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Tuesday, 12 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan retrieves classic films by Vera Chytilova, Aki Kaurismaki and Toshiya Fujita

Once again, I spent most of this week viewing the new Criterion collection releases streaming on Fandor. This week’s theme was ‘Girls Raising Hell’, with the films focusing on women on women lashing out, taking revenge against either specific people who have harmed them, or at society in general for mistreating and ignoring them. On average, I didn’t like these quite as much as last week’s selection devoted to the immigrant experience, but it was still a strong choice of films.

The clear highlight of the week was Daisies (Věra Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966), which dives gleefully into anarchy. The two lead characters are a pair of young women played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, both called Marie, though they use a collection of false names over the course of the film. In the opening scene, they deliver the film’s simple thesis direct to the camera, following a montage of industrial machines and wartime bombings: “The world is spoiled. So we will be spoiled too!” The girls spend the rest of the film doing what can only be described as ‘frolicking around’, crafting an iconic image from plain dresses and heavy eyeliner, and disobeying the rules society has laid out for them.

They eat things they shouldn’t, in ways which they shouldn’t, and they trick rich men into paying for their meals, which of course should not be done. The more society thinks they shouldn’t do something, they more joyously they do it. This culminates in a food-fight which leaves a banquet spread across a once-beautiful room. These are, of course, harmless gestures compared to the destruction wrought by society’s men, which is exactly the point. The film’s visual aesthetic matches its non-conformist worldview, employing different colour filters and shutter speeds. This stylish approach reaches its height during a playful ‘scissor fight’ between the two girls, which appears to leaves the film stock itself in tatters, with ‘cuts’ visible across the entire image. It’s a unique film with a wonderful look, and I had an absolute blast watching it.

The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland, 1990) was a mild disappointment to me after I enjoyed Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011) so much last week. It shows great strengths in some areas, using great formal control through its almost dialogue-free narrative and successfully earning our sympathy for its lead character. As the film draws to a conclusion, though, a lot of that sympathy is lost (or even deliberately discarded by the director) thanks to a single choice the character makes. The lead is a shy woman named Iiris (Kati Outinen), who lives with her parents and finds herself trampled by them, and by the rest of the world.

Despite running for just 68 minutes, this film takes as much time as it needs to drive the point of a scene home. We see Iiris decide to take a risk in attending a local dance. We then stay with her as she sits alone against a wall as an entire song plays out. She finishes her drink, and places it amongst a pile on the floor, and we are crushed to realise she has been there all night. It’s this familiarity with rejection which makes her fall so completely for a creep at a bar, and which allows him to take advantage of her so cruelly. Eventually, Iiris decides she is sick of being treated this way, and then she does the thing that she does. There’s one person who seems to me to be an innocent bystander, but who gets the same treatment as those who have wronged her. This moment felt unusually cynical to me, though it may have been the director’s intent to make us turn against the character here.
Writing about this film has reminded me of the things it does so well, and has caused me to add a full star to my initial assessment. It’s quite good.

Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, Japan, 1973) is a stylish and entertaining revenge film in its own right, but it is best known these days for the American film it largely inspired, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-2004). Tarantino’s film uses shots, music and large sections of plot from this film. He reshaped them into a better movie, but I was genuinely surprised at how direct the parallels between the two films are. In the Japanese movie, a woman named Yuki (Meiko Kaji) is born as a being of pure revenge, raised from birth with the sole purpose of killing those responsible for the murder of her father and the rape of her mother. She trains for this mission until her adulthood, and then undertakes this mission very efficiently.

Revenge films are common, and many of them are too simple to bother with, but Lady Snowblood’s sense of style helps it rise above the trappings of its genre. The camera moves fluidly, and often zooms in to show us the anger or fear in a character’s eyes. The film’s jazz-inspired soundtrack feels completely out of place in a Japanese film, but this only serves to bring this great music into the foreground. The other major element which sets this film apart, and which Tarantino lifted directly, is the violence. When a character is hit by a sword, blood sprays out of them like somebody has turned on a red firehose. This will often spray across a white wall or a white kimono, to allow us to see it better. I suppose only personal taste can dictate whether this is fun or childish, but it amused me. This is not high art, but it’s an enjoyable distraction.

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