia and subsequently, to initiate a documentary production system with Indonesian filmmakers". [10] Ivens had been convinced by some members of the Dutch Government that the Dutch East Indies would be subject to the Atlantic Charter of 1941 where it was stated that each nation had a right to self-determination in the post-war period and even Charles van der Plas, the Dutch delegate to Allied Supreme Command, had written propaganda stating that the Dutch East Indies in the post-war would be a "community in which Indonesians, the Dutch, the Chinese and Arabs can feel equally at home". [11] It seems that some people in the Dutch Government had different hopes for the colony in the post-war than those of people such as van der Plas and Ivens. While the Americans distrusted Ivens, these Dutch administrators believed that he was the person to image a new country freed from the shackles of colonialism. [12]

Ivens arrived in Australia in early March 1945 with plans to make three combat zone films; a black and white feature and two color shorts. He also had in mind two further shorts and a series of twenty educational programs for use in the East Indies after liberation for which he had received an agreement from the Dutch Ministry of Education. [13] Initially located in offices at 170 La Trobe Street, Melbourne, Ivens gave camera instruction classes to Indonesians in exile and worked on the Educational Program. [14] On 31 August the Joris Ivens Film Unit, which consisted of Ivens, the newly arrived American, Marion Michelle, cameraman Donald Frazer and editor Joan Frazer, along with two Indonesians, John Sendoek and John Soedjono, moved to Sydney. Duncan was to join this group. Ivens and Duncan had met in Melbourne where Duncan had introduced the Dutchman to some Indonesians who had related their experiences under colonial rule to him. Ivens responded by bringing them into the Educational Unit with him. [15] It was becoming clearer that Ivens original intentions were becoming increasingly out of step with the rapidly accelerating events in the Dutch East Indies.

After the capitulation of the Japanese to the Allied forces following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Republican movement in Indonesia gathered momentum until two weeks later the independent Republic of Indonesian was proclaimed on August 17 1945. [16] Amongst the chaos of a quasi-civil war fought by Indonesians, Japanese, British and the Dutch, Ivens began to move with the anti-Dutch mood of the Australian trade unions, the Chifley Labor Government and particularly the left community of Sydney who had formed ties with Rebublican Indonesians on Australian soil. Ivens's support for the more liberal minded Dutch such as van der Plas and his hopes of working for a new East Indies as Film Commissioner were at an end and shifted to wholehearted support for the Indonesian Republic. Duncan had by now also decided to work with Ivens on a clandestine film production that would serve the new Republic.

Duncan recalls that during the months of September and October Ivens was struck down by a serious asthma attack which laid him low for much of the production of Indonesia calling (1946). [17] Schoots writes that

in Sydney on October 13, Ivens and cameraman John Heyer [later to join the Film Division of the Department of Information] made some shots of the departure of the Esperance Bay, a ship bearing more than one thousand four hundred Indonesians which was setting sail for one of the ports in the hands of the Republic. [18]

According to Duncan, Michelle shot most of the rest of the film due to the ill health of Ivens and probably due to his being tailed by US, Dutch and Australian secret services. Schoots reports that shooting was completed on November 16 and Ivens resigned his position on November 21 1945. [19] Duncan brought in her radio play colleague Peter Finch to narrate the film using her words. Duncan describes the process of combining narration with images in Indonesia Calling:

We always worked so closely together that it was difficult to delineate our respective roles. I wrote most of the commentary at the editing table, so that it developed along with the editing. For us no problem existed separately from others. We were composing a work in which sometimes the images, sometimes the commentary, sometimes the music or the sound effects were primary. I had power not only over the words, but over a whole orchestra of emotional and intellectual possibilities. But all the same I was subjected to a very strict discipline, like the discipline of composing a sonnet. [20]

Indonesia calling includes what sounds like a mock newsreel within its own format. Peter Finch, the narrator of Indonesia calling asks us to remember a newsreel from 1945 as a means of introducing a newsreel-like segment about the departure of the Esperance Bay for Indonesia from Sydney which is a means of setting up "the story of the ships that didn't sail"; a story which is the real interest of the film, the resistance of the waterside workers and other Australian trade unions to the loading of Dutch ships sailing to Indonesia in the period prior to the announcement of the country's independence. In the main body of Indonesia Calling, Ivens, Michelle and Duncan distinguish their own film from the "official" newsreel by turning to the story of the role of the trade unions.

In two segments from Indonesia calling it is possible to better understand the point that Duncan makes about the third dimension in documentary film. The first is the transition from an Indonesian folk group playing to images of Indonesians on a boat in contemplative shots. Over images of three Indonesians looking out on the mid-ground, Peter Finch narrates,

We liked their old Indonesian folksongs, even if we didn't understand the words – but they did. Yet here in Australia it wasn't just the river and the rice fields, the villages of their homeland they thought about, but something they didn't have before the war, something they fought for with the allies – independence.

This sequence provides a space between the narration and the images which invites the spectator of the film to enter into the minds of the Indonesians depicted. This device may be the kind of thing that Duncan found attractive about documentary aesthetics compared to the newsreel. Later in the film this kind of slowing down of the rhetorical onslaught experienced in newsreels is apparent in the sequence apparently shot by John Heyer. In this sequence the Indonesian Independence Committee in tandem with the Waterside Workers Union discover that one ship, the Esperance Bay, has "slipped through" the bans placed on manning ships headed for Indonesia and decide to chase it out towards the heads. After much appealling to the supposedly Indian crew, the ship passes in silence through the Sydney Heads and makes for the ocean waters. The narration recommences over a long shot of the ship passing through Heads. "They've gone. But outside Sydney Heads, to the throb of the engines, the Indians were thinking. " There then follows three long still shots of single crew members with the narration recalling the appeals of the Indonesians and waterside workers, "Brothers, Indonesia's fight is your fight, stop engines, stop engines. " The last image of an Indian worker fades to black.

Indonesia calling is an example of an international documentary production filmed in Australia. For Duncan the film provided not only a connection with the international documentary movement through the figure of Ivens but it also led to her working with the Films Division of the Department of Information. Duncan obtained a position there as a writer, principally of narration, and as a researcher. The Film Division is often discussed along with the newly constituted National Film Board, in terms of function, as part of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction. In a bureaucratic sense it was. Aesthetically, the Film Division belonged to the international documentary movement because its personnel looked to the movement in Britain and United States in particular, but also to the Soviets and the Italians, for documentary models to adapt to local issues.

