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Review: Tokyo Sonata

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Best known for his ingeniously terrifying Pulse, a ghostly techno-thriller about a rash of suicides in contemporary urban Japan (remade, badly, in 2006 from a Wes Craven script), Kiyoshi Kurosawa has tirelessly confounded our expectations of genre film. What unites the supernatural elements of his most devilishly clever horror flicks (Cure, Séance, Retribution) and the abstract expressions of dread and despair in his other hard-to-categorize outings (Charisma, Barren Illusion, Bright Future) might be hard to specify, but there is often a sense that society and the individual are at odds, and that this tension gives rise to a host of ills from ennui and emptiness, loneliness and desperation to homicidal impulses and other aberrant behavior. Kurosawa, a former sociology student, is not a didactic or message-oriented filmmaker, necessarily, but his near-annual forays into horror/sci fi do reveal him to be a pointed social critic working in the defiant spirit, if not the precise register, of David Cronenberg and George A. Romero.

So what to make of Tokyo Sonata, a plaintive domestic family drama whose evocative title and basic set-up allude quite curiously to one of Ozu’s postwar meditations on shifting values and generational conflict in modern Japanese society? Half an hour into this cool, calmly unfolding melodrama, you could be forgiven for wondering: whither the ashen-faced wraiths and poison jellyfish? Rest assured, Kurosawa has not forsaken his gothic roots, even if he has swapped one set of genre tropes for another, adopting a more traditional approach that he has every intention of subverting. Sonata is not so much a radical “departure” for Kurosawa as it is a variation on a theme he has been exploring repeatedly in his less commercial body of work, at least since License to Live (1998), about a family man who must reorient to life after waking from a 10-year coma. In that film, and perhaps more obliquely in Bright Future, a vaguely mystical allegory centered on two disaffected young factory workers, Kurosawa presents characters who are forced to reevaluate their reality when something foreign (a car accident, inexplicable violence) suddenly, shockingly invades their daily lives. Sonata digs into a bourgeois family’s spiritual malaise by means of a similar crisis: in this case (and quite appropriately for our financially beleaguered times) the humiliation of a downsizing.

As the film opens, middle-aged salaryman Ryuhei (played by sour-faced veteran Teruyuki Kagawa) is informed by a much younger executive at his firm that his administrative job has been outsourced to China. Unable to reveal this embarrassing fact to his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) or his two sons, teenage Takashi (Yu Koyangi) and young Kenji (Kai Inowaki), with whom he barely communicates to begin with, Ryuhei maintains the charade of dressing for work and heading to the office, when in fact he spends his days standing in free food lines at a local park and interviewing, fruitlessly, for a new position. Eventually, he finds a temp job scrubbing public toilets in a ritzy shopping mall, where he doffs his tailored suit each day for a pair of janitor’s overalls.


If Kurosawa seems to have cribbed this scenario from Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, a film that also limned the social pathology of “keeping up appearances” and the idea of work as a pillar of personal identity, then he soon twists the irony to his own ends. He also widens the frame a bit to portray the private world of more than one character: Each member of the Sasaki family is unhappy in some way, and each pursues a path of liberation, both from the hermetic, suffocating environment of the home—lit in claustrophobically noirish tones by Akika Ahizawa —and the labile whims of Ryuhei, who in his private frustration and injured sense of self-worth is neither fair nor affectionate toward his loved ones. Megumi, a silent sufferer who tolerates her husband’s petty tyranny as head of household (in one dinner scene, no one dares touch their food until Ryuhei, exulting in male privilege, has savored the first taste of his evening beer), eventually finds an exotic route to freedom. Kenji, a budding talent with an interest in music, secretly begins taking piano lessons (using his stowed lunch money) which Ryuhei has narrow-mindedly refused to indulge or pay for. And Takashi, longing for a sense of purpose, courts his father’s explosive rage when he enlists in the U.S. military’s campaign in Iraq along with a small Japanese regiment.

