Review of Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats up at Uk-anime.net! Screening in London as part of the 2014 Raindance Film Festival on 30th September / 1st October. Tickets still available and the director will be in attendance!
Nick Cave – post-punk, counter culture legend, novelist, screenwriter and occasional actor has certainly led a very full life and on the day we meet him is living his 20,000th day on the planet. It is, of course, a fairly arbitrary number and a fictional conceit taken from one of Cave’s old notebooks in which he realised he was exactly 20,000 days old when he began working on the album that would eventually be released last year – Push the Sky Away. 20,000 Days on Earth is not your usual rockumentary – part fictionalised, fairly light on personal histories and musical performances, the film seems to want to push deeper into the nature of art, and the artist, more than the man known as Cave.
The film begins with an explosive series of images ranging from the important pop-culture moments of the last fifty years to what could be the personal images of someone’s life alongside a clock counting up to the all important 20,000th day. Cave, awake at 6.59, gets up from his all white bed leaving a still sleeping dark haired woman with her face obscured by pillows (presumably his wife, Susie). He informs us that he ceased to be a human being at the end of the twentieth century – he eats, writes, watches TV, plays with his children and ‘terrorises’ his wife. This fictional 24 hours in the creation of an album sees Cave probing and re-evaluating his life as an artist, his creative process and ultimately his purpose in life. What it does not do, particularly, is attempt to tell the story of Cave’s life or reveal any great personal truths but this extraordinary and ramshackle testament to the nature of art is as beguiling as it is inspiring.
Cave narrates his story with the air of a pulpy noir detective sitting down at a typewriter, probably fatally wounded, to tell us how it all went wrong after ‘that dame’ walked into his office. Equal parts Walter Neff leaving a last confession on a tape recorder and a punkish William Burroughs offering poetic and philosophical musings on the nature of memory and the art of transformation, Cave imparts to us the secrets of his craft. It’s not all solo musings though as Cave is visited by three ‘ghosts’ of his past each accompanying him on a picturesque drive along Brighton’s seafront. With actor Ray Winstone, who starred in the Cave scripted The Proposition, Cave seems deferent but talks about his love of performing and rejection of conscious ‘re-invention’. A second meeting with ex-bandmember Blix Bargeld feels rawer as they discuss the reasons for his departure from the band but the third, with fellow Ozzie Kylie Minogue feels altogether warmer and more cheerful. Each disappear as mysteriously as they arrived and you can’t help but wonder if they were ever really there at all or just a re-conjured memory or an imagined conversation only existing inside Cave’s mind. That’s not to mention the frequent reminiscences with more recent collaborator Warren Ellis about shared memories and an artistic working relationship or the fake interview with a psychoanalyst who probes Cave on his earliest sexual experiences and relationship with his father.
Cave describes himself at one point as ‘a front row kind of guy’ and worries that his performances don’t stretch so far beyond that. He likes to pick an audience member and ‘terrify’ them, there’s something about the mix of awe and terror that fascinates him and indeed the scenes from an intimate concert at Camden’s Koko show him bringing one female audience member to a state of near fearful ecstasy – such is his stage presence. The film features scenes from the creation of an album but isn’t the usual chronicle of its completion nor an exploration of the album itself. The whole thing climaxes with a triumphant performance sequence taken from a high octane concert taking place at Sydney Opera House which bears testimony to his skill as a stage performer and the ultimate justification of everything that’s gone before. In a slice of cinema magic, Cave appears to step out of Sydney Opera house directly onto the pebble beach at Brighton where he offers another description likening the process of songwriting as being like a sighting of a sea monster – sometimes you only see the humps but it’s your job to lure Nessie to the surface.
20,000 Days on Earth sometimes feels like one of those late night pub corner conversations with a mysterious old man who’s decided he wants to tell you his story. You aren’t sure if any of this is true, and some of it certainly sounds improbable in the least, but something about his delivery or the look in his eyes makes you want to believe him. He’s telling you the story he wants you to hear which bears its own truth, even if it wasn’t the one you were expecting. Lyrical and strangely profound 20,000 Days on Earth is an inspiring journey inside the mind of an artistic genius.
One of my favourite films – Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill reviewed at uk-anime.net!
Also, hot on the heals of Arrow’s dual format DVD/BD combo of Branded to Kill, Eureka/Masters of Cinema announced today that they’ll be releasing a dual format release of Suzuki’s earlier colour film, Youth of the Beast!
Everybody’s going Seijun Suzuki crazy which can only be a very good thing! Now someone hurry up and release the Taisho trilogy.
