Archive for September, 2011

Seven Samurai (1954)

September 13, 2011

“Seven Samurai” directed by Akira Kurosawa is the granddad of the action genre. It’s believed to be the first movie where a team is assembled on screen for a mission. We can safely say that “Ocean’s Eleven” would not exist if Kurosawa never made “Seven Samurai”.

The movie runs for three hours with an intermission. It tells a story of a group of farmers, whose village has been raided by a group of forty bandits. Desperate, the farmers follow the advice of their granddad to hire four samurai from the town to combat the bandits. They recruit Kanbe Shimada (Takashi Shimura), not only a great samurai in sword combat, but also a great strategist. Shimada decides that four samurai cannot fight off forty bandits. He recruits six more, including the hilarious Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a son of a farmer who passes himself off as a samurai. The farmers bring back seven samurai to the village. The rest is the purest cinematic experience of the action genre.

The samurai here are poor and hungry. They are desperate to get a well-paid freelance job. The farmers are poor and can only afford to pay them three meals (rice balls) a day. They jump aboard only because of the charism of Kanbe Shimada the lead samurai. Their self-esteem upholds the hardship of life. Notice how the samurai are killed never by a sword on screen, but by guns fired by the coward bandits. Notice all bandits killed by the samurai die under their swords, never a gunshot.

Roger Ebert writes in his great review that “Seven Samurai” also tells a story of the Japanese social class, of men who are obliged to play their social roles even though the ends look grim. That’s a great observation. However, I enjoy the movie more on the pure cinematic level. The story telling is so clear, we follow easily each strategic step taken by the master samurai. The acting is highly stylish, for example the clown samurai played by Toshiro, which could be distracting at first but it helps to distinguish each character, and there are many vivid characters.

Seven Samurai” is directed by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. Buy it at The Criterion Collection.


Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

September 11, 2011

Upon my first viewing of “Hiroshima Mon Amour” ten years ago, I didn’t like it. It got better in my second viewing. Having watched it again recently, I’ve developed a strange connection and admiration for this film, the first feature of Alain Resnais. Perhaps one could only connect to it with enough experience and understanding of the subject matter.

The film tells a story of an unnamed couple of a French woman and Japanese man, who are having an intense love affair in Hiroshima fourteen years after Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. The woman is simply called “Nevers” where she grows up, and the man called “Hiroshima” where he lives. They talk, wander, talk more, and wander again. In the night, against the backdrop of Japanese neon signs and empty streets. The emotions are resonant with those of Wong Kar Wai’s “In The Mood For Love”, although it’s strange to say that because that movie wouldn’t exist without “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.

Having done “Night and Fog”, now an important documentary about the Holocaust, Resnais was asked to make a documentary about the atomic bomb. In “Night and Fog”, Resnais illustrates the horror not by facts and evidences, but by juxtaposing images and a poetic account of a Holocaust surviver. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, he takes this one step further by telling the story of Hiroshima without discussing at all the atomic bomb. The film is full of hypnotic dialogues and music. Lost love, memories and forgetfulness are the couple’s main topics.

Stanley Kubrick once said that the atrocities of the Holocaust would not be able to be made into a movie without being humanized and turned into an entertainment one way or the other. In “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, we are asked to feel, to understand in the poetic sense, not literal.

The tragedy of Hiroshima is told in the analogy of the French woman’s personal tragedy. When she speaks of her dead lover and the madness, we feel her sadness that the memories have become nothing more than just an event without the emotional attachment. Or perhaps the emotions have been locked so deep inside, that she is not able to experience it without breaking the literals.

How long will the memories of the Holocaust and Hiroshima last until they become merely an event that we read in a textbook? By translating the emotions of Hiroshima poetically on films, the tragedy is recorded not by facts, but through a cinematic experience. In a way, this is a poetically true documentary of Hiroshima.

The film is described by many to be the catalyst of the French New Wave, along with “400 Blows” by Truffaut. It is beautifully filmed and uses many Nouvelle Vague methods such as jump cutting, non-linear story telling, etc. However, unlike its peers, “Hiroshima Mon Amour” ages better because the style here is only playing a supporting role, the protagonist is the poetry spoken by “Nevers” and “Hiroshima”.


