Wednesday, October 07, 2020

last 2 weeks on letterboxd

Teenage Yakuza, Seijun Suzuki, 1962

Clearly not one of the more interesting early Suzukis. The script is by the numbers and the protagonist slightly annoying. Still, the Nikkatsu apparatus alone makes almost any film look great while Suzuki adds a phony mustache here and there and also provides lots of quirky, at times poetic details of provincial life. I'm very fond of that one very energetic, overeager girl in Jiro's clique. She brings a special spark to every scene she's in.

Emanuelle in America, Joe D'Amato, 1977

I just had to. There's still that almost ecstatic forward drive that makes it the primus inter pares of the Black Emanuelle films, but of course it can't hit you just as hard when you know what's coming.

Bad Girl, Kirio Urayama, 1963

A strange film speaking of a despair that might be tied rather strongly to a specific time and place and not easily translatable into the present / a non-japanese context. It seems to relate to the continuing defeat of the Japanese left throughout the fifties. Instead of a revolutionary subject there's only a single, obstinate girl, Wakae, stuck between a real world of violence crystallized in crammed shot compositions and an imaginary one hidden beneath the sand and accessible through imagery approaching the abstract. What would it mean to save, reform, love her?

All scenes centering on Wakae are extremely intense, while everything that isn't directly tied to her subjectivity feels heavy-handed, trenched in sociological shorthand. In a way this might not even harm the film: to strip away the false securities provided by (in this case: left-liberal) ideology you really have to let your guard down and this only works face to face, in an encounter with a single individual.

CrimeBroker, Ian Barry, 1994

From the golden days of DTV and Cable TV: a Japanese-Australian coproduction featuring Jacqueline Bisset as a no-nonsense judge who likes to dress up in ridiculous outfits in her spare time and Masaya Kato as an expert seducer and master criminal who nevertheless is easily fooled by the world's worst tailing job.

Ian Barry trenches his film in cut-rate neo-noir aesthetics but has no idea how to maintain suspence or at least keep things lively. At least there are some nice nineties artifacts: the life of crime is mostly dependent on a clunky camcorder and a very hip multi-purpose wrist-watch and there's even a hand-held image scanner that looks like something out of an especially bold teleshopping scam. The hacking scenes are decidedly pre-cyberpunk, though.

The Boy Who Came Back, Seijun Suzuki, 1958

For Sachiko Hidari, romance means encountering another world, a world more dangerous and exciting, more masculine. Love means enthusiastically sipping beer in the nightclub. Love means treasuring bodily memories, even and especially the violent ones. Love means worshipping a face, Akira Kobayashi's face, that starts out clownish, almost childish, but slowly transforms itself into a canvas of pure, existential despair. Love means being constantly transformed by this face, when encountering it, even when remembering it - while knowing from the start that she herself won't ever leave an impression on it. Because for him, love can only mean something when it is part of a manichaen struggle - in this case of purity against filth. Sachiko is innocent, but not pure.

The one he loves, Ruriko Asaoka, doesn't even have to look at his face. For her, love is something internal, a secure place. In the most beautiful scene of the film, she walks across a bridge, singing: "So far, very far away"

Always Be With You, Herman Yau, 2017

Crying in the kitchen because I forgot to cook the rice. This hits harder than it has any right to.

The Sleeping Beast Within, Seijun Suzuki, 1960

Just another one of the eleven 1960/1961 Suzuki films. Once again it's painfully obvious that an environment like this where young directors can try their hand, without career-threatening risk, at many projects in a short time, is one of the main prerequisites for a lively and rich film culture (and probably an indispensable one). Those Nikkatsu programmers might all look similar on the surface, but in fact they aren't at all. For example, Hiroyuki Nagato's reporter is much more bland in this than in SMASHING THE O-LINE, a film that shares many narrative beats with THE SLEEPING BEAST WITHIN, but ends up feeling much more paranoid and modernist. THE SLEEPING BEAST, on the other hand, is rather grave and earnest, not least because of an unusually thick, heavy soundtrack.