Halfway through Tokyo Sonata, though, the sudden appearance of a home intruder (played by Kurosawa factotum Koji Yakusho) sends this mannered, well-appointed social drama off the rails, almost into the realm of pure farce. It’s a classic bait-and-switch maneuver by the director, whose sardonic, black-comic touches (like the uncomfortable dinner Ryuhei shares at the home of his laid-off high-school friend, whose phone is set to ring five times an hour so he appears to be taking important calls) give way to broad humor and antics belonging more to a half-baked heist thriller. Clearly, Kurosawa is keen to explore social maladies in bourgeois Japanese family life, but his auteurist tendencies dominate the second movement of Sonata, threatening to occlude his humanistic points of concern. Even a grim episode of domestic violence, unleashed when Ryuhei reacts to Kenji’s deception with a hail of blows, elicits a macabre flourish, in which the boy’s stiff, lifeless body is grotesquely hurled down a flight of stairs. (He isn’t dead.)

Nevertheless, in the lovely and moving final scene — a formal piano recital in which the beautifully inexpressive Kenji performs Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” while his parents look on — Kurosawa recoups all the emotional power he has coaxed from the film’s basic narrative set-up before dispersing it in that big, playful turn, and delivers a coup de grace that, for all its stillness and indirection, equals in impact that breathtaking image of a low-flying jet in flames that brings to an apocalyptic close the willfully baffling Pulse. Only Takashi remains absent in this pageant of familial reconstruction. He does appear briefly, in an odd homecoming sequence, mournfully telling his mother about his complicity in a war atrocity (“I killed people”) only to vanish completely from the story, leaving not so much as an ashen scar on the wall. What Kurosawa’s tortured young soldier—the film’s true enigma, its de facto ghost— is meant to communicate or symbolize is, one assumes, more existential than political, and has something to do with the ambivalent hope and promise of youth. Yet it’s hard to be sure. Ambiguity, as always, is the director’s cunning way of haunting us with his sense of the ineffable disquiet at the heart of modern life.


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Review: Changeling

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Angelina Jolie sets her silky, bee-stung lips a-quivering in Clint Eastwood’s weepie-whatsit period melodrama Changeling, playing the mother of a missing son in 1920s California who’s persecuted by an incorrigibly corrupt Los Angeles Police Department. Basing his script on a sensational real-life tabloid story one imagines James Ellroy would have made into a great pulpy read, TV screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (“Murder, She Wrote,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Babylon 5”) has terrific raw material to work with, but winds up filing it down to a bland tale of hope and suffering that falls somewhere between a missing-child teledrama and David Fincher’s Se7en.

The story, rooted in “true events,” couldn’t be toothier: Roller-skating switchboard operator Christine Collins (Jolie) leaves her 10-year-old son Walter at home for a few hours and returns to find him vanished without a trace. A few months later, Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the LAPD reunites Christine with Walter, found with a drifter in Illinois, while a pack of media vultures dutifully heralds police for their heroic efforts with a grandstanding photo op at the train station. Except the boy, Christine immediately declares to Jones, is not her son. Nevertheless, she’s pressured to take the kid home on a “trial basis” to avoid embarrassing the force. When she later publicly insists that Jones has made a mistake, the city’s municipal authorities retaliate with a sadistic smear campaign, and Christine’s plight attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who thunders against official vice on his weekly public-radio program. Meanwhile, detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) makes a gruesome discovery at a creepy ranch in northern California that may have some connection to the Collins case.

It is ironic that Jolie, perhaps the world’s most scrutinized celebrity, a woman whose maternal instincts and adoption practices have enthralled the masses, makes such an unconvincing mother-in-extremis. This is partly due to her limitations as an actor, but has more to do, I suspect, with Eastwood’s laissez-faire direction. Jolie never appears to forget that she is “Angelina Jolie,” and it’s no surprise that the scenes in which she is most affecting and least self-regarding, at a mental institution where she has been unlawfully imprisoned, are ones she has played before (Girl, Interrupted), to the merry old tune of Oscar. Malkovich is hilariously pretentious as a well-meaning anti-corruption activist, but his brainy, overly self-conscious shtick is wearing thin, too. Most confusing are the film’s sudden shifts from sappy tearjerker to hard-hitting courtroom drama, with a long, weird digression into the serial-killer genre, a Fincher-esque subplot outfitted with quick flashes of macabre child butchering courtesy of Jason Butler Harner, the film’s only riveting presence.

