Friday, February 26, 2010

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987)

March 3rd, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The films of Director Kazuo Hara typically elicit questions on the role and limits of documentary film making. They are shocking, strange and some say criminal, but are they also profound? For his first film Goodbye CP (1972) Hara documented the scorn and isolation that sufferers of cerebral palsy experience in conformist Japan. In other films he would look at the changing role of women and the totality of a great artist, but for his third directorial effort he shoots an arrow into the heart of Japanese society.
Kenzo Okuzaki is an angry World War II veteran of Japans Imperial Army. He suffered greatly and had a hard time reconciling his experiences in civilian life. Then after killing a man he discovered that he was a divine force of judgment on earth. Now he has pledged to uncover the truth about the execution of several Japanese soldiers at wars end.
Kenzo’s quest is documented including his interviews with witnesses and if they would stand against divine justice, then he has no choice but to use violence. Made over a five year period, Hara documents Kenzo’s activities, but never intervenes or expresses judgment of the man. This gives the film a stark and disturbing quality that most documentaries seem to shy away from.

Japan, Director Kazuo Hara, Featuring Kenzo Okuzaki, 122 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

City of Life and Death (2009)

City of Life and Death (2009)

February 24th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The Nanjing Massacre, or as it more popularly known, The Rape of Nanking is a subject that has been attempted as material numerous films and documentaries. From the earliest of these, Frank Capra’s The Battle of China (1944) an instalment in his Why We Fight documentary series to later examples, there have been at least nine films centering on the events. It might surprise many to hear that this 2009 Mainland Chinese entry is easily one of the most balanced and reflective of these films.
It might be appropriate to go over the most commonly excepted view the events of the massacre. In early December of 1937 elements of the Japanese army attacked and captured the city of Nanjing, formerly the capital of the Republic of China under the Nationalists. The Japanese were able to take the city after a short battle, capturing a large number of surrendered Chinese troops. One explanation for what happened next involves a sense of frustration on the part of the Japanese because in previous months they had been bogged down in costly urban combat with Nationalist forces, another involves a general lack of discipline and clear direction from the upper command structure. Either way, the Japanese began mass executions of Chinese prisoners of war. The likely number sits at around 57,000 and this action was only the beginning.
In a six week period, Japanese soldiers committed a series of atrocities that in both scale and variety seem beyond comprehension. The lowest estimates are those of the Japanese which range between 100,000-200,000 deaths. Estimates of around 300,000 deaths are generally held by the Chinese and depending on the time period cited and including the general area around the city an estimate of more then 400,000 is possible. The range of atrocities that are leveled against the Japanese army includes burying people alive, indiscriminate machine gunning of crowds, the use of explosives, bayonets, swords, fire and much more.

The term Rape of Nanking also has a very literal meaning. The official estimate made by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East is 20,000 rapes, but subsequent estimates range from 40,000 to 80,000. The rapes were viewed as a way of punishing the population and they included infants as well as the elderly. A great number of women were literally raped to death, that is gang raped until blood loss or beatings reached a fatal level. One of the few positive events surrounding the massacre involved the Nanking Safety Zone. It was a space set up by a group of foreigners who resided in the city and lead by Nazi representative John Rabe. It was able to offer citizens a refuge where the Japanese army was largely denied access. Rabe was eventually recalled to Germany because the Nazi leadership viewed his actions in trying to save Chinese civilians and document the events as detrimental to their relationship to the Empire of Japan.

The nature of these facts illustrates how any representation of these events can cause heated passions. Due to the chaos of the later Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China, many aspects of the massacre were played down for decades. But in recent years historical debate has intensified and the events have become reasonably well known in the West as well as the Far East. One aspect of this comes from an increasingly high profile campaign by Japanese cultural conservatives to claim that no massacre had ever taken place. This includes the production of the film The Truth About Nanking (2007) funded through donations, which denies the events of the massacre. That same year the American documentary Nanking premiered in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the massacre. Later in 2009 two more high profile films would follow, both dealing with similar settings in the midst of the massacre. Besides City, the other film is entitled John Rabe, a German, French and Chinese co-production centering on the events taking place in the Nanking Safety Zone and focusing on the tittle character.
City of Life and Death also centers on the Nanking Safety Zone, but not surprisingly John Rabe becomes a secondary character in favor of a focus on Chinese civilians. What might be a shock is that there are a handful of major Japanese characters, several of which are generally portrayed in a positive, or at the very least a sympathetic way. The films story deals with a range of characters including civilians, foreigners, Japanese officers and enlisted men, nationalist soldiers and both Japanese and Chinese comfort women. Many Japanese soldiers are shown as either genuinely disturbed by the events, or reluctantly falling down a slippery slope of actions that lead to the horrific acts. This dimension was enough to cause protests by some Chinese groups over the films tone. But it reflects well upon the state of Chinese cinema and culture that such a film can now be produced and widely viewed.

