Review: Martin Eden

I haven’t read Jack London’s novel, which is supposedly an autobiographical affair outlining his genesis as a writer, but based on his other writings that I have read and the general tenor of autobiographical novels by writers, I can probably guess what the main theme is: the triumph of the individual sensibility over that of the crowd, and the suffering that comes with it. Pietro Marcello relocates the book’s setting from Oakland to Naples in a time that feels as if it’s early to mid-20th century (but since there are no references to any world wars, it may simply be a time out of mind). Martin (Luca Marinelli) is a sailor, a proletarian by birth who is uneducated but hungry for knowledge. He meets the socialite Elena (Jessica Cressy) after saving her brother from a beating, and develops a crush both on her and her bourgeois living situation. After a conversation with Elena about the poet Baudelaire, he decides to become a writer in a language, Italian, he’s not fluent in. Martin’s mission is simple and almost sad in its trite dramatic essence. He wants the respect of the better classes, initially so that he can marry Ruth, since her parents can barely remain in the same room with him, but inevitably so he can get revenge on his own lowly past.

Naturally, Martin’s quest clashes with the actual realities of a life lived for art, not to mention the kind of self-awareness that attends the accumulation of knowledge. At first, Martin’s dedication to work rather than craft—he even buys a typewriter—is pathetic, and the film piles one visual cliche onto another, showing him typing, reading intently, looking out his window at the sky, brooding to beat the band. As he improves in both intellect and senstivity, he comes to hate the rich while at the same time growing farther from his working class background. He becomes a socialist, a pretty articulate one, in fact, but loses sight of socialism’s egalitarian purpose.

London supposedly wanted to explore the distinctions between his own hatred of capitalist striving and the success with which the system had rewarded him as a writer. Martin Eden takes this idea to its natural conclusion, by showing the protagonist using his celebrity to damn those who would presume to “make” him great, and in that regard, it makes a kind of perverted sense that it takes place in Italy during a time that looks as if it produced the great neorealist films of the mid-20th century. (London’s book took place at the very beginning of the 20th century) Marcello even includes actual film clips from such movies, not to mention historical footage, throughout the movie as a kind of leitmotif to remind us how we’re supposed to be taking it all in. In the end, this sort of gambit just adds to the confusion of what such a gorgeously shot and structured movie is supposed to tell us about the life of the mind in a world where only some people are allowed such a thing. London’s story is not the best vehicle for exploring political truths, especially when you can’t really locate the setting in history. Martin not only abandons his values, but turns into something of a monster. That’s happened in Italy before, but I’m sure it didn’t happen this way.

In Italian. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Martin Eden home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Avventurosa-IBC Movie-Shellac Sud-BR-Arte

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Review: Vitalina Varela

There’s a subset of narrative film directors who work almost exclusively with non-professional actors, which may sound like an oxymoron since these performers are in all likelihood paid for their efforts, but in most cases they only appear in one movie and otherwise live lives that have nothing more to do with film. The Portuguese filmmaker, Pedro Costa, belongs to this group, but his methodology is even more refined. For 20 years he has focused on immigrants to Lisbon from the former Portuguese colony of Cabo Verde, off the Atlantic coast of Africa. More to the point, he centers his stories in a small, warren-like Lisbon slum where these people live their lives of quiet desperation, and while that sounds like a cliche, Costa’s use of space and narrative is highly unusual, not so much because it follows documentary procedures, but rather because it plucks its protagonists’ stories out of a strip of their lives as a means of illuminating what it’s like to pass most of one’s existence in the shadow of an alien culture.

His latest work is even more circumscribed. The titular character, who plays herself, is a woman in her 50s who has come to Lisbon to seek out the husband she hasn’t seen in several decades. She has heard that he is dying, and after emerging, confused and barefoot, from a commercial jet, seemingly the only passenger to disembark, she is met by strangers who understand her predicament, if only by association. They inform her, rather abruptly, that she is too late. Her husband is already dead, and she should return to Cabo Verde because “there is nothing for you here.”

