September 22nd, 2004

“Twilight Samurai” 08-31-04

This Japanese film won many awards in its home country and was nominated for the US Oscar for best foreign film in 2002. These honors were well deserved.

The title character, Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a poor samurai in service to a clan in rural northeastern Japan. His situation has been worsened by the death of his wife, which has left him in debt for medical and funeral services and the sole support of his two daughters and senile mother. He has become the mock of his co-workers at the castle Stores department because, instead of repairing with them to the tavern or geisha house after work, he disappears at twilight to work at home and to be with his daughters. His poverty and lack of care for himself has caused him to become shabby and unkempt, which leads to disgrace.

Seibei's life begins to turn around when he discovers that his childhood sweetheart, Tomoe, has divorced her abusive husband. When the boorish ex makes trouble at her family home, Seibei accepts his challenge to fight and defeats him in a duel. This earns Seibei more respect, and eventually leads to a difficult and dangerous commission being thrust upon him when clan politics degenerate into factional struggle. In the brief interlude of peace, Tomoe becomes a surrogate mother to Seibei's children, and moves her family to offer her to Seibei as a new wife despite the difference in status. This leads to a crisis of conscience for Seibei, who has painful memories of his first wife's unhappiness in their poor state.

The story eventually resolves in an intensely personal drama that leaves you guessing what the final outcome will be. Unlike many samurai films, there isn't much combat, and what there is is not glorified. Excellent performances by Sanada and by Rie Miyazawa as Tomoe, and a very strong supporting role by Ren Osugi as Koda, the Guard Captain. Highly recommended!

“Hero”, 09-04-04

We began the month with a rush of movies. Following “Twilight Samurai,” our next stop was “Hero.” Although this review is late, if you have not yet seen “Hero,” by all means make plans now. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of pure cinema to come along in a long time. Although frequently compared with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for its martial arts and flying effects, the more apt comparison is with “Rashomon,” the Japanese classic that is also frequently mentioned. “Rashomon” tells the story of a crime of passion from the individual viewpoints of the film’s characters. “Hero” instead is an intellectual chess game between the ‘hero’ of the title, the warrior Nameless (so called because he is a foundling of no known family) and the King of Qin and would-be Emperor of a united China. Nameless (Jet Li) appears at the king’s court with proof that he has defeated three dangerous assassins who had targeted the King. The canny King (Daoming Chen) then engages in a contest of wits to gauge the motives and trustworthiness of the enigmatic warrior. Nameless simultaneously assesses the worthiness of the ruthless but visionary king. The king questions Nameless about his exploits which are described in a series of flashbacks. Each scene has a symbolic color, starting with the grim black of the king’s court, through the gray of the chess hall where Nameless duels the assassin called Sky, then red, blue, green, and finally white—in China, the color of mourning. Each scene is a work of visual art of great beauty. Our favorite was the climax of the red scene, accented by a fall of golden poplar leaves, but there was also marvelous loveliness in the water effects of the blue sequence, and the falling raindrops of the gray scene.
Acting is subdued by Western standards: Li as Nameless is intent on holding on to his poker-faced inscrutability, which gives character honors to Maggie Cheung as the passionate Flying Snow, and Chen as the King intent on proving his cleverness at the risk of his life. Very good supporting performances by Tony Leung Chu Wai as the melancholy Broken Sword and Zhang Ziyi (the spoiled princess from “Crouching Tiger”) as a loyal acolyte/maidservant. Highly recommended. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.

“Vanity Fair,” 09-06-04

The next film we had on our list was the new production of “Vanity Fair,” starring Reese Witherspoon (hitherto chiefly notorious for the “Legally Blonde” movies) as Becky Sharpe, which role she performs quite creditably. This version is directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding”) which might lead you to correctly believe there is some emphasis on visual beauty and Indian elements wherever possible. Witherspoon and the other good looking young people essentially have the scenes stolen from them by the formidable cast of veteran supporting actors, notably Ruth Sheen as the hypocritical Miss Pinkerton and Gabriel Byrne as the villainous Lord Steyne. Such is the depth of the casting that stalwarts Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent are essentially wasted in the one-dimensional roles of Sir Pitt Crawley and Mr. Osborne, respectively. (Hoskins is just too friendly looking to be Sir Pitt. I mean, with a name like “Sir Pitt Crawley,” wouldn’t you expect the character to be creepy? Which is why I think David Bradley, a.k.a Argus Filch in the Harry Potter films, was a superior Sir Pitt in the 1998 TV miniseries version.) Witherspoon does well enough to establish credibility as a dramatic actress, although the supposed “Oscar material” hype being bandied about would be way overblown. On the other hand, there are good performances among the other young people: James Purefoy as roguish but loyal Rawdon Crawley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who made George Osborne much more clearly a rotter than I had recalled; and Rhys Ifans, who portrayed William Dobbin’s unrequited love as much more than the vague mooning you usually see. I suppose Romola Garai did well enough as Amelia Sedley, but the character is such a sap it’s hard to like her.
All in all, a very nice concise adaptation of Thackeray’s novel, and very good to look at.