Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge] (Imamura Shōhei, 2001, Japan | France)

This post comes as part of David CairnsThe Late Show blogathon over at Shadowplay.

Making its début as part of the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival in the spring of 2001, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge proved to be Imamura Shōhei’s final film, save for a short segment in the portmanteau 11’9”01 September 11 (2002) of the following year, and came in the then-veteran director’s fiftieth year in the filmmaking business. His varied career saw him begin as assistant Ozu Yasujirō, become a key member of the Nuberu bagu (Japanese New Wave), ‘retiring’ into making documentaries after a high-profile box-office flop, before eventually returning to critical acclaim and a record-equalling two Palme d’Or wins.

In such a long working life, a number of distinct phases emerge from the whole, the final of which seems to begin after the eight-year hiatus following Kuroi ame [Black Rain] (1989) with Unagi [The Eel] (1997), the Cannes winner with which Warm Water… shares many similarities. Like that earlier film, it takes as its protagonist a man who relocates to a small town to start a new life, though the focus here seems to be on a mischievous sense of mystery rather the murderous melodrama with which The Eel begins. Yosuke (Yakusho Kōji) is an unemployed former salaryman with apparently few prospects for finding a job, much to the chagrin of his unforgiving, nagging wife. When his elderly friend Taro dies, he remembers that he informed him about a valuable gold Buddha he has deposited in a small fishing town many years before, and urges his friend to follow his directions to find it and sell for his own profit.

Once there, Yosuke quickly locates the key geographical clue – the red bridge which stands over the river running through the town – and follows the occupant of the house adjacent to it to the supermarket where he is shocked to witnesses two things: firstly, that the woman, Saeko, is depositing items from the cheese aisle into her handbag without paying for them and, more disturbingly, she is somehow leaking liquid onto the floor beneath her. Disturbed, he follows her back to her house where he soon discovers her strange biological quirk, best not described in too much detail here but what comes to be known in the film as ‘venting’, which she may only achieve by either shoplifting or by sexual stimulation.

The fast descent into the surreal confirms the film to be what it self-describes as an ‘impossible tale’, and slides into obviously metaphorical whimsy. There follows a rash of Freudian symbolism (signposted by the ‘water’ and ‘red bridge’ of the title) including a strange hallucinatory dream incorporating Yosuke’s entry into to a womb-like state composed of stars (which augments the theme of fertility raised by Saeko’s exaggerated medical condition), repeated flashbacks to Taro’s inane quasi-philosophical ramblings about erectile dysfunction, and another younger character’s obsession with his own ‘precious life essence’. The plotting, after its initial coherence, becomes increasingly scattershot, haphazardly throwing in a visit to a state-of-the-art neutrino observatory, an odd flashback to Saeko’s mother’s water-bound death, more venting, more clumsy flashbacks and some occasional documentary-like shots aboard a fishing vessel.

When considering Imamura’s later films, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the negative and what he had lost in terms of his filmcraft by this time. Gone are the obviously strong, central female characters of his 1960s films which, rightly or wrongly, had him labelled as a director of feminisuto (feminist) films, and his famously ‘anthropological’ portrayal of the lower classes of Japan scarcely seen in the respectable canons of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse. Mostly absent too is the strongly observational style, which at their best disintegrated the borderline between documentary and fiction (see the superb Ningen Johatsu (1967)), or showed glimpses of social order in pre-industrial Japanese cultures (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (1968), Narayama Bushiko (1983)). The late-period films seem whimsical and inconsequential in comparison.

This insistence on looking back on former glories does the films of Imamura’s late phase a disservice. What is notably different about them is that they feel so much more laidback, less motivated by a reactionary anger, and more upbeat, allowing the comedic side honed by the influence of his mentor Kawashima Yūzō to be shown more fully. Perhaps too, he was calmed by the influence of working with his eldest son Tengan Daisuke, screenwriter here and on The Eel and latterly a collaborator with Miike Takashi (himself a graduate of Imamura’s own Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film).

While lacking the bite of his best work then, what gives Warm Water… its strange charm is this newly-found air of relaxation in the director’s work, the film’s assembly of a small-town world and its population with a host of curious characters – the grandmother who obsessively writes clairvoyant fortune messages all day, the African college student running around the town being tailed by his bicycle-riding, baseball-bat-wielding trainer barking orders at him through a megaphone, the old fishermen of the town, their young rival and his over-exuberant girlfriend – and a host of other minor details and offbeat asides.

