Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Samurai Spy

A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #312: Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy.

Having read Shusaku Endo’s Silence many years ago, the persecution of Catholicism during the Tokugawa shogunate was something that immediately grabbed me here. It came as only a slight surprise to discover that Masahiro Shinoda directed an adaptation of the book six years after making Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (this movie). Sarutobi Sasuke is an employed samurai in a clan who has yet to take sides in a brewing conflict between Tokugawa and Osaka. Additionally, he has his own ideas in regard to the usefulness of war in the first place. He gets roped in to some espionage and intrigue by being a badass do-gooder in the wrong place at the right time.

Lots of people die. Sasuke gets blamed for murders he doesn’t commit, and no one seems to care about the folks he actually does kill on his was to safety and a modicum of security. The joke here, if you want to call it that, is that Sasuke doesn’t have a goal apart from safely navigating the complicated currents he’s found himself in. Though he’s not explicitly Christian, (nor is he explicitly not Christian), the heavy involvement of a secretive Christian group, and it’s unlikely connection to an apostasized, leprous spymaster gave this samurai film a flavor unlike any other I’ve seen.

It’s also beautiful; shots with maximal depth of field, shifting fog and silences, abstract patterns of light and shadow, and uniquely appropriate camera shifts all evoke the uncertainty of things hidden in plain sight and in shadow.

The Red Shoes

A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #44: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.

I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this movie, as I haven’t had much luck with Powell & Pressburger in the past, but it was good. The costuming, makeup and other production values were well situated to make the most of Technicolor. The plot was put together to deliberately parallel, in theme at least, that of the Hans Christian Andersen story that features so prominently throughout the film.

The only detractions were the frequently used special effects to highlight these parallels. They broke the suspension of disbelief that was watching a balletic performance, and beat the viewer over the head with dramatic irony. I can see that this might have been a glimpse into Vicki Page’s subjectivity, as well as an artistic decision, but the story & film itself was so well crafted up to that point, and any and all special effects so noticeably absent up to the first performance of The Red Shoes, that I think the film would have been stronger without their presence.

While dancing kills protagonists in both the literal and meta-literal stories, Powell and Pressburger efficiently and poignantly turn the fairy tale into something more contemporary and complex. The interlocking love triangles and tough choices that the main characters make (not always wise, but always passionate) make a much deeper point about what it means to die for what you love than any fairy tale could tell.

Death of a Cyclist

A part of this viewing listCriterion Collection Spine #427: Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist.

I can’t recall the last time I saw a film where the scene transitions were handled so masterfully. One character blows cigarette smoke to end a scene, a cut, and in a different time and place another character gets smoke blown into hers. Fire flickers on María’s face when she’s with her husband, a cut, and in a different time and place, fire flickers on her face while she’s with her lover.

The care with which those shots were planned carries throughout this film; frequent cuts, a preponderance of close quarter intimate conversations, and strong sight lines do an excellent job of tuning the tension, but at times it becomes almost melodramatic, soap operatic. The wealthy mistress and her professor fling run over a cyclist and leave him to die alone. Meanwhile, another fellow is on to their infidelity and tries to blackmail them over it. They’re not initially guilt-ridden over the death, but are intent on hiding it, and they assume that is what the blackmail is about. What follows is quite a bit of excellent innuendo, verbal fencing that never quite strikes a mortal blow.

Things do get tense enough that María runs over her lover, and in an ending that’s just a tad too ironically pat, she runs off the road and dies trying to avoid hitting another cyclist.