Saturday 29 May 2010


Earlier this week, one of my favourite directors celebrated his 87th birthday. To mark it, I wrote the following review at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. I've included one or two additional screencaps here though...B-)

If the final chapter of Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy (1991's "Yumeji") is possibly one of the most impenetrable and narrative-free works of his 54 film, 54 year career, it could also be the most stunningly gorgeous. It pretty much has to be, though, since plot and character arc are concepts dispensed with almost completely. As joyfully weird as later projects "Pistol Opera" and "Princess Raccoon" and as radically anti-studio and genre-defying as his late 60s "Branded To Kill" and "Tokyo Drifter" were, "Yumeji" feels like the full distillation of Suzuki's approach to the visual medium of film. It's a compendium of images and movement that can generate infinite layers of meaning individually, but when combined resolve to a coarse whole. It's how a delusional, multiple personality mystery author might dream while under the influence of hallucinogenics.

Each of the trilogy's parts is a standalone film with no further ties to the others except for having been set in Emperor Taisho's reign (1912-1926). Of specific note during this period is the gradual shift towards democratic rule, liberal mores and a broader, less isolationist view of culture. The first entry in the trilogy ("Zigeunerweisen") was based on a novel by Taisho-era writer Hyakken Uchida while this last one is based on poet and artist Takehisa Yumeji. Artwork appears throughout in transitions, as ghostly apparitions, as travel itineraries, sketches and in-progress paintings while the scenery they exist within feel just as composed, colourful, detailed and meaningful as any of the art. The camera seems to want to explore the variety of corners and frames within the rooms and locations of the film and that encourages our own eyes to wander and gaze at the bright hues and interesting objects that show up repeatedly (a silver gun, a red and white candy-cane rope, a yellow boat, a red and white dress, etc.). It all lends itself to the surreal dreamscape (one of the other common factors between the trilogy's films) so that when rain is suggested by filming a scene through static streaks of blue, it's hardly surprising. But it sure is beautiful.

A few words about the "story". Yumeji has stopped off at a spa as he awaits his fiancee Hikono to arrive from the clutches of her father. They have plans to elope, but she is not overly healthy at the moment so it's proving difficult for her to get away. While he waits, he slides into the arms of a local prostitute and then decides to visit Hikono directly. Not quite ready to leave with him (or to consumate their relationship), he continues on his travels and meets and becomes infatuated with a woman named Tomoyo. Her husband has apparently been murdered by a roaming killer, but his body has not been found yet, so she searches for it in the lake on a daily basis. Once Yumeji becomes involved with her, a stranger arrives claiming to be Tomoyo's husband (and could very well be the man who shoots Yumeji in his dream that opens the film). To complicate things, one of Yumeji's models shows up as does Hikono. That's really only a rough guide to a variety of events - timelines jump ahead occasionally without warning (even within a scene) and it's rather difficult to recognize which of the many women is actually on screen at a given time due to their similar ways of dressing and hairstyles. It's likely part of Suzuki's plan, though, since Yumeji seems to be fascinated with the female body (with less consideration for the person) and can only sketch a particular one after being intimate with it.

One particular scene gives a good idea of how the film operates...Yumeji wants to sketch Tomoyo and requires her to be naked. He appears to be ready to sketch with all his tools as the camera cuts to a shot of a naked female with her long hair draped over her body and her face in shadow. Yumeji studies her for a few moments. The camera begins to circle her and as it does, a fully clothed Tomoyo comes in out of the shadows in the background and begins to rotate and move closer to the naked woman. The camera stops moving as Tomoyo stops right next to the model and they appear to be two halves of a whole. Cut to a close-up of the fully clothed Tomoyo looking back to Yumeji. He stares, looks down at his tools and prepares to mix a specific yellow pigment. As he looks back up, he pauses and then throws down the pigment in frustration. Cut to Tomoyo consoling him. It's a wonderful way to represent his attempt to picture in his mind her naked body without actually being given access to it. When he can't quite retain that image and the reality of Tomoyo's clothed self comes back to him, he can't continue. Via sharp edits that change the locations of characters, camera movement, non-sequiturs and lots of Dixieland music, Suzuki tries to give you an idea of an artist's internal view of the world and how it leads to his art. Let it wash over you and see what it does to your own dreams.

A Single Image #5

White Night Wedding (2008 - Baltasar Kormakur)

Friday 28 May 2010

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #15

About once a month, several Toronto film bloggers, writers and ne'er-do-wells get together at a local pub for an evening of fun, frivolity and film discussion. You'd think a solid 6-7 hours would have conversation lulls, but rarely does that happen. It always feels like it's over way too soon, though, and we scatter back to our computers to quickly look up the details of a movie mentioned or to validate our position from an argument (ie. prove the other person WRONG! I'm looking at you Hatter...).