Perhaps this is not enough for fans of his more ‘important’ films, but Warm Water… does offer a modified version of the director’s eye for the anthropological; Saeko’s ‘venting’ drains out into the river, which sends the local fish and seabirds into a kind-of frenzy and in turn ensures a bumper haul for the local fishermen. If Imamura’s earlier films more directly showed human behaviours to be analogous to those of animals such as snakes, insects and pigs, then what these later films show is a more serene vision, of man as an essential part of the balance of nature. The film’s final shot, though primarily a terrifically funny visual gag, also serves this vision: a superimposed rainbow, apparently caused by a particularly large ‘vent’ by Saeko; an oddly contrived moment of transcendence which closed this great director’s career.


Madeo [Mother] (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, South Korea)

Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho's "Mother"

The exploration of the sometimes mysterious bond between a mother and her child is the kind of theme one might well expect to be best suited to straightforward melodrama but, ever the meddler with genre, Bong Joon-ho has crafted an engrossing detective-story thriller around the subject, a film which constantly defies the viewer’s expectations and offers both a moving portrayal of the power of the familial bond and a dark portrait of this link when pushed to its extremes. As well as being a play with familiar generic tropes, so too is his film a meditation on the importance of memory, set against the backdrop of a wider critique of male domination and female peripheralization in Korean society.

What characterized Bong’s previous two films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006), was an obviously withering contempt for the patriarchal authorities contemporary to the periods in which they were set. In the former film, based on a real-life series of incidents in the late 1980s, a bungling police investigative team fail to catch a serial killer, while in the latter, the present-day residents of Seoul find themselves at the mercy of both their own paranoid government and the decidedly more gung-ho US authorities in the wake of an attack on the city by a gargantuan monster. In both films, it is the ordinary people who are made to suffer because of, or be scapegoats for, their public officials’ inadequacies.

Mother apparently continues this thematic concern by focusing on an unnamed mother’s struggle to clear her son Do-joon’s name after he is, she firmly believes, wrongly incarcerated and made an easy scapegoat for the brutal murder of a young schoolgirl. In trying to prove his innocence we see her comes up against over-worked detectives, violent police interrogators and – worst of all – her well-paid lawyer who turns out to be more concerned with scoffing buffets and drunkenly cavorting with escorts rather than helping her champion her son’s case.

The film is almost exclusively viewed from the point of view of Do-joon’s mother, and we are quickly inclined to feel sympathy for her when, in film’s first scene after the opening titles, we witness her cutting her finger with a large slicing machine while she is paying more attention to her son’s safety than her own. When Do-joon is hit by a passing car, the aggressive Jin-tae leads him to seek revenge on the driver at the local golf course, where we learn that Do-joon is mentally slow, forgetful and easily led by his more impulsive friend. Indeed, we see that while Jin-tae is capable of sporadic acts of violence, his meek friend is unable even to kick a car’s wing mirror without coming off the worst in the act.

Do-joon’s mother is, as any parent would be, concerned that her good-natured son continues to keep company with this ‘bad seed’, but their maternal relationship also seems at best off-kilter, and at worst positively unhealthy: though he is 27 years old, she still over-dotes on him as if he were an infant, and the virginal son still sleeps in his mother’s bed at night. In one tragi-comic scene she even feeds him ‘medicine’ while he stands in the street relieving himself against a wall; after he rushes off she tries to tidy up after him, scraping the urine away with her foot, and covering the spot with a nearby piece of metal.

The odd dynamic between mother and son seems strange but at this stage somewhat benign and as if it is being played for laughs, and when the harmless but distinctly un-savvy Do-joon gets hauled in by the police and roughed up by their interrogator in order to sign a confession, we naturally side with the mother in protesting his innocence, as well as suspecting Jin-Tae’s possible guilt. It is here that Mother shifts into a familiar detective-story mode, with the titular protagonist seeking clues to uncover the identity of the real killer, motivated both by her love (however strange) for her son and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the official channels of law enforcement to look beyond the circumstantial evidence of the case.

