Saturday, December 18, 2010

The View From Home 17: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Kobayashi Four
‭ (‬Facets‭)
Standard list price:‭ ‬$71.99
Release date:‭ ‬Nov.‭ ‬23

Facets celebrates its new release of Masahiro Kobayashi’s‭ ‬2001‭ ‬film‭ ‬Man Walking on Snow by repackaging three of the director’s previously available releases into a box set titled‭ ‬Kobayashi Four.‭

Watching these four titles from the criminally neglected Japanese auteur reveals a bracing talent with a thematically cohesive oeuvre who should easily be as recognized in contemporary Asian art cinema as Kiyoshi Kurosawa,‭ ‬Hirokazu Kore-eda or Kim Ki-Duk,‭ ‬all of whom share similar sensibilities.

The obsession that lingers most in Kobayashi’s cinema is the specter of death and its uncertain aftermath.‭ ‬Death incites equal parts grief,‭ ‬jealousy,‭ ‬anger and connection throughout these four titles,‭ ‬arriving in even the most deceptively comic packages.‭

In the oldest title in this set,‭ ‬Kobayashi’s second feature‭ ‬Bootleg Film‭ (‬1998‭)‬,‭ ‬the suicide of a shared lover brings together two of her paramours,‭ ‬a cop and a yakuza,‭ ‬who road-trip together to attend her funeral.‭ ‬Kobayashi directs this sharp,‭ ‬black-and-white Cinemascope journey with hipster detachment and film-school quirk.‭ ‬A manic slapstick comedy on the surface,‭ ‬Bootleg Film is reverential and referential to icons of the past,‭ ‬mostly American pop-culture institutions favored by the yakuza character,‭ ‬an avowed cineaste.

The film channels Laurel and Hardy one minute and‭ ‬Reservoir Dogs the next,‭ ‬with Tarantino’s cult film particularly‭ ‬ingrained in Kobayashi’s script.‭ ‬In one hilarious digression,‭ ‬the yakuza pre-empts the killing of a girl‭ – ‬and fellow Tarantino fan‭ ‬--‭ ‬to argue with her about the proper way to pronounce Steve Buscemi’s surname.

Bootleg Film only gets weirder,‭ ‬and more supernatural,‭ ‬as it progresses.‭ ‬Characters we assume are dead to this world walk through the epic landscapes once again:‭ ‬Death is elusive and impermanent,‭ ‬a theme that will recur in arguably the director’s most engaging movie,‭ ‬Man Walking on Snow‭ (‬2001‭)‬.

In that film,‭ ‬we follow the routine of Nobuo‭ (‬Ken Ogata‭)‬,‭ ‬a‭ ‬70-year-old man whose wife died two years prior and who spends his days wandering the snowy terrain of a remote Northern Japanese village,‭ ‬eventually wending his way to a salmon-breeding pond,‭ ‬where he strikes up an unlikely bond with a woman who works there.‭ ‬It’s a film that very much lives up to its title.

Seemingly endless shots of Nobuo traipsing through the harsh climate are intercut with shots of his two sons‭’ ‬daily lives,‭ ‬one of whom dotes on his father’s every need while the other,‭ ‬a failed musician,‭ ‬has been estranged and bitter ever since his mother’s passing.‭ ‬The occasion of second anniversary of her death‭ – ‬and of Nobuo’s wavering vow of chastity‭ – ‬attempts to bring the broken family to some semblance of togetherness.

Kobayashi films this discomforting story of familial conflict with subtle formal cues:‭ ‬The way his camera jitters restlessly during the brief close-up shots and only seems steady and comfortable when filming the characters in long shots suggests the distance required for the family to communicate.‭ ‬The film’s depictions of real-life problems are authentic and moving,‭ ‬and its tragic nature creeps up on you‭ – ‬at least until Kobayashi,‭ ‬as in‭ ‬Bootleg Film,‭ ‬seems to negate a key climactic death,‭ ‬punctuating the film with a confounding epilogue.

Kobayashi followed‭ ‬this‭ ‬a couple of films later with‭ ‬Bashing,‭ ‬the harsh story of Yuko‭ (‬Fusako Urabe‭)‬,‭ ‬a woman returning home from being held hostage in Iraq,‭ ‬where she had volunteered for the coalition forces.‭ ‬Whether it’s for being captured or simply for volunteering in the first place,‭ ‬Yuko receives nothing but ire and shame from the unforgiving townspeople,‭ ‬from her family and boyfriend to the soup kitchen that refuses to serve her.‭ ‬Bashing is‭ ‬80‭ ‬minutes of pure suffering,‭ ‬and this time,‭ ‬there’s no rebirth for the deceased.

