Friday, 27 July 2007

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Japan, 1960, Mikio Naruse)

The BFI Southbank showed a retrospective of the shamefully overlooked Japanese director this July, of which this film was the focal point, and according to many, the high watermark of Naruse’s career. Most discussions about the early post-war Japanese cinema concentrate on the three directors known in the West; Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. There is certainly no reason why on the basis of this masterpiece that Naruse should not be discussed in the same breath. Many of his other films which I’ve yet to see (‘Repast’, ‘Floating Clouds) are reportedly the equal of ‘When a Woman Ascends the Stairs’, yet very little of his output is available on DVD; just the three film box set at present, though perhaps this might change in the near future. Thematically, Naruse has much in common with Mizoguchi, concentrating on the position of women in Japanese society, their subjugation and mistreatment by men and his sympathy usually resides with those women on the margins of society, such as Mama San, the heroine of this film.

A hostess approaching her thirtieth birthday, an age where women in her profession are considered past their sell by date, Mama San yearns to own her own bar, yet she’d require the patronage of a wealthy backer, which would be unlikely without prostituting herself. Yet Mama San is a dignified woman, far more refined and virtuous than some of her fellow hostesses. She frequently mentions that women should not be loose and that they lose their charm if they fool around. Despite the nature of her profession, Mama San aims for respectability; she hates the ascent she makes from the respectable street level life to the more sordid world of her work. Mama San is caught in a vicious circle she can’t leave; a widow since her husband was run over, she supports her feckless family as well as her own son. An impossible set of pressures to balance, Mama San makes a number of poor decisions thereafter, though never once loses the sympathy of the director.

Aware of the need to find a rich husband, she agrees to marry Sakine, an amiable large man, who is more respectful towards Mama San than many of her clients, even though she does not love her. Her nephew needs an operation to walk, but her act of self-sacrifice comes to nothing when she discovers that Sakine has a wife and has little money. Shattered, she starts to drink herself to death and becomes everything she vowed not to become, allowing herself to be seduced by Fujisaki, a man who loves her, but cannot bring himself to break up his family to be with her. Mama San’s manager who also loves her, is aware of this and informs her that he is disappointed in her and lost all respect for her. Mama San refuses to marry him, thus leaving her in the same position that she began the film, only compromised in her morals and in fear of being ‘past it’.

Like Mizoguchi, Naruse was a master at examining the role and position of women in Japanese society, though his interest was in more contemporary settings and environments than Mizoguchi, who approached these themes from a more historical perspective. Always sympathetic to his females, he presents the men on whom they depend as fickle and weak, always ready to betray and sacrifice them. The man Mama San loves is unattainable, yet keeps her at sufficient distance to give her hope, and the man she agrees to marry isn’t what he appears to be at all. The dashing of these dreams sends her into a downward spiral she doesn’t recover from. The unglamorous world of these late night bars are seen as traps that these women cannot remove themselves from; the potential riches derived from them are enticing enough to make women consider compromising themselves, and those not willing to totally give themselves to them are in danger of falling apart. A tragic, heartbreaking tearjerker.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (Hungary, 2003, Karoly Makk)

The collapse of Communism had a significant impact upon the fates of many of the gifted film makers from Eastern Europe. Some, like Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, had been courted by the West, and were able to adapt and make their films free from political influence and on their own terms. These directors had made films that had been international successes, but directors of more low key, but arguably equally impressive films, did not share the same benefits. Those who remained in their home countries were faced with national film industries with little concrete infrastructure. Films were now made according to commercial pressures, and many of these directors did not have a history of making commercially viable films. Karoly Makk is one such example, having worked on only a few projects since the 1990s, most notably ‘The Gambler’, a cross-national film, which I’ve not seen, but doesn’t appear to have anything like a good reputation.

Following this, Makk was able to make a sequel of sorts to his remarkable ‘Love’, made in 1971. The characters are now different; Luca has become Mari, and Janos has become Ivan, but the two actors more or less reprise their roles from ‘Love’. Flashbacks from ‘Love’ are used, and the husband was also arrested during the 1950s on political charges, so whilst it’s not a straight forward sequel so to speak, it’s not far off.

Mari and Ivan are no longer married, but they appear in each other’s lives once more when Ivan (now living in Lugano) receives a telephone call from Mari’s nurse, who explains to him that she is close to death and that if he is ever going to see her again, it has to be now. Ivan has a new life, a second wife, but returns to Hungary, where he has not been since fleeing after his release from prison many decades before. The Hungary of the 21st century is vastly different to the country he recalls. Having embraced the spirit of capitalism, Makk focuses on many of the negative side effects of this; homelessness, and crime for example, as well as the gaudy excesses.

Makk’s intentions are not to seek reconciliation between Mari and Ivan, whose marriage is well beyond them. However, when Ivan fled Hungary, Mari was pregnant. Mari had never told Ivan, and told her daughter (Anna) that her father was dead. Ivan now seeks to establish a relationship with his daughter, even at the risk of re-opening old wounds. Mari confesses to Ivan that she was partly responsible for his imprisonment, having reported on him for activities she assumed were harmless, but were significant.

Anna has her own issues though; an on-off relationship with a semi-legitimate businessman (another indication of the corrupt post-Communist world), so Ivan’s arrival only serves to complicate things further. Ivan shows her his place of birth and tells her of his childhood to connect with her, though this excursion has tragic consequences, when they both miss Mari’s death, which Anna blames him for. Rejected by her and with his ex-wife dead, Ivan returns to Lugano; his wife gone. The film closes with Anna calling her father; their relationship appears to be a permanent one, lasting beyond the death of the woman they had in common (similar to ‘Love’ in many ways).

Makk’s film would be a pretty successful venture in its own right, though it’s hard to be too objective watching it, as it’s going to naturally draw comparisons with ‘Love’, which I consider a masterpiece. The themes of ‘Love’ and the political conditions in which it was made and set aren’t so prevalent here. ‘A Long Weekend…’ is a film purely focused on reconnection between people, which is fine, but doesn’t have the same kind of depth its predecessor had. The comparison between Communist and post-Communist Hungary is interesting though; capitalism and materialism present their own problems, and Makk is by no means suggesting things have improved. It’s often said that film makers during Communism faced political censorship, and post-Communism, they face economic censorship. Films are not being made because of commercial interests rather than political interests, and one wonders whether Makk has revisited ‘Love’ because he considered there was unfinished business, or whether it was the only way he could make a film on his own terms. So whilst it’s intriguing in its own right, it’s probably not essential viewing without having seen ‘Love’.