Monday, July 27, 2020

In Memory of Basu Chatterjee

The news of Basu Chatterjee’s sudden death on June 4 was a shock. When I was growing up, I didn't know what an auteur was but I could identify a Basu Chatterjee film in few minutes: lovely touching stories about ordinary people packed with astute observations about human behaviour. I wasn't aware then but he was the first auteur I came across.

Basu Chatterjee’s light-hearted films contrasted the angry man films of Amitabh Bachchan and other action-packed Bollywood films while also standing apart from the artistic works of Parallel Cinema. As Namrata Joshi points out:

“Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Basu Bhattacharya (whom Chatterjee assisted in Teesri Kasam in 1966) continued to remain Chatterjee’s creative comrades and friends, though he himself opted to embrace what has since been called the middle-of-the road cinema. He, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, became the torchbearer of light-hearted, entertaining, middle class family dramas that offered a parallel narrative to the mainstream Angry Young Man movies on the one hand and the radical, path-breaking, artistic and experimental concerns of the New Wave.”

Chatterjee didn’t just make warm touching movies. He also directed Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), a powerful hard-hitting Indian adaptation of 12 Angry Men, and also Kamla ki Maut (1989), a film ahead of its time in dealing with issues of pre-marital sex rarely seen on Indian screens in the 1980s.

Note: Kamla ki Maut has a stellar cast with Pankaj Kapur, Supriya Pathak, Rupa Ganguly and was also one of the earlier films that Irrfan Khan acted in.

I have fond memories of seeing almost all of Basu Chatterjee’s movies but here are just a few of my favourite Basu Chatterjee movies (in no particular order):

Chhoti Se Baat (A Small Matter, 1976)
Kirayadar (Renter, 1979)
Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (A Pending Decision, 1986)
Pasand Apni Apni (1983)
Kamla Ki Maut (Kamla’s Death, 1989)
Lakhon Ki Baat (Talk of Millions, 1984)
Khatta Meetha (Sweet and Sour, 1978)
Shaukeen (1982)
Chameli Ki Shaadi (Chameli’s Wedding, 1986)
Do Ladke Dono Kadke (1979)

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)

“This was the first film of Kurosawa Productions, my own unit which I run and finance myself. From this film on, I was responsible for everything. Consequently, when I began, I wondered what kind of film to make. A film made only to make money did not appeal to me - one should not take advantage of an audience. Instead, I wanted to make a movie of some social significance. At last I decided to something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., at the public level, is one of the worst crimes that there is. These people hide behind the facade of some great company or corporation and consequently no one knows how dreadful they really are, what awful things they do. Exposing them was, I thought, a socially significant act - and so I started the film.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

The Bad Sleep Well is an extraordinary film that covers corruption from two aspects, one from inside the depths and the other from the newspaper reporting angle. Modern day news reporting isn’t what it once used to be and the distortion of facts in news reports has gotten worse in the six decades since this movie came out. Kurosawa covers the celebrity gossip aspect in Scandal and some of that gossip media coverage is covered in The Bad Sleep Well, especially the opening moments, but the film is highly relevant from a journalistic aspect because it shows how news can be distorted. Getting to the facts requires a reporter to probe deep beneath the surface and get past the news conferences that companies hold.

In discussing the film’s treatment, Donald Richie mentions that “..Kurosawa wanted to expose the corruption of those in the highest places in Japan.” In Kurosawa’s own words: “As early as Drunken Angel “the critics had started calling me a ‘journalistic’ director, meaning that I interested myself in ‘timely themes’. Actually, I have always thought of film as a kind of journalism if journalism means a series of happenings, usually contemporary, which can be shaped into a film. At the same time, I know that a timely subject does not make an interesting film, if that is all that it has. One ought to make a film in such a way that the original idea, no matter where it comes from, remains the most important thing, and the feeling that one felt at that moment of having the idea is important. Timely, then, in my sense, is the opposite of sensational.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

There is also a Shakespearean reading on the film with parallels to that of Hamlet that Richie discusses and reading those elements in Richie’s book helps see the film with a fresh angle.

The Bad Sleep Well
was released 3 years before High and Low and the two films are opposite sides of the same coin shown from a different perspective: The Bad Sleep Well is the inside view that shows us the kidnapper’s thinking and reasons while in High and Low, the audience is always on the outside until the film’s final moments when we get an insight into the kidnapper’s rationale. Both films are also variations on the rich-poor class divide approached from different angles but in both, it is the rich that get their way and can dictate the media coverage. However, The Bad Sleep Well is far more brutal and has no shades of happiness because it aligns itself with a character who never gets justice. There is some playful music in the final 30 minutes in the interaction between Takashi Shimura’s Moriyama character and Toshirô Mifune’s Nishi. But that playful music gives us false hope because shortly after that music, any hope is extinguished and the film dives into a dark territory. Of course, any other ending would not do justice to the film’s title.