Sometimes, especially in the fire inferno finale, the tone approaches Greek tragedy, but Suzuki still manages to insert playful stuff like those two flashbacks to the same scene accompanied by a miniature narrator inside the frame; and in the end the gravity might be a ruse to begin with, because what it comes down to is a rather caustic tale of just another bunch of petty upper middle class assholes dabbling in heroin instead of ship supply.

The Spiders: The Noisy Parade, Ko Nakahira, 1968

Might feel different about this once a decent version shows up, but on first sight this only comes alive once in a while. Not so much a Japanese HELP! than a Japanese approximation of a dull eurospy effort. Slow and unimaginative especially in comparison with Nakahira's BLACK GAMBLER films. One problem might be that there are just too many Spiders.

The Frozen Ghost, Harold Young, 1945

A rather messy entry in the very interesting Inner Sanctum series. The writers didn't seem to want to commit to a single, clear-cut mystery this time around, instead they throw in Martin Kosleck as a multi-purpose creepy guy and let him come up with a new ill-conceived scheme every few minutes while everyone around him remains rather unperturbed. So he's throwing knives now, interesting... Still a lot of fun, thanks to effective Lon Chaney close-ups, a very stylish Evelyn Ankers and a well-sustained level of low-key craziness.

Woman From the Sea, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1959

She may be a mermaid, or maybe she's just wet and soft from head to toe all the time, especially when in bed, ready for your kisses. She may be a magic shark, or maybe she's just hungry all the time and has to bite straight away into every fish that swims along. She comes and goes through the window into your room high up there on the cliff over the sea. Her appearances are always private, never public. She can't be won over, she can only be accepted.

Not quite the Japanese UNDINE I was hoping for, a bit too sketchy, and the focus unfortunately is mostly on plot mechanics rather than on the pull of the deep (the short underwater sequences are beautiful, though). Not sure if Kurahara was the right director, here, this feels rather restrained compared to his more famous urban slacker films. Still a fascinating, offbeat piece of termite art. When it works, it works mostly because of sultry Hisako Tsukuba, a very unusual presence in Japanese cinema of the time. Later on, as I just learned, she changed her name to Chako van Leeuwen and went on to produce, fittingly, PIRANHA, PIRANHA 3D and PIRANHA 3DD.

Una donna libera, Vittorio Cottafavi, 1954

Tracking shots are like music: they can bring us together, but they can also tear us apart. One of the great melodramas of the 50s.

(There's a new rip out there, much better quality than the old one, but it contains a stupid, jarring cut in the most important scene of the film.)

Goku II: Midnight Eye, Koshiaki Kawajiri, 1989

I'm still all in on Kawajiri's very basic muscles, babes and neon lights concept of coolness, but here he's mostly treading water.

Johnny Flash, Werner Nekes, 1986

Is JOHNNY FLASH (1986) the best film made in the Federal Republic of Germany? Obviously yes, but that's still an understatement. You have to turn things around: JOHNNY FLASH (1986) is the film the Federal Republic of Germany was invented for.

A soft experimental film about the cubism inherent in everyday life, about the interchangeability of family relations, business transactions and entertainment industry, about the beautiful ugliness of inner city post-war architecture, about the death of language and the power of music.

Eight Hours of Terror, Seijun Suzuki, 1957

Compared to so many (very) different movies on here, but clearly a beast of its own first and foremost. Suzuki's centrifugal cinema easily blows up all the constrictions films like this are supposed to be based on, time and space are already nonsense this early in the game, most obviously probably when a pedestrian manages to outpace a bus without even trying all that hard (a single road sign does the trick). He has also lots of fun with little things like repeatedly putting a baby and a gun in the same frame.

Undine 74, Rolf Thiele, 1974

Thiele had a one-track mind and by 1974 he also seems to have lost just about any connection to the time he lived in, but he also had an ultra-baroque visual imagination setting him apart from pretty much everyone this side of Wenzel Storch. Here, he and Wolf Wirth are really running wild, shooting for something like Sternberg meets Jess Franco. The rear projection motorbike sex scene is something only the creme de la creme of cine-sickos would even try pulling of.

The Incorrigible, Seijun Suzuki, 1963

"I hate Strindberg, but at least he brought us together."

