Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Adi and Rohani.
EASILY ONE OF the most courageous and profound documentaries in ages, The Look of Silence is director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to The Act of Killing (2012), his shocking exposé about the Indonesian “gangsters” who tortured and murdered over one million communists and suspected communists in 1965, following the military overthrow of the Sukarno regime. Neither movie aims to analyze the political, economic, and historical reasons behind the fall of the government and its aftermath, although there are allusions to the “containment” policy that fueled American involvement in Vietnam and made it easier for other nations in the region to eradicate communists with impunity. In each movie, Oppenheimer’s approach is unique—pushing the limits of such familiar documentary strategies as interviews with talking heads toward uncommon, disquieting pathways of illumination.
For The Act of Killing he asked the murderers—safely ensconced in a society yet to confront its hideous past—to create scenes that would help him understand what took place. Unfazed by the Geneva Convention’s judgment that they had committed war crimes, the men threw themselves exuberantly into the task, devising a grotesque theater of cruelty in which methods of torture, dismemberment, and killing were elaborately reenacted, often in the spirit of their favorite Hollywood movies. The process elicited opposing feelings in the two principal figures: Anwar Congo had bad dreams and questioned his past behavior, while Adi Zulkadry felt that since paramilitary groups helped them and everyone approved of their actions, the only dilemma was “to find the right excuse so as not to feel guilty.” Though near the end of the movie we see Congo retching as if from some involuntary revulsion, we are left wondering if the reenactments and self-probing induced by Oppenheimer’s project did, in fact, lead to genuine compunction.
If the ruling tone of The Act of Killing is barely contained repugnance, The Look of Silence is a model of mournful, if troubling, reflection—a companion piece from the perspective of the survivors. We follow another Adi, whose silent gaze of almost preternatural attention is the central image of the movie. His brother Ramli was not only among the victims in 1965 but, according to Oppenheimer, one whose murder was witnessed. Prompted by this fact, Adi dares to confront the individuals responsible. We see him watching a video of the former leaders of the death squads as they indifferently recount the atrocities. As an optician, Adi gains entry to the company of two other men, only to catch them off guard when he asks about their role in the mass murders. In one scene, as they talk by the banks of the very river into which bodies were dumped, Adi suddenly realizes, almost by chance, that he stands before his brother’s murderers. The risks he took in these confrontations were shared by Oppenheimer and his crew because no one at the time (the filming occurred between 2003 and 2005) could speak openly of such things without fear of reprisals from those still in power. It was this prevailing atmosphere of forced silence and fear that Oppenheimer intended to mirror (and which is why many members of the crew are listed as “anonymous” in the final credits).
The concentrated, unflinching aim of Adi’s gaze, intensified by that of Oppenheimer’s camera, makes The Look of Silence a movie about other kinds of looks and silences, and the actual experience of watching it aesthetically and psychologically complex. His achievement is not limited to having pulled off an act of confrontational journalism in the face of retaliatory dangers—amazing as this was. More than its predecessor, this work is also a testament to the cinema as a unique instrument of investigation. Every frame of the movie is imbued with its director’s ethical sensibility borne through a formally restrained aesthetic. Indeed, the gaze of the camera, held with steadfast equanimity and unwavering trust in its revelatory potential, seems touched by the spirits of Rossellini and Tarkovsky, for whom the camera’s protracted look on the world could ultimately disclose nothing less than existential truths. As in their work, Oppenheimer’s interest in big questions is inseparable from the intrinsic properties of the art form enlisted to address them.