This is how the story appears to want to unfold as it settles down, and there is a sense of a return to his previous films’ concerns with the powerless oppressed struggling in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy. Our identification with the mother and her struggle has been uncomplicated, resting on easily identifiable premises: a vulnerable, elderly woman struggling against uncaring authorities to prove her mild-mannered son innocent and to turn suspicion towards his violent friend. Yet almost as soon as her own investigation begins she appears to come up against a dead end, one which turns at least one of these assumptions on its head. In classic detective-thriller tradition, and with more than a little hint of Twin Peaks, her sleuthing leads her to make some startling discoveries about her small town and she becomes embroiled in a much more sinister and potentially dangerous situation than she first had anticipated.

Mother‘s convoluted narrative about-turns not only maintain an admirable air of suspense for its 130 minute running time, but serve to undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the viewer holds about the story and its characters. If Memories of Murder played on the tropes of the police procedural genre and The Host similarly toyed with the familiar mores of the family-drama-amidst-monster-attack movie, the film uses the setup of a detective-story to expose how the viewer becomes emotionally complicit with the depths of its main character’s moral elasticity without even realizing it – until, that is, it is too late. The beating heart of Bong’s film is a dark, twisted one which, as well as showing how familial bonds can be an empowering, all-conquering force for good, they are the same ones which can drive people to go too far. Nevertheless, lead actress Kim Hye-ja, familiar to Korean audiences for playing more placid matriarchs, conjures up a mesmerizing central performance as a quiet, subservient elderly mother steeled by her resolve to free her son, and it is hard not to be swept along by this woman’s sheer determination.

The film’s feminine title underlines the fact that there is a large focus on the cultural and social divide between the genders, and though the subject of female subjugation is not broached explicitly, it is one which is ever-present in the background. If men are not alternately portrayed as bullying, incompetent, pathetic, money-grabbing, self-serving, violent, whimsical or sexually rapacious creatures then, as in the case of the fathers of both Do-joon and murdered schoolgirl Moon Ah-jung, they are absent entirely. The question of Do-joon’s father is never raised, and at one stage his mother even suggests to one of her acupuncture clients that it was ‘medicine’ which made her pregnant with her son. By contrast, women are the efficient workers, the gossips who know what is happening in the community, the victims of bullying, taken advantage of sexually, or at the extremes are driven to drink or attempted suicide. The mourners at Moon Ah-jung’s wake are almost exclusively female.

Do-joon’s memory – or lack thereof – serves not merely as a device to initiate and maintain the central mystery plot, but also as a metaphor for his essential unknowability to his mother, regardless of how close their relationship is; to what extent his amnesia is selective by choice or otherwise is never made explicit, which leaves us as much in the dark as she is. One dramatic revelation about their past, however, offers some clue as to its cause, as well as suggesting that one thing he may not be able to remember is something that she chooses advantageously not to remind him of. It also serves to cast in darker hues both her character and her apparently unselfish servitude to him. By the end, we are left to guess the extent to which Do-joon is able to piece together what his mother has done; she, however, makes sure she takes steps never to remember, and the film’s memorable final shot serves as a poignant recapitulation of its equally striking first.

The film’s emotional zenith comes when the mother is called upon to visit JT, an adolescent with Downs’ Syndrome who has been captured after escaping from the sanitorium. She simply asks him if he has any parents, a mother? His negative reply causes her to break down – but is it entirely out of pity for him? Her relationship with her son may have empowered her to go to extraordinary, almost unthinkable lengths to save him, but as much as this moment comes as catharsis it also serves to remind her of the horrors she has witnessed too. All in the journey of a mother, though, one in which the ability to forget may well be as important as that to remember.

Mother is released on DVD on 20 September by Optimum Releasing.

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2009, Italy / France)

In contrast to Francisco Franco, his Spanish counterpart who displayed little interest in the subject, Benito Mussolini never neglected the social importance of cinema; indeed, on opening the world-famous Cinecittà studios in 1937, he stood in front of a massive sign bearing a slogan he had coined himself, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon”. Though, as Peter Bondanella points out, recent archival work has suggested that the actual propaganda content of the films produced during World War Two was minimal, the shadow of the Mussolini name still looms large over the industry’s history: as well as his government’s construction of Cinecittà, his son Vittorio was a noted film critic and heavily involved in establishing the careers of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. and even the top prize at the Venice Film Festival proudly carried the Mussolini name for the first years of its existence.