The discourse of documentary that Albert Moran and Tom O'Regan locate in the 1940s in Australia relied on Griersonian tenets to fulfil "social duties" based on "the assumption of a universal humanism. People everywhere, so the argument goes, are human, just like ourselves, and therefore inherently deserving of our curiosity and interest". [21] Moran and O'Regan point to the emergence in 1940s Australia of a new cinema, "documentary", which they distinguish from its predecessors in actuality filming such as newsreel by drawing on Alan Lovell's description of British documentary film as "an art cinema that had no interest in art".

However to say that the filmmakers were not interested in art is not to imply that they were naive and crude in their aesthetic practices. As the films themselves bear witness, they were not. Rather it is to suggest that Australian documentary in the 1940s and 1950s, like English documentary, lacked any very extended vocabulary for the articulation and discussion of aesthetic questions and issues. Most frequently terms from a social/ethical vocabulary were pressed into service in the aesthetic sphere. In particular documentary film was unable to render any account of the filmmaker as artist. At the most the filmmaker was little more than the facilitator of reality's register on film.[22]

The point here is that while it is possible to understand documentary at this time through the discourses of realism and nationalism it was understood by the people who worked in the institution itself, such as Catherine Duncan, as a distinct art form, unlike newsreel. Albert Moran[23] provides instances of these discourses as they emerged in the journals of the time. The talk here is more to do with location and the search for a "true" representation of Australian identity. Duncan's "As others see us" should be counted amongst these writings. Part of the problem in attempting to identify how people were thinking about documentary in this period is that history has more often than not been distorted by the positioning of documentary film within a national cinema. Much of the writing from that 1940s and 1950s was caught up in the prevailing tendency to address the issue of "what is wrong with the Australian film industry?" and, of course, this is an address to the feature film industry. In making precise distinctions between newsreel, documentary film and feature narrative we can be more specific about "the art of documentary" as it was conceived by some of the young Turks at the Film Division, such as Duncan, John Heyer and Lee Robinson, in relation to the Department of Information's reliance on the magazine style of newsreel production.

SONG OF THE RIVERS (Das Lied der Ströme)

Germany  (100 mi)  1954           co-directors:  Joop Huisken, Robert Ménégoz, and Ruy Santos




Still one of the biggest documentary productions ever made, this film celebrates international workers’ movements along six major rivers: the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon and the Yangtze. Shot in many countries by different film crews, and later edited by Ivens, SONG OF THE RIVERS begins with a lyrical montage of landscapes and laborers and proceeds to glorify labor and modern industrial machinery. With a powerful musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich, lyrics written by Berthold Brecht, and songs performed by Ernst Busch and famous American actor and singer Paul Robeson, the film is an ode to international solidarity.


Films by Joris Ivens, program four  Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader


One of the most ambitious as well as most widely seen documentaries ever made, Joris Ivens's Song of the Rivers (1954, 90 min.) lyrically celebrates the labor movements alongside half a dozen of the world's great rivers: the Volga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. Given the amount of coordination necessary between separate film crews, 32 cinematographers, and many other collaborators (including Bertolt Brecht, Paul Robeson, and Dmitri Shostakovich), Ivens's experiences as a world traveler and his skills as an editor made him ideally suited for the job. On the same program, Ivens's clandestinely filmed Indonesia Calling (1946, 22 min.), about the exiled Dutch East Indies government in Australia, which cost Ivens his Dutch citizenship.


1954 - Song of the Rivers  European Foundation

One of the biggest documentary film productions ever is about the workers movements alongside six major rivers of the world: the Wolga, Mississippi, Ganges, Nile, Amazon and the Yangtze. The film was shot in many countries by different film crews, and all the material was sent to the DEFA studio in Berlin. Under the supervision of Joris Ivens Ella Ensink edited the material into a compilation film, in which also some footage from Borinage and New Earth was included. The first part of the film starts as a poetic portret of the life and work along the six world rivers, but then the images of the World Trade Union Congress dominate in the second part and turn the film into a propaganda work. A film which brings together many great artists: except for the director and script writers, Shostakovitch wrote the music, lyrics were from Bertold Brecht, sung by Paul Robeson and Ernst Busch, and Picasso designed the cover for the accompanying book. The film was made by filmmakers from 36 countries and distributed in 28 different (language) versions and was seen by millions.

User reviews from imdb Author Terry Cushion ( from East Anglia, UK

"Song of the Great Rivers", also known as "Unity" or "Seven Rivers" is a documentary film by the Dutch director Joris Ivens for the East German DEFA Studio from 1954, filmed with an English commentary by Alex McCrindle.

An overtly propaganda production extolling Socialist methods and achievements it is, at the same time witheringly critical of capitalism and capitalist countries. Its message is for workers of the world to choose between fun holidays on the Black Sea and strikes and lockouts in the UK or France. Between brotherly inter-racial support and the Klu Klux Klan. Between peace and war.

In cinema terms an interesting reminder of the cold war and of how the world worked, at least according to the Soviets, a couple of generations back. Musically though the film is of great interest boasting an original score of considerable invention by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the title song, with words of Bertolt Brecht (in translation by S. Kirsanov), sung by Paul Robeson episodically through the film. Although a certain amount of music will be familiar to Shostakovich enthusiasts, with quotations from Song of the Forests and Symphony No. 8 among other works, much is as yet unrecorded.

film > Paul Robeson at MOMA by J. Hoberman  Village Voice

Paul Robeson was far more than a movie star, and most of the movies in which the awesomely gifted singer- athlete­political activist appeared were unworthy of his talents. MOMA's retrospective, timed to coincide with the Museum of the City of New York's own Robeson show, not only includes the "race," Hollywood, and independent films in which Robeson appeared between 1925 and 1942 but, throughout its final week, a selection of newsreels and documentaries culled from East German archives. Here, Robeson emerges as the Voice of another America, performing his "progressive" version of "Ol' Man River" in Moscow or singing "Water Boy" for an audience of East German factory workers.