Whereas most documentary filmmakers are driven primarily by their material, and only secondarily, if at all, by the spatiotemporal parameters of the medium, the framing and duration of shots in Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence trouble the line between what we see and what lies hidden, between what is said and what is thought—often seizing simultaneously the contradictory phenomena of both. What is at stake is not merely this or that fact, this or that speaker, or this or that investigative method, but that ultimate, inaccessible realm, inadequately labeled truth itself. The long takes and silences of this approach constitute a style that literally reflects reflection, soliciting the viewer to weigh patiently rather than respond superficially to everything seen and heard. One recalls Claude Lanzmann’s approach in Shoah (1985), which eschewed archival footage of concentration camp horrors, allowing long shots of the grounds bearing little trace of their existence to resonate within both participants and viewers. Just as Lanzmann used that erasure to imply the unrepresentability of the crimes of the Holocaust, the silent looks and absences of Oppenheimer’s movie conjure disturbing images of what we don’t see and invite anxious meditations on the ugliest aspects of human nature.
If the impersonal, sadistic reenactments in The Act of Killing distance the viewer from acknowledging affinity with the murderers, The Look of Silence, through the deceptive grace of its stillness, seduces us into recognizing the all-too-human character traits of ignorance, hate, and self-deception. Long held looks between the searcher and those he confronts are so charged with tension, with the overcoming of fear, and the effort to penetrate the wall of denial, that the viewer cannot look away. We are pulled in and forced to ponder the reverberations of each moment. If one has seen the earlier film, one is unsurprised by the zestfully described atrocities and the resistance of family members to hearing Adi speak of their dead father’s crimes. What we are less prepared for are anguished moments like the one when Adi discovers his uncle’s role in Ramli’s death, and when he relates this to his mother. His uncle detained Ramli until the murderers took him to the river where he was killed. Adi’s mother says she never knew this. Yet her manner is so unruffled as to suggest the possibility that she did know, or at least suspect as much.
This may be something neither Adi nor Oppenheimer would concede. Yet I don’t think it at all unlikely, given what we’ve learned about the prevailing climate of fear and secrecy, that, like everyone else, this woman had to live not only with the memory of what happened to her son but with the ugly truth that her brother was complicit in his fate. If we dismiss the idea and tell ourselves that, while everyone else can pretend ignorance, a mother is above that, we fail to appreciate the reach and thrust of a filmmaking style designed, through the painstaking scrutiny of the camera’s eye, to extract precisely such discomfiting thoughts.
Both The Look of Silence and The Act of Killing have now been screened in parts of Indonesia, making it possible that eventually the “true history” that the murderers were so bent on protecting for half a century will finally be exposed for the heinous lie that it was.
The Look of Silence opens at Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York on Friday, July 17.
TRAINWRECK, a comedy directed by Judd Apatow and written by and starring Amy Schumer, tries to be all things to all people, making strenuous efforts to ensure that long-marginalized special-interest groups—those wholly underserved audiences like sports fans and Billy Joel enthusiasts—don’t feel excluded by a film about a woman’s dating foibles. Fans of the lead’s savagely funny Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, will find little of what distinguishes that sketch show—its anatomizing of both the pathologies of sexism and the entitlement of certain straight white females—in this wheel-spinning feature. Those viewers who have ached for the late aughts, when Katherine Heigl was the rom-com standard-bearer, however, will likely feel soothed.
“Hey, guys, I’m Amy. Don’t judge me, fuckers,” Schumer demands in voice-over at the beginning of Trainwreck, after her character’s inconsiderate behavior toward her numerous bedmates is established. These laddish practices are the direct result of an incident revealed in the film’s prologue: nine-year-old Amy and her kid sister, Kim, chanting “Monogamy isn’t realistic” at the insistence of their father (Colin Quinn), who’s just told his daughters that he’s divorcing their mom. This dopey cause and effect plays out in the movie’s increasingly moralizing tone. Amy’s defiant and jokily defensive imperative later softens to this earnest, teary declaration: “I know what I am—I’m broken,” a line delivered to her happily married and now pregnant sibling (Brie Larson).