Some viewers have divined in Changeling’s morass of truth-twisting and to-the-nuthouse extradition tactics an allegory for the Bush Administration’s contempt for veracity, due-course justice, and anything with a whiff of government criticism. But there is far less on the mind of Changeling than the politics of anti-terrorism, and its desultory execution and scattershot storytelling neutralizes any ethics of responsibility the film may want to advance. Besides, would anyone give a nickel for this tepid, tonally dissonant melodrama if the name of an American icon weren’t attached?

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:38 pm

NYFF 2008: Bringing It All Back Home

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Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

Each September, as the New York Film Festival rolls out two weeks of film for its illustrious guests and patrons, the event stirs up mixed feelings among this city’s hardcore cinephile community. Veteran malcontents like to grouse that there is too much middlebrow programming from the likes of Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, with top slots taken by crowd pleasers already slated for theatrical release. Others seem to think the fest is redundant, as it focuses on programming a best-of selection of already anointed or buzzed-about films from Cannes and Toronto. But these gripes are akin to drunken holiday invectives hurled at dearly loved family members. Sober up, people!

Now in its 46th edition, this year’s New York Film Festival corrals twenty-eight features and seventeen shorts representing a broad swath of international cinema into its posh new Ziegfeld Theater, from eagerly awaited new work by indie directors Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day) and Lucretia Martel (The Headless Woman) to celeb-studded dramas by Clint Eastwood (Changeling) and Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), to masterly fables from the likes of Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), and Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky). Alongside these are the festival’s equally distinguished sidebars, “Views from the Avant-Garde,” featuring new work by James Benning and a tribute to trailblazer Bruce Conner, and “In the Realm of Oshima,” a retrospective of the great Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima. Far be it from me to spoonfeed such “unworthy” new and classic work to those who’d rather make discoveries of their own at far-flung festivals from Sarajevo to Pusan, but let’s be honest about something: who can afford to travel these days? New Yorkers have the good fortune of not having to road trip to Toronto (ten hours by car) or spend thousands of Euros only to wrestle red-carpet goons in a certain French resort town at the height of summer to see the best of what these major film showcases have to offer.

Besides, this year’s selection committee—Kent Jones, Scott Foundas, Lisa Schwartzbaum, Jim Hoberman, and chair Richard Peña—have also included some nervy picks by newer filmmakers debuting at the fest (Antonio Campos, Pablo Larrain) as well as two astonishing, beautifully accomplished dramas, Tulpan and Shouga, both by Kazakh directors who should be better known to anyone serious about film culture. As always, there’s plenty to see and argue about, and over the past two weeks of near-daily press screenings, that’s exactly what my colleagues have been doing. (Nothing’s as dull as consensus, or as useless for gaining insight into one’s own habits of viewing.) We’ve just begun to post our first round of on-camera interviews from the festival, as well as reviews and dispatches from our partner sites (Filmmaker, The Man Who Viewed Too Much, Filmlinc blog), so look here in the coming days for more coverage. And, as always, we invite you to join the conversation, whatever your entry point might be.

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Kazakh Film: Chouga and Tulpan

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Every major film festival presents a gallery of cinema offerings and possible discoveries for those curious enough to seek out unfamiliar work by international narrative-film artists and imagemakers. The New York Film Festival may play it safe by screening films that already have theatrical distribution, like Steven Soderbergh’s twin-halved 262-minute epic Che (IFC Films, December) or Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (Fox Searchlight), but there are also a clutch of worthy, under-the-radar films at NYFF that Gothamites will have a rare chance to see projected on the big screen. These films deserve a broader audience, but due to the metrics of today’s distribution business and the viewing habits of most paying moviegoers, most will likely fall through the cracks.

