Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Red Angel (1966, Japan, Yasuzo Masumura)

Upon reviewing Masumura's 'Blind Beast' recently, I remarked upon how versatile a director he is, able to turn his hand at almost any genre and seemingly hop between them with ease, whether it be the lesbian melodrama of 'Manji' or the S&M infused amour fou of 'Blind Beast'. Between these films comes 'Red Angel', a strange black and white war film. One problem with being so versatile is that you spread yourself to thinly, don't always play to your strengths and fail to carve out your own niche or voice. My problem with the Masumura films I've seen, and I've enjoyed them on the whole is that I never feel sufficiently engaged. There's something unconsciously (for me at least) alienating about them and I never feel totally immersed in them. I wonder whether that's related to Masumura's desire to try his hand at various genres.

Starting with sounds of war (gunfire, bombing) over photographs of conflict, Masumura creates a powerful statement about the physical and psychological effects of war, specifically the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. Masumura doesn't hold back in showing these horrors; soldiers are injured and in gruesome scenes which remind me of the surgery scenes in 'Eyes Without A Face', amputations without anaesthetic are the norm for those "lucky" enough to survive. This is a recurring issue here; whether these men would be better off dead than being amputees for the rest of their lives, isolated from mainstream society. Many of them long to be put out of their misery. Then there's the moral anguish of the medical staff who are responsible for these life and death decisions. Against this backdrop, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is sexually assaulted by a group of soldiers. It emerges this isn't the first time that has happened, that all nurses are subjected to similar treatment and that behaviour of this kind is pretty much accepted and forgiven by the authorities. War is an unnatural state where social conventions and norms are rejected perhaps and in a world where death or severe injury is likely and human life has no sense of value, humanity falls by the wayside. I doubt this is any kind of excuse for this act, but might act as a sense of explanation for it.

Nishi's commitment to her cause forces her to make serious self-sacrifices - seeing a doctor's compassion but also his erratic behaviour, caused by his reliance on morphine to allow him to endure the horrors of the frontline, Nishi falls in love. At the same time, she tends to one severely injured patient in the most unconventional of means. Unable to relieve his own tensions (his arms were amputated - there's no doubt what he means), they start a short lived affair. These men are the desperate and the dying and Nishi considers it her duty to try to save them. When her lover dies, she blames herself and cannot forget, despite all the contrary advice she receives to think only of herself in this state of war. But the psychological scars don't heal. Proof that this conflict is too horrendous for anyone to possible bear is the outbreak of cholera that coincides with the massacre of the Japanese forces.

'Red Angel' is quite a struggle to get through; it's subject matter of amputation, drug addiction and gruesome conflict was probably just as groundbreaking and taboo-busting as much of Masumura's work at the time, but it also supersedes most other war films in that sense. Very few that I can recall have treated war in such an honest and depressing fashion, nor have they quite approached the subject of war in quite such a bizarre and peculiar way. It's beautiful and gruesome in equal measure with a dash of the erotic at the same time. Certainly unique, it's further proof of Masumura's talent, though I'm not convinced I've seen a truly great film of his yet. 3.5/5

1 comment:

Millard said...

Makes "MASH" look juvenile and inept in comparison. Masumura clearly inspired by and greatly improves on field hospital scenes in "Gone with the Wind." While a little stilted in a few intimate scenes, this masterpiece is so much more in tune with the ugliness of war and how routine it becomes. Suicide, rape, sexual release in confined social quarters, institutional abuse of women, drug use to cope with a hellish reality are all exposed in such an organic manner that it is not at all droll. The word "honesty" does not begin to explain the open treatment of these topics, all without judgement. Even in today's expose it all environment, nothing I have seen comes close to such a reveal. Military personnel are both heros and villains, exploiters and victims at the same time--individuals caught up in impossible situations making bad decisions all the way. Could have been subtitled "Losing My Humanity." Provides a thumbnail sketch as to why so many returning warriors are tormented--it is not the hell survived, but the hell delivered unto others. Love scenes on the front battle line are always melodramatic, however, you can almost buy into it--meaning the loving goodbye as the world burns comes more easily than most due to the natural progression of action that led up to it. This film masters portraits of intimacy, self-revealation and action in a naturalistic, observational mode, almost-- a tad of internal dialog does appear very briefly in a few scenes. As far as I am concerned this humble film is a subdued and understated epic of immense proportions. It has no pretensions of being an epic, it just manifests itself and is. A true accomplishment of great filmmaking, no doubt on a shoestring budget--as so many of the truly great films are. A must see for all film students. Would definitely be one on my "Most Important One Hundred Films Ever Made List." I am so glad I came across it.