Amy arrives at this diagnosis following a rupture in her relationship with Aaron (Bill Hader), a saintly physician whose specialty is sports medicine and who is honored by Doctors Without Borders. They meet in the course of Amy’s reporting for a vaguely defined feature for her employer, S’nuff magazine; an early story-ideas confab at the glossy stands as Trainwreck’s best scene, filled with the spiky observations that make Schumer’s TV show so vital. “Pitch me hard,” exhorts editor in chief Dianna (Tilda Swinton, slathered in bronzer and blue eye shadow, and funnier here than she’s been in a decade) in her Estuary accent, her staff blurting out possible articles with titles like “You’re Not Gay: She’s Boring” and “Where Are They Now? The Kids Michael Jackson Made Settlements With.”
Those caustic jabs at pop culture soon cede to its glorification. Aaron’s best friend is LeBron James; the basketball superstar plays himself as a Downton Abbey–loving, penny-pinching incurable romantic in three scenes too many. Even more enervating is the screen time devoted to Amar’e Stoudmire and Marv Albert. (There is one great cameo, though: The brilliant downtown-cabaret terrorist Bridget Everett shares a fond XXX memory at Kim’s baby shower.) A shot of Amy journaling at a sidewalk table outside Veselka, part of a montage presaging the inevitable life lessons learned, typifies the dull, banalizing depictions of New York that have dominated romantic comedies set in the city ever since Meg Ryan fake-came at Katz’s Delicatessen.
I’m not sure who’s most responsible for Trainwreck’s ultimate timidity, for the mordant ribaldry evinced in the first half hour or so inexorably oozing into couple-y goo. The film certainly bears Apatow’s trademark blend of raunch and family-first sermonizing: Though Schumer is credited as the sole screenwriter, the director of Knocked Up (2007) and This Is 40 (2012), whom the comedian was especially eager to work with, gave her notes on the script throughout. As we watch a newly repentant Amy clear out her Grand Street apartment of empty liquor bottles and bongs, we realize who her harshest judge is: not the fuckers in the audience but the woman who created her.
Trainwreck opens nationally on Friday, July 17.
Chaitanya Tamhane, Court, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar).
IN AN ARTICLE in Forbes India earlier this year, writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane called his movie Court a “complete subversion of the courtroom drama.” Set in Mumbai, where the filmmaker was born in 1987, Court contains no dramatic scenes of gavel-hammering or eleventh-hour confessions. Suffused with a pointed, cool, never didactic despair, Tamhane’s narrative-feature debut exposes India’s highly dysfunctional judicial system, one still upholding scores of laws dating back to British rule almost seventy years after independence.
Entangled in this web of legal and bureaucratic absurdity is Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a sixty-five-year-old activist poet and performer who has been arrested for the “abetment of suicide”: Officials claim that one of the white-bearded bard’s fiery songs led a sewer worker to take his own life. Narayan is represented by Vinay (Vivek Gomber), who in his off-hours attends seminars on “Dissecting Democracy”; arguing the case against the “people’s poet” is Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who accuses him of sedition as defined by the Dramatic Performances Act, implemented by the Raj in 1876. Presiding is Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), whose adherence to due process is arbitrary at best: All too willing to let Narayan’s trial drag on for months, he refuses to hear a separate claim because the female plaintiff is wearing a sleeveless top.
To underscore the protracted crawl of Narayan’s case, Tamhane and his cinematographer, Mrinal Desai, record the action in the courtroom (and much of what happens outside it) in long, fixed takes. Scenes stretch several seconds, sometimes minutes, past what we have assumed to be their natural conclusion. This odd rhythm is especially effective as we witness, once the judge has declared that court is adjourned for the day, the room empty out; after the lights have been switched off and the door closed, we remain inside the darkened space for several beats. Court also depicts its three legal professionals when they’re not wearing black robes, and the transitions to the domestic lives and leisure hours of the central trio are also marked by a peculiar tempo, paradoxically both abrupt and seamless. Rich in detail, these moments offer further hushed but no less biting commentary on tradition and nouveau practices: Nutan is shown cooking and waiting on her family in their cramped lodging; Sadavarte advises a relative concerned about his severely language-delayed son to consult a numerologist; Vinay favors upscale spa treatments and shopping in gourmet markets.
