Thursday, July 23, 2020

Hana-bi (1997, Takeshi Kitano)

Quest Status: 708 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #576   

I hadn't seen a Takeshi Kitano film before this one, but right away the opening title card declaring this the seventh installment in the "Takeshi Kitano Directorial Series" told me that I was in for something outside of the typical mainstream fare. Not to mention that this is no ordinary title card, but rather a meticulously painted recreation of a director's notebook - an obsessive detail just like you might find in a Wes Anderson film. The opening credits montage that follows is even more striking - a series of paintings featuring angels and flowers, which happen to have painted by Kitano himself. Then we have a series of close-ups - two thugs in workman's uniforms, a tough guy in a suit and sunglasses, a half-eaten bento lunch on a car hood - followed by a couple long shots and an unexplained outburst of violence, after which we finally see the title: Hana-bi (Fireworks). How's that for a first impression?

What follows promises to be a gritty thriller about cops and yakuza, but turns out to be anything but. When veteran detective Nishi (played by the director, using his pseudonym "Beat" Takeshi) skips out on a stakeout to visit his sick wife at the hospital, an ambush leaves his longtime partner wounded and another colleague dead. Nishi's partner Horibe (Ren Osuga) is confined to a wheelchair after his recovery, and abandoned by his wife and child. Nishi also leaves the force, for reasons that are never fully explained. There are implications that he unloaded his pistol into the body of a dead yakuza member in a fit of rage, but we only see bits of this episode in flashback.

While it has its moments of brutal violence, Hana-bi is more about the aftershock of violence than the actual events. In one of their colleague's reminiscences about the past, we hear that Nishi and Horibe were once a great detective team, but we never have a chance to see them action. Throughout the film, Nishi is shown as a broken shell of a man, rarely uttering a word unless absolutely necessary. His primary form of communication is through violence, erupting without warning and punctuating his actions with Clint Eastwood-style one liners, or occasionally just a few grunts. On the other hand, the handicapped Horibe finds his own mode of expression through painting, which develops into a parallel storyline in which many more of Kitano's beguiling paintings are featured.

The amount of time that Hana-bi devotes to silence and stillness makes it tempting to label it as a "zen yakuza film." But despite its many quiet passages, it's still a surprisingly tense film. The characters are anything but enlightened or at peace. On the contrary, they're constantly in shambles - unable to connect or communicate effectively with anyone. In one surreal montage, which lasts roughly three minutes, Horibe gazes tearfully at flowers and imagines paintings of animals with flowers in place of body parts. It's a strange moment not only because of the hallucinatory imagery, but also because of the length of the sequence and the lack of any discernible context behind the images. As a result, we realize that this is a man with no connection to the world around him. All he has left in life are bizarre images conjured from his lonely imagination.

As for Nishi, his initial lack of response to everyone around him, initially irritating to watch, eventually takes on a heartrending quality. He plans a bank robbery to be able to take his ailing wife on a road trip around Japan, but when it finally happens, the two hardly ever speak to each other. At most, they communicate with tentative smiles, unable to find the words to express their feelings. Make no mistake: even though this is a film in which eyes are gouged out and blood spurts in slow-motion from gunshots at close range, it's also an overwhelmingly sad film. There is plenty of physical violence throughout, but the damage that the characters' souls sustain runs much deeper. The violence here is not meant for entertainment: Hana-bi is a searing indictment of the harmful effects of a lack of communication, as well as the ripple effect that violence has not only on the victims and/or perpetrators, but also on those around them.

--- 292 films remaining ---

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Vivre sa vie (1962, Jean-Luc Godard)

Quest Status: 707 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #133

Having taken university courses on film history, watched Breathless and Contempt numerous times, and even dipped my toes into the more treacherous waters of Jean-Luc Godard's 1970s leftist revolutionary era, I tend to feel that I have a pretty good grasp on what Godard means to film history. However, I've also found most of Godard's work after about 1966 (except for Histoire(s) du cinema) to be difficult and tedious being one factor, and as a result have often felt that I'm "finished" with his films, despite the fact that I had only seen 12 of his roughly 70 films up until now. What's more, as this post confirms, there are still a number of Godard's pre-1966 films that I haven't seen yet!

If your history with Godard is anything like mine, I urge you to set aside whatever preconceived notions you might have about the man and make time for Vivre sa vie. It's a near masterpiece which differs drastically from its two predecessors Breathless and A Woman is a Woman. The latter of those films was the first Godard film to feature his wife and muse, the Danish beauty and quintessential symbol of the French New Wave, Anna Karina, who is also the star of Vivre sa vie. It's a tragic story about a young woman who becomes drawn into a prostitution by necessity, in which Godard typically eschews traditional narrative devices and makes his own rules.

