THE LIFE OF OHARU (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
If you are a devoted movie-goer like me you probably gauge your opinion of a film as you are watching it and—whether bad, good, or okay—it can oscillate, during and after viewing.
Yet, once in a while I stumble upon that rarest of treats: a film that I know little or nothing about but whose excellence is apparent right from the get-go.
I had one such experience with The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s epic tale of a fallen woman in Tokugawa era Japan. I was living in New York City in my early-20s and MoMA was doing a small series of Mizoguchi films during the summertime. I knew very little about Mizoguchi but knew enough that I should investigate. I had heard of movies like UGETSU, THE 47 RONIN, and SANSHO, THE BAILIFF (all wonderful, by the way) but absolutely nothing about Oharu. I settled into my seat.
The opening sequence of The Life of Oharu told me that I was watching a great movie: a woman, with face veiled and diverted, awkwardly shuffles down the dimly-lit, twilight street of a chintzy Edo period red-light district. The camera dollies behind, tracking her—floating almost—as she passes the sights and sounds of late-night debauchery which surround her: Who is she and what is her story? The shot is so achingly-beautiful that it instantly succeeds in grabbing the attention, in eliciting sympathy for this mysterious character. We soon find out that this is Oharu, played by the great leading lady of the Japanese screen Kinuyo Tanaka, a middle-aged prostitute who is heading home empty-handed after a night of tiresome street-walking, of trying to talk and act as though she is thirty years younger than she actually is. After stopping to warm herself by a fire she wanders into a Buddhist temple where the memories of her difficult life begin to unravel in flashback.
Once the high-born Lady Oharu, a pretty and desired lady-in-waiting of the court at Kyoto, she makes the mistake of falling for an earnest young retainer (played by the estimable Toshiro Mifune) after he gallingly declares his love for her. Once caught together she is exiled and her inexorable fall from grace begins. Oharu passes from one station of tragedy to the next: from lady-in-waiting to noble concubine to geisha; she gains favor with men, she loses favor; she finds a good job, she loses it when her notorious past catches up to her; she has a child, she marries… well, you get the idea. The film—epic in scope—amounts to a master class in heart-break, a sort of object lesson in the Buddhist idea of life-as-suffering, with Oharu subjected to enough melodramatic misfortune for five movies.
Holding it all together is Tanaka, whose gargantuan performance is dignified and sustained, vulnerable and moving: to call it a tour-de-force is almost insufficient. Mizoguchi, here towards the end of his career, was at the top of his game. He was famed for his interest in the limited rights and roles of women in Japanese society and this may be his strongest statement on the subject. In 1952 women in Japan were still living in the grim economic aftermath of World War II and it is not difficult to imagine the applicability of Oharu’s plight—a woman with once-grand ambitions, now cut-down in the twilight of her life and forced into drudgery—to many who watched the film. As another prostitute says late in the film, “It’s a pitiful life we lead, but no one’s going to help us out.”
Mizoguchi was also renowned for his daring, ornate camera movements and for his long, patient takes, which serve this film particularly well. This quiet, restrained, and observational approach—as in the memorable opening—simply shows the audience without grandstanding and lets the material speak for itself, making the drama all the more penetrating because of it. Mizoguchi first stepped into the director’s chair in the mid-1920’s and directed numerous silent films, developing a strong visual flair, before becoming instrumental in his country’s transition to sound, making many of the most effective early talkies there.
The Life of Oharu, never before available on DVD, has gotten its long over-due release thanks to the Criterion Collection (now, if only they would release Mizoguchi’s THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM!), meaning that this great film can finally reach a new audience.
The 47 Ronin, SISTERS OF THE GION, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, STREET OF SHAME, and other fine films are available for rental in our Kenji Mizoguchi section.
NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (dir. Kleber Mendonҫa Filho, 2012)
Neighboring Sounds is the enigmatic feature film debut of Brazilian director Kleber Mendonҫa Filho. Set in the coastal town of Recife and on a single city block the story follows a number of different characters: a real-estate agent for the shiny-new condo high-rise (carved right out of the slums) and his girlfriend; his father, who owns most of the street, and his nephew, a young member of the bourgeoisie who occasionally takes to stealing car stereos; a woman and mother who struggles with getting the very best for her young family, even if that means keeping the barking dog next-door quiet; and a mysterious security firm that shows up in the neighborhood in the wake of a series of unexplained crimes.
The film’s gauzy, nebulous subject is the geography of urban displacement, or gentrification, and, though the scene is peaceful, class tensions are everywhere. The “sounds” of the title are auditory throbs, squeaks, and hums which occasionally take over the spare soundtrack, assaulting the building’s inhabitants during their uneasy encounters with the “other side.”
Surreal ideas and imagery abound: a night-watchman with only one eye and another who mainly sleeps; an army of burglar-intruders endlessly swarming over the building’s protective walls as seen by a young girl; a mother exhaling marijuana smoke into the hose of a vacuum cleaner; and a couple exploring an abandoned countryside cinema, filmed as though it were an archeological ruin—no doubt a snarky comment by Filho on the bleak future of the medium. The film cultivates a mysterious air, spending great amounts of time on seemingly inconsequential events while weighty matters are casually elided, only to be brought up in passing in later scenes.
The film is admirably-discomforting to watch, with echoes of Michael Haneke, particularly CACHÉ, as the grimy forces of the favela keep pressing at the walls of the ivory tower and the psyches of its inhabitants. The film begins with faded black-and-white photos of traditional Brazilian folk-life and ends with the neighborhood’s violent past—thought dead—boiling to the surface. The Neighboring Sounds of this haunted block are the howls of a population which refuses to be ignored or kept out.
A diverse program of three quickie recommendations from me, Hank Hoffman, Best Video’s “other Hank.”
In SPRING BREAKERS, cult film director Harmony Korine drunkenly walks the line separating exploitation cinema and serious filmmaking. Four college girls (including two played by former fresh-cheeked Disney ingenues Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) pull a caper in order to garner enough money to attend the annual spring break bacchanal. Once there—amid the overflowing pulchritude, oceans of beer and motel rooms besmogged with pot smoke—they get mixed up with gangsta-wannabe and white rapper Alien, played by James Franco. It’s a walk on the dark and dangerous Day-Glo wild side, the atmosphere thick with sex and violence. It is almost worth it for Franco’s bravura performance alone.
If your head is still spinning from a Spring Breakers contact high, then THE GATEKEEPERS, an Israeli documentary, will sober you up. Director Dror Moreh interviewed six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. Interspersed with their surprisingly candid reflections is extensive archival footage and—where such footage is unavailable—some reenactments. Moreh was inspired by the work of American documentarian Errol Morris and, particularly, Morris’ THE FOG OF WAR, which focused on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his role in the Vietnam War. To a man—and they are all men—if to varying degrees, they all have come to the conclusion that Israel’s hardline approach to unrest in the occupied territories is counter-productive. Some of the issues they consider—the efficacy and morality of torture, targeted assassinations—are also issues relevant to the ongoing conflicts in which our country is engaged.
If the seemingly intractable Mideast conflict leaves you pessimistic—as it does the former Shin Bet heads in The Gatekeepers—perhaps some laughter is in order. The Criterion Collection has just released a beautiful remastered version of SAFETY LAST, silent film comedian Harold Lloyd’s masterpiece. From 1922, Safety Last is built on a wonderful visual metaphor for the “climb for success.” A romance, an action movie, a comedy—Safety Last is a hilarious and oft-times white-knuckled classic.