Attacking racial injustice at home while defending the Soviet Union abroad, Robeson was a prime target for American anticommunists. After his passport was confiscated, he made East German films from the U.S., narrating the 1954 Joris Ivens documentary Song of the Rivers (which also featured Brecht lyrics to Shostakovich music) and teaming with composer Earl Robinson for a filmed concert. To see this titanic comrade and hear his rumbling bass, at once inspirational and comforting, is to understand why although both Elvis and Malcolm have been honored with postage stamps, mighty Robeson is still being red-baited a decade after the Cold War's end.

Utopian Visions in Cold War Documentary: Joris Ivens, Paul Robeson and Song of the Rivers (1954)  Excerpt below is one chapter from a larger essay by Charles Musser (link lost), but available here (pdf):  Utopian Visions in Cold War Documentary : Joris Ivens, Paul ...

Although produced by the DEFA Studio for Newsreels and Documentary Films in East Germany (DDR), Lied der Ströme (Song of the Rivers) was funded by the communist-led World Federation of Trade Unions. “The third World Trade Union Congress organized in 1953 by the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) is of course the basis of the film,” remarked WFTU general secretary Louis Saillant. Some of the film was shot at the WFTU conference in Vienna, which opened on 10 October 1953, but the bulk of the material was shot around the globe. A host of international left-leaning stars participated in the film’s production. American performer Robeson and Dutch filmmaker Ivens were joined by German writer Bertolt Brecht, Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, French writer Vladimir Pozner (an old friend and collaborator of Ivens, Robeson, and Brecht), and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (with whom Robeson had recently shared the International Peace Prize). This international band worked with an array of mostly anonymous camera operators from all over the world : 32 in all, said to be from 32 different countries. The marquee artists were complemented by a group of political leaders who appeared in the film, many of whom had been jailed or encountered other forms of repression. Its staff of anonymous craftsmen likewise had their counterparts in the rank and file of ordinary working people depicted in the film. Whether stars or foot soldiers, all were united in the struggle to achieve justice and revolution.

Although Song of the Rivers had its initial premiere in Berlin at the Babylon Filmtheater on 17 September 1954, Ivens continued to refine the documentary long after that date. Before postproduction was completed, the filmmakers had generated at least 18 versions of the film in many different languages. According to some sources, Song of the Rivers was eventually shown to more than 250 million people. Its immediate subject is the struggle of oppressed peoples throughout the world as they organize, attend the third World Congress of Trade Unions, and seek to overthrow Western capitalism in pursuit of a socialist utopia. The film is much more than an oversized news account of its subject. The first lines of narration, recited over scenes of massive construction projects, are : “Aye, but man can yet be the master. By the power of his strong right arm and his intelligence.” The film is fundamentally a celebration of humanity’s ability to transform the natural world. The efforts of the World Congress of Trade Unions are part of a larger effort to bring this labour and intelligence fully to the fore.

Song of the Rivers must also be understood as Joris Ivens’ homage to the great revolutionary filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin and his first feature film, Mat (Mother, 1926). Pudovkin died in 1953, as Song of the Rivers was being formulated. The film was Ivens’ heart-felt response to this loss. Not only was Pudovkin a beloved friend and colleague, he and his first feature propelled Ivens into filmmaking. As the Dutch filmmaker recalled :

The first Russian film to reach Amsterdam was Pudovkin’s Mother based on Gorki’s novel, but public showings were forbidden by the Dutch censors. This piqued our group of young artists and intellectual Amsterdamers in their two most sensitive spots : the right to freedom of expression and the wish to see experimental films.  (Ivens, 1969, p. 20)

[Note:  According to Hans Schoots (2000, p. 35), Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin, 1925) had played in Amsterdam in 1926, before Pudovkin’s Mother. In contrast to Mother, the authorities had permitted it a commercial venue. Ivens’ misremembrance only further underscores Pudovkin’s place in the Dutch filmmaker’s memory.]

The ban led this group to form the Filmliga (the Film League) on 11 May 1927. Ivens became a board member, and two days later he provided the projector and served as projectionist for the Filmliga’s screening of Mother. Almost immediately, Ivens began to make films.

Ivens went on to make a close, frame-by-frame analysis of Pudovkin’s film (Ivens, 1927, p. 7). As he later remarked, “the new possibilities for expression shown by Pudovkin’s Mother enthralled us” (Ivens, 1969, p. 20). Its use of associational montage was to have a profound impact on Ivens’ subsequent work. In the case of Song of the Rivers, the inspiration was more specific and overt. In Mother, as springtime approaches, the streams and rivulets of water gradually meet to form an unstoppable river, just as the small columns of hopeful and courageous working-class people come together to form a powerful revolutionary mass that is marching to demand their rights. This trope continues in Ivens’ film as rivers of water and rivers of workers (the masses) are intercut using associational editing. Later, in the film’s concluding section, rivers of people (isomorphic with those struggling for freedom on the six rivers of water) come together to form a sea of demonstrators, becoming an unstoppable revolutionary force. Building on Mother, on one hand rivers come together to form the ocean, and on the other radicalized workers come together to form the third World Trade Union Congress (midway through the film) and then the hoped-for worldwide revolution (at the film’s end).

THE SEINE MEETS PARIS (La Seine a rencontré Paris)

France  (30 mi)  1957




Considered one of Ivens’ most beautiful films—LA SEINE portrays Paris life along the river. Strollers, workers, kids, fashion models, and loners populate the quais. Filled with images of everyday life from dawn to dusk, and sparkling with lights at night, LA SEINE is a valentine to Ivens’ second home. The commentary, written by poet Jacques Prévert and spoken by singer Serge Reggiani, compliments every frame.


1957 (2) - The Seine Meets Paris  European Foundation


The first film Joris Ivens made when he returned from Eastern Europe is a film poem about Paris and Parisian life on the borders of the Seine river. The film follows the flow of the river through the city of Paris, making a portet of this city and its people living, strolling, sun-bathing, fishing, working, swimming, loving and laughing beside the Seine. The poem written by Jacques Prévert gives the film an extra dimension, and the music, with the recurring theme of a children song, gives it a melancholic touch.