So amongst the discussions that covered "The Room" (as absolutely terrible as you've heard and almost as funny), the 5-hour version of "Fanny And Alexander" versus the 3-hour one (5-hour version in a walk) and the merits of a fictional tri-part film with each of three action directors taking the helm for one portion (I'm not at liberty to divulge the details...), Kurt mentioned the following creep-tastic short film:

It's so good, I felt it deserved it's own Cesspool post. Even The Academy agreed - it snagged an Oscar nomination back in 1993 and deservedly so. It still looks pretty damn good 17 years later and retains all its spookiness. You may want to preview it before showing it to any of the wee ones though. You may also want to preview it with your hands over your eyes. Just make sure you watch straight through the credits.

As an addendum, having just watched Wes Craven Clive Barker's "Nightbreed" the other evening, I couldn't help but bring to mind this guy while watching the short:

Uh, I meant the guy on the left if you weren't sure...

Sunday 23 May 2010

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #14

Demons 2 (1986 - Lamberto Bava) - I do have to say that Lamberto Bava makes pretty movies. His colour palette is always rich, deep and saturated and he uses shadows and light quite effectively - understandable given his lineage (his father is Mario Bava). Other films of his ("Demons", "A Blade In The Dark" and "Delirium") all looked great and even had moments of tension and surprise. "Demons 2" takes the concept of the first film (people trapped in a building fighting off demons while the movie within the movie has people suffering a similar fate), uses Cronenberg's "Shivers" as the template (denizens of an apartment building are felled one by one) and drains any possible fear and dread from it. The acting and terrible dubbed-over voices are bad enough (I admit, I just can't fully get past that sometimes), but the story just seems to throw random elements together and characters abandon all sense of logic. There's absolutely no reason given for the initial demon coming out of the TV that kicks things off, but I suppose that was somewhat redeemed by the first victim being the world's whiniest birthday girl ever. After that, it's just one poorly developed character getting transformed into a demon after another. Having said that - even though I really didn't care what happened to any of the people - it was still suitably entertaining. Partly because of the look of the film and partly because you couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Case in point: goblin-boy.

The Unseen (1980 - Peter Foleg) - You know things aren't right when the director attributes his film to a pseudonym (Foleg takes the blame from Danny Steinmann). Unfortunately, I didn't find that out until after I watched this damn thing. Steinmann couldn't have been too surprised, though, could he? The usually fun character actor Sydney Lassick is WAY over-the-top in every single frame he's in and ruins any possibility of being creepy. Even though there's several attempts to build to something, it's invariably ruined by poorly executed death scenes or cringe-inducing acting. Of particular note is the painful performance of the blond camerawoman that teams with Barbara Bach's TV reporter. She's simply never met a word that she couldn't also attempt to convey via additional facial expressions. Reservation snafus have forced them and another cohort to hole up in Lassick's home while they cover a local festival. As for The Unseen itself, it really should have been left that way. It isn't actually in view for the first hour or so of the movie, but is right out in the open for the spectacularly awful last half hour. If you're gonna call something "unseen", dammit leave it that way. Hopefully the movie itself at least lives up to its title.

Session 9 (2001 - Brad Anderson) - My first viewing of this masterpiece of oppressiveness was several years ago and I immediately knew it would vault up my list of great horror movies with succeeding viewings. I finally got around to a second viewing and it turns out I was right...This is an almost perfect film in the way it builds up the atmosphere weighing on its central character. His world is crumbling just like the old asylum he and his team are cleaning up (ridding it of asbestos) and as their week long effort progresses the building seems to be engulfing them. Though Anderson's recent "Transsiberian" was fine, his previous 4 films are all a notch above. Both "Happy Accidents" and "Next Stop Wonderland" are wonderful romantic comedies (where romance and comedy play equal parts) and though "The Machinst" is best known for Christian Bale's skin and bones performance, it's also a great study in mood. His next project "Vanishing On 7th Street" (post-apocalyptic horror) could very well be great, but it'll have to go a long way to top "Session 9".

Never Take Candy From A Stranger (1960 - Cyril Frankel) - Hammer Films are best known for their colourful gothic horror takes on Dracula, Frankenstein and The Werewolf and rightly so. They're all terrifc entertainment, but it's a shame some of their black and white thrillers aren't as well known. A recent 3 DVD release entitled "Icons Of Suspense" trots out 6 of their compact, taut and beautifully lensed features and I dare say that each is supremely entertaining as well. Frankel's daring take on child molestation is possibly the best of the bunch, though I'm amazed they used (according to IMDB) the following tagline: "Powerful! Shocking! Raw! Rough! Challenging! See a little girl molested!". Much of it takes place in a courtroom after a newly arrived family from England accuse an elderly gentleman of taking advantage of their daughter and a friend. The horror comes not only from the thought of what this man might do, but from the refusal of the rest of the town to help them or do anything about the situation. The old man in question is actually the father of the most powerful man in town, so even the parents of the other young girl aren't piping up. The film isn't overly graphic (ie. the last part of that tagline is fortunately not accurate), but I'm not sure it could get released today. I have to think one of the reasons it was set in Canada (Nova Scotia I believe) was in order to keep the evil outside the confines of Britain.