“This film is very culture-specific. We had very little hopes of the international audience even getting it,” Tamhane added in Forbes India. (Court had its world premiere last summer at the Venice Film Festival, where it won two awards.) But labyrinthine legal processes, of course, are not limited to India. While watching Court, I was reminded of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a recent Israeli narrative feature that follows the maddening years it took the title character to obtain a divorce, which, under the laws of that country, can be granted only if the husband gives full consent to the marriage’s dissolution. In his appreciative piece about Tamhane’s project for newyorker.com, journalist Samanth Subramanian notes, “India’s courts are indeed choked, with more than thirty-one million open cases awaiting resolution.” Stateside, no case highlights a similar failure of the justice system more than that of Kalief Browder: Held for three years (two in solitary confinement) at Rikers Island without ever being convicted of a crime and without ever standing trial, the twenty-two-year-old committed suicide, two years after his release from prison, last month.
Court plays at Film Forum July 15–28.
Sean Baker, Tangerine, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes. Sin-Dee, Chester, and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone, and May Taylor).
SEAN BAKER’S TANGERINE is fated to go down in film history as the first really enticing-looking film to be shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. Without the barrage of making-of articles about the movie, including two in the New York Times, you might not have been aware of its production tools until the last of the end credits—and who stays for those, although everyone should. It reads: “Shot entirely on the Apple iPhone 5s; captured with FilmicPro app; Anamorphic capture courtesy of Moondog Labs first edition 1.33x Anamorphic Adapters.”
So don’t think you can use your iPhone as it comes out of the box to make anything comparable to the wide-screen, hyperreal, kinetic Tangerine. I’m not looking forward to thousands of movies by aspiring directors who inevitably will try. Baker not only souped up his iPhone; he had adventurous, skilled colleagues, in particular Radium Cheung, with whom he’s worked before and who shares cinematography and production tasks. He also had a vision for how to create a world like no other with this particular camera, specifically the world as seen through the eyes of the film’s two central characters, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), BFF transgender working girls whose home turf is about twelve blocks of West Hollywood along Santa Monica Boulevard. Like the great transgender Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, Rodriguez and Taylor compel our attention through the power and courage of their fantasy. And what could be more compelling than imagining that the genitalia you are born with does not determine your identity—and then making that transgressive imagining a reality.
Tangerine takes place on a single, sunny, hot December 24, Christmas Eve in Hollywood. Sin-Dee, just released from thirty days in jail with two dollars in her pocket, meets Alexandra, who, for some reason known only to her, informs the friend who is prone to making drama that Chester, their pimp (James Ransone), to whom Sin-Dee believes herself engaged, has been shacking up with a “blonde fish,” i.e., a cisgender white working girl. Thereupon the narrative takes off on three tracks: The furious Sin-Dee goes off in search of the “fish” and, having found her, drags her literally kicking and screaming, on foot and on public transport, in pursuit of the elusive Chester; Alexandra, in between attempting to derail the confrontation she has instigated, is trying to round up an audience for her performance in a neighborhood bar. (Taylor, as opaque as Garbo, can torch a room even when there are only a half-dozen people listening.) And Razmik (Karren Karagulian), in between picking up customers, is looking for a hookup, hopefully with Sin-Dee, his favorite, but failing to find her he gets off while going through a car wash with Alexandra, a scene sexier and sweeter than those in Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967). All these characters, plus Razmik’s wife and outraged mother-in-law, converge screwball style in a donut shop, where the truth is revealed all around. In a film governed by Eros, friendship prevails. Sin-Dee and Alexandra forever.
