Friday, June 28, 2013

Pitfall (Otoshiana) (1962)

Few films make you smile with its delightfully wry humour and at the same time punch you in the guts with its sheer intensity. Hiroshi Teshigahara's debut feature film "Pitfall" AKA "Otoshiana" (1962) is one of those films. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese mining industry in the 1960s, and its segregation into various factions and unions based on dissenting ideologies or differing loyalties to the powers that be, "Pitfall" dwells on the life (and death) of a simpleton mining labourer (Hisashi Igawa) who lives an almost wandering life with his little son. He moves from employer to employer, is a self-admitted deserter, but wishes to earn good money with his hard work.

A mining job offer in a nearby village, that lands in his lap in a rather strange and seemingly easy manner, leads him to an almost deserted place, with not a single soul nearby to even ask for directions. After finally stumbling upon a sole being in the entire town, a shopkeeper woman, he is led to a route across the desolate village, where he is pursued and murdered by a mysterious man clad in a white suit! It all takes a deliriously weird turn when the protagonist rises from the dead, and his ghost, a restless soul comes into being, in order to seek some answers….

Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kobo Abe, adapted from his own novel, makes an earnest attempt to create a sense of foreboding and an eerie emptiness, shot on an isolated location of empty dwellings. While visualizing Abe's story must've been a mighty challenging task, Teshigahara, with his inborn visual panache, captures bleak desolation and creates unsettling atmospherics like very few filmmakers manage, let alone, in a debut feature. There are long languid shots, full sweaty close-ups which were later improved upon in the follow up to this film "The Woman in the Dunes" (1964). Almost in equal doses are quick jump cuts, especially in the scenes focusing on the ghosts. All this amidst an almost metallic, discordant score by Toru Takemitsu that adds to the dreary mood. Once in a while the mood is lightened up with dark humour.

Teshigahara fuses neorealism with surrealism in a blend so homogeneous, neither aspect comes across as misplaced. The two facets meld seamlessly in this strange yet familiar tale, full of characters who are flesh-and-blood real, as well as their own, otherworldly ghostly selves who make appearances in the story's critical junctures. Just as the protagonist's ghost appears, he begins to see several people in the apparently empty village; but these people are his own kind; lost souls, the spirits of the oppressed dead, mostly miners, who probably could never rest in peace! It's a world right out of a classic ghost story set in contemporary times, where the dead and the living cohabit - an idea explored much later in films like "The Sixth Sense"(1999) and "The Others"(2001), albeit in the Hollywood culture of gimmicky story-telling. This in itself instantly catapults "Pitfall" to a status of a film way ahead of its time, a bold move, especially for a debut feature!

The character that triggers all the action, the mysterious killer appears more than once, in a single costume, like Death itself, rides a moped, delivers his lines in a deadpan voice and speaks through his droopy eyes. Who are his employers? Or is he his own?  Then there's the young son. The aimless, cold, kid, who prima facie doesn’t seem to share any special connection with his father. He just tags along. Initially nonchalant, he wanders about skinning innocent frogs and peeping through holes. It is only towards the end that he appears to be affected by the happenings around him. Always a mute spectator, his eventual breakdown scene highlighting his tiny visage is heartbreaking! The kid is terrified and puzzled. 

So are the ghosts of those killed. It is the kind of mystery, the solution to which one cannot see coming from a hundred miles away. As the mystery unfolds for the viewer, a complex plot surrounding union tiffs and conspiracies hatched by the brass comes to light, but does the ghost of the protagonist ever find out the truth behind his killing? "I will never be able to rest in peace until I find out", he laments. And indeed so; for who would gain from killing an insignificant labourer who's also a stranger to the place?