VALPARAISO (...A Valparaíso)
France  Chile  (28 mi)  1965




Invited to teach in Chile in 1962, Ivens made a city symphony encompassing Valparaiso’s prestigious history and modern life. He was most fortunate to have filmmaker Chris Marker write the commentary. Working with his students, Ivens sketches daily life on the city’s steep streets, on the funiculars traversing its hills, and in dancehalls and bars, to create one of his most poetic films. Switching suddenly to color, the last section uses a striking montage of historical drawings, paintings, and etchings and finishes with a sequence of kites floating in the clear blue sky.


1963 (2) - Valparaiso  European Foundation

In 1962 Joris Ivens was invited to Chile for teaching and filmmaking. Together with students he made ...À Valparaiso, one of his most poetic films. Contrasting the prestigious history of the seaport with the present the film sketches a portret of thcity, built on 42 hills, with its wealth and poverty, its daily life on the streets, the stairs, the rack railways and in the bars. Although the port has lost its importance, the rich past is still present in the impoverished city. The film echoes this ambiguous situation in its dialectical poetic style, interweaving the daily life reality (of 1963) with the history of the city and changing from black and white to colour, finally leaving us with hopeful perspective for the children who are playing on the stairs and hills of this beautiful town.


France  (30 mi)  1965




Ivens’ earliest attempt to film the wind resulted in one of his most lyrical films. He began in black and white, changed midway to color film and then for the last section switched to widescreen cinemascope format. Creating a portrait of the wind sweeping through the spectacular landscape and villages of southern France, LE MISTRAL becomes Ivens’ means of discovering life in Provence.


1965 (2) / For the Mistral  European Foundation

One of Joris Ivens' most poetic films is his first attempt to film the wind. With a beautiful photography, a powerful editing and a poetic commentary the film tries to make the wind visible and tangible. It starts in black and white, continues in colour and ends in cinemascope to illustrate the force of the upcoming Mistral wind that blows in the south of France. The original scenario was much more elaborate and ambitious and fits Ivens' lifelong wish to film the impossible: the wind. It was difficult to find a producer for this film, for most people were rather sceptical to finance a film with an invisible main character. Finally Claude Nedjar was willing to produce the film, which despite many financial problems was finished in 1965.

17TH PARALLEL:  VIETNAM IN WAR (Le 17e parallèle: La guerre du people)

France  Vietnam  (113 mi)  1968




Made together with Marceline Loridan, THE 17TH PARALLEL was shot over two months while they lived underground with Vietnamese villagers and soldiers at the line dividing North and South Vietnam. Sharing the homes, food, and dangers of their hosts, Ivens and Loridan established an intimate relationship with the community. Focused on scenes of daily life amidst the relentless bombing by American B52’s, the film combines direct and synchronized sound, juxtaposed with longer sequences. Rather than a film about the horrors of war, it is a remarkable portrait of survival against all the odds.


1968 / The 17th Parallel  European Foundation

Long documentary about the everyday life in Vinh Linh and other villages near the 17th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. This area was bombed heavily bombarded during the Vietnam war, which forced the villagers to live partly underground. The film shows the ingenuity and the determination of the North-Vietnamese people to defend their country and their own land.

The shocking but 'clean' images, the pace of the editing (to illustrate the slow pace of life in an agricultural community) and the synchronous sound of the ongoing bombardments in the background, gives this film also cinematographic importance.

The 17th Parallel  Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader


The title refers to the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and this 1968 feature by the great documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens offers a chance to spend a couple of hours with some of the villagers and soldiers we were bombing the hell out of back then. Ivens, along with his companion and collaborator Marceline Loridan, lived among the Vietnamese for two months, dodging our ammo and shooting whatever he could. In contrast to the lush colors and Dolby rock music of Apocalypse Now Redux (which was filmed in the Philippines), this is in grainy black and white with sync sound, so it has all the advantages and disadvantages of being real. The film shows underground bomb shelters being built, bombed, repaired, and used, and some of the sequences shot there are unexpectedly beautiful. By the end of the film, you may feel you're getting to know a few things about this community: the card games played by the children, the work in the fields, the diverse preparations (both practical and ideological) for the aerial bombardment. Have a look at what we did, if you can bear to do so. 113 min.


Read the New York Times Review »   Howard Thompson


HOW YUKONG MOVED THE MOUNTAINS (Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes)

France  (763 mi)  (12 episodes on 16mm of more than 12 hours)  1976             co-directors:  Marceline Loridan Ivens and Jean Bigiaoui


1976 / How Yukong Moved the Mountains (12 parts)  European Foundation

Between 1971 and 1975 Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan worked on the preparations and filming of the monumental 12 hours Yukong series, consiting of twelve parts. The series became a portret of the Chinese and their daily life with its many aspects, and the benefits of the Cultural Revolution, intended for a Western public. Little was known in the West about China, so this work was a welcome source of information and for many people a first inside view at Chinese culture and life, letting the Chinese speak themselves. Despite the restrictions Ivens and Loridan met (which often became clear only afterwards), and the regular political changes, the films remain an important document of a period in Chinese history. The filmseries was made on invitation of Zhou En-Lai, the prime minister of China.

A description of the work on the new oil fields in the North East of China.

LA PHARMACIE NR. 3: SHANGAI (The Pharmacy: Shanghai):
On the work for and the personnel of a pharmacy in Shanghai.

L'USINE DE GENERATEURS (The Generator Factory):
About the labourers and their functioning in a dynamo factory near Shanghai.

A portret of the life and work of an ordinary family in the outskirts of Bejing.

LE VILLAGE DES PECHEURS (The Fishing Village):
On fisherwomen doing the same work as men on the base of equality in a village near Shanghai.

UNE CASERNE (An Army Camp):
A film about the working routine of the Chinese Peoples Army filmed in an army camp near Nanking. The relations between the different ranks and the role of the army in society, helping out with harvesting and in the industry, are shown.

IMPRESSIONS D'UNE VILLE: CHANGHAI (Impression of a City: Shanghai):
An impression of the daily life in a metropolis.