The Mussolini years also saw the foundation of the other major pillar of the modern Italian film industry, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the important filmmaking school which would one day count one Marco Bellocchio as a graduate. There is, then, a sense of Oedipus-like patricide to Bellocchio’s making of a film which paints Il Duce in such an unflattering light, but then the 70 year-old director has taken dysfunctional families and their internal psychologies as his central interest from his debut film – the intensely savage domestic drama Fists in the Pocket (1965) – onwards, so it ought to be of little surprise that he eventually turn his attention to that most notorious of Italian father figures.

Vincere takes as its main subject not Mussolini himself but Ida Dalser, his first wife and the mother of his first-born son, but who the dictator-to-be expediently came to deny all knowledge of during the course of his political ascent. The film traces two parallel narratives – Ida’s own personal story and the story of Benito’s increasing prominence in political affairs. What may loosely be described as the first half of the film charts Ida and Benito’s chance meeting and eventual romance; the young Mussolini is painted here as a firebrand atheist and left-wing agitator with an immense personal magnetism, with whom the rapt Ida is overwhelmingly enamoured. They marry, and she eventually sells all of her possessions to help him set up his newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, but it soon emerges that he has married another woman, Rachele, and fathered a daughter with her. Ida is subsequently abandoned and painted as a mad obsessive, prevented from seeing her husband, and eventually incarcerated in a series of psychiatric hospitals for the remainder of her life for protesting the existence of their marriage.

In the film’s first half, Mussolini is a very real presence in Dalser’s life, but as Dalser is placed under police surveillance and eventual imprisonment, what we see of Il Duce is increasingly glimpsed only through newsreels, portraits, and even at a later stage a large bust which his unrecognised son sends crashing to the floor in disgust. From the very personal view of the very passionate man established in the film’s first half, all that is seen of Mussolini in its second half is that famously gurn-like public face, monstrously grimacing and gesticulating wildly in front of baying crowds. It is not just his personality which has changed; a complete political volte-face has seen him change from republican atheist left-wing pacifist into warmongering Fascist in alliance with the King and the Pope.

The film, then, invites the viewer into drawing a parallel between Mussolini’s treatment of Dalser and his chameleonic political transformation, both of which demonstrative of his characteristically Machiavellian ability to recast himself according to expediency. In this sense, it is a continuation of Bellocchio’s best films of the 1960s which posited that dysfunctional personal lives are both the cause and effect of a wider dysfunctional culture; where Vincere differs from those though, as well as placing it apart from Bernardo Bertolucci’s more famous The Conformist (1970), is that instead of offering a psychosexual explanation for the causes of fascism, Bellocchio seems to be presenting Mussolini’s conversion as much more straightforwardly stemming from an overriding, all-consuming ambition.

This simplicity makes for a much more accessible film than one might associate with the director. Dalser’s steadfast refusal to deny that she was ever married to Benito – an admission which would likely see her freed from institutionalisation – paints her as an anti-fascist heroine, refusing to submit to a lie for personal convenience, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno’s powerful central performance makes for a moving portrait of a woman completely unable to understand or accept her husband’s betrayal. Carlo Crivelli’s score, by turns bombastic and pulsating, raises the drama far beyond realism and into the heights of operatic tragedy.

On this plane of melodrama, Vincere functions well, but as political polemic it feels unsatisfactory. The film’s first half feels rushed, necessarily crammed with inserted pieces of newsreel footage illustrating the political situation which gave rise to Mussolini’s ascent, but at the expense of allowing breathing space for the characters to become fully delineated. As such, when Dalser is spurned, the viewer is left as confused as she as to the reasons for her abandonment, and these are never satisfactorily resolved later in the film. This serves the drama, and allies us well to Dalser’s point of view, but offers little in the way of insight into the character who is of real interest in the story, Mussolini himself.