At times, Godard's approach almost feels like an experiment in what would later be described as "formalist cinema." Less a straightforward narrative than a series of vignettes, the film presents its story in twelve roughly 10-minute segments, which generally consist of a single unbroken scene. The film's first scene after the opening credits montage show Karina's Nana and her estranged boyfriend arguing at a cafe -  although we only see their heads from behind. This is a typically provocative move by Godard: not only does he throw the conventional shot-reverse-shot style of cutting dialogue scenes out the window, he denies his audience the opportunity to see the characters' faces for almost ten minutes, and during the opening scene of the film! There's also a shocking amount of nudity and sexual frankness in the film that would have been unthinkable in 1960s Hollywood, but Godard's stylistic experimentation is even more shocking in the context of the era.

Nevertheless, the film's idiosyncratic cinematography and editing style gives it a slice-of-life quality that anticipates the cinema verite movement (still only a nascent idea at the time) while also channeling, and even lifting a scene directly from, Carl Theodor Dryer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. Karina is often framed to look like Anna Falconetti's Joan of Arc, which is particularly fitting, given that Dryer was Danish but made The Passion of Joan of Arc in France, where Karina also made all of her films with Godard. But rather than a religious martyr, Nana is a martyr for the modern French woman, a symbol for the chronic hopelessness of lower-class women who can't make ends meet without a man or a stable job. By today's standards, Nana might seem like a passive and powerless character only meant to inspire the audience's pity, but even with this in mind, Vivre sa vie is still a hard-hitting and beautiful film that deals head-on with social dilemmas that other directors of the era wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.

--- 293 films remaining ---

Friday, July 10, 2020

REWIND: Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau)

TSPDT Rank #270

Initial viewing: once upon a time...

French poet and painter Jean Cocteau made his film debut with The Blood of a Poet, a groundbreaking work of poetic surrealism filmed in the late 1920s and released in 1932 to a thunderous reception that earned him a new status as a legendary filmmaker. His next film, a dreamlike adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, wasn’t released until 14 years later, in the wake of World War II and France’s collaboration with the Nazis. In some ways, Beauty and the Beast picks up where its predecessor left off, but at the same time, it shows Cocteau emerging into France’s postwar period filled with new resolve. The film also gave him a chance to showcase his theatrical muse, Jean Marais, who has a dual role as both the titular Beast and Belle’s human suitor Avenant.

The film opens with an audacious opening credits sequence which breaks the fourth wall by showing Cocteau himself writing the names of the cast on a chalkboard, followed by his own signature. We also catch glimpses of lead actors Marais and Josette Day, after which we see a clapboard and a voice yells “Take 1. Action!” At this point, Cocteau interrupts and gives us an introductory message asking for the viewer’s suspension of belief and “childlike sympathy.” For viewers expecting fairy tales and fantasy right from the start, Cocteau offers some metatextual food for thought that might have influenced the young filmmakers of the French New Wave over a decade later.

Even without this opening sequence of playful disruption, Beauty and the Beast is unlike any other fantasy film. It doesn't attempt to transplant fantasy into the "real world," nor does it attempt to create an entirely new fantasy world from scratch. Instead, the real world and the fantasy world that it presents are virtually interchangeable. When Belle's father stumbles upon the Beast's manor in the middle of the night, some strange things happen, but it's not until the Beast appears in a brilliantly startling moment that we realize that this is no longer the reality we had become used to. This almost imperceptible shift from reality to fantasy was a trademark of Cocteau's, also featured in all three films in his Orphic Trilogy (including The Blood of a Poet).

But while the division between the real and fantasy worlds of Beauty and the Beast might be seamless, the fantasy world is definitely not lacking in strangeness. The scene in which Belle enters the Beast's manor for the first time is a tour de force of unsettling set design and atmosphere. The candles are all attached to the walls by human arm fixtures, as are the candles on the dinner table held by similarly disembodied human hands. Typically for Cocteau, these hands are not explained to the viewer. Belle tells her siblings later on that she was waited on by "invisible hands" at the manor, but the disembodied arms and other human furnishings are always visible to us. Without ever being pointed out explicitly, they create an unsettling feeling of a house that is alive--haunted, even, by the memories of the dead.

The uncanny and strange moments scattered throughout the film are too numerous to mention. When Belle first arrives at the door to her bedroom in the manor, it’s in a hallway that’s eerily similar to the hotel in The Blood of a Poet. As in that film, there’s a sense that the house is alive, that anything could be hiding behind those doors. At one point, the covers slither off of Belle’s bed like a snake, and the Beast appears howling in pain and engulfed in smoke from some unthinkable ailment. These unexplained moments make the story feel shrouded in “unreality,” the quality that Cocteau always strived to capture in all of his work.

As it is an adaptation of a fairy tale, it stands to reason that Beauty and the Beast is aimed at children at least to some degree. But while the film’s dark magic and hazy mysteries might be what stands out most to young viewers, as they once did for me, adults are more likely to be entranced by the film’s shades of romantic beauty and poetic twists of fate. The two sides play against each other like two sides of a coin--like the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, or the contrast between real life and its reflection in the Beast’s magic mirror.