Thursday 29 July 2010

Shinsedai 2010 - The Water Magician

At the tender age of 22, Takako Irie was already a power player in the Japanese film industry. Impressive for anyone, but triply so considering that she was able to do this as a young woman in 1933 Japan. She created her own production company and struck out into the world of independent film with Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Water Magician" as one of her first projects. She not only produced, but also took on its main starring role. Hearing these details in the introductory comments before its screening at this year's Shinsedai Cinema Festival provided some additional information as to why a silent film from a noted master of the artform managed to sneak into this year's lineup. After all, it's not really the first thing you think of to program in a festival dedicated to new Japanese films by young filmmakers (the term Shinsedai actually means "new generation"). One assumed the film was being screened simply because the opportunity was there - and if you could add on live musical accompaniment, why would you not? Especially when the music is by experimental Toronto band Vowls and the space within which they would perform it is the lovely confines (acoustically friendly one at that) of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

It's somewhat hard at this stage to separate out the music from the movie since the ebbs and flows of the soundtrack provided by the 5-piece band (including many analog and digital effects) meshed with the pace of the movie. The tale is straightforward - a young woman named Taki no Shiraito travels around with a circus performing tricks with water and becomes taken with a young carriage driver. She's attracted to him, but is also impressed with the way he stands up to her and the other passengers who taunt the slowness of his buggy. She insists that he make something of himself and offers to pay for his education with the condition that he become an honourable gentleman. The slow build of Vowls' music during the film's opening exposition is initially hard to fit into the 80-year old look of the film and its characters, but it pulses and weaves its way into your head until you're hooked - into both the music and the story.

In the grand tradition of melodramatic storylines, the separated lovers are doomed to encounter each other again and, of course, in a fashion that tests those initial promises. It's all in the telling, though, and Mizoguchi has a couple of weapons at his disposal to make this a very engaging story. The first is his camera - it moves a great deal throughout the film pushing in, following, tracking and staying with our characters. Things just seemed more vibrant with all that movement. The second high-powered item in his arsenal is Takako Irie herself - specifically her beautiful, expressive and mischievous face. When the lovers are apart, we spend almost the entirety of the time with her, so that face gets a lot of screen time and I have to say that she makes use of it well. The emotions are high and her expressions match them, but it never feels like its played too broad. Because of the nature of the story, there certainly are moments when you think things like "if you'd just talk to that guy, it would all be fine!", but it's not meant to be...

If there was a small downside to the screening it was that the film had a great deal of subtitles that were explaining much of the action on screen - these were actually for the narration used by Benshi who would typically tell the story of the film to an audience while also speaking the roles of several characters on screen. This was common for many silent films in Japan and apparently true Benshi were performers in their own right and could elevate what they did to an artform. Unfortunately, without the Benshi present, it was just a whole lot of additional subtitles on the screen. After awhile you could safely ignore them and just read the intertitles, but it's hard to ignore that blaring white text at the bottom of the screen...It's a small annoyance though.

The score by Vowls kept enveloping the audience more and more as the film went on. One of its early peaks was during the sequence when Shiraito is hiding out with a young couple and is discovered and led away to jail on suspicion of murder. The band shifted gears a bit during this section to bring an overall darker and more insistent tone to the rhythms of the piece. The final 10 minutes or so seemed to be one constant build that completely fit the tone of the trapped feelings of the characters. If the band were not overly animated in their performance, they certainly knew how come up with intriguing sounds and stitch them all together to make a great film all that much better.

A magnificent evening.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Shinsedai 2010 - The first half

A little over a year ago my friend Chris MaGee was at the 2009 Nippon Connection film festival and emailed myself and a few of the other contributors to the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow (which he started in 2007) that he had met Jasper Sharp. This was exciting news to me as Jasper was somewhat responsible for my interest in Japanese film - I was already curious when I read the book The Midnight Eye Guide To New Japanese Film (which he co-authored with Tom Mes) and was instantly hooked after diving headlong through the chapters on individual directors like Fukasaku, Suzuki, Kurosawa (Kiyoshi) and Miike. Just in case the title of the book wasn't a dead giveaway, Sharp and Mes co-founded Midnight Eye - one of the premiere web sites for anything related to Japanese film.

Chris had more news in the months to come though. He and Jasper had hatched a plan to start a new film festival - one dedicated to young Japanese filmmakers working independently of studios and who were early in their careers. Even better (at least for me), it would be held in Toronto and Jasper would attend (it really was an honour and a pleasure to meet Jasper last year and to be able to thank him directly). That's how the Shinsedai Cinema Festival was born and last year's premiere outing was, to my mind, a roaring success. Filmmakers attended, press coverage was given and suddenly people were coming to Chris and Jasper.

What to do next? Hold the second annual festival of course! It kicked off this past Thursday (sigh, how good a friend am I that I'm only writing about it now?) with a crowded opening night reception at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre packed with local press, film writers, guests, several of the filmmakers and numerous bottles of Asahi Black. Jasper couldn't attend this year, but the crowd was willing to give him some slack due to his new status as a parent to a brand-spanking new bouncing 2 week old son. Among the other guests at the opening was Canadian director Deepa Mehta who caught the evening's first film as well.

I should say the evening's first 2 films since things started with the wonderful 6 minute animated short entitled Ladybird's Requiem by Akino Kondoh. It's essentially a series of small fantasies in a young girl's mind about ladybugs, buttons and the metaphysical which all occur after she has accidentally killed a single ladybug. Kondoh's art also adorns the poster for this year's festival (seen above). Her hand drawn panels are uncluttered and drift and merge together with seamless fluidity. I missed her film from last year's festival and regret that terribly now...