Vincere, then, represents something of a compromise: that the chief interest of the story is absent for most of the film’s duration presents a challenge which it only partially meets up to. Yet there are moments of genuine brilliance: in one comical early scene, the young Mussolini foments a fight between partisan pro-war and anti-war supporters inside a cinema, the calamitous violence onscreen replicated in front of it, both continuing to be scored by an increasingly frantic silent film accompanist at the piano. Later, the grown-up son of Mussolini – played by the same Filippo Timi who portrayed the young Benito Sr – struts around aping the comically grotesque figure he has seen on newsreels of the father he never knew. Both scenes – comic and tragic – point towards the social function of cinema as a reflection of – and shaper of – society, a dual function that Mussolini’s own recognition of gave rise to the birth of modern Italian cinema.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009, USA)

Werner Herzog has presided over what might loosely be termed ‘remakes’ before: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), his predictably odd re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic actually seems to sit quite comfortably in amongst his other classics of the 1970s, and while Rescue Dawn (2007) could hardly be termed a replica of his earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), their similarities do reflect the always fine line between fact and fiction that all of his best films carefully tread. This last point has always struck me as the major value of his work; as such, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), for all of its merits, seemed only to be the second best documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the first being the film itself and its self-reflexive examination of the director’s relation to his chosen artifice through the proxy of Kinski’s titular character.

If there is reason to be disappointed with his latest film, the mouth-numbingly wordily-titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, then it is for an absence of this sense of Herzogian ambiguity between fiction and fact; one might question why this usually picky auteur plumped for making what is a reasonably straightforward thriller in the first place, save for the possibility of working with Nicolas Cage, whose gloriously deranged central performance – bouncing around from scene to scene and from score to score – rivals virtually anything that the Bavarian director’s famously lunatic collaborative partnership with Klaus Kinski committed to celluloid.

That aside, there is very little of note; none of his famous eye for establishing an extreme sense of location, whether through visuals or diegetic sound, surely a waste considering both the architectural specificity and the unparalleled musical tradition of the city of New Orleans. Indeed, as lensed by long-time DP Peter Zeitlinger, the film looks much like a bog-standard cable TV police drama. Neither does there seem to be much in the way of an overarching theme, unlike in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992) which was much more obviously steeped in a strongly Catholic sense of sin, foregiveness and redemption. Herzog himself has said the film is about “the bliss of evil”; the bliss certainly shines through in the film’s sheer enjoyability, but the near-slapstick tone detracts from the idea that its protagonist is genuinely evil, particularly when one remembers just how bad Harvey Keitel was in the earlier film.

As a standard crime drama, the film is hard to fault thanks to a tight and at times highly amusing script from veteran scribe William M. Finkelstein, save for some horribly shoehorned-in clunkiness towards the end about a childhood spoon. As one might expect from a Herzog film, the emphasis is very much placed on just the one central character, putting what is one of Cage’s career-best performances in the full spotlight but at the cost of marginalizing an under-used supporting cast. Eva Mendes has little more to do than Isabelle Adjani did Nosferatu; as if we needed reminding, Herzog’s is worldview is unmistakeably male-centric.

Except maybe it isn’t. Outside of the narrative there are some genuinely odd moments, all seeming to involve animals. Iguanas are filmed in extreme close-up while Johnny Adams sings Release Me on the soundtrack, a camera views the scene of a car crash as if through an alligator’s eyes, a family dog seems to cause characters more trouble than one might suspect, and the film ends with a shot of its main character being dwarfed by a background of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank. What is the relevance? Perhaps, when all is said and done, Herzog cares little for this silly world of cops, drug dealers and hookers; it would seem to be an opinion which shared by these animals, indifferent and largely undisturbed by the petty goings-on of the human world. Maybe this is why Bad Lieutenant feels hardly like Werner Herzog’s film at all; it just is not in the world he is interested in. Regardless, it is an amiable-enough piece of popcorn entertainment and, along with Kick Ass (2010), a welcome reminder of just how much fun Nicolas Cage can be.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010, USA)

Those a little perplexed by the sheer pulpy excess of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006), should remember that, like Quentin Tarantino after him, the director’s famously encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema has long placed on equal par the genre picture and the art-house classic, a democracy in which Gun Crazy (1950) is as important an influence as Ossessione (1943). One ought not to forget either that Scorsese was a graduate of the Roger Corman film school, an early brush with exploitation which can be betrayed to varying extents in his output ever since Boxcar Bertha (1972) gave rise to Mean Streets (1973). The problem is, running to an overlong 138 minutes Shutter Island if anything needed to be a little more Corman and less Cimino.

