Happy Few or Happy Together?

Takeshi Kitano, Aaron Gerow, Bloomsbury/BFI, 2007

Akira, Michelle Le Blanc & Colin Odell, BFI Film Classics, 2014

Grave of the Fireflies, Alex Dude de Wit, BFI Film Classics, 2021

A City of Sadness, Berenice Reynaud, BFI Film Classics, 2002

In the Mood for Love, Tony Rayns, BFI Film Classics, 2015

In the Realm of the Senses, Joan Mellen, BFI Film Classics, 2004

Seven Samurai, Joan Mellen, BFI Film Classics, 2002

The Chinese Cinema Book, ed. Song Wee Lim & Julian Ward, 2011

The 2021 edition of the Cannes festival, exceptionally held in July rather than at its usual Spring dates, saw the return of live audiences; and one standing ovation after another for male directors, before Spike Lee prematurely announced that Julia Ducournau had won the Palme d’Or.

Its passions might just resonate throughout a Summer made of films to expect and those to start thinking about, those to watch again, a month of looking back at books about films, about how to discuss cinema, and possibly how not to discuss it.  

Earlier in the year, the Berlin Festival had been kind to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, as was Cannes to his adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Drive My Car (prize for best screenplay),  taken from his collection Men with Women, a title that warrants its own investigation. Murakami’s narrator describes a young woman driver’s masculine attributes, short and stocky, a robust build, a grounded posture, adding one observation that might make her even less attractive: a large visible birthmark on her neck. But there is one redeeming detail, her opulent breasts. Japanese cinema and literature introduced this fighter figure back in the seventies, notably in the Toei pinky violence/girl gang films, in which women fought back. Then the nineties male directors uncovered the PILF (the Plebeian I’d like to …), a young woman who didn’t finish school, who works in regional convenience stores or filling stations. Disillusioned, she usually lets herself be abused by an older lecherous supervisor. They have appeared over the last twenty years in the films of Takeshi Kitano and Sono Sion. Murakami’s Drive my Car is a fantasied post-pilf tale, in which the young woman defies expectations, a trope dear to the writer, and is able to bond with an older man, haunted by loss and the burden of culture (the death of a wife he surprised having an affair with a young actor in their home, not unlike Jeff Goldblum in John Landis’ Into the Night, leading him to Michelle Pfeiffer), their silence and pauses during the drive the stuff of scrolls. Hamaguchi’s films are often about flirting with the edge, with the temptation to explore the margin, if only for a few hours. 

Several of Kitano’s films showed such generational characters who weren’t as fortunate, finding no way out once they found themselves a small job with an employer who either had dealings with or owed the yakuza. Bloomsbury published a 2007 study of Kitano by Yale professor Aaron Gerow. The book, which was a title in a directors series that never quite reached its promise, stops with Zatoichi, for which Kitano received the best director prize at the Venice film festival, less than a decade after Hana-Bi had won best film at the same event. The contextual framing achieved in Gerow’s book is exemplary and reminds us of what Japan was like in the closing years of the Heisei era, when a specific community was still trying to hang on to Showa rituals and codes of conduct. It is fitting that Kitano would be awarded prizes for his reinventions of yakuza & chambara films and professor Gerow’s remarks make a strong case for this. It also highlights what came after and has yet to be the object of a book; Kitano would embark on a trilogy of films questioning the identity and purpose of a film director, of himself as his own doppelganger. Even while enlisting the help of Japan’s go-to film scholar, Shigehiko Hasumi, he would be unable to resolve an enigma of his own making, and chose to return to the yakuza genre with the Outrage trilogy, which brought renewed success. 

There is a manner in which Drive my Car has been praised which points to all the ways wherein the gaze set on Japan has become better informed culturally as it revels in the opportunity to focus on one filmmaker who reassures us. And how one film from one country by one director serves to legitimize this demonstration of awareness, of ishiki. Hamaguchi appears to be the sole new Japanese auteur to have emerged over the last decade; the festivals that aren’t Berlin/Cannes/Venice hold a gaze that comes with a wider spectrum. What has Hamaguchi accomplished in his Berlin & Cannes films that his peers haven’t? A case could be made for his use of tunnel vision, how his stirring scenes of a man and woman in a red Saab or a SUV driving through a tunnel have become a signature. We/S_Z recall attending a symposium on André Bazin at the University of Tokyo, or rather making it to Dudley Andrew’s lecture on the work that went into the Macula volumes of Bazin’s writings. Hamaguchi was sitting near us, copiously taking notes.  