A ranking change in the recent viewing of Kurosawa’s films:

1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
3. Ikiru (1952)
4. High and Low (1963)
5. Rashomon (1950)
6. Red Beard (1965)
7. Scandal (1950)
8. Stray Dog (1949)
9. Yojimbo (1961)
10. Drunken Angel (1948)

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Kinji Fukasaku's Films

As opposed to starting at the beginning, I started at the end. The first Kinji Fukasaku film I saw was Battle Royale (2000), the last one he directed. He started work on the sequel Battle Royale II (2003) but passed away before it was completed so his son Kenta Fukasaku completed it. After that, I only saw a few of his films but not enough for a proper spotlight. So a correction was in order.

A mini-spotlight of 7 of his films, 5 of which constitute the Battles Without Honor and Humanity or the Yakuza Papers series.

Street Mobster (1972)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 1

Hiroshima Death Match (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 2
Proxy War (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 3
Police Tactics (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 4
Final Episode (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 5
Cops vs Thugs (1975)

All 7 films were released over a quick 3 year span. The prolific Fukasaku also did a New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy (1974-76) but those films were not seen as part of this spotlight.

The 5 film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is an absolutely incredible epic series unlike any other in cinema. The Godfather (1972) came out just a year before Battles Without Honor and Humanity and there are some overlapping aspects regarding the thirst for power and hierarchy of gangs but both films are cut from different cloth. Instead, I thought of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) and Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) as distant cinematic offsprings of Fukasaku due to the usage of historical references and cyclic nature of events. However, those films still don’t have the scope of Kinji Fukasaku’s movies and methods. One differentiating method is that Fukasaku states historical events and dates up front, introducing characters by their real names and stating dates of their death. In addition, there is a documentary style narration to place the movie’s real life events and meetings. This includes starting all the films with historical reference to Hiroshima and the chaotic post-WWII world that allowed gangs to prosper via the black market. Even though the 5 films came out in a two-year span, they cover almost 25 years in scope. The films also highlight the changing political climate brought by the Korean War and the Cold War that further impacted the Yakuza gangs’ style in Hiroshima and Kure City, an aspect covered by the third film Proxy War.

The scope of the films increases in the series starting with individuals to gang battles to cross-city rivalries as the yakuza go from street-level activity to political and company businesses impacting regular citizens. Despite the changing scope of the films, all 5 are united by some common elements related to the gang’s methodologies, rituals and mannerism. The films show repeated cycles of men drinking, eating, planning and then killing, not always in that order. When the men are not looking behind them, there is always some young person lurking behind to kill them and take their place. The young men collect kills and move up the yakuza leader before they are in turn themselves killed. This killing doesn’t only take place at the lowest level of the hierarchy but also takes place at the top, between bosses of the rival yakuza gangs. Boss vs boss, company vs company. Each man wants to be the boss and set up his own company, which results in more violence. This violent cycle continues throughout the 5 film series.

The common rituals shown in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity/Yakuza Papers films follow strict ceremonies some of which are brotherhood vows, loyalty tests or peace offerings. The loyalty tests or peace offering are first shown in Street Mobster and brutally depict a member chopping off a finger to make things right. The subsequent bandaged hand, dripping with blood, is like a badge of honor which lets others know of the true character of the injured man.

Hirono (a remarkable Bunta Sugawara, present in all 7 films) is the beating heart of multiple Yakuza Papers films but he is not always the main focus. As Hirono serves his multiple jail sentences, other characters take centre stage and often Hirono drifts into the background due to the larger scope that Kinji Fukasaku is covering regarding the structure of the gangs. Women are an afterthought in the 5 films and mostly make an appearance when a gangster wants to have a good time with a prostitute. The wives and girlfriends are sometimes shown but even then, they have no say in events. Instead, some examples show that a woman is waiting to be taken over by another man when her male partner is killed or jailed. The one exception is Mrs. Yamamori (Toshie Kimura) who is an equal accomplice in the plans and schemes of Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), one of the prominent bosses in the series.

Majority of the characters in the films are caught in cycles they can’t break out of. The only escape for some bosses or senior gang members comes when they either retire or are forced to retire and give control to someone else. These retirements are either mandated or reactionary due to circumstances. They don’t result from soul-searching. However, Hirono is the one exception whose uses his 7 year prison sentence to change himself. He also wants to give advice to young men so that they don’t repeat his errors. During his 7 year prison sentence, Hirono is showing writing about his experiences and this phrase from him illustrates the situation of the gangs but also our current world:

“When foolish men stand at the top, the men under them suffer and shed blood needlessly.”

These words still ring true. Our present world is full of foolish men standing at the top and causing others to suffer needlessly. The closing words at the end of the 5th film are even more relevant today.

“Quarter of a century had passed since he’d [refers to Hirono] cast his lot with the yakuza amidst the post-war turbulence.