The year is 1953, and we begin aboard a ferry carrying US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his newly-appointed investigative partner Chuck Aule, who together have been sent to the small titular island, home to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, a forbidding place established from these early shots aboard the boat – the hold all clanking chains and handcuffs – to their arrival through the high-security electric-fenced perimeter of the hospital. On arrival, the hospital’s head psychiatrist, the charming, smooth-talking Dr. John Cawley, explains that it is his liberal-minded philosophy that these dangerous prisoners may be ‘cured’ of their mental traumas by allowing them to act out their anxieties rather than by punishing and medicating them; this awakens hostility from Teddy, who in a series of dreamlike flashbacks recalls not only his wife’s death in an arson house fire but also his presence as a soldier at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, dually haunted by the ghosts of a loved one and strangers he was unable to save from mechanised slaughter.

Ostensibly Teddy and Chuck’s mission is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of Ashecliff’s patients/inmates, Rachel Solando, who had been locked up for the brutal drowning of her three young children. But just how did she manage to escape from her locked cell, barred at the windows? Within the opening reels, this is the apparent central mystery, but slowly the detective story mutates as it transpires that Teddy has other, hidden reasons for coming to the island: not only has he reason to believe that his wife’s killer has been sent there, but he also suspects that the facility has been conducting mind experiments on its inmates. Thus, he is conflicted between two motivations: on the one hand avenging his wife’s death, and on the other crusading against what he sees as the appropriation of the Nazi thought experiments he fought against during the war.

This is only the piano terra of what quickly becomes a complicated Memento-like (2000) house of cards representing the fractured psychology of Marshal Daniels. Communicating to the ghost of his dead wife, who seems to be urging him on in his investigations, albeit then decaying into a pile of ash, he begins to question the trustworthiness of all around him – inmates, staff, even his own partner. Most of all, he is suspicious of Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, the German ex-pat colleague of Cawley’s who seems to suggest a link to the wartime experiences he is unable to forget. But can he believe even himself, led by ghosts of his own memories?

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose comparably more sober Mystic River (2003) and Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) have also been filmed, Shutter Island is the kind of story which translates very well to the visual medium, and Scorsese employs a full gamut of camera techniques in order to send us hurtling around the menacing prison’s corridors and its surrounding windswept island in a whirlwind fashion. Hitchcock seems the key reference point in terms of storytelling, reflected most obviously in the Bernard Herrmann-esque score as well as visual nods to Vertigo (1957) and Psycho (1960), but one can’t help but think that Hitch might have trimmed the running time down by a reel or so; the drawn-out ending in particular makes the full 138 minutes feel just too long, and the sheer obviousness of the big plot twist makes it seem as if Scorsese is showing his cards more than a little too early.

The length issue is reflective of the film’s essence as a hybrid of detective story and psychological autopsy, and the film ends up feeling a strangely schizophrenic mish-mash of visual styles. The opening reels feel strangely old-fashioned, an homage to the classic post-war film noir tradition right down to the apparent use of very retro-looking back-projection placing the island ferry atop the ocean waves, and veteran DP Robert Richardson’s camera and lighting take ecstatic delight in showing the period mise en scene. And yet despite the hokey, over-expositionary dialogue, there is an unease about those early scenes, largely thanks to some odd jump-cut editing and subtle use of minor temporal discontinuities to set the viewer on alert that all is certainly not what it seems. The dream sequences, though, are pure Tarkovsky, undercranked and littered with symbols and associative elemental imagery, with a feeling of po-faced unease that occasionally threatens to turn into slapstick.

The pastiche of film noir tropes is unsurprising for the director whose films always seem so enamoured with cinema history, but the evocation of the Holocaust seems flippant, almost frivolous, to what is ultimately an insubstantial story, if an entertaining one. Of course, noir owed its existence to World War Two, not only as a reaction to its horrors but as a product of its resultant immigration to Hollywood of the likes of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, and it is certainly possible to use experience of it to great achieve great empathic effect – see how Nabokov subverted the apparent comedy of Pnin with the haunting tragedy of Buchenwald – yet here it feels like Scorsese is unable convincingly to work it in to the story, at least with the unresponsive DiCaprio as lead. Not that DiCaprio is bad – in fact he seems well suited to this period hokum – but for a film which about interior psychology his performance is simply too opaque.