If it’s the weakest title in this box set,‭ ‬it’s partly because the film doesn’t have much room to breathe beyond its Issue Movie limitations.‭ ‬But mostly,‭ ‬Bashing doesn’t work because it’s hard for us in the West to relate to the story.‭ ‬It’s not a universal problem.‭ ‬The unforgiving society Kobayashi presents is culturally polarized from how we perceive returning veterans,‭ ‬especially hostage victims,‭ ‬all of whom return as heroes even if no heroism was demonstrated.

The box set concludes,‭ ‬appropriately,‭ ‬with Kobayashi’s most sublime and ascetically rigorous film,‭ ‬2007‭’‬s‭ ‬The Rebirth.‭ ‬We get all the story we’re going to get in the film’s first eight minutes,‭ ‬where we learn that a woman’s daughter stabbed and killed the daughter of a neighboring,‭ ‬widowed man in an act of high-school terrorism.‭ ‬Kobayashi then revisits to these two characters‭ – ‬the mother of the culprit and the father of the victim‭ – ‬one year later,‭ ‬where both have resigned from their previous jobs and generally from life itself.

Until the last five minutes of this‭ ‬102-minute feature,‭ ‬there is no dialogue or narration.‭ ‬We simply follow the characters in silent observation of their daily rituals:‭ ‬Eat,‭ ‬sleep,‭ ‬commute,‭ ‬work,‭ ‬eat,‭ ‬sleep,‭ ‬commute,‭ ‬work.‭ ‬Morning becomes night,‭ ‬and night becomes morning again.‭ ‬Like ghosts,‭ ‬they never communicate with the world around them,‭ ‬preferring lives of contemplative solitude.

To watch these two principal players‭ (‬the man is portrayed by Kobayashi himself‭) ‬for more than an hour and half is to accept the film’s meditative lull with a Zen-like sense of ease and comfort,‭ ‬and it reminds us how much potency can be conveyed without the crutch of dialogue.‭ ‬The characters do eventually meet,‭ ‬partaking in a kind of magnetic ballet of attraction and repulsion throughout the movie’s second half.‭ ‬But the pleasures are more in the soothing routines of their lives than in their wordless,‭ ‬predestined encounters.

This study in repetitive,‭ ‬Warholian banality‭ – ‬the‭ ‬Jeanne Dielman of post-mortem grief‭ – ‬is seemingly as removed as possible from the madcap antics of‭ ‬Bootleg Film,‭ ‬but the two movies share an understanding of the different ways we grieve,‭ ‬a common thread running through all of Kobayashi’s cinema.‭ ‬One solution in the grieving process may be to take solace in the familiar,‭ ‬as the characters in‭ ‬The Rebirth do.‭

The next time I lose someone close to me,‭ ‬this is the film to which I would most want to return.

Hair High
‭ ‬(Microcinema‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Nov.‭ ‬30
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99

Cult animator‭ ‬Bill Plympton directed this icky ode to high school,‭ ‬which plays out like an‭ ‘‬80s John Hughes flick dragged through a dirty,‭ ‬surrealist muck until all sense of logic,‭ ‬decorum and‭ “‬decency‭” (‬whatever that is‭) ‬have been removed.‭ ‬In other words,‭ ‬it’s customary Plympton,‭ ‬familiarly disgusting for his admirers and instantly repellent for those not attuned to his wavelength.‭ ‬The movie centers on Spud‭ (‬Eric Gilliland‭)‬,‭ ‬a nerdy outcast forced to serve slavishly under Cherri‭ (‬Sarah Silverman‭)‬,‭ ‬the head cheerleader inevitably paired with hunky boyfriend and quarterback Rod‭ (‬Dermot Mulroney‭)‬.‭ ‬When Cherri finally reciprocates Spud’s attractions,‭ ‬their romance sets Rod off,‭ ‬leading to an uncertain death and a skeletal resurrection,‭ ‬with the title of prom royalty at stake.