But Teshigahara is more interested in the inherent confusion and vagueness that results from the gaps between classes, their motives, the lack of communication and the purpose of their existence. He has said that this film is a documentary fantasy. He couldn't have described it more aptly. It is a strong statement on the exploitation of the poor and helpless at the hands of the powerful. In the beginning, some stock footage of real life mining disasters and accidents is shown in its painful entirety. The footage appears out of place, almost out of nowhere, as the protagonist ponders over the kind of life he is doomed to live. But it is not without purpose. The essence of this unique and complex story stems from this very musing. The relentless questioning by the ghosts, despite knowing that no living being can ever hear them, is a metaphor for how voices of the oppressed go unheard. Questions are never answered. Wishes are never fulfilled.

In the end, what "Pitfall" brings out is the futility of extreme human actions. If death is the end to everything, we all have the same destiny. What is gained through elaborate scheming and cutting throats? But it is usually too late to regret. Rifts, rivalries and several corpses and ghosts later, Teshigahara takes us towards the film's inevitable culmination with an ironic image; the shot of a bandana with the word "Unite" written on it, drowning down in the marsh….

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Passion (2012)

Holy smokes! What in the world was Brian De Palma, the maker of such acclaimed films as "Carrie" (1976) and "Scarface" (1983) smoking really!? "Passion" (2012) which deservedly got extremely limited release seems to lack any real passion, be it from its actors or its maker.

A sly advertising executive Christine (Rachel McAdams), with her glossy lipstick and over-the-top, bitchy mannerisms is as confused about her sexuality as she is arrogant with her subordinates. So while her employees are not facing her ire for not meeting deadlines, and while she is not busy having a masked, kinky romp with her hen-pecked lover Dirk (Paul Anderson), her assistant Isabelle, a horribly miscast Noomi Rapace with a horrendous fringe hairdo and a put-on accent, becomes the object of her lust. "Now I just want to be loved", Christine tells Isabelle in the back of the car as she proceeds to kiss her while a visibly confused Isabelle wonders what the hell is going on with Christine and also with the script.

An opportunity for Isabelle, at climbing the corporate ladder and upping her credibility as an Ad expert, is thwarted by Christine when she steals credit for one of Isabelle's major accomplishments. What follows are upsets, counter-actions, rivalries, humiliations, and a bizarre lesbian love triangle that is as half-baked as this film, with Isabelle's assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) joining as the third stand of the tripod. Poor Isabelle is at the center; lusted after by her boss as well as her assistant! What happens later? Well, this is a De Palma thriller. Against a "Psycho"-like soundtrack a similar knife-murder of Christine takes place. Isabelle is the immediate suspect. She even confesses to the killing. But what is the ultimate truth?

Well, the film and its screenplay, a remake (read: bastardization) of the Alain Corneau French thriller "Love Crime" aka "Crime D'Amour" (2010) is a sign of Brian De Palma finally going senile. How else do you explain the utter dabbler job that is "Passion", that takes much of the material from the French thriller, but waters it down to the level of almost pure garbage, devoid of any real thrills or logic! "Love Crime" wasn't much of a perfect film either, far from it, but at least it delivered as a decent, watchable thriller, with its believable performances, and events with a culmination that didn't entirely insult your intelligence. "Passion" is just a lackadaisical attempt at filmmaking, a real shame, coming from someone who has given us gripping thrillers like "Blow-out" (1981) in his heydays.

Apart from being a harebrained mystery, that "Passion" really isn't, to begin with, it gives ample reasons for the viewer to have fun with some laughs. Terrible dialog that is unintentionally hilarious, almost soap-operatic and delivered in a cheesy manner…"But you love me; you have to love me….please!" will have you in splits. Character intentions are meaningless and unconvincing, and the Police force more incompetent than a small child at doing their job! Gimmicky cinematic techniques like split-screen imagery that worked wonders in De Palma's own "Sisters"(1973), and did full justice to the intention of showcasing POV shots of a single event, are simply redundant here, and serve no purpose, except to give you watery eyes and a headache as you try to squint and comprehend the image.

