After Life (review)

Re-blogged from


Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life is a compelling film. It begins with the premise that when we die we go to a facility for a week where the staff helps us select a single memory with which we will live for all eternity. Once we choose, the staff stages and films a representation of that moment using improvised sets and actors. Then at the end of the week, we watch the film recreation on screen and when it is over we simply disappear, to live with that memory forever. Those who are unable (or unwilling) to choose a memory stay on as facility staff to help others until they too make a decision.

It makes sense that a film about filming life is visually fascinating. The main narrative portions of the film were photographed in 16mm by documentary cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, while still photographer Sukita Masayoshi filmed the memory sequences using unique combinations of black and white, color, and very grainy 8mm film. After Life juxtaposes different visual styles. In some scenes there are establishing shots and long takes (“pillow shots”) that are almost photographic, and the film is full of pauses and lingering moments that give us time to reflect just like the characters are doing. During interviews with the deceased Kore-eda employs a fixed documentary camera, while during many scenes we follow the caseworkers through the unsteady lens of a handheld camera.


Kore-eda slowly reveals the film’s mysteries for us. Gradually we learn that everyone is dead, that the caseworkers refused to choose a memory, and that they have their own stories, longings, and regrets. The ordinariness of it all is striking. We see fairly typical Japanese office behavior unfolding in a cold, dusty, shabby, dreary office building. But with great skill Kore-era makes the ordinary utterly fascinating. After Life refuses to indulge in comfortable clichés about memory, even when the staff members try to prompt new arrivals to focus on clichéd moments. Saccharine shortcuts just won’t do. Memories, it turns out, are not primarily visual experiences. They are not replicas of what took place through the eyes of an earlier self. Memories are emotional states that only become manifest through the act of talking about them. Different cues help reproduce these past experiences in the present: weather, food, smells, objects, and especially sounds. As viewers we first rebel against what seem to be hopelessly inadequate stage sets when the staff films each person’s memory. How could people possibly mistake these recreations for the real thing? But that is part of Kore-eda’s point, I think. The film set is simply a springboard to a remembered emotional state.

After Life works against the idea that a faithful memory is an exact replica of what we remember seeing in other ways as well. The film is a showcase for “obsolete” technology. The offices have old rotary phones, piles of books, and no computers. The film technology that records memories is videotapes, and caseworkers can order stacks of grainy VCR tapes that contain imperfectly captured past experiences. Kore-eda seems to be saying that technological wizardry cannot reproduce life as it was, and that in our quest for visual perfection we may have focused too much on verisimilitude and not enough on the emotional content of our lives. After Life is a superb and absorbing film.


Empire of Passion (review)

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When is a ghost story not a ghost story? This is the question that kept coming to mind as I watched Nagisa Ôshima’s lone foray into the kaidan genre of Japanese ghost stories. Empire of Passion is based on an actual report: the murder of a rickshaw driver by his wife and her young lover in a remote village in late 19th-century Japan. The film begins with a classic kaidan setup of sexual transgression and murder, which produces a ghost who we expect will return to wreak vengeance. Gisaburo is an ordinary rickshaw puller who is faithfully served by his wife Seki until she becomes infatuated, raped, then falls in love with an ex-soldier named Toyoji who comes to the village. Toyoji is 26 years her junior, and becomes sexually obsessed with the older woman. They strangle Gisaburo as he lies in a drunken stupor, then throw his body in a well and begin a secret affair while pretending that Gisaburo has gone to Tokyo to find work.

So far, so good – ghost story expectations met enjoyably. But when Gisaburo inevitably returns as a ghost, he does not want vengeance at all. As in life, as a ghost Gisaburo only wants the comfort of clean clothes, warmth, food, shochu to drink, and to go home with Seki. He continues to pull his apparition rickshaw, and its ever-turning wheel is a potent symbol of the futility of endless work, village life, and the static. For a while it seems as if Empire of Passion is going to be about the mundane horror of being deprived of everyday life: food, companionship, home. Seki too is tormented by something ordinary, which in her case is being alone. When a police officer from outside the village arrives to investigate rumors of a murder and a ghost, Toyoji and Seki must stop seeing each other. She is nearly driven mad by the separation and loneliness, and at one point even wants to go with the ghost Gisaburo rather than be left alone. To die is preferable, and in one scene she refuses to leave her burning home to save herself before being rescued.


Knowing how the film is likely to end doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Toyoji kills again to silence a witness who saw him repeatedly throwing leaves down the well where the body is hidden. Seki convinces Toyoji to try and get the body out of the well to hide it, which gives us the film’s one true moment of horror. The pair descend down an orifice-like well and dig through an excremental soup to try and find the body. Gisaburo appears above and drops leaves on them as if they were the dead, then sends bamboo shoots that pierce Seki’s eyes and make her blind. The pair manage to return home to be seized by Officer Hotta, the buffoonish police officer. A strikingly beautiful scene finds the two sitting naked in each other’s arms surrounded by rays of light. They are hung from a tree and beaten until they confess, then taken away and executed.