It’s a fallacy to think Japan doesn’t make war films. Or perhaps, more that they didn’t make them until the recent swing to the right in Japanese politics seems to have made it OK to make Hollywood style war movies. Up until the sixties, Japanese cinema was willing and able to engage with the darkness of the recent past and several wonderful films such as Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (Ningen no Jouken 人間の条件) or Okamoto’s The Human Bullet (Nikudan 肉弾) not to mention Ichikawa’s own The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategotoビルマの竪琴) presented the still fresh sorrow and regret associated with Imperialist ’30s onwards. None of them, however, come close to the hellish world of Fires on the Plain (Nobi 野火).
Based on Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name, Fires on the Plain begins with the beleaguered conscript Tamura (Funakoshi Eiji) being berated (at length) by his commanding officer for returning from the field hospital earlier than expected. Despite having been given five days food, Tamura has returned after just three days because the hospital refused to admit him. Sick with TB, Tamura is told the hospital feels its duty is to the battlefield wounded – not those who’ve been unlucky enough to catch a debilitating and often terminal condition. Of course, his CO doesn’t want him back either – with only so many resources left and staring defeat in the face, why waste food and effort on a man who can’t pull his weight and is probably going to die anyway. And so, Tamura is sent back to the field hospital with no additional food and instructed to wait there until they let him in or alternatively, there’s your grenade – isn’t there? Do the decent thing. Thus begins Tamura’s bleak odyssey into the depths of human depravity, trying desperately to survive in the unforgiving Philippine jungle.
Legend has it that Funakoshi was so dedicated to the part that in true method fashion he’d been living on a starvation diet prior to the film’s starting and in fact actually caused it to be halted almost immediately when he collapsed from severe malnutrition. That might in part explain his miraculous performance with vacant, staring eyes like someone whose soul has gone somewhere far away. His halting and confused speech, understanding and not understanding, desperate to survive but terrified of what he might become – Tamura has no choice but to keep on walking, trying to find something to cling on to. Everybody knows the war is lost, yet there’s nothing they can do but keep on fighting. Tamura even considers the unthinkable – surrender, but another soldier beats him to it and is promptly mown down by a machine gun wielded by a Filipina resistance fighter working with the Americans. The most pressing problem is the lack of food. There is very little to live on left on the island which has been well and truly wrecked by every side. You can steal food from the indigenous people (if you can find any) or there’s ‘monkey meat’. The great taboo – cannibalism. Ultimately Tamura decides sometimes the price for survival is just too high if you won’t be able to live with what you’ve done.
In the west, particularly in the US, the film was criticised for its ‘sympathetic’ portrayal of Japanese soldiers – that it was another instance of Japan ‘playing the victim’ which was a common American reaction to the more contemplative war films of Post War Japan. It is true, the films glosses over the immediate situation of the Japanese occupied Philippines though the film largely takes with the Japanese on the run from American troops and the Philippine resistance. The fact there have been atrocities is never directly addressed though it hangs in the background like a grim, guilty spectre. It might explain why Tamura’s early meeting with a pair of villagers who’ve made a stealthy visit to their abandoned home to retrieve a parcel of salt buried under the floor becomes so fraught. In the first instance, Tamura was foolish to enter the house and approach them – even his disordered mind he must have known it was very unlikely they’d react kindly to his presence. If he just wanted to know what was buried under the floorboards, he had only to fire a warning shot and scare them off before they could dig it up and then retrieve it himself. When he does show himself the male villager runs off but the female is so scared she can barely move and can’t stop screaming. Tamura shoots her and takes the salt for himself. Disgusted with his actions he throws his rifle into the nearest pond. That isn’t to say the film lets Tamura, or indeed the other men or the whole Japanese war machine, off the hook. Only that they’ve become this way because of what war reduces you to – less than animals, surviving by any means even if that means betraying your fellow men.
Fires on the Plain was adapted from Shohei Ooka’s novel of the same name by Ichikawa and his screen writing wife Wada Natto who, while keeping broadly to the tone and spirit of the book, made several changes. The most obvious being to the structure of the novel which has more of a framing sequence, an unreliable first person narrator and a complicated structure. In the novel Tamura, a fictionalised version of the author, is a Christian and the book is written with a Christian view of the world rather than the traditionally Japanese viewpoint common to the majority of soldiers. Therefore, Ichikawa decided to remove the Christian themes from the film in order to present Tamura as more of an everyman though the Tamura of the book is presented much more ambiguously. This also explains the changes to the film’s ending which is bleaker and less forgiving that than that of the novel.
