Wednesday, November 04, 2020

last two weeks in letterboxd

September Song, Ulli Lommel, 2001

Some people spray swastikas on Matisse paintings, some hook up with hot Palestinians for antisemitic reasons, some hate blacks because they think their feet are dirty and some dress up as geishas at night. A document of benign, almost soothing post 9/11 confusion. Proof that you can be completely off your rockers when it comes to politics without turning into a conspiracy nut. (Which isn't to say that Lommel might not have gone down that particular road, too, at some point in his unfathomable life.)

Our Marriage, Masahiro Shinoda, 1962

Extremely beautiful, at times downright hypnotic romantic miniature, set mostly to variations of the melody of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". The back and forth between two men and two women swings with the back and forth between atmospheric widescreen location shooting and slightly claustrophobic interiors. In the end it's not about a woman between two men, but about another woman trying to love by proxy.

Treasure Island, Guillaume Brac, 2018

Systems of control and how to temporarily escape them. Favorite shot: the giggling, positively ecstatic girl during the dodgeball game, unobtrusively isolated by Martin Rit's great camera. How it feels to be a target - but also the center of the world.

Everlasting Regret, Stanley Kwan, 2005

A portrait of a city in interiors. Bodies framed by mirrors, windows, furniture, decoration, bodies lost in their beauty, closed off, confined to claustrophobic games of desire and power while history happens offscreen, sometimes encroaching onto the soundtrack but never really registering as affect. The cultural revolution isn't much more than a rather abrupt change of scenery and one laconic intertitle later everyone has returned to the city, the world definitively has become tackier, but the paddings of the prison haven't vanished completely. The game goes on, and it still might be worth it for a few precious moments of tender intimacy, like a long wet kiss or when your lover notices a hair on your skin. You'll never see death coming anyway.


Quite different from the novel. In the book, time is relentless, a destroyer of people, youth, dreams, with almost everyone wasting away or vanishing. In the film it's much more about arrested development, the inability to break away, to enter time, to realize that at some point the youthful glow of Sammi Cheng's face has turned into an illusion. A very cinematic one, to be sure.

A Flame At the Pier, Masahiro Shinoda, 1962

Takashi Fujiki's unruly counterrevolutionary body - acting out very different impulses while always also being style-conscious - is fascinating enough, but besides that and a few effective musical choices I didn't find much here. Compared to the less jarring, but more playful and also much more genre adjacent 1960/61 Shinoda films this is much closer to the dominant ideas and rhetorics of Japanese New Wave cinema, especially early Oshima. Here, all that angry polit-posturing feels rather forced, though, and the Terayama script is extremely heavy-handed, at times bordering on self-parody.

Killing Blue, Peter Patzak, 1988

Another neon-lit big city Patzak noir, one year after DER JOKER, only this time it's Berlin instead of Hamburg, Armin Mueller-Stahl instead of Peter Maffay and mostly terrible instead of extremely awesome. A 35mm print might change my mind, who knows, this is literally bathed in artificial light and an operatic synth score, so by all means I should be in heaven ... but unfortunately Mueller-Stahl seems to bring out the worst in Patzak: his proclivity for sub-sub-sub-sub-ZAZ genre spoofs. Unlike Maffay, Mueller-Stahl is a "good actor", so he can't be bothered with playing it straight and has to winkingly acknowledge the ridiculousness of the going-ons almost constantly, thereby spoiling all the real fun (that he, like everyone else, talks english instead of german in the ov is another bummer; the dialogue has no flair at all, so I guess, if you really need to see this, better look out for a dubbed version). See also the later Kottan episodes, and, for a rather extreme example, the special corner of hell that is TIGER - FRÜHLING IN WIEN: Whenever Patzak threatens with self-reflexive wittiness, you better take cover, and fast!

Bitter End of a Sweet Night, Yoshishige Yoshida, 1961

Not quite sure why this didn't work for me. Looks great throughout, Tsugawa the smooth operator is a fascinating lead and Teruyo Yamagami's rough, refreshing presence (in what seems to be her only film appearance) adds an extra spark ... that somehow still isn't enough to overcome the mechanical, calculating feel of the whole thing. Maybe I just miss the sprawling, anarchic side of the Nikkatsu films. This is still commercially minded studio filmmaking, but nevertheless every move has to be accounted for in terms of the grand design. The scenes of Tsugawa speeding round and round on an empty racetrack for example: the first time around it's stylish and distinctive, but when he returns again and again it turns into the kind of allegorical bullshit that made me (mostly) give up on festival cinema.