Empire of Passion is really a story of sexual taboo masquerading as a ghost story. Adultery, masochism, and sexual obsession rule Seki and Toyoji’s lives. It is unclear if Ôshima wanted us to consider transgressive sexuality as politically liberating, but he certainly shows us primal desires thwarted not by a ghost, but by the Japanese state and its enforced morality. This is no surprise, perhaps, given that the director’s previous film In the Realm of the Senses was banned for being sexually explicit. These questions aside, Empire of Passion is masterful because of how Ôshima uses cinematography to dramatize structural oppositions – inside vs. outside; warm vs. cold, responsibility vs. choice, trapped vs. free, village vs. state – at the same time that he remakes the kaidan genre and challenges us to think about the limits and norms of acceptable sexuality.


I Live in Fear (review)

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Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 meditation on the fear of imminent nuclear war flopped at the box office, was released internationally only years later, and remains one of his least-known films. It was sandwiched chronologically between Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, both great triumphs. I Live in Fear also stars Toshiro Mifune, but this time as an aging industrialist (Kiichi Nakajima) rather than as a jidaigeki samurai. Still, Mifune remains Mifune: intense, emotional, and constantly in motion. We never see Nakajima looking at the camera. His restlessness is a physical analog to his psychic turmoil.

Nakajima’s turmoil comes from two sources, and there are really two films in one here. The overt subject of the film and source of anxiety is the threat of nuclear war. A decade before 1955, of course, the United States had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fear of nuclear war was more real and its potential consequences more tangible in Japan than anywhere else. The film begins just after Nakajima’s wife has petitioned to have him declared mentally incompetent because he “harbored delusional fears about atomic and hydrogen bombs and subsequent radioactivity” and put in motion plans to move his entire family to Brazil, which he believed to be the only safe refuge from fallout in the event of nuclear war. Everyone is afraid of nuclear war, it turns out, but remain calm because they can’t do anything about it. In between domestic scenes Kurosawa shows us takes of normal urban life, of people going about their lives as if there is no looming threat. The question of who is being irrational, Nakajima or everyone else, is something Kurosawa never really answers. We watch through the eyes of Dr. Harada, a court-appointed mediator played by another Kurosawa favorite, Takashi Shimura. Nakajima’s “family” turns out to be complicated – he wants his illegitimate son from a woman who has passed away, two current mistresses and illegitimate child by each of them, as well as his legal wife and their three children and spouses all to come to Brazil. Ultimately the court declares him incompetent not because they think his anxiety irrational, but because he proposes to sell his property and force his family to move to Brazil or be left destitute.


The second film in I Live in Fear that Kurosawa gives us is about the fate of patriarchy in modern Japanese society. Nakajima’s seething anger comes from the unprecedented challenge to his authority by his children. It becomes clear that what he fears most is powerlessness, whether from the court’s actions or from his inability to do anything to assuage his fear of H-bombs. The disintegration of Nakajima’s authority over his family is parallel to the potential destruction of the world. In one scene the sounds of fighter jets screeching overhead induce an imagined nuclear flash and a panic attack. He believes that distant bomb tests even control the weather. Nakajima collapses from exhaustion, but recovers enough to deliberately burn down his foundry to force his family to move to Brazil. He is arrested for arson, has a total mental breakdown from his double emasculation, and ends the film insane and institutionalized.

Beyond the twin plots, I Live in Fear is most enjoyable because of the acting. Kurosawa gives his veteran cast time and freedom to communicate internal feelings with facial expressions and body language rather than dialogue. The film is about gestures, about how people communicate wordlessly. There are long takes with no dialogue or music. Kurosawa heightens this in key scenes by placing the camera low and directly behind the main speaker, so that we look at his audience watching him. It creates a suspense and tension more tangible for an audience today than the more extreme fear of nuclear war or social collapse that haunts Nakajima.

The Year of Living Dangerously (review)

Re-blogged from JapanCinema


Peter Weir’s film about a reporter caught up in the social unrest and violence of Indonesia in the fall of 1965 was released 30 years ago. With all eyes turned to this period by Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable documentary The Act of Killing, watching The Year of Living Dangerously makes a fine counterpoint. Through the eyes of Billy Kwan (played by the remarkable Linda Hunt), who is both the film’s narrator and chief supporting actor, we follow a young and naïve Mel Gibson playing a young and naïve Australian reporter, Guy Hamilton, dropped into his first overseas posting. He becomes involved with a British attaché (Sigourney Weaver), stumbles around being manipulated by Kwan, and eventually gets caught in a riot and almost killed as the violence began to erupt.