That is an understatement. She stubbornly insists on seeing his tiny house, which contains next to nothing, and tries to arrange for some kind of wake or funeral to make sure his soul is conveyed to heaven. Most of the movie is taken up by these protracted and seemingly useless gestures toward convention, and Costa’s insistent use of natural lighting when there often, in fact, is no natural lighting at all in these tightly packed spaces sometimes makes it difficult for the viewer to make any sense of what the shapes and sounds add up to. Add the fact that all the people in the movie are dark-skinned and you basically spend most of your time distinguishing between various moving shadows.

Though Vitalina also played herself in Costa’s previous movie, Horse Money, there isn’t much continuity between the two films; or, at least, not as much to make any real difference in meaning. Near the end, he includes a flashback scene of Vitalina and her husband as newlyweds back in Cabo Verde, and it comes across as a concession to the viewer’s presumed exhaustion with what one critic calls Costa’s “funerary” aesthetic, but the real puzzle is why Costa, who is obviously fascinated with this group of immigrants and their lot, doesn’t explore their lives. There are obviously political forces at work keeping these people down, and while we don’t expect the director to be didactic about it, he’s obviously shrewd and intuitive enough to understand how to project their lives without a whole lot of exculpatory effort. I get it. The guy knows how to make film art out of the most meager resources. Much of this is stunning. But if it has some deeper meaning, it seems to be trapped in his head somewhere.

In Portuguese. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space, Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Vitalina Varela home page in Japanese

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Review: Bring Me Home

Bring Me Home is, I think, the third missing child movie I’ve seen this year, which, given the attenuated nature of my moviegoing pastime in the COVID era (I tend to watch TV series at home), practically makes it a subgenre. Compared to something more cerebral like the Spanish movie, Madre (opening here next month), this Korean thriller is pretty straightforward, and because it’s Korea it’s also more viscerally stimulating. First of all, there’s the social elements to contend with, which are always more potent in Korean movies, whether mainstream or indie. Then there’s the violence and emotional extremism, which is also a given in any Korean movie that even touches on criminal behavior. In other words, it’s quite a ride to begin with, and that isn’t even taking into account its questionably exploitative handling of children.

Jeong-yeon (Lee Young-ae) and her husband have been searching desperately for their son who went missing six years earlier. Though both have to a certain extent fallen back into routines of domesticity and work in order to avoid thinking too much of their lost boy, in their calmer moments they separately check the internet and bulletin boards for anything that might indicate he’s still alive. Inevitably, the accumulation of inquiries, regardless of how fruitless they seem, results in the husband receiving an anonymous message from someone who may have seen their son. While racing to confirm the intelligence in the message, he crashes his car and dies.

Insult is added to fatal injury when Jeong-yeon determines that the original messages were a hoax. But the accident makes the news, and the story of the missing boy is resuscitated by the media, leading to two developments that the first-time writer/director, Kim Seung-woo, handles with rare finesse, considering how difficult it could be to pull off without revealing too much. He introduces the employees of a police station in a remote fishing village who notice a resemblance between the missing boy pictured on the news and a local kid, but say nothing to anybody about it. At the same time, Jeong-yeon is hit up by a cruel opportunist who tries to exploit her pain for money. Not only does the resourceful but at this point extremely desperate woman foil the opportunist’s scheme, but learns that his information is reliable, since he is in the business of tracking down stolen children and exacting recompense for assistance in their return.

Suffice to say, that Jeong-yeon would rather tackle the problem alone, and she travels by herself to the fishing village. By this point, the viewer has come to understand that stealing children is not an isolated problem, that many traditional vocations, such as fishing and agricultural, are suffering a lack of manpower owing to South Korea’s falling birthrate, the lowest in the world right now. With this premise in mind, Jeong-yeon’s rapid descent into violent vengefulness becomes both understandable but no less repugnant. In essence, all the inhabitants of this particular village become complicit in the crimes described, and thus are disqualified for any sympathy we may have built up for their sorry lot in life.