For its problems, Shutter Island remains enjoyably entertaining, and a film unashamedly soaked in love for the history and traditions of cinema, and for the sheer craft of old-fashioned thriller filmcraft. Still, it is an obtuse, awkward work, and will surely baffle many more than it will delight, but this seems to be where its charm lies; file under ‘personal projects’ alongside The Aviator (2004) and Kundun (1997). Maybe this is where the true value of his work has resided all along.

Aruitemo aruitemo [Still Walking] (Koreeda Hirokazu, 2008, Japan)

The shomin-geki, a particular type of Japanese family drama, is a long-established genre dating back to the early 1920s, but it is one which is perenially associated with, indeed practically synonymous with, the director Ozu Yasujiro, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the BFI. There is perhaps no better context within which to view this film by Koreeda Hirokazu, a director who has long been spoken of as his natural heir, given that his films share similar themes and concerns with those of his predecessor. Still Walking sees the parallels between them stronger than ever, and if one were to imagine the ghost of the great director watching with us, he would surely be nodding in silent approval.

A prologue introduces us to Kyohei and his wife Toshiko, an elderly middle-class couple living in a quiet coastal town. We see the old man doggedly struggle up some steps before exchanging kind greetings with a lady, from which exchange we learn that he is the area’s retired former doctor, and later that his house is his former surgery, still full of now disused medical paraphernalia. In contrast to this character, we are then swiftly introduced to his son Ryota who is travelling by bus with his new wife and stepson to visit his parents. In these early exchanges he seems uncaring towards his father and mother, expressing his wish to stay with them for as little time possible; in the meantime his own concerns have blinded him to the nervousness of his new bride at the prospect of meeting her in-laws for the first time.

Such a setup inevitably recalls Tokyo Story (1953), and the expectation is that the story will be about an uncaring son who is woefully neglecting his kindly parents, yet as soon as he arrives this is turned on its head. In truth, it is the father who is the transgressor, and greets his son with cold inhospitability; he holds lingering resentment that Ryota decided not to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor, and shows disdain for his chosen career as an art restorer. Toshiko is little kinder to her son, and confesses to daughter Chinami her disdain for his marrying a widow: after all, at least a divorcee might have chosen to leave her husband.

The film takes its time to reveal important pieces of information, and it is largely relayed through offhand remarks rather than expositionary dialogue. Slowly, we piece together that the family have gathered to mark the anniversary of the death of eldest son Junpei, the apple of his father’s eye who drowned many years ago in saving another man’s life. Kyohei clearly believes that Junpei would have become a doctor himself and carried on his work, and his resentment towards Ryota is based in a belief that the ‘wrong’ son died that day. The mother, too, is unable to let her son go. Later on, the man whom Junpei saved comes to pay his respects, a sweaty, obese, unkempt man who is both embarrassed and ashamed to be present in front of the family; Toshiko confesses that she insists that he return every year in order for him to suffer as she continues to her son’s death

Much of the subject matter makes the film sound depressing, and one suspects in the hands of a Western director such material would make for more of a melodrama, yet Still Walking, in the tradition of Ozu, is anything but morose. For long passages, the tone is light and playful, brightened by lively, colourful cinematography – the camera keen to linger on seemingly insignificant domestic details – a lilting acoustic guitar score, and the dialogue filled with the pleasantries and idioms with which the characters generally interact. Food is the major topic of conversation, and even the cold father softens and is lured out of his den when he smells frying tempura in the kitchen. Most of all, it is through the presence of the younger generation’s children of their own: while the adult dramas are playing out onscreen, there is frequently the accompanying sound of offscreen children at play, their lives so far mostly untouched by these frivolous grown-up concerns

Where Koreeda’s script and direction excel, though, is in how skilfully he manages to weave the tangled web of characters and their inter-relationships so that frequently within the same frame we can see a whole variety of emotions being experienced simultaneously by different characters, usually along generational lines. As well as dramatically underlining the gap between their attitudes, it also lends a huge sense of authenticity to this familial portrait: after all, how many family gatherings see all participants synchronised emotionally? More often the blinkers are on for the duration.