The film is also far less graphic then a viewer might expect, although that is not to say that disturbing imagery is absent, in fact it is abundant. The focus of the film is primarily on the events taking place in the Nanking Safety Zone with a approach that seems to attempt to put the viewer in the shoes of someone finding themselves in a hell on earth where nothing is certain and danger is everywhere. The choice of black and white gives the film a raw, documentary quality that color cinematography would find a challenge to equal. I feel that City of Life and Death will be remembered as an important film in both the popular conception of the massacre and the continuing cultural dialog about these haunting events from the not distant past.

Mainland China, Director Lu Chuan, Cast Liu Ye, Gao Yuan-Yuan, Qin Lan and Fan Wei, 135 minutes, in Mandarin, Japanese and English with English subtitles

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guns & Talks (2001)

Guns & Talks (2001)

February 17th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

A group of four men, two of them brothers, live together in what seems like a pleasant middle-class household. They hang out together and also share an obsession with the attractive host of a morning show that they never miss. The twist is they are all professional assassins.

Jang Jin made his name as a playwright and later broke into the South Korean film industry as a writer-director. He has often been associated with quirky stories including authoring the play that became the basis for the hit film Welcome to Dongmakgol. So the blackly comedic tone of Guns & Talks should come as no surprise.

The story takes a mater of fact approach to the killing, giving the film a slightly disturbing atmosphere. The four men are never villainized and even with the presence of several police officers who are hunting them, they might just as well be bankers as far as the tone of the film goes.

South Korea, Director Jang Jin, Cast Shin Hyun-Joon, Won Bin, Shin Ha-Gyun and Jeong Jin-Young, 125 minutes, in Korean with English subtitles

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Criminals (1976)

The Criminals (1976)

February 10th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The Criminals is an unusual film, both for the studio that produced it and its tone in relation to changing cultural standards of what is acceptable in the media. For the people of Hong Kong, television was late in coming compared to some other regions. While there had been limited ownership in the 1950's and 60's, it was not until the start of the 70's that a majority of the population had this convenience. This changed the way in which popular culture and the news was presented and there is perhaps no better example of this then the love affair with true crime dramatizations.

Television allowed many events to be broadcast live to a mass audience, this included several high profile crimes including a bank robbery. The interest in these events was so great that TV and film producers smelled a surefire profit and begun creating films and TV shows that to borrow a popular phrase, were ripped from the headlines.
This example was created by the Shaw Brothers Studio and offers an experience not at all like the majority of their previous films. Firstly, the film relied upon a series of hooks. Its three stories were each directed by a different prominent director and so varied in tone. Each story was based upon a real crime and was filmed largely on the actual locations. The Shaw Brothers had released a handful of seedy exploitation films, although they were frequently set in the past, such as many of their soft core erotica films known as fengyue.
What is unusual is the people and locations the film centers upon were rarely seen in previous Hong Kong films. The Shaw Brothers had a habit of focusing upon the affluent or a kind of idealized version of the poor whenever their films had a contemporary Hong Kong setting. The characters in The Criminals are a mixture from the middle of society instead of its two ends. One setting is a mine workings in the New Territories, one of the first times such a location is used in Hong Kong film. Then in a self reflexive act, the last of the stories is set in the Shaw studio itself and deals with criminal gangs among their stuntmen, which was a major problem of the era. The films popularity helped to spawn four sequels and more importantly would foreshadow certain directions that the Hong Kong new wave would take in films like Cops and Robbers (1979)
Hong Kong, Directors Hua Shan, Cheng Kang and Ho Meng-Hua, Cast Chiang Yang, Terry Liu, Shih Szu, Szu Wei and Tanny Tien Ni, 92 minutes, in Cantonese with English subtitles

Monday, February 1, 2010

If You Were Young: RAGE (1970)

If You Were Young: RAGE (1970)

** Major Announcement **
The weekly screening has moved from Thursday to Wednesday

February 3rd, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Out of the chaos and destruction of the Second World War Japan emerged and began the long task of recovery. By the 1960's the economic situation had greatly improved, but for another segment of the population this had little meaning. An entire generation of young people had grown up in the ruins and shortages of Japans urban centers. Already thoroughly jaded, they then encounter a shortage of good jobs, old prejudices and a sense of utter hopelessness. This feeling was the subject of many dynamic films in the 1960's and 70's, If You Were Young: RAGE is one of these. Director Kinji Fukasaku had a varied career including his masterful anti war film Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972), the American-Japanese co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and perhaps most notably his Yakuza films of the 1970's including his five part Battles Without Honor or Humanity film series. Out of these RAGE has much in common with the Yakuza pictures in that they both portray a gritty, frequently depressing world of kinetic energy and bitter realities.
The plot of RAGE is simple, a group of young men decide to work for their future and pull together to save up enough for a large truck so that they can make a living as a subcontractor for a construction company. While the plot is simple, it is also virtually meaningless while viewing the film. The real substance is the inner feelings of the men as they try to create a life for themselves. The characters are not after wealth or fame, but escape from a hellish world that seems indifferent to their existence.

Japan, Director Kinji Fukasaku, Cast Tetsuo Ishidate, Gin Maeda, Choichiro Kawarazaki and Hideki Hayashi, 89 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles