Monday, 16 May 2011

AFED #135: Kaidan chibusa enoki [Ghost of Chibusa Enoki, aka The Mother Tree] (Japan, 1958); Dir. Gorô Kadono

Although Japanese supernatural horror might nowadays lead one to think of stories about cursed videotapes and spectral emo girls who can't keep their hair out of their faces, these are only recent manifestations of a tradition that's several hundred years old.

Japanese ghost stories, or kaidan, first emerged during the Edo period in the seventeenth century, adapted and inspired by earlier Chinese ghost stories. Typically they revolve around vengeful spirits who return to redress a wrong committed against them in their mortal lives, or sometimes with a general grudge against humanity.

Kaidan have inspired two of Japanese cinema's most celebrated films - Kobayashi's Kwaidan and Mizoguchi's Ugetsu - but there are numerous other lesser works that draw upon this heritage. During the fifties the Shintoho, a short-lived studio founded by former employees of the more famous Toho Co, produced a series of modest kaidan films, one of which was The Mother Tree...

This compact (just 6o minutes), economical feature is the story of Chibusa Enoki, a successful painter who takes on a scheming samurai as his apprentice. When Chibusa goes away to fulfill a long-standing commission the samurai seizes the opportunity to rape the painter's devoted wife before murdering her maid. Upon the painter's return the samurai forces Chibusa's servant into helping lure the unsuspecting artist into a trap and murders kills them both, casting Chibusa's body into a pond.

However, the dead man left his last painting unfinished, which appears to be a pretext to return and exact some righteous justice. After making an appearance before his wife and instructing her to deliver their newborn child to the safety of the 'mother tree' the baleful Chibusa sets about achieving his retribution against the villain.

Although by all accounts a fairly typical example of the genre, to less accustomed western eyes it's an engrossing tale which delivers the requisite chills. The camerawork and editing are more conventional than I anticipated (none of the long, pensive shots of Ozu or Mizoguchi here) but within its budgetary limitations there's a building sense of foreboding before the eventual payoff.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

AFED #123: Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (France/US, 1988); Dir. Marcel Ophüls

Marcel Ophüls' Oscar-winning documentary is a sprawling epic that seeks answers to questions both factual and philosophical. Through a composite of dozens of interviews with subjects in France, Germany and the Americas he builds a portrait of the career of Barbie, the Nazi war criminal dubbed the Butcher of Lyon, perhaps most infamous for his capture and torture of the French Resistance leader Jean Moulin.

The director's diligent efforts to get to the bottom of the Moulin affair, and who may or may not have exposed him to the Nazis, make up much of the first half of the four and half hours. Even forty years after the event the wounds and recriminations continue to fester in the survivors and the testimonies suggest that the matter of collaboration is not quite as clear as one might imagine.

It also touches upon Barbie's formative years and the first-hand accounts of those who suffered from his sadistic interrogation techniques. Yet perhaps more astonishing are the disclosures of what happened after the war, when far from bringing Barbie to account for his crimes American intelligence instead deployed him to help them root out communists in the newly liberated Germany. Later they would assist Barbie's escape to South America, where he provided further assistance to the CIA in Bolivia before finally being extradited back for trial in Europe decades later.

Like many Nazis Barbie's lack of contrition for his crimes renders it difficult to feel much sympathy for the man, yet there are glimpses that some found him to be a likeable character and even good company, alebit often ignorant of his past. One can fully appreciate this was Ophüls' modus operandi but a little more insight into Barbie's personal life would have added richness and complexity. To understand evil one needs to understand both its provenance and the moral code by which reprehensible actions become allowable.

Or maybe this was outside the film's remit. Regardless, it's complex, disturbing and absorbing film-making.

Monday, 2 May 2011

AFED #122: The Man Who Laughs (US, 1928); Dir. Paul Leni

Given the high regard in which it's held I perhaps had unfair expectations of The Man Who Laughs. Based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, like his more celebrated Notre-Dame de Paris it's a historical melodrama with gothic overtones. In the hands of director Paul Leni it becomes an atmospheric romance that sanitises the German Expressionist aesthetic.

Although it's actually one of the earliest Universal pictures to incorporate sound elements it has the opulent production standards typical of silent films during this period, with some elaborate sets depicting 18th century London and the court of Queen Anne. But at nearly two hours the story seems stretched to the point of tedium and the characters lack the depth or complexity to make them engaging.

Yet Conrad Veidt, an actor who comfortably ranks amongst my all time favourites, delivers a sensitive performance as Gwynplaine, the unfortunate hero who is disfigured as a child in an act of revenge against his nobleman father. At least, as sensitive as it's possible to be when your face is locked in a permanent grin. His distinctive visage famously inspired Jerry Robinson in his creation of Batman's arch nemesis The Joker, but one suspects Christopher Nolan (earning his second namecheck in two days) revisited this film before his own take on the character in The Dark Knight.

I was expecting a darker and altogether more twisted tale than delivered here but perhaps I should have read up beforehand.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

AFED #121: Paprika (Japan, 2006); Dir. Satoshi Kon

If you wonder where Christopher Nolan found his inspiration for Inception then look no further. The wunderkind writer/director has readily acknowledged that Satoshi Kon's 2006 anime was an influence and not only do they share the same premise - that of being able to share other people's dreams - but certain images were directly copied.

That's not a slight towards Nolan and Kon's own influences, such as the work of author Philip K. Dick, are readily apparent here in this story of a technological innovation that allows therapists to enter the dreams of their subjects. Inevitably it falls into the wrong hands and is put to malicious ends, resulting in a dream that spreads like a virus, blurring fantasy and reality.

Like his earlier film Millenium Actress (AFED #36) Kon allows his imagination to go to town with some astonishing sequences and truly hallucinogenic dream imagery. Unfortunately it also shares the flaw of sacrificing something in the way of coherence and at times you're not quite sure what's supposed to be happening. Possibly the fault was my own and I'm sure repeated viewings will prove rewarding.