Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ozu! Ozu! Ozu!

Monday was the beginning of Cinémathèque Busan's Yasujiro Ozu retrospective which runs until the 21st. As with the Taiwanese New Wave program a few months ago, both screenings I attended so far have attracted sizable crowds. This wasn't the case with the Ernst Lubitsch and Douglas Sirk films last month, which raises some questions. Are Korean audiences more interested in Asian films, even ones from Taiwan and Japan, than films from Europe and North America? It's worth noting that Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) got bigger laughs than any of the commercial films I've seen since coming here with the single exception of Kung Fu Panda (2008). In fact, there was quite a bit of laughter at City of Sadness (1989) as well. Although one can find DVDs of Charles Chaplin's Gold Rush (1925) and Modern Times (1936) for sale at newsstands in some subway stations, few American comedies open here. So why on earth does the Cinémathèque keep programming old Hollywood films, let alone old comedies? Are prints of old American films simply more readily available (all the Universal-era Sirk films had Spanish subtitles on the prints), or is this some subtle form of cultural imperialism?

I Was Born, But...

The first film I saw was I Was Born, But... (1932), Ozu's second-last silent film, which was projected without music. In Japan at that time, a benshi would've explained the action to the audience, but as David Bordwell writes in his book "Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema," silent films from Japan don't require any outside commentary to be understood. The film has very few intertitles but that's only because Ozu doesn't need them. What the benshi added was an emotional overlay similar to music. The absence of any kind of sound puts one in a solemn mood, but despite this, there was quite a bit of laughter at the screening I attended.

The only other film I've seen from Ozu's silent period is A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), which in style is a lot closer to Ozu's celebrated late works. (For starters, it was his first film in which the credits appeared over a burlap background.) Ozu would remake both films in colour as Good Morning and Floating Weeds (both 1959). But while the plot of Floating Weeds is basically the same as in the original, I Was Born, But... and Good Morning are rather different, both in terms of style and story. One difference is Ozu's approach to constructing space. In his later work, a scene might begin with an exterior pillow shot followed by a long shot of the characters sitting on the floor inside, one facing the camera, one turned away. Ozu will cut 180 degrees to a close-up of the person with their back to the camera, followed by a close-up of the first person. Then Ozu will cut to a second long shot facing the second person with a third character entering in the background. Here, he adopts a constructive approach to montage. In one scene, isolated shots of the two brothers in one room, their mother in the kitchen, and a gang of bullies waiting for the brothers outside are connected through matching eye lines. In terms of plot, the principle connection between I Was Born, But... and Good Morning is that in both films the brothers go on a hunger strike, but the reason for it differs from one film to the next. In the latter film, it's because they want their parents to buy a TV set so they can watch sumo wrestling. Here the brothers see their father, Yoshi, making silly faces in a home movie by the director of the firm Yoshi works for, which the brothers find degrading. When they confront their father, he says he degrades himself so they can have food. The brothers decide they'd rather not eat. Although Jonathan Rosenbaum claims to have found "radical implications" in this story, as Bordwell points out, the hunger strike doesn't last and Yoshi never for a moment considers quitting his job (to say nothing of a full-scale revolution). The films resigns itself to the world as it is.

Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story (1953) is about grown siblings who are too busy with their own lives to entertain their aging parents during a visit. Their eldest son, Koichi/So Yamamura, a doctor who lives in the suburbs, plans to take them out but at the last minute has to attend to a patient. (When his wife, Fumiko/Kuniko Miyake, suggests she go instead, he tells her some one has to stay in the house.) Their daughter, Shige/Haruko Sugimura, a hairdresser who lives downtown, scolds her husband, Kurazo/Nobuo Nakamura, for buying her parents expensive cakes. Shige makes a call to Noriko/Setsuko Hara, the young widow of another brother who died during the war, to ask her to take them out. Noriko, who works in an office, asks her boss for the day off and tells Shige she'll do it. After taking them on a bus tour of the city, they return to Noriko's apartment for saké. Ozu establishes the setting with a shot of a cluttered hallway. A stray tricycle occupies the foreground on the left side of the frame. Noriko knocks on her neighbor's door to ask for saké. The neighbor invites her in, and in the foreground on the right is the woman's young son. Noriko goes back to her apartment, where her in-laws, Shukishi/Chishu Ryu and Tomi/Chieko Higashiyama, are looking at a picture of their dead son. Noriko then goes back to her neighbor's apartment to ask for saké glasses. In Japan in the 1950s, audiences would expect a woman of Noriko's age to be married and having children, and by highlighting the tricycle and the neighbor's baby, Ozu is prompting viewers to notice that Noriko isn't a mother. Shige, the most selfish of the couple's children who functions as Noriko's mirror image, isn't a mother either, presumably because she's too much of a penny-pinching businesswoman. (Although Noriko is financially independent, she's not particularly ambitious.) When Noriko returns with the saké glasses, Tomi tells her about the trouble Shukishi's drinking caused her, and asks Noriko if her son was the same way. Noriko tells Tomi that her husband and his friends used to show up at all hours of the night, but that now she misses it. This forecasts a later scene in which Shukishi and Tomi return early from a spa (a ruse of Shige's to get them off her hands for a few days) and find themselves without a place to spend the night. Shukishi pays a visit to an old friend of his, hoping he'll have an extra room. He doesn't, so the two men and another friend drink saké until closing time. Shige is furious Shukishi and one of his friends turn up at her house in the middle of the night, needless to say, drunk. The contrast between the two women is reinforced when Noriko happily lets Tomi spend the night at her apartment and gives her a back rub. The next morning, as Tomi is packing her bags to go to the train station, she tells Noriko that she must visit them in Onomichi. Noriko says she can't because it's so far away. Although neither one says it, both women know they're saying good bye.

Tokyo Story was the first of Ozu's films to become well known in the West and it's still his most highly regarded work. As great as the film is, I find that it lacks drama, which may help to explain the characterization of Ozu by some critics as a serene, "transcendental" filmmaker. My own favorite Ozu film, Late Spring (1949), screening later this month, is about the conflict between two irreconcilable positions. (Similarly, Roger Ebert has expressed a preference for Floating Weeds and it's easy to see why.) Even if Ozu's late films are more or less settled in terms of style and content, one film shouldn't (and can't) stand for the whole.

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