After returning to a few modern day releases, I needed something weightier.. something more.. inspirational. So I turned to the Criterion Collection (as I have done so often during this quarantine) with a new set of parameters to further define what this piece would be about. First, I would only seek out filmmakers whose work I have never seen whatsoever. No returning to old favorites here, which incidentally, is how you gain new filmmaker fascinations. Secondly, no repeating countries of origin for each filmmaker. The following five films are incredibly diverse in tone, style, and subject- though they all caught my attention, and adoration. The filmmakers behind these movies are from different eras, different countries and languages, but they’re all united in the pursuit of expression through art. Seijun Suzuki, a stylistic and eccentric Japanese genre filmmaker influenced and revered by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino. Agnès Varda, an international art-house icon and influential founding member of the French New Wave. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the youngest and only living artist of the bunch, is a Thai filmmaker with a penchant for dreamlike visuals and a matter-of-fact surrealism. Federico Fellini, who’s probably the most well known artist of this group, is one of the most lauded and revered film directors of all time who skillfully blended fantasy with drama in a most unique fashion. Finally, comes the partnership of self proclaimed English filmmaking duo “The Archers”; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who pair a swift cavalier attitude with a surprisingly deep bench of emotional clarity. I’ll skip the individual recommendations that I usually insert into each short review because I wholeheartedly recommend each of these films and I hope you seek them out!
“Tokyo Drifter” (1966)
Written by Yasunori Kawauchi and directed by Seijun Suzuki, “Tokyo Drifter” tells a somewhat familiar tale within the gangster genre, though with bold and stylistic choices that make it memorable. The titular drifter is Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a prominent member of a gang in Tokyo attempting to “go legit” and get out of the game for good. Things aren’t that easy though, as their rival gang cannot abide by this pacifist turn and use this as an opportunity to oust Tetsu and his Boss Kurata (Ryûji Kita) for good. After their rival gang plays dirty by trying to oust Kurata and company from their building financially and ruin their attempts to settle the gang’s debts, Kurata accepts Tetsu’s idea to disband the gang geographically and for Tetsu to wander Japan occasionally getting assistance from their allies. Once they discover this tactic Otsuka (Eimei Esumi), the leader of the rival gang, sends his best man, Tatsu the Viper (Tamio Kawaji) to hunt him down. What sets this film aside as a standout within the crime genre is it’s style. The look and sound of the film is very unique. The opening is a washed out black and white that transfers to color after that sequence. BOLD color choices become almost distracting throughout the film. In costumes, backgrounds, lighting, in all facets of production really the colors catch the eye from scene to scene. There’s also a particularly jazzy score throughout the film, which when paired with Tetsu’s random bouts of singing make the whole affair more upbeat in nature. Shootouts with abstract choices, jazz blaring over a nightclub brawl, and betrayals left and right- it all combines for a fun, if somewhat predictable, gangster flick.
“Cléo from 5 to 7” (1962)
Written by and directed by Agnès Varda, “Cléo from 5 to 7” is a film from the French ‘New Wave’ and it follows Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a young model and singer in Paris who fears she may be diagnosed with cancer. As she waits to hear the test results, we follow her ‘from 5 to 7’. We begin with a tarot card reading Cléo receives, which oddly, is shot in color while the rest of the film is Black and White. It’s a fun way to introduce the credits while getting some principal information about our titular model. Namely, that she’s a hypochondriac and a bit shallow to say the least. We get more of that as the film goes on, Cléo clearly thinks very highly of herself and that as long as she has her beauty- she’s living a fuller life than those without such beauty. *eyes roll* Well, at any rate, we follow Cléo as she goes hat shopping with her maid, to a cafe, and then to her apartment where she attempts to get some work done with her rehearsal pianist- but she feels the weight of her foreboding card reading earlier in the day and eventually blows up at her pianist and wanders off, discarding her wig, and starting to look and feel considerably more morose. After a bit she encounters an Algerian War soldier in a park who accompanies her and as the conversation goes on you can begin to see a change in Cléo’s demeanor. After hearing about this man’s life and perspective, and how drastically different it is to her’s, she seems relieved by the man’s humility. What I found particularly fascinating about the film is the wandering eye of the camera- how it will slide over to a neighboring table at the cafe and linger on the other patrons’ conversation instead of listening to Cléo’s maid. There are several shots like that throughout the film and while this film didn’t flat out amaze me, I did find it charming and unique, and those choices reveal someone behind the camera who has an eye for storytelling that I will likely return to. As I work my way through the films of the French ‘New Wave’ I’ve found things I adore and some I simply respect without due emotion- but this one is a curious little movie that will prod me to seek them all out in the future.
“Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)
Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” is an art-house drama that focuses on the titular Boonmee and his family as they encounter supernatural occurrences. The beginning of the film features a tied up ox (in a past time perhaps?) that breaks the thin rope tying it to a lone tree and wanders off into the jungle before a man in a loincloth finds the beast and hauls him out of the maze of vegetation. Though before we cut to the main story- we get a shot of a still figure, darkened by shadows, with piercing red eyes watching this scene from further within the jungle. We’re then introduced to Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) as they arrive at the family’s small farm. There Boonmee, Jen, and Boonmee’s nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) tend to the farmhouse, check on the field workers harvesting fruits, and generally take a slow approach to each day. Which is a necessity as Boonmee has a failing kidney and a dutiful assistant in Jaai (Samud Kugasang), who performs dialysis treatments for him. At dinner one night Boonmee, Jen, and Tong discuss death and karma, and the conversation seems to be your average run-of-the-mill chat over a shared meal- that is, until a ghostly figure slowly fades into existence at an empty chair at the table. Surprisingly, everyone at the table calmly accepts this unexpected appearance- maybe because the ghost is Boonmee’s deceased wife, and Jen’s sister, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk). They show her pictures of people and events that have taken place since her death and they ask her why she has come, but she’s coy and seemingly removed from the troubles of time and space. Shortly after this a shadowy figure with the same glaring red eyes as before slowly walks up the stairs to join the family at the table as well. This figure’s form becomes clearer when he finally sits at the table under the light. This extremely hairy, red-eyed, and stoic creature claims to be Boonmee’s lost son, Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong). After his mother’s death Boonsong became obsessed with tracking down a creature he managed to photograph once, the “Monkey Ghost”. Eventually Boonsong found the creatures, and mated with one, which transformed him into what he is now, though he confesses to nearly forgetting all of “The Old World”. He admits to arriving because there are many otherworldly creatures outside Boonmee’s door, and that his father’s time in this world is near it’s end. While Boonsong departs after this scene Huay sticks around and eventually leads Boonmee to a cave with Tong and Jen following behind. There’s a lot more that takes place after this, including a scene where a princess meets a talking catfish and has an erotic experience centered on the subject of wishes. It’s a very strange film that constantly kept me rapt with attention. How do you know what to expect when all of reality seems at play? This one’s also noteworthy as it’s the first film from Thailand to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” was a joy to experience- but it is most definitely a slow paced one and it can be highly surreal at times which won’t be for everyone. If you’re into David Lynch’s style of filmmaking- this will likely work for you!
“I Vitelloni” (1953)
Written by Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Federico Fellini, and directed by Fellini “I Vitelloni” is the story of a small group of young men in their twenties in a seaside town in 1950’s Italy. There are five in the group but the majority of the drama is focused on two of the characters, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) the youngest of the group, and Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) the oldest and defacto leader of the group. In the beginning of the film at the Mermaid Beauty Contest, Moraldo’s sister Sandra wins the top prize, but has a fainting spell which is caused, the doctor discovers, by pregnancy! Fausto is quick to leave the end of summer celebration and attempts to leave town- but he’s quickly discovered by his friends and family, to be the father of Sandra’s unborn child. This prompts a jump forward to the hastily prepared wedding and it’s aftermath in which we get more of a focus on the others in the group; Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) the meek intellectual playwright, Alberto (Alberto Sordi) the dreamer who lives with his sister and mother, and Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini) the boisterous and overly confidant baritone singer who dreams of fame. The film is chiefly concerned with Fausto’s incorrigible impropriety towards Sandra and seemingly every single woman that he comes in contact with. It’s amazing how far Fausto goes to sate his animalistic urges, going so far as to pursue a woman that leaves the movie theater that he and Sandra attend during the movie. What I enjoyed most about the movie was it’s the depiction of listless young men in a small waterfront town, lonely, lost, not knowing what to do with their lives or even who they really are as men. The film is very interested in themes of family, tradition, infidelity, and the failure of living up to society’s expectations. Each of the five young men are touched by failure in some way shape or form, and how they choose to handle each scenario showcases their differences as the story evolves. This was an entertaining, and very relatable, film. As someone who just escaped their twenties with a similar sense of failure, being lost, and generally directionless- I understood (some of) these characters.