Leaving out a number of key scenes and events in the original "Love Crime" reduces "Passion" to a crippled affair, that looks like a mystery story with gaping holes the size of craters, presumably written by a 5-year old. And perhaps De Palma had a "Sisters" hangover; adding an unnecessary and unaccomplished sub-plot (?) involving Christine's twin sister. Icing on this badly baked cake is the oh-so-terrible casting choices and fake accents that highlight the bad acting, especially from Noomi Rapace who impressed with her razor-sharp, confident performance in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2009). She is so awkward in this, you'll refuse to believe that the woman playing Isabelle's part is the same person! Rachel McAdams gets some parts right, but in the end, looks like a deep red lipstick smeared soap-operatic drama queen and overdoes her act, taking away the much needed realism from it. Karoline Herfurth, the third wheel, cannot do much to salvage the picture anyway.

One wonders if it was intentional but the lighting in the film appears to be completely out of place, with some scenes in the workplace, for example, that are supposed to take place during work hours appear to be happening at night, with dimly lit office spaces and an overall appearance that there has been a power outage in the premises! Whether De Palma intended these sequences to produce a hallucinatory, surreal effect is unclear. Strangest choice of lighting really, and one that still boggles the mind.

Sitting through this film with raised eyebrows is a task in itself as you wait for it to end, and it certainly fails to keep you at the edge of your seat. We are eventually taken to a culmination that is laughable to say the least. Brian De Palma's "Passion" is disappointing; a new low in filmmaking from a filmmaker who has otherwise been dependable. The man has fallen…hook, line and stinker!

Score: 3/10


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cold Fish (2010)

Sion Sono, the maker of 2005's ultra-twisted psychological horror, "Strange Circus", unveils another macabre offering from his vault of sickness, that is sure to benumb your senses with its relentless onslaught of unabashed brutality that is more emotional than visual.

Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) a timid, meek owner of a small tropical fish store dwells in a modest accommodation behind the store with his gorgeous young wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) and his teenage daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) from a previous marriage. Not surprisingly, Mitsuko and step-mother Taeko don't get along well and Mitsuko hates her father for marrying Taeko. Taeko is trapped in a marriage that seems to have stemmed from a hasty decision which she now presumably regrets, more so because of her caustic relationship with Mitsuko. It's one perfectly unhappy family!

Enter Mr. Murata (Denden) the shark of the story, a rich businessman with his kind words and constantly effervescent mannerisms. A chance occurrence leads to Murata saving Mitsuko from possible incarceration for shoplifting; a huge favor done to Shamoto's family, saving legal hassles and humiliation. Murata even goes so far as to offer Mitsuko a job in his own fish superstore in which he hires young salesgirls from troubled backgrounds to help them readjust to society or possibly to perk up his sales! He is assisted by his beautiful wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa).

But this is a Sion Sono film in the end. Altruism is just a facade and soon enough Murata's vested interests are revealed in all their ugliness. An indebted Shamoto and his family, who are now at Murata's mercy, soon find themselves caught in a circle of murder and bizarre promiscuity, escaping which seems to be a hopeless task...

From the word go, with its opening frame of Taeko against a pulsating score, Sono grabs the helm, holds it tight and doesn't let go until the very end, like some sadist holding a noose around your neck only barely making you breathless but not quite killing you as you kick and struggle to get a breather! Sono is a whiz at his art and with his taut screenplay and compelling storytelling, tells a tale that is downright ugly, and yet manages to captivate us, eventually turning us into monstrous voyeurs who actually take immense pleasure in watching his film. We feel wicked, like most of the totally corrupt characters in the film, the cold fish that he has unleashed upon us, but we don't want to let go or take our eyes off the screen and hence follow Sono all the way through this vile tunnel.

Trying to rationalize human behavior is futile in Sono's film. There don't seem to be any sane humans around in his world. "Strange Circus" was trippy and surreal, with the story told from the perspective of the mind of an individual and hence the outlandishness is somewhat, for lack of a better word, assumed, and not too tough to lap up. But the world in "Cold Fish" is entirely real and therefore watching it is a more disturbing experience than "Strange Circus" despite the theme being tamer in comparison. What makes it more real is that some of the happenings are inspired by true events as Sono declares in the beginning! With nary a sound character in the film, any little hope that one may have from any single character is thwarted when the character behaves in a manner that would shame the most morally depraved of individuals!