One of the most horrifying depictions of war ever put on screen, Fires on the Plain lays bare the true horror of warfare. Trapped in a sort of purgatory, forced to wander the jungle waiting for the inevitable yet desperately clinging on to life, Tamura’s story can’t be described as anything less than hellish. Wading past corpses, mud, blood and those who’ve already gone mad – this is humanity at its lowest point. Even if you meet another soldier, they can’t be trusted – it’s every man for himself. Ichikawa’s world is bleak beyond belief with no hope in sight, the only possibility of salvation lying in the large fires that appear at distant points along plains. Everyone assumes them to be a signal of some kind but nobody knows what they mean or for whom they are intended. A descent into hell, Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most realistic and most powerful anti-war films in cinema history.
Kim Ki-duk’s latest reviewed at uk-anime.net.
Based on Joe R Lansdale’s novel of the same name, Cold in July is an homage to classic ’80s neon tinged noir with a noticeable digression into Southern Gothic, revenge thrillers and B-movie heroics. Small town Texas picture framer Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) is woken by his wife one night after she begins hearing strange noises from downstairs. Fearfully arming himself with his father’s old pistol hidden in a shoebox in his wardrobe, Richard tiptoes downstairs only to find a masked and hooded figure standing in his living room. In a halted moment Richard confronts the intruder with the gun and, hands shaking, uncertain what to do next locks eyes with the would-be burglar now held motionless as if in a tractor beam. As Richard holds his course, the mantlepiece clock begins to strike and whether accidentally or in panicked terror the gun goes off sending its explosive charge into the scenic landscape hanging on the wall by way of the burglar’s right-eye. The police arrive to find a traumatised Richard near catatonic in disbelief but oddly seem fairly congratulatory – “it must have been difficult, for a man like you” his Sheriff friend tells him, with heavy implications. Assured that it’s legally self defence and nothing further is likely to come of the matter Richard tries to return to his previous small town, family man life but the incident has left him jittery and with a noticeable ambivalence toward firearms. However, despite what the police may say it’s not quite over yet – the burglar had a father, and a psychotic one at that. An eye for an eye as they say, or a son for a for son – only, that’s not quite it either and before he knows it, Richard finds himself involved in a complex circle of crime and conspiracy.
Cold in July lines itself up with those late ’80s slightly sleazy, hyper violent crime thrillers in which one ordinary man must face off against some kind of larger danger which threatens the very foundations of his world. The period detail is exact with the book’s 1989 setting recreated faithfully down to every last detail from the bizarre red neck haircuts, giant portable telephones and floral furniture craze to VCRs and vintage 80s Apple Macs. The look has an appreciably 80s vibe with heavy grain despite having been filmed on digital RED cameras and the Carpenter-esque synth score give it the air of something that could have been made thirty years ago. Like all the best 80s small town crime stories there’s the melancholy and oppressive feeling of something not quite right, that there are no safe places and even in these cosy little towns there’s a great festering wound that’s rapidly turning rotten.
Like its ’80s settings, these are some old fashioned ‘heroes’ who display an unabashed adherence to ‘traditional’ ideas of masculinity. Richard is a mild mannered picture framer – work that requires skill and artistry rather than physical strength. After Richard shoots the man who threatened his home, the town’s reaction is less fear or sadness but almost joyful respect. “We didn’t think you had it in you” seems to be the general consensus from everyone from the local postman to the glowing write-up in the local paper. Before he was an emasculated husband and father, but now – having killed, he’s a man. Real men shoot first and don’t bother with questions at all. Despite Richard’s discomfort with his actions, with the reaction to his actions and even his own lingering feeling of inferiority he can’t escape the fact that something that he sees as weakness is being held up as heroism.
These old fashioned macho ideas are clearly something that continues to be passed from father to son – something that Richard begins to worry about when his own son playfully points a toy gun at him. The two older men – Don Johnson’s Jim-Bob the private-eye-cum-pig farmer and would be vengeful father Russell (Sam Shepard) are veterans of the Korean War and come from a generation steeped in conflict in which men are judged by their physical strength and survival techniques. Richard appears to have had some kind of strained relationship with his own (presumably deceased) father as though he keeps his gun in a shoebox at home, he seems pained every time the subject comes up. Russell hasn’t seen his own boy since he was a child and feels he’s failed as a father and perhaps as a man (in so far as a man is duty bound bring his son up right). What Richard learns from them is a lesson in old school masculinity – you carry the gun, you put things right. There’s an archetypal idea of chivalry there, that you stand up and protect your own and that the sins of the son are also visited on the father who must atone for failing to prevent such transgressive behaviour. There is something noble in it, but it is also dangerous – can a man who’s taken care of business, even in the name of his community, really return and live amongst other men?