“The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943)
Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” is the story of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy told over forty years from 1902 to 1942. From his return to England after his foray into the Boer War of South Africa until his time building the Home Guard where he trains the next generation during World War Two, Candy was always at the forefront of the next battle. The film begins with a scene in the second World War when a young officer gets sassy with a seasoned Candy at a Turkish Bath. When Candy gives the young officer a pop in the jaw for his ignorance, he basically tells him that he doesn’t know his story, why he grew his ridiculous mustache, how he became portly, or who he was as a person. Then we get a clever transition back in time in that same Turkish bath to the early twentieth century. The film is structured into three major parts, the aftermath of the Boer War, World War One, and World War Two. What at first seems like solely a biographical story, turns into the story of two men, and the women they loved. Initially Candy (Roger Livesey) is sent to Berlin to combat some German propaganda spreading misinformation about the British Military’s actions in South Africa. Once there his informant, Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) takes him to a popular cafe that the suspect frequents. Candy eyes the suspect, Kaunitz (David Ward), who was a captured combatant in Candy’s camp for a time in South Africa, and starts a scuffle in which he insults the entire of the German Army. This necessitates a duel between Candy and a representative of the German Military. Thus Candy must fight a man who had never known him for his verbal slight. That man is Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), and both men receive wounds in the scrap. Candy nearly loses his upper lip and Theo gets a daring scar on his forehead. Both men stay at the same nursing home to recover and in that time they become fast friends with Edith often stopping by to play cards and visit both men. By the time they’re both healed a connection has grown between Theo and Edith- and they intend to marry once Candy insists that Edith isn’t his fiance. Fast forward to the end of the first world war where the two friends have their lowest point as Theo has been taken as prisoner of war in England and has had his ideals shattered by Germany’s defeat. While Candy is in France near the end of the war, he meets a young British Nurse that is the spitting image of Edith, who Candy has finally realized he loved in his youth. Barbara Wynne, who ends up marrying Candy, is also played by Deborah Kerr. In fact, she has a third role in the World War Two portion of the story as Candy’s personal driver- who also interacts with an aged Theo who’s moved to England in the 1930’s to be in his deceased wife’s homeland- he lost his children to Hitler’s propaganda years ago and has taken great shame because of it. The third portion of the film is my favorite part as it plays off of a culmination of everything we’ve seen up until this point. It also has the best scene in my opinion- when Theo comes to England he must defend his reasoning to an immigration official where he details his deeply emotional reasoning as to why he wanted to move to England. Right when Theo mentions that he does have a contact in England- but that he’s probably a very busy man who doesn’t have the time to acknowledge such a request- a decorated General Candy waltzes into the immigration office exactly on cue. It’s one of the finest examples of true friendship that I’ve seen on film in years. This was a very entertaining and far more emotionally resonant film than I expected. I appreciated how perfectly cyclical the film’s storytelling is, and how the editing and shot composition blended the beginning and ending of the film together seamlessly. As I wasn’t too sure of the background behind the film, I initially thought General Clive Candy was a real historical figure- but from what I gather, ‘Colonel Blimp’ is more of a caricature of ‘outmoded’ British Militarism similar to that of ‘Uncle Sam’ in North America. They just used the popular character of ‘Colonel Blimp’ from pop culture and molded some humanity around the representative figure. This was an excellent film that focused on a friendship that survived forty of the most tumultuous years in modern European history from opposing nationalities, and the women that influenced both men in that time.
*Below I have linked (or attempted to) a few articles on the films discussed above, hopefully they give greater context and further the conversation in a fruitful way. Enjoy!
**I would simply link you to the following article, but for some reason, there is a technological error preventing this- HOWEVER, I still recommend seeking out the short article titled “Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Moviegoing After Quarantine, When Slow Cinema Could Reign” on IndieWire written by Ryan Lattanzio.