HISTOIRE D'UN BALLON: LE LYCEE NO. 31 A PEKIN (The Football Incident):
A report on an ideological debate between a teacher and a pupil regarding an incident with a football.

LE PROFESSEUR TSIEN (Professor Tsien):
A prominent scholar tells about his experiences with students and Red Gardists during the Cultural Revolution.

UNE REPETITION A L'OPERA DE PEKIN (Rehearsal at the Peking Opera):
An impression of the repetitions of an Opera company in Bejing.

ENTRAINEMENT AU CIRQUE DE PEKIN (Training at the Peking Circus):
A report on the daily trainings of the circus artists in Bejing.

LES ARTISANS (Traditional Handicrafts):
Artisans tell about the traditional Chinese handicrafts.

How Yukong Moved the Mountains   Filming the Cultural Revolution, by Thomas Waugh from Jump Cut


A TALE OF THE WIND (Une histoire de vent)

France  Germany  Netherlands  Great Britain  (80 mi)  1988


1988 / A Tale of the Wind  European Foundation

Joris Ivens' last film, made with Marceline Loridan, is a testamentary view on his own life and the changes in the world. After Pour le Mistral this film is his second attempt to film the invisible: the wind. On location in China they try to capture the wind as a natural phenomenon, and as metaphor for the constant changes in Culture and Society. In 1988 the film premiered at the film festival of Venice, where Joris Ivens received the Golden Lion for his complete oeuvre.



Ivens’ final film, made with Marceline Loridan, is perhaps his most famous—one in which he turns his camera on his own life and changes in the world around him. Exploring ancient Chinese thinking and metaphysics, and structured by the search for the wind, TALE OF THE WIND offers spectacular montages consisting of dream images and poetic audiovisual passages. The Chinese dragon, mythical representation of the wind, becomes a metaphor also for artistic freedom of imagination. Visually striking and playful as well as dramatic, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1988, where Ivens received the Golden Lion for his complete oeuvre.


A Tale of the Wind   Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Reader

This poetic masterpiece (1988) is the crowning work of Joris Ivens, the great Dutch documentarian and leftist, who made it in collaboration with his companion, Marceline Loridan, shortly before his death at age 90. (In fact there's reason to believe the film was mainly written by Loridan, though this makes it no less Ivens's own testament.) Neither a documentary nor a fantasy but a sublime fusion of the two, it deals in multiple ways with the wind, with Ivens's asthma, with China, with the 20th century (and, more implicitly, the 19th and the 21st), with magic, and with the cinema. Ivens was born only two years after Georges Melies screened his first work, and this imaginative, freewheeling, and often comic film reflects on that fact, and on the near century of intertwining film, political, and personal history that made up Ivens's life. For all its cosmic dimensions, it's funny and lighthearted rather than pretentious and ponderous; it may even renew your faith in life on this planet. In French with subtitles. 78 min.

Read the New York Times Review »   Caryn James


Ivory, James



Great Britain  (117 mi)  1985



A Room with a View is Merchant Ivory’s comedy of manners adapted from the novel by E M Forster.

Set in 1907, this is the story of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young girl visiting Italy at the turn of the century with her cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) as a travelling companion and chaperone. While in Florence they stay at a pensione, but are booked in a room without a view, Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) insists that the women take his rooms, which contain a view from the window. During dinner they also meet the other guests; Mr. Emerson’s son George (Julian Sands), Reverand Beebe (Simon Callow), sisters Catherine (Fabia Drake) and Teresa Alan (Joan Henley), and romantic novelist Miss Lavish (Judi Dench). Lucy is intrigued when she makes the acquaintance of free-spirited George Emerson; though at first she remains cold to his advances he later takes the opportunity to kiss her. A shocked Miss Bartlett witnesses the embrace and insists they leave for England at once.

Back in Surrey, where Lucy lives with mother (Rosemary Leach) and younger brother Freddy (Rupert Graves), she settles back into a young woman’s pastoral existence. With the passion of George out of the way, Lucy settles into her relationship with Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis), a twit to whom she is engaged. It turns out that there is a vacant cottage in the area and Lucy suggests Catherine and Teresa Alan as possible tenants. Freddy has another idea. On a recent trip to London, he met a father and son who he thinks might make good neighbours, none other than Mr. Emerson and George. Thinking the two to be wildly eccentric, Freddy intends his invitation as a joke, but Mr. Emerson accepts and moves into the area.

In time, George and Freddy become good friends and play many games of tennis and enjoy naked swimming at the house. Lucy tries to avoid paying attention to George, but there is no doubt her feelings are beginning to mount for the charming young man. One day George kisses Lucy once again, and then follows this by proclaiming his love and warning Lucy against marrying Cecil. Lucy must now make a decision. Does she take the safe and sound and surely dull life with Cecil, or does she allow her feelings for George to emerge? She can’t have it both ways, but she does break off her engagement with Cecil and plans to go to Greece with the Alan sisters. Charlotte and Mr. Emerson intervene and Lucy and George are reunited. They marry and spend their blissful honeymoon in Florence, in the same pensione they met; naturally the room they occupy is the one with a view.

BFI Screen Online  Louise Watson, also here:  Show full synopsis

A Room With A View (d. James Ivory, 1985) was the first of three adaptations of E.M. Forster novels to emerge from the creative team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and was followed by Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1991).

The film delights in its literary heritage, even choosing to use the novel's (published 1908) chapter headings as intertitles. Jhabvala's Oscar-winning script captures Forster's wit, language, and affectionate tone: she pokes gentle fun at the English abroad and their preoccupation with class, social conventions, and etiquette. Yet, the film is more than social satire: like many of Forster/s novels, at the heart of A Room With A View is the conflict between human desire and society's moral codes. Jhabvala successfully navigates the more idealistic and serious aspects of the novel without resorting to sentimentality; the result is a romance with comic elements, rather than a romantic comedy.

Through an exploration of character dynamics, the film examines the culture clash between the generations. The restrictive attitudes of the older generation (still inhibited by Victorian morality) are contrasted with the freer values of Edwardian youth (representing change and the modern age). The resulting friction is encapsulated in Lucy's choice between security and passion, and her desire to break free of hypocrisy and conventionality.

