Review: Cold War

According to Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something in the attempt. I don’t know which country the 62-year-old Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski currently calls home—he left his native land for England when he was 14—but since returning to Poland to make films earlier this decade he has come into his own as a filmmaker with a cinematic style and narrative voice that are so distinctive he will soon have graduate seminars dedicated to his output. The movies he directed in the UK were accomplished and unremarkable, and it’s likely he started making movies in Poland—black-and-white “art films” in the old boxy aspect ratio—to rejigger his mojo in late middle age. Ida (2013), his first genuinely Polish film, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Cold War, his second, was nominated for the same award and probably would have won if Roma hadn’t been released the same year. Though Poland has produced some great directors and inspiring films, this pair by Pawlikowski already feel like the last word on the postwar cultural situation in Eastern Europe.

It’s not just hindsight. Films like Ashes and Diamonds, produced temporally closer to the events they depict, have an immediacy that actually obscures the filmmakers’ message. Both Ida and Cold War are partly inspired by Pawlikowski’s family history, so there is an emotional connection that is real but measured. In Ida, the director struggled with the tension between his Catholic upbringing and his Jewish heritage, and Cold War equally struggles with his parents’ separation when he was young, a separation set in motion by the political circumstances of the time. If it’s less dramatically fraught than Ida, it may be because Pawlikowski doesn’t have the psychological wherewithal to confront directly the horrible choices his parents had to make.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is an accomplished musician who, in 1949, travels the countryside with his professional partner, an older woman named Irena (Agata Kulesza), and a kind of government-certified impresario named Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), in search of Poland’s folk music heritage. They record songs and singers and then form a choral group called Mazurek to teach them the songs and dances they have recorded. The auditions bring forth a cheeky young woman named Zula (Joanna Kulig), who after performing a duet with a friend of an old folk song is asked by Wiktor to sing something solo. She belts out a brassy show tune she once saw in a Soviet musical. Wiktor is smitten.

Cold War is their love story, and it’s a stormy one. Though Wiktor seems almost resigned when it’s revealed that Mazurek will mainly be a propaganda vehicle for the Soviet-controlled Polish Communist party apparatus (Irena, disgusted, quickly disappears from the movie), Zula, who is clearly the ensemble’s most vibrant member, becomes increasingly annoyed at the strictures placed on her artistry, if not her personality. It is she who suggests they escape to the West while the group is performing in East Berlin (1952, the wall won’t be built for at least 8 years), and while Wiktor agrees in a seeming half-hearted manner, he shows up for the rendezvous and ends up leaving on his own, because the mercurial Zula gets cold feet at the last minute.

The story jumps to 1954, Paris, where Wiktor plays jazz piano in a nightclub and lives in bohemian splendor with his free-loving French paramour. Zula visits him when Mazurek comes to town, and though it’s as if they were never apart, they don’t stay together. Zula cannot quite make the break, even if her dismay with the kind of kitsch she has to perform is palpable.

The movie continues in this elliptical manner, jumping years and locations—Yugoslavia, back to Paris, back to Poland—and Wiktor and Zula’s love for each other never tempers. If anything, the vicissitudes of holding on to your values, not to mention sanity, in the face of such nationalist self-annihilation, forces them to admit that they only have each other in this world. Their journey is not a happy one, even during an unusually prolonged period when both seem to be achieving the professional success they always wanted. What they don’t have is a place to call their own, because it’s been highjacked by brutes.

Much has been said of Cold War‘s look, its pristine monochrome textures and uncanny ability to isolate individuals in crowded settings (the change in expression on Zula’s face when she notices Wiktor sitting in the audience while she performs with Mazurek is one of the most startling things you will ever see in a movie), but these aspects are mostly gravy. It’s Wiktor and Zula, as both characters and physical objects, who hold you spellbound, and if the movie feels as if it needs to go deeper to do justice to their story, it may simply be that Pawlikowski couldn’t go that far. Some stories are just too painful to tell.

In Polish and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Humann Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Cold War home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Opus Films Sp. z o.o./Apocalypso Pictures Cold War Ltd./MK Productions/Arte France Cinema/The British Film Institute/Channel Four Television Corp./Canal+ Poland/EC1 Lodz/MazoweickiInstytutKultury/InstytucjaFilmowaSilesia Film/Kino Swiat/Wojewodzki Dom Kultury w Rzeszowie

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Media Mix, June 23, 2019

Gochipo, the mascot of the American pork exporters association

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about animal welfare, a topic we’ve written about before but usually in the context of cultural perception. What makes the subject particularly perplexing in Japan is the cognitive dissonance created when the cavalier and often cruel treatment of livestock is contrasted with the image of farm animals, especially those raised for meat, as being almost giddy about their own fate. Japanese advertisers have no problem with portraying these animals as being simultaneously delicious and cute. But it gets weirder. The other day I saw a tweet, by a non-Japanese person, I believe, about an advertisement the person saw on a Tokyo subway. The advertiser was American pork exporters and the ad was a drawing of cartoon pigs enjoying a barbecue of pork products. It was essentially a kind of cartoony Hieronymous Bosch pastisch of cannibalism. Regardless of the exporters association determination to penetrate the Japanese market, I am positive they didn’t come up with the idea of the ad. It was surely the work of the Japanese advertising company they hired, beause I’ve seen these kinds of ads before in Japan, though never as horrifically blatant. One smiling pig in the panorama was even wearing what looked like a sausage necklace.