With the passage of time, one group begat another, and with each new group came new seeds of conflict.Thus, much young blood had been shed.

Will the bitter battles that arise from the strong preying upon the weak ever be banished from this earth?”

Those words were spoken in a 1974 film but almost 5 decades later, we are now living in a world where the battles are fiercely bitter with no honor and humanity. The strong are still preying on the weak.

Starting this spotlight with Street Mobster was a good decision as the film lays out the gritty realistic yakuza style and template of Fukasaku’s subsequent films. All these 7 films depict the endless violent cycle and lay out the hierarchy that the gangs follow and their rituals. The rituals also include peace making deals between gangs including the brotherhood vows that the members take. It is also clear that Fukasaku’s style and films influenced numerous other directors including Takashi Kitano and Takashi Miike.

Reading material:

From the Taschen book Japanese Cinema, Stuart Galbraith IV writes of Battles Without Honor and Humanity:

The picture is a slap in the face to the romanticized nostalgia of 1960s ninkyo eiga (“chivalry movies”) that had come before. Instead, Battles Without Honor and Humanity exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness of criminal codes of honor while creating new myths with its fatalistic, disillusioned, and ultimately existential antihero (Bunta Sugawara), a man only too aware of his dead-end lifestyle.

Often likened to Sam Peckinpah, Fukasaku exerts the same unflinching brutality and ambiguous use of violent expression, which has likewise polarized critics. Indeed, Fukasaku’s last completed film, Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, 2000) has come the Straw Dog of its day. Unlike Peckinpah, however, Fukasaku had a markedly left-of-center cynicism born out of his terrifying teens, when he witnessed the deaths of countless friends and neighbors in Allied bombing raids. Immersed in postwar chaos and its thriving black market, Fukasaku was also strongly influenced by the Italian neorealist films he saw during the Allied Occupation. Fukasaku brought these experiences to his genre films, endowing them with an uncanny verisimilitude previously absent in such films. -- Japanese Cinema, page 112

Monday, July 13, 2020

Akira Kurosawa Films

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.” Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

The above words could not have been more true in my recent revisit of a dozen Akira Kurosawa films, many seen for the first time in almost two decades. With the continued pause in contemporary films, I am enjoying revisiting many classic films which feel fresh seen after a long time. This revisit highlighted my own changed perspectives especially regarding an increased appreciation towards Kurosawa’s non-samurai films. 11 of these films are Kurosawa’s collaborations with the remarkable Toshiro Mifune who acted in 16 of Kurosawa’s films. Ikiru is the the only non-Mifune film in this list but Ikiru stars the impressive Takashi Shimura who acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 features.

The following dozen films are arranged in order of preference:

1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Still my favourite Kurosawa.

2. Ikiru (1952)

Takashi Shimura brings grace and dignity to all his roles in Kurosawa’s films but he truly shines here. Previously, this film was not in my top 5 of Kurosawa’s films but I am absolutely a big fan of this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years this film ends up being my favourite Kurosawa film.

3. High and Low (1963)

I always loved this film and it was originally in my top 5 Kurosawa films but this film moved up a few spots. This brilliant multilayered film holds the tension throughout and the police procedural sequences are especially ahead of its time and clearly have influenced many other films. Also, the class depiction of the rich living at top of the hill and the poor at the bottom was mirrored in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.

Some quick thoughts on the stunning “drug alley” sequence depicting zombie like drug addicts with a silent hushed background musical score. This detailed depiction takes time to highlight the suffering of the addicts and is a stylistic directorial departure for Kurosawa. These moments also show the vices of a modern city which feels a distance away from the rural side shown in many of Kurosawa’s films.

4. Rashomon (1950)
5. Red Beard (1965)

6. Scandal (1950)

Another film ahead of its time in the depiction of a gossip magazine and its celebrity chasing photographers and sleazy editor/owner. The term Paparazzi didn’t come about until Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960 but clearly applies here. Even though Takashi Shimura’s character isn’t the core of the main story, he takes the spotlight with his morally conflicted lawyer character of Hiruta.

7. Stray Dog (1949)

8. Yojimbo (1961) 

Yojimbo is pure fun and takes a Western genre framework and replaces with samurai and swords. Although, the presence of a gun nods towards its Western genre source material. The genre cycle was completed by Sergio Leone who remade this for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first of his Spaghetti Westerns.

9. Drunken Angel (1948)
10. Throne of Blood (1957)
11. Sanjuro (1962)
12. The Hidden Fortress (1958)


Kurosawa and Mifune collaborated on 16 films together:

Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), Scandal (1950), Rashomon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965)

Takashi Shimura acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s films:

Sanshiro Sugata (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), Scandal (1950), Rashomon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965), Kagemusha (1980)

Reading material:

James Quandt on Kurosawa and Mifune.
Moeko Fujii on Mifune at 100.
Donald Ritchie on Remembering Kurosawa.