Like in Urayama's DELINQUENT GIRL, Masako Izumi close-ups are a force of nature and go a long way in selling a love story that otherwise not always feels fully fleshed out. There are some very effective long shots, too (and a wonderful, highly artificial flashback sequence), but generally Suzuki feels more at home with the caustic aspects of the script: Tôgo's big city arrogance vs goofy provincial morality. Sometimes the film, flaunting its own literary aspirations, seems to aligne itself a bit too firmly with the former.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Matt Cimber, 1976

Sidesteps pretty much completely the iconography and dramatic beats one would expect in a film like this, instead it's mostly a series of encounters filmed as if in real time pitting Millie Perkins against different people who try to read her, one way or another. The men (including, depressingly, her sons) project all kind of bullshit on her, while the women mostly see through her.

...I seldom like flashback scenes in trauma films. Most of the times there are simply too many of them, I guess, they soon lose their unsettling force and become mechanistic shorthand in order to drive forward the plot. Here they try much harder than usually to let them reverberate in original ways, but the drive towards revelation is still present. The (great) tattooing scene, for example, would've had a much stronger and more lasting impact without the reveal that, yes, father did this, too.

I tartassati, Steno, 1959

One never watches enough Italian comedies. This has an annoying sideplot starring Luciano Marin, but otherwise it's just one exhibit of Toto greatness after the other. The tax avoidance setup is tailor-made for his trying to weasel out of his own schemes persona (as well as a somewhat harsh showcsae for a fatalistic view of society), while Aldo Fabrizi and de Funes are, naturally, excellent co-stars - although it's always clear who runs the show, here.

Steno mostly just lets the camera run, knowing fully well that Toto always comes with his own Mise en Scene.

The Blood Sword of the 99th Virgin, Morihei Magatani, 1959

The ugly flipside of Kinoshita's THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA and similar fairy-tale-style takes on pre-modern Japan, substituting the subtle allure of aesthetizised otherness with crass exploitation. Pretty grizzly (not only the human sacrifice stuff, but also the corresponding images of state violence, like that shot of a sniper aiming at a lone woman in the woods) and not exactly thinking man's cinema, but extremely effective and, for better or worse, far ahead of its time.

The Man With the Golden Arm, Otto Preminger, 1955

Zosh Machine: the name alone is punishment and destiny. She's the true center of the film, the entrapped entrapper, locked in up there in her small, miserable apartment, a life clearly defined and restricted while everyone else has at least some options. The cruelest of camera movements: the camera moving off of her, giving her space, but only so that she can stand up and, betraying her betrayal, walk up towards Otto's unflinching gaze. From this moment on she is lost, living on borrowed time.

Yes, of course: Woman as metaphor, a sacrificial lamb at the mercy of a ruthless script. Still, what makes her role so powerful is the very absence of (sane) agency. All she can do is learn how to whistle. Zosh's whistle: In theory a medium of expression, and at the same time useless, because it cannot represent nuances and interiority, but only produces a single, garish note.

The Man With the Shotgun, Seijun Suzuki 1961

Suzuki mostly having fun with rather than making fun of western tropes makes for breezy, colorful pulp entertainment. Would love to watch this one on film one day.

Born Under Crossed Stars, Seijun Suzuki, 1965

Very funny and very free-form provincial farce / sex comedy filled with speckled cows, kisses charged with meaning, steamy revelations in the bathhouse, expressive tattoos, Yumeka Nogawa's toothy smile and assertive flirting technique (clenching Ken Yamauchi's knee between her thighs), and quite a few blows on the forehead. Sprawling with chaotic widescreen energy, great stuff.

Lust, Caution, Ang Lee, 2007

Ang Lee's afterword to the english translation of Eileen Chang's short novella the film is based on is smart, perceptive, and precise. His film, unfortunately, is none of that. Bloated, very on the nose (I knew I'd have some problems with this film as soon as the rapid-fire montage sequence during the Mahjong game right at the start), and rather academic, especially once the fucking starts. In theory I appreciate the idea of sex scenes that are meant to proof something, as part of an argument, but here they carry way too much weight, resulting in a pornographic approach to subjectivity that defeats sensuality. Not completely, though, the actors are still great and Ang Lee is a good enough technician to successfully pull off some of his tricks. Still, one of his weaker films.

Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, Kinji Fukasaku, 1972

Plunging into the abyss that is history. Once the gates are open there is no stopping it. Fukasaku's supreme showmanship and Shindo's unwavering and not exactly nuanced leftist sensibilities are a very good match for a project like this.

Five Golden Dragons, Jeremy Summers, 1967

So while Chang Cheh revolutionized the wuxia with ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, somewhere else on the Shaw Studios soundstages Jeremy Summers was busy directing some of the dullest chase scenes imaginable. A low-energy eurospy dud featuring Robert Cummings on autopilot, desperately trying to get some mileage out of its Hong Kong setting and a long list of cameos. The absurdist five dragons finale is mildly amusing.

Was die Schwalbe sang, Geza von Bolvary, 1956

Stilted but at times weirdly affecting adaptation of Theodor Storm's "Immensee". I haven't seen the Harlan version, which probably goes all in on the melodrama; Bolvary takes his time to get there and goes through some rather stale Heimatfilm motions. While his direction clearly has lost the spark of his early 30s films, he still has an affinity for music, though. Especially the scenes about Margit Saad discovering her sense of harmony are quite nice. She's so enthusiastic, at one time she even jumps onto the sofa! Those daring big city girls... Uber-blonde Maj-Britt Nilsson would never, she always catches the 0:30 train home. Claus Biederstaedt grew on me, too: eyebrows of defiance, eyebrows of regret.

In the end the film is like Paul Hörbiger's Philipp Meyen: mostly immobilized, hopelessly stuck in the past, clinging to half-processed memories, closed-off to new experiences... but always ready to be flushed with a sentiment that doesn't know itself.

Die Landärztin, Paul May, 1958

Probably as progressive as a 1958 Heimatfilm can get: Marianne Koch defeats provincial closed-mindedness and is allowed to have a career, but she still has to marry Rudolf Prack.

Paul May struggles terribly when it comes to the more dramatic scenes (the Maria Perschy pregnancy plot is especially awkward); as long as he focusses on Koch and the shenanigans of the great supporting cast, everything flows along pleasantly, though: Willy Millowitsch introduces a bit of Rhinelandish absurdism, Beppo Brem hugs a bottle after battling rabies, and the always great Rudolf Vogel stands on his head to defeat the foehn wind!

Raped by an Angel, Andrew Lau, 1993

Over the top and then some. Prime Wong Jing nastiness built around a number of elaborate rape scenes; or rather rape set pieces, as they basically serve the same function as a 20 minutes car chase mayhem extravaganza in a Michael Bay film. Topped off by Andrew Lau's glossy expert execution that somehow manages to eliminate most cognitive distancing devices. Those two really make D'Amato look like a choirboy.

Sensation in San Remo, Georg Jacoby, 1951

Somehow manages to feel both shop-soiled and frozen in time: Marika Rökk and company (Peter Pasetti is especially unbearable in the alpha male role) stomping through a number of entertainment mainstays like it's 1944, hell-bent on ignoring that something, anything might have changed in the meantime; everyone is a bit too old for his or her role, though, and this lends the stale proceedings an unspecific air of sadness.

The revue finale isn't all bad and especially Rökk's crossdressing scene might've some camp appeal, I guess. Too little too late, but at least it makes me a bit curious about her late work; maybe at one point she stopped being the ever-competent entertainment automaton to be transformed into a glorious, aging showbiz warhorse. This photography, at least, is rather promising:

Century of the Dragon, Clarence Fok, 1999

Another interesting film from Hong Kong cinema's transformative late 90s period. Clarence Fok's direction is stylish as always but rather restrained when compared to his prime, while the script feels like Wong Jing's attempt at tight plotting - at one point he almost deliberately wastes a perfect opportunity for extra-disgusting toilet humor. On first sight this might look like a proto INFERNAL AFFAIRS; on a scene by scene basis it still plays out completely differently, though: at its heart, things are driven not by structure but by performance, and when the great ensemble cast (MVP, rather surprisingly: Patrick Tam) is let loose, the bigger picture always quickly fades into the background.

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