We find ourselves pitying poor Shamoto as he is constantly bullied, badgered and humiliated. We feel his helplessness and inability to act. We feel the frustration, thinking why things have to turn out so bad for him and we seethe in anger to see Murata mercilessly exploit Shamoto's predicament. But Sono likes to play with the mood and eventually we find ourselves breaking into nervous sweat in a climactic outburst when Shamoto is poked and pushed to the edge and becomes a tiger from a mouse in a fantastically hysterical display of acting in a masterfully directed scene.

Some pertinent questions are raised here, about standing up for one's own family, protecting the family's best interests and dealing with a problem, no matter how wrong the means! Shamoto comes face to face with a difficult question: does his cowardliness stem from his moral uprightness? In a subtle premonition to this event or perhaps in a display of irony or visual antithesis, one blink-and-you-miss frame shows a wimpy, shaken up Shamoto standing right next to a painting of a vicious tiger! The genius doesn't end here. In an impish move, the director juxtaposes the grisliest, most horrifying of scenes with dark humour to "lighten up the mood", as Murata says in one scene after accomplishing an especially cruel deed! Talk about cold conduct!

Sono has very skillfully directed this effective chiller that is "Cold Fish". It paints a pretty morbid picture of the insensitivity and coldness that could be a product of relentless provocation and trauma of the past. The film is brilliantly performed all the way, with especially sterling performances from Mitsuri Fukikoshi, Asuka Kurosawa and Denden who is always bursting with energy! A couple of minor flaws do cross the mind, specifically pertaining to character actions, but what else can one expect from psychologically damaged characters who can hardly think straight!

In all its hysterical, promiscuous, fetishist and violent splendour, Sion Sono's "Cold Fish" is a visceral masterpiece that, despite belonging to the same breed of modern Asian cinema that is mostly about extreme violence, deviant sexuality and bloody revenge, still stands out as one of the best in the crowd, simply as an exemplary work of real fine filmmaking. It is a gripping saga of the corruption of humanity and social disintegration. If you have the stomach for it, it is well worth your time and money to take this wildly thrilling, giddying trip to hell and back, the side effects of which, will take a considerable while to wear out.

Score: 10/10

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Woman in the Dunes (Suna No Onna) (1964)

An entomologist and school teacher, Jumpei (Eiji Okada), goes on a trip to the remote lands where the vast sand dunes are. He is there on a research cum pleasure trip to escape from the hustle-bustle of the city. He spends his time exploring the dunes, then traps and collects some sand bugs and insects in tiny containers and tubes that he carries with him.

After he misses the last bus to town, the village locals make him an offer to stay at a local home, which he readily accepts. Only the house is in a sand pit and requires a rope ladder to access. With a rather adventurous spirit, Jumpei ventures in to find that the house is inhabited by a solitary woman (Kyōko Kishida). Somewhat alarmed, but more tired and hungry, Jumpei quickly bonds with the woman over a delicious meal she cooks for him. After a broken sleep that night, Jumpei wakes up to a shocking reality. The ladder that lowered him is gone, and there is no other means of exit. The horrible truth then dawns upon him. In a bizarre arrangement by the village locals, Jumpei is expected to stay on with her forever and help her shovel sand from the pit and haul it up to the villagers above!

Still unable to accept the situation, a furious Jumpei demands answers but only gets some vague explanations in return. We, the audiences, are as dumbfounded as Jumpei is.

But this strange tale told in "The Woman in the Dunes", written by Kōbō Abe and directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara isn't about explanations or the reasoning behind the situation the protagonist has put himself in. It is more about the situation itself! It is rather, a metaphor for human existence and finding meaning in it. Jumpei is a researcher who desires to be listed in a field guide. This could be made possible if he finds a new variety of a particular insect.

This, he thinks is the purpose of his life; at least up until this point, before he finds himself trapped in a sand pit that has now become a microcosm of a self-sufficient universe within which he and the woman are expected to survive. At one point Jumpei questions the woman about the paradox in her existence. "Are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand?"