The act of returning to books serves to either measure change or wait for it to manifest itself. Titles published on Asian cinema over the last two decades or so, notably those in the BFI classic series as well as their various handbooks, are waiting to take us back to a time of happy few. They emphasize a desire to inform and share secrets, provide background, not only about the filmmaking process but about the culture, while still not quite sure if it can be of service to the analysis for titles such as the animation behemoths Akira and Grave of the Fireflies, the former joyously recreating the era, excitedly asking us to measure how Otomo’s film became a symbol of anarchy during the Nakasone era, while the latter is overtly and strategically careful about the narrative of its adaptation, its misunderstood release ( its pairing with My Neighbor Totoro), one suitable for Studio Ghibli and those who would speak for it. 

Some of the BFI classics read like extended expressions of gratitude and love for the films while others still believe that a display of complicity with a filmmaker or a movement enables the criticism to seize the moment, as with Tony Rayns’ observations on his friend Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a film that had forgotten the subtle grace and mystery of Days of Being Wild, settling for being moody. 

Writer Joan Mellen has no qualms about relying on a method that served Donald Richie well, a keen display of cultural knowledge and a discussion of films that avoid taking a theoretical risk or stance. There is no significant shift in the structure of her studies of Seven Samurai and In the Realm of the Senses; they are introductions to films that already come with respective critical histories. Again, this is the largesse this collection offers. 

Aaron Gerow brought rigorous academic methodology and a scholarly knowledge of Japanese history to his study of Kitano. Berenice Reynaud does this as well, having taught at Cal Arts, additionally benefiting from her French experience of cinephelia and criticism. She achieved a masterfully succinct display of merging both in her BFI classics essay on Hou Hsiao Hsien’s City of Sadness, which should be included on the reading lists of all film syllabus. It managed to locate the period and the political drama unfolding as backdrop for the tale of a fractured family while contributing remarks on the director’s celebrated aesthetic of long takes that deftly outwitted more gendered readings. She also considered the choice of star Tony Leung Chiu-wai as lead male. Hou would go on to cast international stars Tadanobu Asano, Juliette Binoche and Shu Qi in films that followed.  

Michael Berry, another California professor and specialist of Chinese cinema, published a graceful study of Jia Zhangke’s Hometown trilogy. It came with a mastery of the language, what felt like field work in provincial China, and a proximity with a filmmaker whose career benefited early on from the Tokyo FilmEx festival and Takeshi Kitano’s former production company, Office Kitano. The French approximation of this model, without the language ability but with the clout of having been director of Cahiers du Cinema at the turn of the century, as well as sharing a bond with Tokyo FilmEx since its foundation, is Jean-Michel Frodon who closely championed Jia in France. Berry’s book is again one that serves to understand which China is represented in the trilogy and where the director’s position rests. It relies on an effort to make one part of China graspable as Jia depicts the search for home. It is both a portrait of a major filmmaker and a wise exercise in prudence.  

Finally, the China Cinema Handbook expands on this canvas of careful navigation. It includes a number of texts that examine the different periods and histories of filmmaking in China as the industry was transformed by the upheavals the nation experienced in the twentieth century. Its sections and essays are very fluid, finding ways around the interruptions of history, leading them to the established convenience of complicity between The Fifth Generation filmmakers, the Taiwan New Cinema Movement, and the Hong Kong New Wave. It is a book that calls urgently for a new iteration, as Chinese cinema appears set on rewriting its history. Scholars were far less delicate with Japanese film history, both in its praise and its disappointments (1); the risk of a grudge was smaller. Reviews of Drive My Car teem with nostalgia, reconciling with a Japan that appreciates Chekov and the truth of his release, while simultaneously keeping things in, as Japan is apt to do. Cannes had another Asian title with a woman at the wheel, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Jury prize winner), in which Tilda Swinton’s character is having a dialogue with an immaterial sentient being, inviting transcendence even more mysteriously than the remarks of an engaging stage director.

1-see our review of The Japanese Cinema Book, BFI 2020



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