The first feature of the evening was Momoko Ando's full length debut Kakera: A Piece Of Our Life. It's the tale of a young university student named Haru who seems stuck with a selfish boyfriend (he hasn't quite yet got rid of his old girlfriend yet) and is appears to going through the motions of her life joylessly. She's not really stuck with him actually, it's just that it's too much fuss to get rid of him. Until she meets Riko that is. She's a rather forward young woman and simply walks up and introduces herself to Haru because she is interested in her. She claims she isn't necessarily a lesbian as she doesn't care about someone being a man or a woman, just that they are of interest to her and she feels an attraction to them. Haru is somewhat apprehensive, but is also curious and contacts her to see her again. They hit it off first as friends and soon as a couple, but it's still all quite confusing for Haru (played wonderfully by Hikari Mitsushima who was equally fine in Sion Sono's crazily good "Love Exposure") as she tries to deal with her feelings for Riko, her boyfriend's continued presence and a freshman's own attraction to her.

The performances of the two leads and their characters are the strongest part of the film. Riko is pushy and becomes clingy while Haru is frustratingly unable to make any decisions, but there's a charm to the two of them that keeps the story alive. Which is lucky since there are many issues with the rest of the film. The low budget is a bit too readily apparent sometimes, but it's the heavy-handedness of the script and plot points that weighs the whole movie down. Riko is a prosthetics artist (she creates realistic new body parts for people "missing" something) and Haru certainly fits the bill even if all her physical parts are present. The issue with the film's presentation can be summed up in a single scene: while tossing their bottles of soda back and forth during an early "date" they laugh and giggle until one of the bottles is thrown high up in the air, the camera follows it up and as it reaches the crest of its arc it turns into a 2-headed dove.

Though there aren't that many magical occurrences like this in the film (except another beautifully rendered scene of the night sky appearing in a pool), it gives an indication of the subtlety, or lack thereof, at work. However, due to the charms of the characters, I was happy to focus on their progression and not worry so much about getting hit over the head.

I misssed the evenings's second film (a retrospective on master puppeteer Kihachiro Kawamoto via several short films), but was able to catch both of Friday's offerings. The first was Kenji Mizoguchi's 1933 silent film "The Water Magician" complete with a new musical score played live by local band Vowls. The show was magnificent and requires its own post that will follow later.

The second film of the evening was described as taking certain stylistic cues from Seijun Suzuki's 1950-60s output as well as Kinji Fukasaku's dynamic street level filmmaking. So as evidenced by my earlier comments, I was obviously looking forward to Island Of Dreams. Director Tetsuichiro Tsuta's debut feature doesn't crib directly from its influences (something that may throw you off initially if you go in with lofty expectations), but certainly has them as antecedents through its tone and approach. The "you're with the action" hand-held camera adds some energy to a plot that doesn't contain quite as much as you might have expected (an eco-terrorist blows up a small cabin in the woods and then sets his sights on larger targets) and bits of humour pop in and out (mostly via detective Terayama who is chasing the bomber). I particularly liked the moment when Terayama is running full tilt down the edge of river in pursuit with blaring high-paced music - until he begins to slow down from being out of shape and the music slows to his own pace.

The Island of Dreams from the title is also the name of a man-made island that is used to hold all the garbage that Tokyo spits out. The bomber - a young disillusioned man named Alan - works daily at the island and has come to hate the consume-and-dispose society that surrounds him. The environmental message is extraordinarily heavy-handed - including a club band's sappy dedicated song to Mother Earth - but given the film's Black and White look (filmed on 16mm) and ancestry, it fit reasonably well and didn't cause the usual rolling of eyes. It also ties in nicely with some magic realism that the film pulls in towards the end in quite lovely fashion.

Something new this year is the usage of the Jishu Eiga Room at the JCCC to present several experimental films. Throughout the day several selections are continuously looped, so there were ample opportunities to catch some really new directions. One of these films is Kazuhiro Goshima's hour-long Different Cities - a gorgeous walk through the different corridors and corners of a large city via the eyes of several characters who seem to be out of sync with their surroundings and have lost their ability to navigate them. Whether it's the couple on an expressway with no exits and surrounded by incredibly tall buildings or the woman who follows what appears to be an animal's tracks over, under and through a myriad of different sections, the film takes you through a variety of structures imposed on the city that seem to trap its denizens. And yet, it also shows the beauty of some of this architecture. One sequence of a young man walking through a series of different staircases is quite extraordinary. Goshima seems to have an eye for picking interesting angles and creating perfectly composed frames. It's a lovely work and one of my favourite films of the festival so far.

Another 5 films from the Saturday and Sunday schedule to come...

Wednesday 7 July 2010

I'm Not Even Two Minutes In...

...and I already know that I'm going to love Return Of The Street Fighter, Shigehiro Ozawa's follow-up to The Streetfighter - both of which come from 1974 and star the most supremely excellent Sonny Chiba.

The initial setup of the film has Sonny requesting double his normal fee after being asked to "take care of" a couple of embezzling accountants (one of them in police custody). In order to get into the area where one of the accountants is being held, he purposely speeds off on his motorcycle to get the cops after him. He magically leaps his cycle over a crash in front of him, screeches to a halt in front of a set of embassy gates, somersaults over the high fence in one smooth movement and engages in hand-to-hand combat with a multitude of easy prey (while wearing a coat only he could make look cool). Watch out for the "duck from under helmet before pummeling guy left holding it" move. Sweet.

I can't wait to see the rest...

Update Note: 8 minutes in - a character in a movie theatre is watching one of Kinji Fukasaku's The Yakuza Papers films (you can't miss that terrific theme music). Awesome.