Ivory draws theatrical, yet balanced performances from his mainly British cast. Initially, the differences between prissy Charlotte and passionate Lucy (Helena Bonham-Carter) are exaggerated for dramatic effect. But Charlotte is no caricature: Maggie Smith's multi-faceted performance reveals that Charlotte is a closet romantic who once shared Lucy's passion for life. Her embittered martyrdom serves as a warning to Lucy of the consequences of refusing to follow her heart.

Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts creates a nostalgic fantasy world for the English scenes: an idealised pastoral bliss where women, dressed in white finery, parade through beautiful houses and sunlit manicured gardens. In contrast, Florence - lush, fertile, and untamed - offers Lucy a taste of life outside her sheltered existence in England. Her experiences in Italy trigger her sexual awakening, allowing her passionate nature and self-awareness to emerge.

The combination of postcard-pretty scenery, gorgeous costumes, and soaring classical soundtrack result in a glossy confection that perhaps slips down a little too easily. But the beautiful wrappings belie an enlightened treatise on the nature of love and freedom that remains relevant to contemporary audiences.

A Room With a View - Turner Classic Movies  Margarita Landazuri

In his autobiography, film producer Ismail Merchant writes that A Room with a View (1985) was "the film that catapulted us from the art house to the multiplex." The "us" he refers to are himself and his partners, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who by then had been making films together for more than 20 years. The Indian-born Merchant met American documentarian Ivory in 1961, and the two men formed a partnership, Merchant Ivory Productions, to make English-language theatrical features in India for the international market. For their first feature film, they approached German-born, India-based writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for the rights to one of her novels, and she not only agreed, she wrote the screenplay. The Householder was released in 1963.

Among certain film snobs, "Merchant Ivory" eventually became shorthand for a stodgy, highbrow costume drama, but A Room with a View, the first worldwide Merchant Ivory hit, is a vibrant comedy that is the opposite of stiff and dull. It teems with life, with passions both hidden and overt, with youthful energy and witty observations on the manners and customs of a bygone era. Based on E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, the film begins in Florence, where young upper middle-class Lucy Honeychurch is touring with her irritating chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett. Among the other English tourists staying at their pensione are freethinking socialist Mr. Emerson and his son George, who are a rung or two down the social ladder from Lucy. When George's growing interest in Lucy leads to a stolen kiss, she flees in confusion. Back in England, their paths cross again, and Lucy must face her feelings for George.

The cast for A Room with a View was a combination of polished veteran actors such as Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Judi Dench, and Simon Callow, and rising newcomers. It was only the second film for Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Lucy. She had the title role in another historical drama, Lady Jane (1986), which was released almost simultaneously with A Room with a View. She would star in another Merchant-Ivory adaptation of a Forster novel, Howard's End (1992), as well as other period dramas, including The Wings of the Dove (1997), for which she won an Oscar® nomination. Bonham Carter has joked about being a "corset sex symbol," and has gone on to a career filled with varied and quirky roles.

Julian Sands, who plays George, has also had an offbeat career, from period dramas to horror films, in Europe and the U.S. But it was Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Lucy's priggish fiancé Cecil Vyse, who would become the biggest international star. Day-Lewis had been playing small parts in films and television for five years, and his breakthrough film, My Beautiful Launderette (1985), in which he played a gay punk, was released around the same time as A Room with a View. He later won two Academy Awards, and has amassed an impressive body of work.

A Room with a View cost $2.8 million to make and grossed over $60 million worldwide, breaking box office records. It played in one London theater for an entire year. The film was a hit with the critics as well. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it "an exceptionally faithful, ebullient screen equivalent to a literary work that lesser talents would embalm....Mr. Ivory and Miss Jhabvala have somehow found a voice for the film not unlike that of Forster, who tells the story...with as much concern as astonished amusement." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "This is an intellectual film, but intellectual about emotions: It encourages us to think about how we feel, instead of simply acting on our feelings....Usually, thought and passion are on opposite sides in the movies; this time, it's entertaining to find them on the same side." A Room with a View received eight Academy Award nominations and won three, for adapted screenplay, art direction, and costumes.

A Room with a View was the first of three adaptations of E.M. Forster novels made by the Merchant Ivory team, followed by Maurice (1987) and Howards End. The latter earned a best actress Academy Award for Emma Thompson. The team continued to make films that were often both critical and popular successes until Merchant's death in 2005. Ivory's first film since then, The City of Your Final Destination, was finished in 2007, but was not released until spring, 2010.

moviediva [Laura Boyes]


Epinions [metalluk]


The History of the Academy Awards: Best Picture - 1986 [Erik Beck]


Matt vs. the Academy [Matt Foster]


Film Freak Central review [Travis Hoover]


Crazy for Cinema


dOc DVD Review: A Room With A View (1986) - digitallyOBSESSED!  Jeff Ulmer


A Room With a View : DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video  Jeremy Kleinman


DVD Savant Review: A Room with a View 2 Disc Special Edition  Glenn Erickson


dOc DVD Review: A Room with a View (1985) - digitallyOBSESSED!  Jon Danziger, 2-disc Special Edition 


A Room with a View (HD DVD) : DVD Talk Review of the HD DVD  Stuart Galbraith IV


A Room with a View (Blu-ray) : DVD Talk Review of the Blu-ray  Daniel Hirschleifer


A Room With A View - Directed by James Ivory • DVD ... - Exclaim!  James Keast [Jennie Kermode]


Edinburgh U Film Society [Katherine Edge]


A Room With a View | review, synopsis, book tickets ... - Time Out


The Japan Times [Kaori Shoji]


A Room With a View: No 9 best romantic film of all time  Catherine Shoard from The Guardian, October 16, 2010


San Francisco Chronicle [David Wiegand] [Roger Ebert]


A-Room-With-a-View - Movies - The New York Times  Vincent Canby 


A Room with a View - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Iwai, Shunji



Japan  (50 mi)  1993


Midnight Eye - japan_cult_cinema    Jasper Sharp

Director Shunji Iwai has an awful lot in common with his American counterpart Quentin Tarantino. Both directors exploded upon the scene with their theatrical debuts in the early 90s (Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and Iwai with Love Letter in 1995); both followed their first films up with even bolder, idiosyncratic works which defined a new era of 'modern' cinema and set the benchmark for the films of the 90s (Tarantino with Pulp Fiction in 1994; Iwai with Swallowtail Butterfly in 1996). Both courted the media as 'celebrity' filmmakers and by the time both directors followed up their masterpieces (with Jackie Brown and April Story directed respectively in 1998), their work was already beginning to look dated and past its sell-by date. Consequently both directors seem to have kept a rather low profile ever since.