This dramatic element is exaggerated by scenes in which children are made to do unspeakable things, thus letting Jeong-yeon off the hook for the unspeakable things she does as well. As always, the technical aspects are flawless and, since this is a Warner Bros. co-production, often breathtaking. And yet, the movie holds you at arm’s length. I think I would have preferred watching a documentary about the issue of child-stealing, if, in fact, it is a social problem as widespread as it’s depicted here.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Bring Me Home home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Warner Bros. Ent.

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Review: Hitsville: The Making of Motown

Right away, I should mention that this documentary about the pioneering Black-owned independent record label was authorized and to a certain extent supervised by Motown’s founder Berry Gordy. It’s essentially a PR gambit and looks like it. The narrative emphasis is on the label’s enormous success and historical importance, neither of which can be denied. Whatever frictions it covers are good-naturedly glossed over with a smile and/or a shrug, and some of the biggest surviving beneficiaries of Motown’s success, most conspicuously Diana Ross, don’t participate.

In other words, as a history, Hitsville is partial at best, but for those of us who grew up changed by the songs themselves it is, of course, indispensable, if only for the musical clips, some of which haven’t been shown publicly before. The focus is on the 1960s, when everything was still located in that funky little house in Detroit, and the filmmakers do take pains to show how the label fit into the social history of the times, taking in the civil rights movement and the racial strife that has always been America’s original sin. Gordy himself, looking unbelievably fit for a man in his 90s, is on hand for most of the interviews and steers them in the direction he wants, concentrating on the admirably efficient and effective assembly line system of record-making. In several scenes he mixes it up with an equally spry Smokey Robinson, who comes off as the single most characteristic and valuable musical cog in the Motown machine, mainly by default since Marvin Gaye is not around to put in his own claim for that distinction. Both men explain much of the previously unseen footage about specific sessions, and if, say, they probably spend a little too much time on a song like “My Girl,” singling it out as probably the most revolutionary thing produced at the label, they do manage to drop as many important names as possible to make their point. Generally, the operative word during this legendary time was “competition,” since songwriters and producers were pitted against one another on purpose in order to come up with the most indelible hits, and it obviously worked. Motown not only outperformed the Beatles, but became one of the Beatles’ most important influences while they were working at their own peak.

Too much time is wasted going over well-trod ground — the riches of jazz musicianship in the label’s house band, the Funk Brothers, the sales agent who everyone thought was a mafia connection, the earthquake in shades known as Stevie Wonder who became his own industry within the label before he was old enough to drink — thus making the lesser known tidbits that much more enticing. I definitely wanted to hear more about Gaye’s problems trying to sell “What’s Going On” to Gordy, Diana Ross’s diva eruptions, and what prompted the great writing/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to split the label to form their own company, which, by what I could ascertain, was not very successful. The history pretty much ends when Motown makes the inevitable move to Los Angeles, though much was still in store for the main players in the late 70s and even part of the 80s. Frankly, I’m not sure a movie like this, devised to sell Gordy’s legacy, is really necessary, and someday someone will do the subject justice, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it, and unless you’re totally averse to nostalgia (or under the age of 40) you probably will, too.

Opens Sept. 18 in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Hitsville: The Making of Motown home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Motown Film Limited

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BIFF2020: Press Conference

Last week, the organizers of the 25th annual Busan International Film Festival announced somewhat abruptly that the festival, originally scheduled to take place Oct. 7-16, would be postponed for two weeks and would instead begin on Oct. 21. It has already been decided and announced that, due to the COVID crisis, the size of Asia’s biggest film event would be scaled back considerably. For one thing, there would be no foreign guests in attendance due to government rules stipulating a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering South Korea. That includes, of course, the usual invited press, of which I have been a member since 2001. It also means that most if not all the non-Korean filmmakers whose works will be shown at the festival will not be able to attend in person. However, the organizers were, and still are, intent on having a live event, with real people attending screenings in real theaters, because that is what a film festival is about and BIFF considers itself a real film festival, i.e., one for the local fans. The two-week postponement was implemented because of uncertainty over the Chuseok holiday period in the first week of October, when many Koreans visit family and friends. The fear is that such activities could result in another spike in infections. If that happens, the two-week lag time might be enough to flatten the curve.