This is Baker’s fourth feature, and although the three earlier—Take Out (2004), Prince of Broadway (2008), and Starlet (2012)—were clearly the work of a talented director and one who was committed to depicting with unfailing empathy and a lack of sentimentality, as he does in Tangerine, people surviving on the margins, they seemed to me visually dull and flat. From interviews he has done about the making of Tangerine, one might think that Baker felt similarly. Avoiding every cliché of digital realism, Tangerine is alive, vivid, and true to the world of its working-girl characters, who, it should be noted, don’t possess a single iPhone among them.
Tangerine opens Friday, July 10, in select theaters.
ELLEN WILLIS wrote that Janis Joplin’s death was “an artistic as well as a human calamity.” So too was the death of Amy Winehouse. Calamity is an easier word than tragedy, which carries all that classical baggage. But as he showed with Senna (2010), his documentary portrait of Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, filmmaker Asif Kapadia is a master of the modern tragic narrative, and his documentary Amy fulfills the form.
Pity, terror, and, rather than catharsis, heartbreaking loss: The film limns Winehouse’s short, brilliantly creative life and overdetermined death in 2011 at age twenty-seven. You very well may obsessively limn the film after it’s over, feeling guilty about every death in your life that, just maybe, you could have prevented, if only . . . Amy hits home.
And of course, home is where it begins, with a trio of giggly fourteen-year-old girls sucking lollipops and mocking the camera, until one of them starts singing “Happy Birthday” and you instantly recognize the voice—a little more wavering in pitch than it would become but already dark and husky, circling the notes of the familiar melody like a fledgling Sarah Vaughan. In a matter of seconds the lollipop becomes a ciggie—and a bottle—and there is Winehouse at sixteen, on stage with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, doing a cover of “Moon River” that announces she’s arrived and then some.
Employing the same process as in Senna, Kapadia gathered massive amounts of photos and moving images: home movies shot on iPhones and cheap video cameras, studio recording sessions, audition tapes, TV appearances, live concert coverage. Even before the paparazzi descended in droves, Winehouse lived her life on camera, a tiny North London Jewish girl with facial bones resembling Barbra Streisand’s (same resonators) staring down the lens with eyes black-lined early-’60s style (à la Ronnie Spector or Brigitte Bardot or Streisand), her intensely fixed gaze a challenge with just the hint of a plea. Except when she was too stoned to hold it together, this was the single face she presented to the camera, which is strikingly at odds with the fantastic flexibility of her voice, her talent for vocal improvisation, and the wild emotional and stylistic range of her singing. With editor Chris King, Kapadia arranged the visual material almost entirely chronologically, using voice-over culled from hundreds of audio interviews with friends, family, musician colleagues, and various overseers of Winehouse’s career to tie the narrative together. (No talking heads were recorded for the film and there is no voice of authority.) The raw emotional charge of the film comes largely from Winehouse, but the heartbreak in the voices of her close friends is our point of entry and identification.
Kapadia also allows Winehouse to provide an autobiographical thread by inscribing her lyrics on the screen as we hear her songs. She wrote the music and lyrics for almost every song on her depressingly few albums: Frank (2003), Back to Black (2006), and the posthumous Hidden Treasures (2011). Like her voice, the songs combine musical sophistication with raw, unsettling emotion. In the tradition of the jazz singers and the R&B girl groups whose sounds she made her own, Winehouse sang about love gone wrong, love as pain, love as addiction. It took a lot more defiance for a woman as tough and sassy as Winehouse was (at least in her self-presentation) to open up about those feelings in the twenty-first century than it had been for Billie Holiday or the Ronettes or even Janis.