Like Tarantino, Iwai's films are prone to a slick stylistic glibness that caters squarely for the youth market - glossy exercises in pseudo-hip which though undeniably influential, a mere five years later already look pass�. What once came across as fresh and experimental opened the floodgates for a deluge of emulators and detractors. In the case of poor Quentin it seemed that every film in the two years subsequent to Pulp Fiction featured quirky gangster caricatures strutting around in suits and shades through pointlessly tricksy non-linear narratives in films of such varying quality as The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, US 1995), Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (Gary Fleder, 1995) and 2 Days in the Valley (John Herzfeld, 1996). Had he not been quite so eager to indulge his own acting fancies at the same time he might have ridden through the worst of the detritus that swished in his wake.

Likewise Iwai's personal style, wholeheartedly embracing MTV aesthetic of using heavily saturated colours, fast editing, lengthy montages set to contemporary popular music and casting his films with popular rock stars of the day (Japanese singer Chara features in both Swallowtail Butterfly and Picnic, Iwai's two 1996 films) has suffered because, well, most MTV videos from the mid-90s already look pretty dated too.

Ultimately it's true though that cinema in the early 90s, and certainly not just in Japan, desperately needed a kick up the arse to bring it in line with a new generation of viewers who had been brought up from day one being bombarded with images through the cathode ray tube. Its no surprise that Iwai cut his teeth in the media of TV advertisements and pop videos, nor that he defines himself as an 'eizo sakka', a visual artist who considers TV and video to be no different from feature film in either theory or practice. One of his first films, Fried Dragon Fish, highlights the point admirably. This 50-minute feature was originally made for television though was hoisted onto the cinemas screens of Japan subsequent to the cult success which followed Swallowtail Butterfly.

Fried Dragon Fish is a shaggy dog story if ever there was one, a rather silly tale concerning the smuggling of the Arowana, the Red Dragon Fish whose value can reach up to several thousand dollars per fish. A girl named Pooh is the wise-cracking detective hired by fish-collecting fanatic Natsuro to track down the stolen fish. A cult film in certain circles in Japan, I have to be honest that this particular viewer didn't care for it too much.

For a director so concerned with 'images', the denouement here is essentially dialogue driven, with the more exciting plot turns which arise from Pooh's detective work consisting of shots of the protagonist fiddling around on a computer screen. It also feels hemmed in by the 4:3 aspect ratio, but these are both quibbles that are symptomatic of the title's small screen origins.

What is perhaps most striking is the sheer vacuity of the exercise. Sure, a lot of effort has been put into the look of the production, and its bold flashes of colour impress far more than anything else on offer. Pooh is introduced getting off a red scooter, her shocking pink helmet and techni-coloured scarf offset against the muted suburban background. Shots of the Arowana bobbing around its fish tank to a classical soundtrack abound whilst Natsuro admires from behind, bathed in blue light. But aside from such visual set decor, there's little to keep one's mind distracted from the hideous mugging of all the cast members (especially the American ones involved in this fishy scam), and the annoying 'cutesy' overacting from Miss Yoshimoto as Pooh.

Its true, most of its supposed faults stem from the fact that Fried Dragon Fish was made for TV, but at the end of the day it is still a fairly minor offering. If you liked Iwai's later efforts this may well be worth sniffing out, but personally I thought this particular Dragon Fish was cod-awful


Japan  (117 mi)  1995  ‘Scope


Chinese Cinema Page (Shelly Kraicer)

This is a triumphant first feature for Shunji Iwai, the most delightful film that I saw at the 1995 Toronto Film Festival. So be forewarned: the following is a bit of a rave. 

A contemporary Japanese love story, about two women who loved the same man, who write letters to each other about him and discover in the process that the past isn't what they thought it was. 

It's an intimate story, but filmed in a breathtaking wide-screen format. There are two different characters who share the same name. And a single actress, Miho Nakayama, plays two different characters. And these two pairs partially overlap (don't worry; it's supposed to be a little confusing, at first). It's sweet, a little sentimental, perhaps -- romantic high-school girlish, but in a good way --, sometimes ecstatic, a bit suspenseful, and often gently funny. 

Miho Nakamaya's performance is superb: finely shaded and balanced, it animates the entire movie. The music is an incongruous mishmash of references to Mahler, Ravel, Bach, Joni Mitchell (?), and Gershwin, but it works, beautifully. 

Love Letter's editing and cinematography deserve top billing, along with its director. The filmmakers joyously deploy hand-held wide-screen photography a year before Lars von Trier made it fashionable. There is a dazzling amount of rapid-fire cutting, though not of the look-at-me MTV style; the editing just authoritatively, and gracefully, expresses the attenuated-dreamy mood of the whole piece. And echos a theme of the film, that "points of view" can be manifold, richly dispersed, yet still somehow (magically) coherent. 

Sure, there are issues of memory/reconstruction, identity/fragmentation (Proust's Remembrance of things past figures prominently in the plot)..., but it would spoil the fun, in a way, to dwell on them. We've seen some of the same elements, deployed less successfully, in Shusuke Kaneko's Summer Vacation 1999. Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express kept coming to mind, too: for similarities in mood and theme. If you were charmed by that film, then you shouldn't miss Love Letter (and vice-versa, I suspect). I cried several times during the movie (not my usual practice).

Love Letter (1995)  Tun Shwe from Midnight Eye

We all have memories; some that we would love to keep alive forever and some that we would sooner love to forget. When Marcel Proust wrote "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (Remembrance Of Things Past)" in the 1920s he had no idea of the significance that his book would have upon the characters in Shunji Iwai's Love Letter, over half a century later. Iwai's story follows its protagonist, Hiroko, on a cathartic journey to free her mind of the deep love for her late fiancé, Itsuki. The act of writing what she thought was a simple last letter to Itsuki yields repercussions beyond the boundaries of her expectations.

