Word of the Week

Jeong (n.) Human warmth and mutual sacrifice.

This word comes from Ask a North Korean, which I’m currently reading. It’s in a section describing the economic conditions. When you’re poor, people value jeong as the way to help others and to have the right attitude to band together and survive.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

 

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depth

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

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The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

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Moon for the Misbegotten

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Saturday friend and I went to the Writers’ Theater in Glencoe, Illinois, to see The Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neil. It was my first visit to the Writers’ Theater. First I must say I was quite impressed with theater itself, which is a glorious building. I was further impressed by the live music they had in the anteroom. The theater has a large space where a duo was singing live music accompanied by guitar. What a great way to entertain the audience, who was able to sit on cushions on a large staircase, the sort that a lot of schools are adding and call “learning stairs.”

I hadn’t read the webpage carefully so until there was an announcement, I hadn’t realized that the play ran three hours. Like Ah, Wilderness, which I saw in the summer, Moon for the Misbegotten is a 3 hour play! Unlike the Goodman’s Ah, Wilderness, the Writers’ Theater did not cut anything from the show. They did have 2 intermissions, though.

The story’s set on  a poor farm in Connecticut. As in many of O’Neil’s plays, the father is a loud, angry alcoholic. In this case, Phil Hogan heads this family. His son Tom hightails it off the farm to escape Phil’s temper, but his sister Josie, outspoken an opinionated can hold her own with Pops, sticks around. The first scene dragged, which was odd since Tom is in such a hurry to get his bus to the city, but he keeps getting caught up with little problems and tasks.

Eventually Phil enters and we see him argue with Josie. There is a lot of arguing, which my friend found particularly annoying. I could stand it, but I can see how tiresome such characters are. This definitely was a play that could do with some trimming.

Eventually we get to the main issues of the play. The landlord’s son Jim, another big drinker, has the hots for Josie, but won’t admit it. He portrays himself as a ladies man who likes the girls on Broadway. Though she is attractive, Josie’s Achilles’ heel is her body image and status. She doesn’t think a rich boy like Jim could like a curvy, confident tenant farmer’s daughter. There’s quite a bit of flirtation, but both characters are too insecure to start a real relationship in the first two acts.

In act two, Phil gets betrayed by his pal, Jim. Jim’s agreed to sell the farm to a rich neighbor that Phil’s irritated by refusing to make sure his pigs don’t trespass on the man’s property. The neighbor makes Jim and enticing offer and Jim breaks his promise to always let Phil farm that land. Phil’s outraged and he and Josie plot to trick Jim and get even.

The actors in this production were pitch perfect and I’d love to see them again, especially A.C. Smith (Phil Hogan) and Bethany Thomas ( Josie Hogan). I’ve come to see Eugene O’Neil as long winded. He clearly wrote of what he knew, i.e. families full of alcoholics and that does get old. I think I’m off O’Neil for a while. Nonetheless the Writers Theater did a fine job with this play.

For Chicago Theater Week 2018 till February 18th, there’s a special on tickets. For $15 you get a lot of drama for the money. The promo code is CTW18.

Dodes’ka-den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

Mr. Thank You

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Arigato-san or Mr. Thank You in English is a simple, rather slow-moving film that shows Japan in the depression of The hero, Arigato-san is a bus driver known up and down his rural route as “Mr. Thank You” because he yells a cheery “Thank you!” to everyone he passes on the road.

The plot isn’t much and this isn’t a film for anyone who needs action, even the usual dose of action. However the film does make an impact at the end. Mr. Arigato is the epitome of kindness. He stops whenever someone flags him down. Then he’ll carry messages to relatives down the road or pick up items for people who ask him to. As usual, the level of service in Japan is and was astounding.

On the bus are a mother who’s taking her pretty young daughter to the city to sell her to a brothel (not a fancy geisha house, a brothel of which there were plenty), a chatty citified woman who smokes and drinks and shares her flask liberally with her fellow passengers, a fuddy-duddy salesman who looks very successful and leers and the young women, and an array of short term riders from the countryside.

One cultural note that struck me was that one couple who were off to attend a wedding got right off the bus and decided to walk rather than share a bus with someone who was going to a wake. That would have bad luck for their relative who was getting married. The film is striking in how clearly it shows the poverty in Japan in 1936.

All in all, Mr. Thank You isn’t a must see and even though it’s just 57 minutes long it did drag for me. Probably when it came out, a Japanese audience would have no complaints about the pace. If you have a keen interest in Japanese culture or film history, this is worth seeing.