The disconnect is not limited to advertising and the public arts. The column mentions the NHK drama “Natsu-zora,” about a dairy farm in Hokkaido in the 1940s and 50s. The milk cows are not just resources; they’re portrayed as part of the family. This happens on dairy farms in many countries, but in Japan this sort of communion with livestock extends to animals fated to be butchered at a young age. After the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011, there were many stories about cattle ranchers abandoning their animals, with tearful farmers expressing bottomless remorse about how they had to leave the animals they’d grown so attached to to fend for themselves. Most Japanese people took this remorse at face value, and the media got a lot of sentimental, melodramatic mileage out of it, but I just felt confusion. Even if these cows were dosed with radiation, they’d live longer on their own. Had the accident not occurred, they’d be on their way to the slaughterhouse as soon as they were big enough. The emotional outpouring doesn’t make any sense. When I’ve expressed this confusion to others, some have replied that it’s a kind of Buddhist thing: You appreciate the sacrifice that an animal makes for you, so there’s no real paradox here. Whales are a fairly good example. Japan kills whales for food and sets up memorials in whaling towns to the sea mammals themselves. The sailors pray for their souls at temples and such. Then they go out and harpoon them in the most brutal ways. Sorry if I sound culturally indifferent, but it seems to me that these sailors and farmers just want their capitalist cake and eat it too.

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Review: Dark Phoenix

The flaw in the X-Men saga that outsiders can’t quite get past is the mutant pretense that is its whole reason for being. Though the idea of mutants being social outcasts despite their super powers and tendency to use them for good is a powerful one, the kind of poetic license exerted in describing those powers becomes strictly arbitrary after you sample a few characters. It’s as if the creators simply make up an ability that fits whatever story they wanted to tell, and after a while you have so many super powers that there seems little point in extrapolating on them.

But it is a saga, and in this supposed final chapter (though there are rumors there’s at least one more) the viewer is bombarded not only with more super powers than you can throw a chunk of kryptonite at, but complex interrelationships between protagonists of equal narrative weight and references to past (and future) events in the saga that are left unexplained for those of us who may not have seen them (or may have simply forgotten).

With Wolverine MIA and all the original X-Men replaced by their younger incarnations (the story is set in the early 90s), the protagonist is the iconic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose telekinetic and telepathic abilities make her the ultimate X-person, so to speak, in that she can pretty much make anything possible. She’s thus sent out into space to rescue a group of stranded astronauts and while doing so is blasted with a particularly potent dose of radiation that heightens her powers immeasurably. Unable to control these new powers, partly because her mental state is shaky in the first place (childhood trauma that’s taken for granted), the other X-Men, including their leader, Dr. Xavier (James McAvoy), grow to fear and mistrust her, thus deepening her paranoia. As it turns out, she is being manipulated by an exterrestrial group of evildoers led by a shapeshifter played with icy nonchalance by Jessica Chastain. Their plan is to use Grey’s powers for their own ends, which necessitate the end of the earth.

Needless to say, the action scenes are thrilling without really getting us anywhere in terms of plot development, since everything is dialed up to 11 from the start. Those who have been following the saga raptly from the start may find it all cathartic, but the rest of us will regret having missed (or, again, forgotten) an earlier chapter that might have made sense of it all. Or maybe we don’t care in the first place.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011).

Dark Phoenix home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film

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Media Mix, June 16, 2019

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the widespread anxiety surrounding social recluses. The column is mainly about the unfounded belief that hikikomori are potentially dangerous to themselves and others, and while experts do think that some hikikomori present with symptoms of mental illness, they very rarely manifest as violence. After all, the definition of a social recluse is someone who does almost everything in their power to avoid contact with others. And this obvious but strangely overlooked aspect of the issue points to another common feature of hikikomori that is rarely mentioned, namely, the socioeconomic situation of the families involved.

In almost all the hikikomori cases reported by the media, the subjects live in relative middle class comfort. They reside with parents or relatives who, for the most part, support them financially, often for years and even decades. Though there is no reason to think the poorer classes are immune to hikikomori tendencies, by definition it would be very difficult for someone to live completely off of a family that already exists on the economic margins. Most likely, individuals who are virulently antisocial and from poorer households will simply end up living by themselves in cheap apartments and never going out except to work, and so they can’t really be called hikikomori.