For some, closure involves a prayer or a memorial service. For Hiroko Watanabe (Nakayama), it took the simple act of writing and posting a love letter to her deceased fiancé, Itsuki Fujii, who passed away 2 years previously in a mountaineering accident. After Itsuki's memorial ceremony she visits his mother's house. There, she learns of Itsuki's childhood home in Otaru and via his high school yearbook, finds out the address. After being informed by his mother that the house had been demolished to make way for a new freeway she attempts to bury her feelings for him by writing him a letter. Only a few lines in length, it simply asks of his health and informs him of her own well-being. She posts it to him with the knowledge that it is a correspondence that will only make a one-way trip; a letter that would not have a recipient.

Picked up by the wave of surprise and sentiment upon receiving a reply signed from "Itsuki Fujii," Hiroko drifts into dreams of an alternate reality where her letter reaches Heaven and her reply comes straight from the hands of the love of her life. After finding out that a woman with the alleged same name as Hiroko's ex-fiancé was responsible for the reply, Hiroko's new would-be fiancé Shigeru (Toyokawa) convinces her to leave their hometown of Kobe and accompany him to Otaru to meet her ex-fiancé's female namesake as well as his mountaineering companions. Although persuasive, Shigeru is affectionate and understands that Hiroko must attain her catharsis before she can comprehend the possibility of consummating their own relationship, and this trip is planned with that in mind. But, by strange matters of chance, Hiroko and Itsuki never manage to meet face to face.

With references to Proust's "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu", its commonly translated title of "Remembrance Of Things Past" mirrors Itsuki's journey into storytelling the days of her adolescence whereas the literal translation of "Research For Lost Time" more closely describes Hiroko's yearning excursion into trying to remember the things she loved in her fiancé. Although Hiroko chooses to hold back on some facts in her letters, Itsuki keeps her letters complete and each one reveals more of the boyhood Itsuki's quirky introverted nature and the many taunts they endured throughout junior high for sharing names.

The onus is lifted from Hiroko when she realises that the relationship with her fiancé was not as simple and heartfelt as she had believed. The strong bond between the pen pals is expressed when Itsuki decides not to disclose her final memory of him after learning of his passing away from her old school teacher.

Although already known in some circles with his previous films, Fried Dragon Fish (1993) and Undo (1994), Iwai burst into the mainstream with Love Letter as his theatrical debut feature and immediately captivated audiences by showing off his mastery at capturing breathtaking scenery. This was acknowledged with it picking up several awards for direction (17th Yokohama Film Festival, 21st Osaka Film Festival) and production (17th Yokohama Film Festival, 21st Osaka Film Festival, 19th Japan Academy Awards). Iwai later went on to provide further exhibits of his ability in Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) and April Story (1998), a story with similar sentimental overtones, but with Love Letter he has written a sequence of thought-provoking moments that have effectively been adapted to preserve the air of melancholy and lightheartedness in the transition from paper to film. Some moments are sure to evoke one's own past memories and some would surely provoke a gentle chuckle, but the whole experience leaves overall warmth inside.

Iwai's choice of presenting Hokkaido island's sleepy town of Otaru in a scoped aspect ratio helps enrich the story's depth of field and gives its environment an almost dreamlike shimmer, moulded from layers upon layers of comminuted white shroud. Furthermore, the illusion of Otaru being a magical domain is rendered by the film's one element: the choice of Nakayama playing the role of both Hiroko and Itsuki.

Each scene plays with the consistency of fuel for the fire of nostalgia and Iwai has seemingly gone out of his way to craft an impossibly beautiful story, reminding us that some of the things we believe and hold dearly in our memories may not be things that are true. Coincidences pave ways for good discoveries and help tempt realisations for happenstances of the heart. Love is lost and love is rediscovered every single day in the world and Love Letter is a testament to these often implicit times. (Calvin McMillin)


KFC Cinema  Joseph Luster [Kris Kobayashi]


Kage Alan


FilmsAsia  Christina Ng


New York Times (registration req'd)  Stephen Holden [Gary W. Tooze]


SWALLOWTAIL (Suwarôteiru)

aka:  Swallowtail Butterfly

Japan  (148 mi)  1996


KFC Cinema  Peter Zsurka

An industrial section of Japan got the name of Yentown as many immigrants come to make money and hope to go home rich. A small group of people in Yentown try to work together to survive, there is a girl named Ageha who has no family, Glico the hooker, Fei Hong a poor immigrant from Shanghai, Arrow an ex boxer from the US and Ren the mysterious guy who seems to know too much about guns. Fortune shines upon them when they find a cassette that we'll get them rich but along with money trouble will always follow.

I saw this film a couple years ago, I was not sure what it was about going into the theater but coming out I was totally blown away. This movie was simply an incredible experience, you must all be thinking “ an action packed ride?”. No, not quite, it’s more of a slow paced drama in an unexpected context dealing with the lives of some pretty interesting characters. If you are familiar with Shunji Iwai’s work you will know to expect a slow story of life, simple yet full of depth.

The story takes place in the immigrant slums of Japan, where so many live in terrible poverty doing anything possible to save up enough money to return to their home country as rich men. It’s an interesting setting as you see the characters live in hard situations, some are clever and find a way out of misery while other remain in a rotten situation. It was quite interesting seeing these foreigners living in Japan, they banded together into their own community of sorts know as Yentown.

The impoverished setting also gave place to some wonderfully beautiful dark cinematography. Those old building in the slums that look like their falling apart or the trashy alleyways created many beautiful scenes that contained the essence of life, unlike some movie where everything is sterilized clean that it is just not believable. The visual style at times reminded me of those dark HK triad movies. In fact you do have a couple of Chinese gangsters in the movie. One of them is probably one of the best bad guys I’ve ever seen, a guy with his face all painted white with black lines beneath his eyes and a totally cold blooded killing efficiency.

All of the characters in this movie were great, a few main characters that are there for the entire story along with several important secondary characters that come and go during the film. For the most part I found that there was a good development of the characters but it was a very subtle development, as in no major or extreme changes. Another