Two new films from Kazakhstan—a former Soviet republic best known here due to the notorious antics of comedian Sasha Baron Coen (a/k/a Borat)—illustrate this point beautifully. The first is Chouga, a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina updated to modern-day Central Asia by Kazakh master Darezhan Omirbaev. In the film, Ainur Turgambaeva plays a regal beauty who abandons her son and home life with an aging, indifferent MP to take up with an equally affluent but feckless young lover in Paris. While her choice is born of passion (“When real love comes knocking, people do incredible things,” one character opines), the outcome is anything but happy. Leisurely paced and stripped-down in appearance, Omirbaev’s film is a complex, subtle drama about romantic disillusionment in which shadings of dry humor and delicate emotion are conveyed in glances, gestures, and other nonverbal cues. At times, Chouga reminded me of Aki Kaurismaki’s own deadpan Dostoyevsky adaptation, Crime and Punishment, both for its minimal aesthetic style and flat affect. But there is a gentle poetry to Omirbaev’s personal vision that creeps into the bleak, color-bleached public spaces and modestly well-appointed homes that house his gallery of lovelorn and sexually dissatisfied characters. The director has a peculiar fascination with light fixtures—several times he holds on shots of lamps and chandelier medallions—as well as audiovisual screens (TVs, GameBoy, videotape). But he has a particular feel for capturing moments of solitude and inner reflection, too, whether the troubled Chouga’s rhythmically lit, then unlit face in a railway compartment, or an odd sequence where each of his primary characters is framed through a doorway, alone, until the hinge on their private world and unknowable thoughts swings shut, closing them off from us—and each other—for good.

Alongside this quintessentially urban fable of longing and disenchantment stands Tulpan, its yurt-dwelling country cousin at NYFF. Set on the barren, wind-blasted Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan, the first feature by documentary filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy concerns the efforts of Asa, a nomadic sheep herder, to court the painfully shy, ostensibly beautiful teen daughter of the nearest living family. (Though we never see Tulpan’s face or figure, we do know her opinion: Asa has “big ears.”) Meanwhile, there is tension at home between Asa and his brother-in-law Ondas, who struggles with his family to eke out a subsistence amid harsh weather and a mysterious plague that is killing newborn lambs. But don’t go thinking this is a bleak film about an exotic, forbidding place: Dvortsevoy’s portrait of life on the steppe is poignant, bittersweet, and almost riotously funny. Asa’s goofy, pop-music-obsessed pal, who drives a converted tractor plastered in girlie-mag porn, never tires of hearing Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” blasted at top volume. And while Ondas’s preteen daughter irritates him with her open-throated folk singing, his constantly revved-up toddler son is a maniacal, wind-up screech machine with some of the best lines (mostly unscripted) in the film. (“I’m a monster!” he bellows, ripping into the center frame via yurt flap at a particularly tense moment.) Yet it’s the nonhuman element that makes this hinterland Kazakh drama such a unique and diverting delight. Ever-present on the soundtrack are wind squalls, ferocious dust storms, and a deafening symphony of bleats, honks, grunts, howls, and other unidentifiable outbursts courtesy of the camels and sheep with whom the family, played by a game cast of nonprofessionals, cohabitates. These beasts aren’t cute and preternaturally inquisitive, as they would be in a Disney film; they’re animals, and act like it.

When it comes to people, Dvortsevoy may traffic in comical grotesques, such as Tulpan’s disapproving, babushka-like mother, but he also has a documentarian’s eye for capturing unreproducible moments (e.g. in one sequence, a dust devil thrashes the landscape, tens of meters from the actors), as well as a naturalist’s sense of the sublime (an ominous band of storm clouds gathering above a gristle-munching, snow-white mutt). He captures it all with whip pans and elaborate handheld camera movements, tracking his actors through their paces in a way that suggests the chaotic urgency of their existence. Though Tulpan deals with unfulfilled longing, family tension, and the yawning abyss between city lifestyles and the hardships of surviving the steppe, perhaps the film’s true subject is the antithesis of man and nature, and its once-viable resolution in pre-agrarian society with the symbiosis between human and animal needs. When Asa assists a helplessly pregnant ewe at the emotional climax of the film, this on-camera live birth feels at once like an intoxicating revelation—and a paean to a vanished time we’ve lost all meaningful connection to, at least in the developed world, perhaps forever–

Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 4:34 pm