But even that is not certain, and the main message of the first press conference that took place Sept. 14 via the Zoom conferencing app is that the festival could very well still be cancelled, depending on the situation following the holiday period. Festival Director Jay Jeon, Chairman Lee Yang-kwan, and Program Director Nam Dong-chul answered reporters’ questions online after announcing the lineup of films and providing a general overview of the festival. As expected, the roster of films has been cut considerably, from the usual 300 or so to 192. However, the usual sections are all still in tact, with one rather striking addition: a large selection of films invited to the cancelled Cannes Film Festival will be screened, including Francis Lee’s Ammonite, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, and a revival of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The opening film will be the omnibus Septet: The Story of Hong Kong, with contributions from Hark Tsui, Sammo Hung, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam, and others. The closing film will be the Japanese animated feature, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, directed by Kotaro Tamura. In fact, Japan, as usual, is perhaps the best represented non-Korean country at this year’s festival, with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Venice winner Wife of a Spy and Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers in the Gala Presentation section; Kazuo Hara’s Minamata Mandala in the Icons section; Yuya Ishii’s All the Things We Never Said, Shinji Aoyama’s Living in the Sky, Shuichi Okita’s Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone, and Bunji Sotoyama’s Soiree in the Window on Asian Cinema section; Yujiro Harumoto’s A Balance in the New Currents section; Keisuke Toyoshima’s Mishima: The Last Debate in the Documentary Competition section; and Ryota Nakano’s The Asadas in the Open Cinema section. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Sept. 13, 2020

Honda e

Here’s this week’s Media Mix column, which is about Japan’s response to the Green Recovery movement. As pointed out near the end, the Japanese media will cover environmental issues but rarely links that coverage to Japanese business practices since anything that’s perceived as being bad for business is also seen as being bad for media companies. The automobile industry is one of the biggest advertisers in Japan in terms of money spent, which explains why the Honda e’s rollout was covered so breathlessly in the press despite the fact that the car maker doesn’t expect to sell many in Japan. Essentially, this coverage has two purposes: it gives Honda free brand publicity, and it sends a message to the world that the company is working, however grudgingly, on cars that are less polluting. This latter point is important, especially right now. A recent climate study found that SUVs are the second biggest contributor of emissions in the world, after power plants. Sales of SUVs are driven by cheaper gasoline prices, and despite their obvious unsuitability to driving conditions in Japan, where roads are narrower and traffic more congested, they are very popular here as well. However, so are mini-cars (kei jidosha), whose appeal is that they are smaller and use less fuel. Obviously, there is no real coherent logic to car purchases in Japan, and car makers sell whatever they think they can get away with. SUVs have higher profit margins than do mini-cars, and as long as gasoline is not too expensive, there’s no reason to try to steer people toward electric vehicles. And while the press does report that Japanese people aren’t fond of EVs, they never really try to figure out why, thus making it seem to be merely a matter of taste.

In a sense, this is strange, since Japanese car makers are intent on overseas markets where governments are implementing regulations (not just incentives) that discourage the use of fossil fuels. As pointed out in the column, the Honda e is really being made for Europe, as was the world’s first mass produced EV, the Nissan Leaf. Mazda will soon start selling an electric vehicle in the EU (in Japan it will only be available as a lease), and even Toyota, which has so far eschewed electric cars in favor of developing hydrogen cars as its environmentally friendly option, will market an EV, but only for two people. None of these cars will target Japanese consumers in any significant way, which could be construed as just common business sense. But then you look at South Korea, where Hyundai and Kia are aggressively developing EVs for both overseas and their own market with the express idea of appealing to the public’s desire to be more proactive about environmental concerns. Yonhap News reports that Hyundai is planning to invest a huge amount of money in EV development over the next 5 years, while Toyota, which still doesn’t have a solid state battery of its own, looks upon EVs as a kind of nuisance, the same way a white-shoe law firm would look upon its requirement to provide a minimum of pro bono representation.

