Tuesday, July 31, 2018

#674: Nostalghia

1983, TSPDT Rank #365

I saw Nostalghia for the first time at an all-night Tarkovsky marathon at a Tokyo cinema (along with Solaris and Mirror). I had seen the first two films before (you can find my post on these films here), so having only Japanese subtitles for these was not a problem, but for Nostalghia, often described as one of Tarkovsky's most opaque films to begin with, I initially missed a lot of nuance and subtext as a result of my limited understanding of the dialogue. However, what I got from it is this: a Russian poet goes to Italy but is quickly overcome by nostalgia for his home country and the urge to sacrifice himself for the greater good of mankind (or maybe for merely personal reasons). Along the way, Tarkovsky ties melds this story with themes of faith, family, cultural philosophy and dream-like imagery to form a powerful, hypnotic whole.

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When I watched the film later, with English subtitles, I was able to catch many of the deeper resonances suggested by the dialogue and, with considerable irony, the idea that art is inherently untranslatable. Eugenia, Andrei's traveling companion, translator and foil in the film, suggests that music is an exception to this. Many of the readers of this might also feel, like I do, that film is another artistic medium with the potential to "abolish the frontiers" between countries and languages. I think that my experience at a one-screen repertory theater hidden in a narrow Tokyo alley is a perfect example of this. Without the aid of my native language, I was able to watch films presented in foreign languages that I understood little to nothing of and come away with a greatly enhanced appreciation of their director and his uniquely poetic visuals and themes.

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#673: Branded to Kill

Directed by: SEIJUN SUZUKI
1967, TSPDT Rank #821

Seijun Suzuki spent the most of the '60s making low-budget yakuza films and erotic thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, the foremost producer of Japanese B-movies at the time. As the decade went on, his films became progressively more experimental, with less focus on plot coherency and more on stylistic flights of fancy, as Suzuki seemingly became increasingly bored with his material. Suzuki always insisted that his movies were made solely with entertainment, not art, in mind, but critics looking back at his work in recent decades usually conclude otherwise, due to Suzuki's meticulous approach to developing a unique visual style for each of his films.

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But while each of Suzuki's films are distinctive in their own way, Branded To Kill is possibly his most famous, as it is the film that got him fired from Nikkatsu and blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for ten years after he decided to sue his former studio. Filmed in black and white, ostensibly an attempt by Nikkatsu to reign in Suzuki's wild use of color, Branded To Kill starts out as a film about intrigue in the world of assassins, but soon becomes a bizarre examination of the masculine urge for power and the intertwining nature of sex and violence. Suzuki follows Japan's No. 3 assassin (Jô Shishido) into a downward spiral of madness and identity crisis, as his desire to become No. 1 consumes him.

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Much has been made of the main character's rice fetish (which Suzuki said was conceived as a way to make the character more quintessentially "Japanese") and the incoherent plot turns, but at its core, this is an early example of a psychological thriller. Pacing and storytelling were not talents of Suzuki's, but Branded to Kill is still a fascinating and exhilarating watch, even if it's uneven at times. However, for those interested in Suzuki's other work, I recommend Gate of Flesh and Fighting Elegy over this one. I suppose it's fitting that Branded to Kill would be my No. 3 Suzuki film.