Weir’s Indonesia is suitably dark, mysterious, and troubled. If his goal was to capture the mood of a place and time that was difficult to grasp, Weir did superbly. By 1965 President Sukarno – hero of the national revolution for independence – had parlayed his remarkable charisma and dynamism into a position of international leadership. But Indonesia was a society riven by faltering efforts to democratize, develop economically, fight poverty, and contain radically different solutions to the nation’s many problems. Sukarno tried to balance and play off against each other the powerful Indonesian army, large Islamic groups, and the communists. The Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, was the 3rd largest communist party in the world, and the most impatient at the pace of social change. Hamilton’s break in the film is an exclusive interview with Aidit, the leader of the PKI, courtesy of Kwan’s communist contacts. Hamilton is witness to the collapse of this fragile balancing act, though he understands none of it. An attempted coup on September 30th coup blaming the communists led to the orgy of murder which Oppenheimer exposes and which claimed over 500,000 lives and eradicated communism in Indonesia. None of it made much sense to observers at the time, and it took years to unravel the trail of events – from this perspective Hamilton is a perfect surrogate for our ignorance.


Beyond the political drama, however, Weir offers us an interesting tale about the photographic gaze. The film is filled with references to the act of seeing: rear-view mirrors, reflective sunglasses, cameras. The camera frequently gazes up from Kwan’s point of view, and in fact Hamilton – not much more than a country bumpkin – is just a foil for the culturally sophisticated and intellectually refined Kwan. Photographer, keeper of dossiers, secret caretaker of the poor, communist sympathizer, Kwan views himself as the one who is able to see all. He is the puppetmaster who uses what he sees to manipulate and maneuver others. But in the end his gaze fails, just as cameras cannot truly capture realty. Kwan gazes and records, but ultimately is impotent, a prisoner of his own fantasy world of secret photographs, hidden files, mistaken characterizations. The ability to see, and to think that by seeing we can control, or even learn, is revealed as powerlessness in the face of terrible poverty, ignorant violence, and corrupted revolution.

Lest we miss the point, Kwan is killed for revealing an anti-Sukarno banner for others to see and Hamilton is clubbed by a soldier and nearly loses his sight. Fleeing one-eyed to the airport, Hamilton makes it to the plane and his lover’s arms as martial law is declared. But there is no happy ending here. For a melodrama, The Year of Living Dangerously becomes a meditation on the death of romance, 1965 followed by the Army’s counter idealism, youth, and hope. Words and eyes fail. It is an engaging if despairing film about a country that is all too often off our global radar, and one which sets the stage for the bloodshed to come in The Act of Killing.

The Insect Woman (review)

Re-Blogged from JapanCinema


Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman follows the life of Tomé, a woman born in a rural village who eventually finds her way to Tokyo before returning to the countryside at the film’s end. Released fifty years ago, The Insect Woman was an important film in the developing Japanese new wave cinema embodied by young directors like Imamura. The film can be seen as a response to Imamura’s one-time mentor Ozu, whose precise and formal style represented the quintessential Japanese film aesthetic that prevailed at the time.

The opening scene shows a beetle struggling to cross difficult terrain. After this we witness Tomé’s own birth in impoverished rural Japan. Imamura does not romanticize village life; the people are loutish and bawdy, but also pragmatic. Tomé is illegitimate, and there are repeated echoes of incest and troubling father-daughter relationships throughout the film. The meaning of marriage is unclear. The Insect Woman’s life is a struggle, and like an insect she advances through her life with tenacity. She goes from mill worker, to maid, to prostitute, to brothel madam, and then in one of the cycles that marks Imamura’s work, devolves back to cleaning woman before leaving the city just as she had arrived. Her daughter Nobuku supplants Tomé, just as Tomé herself supplanted the brothel madam Suma. Imamura takes delight in repeating scenes and dialog with different characters, such as when Tomé manipulates a reluctant call girl named Midori precisely as she herself was manipulated by Madam Suma. The film’s final scene shows Tomé struggling like an insect to climb a mountain in, brought low and older but otherwise unchanged by her life.


Criterion has done a beautiful job restoring the film. Unusually for its time, Imamura shot The Insect Woman entirely on location rather than on studio sets. This restricted his options in terms of lighting and lens work, and Imamura made the most of high contrast lighting, dramatic overhead shots, and unexpected freeze frames. The film’s style is marked by long takes with fixed camera positions and closeups that let actors move in and out of the frame, horizontally and vertically. There are strong contrasts between foreground and background figures, and we frequently see movement in one plane and not in the other. Watching the film makes me feel like I am sitting with Imamura as he experiments and innovates on the fly.

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A nice surprise is that Imamura did not use Tome’s story to make grand pronouncements about Japanese society. The film plays out loosely against major historical events without trying to make an awkward parallel between her life and Japanese history. The plot is enjoyably lean, and waxes neither melodramatic nor philosophical. If the film has a message, it is that life is a struggle and women in particular do what they must as opportunities present themselves. “Mama, what other way is there?” Noboku asks Tomé. The Insect Woman is an unvarnished, almost documentary examination about how a woman experienced and moved through her environment. She experiences no obligatory personal growth, psychological change, or character development as a result of events in her life. The Insect Woman is a key film marking a transition in Japanese cinema, but maybe more importantly it is just a wonderful chance to watch a filmmaker creatively experimenting with his medium. Recommended.