The shooting style – mostly carefully composed medium shots – might suggest observational distance rather than emotional intimacy, and yet film proves to be a bridge between the two; like Ozu’s films we feel like another visiting guest in the household, and when narrative resolution is achieved and the film closes there is a sense of emptiness in having to leave the world we have been living in for the previous two hours. The other director whose work springs to mind as a comparison piece is the late, great Edward Yang, another master of deep, subtle humanism. Koreeda’s beautiful, delicate film deserves such illustrious company.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009, USA)

The brevity of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are its story contained in only a few hundred words and a few dozen pages of illustrations – shows the other side of the coin of the problem of literary adaptation to, say, Watchmen (2009). Instead of what Zack Snyder had to do with that film, i.e. condense a large, sprawling work down to a coherent audience-friendly narrative, the job for director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers has been to conjure up a feature-length picture from the bare bones of a relatively sparse source.

In theory at least, this should be the easier task, and one which opens up the possibilities of exploring avenues of theme and character absent or not fully fleshed-out in the book. In fact Jonze and Eggers have gone one step further in overlaying broad new ideas over the story’s template. The approach has worked to a large extent; Where The Wild Things Are has benefited greatly from this room for manoeuvre which has allowed both of their distinct authorial voices clearly to emerge in its story. Yet the lack of narrative meat in the source material proves to be the root of film’s biggest weaknesses.

Sendak’s simple story centres on a young unruly boy named Max who one day travels by boat to an island populated by large hairy monsters; they duly appoint him king and he remains for a while as their monarch before returning home. The most immediate difference that Jonze and Eggers make is with Max himself, rounding out his personality and back-story by making him emotionally isolated – apparently friendless, his mother frequently busy with work or with her gentleman friend, his teenage sister hanging out with her friends – an isolation which causes or at least exacerbates his tendency for violent tantrums.

Max is a creative child, a teller of fantastical stories, so when he eventually runs away from home to set sail for the imaginary island of monsters we can expect it to be a product of his imagination. Once on the island and acquainted with its inhabitants, what swiftly becomes apparent is that there is something deeper going on: again supplementing the original book, here in the film the monsters are all physical manifestations of the different sides of his personality: most immediately the short-fused Carol, quick to lose his cool and throw a wobbly, represents Max’s ill-temper, but so too the timid, seldom listened-to Alexander who personifies (or monsterifies?) his loneliness, and the elusive K.W. who appears to be a product of with his longing to be close to his sister.

It is a novel approach to interpreting and expanding on the book, and is particularly effective in developing the bildungsroman idea of maturity deriving from a loss of naïve innocence and the discovery and acceptance of both one’s own imperfections and those of others. The stories we tell, whether we are a child or a successful filmmaker, are in some way reflective of our own subconscious. As such, as Jonze has been keen to point out, this is an often melancholy film about childhood rather than for children, and a PG certificate and a frequent sense of fun should not be enough to dissuade otherwise.

This setup is very elegant, but such pop-psychology does not make for a good film in itself, and for all of its merits there is a feeling incompleteness to the film as a whole, a problem which seems to go back to the paucity of the Sendak source. The thinness of the plot renders large stretches of the film whimsical and at times, much worse, boring; it is the absence of what forms the basis of many classic films from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Labyrinth (1986) and beyond: a central quest or goal to sustain the film for its duration.

Max’s self-discovery comes as a character development but not a dramatic one; indeed his decision to return to reality comes late into the film and more as a product of fear of the island’s inhabitants rather than anything along the lines of a there’s-no-place-like-home feeling, by which time the inconsequentiality of the goings-on on the island have become more than a little tiresome. If Jonze’s previous feature films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and, ironically, Adaptation (2002) – have been narratively obtuse then it has been the sheer ingenuity of their Charlie Kaufman scripts which has kept them so watchable; here Eggers’ psychological insights come at the expense of a tight storyline.

It is a shame that Sendak’s wonderful book has not made for the great film that it perhaps could have done, but I suspect there may be something inherent in the simplicity of the story which prevents it from translating to the 90-minute-plus mark. A shame, because it proves to be a rich resource of visual imagery, the scale of which translates comfortably to the big screen; the island and its natives are delightfully brought to life through a winning combination of puppetry and CGI, giving them a tactility and warmth lacking in so many other purely-rendered fantasy realms. And a shame, since Jonze’s and Eggers’ vision of Where the Wild Things Are as a parable about innocence and maturity feels so very right.