Genre-busting as it is, the Cold in July mostly keeps itself together even as the action threatens to descend into the ridiculous. A thin stream of black humour helps to paint over its excesses as does its sheer joy in the larger than life elements such as the improbable Jim-Bob’s gaudy red cadillac, stetson hat and penchant for cool one-liners. There are undoubtedly a host of plot holes to the extent that it might be better to just avoid thinking about the sequence of events as a whole – the most obvious being a glaringly obvious loose end that everyone seems to have forgotten about. To be fair, no one leaves The Big Sleep shouting “yes, but who killed the chauffeur?”, a few potholes here and there don’t necessarily ruin the road and Cold in July is not a film about its plot. As an exercise in style, Cold in July excels but it also manages to pack in enough social commentary and primal melancholy to give its old fashioned morality tale some weight. Its politics maybe unpalatable and its outlook distinctly 1950s but Cold in July is among the best of recent retro exploitation B-movie throwbacks and walks its own path with considerable assuredness.
Based on the novel by Keigo Higashino (The Devotion of Suspect X), Wings of the Kirin is the latest big screen outing for Higashino’s famous detective Kaga. Previously played on TV by Hiroshi Abe who reprises his role as the much loved sleuth here, this latest instalment sees Kaga’s particular expertise put to use in the case of a salary man who appears to have staggered some distance from the subway tunnel where he was stabbed only to die right under the famous Kirin statue on Nihonbashi Bridge. Around the same time, a younger man calls his girlfriend to tell her he’s in ‘big trouble’ before being chased out into the road by police, whereupon he’s suddenly mown down by an oncoming truck. As this man had the salaryman’s briefcase the case seems open and shut – a mugging gone tragically wrong leading to the death of both perpetrator and victim. Kaga though feels differently and as always, the case is not quite as straightforward as the authorities would like to believe.
As with many of Higashino’s stories, the mystery itself is almost a macguffin as Higashino is more interested in investigating human behaviour and psychology with half an eye on traditional morality. Wings of the Kirin is no different in this respect as it has a heavy interest in the relationship between fathers and sons and the importance of taking personal responsibility for your own transgressions. However, that isn’t to downplay the mystery element as Higashino once again proves himself a master at wrong footing the audience. Many viewers may feel they have a pretty solid idea of who did it and why fairly early on the film only for it takes off in an entirely different direction in the final third. That said, although it is heavily pushing your intuition in one direction, there are perhaps an over abundance of subplots including illegal work practices and unfeeling employers, the difficulties faced by young people coming out of the foster system, complicated teenage friendships and misunderstandings brought about by people’s own sense of guilt. Consequently the film does run quite long as it manages to pack in just about as many wrong turns and red herrings as possible, however it largely earns its right to run as each of the characters and sub-plots manages to be compelling in its own right.
Though Wings of the Kirin is technically the big screen spin off of the Detective Kaga TV drama, no previous knowledge of Kaga and co is strictly necessary though familiarity with some of the peripheral characters may help. Hiroshi Abe excels once again as the slightly distant if all seeing detective who alone is capable to putting all the pieces together in the right order. Perhaps due to its TV roots, the film has a rather strange and quirky soundtrack which is frequently at odds with the serious nature of the drama yet it never quite tips over into being distracting enough to derail the film. Occasionally it does feel like more like a big budget TV special than a major feature but again perhaps that’s in keeping with the previous instalments in the series. Like all good mysteries, the solution involves a great deal of improbable coincidences yet watching Kaga shuffling them all into place to reveal the overall solution is quite masterful.
However, Higashino’s moralising does take over at times and there was at least one instance where it seemed Kaga had gone too far, or at least the actions of one character did seem reasonable. After all, if you can ‘save’ one person when there’s nothing to be done for another, is it really so wrong to try and help the people who are left behind? The actions in that case did seem altruistic, not born of any desire to ‘cover-up’ wrong doing but only to try and prevent more lives being ruined. Yes, Kaga’s assertion that you’ve effectively taught someone that it’s OK not to admit you’ve done wrong or that it’s OK to let others take the blame for your own mistakes is obviously true, but the consequences here are perhaps too extreme and dramatically neat to bear it out. Occasionally the film does feel preachy and its message is anything but subtle, however, thankfully it never manages to disrupt the pleasure of its finely constructed mystery. A little bit long and necessarily meandering, The Wings of the Kirin is another impressive crime thriller from the pen of Higashino that manages to entertain with a finely crafted central narrative but is also unexpectedly moving in its curiously small scale climax.