In the essay about Janis, Willis wrote: “Watching men groove on Janis, I began to appreciate the resentment that many black people feel toward whites who are blues freaks. Janis sang out of her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig.” Willis goes on to say that Janis had an adversary relation to the blues, that she used blues conventions to reject blues sensibility but was trapped in the contradiction. Winehouse embraced the blues and soul and gospel and reggae, and had she lived to make another album, rap—black music across the board. Her scorn was directed at those of her own generation who sing as if they’re in control. In a piece for NPR after Winehouse died, critic Ann Powers quoted an interview she did with her in 2007. “ ‘When I fell in love, I thought, “I’m going to die with you,” ’ she told me, referring to her romance with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, which at that point was in a lull. ‘So much pop these days is like, “What can you do for me? I don’t need you. You don’t know me.” Back in the ’60s it really was like, “I don’t care if you love me, I’m gonna lay down and die for you, because I’m in love with you.” ’ ”
Fielder-Civil comes off badly in Amy, and so does Mitch Winehouse, the father who was absent when Amy was a child and returned to exploit her money and fame. Kapadia doesn’t openly editorialize, but he selected the clips and it’s hard to believe that Mr. Winehouse could mount a defense against what we see of him on screen: Bringing a camera crew to make a reality show about himself to the resort where in 2009 Amy has gone explicitly to escape the incessant paparazzi assaults; insisting that she fulfill her tour commitments in 2008 when alcohol and drugs and bulimia had nearly destroyed her body and, again, in 2011 when she was near death. On the other hand, she had friends and colleagues who loved her and who still seem heartsick that they could not check her fall.
But despite the ending, which we know even before we buy our tickets, Amy is not a depressing movie. Winehouse put her torn-up feelings and genre samplings inside perfect Brill Building song structures. Kapadia pulls off a similar feat. Amy is tightly constructed as a three-act drama and it moves at a ferocious pace. In the first act we see Winehouse on the way up. The performance clips of her singing in small clubs and festivals are thrilling. And she’s a hoot in person. The second act yo-yos up and down. There’s an amazing bit in the studio where she’s recording Back to Black. She’s alone in the booth, singing into the mic, listening to the back-up through phones. Kapadia begins the sequence with just her voice, then adds the sound of the band and then pulls them out so she’s alone again. She received six Grammy nominations in 2008 for the album, and she won five of them. In voice-over, we hear Lucian Grainge, the head of Universal Music Group, say that he told her that if she showed up at the Grammys stoned she would never record again. The threat apparently worked. Winehouse’s drug-use history, however, kept her from getting a visa, so she performs via satellite from a London studio. When she realizes that her idol Tony Bennett is going to present one of her awards, the look on her face is pure ecstasy. But minutes later she tells one of her best friends that it was completely boring without drugs. That’s the moment, telegraphed through perfectly timed editing, that we know it’s over for her.
The last act is simply devastating. Winehouse is wasting away before everyone’s eyes and the media jackals are swooping in for the kill. A special corner in hell should be reserved for Jay Leno, who jokes about her addiction in his Tonight Show monologue. There’s a lovely interlude where she records a duet with Bennett, “Body and Soul.” She keeps stopping short, scared that she can’t sing. Bennett, who was a huge supporter, is very tender, assuring her that all the great ones are terrified until they get into the song. He would later say that he didn’t realize how sick she was but that she probably knew then that she was dying. And die she did a few months after. She was a pisser, in every sense of the word. That’s what Kapadia captures in his film, and her great musical talent as well.
Amy is now playing in select theaters.
Shingo Wakagi, Asleep, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 91 minutes. Terako (Sakura Ando).
AMONG THE HIGHLIGHTS of the ninth annual Japan Cuts Festival are two movies starring the popular Sakura Ando. This chameleon-like actress (fleeting but unforgettable in Kyoshi Kurosawa’s television series Penance, later turned into a four-and-a-half-hour movie in 2012) is now twenty-nine, but she continues to play roles that exploit her uncanny gift for suggesting a timeless creature somewhere between the real world and the supernatural. Half waif, half sprite, she holds the screen with a commanding presence that utterly belies her slight physical stature and often barely audible voice. She is the main reason to see Asleep (directed by Shingo Wakagi) and 100 Yen Love (directed by Masaharu Take).