Jumpei eventually gives in, and co-operates, for any opposition to this scheme; any rebellion against the captors means no ration (food, supplies, water)! All that is left is to work, eat, sleep and have sex! The latter part comes with the package, apparently. When Jumpei wakes up that morning and before the brutal reality dawns upon him, he finds the woman sleeping naked on the floor, her body only slightly covered by sand blown in by the wind. He calls out to her; she is awake, but pretends to be asleep; just changes positions. Perhaps it is an indication that she is being offered to the man in return for his servitude?

At one point the woman mentions that her husband and daughter got killed in a sandstorm the year before. Could the husband be a man who was brought in in a similar manner? Jumpei keeps his hope alive, and continues to serve. Refusing to get licked by a bunch of natives, Jumpei tries everything in his power. He devises new schemes to escape. Whether success lies in store for Jumpei or not is an added impetus to glue us to our seats as the narrative unfolds in its deliberately paced, enchanting glory.

"The Woman in the Dunes" is said to be a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus, a king in Greek mythology who was condemned by the Gods to perform a task of rolling a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down again, then repeat the task! The situation reflects Jumpei's futile chore of shoveling up the sand, that only keeps reappearing; a never ending task that is meaningless. So is there any meaning left to life? Or is this constant cycle the new purpose of his existence? An existential crisis indeed! Jumpei's situation also reflects a very common predicament faced by many a man; a feeling of being trapped in a situation out of which there is no escape.

Shot in beautiful monochrome by Hiroshi Segawa, Teshigahara's film is full of striking, hallucinatory imagery. The director loves close-ups. Initially we see a single grain of sand in close-up, then we see how, it is in fact, an infinitesimal part of a large universe that is the sand dunes. The ever shape-shifting contours on the sand are beautifully captured. Later there are more close-ups; of Jumpei, the woman, their faces, their strands of hair, with visibly distinct grains of sand stuck on them! There are erotic overtones throughout. The attraction (possibly stemming from desperation) between the couple is evident, no matter how much Jumpei hates the situation he is in.

These images, some surreal ones and those of the desolate and hot sand dunes are complemented very well by a distant but eerie high-pitched hum in a spectacularly haunting psychedelic score by Toru Takemitsu. Also noteworthy is the use of natural lighting made more evident in a fantastic scene. It is established that there is a single lamp in the room. Jumpei sits with the lamp in the room that appears lit. He then exits the room with the lamp in his hand. As he goes outside, he takes the brightness of the room with him, as the room plunges into darkness, and the outside lights up!

Teshigahara, in his clever use of symbolism shows how Jumpei, in the beginning, takes great pleasure in seeing some bugs struggling to climb up in his slanted test-tube container and being pulled into the sand which isn't firm enough to hold it. He also pins his specimens in a box that holds all the bugs. In an ironic twist of fate, Jumpei finds himself in similar situations, in his numerous attempts at escaping, including the hopeless efforts of trying to scale the steep sand inclines of the pit and one frightening encounter with quicksand! In turn, he has become a specimen being watched by the villagers in the box that is the sand pit! In another ironic turn of events, Jumpei who earlier in the film scoffs at the woman's claims that sand has the ability to attract moisture, later finds that the joke's on him!

Towards the end as you root for our protagonist, you feel like you are engulfed in a blinding sandstorm that has a suffocating and claustrophobic effect. "The Woman in Dunes" is a miraculous film that ends with a twist in the culmination so overwhelmingly powerful, it will leave you dazed. It is difficult to forget that goose-bumpy feeling long after the final frame.

Score: 10/10

Friday, June 7, 2013

Onibaba (1964)

"The Hole…Deep and Dark - Its darkness has lasted since ancient times": A worded opening with an image of a large hole in the ground surrounded by some of the tallest blades of wavering grass open the film and make us wonder if we are watching a Japanese Horror B-film or a folklore ghost story, the kind our grandmas narrated to us as kids! Later, a soundtrack of Taiko drums and jazz music follows, that almost startles, but entices with its infectious rhythm. "Onibaba" (1964), then unfolds in its chilling and raw glory, and all preconceptions are shattered as it leaves an indelible impression on the viewer.

