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The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

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The Bad Sleep Well

Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well blew me away. It’s not one of his most famous films, but it’s packed with power. I learned of The Bad Sleep Well via Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Picture channel where Zhou analyzes Kurosawa’s effective placement of actors.

The film opens with reporters and detectives invading the wedding between the handsome apparently straight as an arrow Nishi to Yoshiko, the pretty and disabled daughter of CEO Iwabuchi, whose corrupt deals caused Nishi’s father’s suicide. Nishi has positioned himself in Iwabuchi’s corporation as his assistant and married into the clan to exact revenge for his father’s death.

Disrupted by the appearance of a wedding cake that looks like the building Nishi’s father killed himself and by the arrest of a loyal, timid employee indicate the disaster of the marriage. Nishi has spent five years trying to get into Iwabuchi’s inner circle to expose the kickbacks and violence that fueled the success of Public Corporation. Iwabuchi and his colleagues are cold blooded, willing to goad their employees to suicide if it helps them keep their dirty cash flowing in.

While the film differs from hamlet, there are many intended parallels. Nishi’s obsessed with his father’s death. Yoshiko is very much like Ophelia and she meets no better end. While Nishi’s mother never married, Kurosawa uses gray flannel ghosts to freak out his characters.

The evils of corporate greed have bene a common theme in modern film Somehow Kurosawa, while showing blatant, unrepentant evil, doesn’t seem to have exaggerated. The executives and their conniving seem all too real.

Every scene had me riveted and the ending was a complete surprise, though it was perfect. It’s a film the I won’t soon forget.

Do You See Me?

The Italian comedy Do You See Me? looks at the difficulties a talented female architect faces when after succeeding around the world, she decides to return to Italy where she’s lucky to get a low paying waitress job. While Serena Bruno has graduated from top schools and won awards for her work, back in Italy the economy’s tight and jobs, particularly for women, are scarce.

Serena Bruno first is attracted to and then when she learns he’s gay, she befriends the owner of the restaurant where she works. He sees her talent and intelligence when no one else does. He encourages her to enter an architecture contest to redesign a public housing space. Though her idea, which was inspired by input from the residents, is fantastic she fears she’ll be passed over for a man so when the committee mistakes her for a secretary to Bruno Serena she plays along. She convinces her former boss, now friend and roommate to pretend to be Bruno Serena. Comedy ensues and while the situation is ridiculous, it’s a thoughtful, fun film that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.

It’s an enjoyable film that depicts the difficulties woman still face.

Salesman

I was mesmerized by the Iranian film Salesman. I saw it on my flight to Chicago and it was the first Iranian film I’d seen. In Salesman, a young married couple must flee their apartment which is collapsing due to some structural problems. The couple are currently starring in a production of Death of a Salesman and another actor offers to let them stay in an apartment he owns.

From the time they move in they’re inconvenienced by the former tenant, who’s left a lot of her things there. She’s a pain because she breaks promises to get her belongings and she won’t pick up her phone, etc.

This woman brings much more trouble when Rana, the young wife, buzzes in a person who she thinks is her husband. She opens the door and goes to take a shower. Little does she know that she’s just let a man who will brutally attack and rape her. It turns out that the previous tenant was a prostitute.

The film does not show the attack. We see Rana open the door and go to the shower and then we cut to Emad, her husband, arriving and seeing blood on the steps. Then he finds his wife beaten and bruised cared for by the new neighbors.

The film continues to deal with the aftermath. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. She doesn’t believe any good will come from it. But Emad, who feels he’s failed to protect his wife, wants justice. He seeks the attacker, but not in a Hollywood way. As Rana tries to get on with life and as Emad seeks justice, the story is interspersed with scenes where Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana plays his wife. The film is poignant and emotional is a realistic way. The acting was superb and convinced me to find more films by this director or with these actors.

I found this a captivating look at the lives of Iranians, a people, I confess I know little about.

The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

Tatsumi

Tatsimi is the autobiography of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a famous manga artist in Japan. Manga are Japanese comic books, a literary genre differs significantly from American comic books. Tatsumi is interspersed with short stories by Tatsumi which gave me a sense of how this graphic genre handles mature themes and experiences with insight, irony and

Tatusmi grew up during the war and took to drawing professionally to help his mother make ends meet. His father was good-for-nothing and once Tatsumi started selling his work, his father destroyed his drawings.