The self-contained universe of‭ ‬Hair High is not the world as we see it,‭ ‬but the world Plympton sees,‭ ‬and it’s one worth visiting for a respite from conventional Hollywood‭ “‬realism.‭” ‬Channeling the anarchy of animation’s early deviants,‭ ‬Plympton utilizes the style’s uninhibited elasticity the way few contemporary animators do,‭ ‬exploiting it in truly visionary ways.‭ ‬Though many of the film’s sophomoric cheap shots suggest the emotional maturity of a‭ ‬15-year-old male,‭ ‬Plympton smartly uses the tricks of the animation trade to creatively amplify its characters‭’ ‬intense emotions,‭ ‬from fear to anxiety,‭ ‬anger,‭ ‬love and joy.‭ ‬If most of us felt things the way the characters in‭ ‬Hair High feel them,‭ ‬we’d be living in a very strange world,‭ ‬but it would be a lot of fun for about‭ ‬10‭ ‬minutes.

‭ (‬Film Movement‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬7
SLP:‭ ‬$24.95

Shot in the titular historic city in Israel,‭ ‬Jaffa is the latest forbidden-love drama between a Jew and an Arab,‭ ‬a romantic conceit that’s become as narratively familiar as it is perpetually relevant.‭ ‬The major players are the strikingly eyebrowed,‭ ‬newly pregnant Mali‭ (‬Dana Ivgy‭); ‬her auto-mechanic father Reuven‭ (‬well-known Israeli actor Moni Moshonov‭); ‬Toufik‭ (‬Mahmud Shalaby‭)‬,‭ ‬the Arab laborer with whom she’s planning on eloping‭; ‬and Meir‭ (‬Ro’i Asaf‭)‬,‭ ‬Reuven’s son and an anti-Arab bigot.‭ ‬You don’t have to be Socrates to predict where these boiling tensions are heading,‭ ‬but nevertheless,‭ ‬I won’t spoil any of the plot’s tragic developments.

Jaffa is best when it probes familial grief and the lasting impact of chance decisions‭; ‬we’re refreshingly spared any moral lectures about the eternally irreconcilable differences between the ethnic groups in question.‭ ‬But compared with the thrilling,‭ ‬fly-on-the-wall action of last year’s similarly set‭ ‬Ajami,‭ ‬this film’s glacial pacing is not always involving,‭ ‬and an extended epilogue,‭ ‬set nine years into the future,‭ ‬adds little resonance to the drama.

The Zookeeper‭
(‬Brink DVD‭)
Release date:‭ ‬Nov.‭ ‬23
SLP:‭ ‬$17.99

This turgid war drama from music-video director Ralph Ziman won Best Film and Best Actor at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in‭ ‬2001,‭ ‬which says more about FLIFF’s diminished standards of quality than it does about the merits of this picture.‭ ‬Sam Neill stars as Ludovic,‭ ‬a jaded ex-Communist in an unspecified,‭ ‬supposedly contemporary Eastern Europe country that’s dressed inexplicably in period garb.‭ ‬Ravaged by war,‭ ‬most of the citizens have migrated elsewhere‭ – ‬only Ludovic and his veterinarian companion‭ (‬Om Puri‭) ‬have agreed to stay and keep the animals in the city’s zoo alive as bombs explode around them.

Ponderous direction sinks the film’s interesting subject matter,‭ ‬rendered insufficiently compelling by Ziman’s insistence on derailing the narrative away from the fascinating dealings with the animals and toward the trappings of kitchen-sink melodrama.‭ ‬Ziman frees his zookeeper protagonist from the heavy tedium of his position by granting him a seemingly orphaned‭ ‬10-year-old boy and,‭ ‬later,‭ ‬the boy’s androgynously disguised mother,‭ ‬which conveniently serve as Ludovic’s redemptive parenting lesson and rote romance,‭ ‬respectively.

Worse yet,‭ ‬the film feels epically longer than its‭ ‬100‭ ‬minutes,‭ ‬and not in a good way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's begin with the fact that most of the time readers overlook that reviewers are just as human as they are. Clearly this reviewer did not like The Zookeeper, and that is part and parcel of the world order. We all have variant tastes. However, if for lack of knowing what to write one lets one's foibles, or for that matter ignorance, taint the review, well ... that's just a mark of a bad reviewer. Point in case: "supposedly contemporary Eastern Europe country that’s dressed inexplicably in period garb". Have you Sir ever set foot in Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia or Bosnia? Or do you suppose it's a all Nike jogging outfits or Levi's these days? As to the "redemptive parenting lesson and rote romance", in the first instance the boy's arrival in itself does not grant Ludovic anymore redemption or parenting than he already has, in excess, with the animals under his care, while in the second instance please do not confuse compassion for romance. You Sir ought to visit the zoo more frequently.