Mr. Wong in Chinatown, William Nigh, 1939

The script is weak but there's a low-key edge of weirdness running through it that makes up for it. Third William Nigh film I've seen (all starring Karloff), he seems to have been one of the more inspired poverty row go to guys.

Torchy Blane in Chinatown, William Beaudine, 1939

Not enough Torchy this time around. A nice one nevertheless. The plot sidesteps the usual entanglements for an absurdist miniature that cancels itself out in the end (in theory, the ending should also cancel out the casual racism, but I guess that's not quite how these things work) and while Beaudine usually gets a bad rep, here his perfunctory mise en scene works perfectly well. He manages to wrap things up in under an hour, and there's still enough time for not one, but two scenes of Tom Kennedy making up quite beautiful poems on the spot!

Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima, 1960

Not at all strange that Oshima left Shochiku after this - but really, really strange that a film like this was produced at all, left alone at the most conservative japanese studio, as in 1960 Godard still made nerdy b movies and radical leftist filmmaking was largely confined to peripheral figures like Rene Vaultier.

As a self-portrait of the radical left this is, of course, extremely dark, at times already foreshadowing Wakamatsu's UNITED RED ARMY. Basically you have to choose between paranoid authoritarianism and authoritarian paranoia: You either subscribe to a party-line reducing all complexities to anti-imperialist sound bites ... or you go down the road of "relentless self-criticism" to the bitter end, always guided by a few select macho assholes (and I suppose Oshima more or less realizes he's one of those himself). I.e. you either fight a fight not worth winning or one that is lost from the start.

One thing worth noting is that this is also an aesthetic choice. In the end, what Oshima really fights off here is the specter of socialist realism, all that wholesome singing, an orderly, ritualistic mise en scene modeled after classic japanese cinema, the affirmation of the good, productive, fertile life waiting for us somewhere beyond the present misery. His own counter-strategies might be a bit too overtly Brechtian at times to arrive at places that are not already mapped out at the start, but I guess as long as people still watch Ken Loach films, this one is a fight worth fighing.

Wolf Warrior, Wu Jing, 2015

Has a pretty good forest action dynamic going for a while, completely over the top but still enough structure, with the combat constantly emerging from and vanishing back into the trees, with the lines of sight slowly getting clearer because in the end this of course has to boil down to a Wu Jing vs Adkins hand to hand fight. Unfortunately, as straightforward as this is, there's still way too much exposition and all of it is extremely ugly, even when completely discarding politics. All those ADHD military montages, the not only mind-numbingly dumb but also dramaturgically inept cutaways to the control room, the inability to derive even the cheapest form of pathos from the male bonding scenes ... I don't know, go watch a few of your own Hong Kong films, Wu Jing!

The Catch, Nagisa Oshima, 1961

I guess in the end this is less about the somewhat one-note allegory itself, and more about letting it unfold in meandering, multi-layered long shots rather than in a series of clear-cut punches, resulting in inextricable entanglements that defy both moral judgement and idealistic political rhetorics (no matter if liberal or socialist).

King of Chinatown, Nick Grinde, 1939

A fascinating cast and an ambitious premise, but the scale is so small that the result feels more like a first sketch than the real thing. Unlike in DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI, where almost every single event is triggered by her actions, Ana May Wong despite playing a doctor stays strangely passive throughout. The only thing she does accomplish turns out to have been completely in vain in the end. Most of the other characters aren't all that active either, though, it's more like at the start they are inserted into an already tight narrative structure, then everyone wiggles around a bit, a few things fall into place and well, that's the movie, the end.

Unlike most of the other Chinatown themed b films I'm watching right now this one at least tries a little bit to evoke a sense of place (although I don't think they make clear which city this is supposed to be set in).

Sexy Girls of Denmark, Lu Chi, 1973

Early shot at sex comedy from Shaw sexploitation specialist Lu Chi who later made the pretty out there THE STUD AND THE NYMPHO. This is tame by comparison, although his in your face approach to human emotions is already there. Lu Chi films are less about the erotic spectacle itself and more about what it does to the "receiving" subject and his surroundings. In this case we get lots of terrified reaction shots from Hongkong men (and sometimes women) confronted with big, liberated Scandinavian breasts. The shock seems to be so thorough that even the camera seldom holds on to a view of the scandalous objects for longer than a fleeting glance. Instead, every time Birte Tove or Ulla Jessen open their blouses, we are treated with an onslaught of violent zooms, flash frames, blunt allegorical cutaways (like to a girl greedily looking at and then biting into a sausage; that seems to be the kind of shot Lu Chi lives for), bumbling slapstick routines etc.