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Media Mix, Sept. 6, 2020

Koichi Nakano

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about TV Asahi’s recent departure from the Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers Unions. In the column, I distinguish the federation, known as Minpororen, from MIC Union, an umbrella union that represents workers in the media, information, and culture industries. At the moment, the general secretary of MIC is Akira Minami, the leader of the newspaper workers union. Minami is also an employee of the Asahi Shimbun, and though he seems to be taking a sabbatical from reporting, he is one of Japan’s most famous investigative journalists, which is probably why he became personally involved in the plight of the laid-off contract staff of Hodo Station, TV Asahi’s flagship news program and a ground-breaking news shows in the history of Japanese broadcasting. Minami is one of the few Japanese journalists who has reported extensively on the cordial relationship between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and major media outlets and how that relationship has undermined the press’s watchdog responsibilities. Hodo Station also looked at this relationship, perhaps less intensely, and for years, apparently, the management of TV Asahi has been uncomfortable with the reporting since their own executives were said to be complicit in the cordial realtionship, which is centered on wining-and-dining.

This is a particularly fraught issue right now because, according to various freelance journalists making the rounds of the internet discussion shows, talking about the probable ascension of Yoshihide Suga to the premiership in the wake of Shinzo Abe’s resignation, Suga was the architect of the LDP’s scheme to buddy up to the media and, in turn, weaken their confrontational approach to power. It wasn’t just Suga’s post as chief cabinet secretary, with its main task of briefing the press on the matters of the day. He himself actively wined-and-dined journalists and, more importantly, their bosses in a concerted effort to get the press to go easy on the government in terms of both policy and any bumps on the road to their fulfilling Abe’s mission. And by all indications he has been successful. Shigeaki Koga, the former METI bureaucrat and frequent media foil for the Abe bunch, has said that Suga was instrumental in getting him fired as a regular pundit on Hodo Station, so it’s natural to assume that Suga also had something to do, albeit indirectly, with the letting go of the veteran Hodo Station staff, which has annoyed the LDP for years. Getting rid of a pundit here or a producer there wasn’t going to do much to blunt the program’s aggressive thrust, which had been built into its brand since it debuted as News Station in 1985, so the only way for TV Asahi management to turn the show around was to get rid of everyone at the core of the production. It remains to be seen what the results will be.

But in a sense, Hodo Station and Akira Minami are so exceptional to the Japanese press world that it probably doesn’t make much difference what happens to them in the grand scheme of things. After Abe resigned, the press, both domestic and foreign, was generally filled with positive reviews of his long tenure. Two stark departures from this tendency was an op-ed in the New York Times by Sophia Univ. Professor Koichi Nakano and a Daily Beast piece by Jake Adelstein. Both took Abe to task for failing to accomplish much of anything that was beneficial to Japan rather than to the LDP, but, more importantly, the two writers suggested that Abe had probably broken the law. Adelstein’s prickly reporting style was easy for the Japanese media to ignore, but Nakano, a bilingual Japanese national with a long history of anti-establishment writing, can usually get his colleagues’ attention. However, according to a recent installment of the web program Videonews, the only mainstream media outlet that ran a Japanese translation of his New York Times piece was the Japanese language edition of Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean daily.

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Review: Forbidden Dream

Given the enormous output of the South Korean film industry, even during its occasionally fallow times, it’s not surprising that certain genres and subjects get covered to death. One is the storied Joseon Dynasty, when a good deal of what we know now as Korean culture developed. It was also a fraught time both politically and socially, as the class system that ruled the kingdom resulted in mass starvation and the tribute the court paid to their Ming overlords in China exacted a heavy price, especially in retrospect. In that regard, Hur Jin-ho’s Forbidden Dream is enormously ambitious. It attempts to be the last word not only on the Joseon Dynasty, but on movies about the Joseon Dynasty, even if it focuses on the relationship between two men.