Hiroshima Mon Amour” is directed by Alain Resnais, written by Marguerite Duras, starring Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada (who by the way, could not speak any French, and was only memorizing every syllable in his lines.) Buy it on The Criterion Collection.

Dail M for Murder (1954)

September 10, 2011

“Dial M for Murder” adapted from a successful stage play tells a story of a man who plans a perfect murder of his wife . It was filmed in 3D, and screened briefly in 3D too. Odd fact. Anyway, much like “Rear Window” released in the same year, “Dial M for Murder” is set entirely in a claustrophobic apartment, a challenge that must have appealed to Hitchcock to create suspense with the minimum set pieces, perhaps explaining why Hitchcock was interested to film it in 3D at the first place – to create the maximum depth and interest in a small setting.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a retired professional tennis player married to his once fan Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly). His saving is running out. His wife, who once loves and admires him, is now having an affair with another man called Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings). Mr.Wendice has plotted for years a perfect plan to murder his wife with the reluctant help of his college friend Lesgate. When things go wrong, Wendice derives a plan B. Will he succeed? Will he not?

The suspense is classic Hitchcock. Although the movie lacks the splendid set piece from his later movies or the self-reflection in “Vertigo”, it gets one thing perfectly right – keeping us at the edge of the seat by making us identify with the murderer and take the risk as he does.

The murder is discussed and conducted in a civilized manner. We see two gentlemans catching up the old time back in college. Wendice talks Lesgate into the murder scheme, not with a pointed gun, but with perfect logic and reasoning, which makes perfect sense on paper. We are the insiders, we know perfectly well the next steps. We are told that a perfect murder only exists in a novel, that the real life probabilities are incalculable and hence one small unexpected incident leads to the collapse of a perfect scheme.

A crime is truly suspenseful only when conducted in a lawful society, by seemingly law-abiding gentlemans. The consequence of failure is clear. The line is only crossed when the line is there. We are the participants as much as Wendice or his helper. We are the invisible voyers and partners in crime. That’s class A entertainment – experiencing the psychology of a murderer in a safe black room behind the screen. After all, murder is only fun on paper.

Dial M fur Murder” is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings.

Happy Together (1997)

September 4, 2011

The films of Wong Kar Wai endure multiple viewings, not because they are beautifully photographed, which they are, and not because they have great romance, which they also have, but because they embody the common consciousness of Hong Kong in the period of pre- and post-handover so well, and in such voluptuous colors. “Happy Together” is my favorite among all his films because it is the final statement of Hong Kong in the 1990’s. It was released in 1997, the handover year of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

Lai Yiu Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) are lovers. They arrive in Argentina from Hong Kong to debark a road trip for a holiday. They goes adrift, car is broken, so is their relationship. From that point, Yiu Fai and Po Wing are stranded in Argentina in a doomed relationship. That is my best effort to describe the storyline as there is not a clear one. The movie is more about the characters than a story.

Yiu Fai is the more quiet and sensitive of the couple, while Po Wing is explosive and seductive, bringing a balance to the duo. They run out of money. Yiu Fai longs for his homeland. He saves up for a return flight ticket from the modest income he makes from a Chinese restaurant, while Po Wing has no obvious plan and supports himself a lurid lifestyle by shuffling between foreign partners.

The two personalities draw an interesting analogy to the pre-1997 period of Hong Kong – the Hong Kong citizens who have been drifting for so long that they long to return “home”, whatever the home is, and those who still long for the foreigners during the colonization.

Po Wing is spontaneous and playful, at times explosive, the right mixture of a good lover until he goes beyond control. Yiu Fai struggles between Po Wing and a more stable life. A more realistic plan is to save up enough to return home and fix the existential crisis. His struggle interestingly suggests the internal conflict of the Hong Kong citizens before 1997. The eventual breakup between the couple, leaving Po Wing alone in Argentina and Yiu Fai returning home, illustrates the difficult breakup of the Hong Kong citizens from the british rule. The ending is that of a lost love, which is destined to doom, despite false expectation.

Whether or not Wong Kar Wai had these in mind during the making of this movie would be up to your imagination. The theme of lost time, obsession to a due date (1997 in the case of Hong Kong) and doomed lovers can be found throughout his work prior to 1997. His direction is changed after the 1997 handover and his later films illustrate a different consciousness that is analogous to that of the post-1997 Hong Kong citizens. Many viewers accuse Wong Kar Wai as a one off director whose films only contain style with little substance. Looking beyond the surface, one could find different meanings and motifs manifested by his characters which roam in the world of lost love and opportunity.

Happy Together” is directed by Wong Kar Wai, beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle, starring Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung.

The Boys from Brazil (1978)

September 2, 2011

“The Boys from Brazil” is by no mean a great movie, but it certainly has a hell a lot of fun. If you are a sucker for every World War II picture that typecasts everyone with a thick german accent in a sinister Nazi role, you are in for the show.

Adapted from a british novel of the same name written by Ira Levin, the plot is insidiously silly. It involves the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele aka Angel of Death (Gregory Peck) plotting a world domination plan of cloning Hitler. Stepping into the show is young Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) who dies fairly early into the movie, followed up by the old legendary Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), obviously based on the real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who now must battle the Angel of Death and stop his evil plan.

Anything involving the World War II, the Nazis and Nazi hunters has to be an entertaining movie. It has all the ingredients for the perfect backdrop of an absorbing story – you get the absolute evil, the heros, the war, the apocalypse, etc. “The Boys from Brazil” is a pioneer in the way that it paves the way for movies like “Inglorious Bastards”, Tarantino’s own parody of the genre. A movie like this kind is not to be taken too seriously, but to explore the what-if and throw in a lot of fun along the way.

In real life Joseph Mengele escaped to Brazil after the war and was last seen in Paraguay. Real life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal reportedly spent half of his post-Holocaust life trying to hunt down the Angel of Death, without success. The doctor is assumed to be dead by now given the old age. And I only wish someone would make a biopic of Simon’s manhunt of the notorious Nazi doctor!

The Boys from Brazil” is directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, adapted by Heywood Gould from a novel by Ira Levin.

Psycho (1960)

September 2, 2011

“Psycho” ages extremely well over the course of fifty years. Today some of the plot points have been reduced to cliché in parody after parody, but the movie is so well made that the artistry keeps it fresher in each viewing even after you know all the secrets, knots and twists.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) are in love. Sam is divorced and in no condition to marry Marion because most of his money goes into alimony. Marion is sick of being stuck, and when given the chance, steals $40,000 from his employer. She runs away and stops by the Bates Motel, meets the owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his ill mother. Norman is likable and handsome at the first sight, but we quickly sense something is not quite right about him. He and Marion connect in the way that they are both trapped, and hiding a secret.

Then it comes to the most famous twist at exactly 47 minutes into the movie. Hitchcock shot it in one week, with 77 camera angles, 50 cuts, and the sequence lasts only 3 minutes (I didn’t count, the figures vary from source to source). It has to be the most studied murder sequence of all time. Notice the scene when the water goes down the drain, then dissolves into an extreme closeup shot of the lifeless eye and slowly zooms out as the life is draining away from the pupil.

Does it look like I am giving a lot of plot away? If you do not know the secret yet, expect the unexpected. In fact, Hitchcock insisted that all viewers should arrive at the cinema on time, and requested that nobody should give away the secret. In a more extreme measure, after he bought the right of the original novel, he also bought every available copy of the book to avoid the secret being given away.

This is also the last black and white film by Hitchcock, who shot this cheaply with US $800,000 and in black and white to get a cheap b-movie look. Against the studio’s wish, he even employed his television crew instead of his usual team that made his other sleek thrillers to achieve this purpose. It is as much a disguise as everything from the plot, down to the characters. He toys with us, misleads us, in order to surprise us. In a way, we are as much the victims of Hitchcock as the victims of the murder in “Psycho”.

And check out the beautifully designed opening sequence of the movie on Vimeo.

Psycho” (1960) is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.