Based on a Shin Buddhist parable (not entirely wrong to use the word folklore then), "Onibaba", set in the war stricken 14th Century Japan tells the story of three individuals left to survive in the harsh world of hunger and poverty. While menfolk are sent off to battle, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her comely daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet while waiting for news from their man Kichi, her son and the younger woman's husband. They are reduced to stealing from lost and wounded soldiers, by sometimes killing them, in order to sell their armors and weapons to a local fence who exchanges the goods for food grains. The two women seem to find solace in each other in the big brutish world, but this equilibrium is disturbed when Hachi (Kei Sato) who went to war with Kichi escapes from the army, returns and declares that Kichi got killed in combat.

"Onibaba" is a simple tale, yet one that packs a mighty powerful punch with its potent underlying theme and rich symbolism. Kaneto Shindo showcases a universe in which man is stripped down to his most basic (literally!). The primary characters all live an animal-like life. Capture anything that is living and kill it, either to steal off it, or roast it on a fire to gorge on its flesh! In the end it all boils down to satisfying one's hunger. But Shindo's film focuses not only on the physiological hunger, but also the physical one! The ravenous appetite of the stomach is supplemented with a sexual appetite that is far too great, owing to a prolonged deprivation in such dangerous times of living on the edge! Excess of it can lead to a blinding effect and even the soundest of human minds can stray. Shindo’s characters are far from sound; at least two of them.

Hachi is anything but likeable but he makes for a compelling character of a lustful peasant who looks at the young wife of Kichi with hungry eyes and seems to have no remorse for his dead friend. The older woman is a tormented individual torn apart between sin and morality; a woman who hasn't had a man in several years. Sexually repressed but morally steadfast so far, she finds herself becoming a victim of ever increasing jealousy that stems from the attention her daughter-in-law gets from Hachi! 

The younger woman on the other hand, stands by her mother-in-law, is loyal to her husband, but after a while of mourning upon hearing of his death, lets lust overpower her sorrow and attempts to answer the opportunity that knocks in the form of the only living man around who shows interest in her! The sexual tension here is palpable; so is the smile tinged with guilty pleasure that appears on the younger woman's face whenever she hears Hachi's knocking. It is a fascinating display of traits that are at their convincing best, given the sorry condition these poor beings are forced to live with.

Shindo paints a believable picture of the era and its medieval lifestyle, with its casual nudity and raw sex; the latter not merely for titillation but to make us see and realize the hunger! He uses gorgeous chiaroscuro in stark black and white cinematography; an effect that is especially enhanced in the scenes shot in the dark, inside the hutments and also when it captures the actors' faces in close-ups. The actors do a terrific job as well, with Nobuko Otawa delivering the greatest performance in the film. 

The meticulous use of lighting gives off a rather eerie aura to every frame; something like a surreal painting or the artwork from a book of old ghost stories. Breathtaking images of the lush marshlands full of tall grass that sways in the wind gives an additional creepy effect; an unsettling feeling of an invisible ghost rustling through it! The aforementioned Taiko drum score is catchy and addictive, especially due to the racy drum beat interrupted by a staccato that ends with the sound effect akin to the muffled scream of someone suddenly pierced with a spear!

And then there is the mask! There is rarely anything quite so ugly and scary as the ominous mask in "Onibaba"! The mask, its grotesque and dramatic appearance and usage in the story is often said to be an influence of the Noh theatre. The mask, apart from being the most integral part of this story, is responsible for creating some nail-biting tension in the film that gradually builds to a crescendo and finally delivers to the ghastly climax which will leave you gasping for breath with its extraordinary intensity!

Kaneto Shindo's "Onibaba" is a terrifying psychological horror masterpiece that takes us to the deepest and darkest depths of depravity, envy and greed that plague the human mind and make demons out of men. To miss it would be a sin. Save yourself from hell…watch "Onibaba"!

Score: 10/10