These two men are formidable figures, however. King Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) is a man who seems to think too much about his responsibility as well as his place in history. He came to the throne after a blood bath that killed his father and practically destroyed his kingdom. His fealty to the Ming Dynasty is grudging at best, and, per the title, his own ambition is to make of his country an independent entity. His partner in this endeavor is presented as an impossible confederate. The slave Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) has demonstrated a self-taught talent in engineering, and his submission of a plan for a Rube Goldberg-style water clock through the auspices of the royal maintenance division intrigues the king, who orders it be realized in physical form. The result is revolutionary in that the kingdom now has a means of telling time at night and when the sun is not out. Sejong elevates Jang out of slave status and makes him a bureaucrat, much to the chagrin of other bureaucrats, who subsequently try to undermine Yang’s creative ambitions but to no avail, since the king recognizes these ambitions as dovetailing perfectly with his dreams. He quickly commissions his newest “inventor” to build a device for charting the heavens, an order that violates the dictates of the Chinese, whose explicit rule of heaven and earth is inviolable. The king’s purpose is at first practical — farmers of Joseon must follow the Chinese almanac and are thus unprepared for drought and other natural phenomenon — but ultimately ideological. Jang’s armillary proves that Joseon “time” is different from that authorized by Nanking, the capital of Ming. The king finally has something he and his subjects can call their own.

When it sticks to this historical vein, Forbidden Dream is compelling and enlightening, even though it’s obvious that much is speculation. Imagination gets the best of the production when it relies too much on the central relationship of Sejong and Jang, which gets practically matrimonial in its bromantic effusiveness. In a scene that will elicit either tears of empathy or howls of derision, Jang recreates the heavens for the king in his bedchamber by painting the paper doors black and poking holes in strategic spots to represent stars. Polaris is the king, and the bright star next to it, says the monarch with a tearful smile, is Jang. This relationship, naturally, must be tested to the extreme, and the script ties itself into knots temporally using a flashback-within-a-flashback structure that posits a near fatal accident involving a palanquin as the lever with which Jang’s fate is decided in the greater scheme of history. As often happens with Asian historical epics, the attendant court intrigue assumes the viewer has some understanding of the way ministers and their opposites think, and without such understanding the motivations feel weak. The biggest opportunity lost during this part of the film is the idea that the Korean writing system, Hangul, was invented by the king as inspired by Jang’s example. A syllabary exclusive to the Korean language was both revolutionary and heretical since it allowed all people, and not just the educated upper classes, to pursue literacy, and it distinguished Joseon from all other civilizations, including China’s.

In the end, it’s the movie’s emotional sincerity that fall flat, especially when considered in light of the care that Hur and his writers have put into the story, which shows dramatic verve and a lot of intelligence. There is too much time given over to Jang and Sejong making moony eyes at each other or squaring off in jealous rage. It’s great that these class distinctions can be so readily transcended, but a little of this goes a long way, and it’s a long movie to begin with.

In Korean and Chinese. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

Forbidden Dream home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2020 Lotte Entertainment

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Media Mix, Aug. 30, 2020

Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke in “Hanzawa Naoki 2”

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the popular TBS drama series, Hanzawa Naoki 2. As pointed out in the column, the dramatic elements of the production are purposely exaggerated, especially the acting, which is at least partially based on kabuki stylings. The fact that the production employs a number of well-known kabuki actors only points up this purposefulness, but as one of the experts I cite in the column, Kesako Matsui, told the Asahi Shimbun, kabuki actors often act in standard movies and TV dramas where they play standard characters without resorting to their particular gei (art). Here, as she notes, they are being asked to explicitly tap into their traditional skills as stage performers but for a visual medium that relies a great deal on intimacy. And as I stress, this aspect gives the whole project an air of ludicrousness. But I also think this ludicrousness is purposeful, because it plays up the artificiality of both the story and the production.