In the latter, ironically, she plays a character three years her senior, living at home with her mother, divorced sister, and nephew. Pugnacious and in everybody’s way, she moves out and takes a job at a grocer’s where she runs into an equally quirky amateur boxer whose interest in her is expressed by routinely leaving behind the bananas he’s just purchased. The seesawing of their relationship, as well as her encounters with other, unsavory men, moves her to take up boxing herself. Though she barely makes the cut, the movie contrives a brutal match which ends in defeat, after which she walks away whimpering with the off and on again boyfriend. It’s not exactly Million Dollar Baby, but in Japan the role has earned Ando critical praise—in part, I suspect, for her mastering a range of emotions and physical clout not often demanded of her.
Adapted from a story by Banana Yoshimoto, Asleep is less a narrative than a study in suspended disorientation. It opens with an overhead shot of Terako (Ando) sprawled on a bed. The only black-and-white image in the movie, it resembles the nighttime camcorder/security-camera-style images in the Paranormal Activity series (2007–15)—not an inapt allusion since the character and the movie are haunted by ghosts. As that first shot foretells, we see Terako sleeping, or trying to sleep, or waking from a restless sleep throughout the movie. It is so much the dominant motif that, like her, we’re not sure that we always know the difference between her sleeping and waking selves. Even when she and her boyfriend Iwanaga (Arata Iura) eat out—which they often do—we hear her voice on the sound track commenting on the scene, as if from the perspective of another time and place. That same blurring of presence and absence characterizes the two “ghosts” in the movie: One is Iwanaga’s wife, who also lies in bed, in a hospital, a “vegetable” following an accident, who occasionally appears in Terako’s dreams and whose spirit eventually “visits” her. The other ghost is Terako’s friend (Mitsuki Tanimura) who has recently committed suicide, but who appears in “flashbacks” very much alive. If the movie never quite coheres satisfactorily, Ando, whether she’s lying in bed, stumbling out of it, or wandering in a daze, is never less than riveting.
An entirely different spell is cast by This Country’s Sky, directed by Haruhiko Arai, from a 1983 novel by Yuichi Takai. Considering the setting—the Suginama area of Tokyo in the final days of World War II, following the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki when air raids were daily occurrences—the mood could not be more subdued. We never see bombs falling, but rumors of the war’s end are constant. The relatively static camera work serves this limbolike atmosphere, confined to long-shot long takes of the spare and dreary sets in which action is limited to talk. Only the final shot—of Satoko, the nineteen-year-old heroine—qualifies as a genuine close-up, after which she reads a poignant poem over the closing credits. The refrain of that poem, “When I Was Most Lovely,” heads a heartbreaking litany of the dark events that have blighted what should have been her happiest years. It is also the English title of the version I viewed, and seems better suited to what is essentially a coming-of-age love story. Satoko (Fumi Nikaido) lives with her mother and aunt. As most men are at war, she befriends and falls in love with their neighbor Ichige (Hiroki Hasegawa), a married man whose wife is away, and who has been deemed physically unfit to serve in the military. Two brief love scenes confirm Satoko’s virginity, but the most erotic moment in the movie—and the most vivid exception to its near-colorless palette—is when she visits Ichige one night and gazes lasciviously as he eats the very red and very ripe tomatoes she has brought. The image seizes, for a moment, the vividness that has been drained from life in war-torn Japan.
Haruhiko Arai, This Country’s Sky, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 130 minutes.
If all movies in the series were “made in and around Japan,” as the program says, it’s unclear how Takeshi Fukumaga’s debut feature Out of My Hand qualifies. Not only does the Japanese-born director live in Brooklyn, but his movie was shot in Liberia and New York, with an all-Liberian cast of nonprofessionals. To be sure, the story has a conveniently “universal” ring: Cisco (Bishop Blay) is an underpaid rubber-tree tapper who, after a failed labor strike, leaves for America where he is hired to drive a taxi. A run-in with into Jacob (David Roberts), a con artist and pimp he knew in Liberia, leads to a violent but contrived resolution. We are left wondering less about the futures of Cisco or his wife back home than about what drew Fukumaga to make a movie about a foreign culture, about which, on the basis of the evidence, he appears to know too little.