At some point the film gets so nervous about all that Danish flesh that it vanishes completely from sight, being replaced by a very chaste all Chinese romance and even a few overeager fight scenes.

The whole thing doesn't make a bit of sense (the film seems to forget its own explanation for the trip to Denmark as soon as Ulla Jessen puts out the first time), but scene by scene the manic, bonkers energy is often pretty beguiling. Last but not least, while in many respects this is the Hong Kong equivalent to all those shoddy European and American sexploitation films of the time (or rather, of a few years earlier), in terms of framing, lighting etc it has all the polish one expects from a Shaw film, which makes for a decidedly strange mixture.

The Christian Revolt, Nagisa Oshima, 1962

How to fight a losing battle. Really surprising that this isn't better known. To me it's much more engaging than THE CATCH and I guess most early Oshima. In a way it's a period version of NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN, another taking of accounts of the political despair after the lost ANPO fight, including reflections not only on the question of violence, but also on gender relations, the role of artists etc - but filtered through straightforward, technically extremely accomplished genre trappings and bathed in gloomy nightmare lighting schemes.

A series of intricate long takes often filled with dozens of extras enacting the chaotic but relentless mechanisms of history, punctuated by close-ups of isolated, glowing, vulnerable faces. I can only imagine how hard this would hit from a print.

Shadows Over Chinatown, Terry O. Morse, 1946

Pretty terrible, but in a fascinating way. The "public service" beginning already makes it clear that this isn't really a classic mystery any more, or rather: that it is no longer comfortable with being one. By now, after the war, Charlie Chan needs the veneer of social relevance in order to justify his continued existence as a silly fantasy crime fighter, and while the mockumentary rhetoric quickly vanishes into the background, the ensuing mystery never really picks up speed, relies on one stupid coincidence after the other and is constantly sidestepped by the vicious caricature of Mantan Moreland's antics.

What makes this especially insidious is that Moreland at the same time clearly is the best part of the film: he's not only by far the most energetic and versatile actor here, he also has the funniest lines and as childish as most of the jokes are, they could be pretty effective - if not for the implicit racist punchline constantly lurking in the foreground.

Uli der Knecht, Franz Schnyder, 1954

My first Schnyder film, and I guess I mostly like the mixture of elegant, classicist mise en scene and broad popular theater style acting, especially when it comes to the energetic bitch fight scenes the film obviously enjoys staging. It's very much a paternalistic vision, to be sure: the young act out here and there, but in the end it's always the gnarly patriarchs and their big-bosomed homely wives who lay down the law. Some may escape, but the film works overtime in making clear that such escapes (especially to the city) ain't worth it.

Still, I was surprised how different this is from the German rural melodramas (Heimatfilme) of the time, despite similar themes, similar techniques (there are even some quite beautiful musical interludes) and a similar conservative outlook. What's completely missing here is the sentimental side of Heimatfilm. There's no glossing over the hardships, especially the emotional ones, of rural life. The countryside isn't a space of idealized firstness, but always already invaded by social constrictions and a web of hierarchical gazes. This becomes most obvious in the crammed, claustrophobic interior scenes often emphasizing a malicious verticality, the inability of just about everyone to meet one another head on.

Drifting Detective: Tragedy in the Red Valley, Kinji Fukasaku, 1961

Sonny Chiba in his first starring role, literally splashing onto the screen, constantly rushing towards the camera, the joy of youthful violence, one energetic release after the other, culminating in him just blowing everything up in the end.

I just love how rich Japanese sixties pop cinema is. This has a completely different feel from the superficially similar Nikkatsu films of the time, much more cartoonish and slapdash, set in a much less stable world, switching back and forth, often from one shot to the next, between straightforward western imagery, supremely silly genre parody antics and a random, decidedly non-western crime plot. I guess the full-on western stuff works best, while the parody scenes often fall completely flat, but the mixture has its own charm.

Chinatown at Midnight, Seymour Friedman, 1949

Another documentary style postwar noir, this time on a rather small scale. Quite interesting as a comparatively thoughtful look at SF chinatown (there's even a scene detailing a chinese-american telephone exchange), but mostly devoid of any kind of thrills. To be sure, a decent transfer might help considerably.

Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda, 2018

That snow to baby transition in the beginning still is as close to perfection as any film scene in recent memory. Everything afterwards is much more straightforward than I remembered. The first time around the last episode starting with the train station was kind of overwhelming, threatening to derail the whole thing, but this time it felt like a natural conclusion: The world comes rushing in anyway, and sooner or later you just have to face it.Man with a Funky Hat: The 20,000,000 Yen Arm, Kinji Fukasaku, 1961
Sonny Chiba indeed wears a funky hat in this one, and there's always a lot going on, but everything feels so random I was a bit at a loss this time as to why I should even try to care. Maybe this just met me under the wrong circumstances.

Chinatown After Dark, Stuart Paton, 1931

More chinatown antics, this time with lots of yellowface and a few hints at pre-code depravity. Cheaply made and overall pretty dull.

Sesso nero, Joe D'Amato, 1980

Not much love on letterboxd for the darkest of all possible versions of I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Here it's more like "I fucked a Zombie and then cut off my dick" - what makes it so overwhelmingly terrifying isn't the plot itself, though, but rather all that coldness and despair pitted against a vision of island paradise. So strange that this was the beginning of Italian hardcore - would be much more fitting as the end (of everything).

The Postman Fights Back, Ronny Yu, 1982

While both Chow Yun Fat and Cherie Chung are underused, aside from that this is pretty amazing. Very different from most 70s wuxia thanks to the Korean locations that establish a completely different relationship of natural surroundings and character. The landscape never vanishes as it does in most older, studio-bound productions, it's always there as an additional framing device. In effect, this often feels more like an adventure film than a wuxia, with the generous addition of not only inventive Yuen Woo Ping style fight scenes, but also a number of cleverly employed horror, exploitation and spaghetti western tropes. That awesome minigun scene would've made Corbucci proud.

18 Roughs, Yoshishige Yoshida, 1963

Again a bit at a loss as to what to make of it. Obviously extremely accomplished, especially when it comes to pitting the fluid long shot location work against the occasional claustrophobic affect image. Still everything feels rather uninvolved, there never is any kind of real investment in those wayward youth, and while the rape scene clearly isn't the most offensive of its kind in Japanese cinema, it's a bit disappointing that this is, once again, what it all comes down to in the end.

Anyway, Yoshida has long been a blind spot of mine and I guess I really should soon proceed to his more famous post Shochiku work.

Chinatown Nights, William A. Wellman, 1929

A sleazy early big city melodrama that, like most of the best of its kind, constantly tries to have the cake and eat it too. So while the film pokes fun on lurid slumming tours "discovering" Chinatown and white upperclass women longing to go native, Wellman's own vision of the "Tong Wars" devastating an immigrant community isn't one bit less outrageous. As repugnant as its politics often are (like when the threat of mass deportation is being reduced, and not just once, to a mere pawn in the game of love between Beery and Vidor) and despite a not all that well cast female lead, CHINATOWN NIGHTS still deserves a place in the American gangster film cycle thanks to its rather unique mixture of bustling gangland spectacle and claustrophobic crypto-erotic kammerspiel.

Mapping of a city, mapping of a woman: "Head Uptown, body Barbary Coast."

A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper, 2018

Had already forgotten just how glittery this is (even the washed out / bathed in white imagery of the second half is sprinkled with moments of pure color ecstasy), how beautiful Gaga is in this, and also about those wonderful Elliot / Cooper scenes. What I like especially is the fragility of the whole thing. On a scene by scene basis it's very well made but the transitions are almost always shaky and I can totally see Cooper directing pretty terrible films in the future, if he draws the wrong conclusions from his first one and shoots for strained introspection instead of pop melodrama next.

In the end it probably all hinges on "Shallow" being the great song that it is. If it wasn't, the whole thing might've faltered and I just love the film all the more for this gamble.

Pure Emotions of the Sea, Seijun Suzuki, 1956

Seaside nonsense comedy that probably wouldn't go down all that well with the animal protection crowd. At some point they're celebrating the "largest hauling of whales ever". There's also a guy who hides from his three girlfriends in a pile of lifebelts. With a 48 minutes running time it doesn't get a chance to overstay its welcome (which could've happened easily, to be sure), and Suzuki is obviously well-suited for material like this. Ditch the structure and go all in on the singularities.

America: Land of the Freeks, Ulli Lommel, 2018

Ethnographic filmmaking. In its better moments a better BORAT and the transgender storyline is actually quite touching. Still, 77 minutes of this is a bit much. Not because of the "craziness", but rather because this time, the craziness comes with rather conventional mockumentary trappings. This is actually one of Lommel's least out there films, and I suspect it might've been a bit more interesting if the man himself would've had the chance to finish it.

I could've lived with that one stupid Israel scene (Lommel's politics never really move beyond leftish-populist platitudes, so antizionism unfortunately comes with the territory), but to repeat it over the end credits is rather dubious.

Pale Flower, Masahiro Shinoda, 1964

Young, ambitious upstarts are trying to make their way to the top, eager to prove themselves, always keen on the latest gossip, while the older higher-ups have settled into a bourgeoise family lifestyle, making money and fathering children. Muraki though is neither young nor old. He's also not middle-aged, he lives outside time, in a world of primal sensation, of longing and violence. For him, the mob isn't a career but a state of mind, a chance to escape society's grip. He falls in love, because he recognizes himself in the woman. Or maybe he just thinks he does. In the end their pathologies aren't the same after all. While he is outside of time, she is anti time, rushing towards death instead of towards nothingness. But for a while, everything feels alright. Two faces, laughing and driving into the night.

Chinatown Capers, Wei Lo, 1974

Mostly just Polly Shangguan and Sam Hui strolling around San Francisco. Technically they do have a mission, but no one is in any hurry getting anything done. Just a pleasant array of stupid jokes, lively songs, and the occasional fight scene (most of them rather bland, only once, in a row in front of a christmas tree, the film suddenly finds all the right angles). Towards the end, things get weirder. Recovering Marihuana addict Sylvia Chang shows up (wearing a super stylish blue knitted hat), blackface is applied and a Richard Nixon cutout makes an appearance. Still, the hangout film vibe never really vanishes.

Polly dominates almost every single scene. She's lively enough throughout and Sam seems to be perfectly comfortable with playing second banana, tagging along while perfecting his juvenile lanky gait. Involving him more in the proceedings might've helped making this a bit more memorable, though.

Three Outlaw Samurai, Hideo Gosha, 1964

Absolutely marvelous, the clarity and expressivity of Kurosawa's samurai films (especially when it comes to character work), but coupled with a faster pace and aiming for another kind of darkness, less tortured, more analytical. The morals of decorum have broken down, but the system they used to protect still works, more gruesome than ever. In the presence of naked power, everyone is an outlaw, one way or another.

Another thing that aligns this with Kurosawa is a supreme sense of visual dramaturgy. Basically this enfolds as a constant back and forth between the same handful of characters, with some additional cannon fodder thrown in now and then, but Gosha manages to give every single scene a unique feel.

Secrets of Chinatown, Fred C. Newmeyer, 1935

While the American Chinatown-themed b movies of the 30s and 40s mostly are standard mysteries with a bit of exoticist decoration thrown in, in this Canadian production the racist imaginary is out in full force. Not only the plot about Chinese devil worshippers threatening white female flesh, but also an almost constant texture of paranoia: strange "orientals" shooting hidden gazes at each other, whispering in their foreign tongues. It's all completely over the top and sometimes maybe even a bit tongue in cheek (the kind of tongue in cheek that reinforces, rather than weakens stereotypes), but not necessarily badly made. Silent comedy veteran Fred C. Newmeyer knows hot to keep things moving, and some of his phantasmagoric imagery is quite effective.

Pleasures of the Flesh, Nagisa Oshima, 1965

Desire as an unhappiness machine. Love is what you buy with money embezzled from the embezzler who is also your blackmailer. In order to spite the woman you killed for. The deck is hopelessly stacked against you, but it is stacked against everyone else, too. Anyway, the longing just doesn't go away, and the textures of romance are right there, seemingly within reach, sometimes directly projected onto your (or her) face, it's just that in the end you don't consume them, they consume you.

White Slaves of Chinatown, Joseph P. Mawra, 1964

A gutter study in photogénie. Such a bizarre fetish object.

Egon Schiele: Exzesse, Herbert Vesely, 1980

A film that never trusts its better instincts. There are moments of pure aestheticist flights of fancy here, a woman's face rhythmically swallowed up by shadows and released again into the light, Malick style farmland glossiness, a naked female form pitted against painted glass. Vesely is also more interested in the women around Schiele than in Schiele himself, and this could've saved the film, especially when it comes to Birkin's Wally, a fascinating, obstinate presence. The film should've ended with her demise (and the outbreak of the war). Of course it isn't allowed to, because then all of that stupid genius artist vs the philistines crap the majority of the scenes consist of would've been wasted.

We get it: art is art, as long as it is "deeply felt". Sex is art, too, as long as it is dark and painful, and, if possible, a bit edgy. Vesely probably wants to be a turn of the century bohemian himself, living it up consumed by all of those dark and sexy feelings. Nothing wrong with that, but unlike someone like Thiele, in the end he's hopelessly stuck in the present: Instead of transforming his obsessions into a unified vision, he just uses them to dress up a rote biopic.

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