Artfulness is not exclusive to Japanese theater but in my experience it tends to have a higher value within the movie and TV industry owing to certain developments that have more to do with commerce than with art. I’ve always loved the classic Japanese films that every critic cites as fundamental to understanding the greatness of world cinema, but there are few Japanese movies, whether independent or studio-led, released after, say, the late 80s that give me as much pleasure, and for a long time I always thought it was a fault in my own stars, but now I think it may have something to do with this emphasis on artificiality. There are many great trained actors in Japan, but, as in Hollywood during its golden age, leading men and women are often cultivated as leading men and women, and thus scouted or selected due to attributes such as looks or charisma rather than their acting abilities. From the mid-90s almost all TV drama series in Japan employed pop music idols as stars for obvious reasons. (Not new; in the 60s and 70s many Japanese movie stars were also pop singers, but often they started out as movie stars) Given the logistical circumstances of TV productions in Japan—most series are put together and shot very quickly so as to keep costs down—preparation is not as important, and so actors have to do the best they can. Supporting actors in such productions tend to be professionals and they can be counted on to carry their weight, but the leads are often out of their depth, and they probably know it, so in order to come across as deserving of the responsibility thrust upon them by TV producers and their own talent agencies (which, in many cases, are collaborating with the producers directly on the shows) they overdo it. In other words, they act their asses off, and the effort shows.

Since this sort of thing is perhaps more acceptable in Japan because of the traditional dynamic between audience and performer as exemplified by kabuki, few people may find it as off-putting as I do. (There are idol-movie stars in Hollywood, too, best represented by Elvis Presley, but they tend to compensate for their lack of skills by going in the opposite direction, by assuming a kind of forced naturalism) Still, I think as an aesthetic it has come to permeate movies and TV dramas to the point where directors (or, at least, younger ones) expect it, and that generates a cycle of ever-more obvious artificiality. To put it bluntly, Japanese movies and TV dramas tend to focus on the kind of showmanship that is overly evident in Hanzawa Naoki 2 simply because it proves to the auidience that the actors, directors, and even the writers are working hard. It’s not enough to deliver a story that makes you think or appeals to your imagination, the production itself has to blow you away with the professionalism of it all. And you can’t show off your professionalism by holding back.

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Review: In Syria

Narrative films that take as their subject current affairs face a dilemma in terms of execution. How much of the story will be irrelevant or even incorrect in years to come? What sort of viewpoint should the direction take, or should a viewpoint be taken at all? In Syria, also called Insyriated (a made up word?) in some markets, is set during the early days of the Syrian civil war, which was almost a decade ago, so in a sense the Belgian director, Philippe Van Leeuw, has some leeway with historical distance in making his decision as to how to approach the conflict, and he has chosen to generalize the circumstances as to lose any specific idea of how the war came about and how it is being fought. Essentially, this is a movie about “all war,” and while that approach doesn’t detract from the film’s dramatic power it does make it that much less convincing as a historical document.

The entire film is set within a Damascus apartment that is under siege by default due to the presence in the neighborhood of snipers. The apartment belongs to Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass), who has been left alone with her elderly father-in-law and three children by a husband whose purpose at being away is never clearly explained, though it obviously has something to do with the war. Oum has barricaded the front door, and in the process of shutting out the world has taken in her housekeeper, Delhani (Juliette Navis), her teenage daughter’s boyfriend, and a young neighbor couple with an infant. The couple, Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) and Halima (Diamond Abou Abboud), have access to egress to Beirut through a journalist friend of Samir’s, but he has to leave the apartment to retrieve papers that will get them over the border. This act becomes the focal point of the plot, since its outcome forces Oum to consider several different unpleasant scenarios. The one she chooses is ostensibly a no-brainer: she will do anything to protect her family. However, the decision that Van Leeuw makes in order to bring home this point is brutal in the extreme, exposing the savagery that attends warfare but without the kind of context that makes it meaningful in this particular situation. All we derive from the terrible middle section is that men (specifically Arab men) are capable of the most atrocious behavior when left to their own devices.

Perhaps Syrians who watch the film will understand enough of what’s going on to know why these events unfold as they do, but for the rest of us there’s a gaping hole that just grows wider as the story reaches its conclusion. Van Leeuw understands that too much exposition ruins the flow of a movie like this, which depends on the niceties of everyday existence within a larger crisis to maintain tension and interest. But all we really come away with is the old cliche about war being hell, especially for women.

In Arabic. Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall Suidobashi (03-3262-5252).

In Syria home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Altitude100-Liaison Cinematographique-Minds Meet-Ne a Beyrouth Films

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