Similarly misfired is Juichiro Yamasaki’s Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn, a lamely conceived gloss on the great samurai epics of Japan’s past. Based on an actual eighteenth-century conflict between farmers protesting taxation and feudal lords who hire samurai to suppress them, the movie is driven neither by physical action nor by compelling exposition of the conflict, but rather by one farmer’s (Jihei) choice to run away, and the consequences of his decision years later. Unfortunately, the psychological ramifications this focus invites are unconvincingly explored, leaving the characters as flat and pallid as the digital photography and the soundstage ambience of every scene. An animated sequence late in the movie seems pointless, just as the evocations of such masterpieces as Mizoguchi’s The Forty Seven Ronin (1941) and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) serve only to underline the movie’s inadequacies.
Farmers get a much better rap in the impressively executed documentary The Wages of Resistance, directed by Haruhiko Daishima and Koshiro Otsu. The serene manners and gentle voices of those interviewed belie the impassioned struggle that consumed them fifty years earlier when they resisted the government’s decision to build an airport on their farms (at Sanrizuka, forty miles east of Tokyo). The contrast between their demeanors in the present and their spunkier former selves is vibrantly conveyed through crosscutting between the interviews and graphic black-and-white footage of the past. Fueled by student demonstrators drawn to their fight (in the spirit of the 1960s), violent confrontations ensued between landowners and police, resulting in deaths on both sides. Narita International Airport eventually opened on May 21, 1978, but, because of ongoing disputes, its second runway was not constructed until 2002. What justifies the movie’s 140-minute run time is that rather than a chronicle of yet another victory of big government over the little guy, it is a tapestry of individual stories of varied, even contradictory tenor. One man admits he never fully committed to the cause because his heart was not into farming. Another recalls that if there was a moment when compromise was weighed, it vanished when the suicide of one young man startled the community and gave them a martyr they could not betray. One woman says that the forced move was ultimately beneficial. Most affecting of all is the account of an elegant-looking man who worked for an elderly grandmother and, after her death, stubbornly stayed on to work the farm. As planes fly overhead, he tills the soil literally within the airport’s grounds, a stone’s throw from the iron fence that separates the farm from the runway.
The festival’s revivals are must-viewing—but thanks to the commercial imperatives of the industry and what has become the norm of many exhibitory institutions, they are not 35-mm restorations. Like everything else in the festival—shown in DCP, HDCAM, or Blu-ray formats—both Eiichi Yamamoro’s Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1961) are 4K DCP restorations. I’ve not seen the restored version of the former, a wildly erotic phantasmagoria (inspired by Jules Michelet’s nineteenth-century study of Satanism and witchcraft) that predates the explosion of Japanese anime and is trippier than most.
Gone is the grainy, gritty, pulsating physicality of film central to Oshima’s sensuous aesthetic. But while the colors in Cruel Story of Youth may not be as lurid as I recall, this DCP is pretty dazzling as restorations go, and the “film” still packs a punch. Its love story, a heady mixture of sweetness and perversion, and its handheld camerawork—of Takashi Kawamoto’s brilliant cinematography—are as edgy as ever. Set against a period when, as one character says, all values are twisted or compromised, and young people seek only to indulge every desire, the ultimate fate of Mako and Fujii, despite the tenderness that occasionally breaks through their cynicism, is a tragic one. As it did when I first saw it, the final shot remains a powerful, heartbreaking sign of the romantic despair barely masked by Oshima’s groundbreaking modernism.
“Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film” runs July 9–19 at the Japan Society in New York.