In other words, hikikomori live the way they do because they can. This may sound dismissive of their particular emotional and psychological situation, but, as mentioned at the end of the column, the kind of pathologies now being associated with hikikomori are more the result of the imposition of mandatory intramural responsibility. Families are expected, by society and the authorities through the legal system, to take care of their own. Hikikomori know this and so do their guardians. One of the main complaints from people who constitutionally resent hikikomori for what they see as outright laziness is that they’re simply taking advantage of their parents’ obligation toward them without owning up to their own obligations, but in a sense they are since eventually they will have to take care of their parents. In fact, they very well may be counting on it, because they will have to rely on whatever assets they inherit from their parents once those parents die. This is another social aspect that limits hikikomori to more well-off families. One of the conditions for receiving welfare in Japan is that the applicant first exhaust all possible assistance from family members. Those applicants’ children, parents, or siblings are thus obligated by law to help them, so if they don’t want to then they will be compelled to stay as far away from their families as possible. The best cure for hikikomori is probably poverty.

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Review: We Are Little Zombies

Young people in Japanese and Korean indies often evince a distinct cognitive dissonance, purposely rubbing against the stereotype of the good son or daughter in the Confucian tradition. Those of us who are not Japanese or Korean may feel cut off: Adolescent disaffection is universal and perhaps more acute in a social milieu that distinctly places greater value on family cohesion, but there’s usually the feeling that the filmmaker is trying to make their point by exaggerating certain attributes. Hikari, the narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s debut feature, is a 13-year old video game addict who has just lost both parents in a bus accident and feels nothing. Actually, scratch that. He betrays some relief, because he obviously didn’t love his parents, and the sentiment may have been mutual—to call Hikari an unreliable narrator would be an understatement.

Hikari isn’t being cynical. He’s still too young to have cultivated a sense of the world, but he knows his feelings or lack thereof, which is credible in its own way. However, Nagahisa compounds the disaffection by bringing Hikari together with three other 13-year-olds who have also lost both parents, and at the same funeral parlor on the same day. Again, all seem underwhelmed by their loss, and recognize that there is perhaps something wrong with that, but since they’re still kids they are now free to do whatever they want. The fantastical elements of Nagahisa’s narrative go beyond this unbelievable coincidence. There seems to be no serious guardianship issues at play, and the four flit freely from one home to another indulging their childish whims and philosophizing about the total moral bankruptcy of adulthood. There’s nothing malicious in their attitude, and if Nagahisa gets anything precisely right about their youthful lark it’s that they understand how their peculiar situation allows them to put off responsibility for as long as possible.

The kicker comes when they visit a refuse facility and encounter a group of homeless individuals who inspire them to form a rock band, which becomes a viral hit. Now you can chalk the movie’s sensibility up to cynicism, though it’s Nagahisa’s rather than the kids’. It helps to understand that the director used to work for advertising behemoth Dentsu, so he certainly knows the ins and outs of the BIG CON. Inevitably, the Little Zombies’ relative success indirectly helps them achieve an emotional maturity that provides the movie with the kind of sentimental closure we normally expect from Japanese indies.

All of this would be fairly conventional if not for the structure and the production design, which references computer game visuals and logic (it seems to be the only way Hikari could tell a story), not to mention the manic pacing, propelled by editing on steroids. We Are Little Zombies makes its point effectively enough, but its exhaustive insistence on being emotionally dry until the point when it isn’t still feels manipulative.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

We Are Little Zombies home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 “We Are Little Zombies” Film Partners

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Review: The Fireflies Are Gone

Disaffected youth is a currency that filmmakers never tire of trying to exchange in hopes of finding a theme that suits their world view. Everybody was young once, and if experience counts for a lot when telling a story, the coming-of-age tale has built-in advantages. In this small Canadian film, the director is a man and the protagonist an 18-year-old girl living through that magic hour of adolescence, from the last month of high school through to the end of the subsequent summer. Leonie (Karelle Tremblay) is typically skeptical about everything in the ways of cinematic teen heroines. She bristles whenever an adult confronts her with her future. “I’m only 18,” she spits back. “I have plenty of time to decide.” Her bad attitude is manifest right off the bat when she bails on a restaurant meal in her honor hosted by her mother (Marie-France Marcotte) and stepfather (Francois Papineau). She pretends to use the rest room and then walks out the door and catches a bus.