The film follows Satsuma’s career from his teenage to middle age years. We see is popularity grow, his career stall when he outgrows the genre of teen manga and finally goes on to develop a new genre, called gekiga, which targets middle aged readers. It’s the story of the career of an artist and doesn’t go into much detail into Satsuma’s personal life once he’s grown. I found it a terrific introduction to an art form. In addition, since Tatusmi’s life spanned WWII and the ensuing years so full of change for Japan, it was an excellent way to learn about modern Japanese history.

Pygmalion

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I was skeptical about Pygmalion (1938) starring Leslie Howard, whom I only knew as Ashley in Gone with the Wind. Boy, was I wrong. This film is every bit as good as My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Faithful to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion shows us how the arrogant Professor Higgins takes on the bet to transform Eliza Doolittle, played by Helen Hill, a poor flower girl with bad English into a socialite. The film moves briskly and the performances were top notch. It should be seen and discussed by every do-gooder as it’s easy to take on a person’s problems without giving thought to what’s to become of the person after they’re transformed.

The only flaw in the story, which is well acted with witty dialog, is the ending for poor Eliza, the flower girl. In the end she does wind up with Higgins, but he hasn’t been transformed. Isn’t there someone more kind and thoughtful for the sincere, kind Eliza? Mr. Shaw, what were you thinking?

How to Steal a Million

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Starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, How to Steal a Million is another fun, witty movie. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art forger. When her home is broken into by O’Toole, her father and she fear that his forgeries will be revealed. Later they fear that a sculpture lent to a museum will be proven to be a fraud when it’s examined for insurance. Throughout the caper delights.

It’s a lighthearted romp with a clever final heist and a surprisingly moral end. It’s lots of fun and Hepburn and O’Toole are quite entertaining.

Bridge over the River Kwai

How did I miss this one? I just finished watching the classic The Bridge over the River Kwai starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I’m blown away. Every scene was perfect in this story of Holden’s Shale, a jaded American officer who’s at odds with Guinness’ a British commander’s absolute, unstinting adoration of following codes and rules.

I remember the whistling and the powerful ending from my childhood. I was no more than 6 and annoyed at a family party where all the adults were enthralled by this film. Now I appreciate why as Holden and Guinness deliver perfect performances in these two characters, who couldn’t be more different. They’re conflicts aren’t direct as they’re rarely in the same scenes, but they’re central to the film’s theme.

Both characters are prisoners of war in a Japanese camp run by the brutal Satoo who must get a bridge built in a few weeks. The work is far behind schedule. Satoo operates on the Japanese ancient military code of Bushidoo. which runs contrary to the Geneva Convention, which Guinness insists upon. Guinness shows his dedication to duty when he refuses to let his officers work on the bridge. He’s willing to spend days in a metal box, called the “Oven” to stand up for this belief. You have to admire his courage.

Holden’s Shale looks for short cuts and sees the futility of the war. He has his points, but neither character is clearly right or wrong, which is the key to why the film is so absorbing.

(I wonder how my students would view this film which shows the Japanese as cruel not just to the Chinese, but to the Allied soldiers. I wouldn’t show it because I don’t want to spread anti-Japanese sentiment, which made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but is outmoded now.)

Anchor’s Away

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If you want some light entertainment, Anchor’s Away with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra is a good choice. Anchors Away is the story of two navy officers who’ve earned a weekend pass for their bravery. Kelly, suave and urbane, boasts of his girl Lola, while Sinatra’s more inexperienced and wants some coaching from Kelly, whose plans for meeting up with Lola are soon sidelined when the two officers are roped in by the local police who need help getting a little boy back home. Since the boy who’s around 6 is in awe of the navy, these two sailors who pass by are just the role models to help.

Once they take the boy home, they find his guardian, a young aunt is out. They stick around to reprimand her. Of course, she turns out to be a beautiful young woman who aspires to be a famous singers. Before you know it, Kelly has assured her that his friend’s pal, a famous conductor will give her an audition. Of course, this is a lie. As usual in the genre misunderstandings and outrageous attempts to prevent the truth from coming out ensue. All along the way are catchy tunes and fantastic dancing including a number where Kelly dances with Jerry from Tom & Jerry fame.

While the film was from a gone by era and had no lasting message, the music and dancing stayed with me, unlike that of La La Land. A musical needs to win me over with its music. It’s fundamental.

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