The fact that mom doesn’t seem particularly surprised by this rude act indicates Leonie’s personality has been brittle for some time. She barely keeps her contempt for her stepfather—a radio commentator who rails against environmentalists and anti-capitalists—in check, and doesn’t really have any close friends to speak of. While hanging out with a group of associates at a 50s-themed restaurant in her small Quebec town, one friend makes fun of a bearded guy eating alone at the counter, picking up on his couture of flannel shirt, rocker T-shirt, and blue jeans. “What’s life like in 1985?” she teases him. Leonie, however, is intrigued, probably because she seems to think the modern world sucks and that things were better before she was born.

The throwback in question, a thirty-something slacker named Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant), becomes Leonie’s confidant. He teaches guitar and lives in his mother’s basement. One of Leonie’s projects for her aimless summer is to take guitar lessons from Steve, and he proves to be a gifted musician, which prompts the inevitable question: Why isn’t he playing in a band, making a living from a skill he obviously enjoys? Steve has no ready answer; something about being averse to the big city and a personality that doesn’t accommodate itself to group dynamics. In essence, he’s the other temperamental side to Leonie’s misanthropy—less caustic, more resigned to life without drama. And for a while, their easy relationship forms the core of the film’s sensibility. Writer-director Sebastien Pilote brings up the obvious sexual tension between them a few times without letting it get anywhere, and what he misses in potential drama he makes up for with naturalism that is refreshing without being doctrinnaire. In fact, the movie’s lack of emotional payoffs is what makes it so strangely appealing. There is only one scene of violence in the film, and it comes at the expense of property not people. The most fraught relationship is not that between Leonie and Steve but rather between Leonie and her birth father (Luc Picard), a former union leader whose advocacy for the local paper mill ended in failure and forced him to leave town. He now works seasonally “up north” on an undesignated project. Leonie has formed the opinion that his stepfather had something to do with his exile, but the truth ends up being much more problematic, and Leonie can’t cope with the way it makes her feel.

That Leonie’s fate is no more certain at the end of the movie than it was at the start is another risky gambit that Pilote pulls off with disarming ease. Generally speaking, fiction films that attempt to address life as it’s really lived come off as either pretentious or just plain boring, especially when the protagonist is an 18-year-old “brat.” The Fireflies Are Gone is not nearly as entertaining or emotionally satisfying as Lady Bird, but it’s more credible and the lessons it teaches more affecting.

In French. Opens June 15 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

The Fireflies Are Gone home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Corporation ACPAV Inc. 2018

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Review: Aladdin

Disney’s latest live action—or, more precisely, CGI-assisted—remake of a beloved animated classic hits perhaps too close to home in my case. The original Aladdin was the first movie I reviewed for a print publication, albeit in capsule form, and the memory of seeing it at my first-ever press screening is indelible, though that movie was so overwhelmed by Robin Williams’ participation that, other than the simple, crowd-pleasing plot, little of the film itself made much of an impression. Seeing the new version, I now attribute this perceptive gap less to the passage of time than to Disney’s generic storytelling style. Suddenly, all the things I liked and disliked about the original but had forgotten about came flooding back, but it was a weird kind of nostalgia. Except for Williams, have things changed so little since 1992?

So let’s address Williams and his replacement, Will Smith, right away. Generally speaking, the late comedian’s performance as the genie in the lamp, one that he reportedly improvised in the studio, thus compelling the filmmakers to fashion the animation around that performance, is probably the best thing he ever did on film; wryly spontaneous, gently mocking of both the Disney image and Middle Eastern stereotypes that today would probably be taboo. Though much has been made of those stereotypes over the years, the most egregious examples were built into the non-Williams scenes and into the drawings themselves. Will Smith, an African-American man playing a person of color in a winkingly obvious way, thankfully doesn’t try to copy or add to the Williams construction, but simply slips his sly, slightly cynical public persona into the mold. For sure, when he sings his centerpiece tune, “Friend Like Me,” he comes off as more sincere than Williams did, despite the con man subtext of the lyrics.

In other ways, Guy Ritchie’s new version is better than the original. The story about the “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and his scheme to win the heart of the oppressed Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is more fully realized and easier to enjoy, owing mainly to the fact that Ritchie has been given an extra half hour to tell it. And because he has to justify the CGI budget at his disposal, the action sequences work very well and are integrated smoothly into both the plot development and the musical numbers, of which several are brand new (and totally worthless as far as ear worms go). If the movie feels more superfluous than the original, it has more to do with the patented Disney mise en scene, which even Ritchie can’t overcome—flat, over-lit, painstakingly literal in design and look. At least Tim Burton’s Dumbo managed to slip in some chiaroscuro. This is like an 80s sitcom blown up to the big screen, which isn’t to say you won’t enjoy Aladdin, but you’ll probably wish it were all-CGI instead of part-CGI.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald ) (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (03-5367-1144), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).

Aladdin home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Disney Enterprises Inc.

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