Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 2

Friday night was a Kiyoshi Kurosawa night, starting with his new film, TOKYO SONATA. This also played at Cinequest, but I specifically skipped it there so I could see it here, with Kurosawa in attendance (suck on that, everyone who isn't me!) Anyway, the movie is a sometimes subtle (and mostly pretty blatant) drama about fractured Japanese family life, built on deceit. It starts with the father getting laid off at his job (administrative work for a medical device company). Instead of admitting he's unemployed, he dutifully pretends to go to work, instead standing in line for free food. He meets a friend who's been unemployed for months, and knows all the tricks of maintaining appearances. This works for a while. Meanwhile the son Kenji is caught in school passing a manga book. He thinks it's unfair that he's the only one punished, so he calls out the teacher claiming he saw him reading porn on the bus. Kenji becomes a sort of hero at school, although that's not what he wanted at all. On the way home, he passes a piano lesson and becomes enchanted. He asks his parents if he can take piano lessons. Dad immediately says no, without explanation (the explanation, of course, is that he can't afford it--being unemployed and all). So Kenji starts sneaking to lessons on his own (using his lunch money). The deceit eventually comes to a head, but not after a very strange interlude where the mother is kidnapped by the world's least competent thief. Through it all, Kenji turns out to be something of a piano prodigy. The whole thing is a fascinating mix of drama, comedy, suffering, redemption (maybe) and ultimately about the strength of family. No matter how much the characters' actions tear the family apart, family is resilient.

So then I made my way over to the Castro for more Kurosawa films. This time a revenge double feature.

First up, THE SERPENT'S PATH, is the story of a man seeking revenge for his murdered (and sexually tortured) daughter. He and his accomplice (a surprisingly mild-mannered math teacher) kidnap a yakuza and chain him to a wall. The torture him while getting information on the next yakuza, and so on. Lots of black humor (some of the kidnappings are especially slapstick), and a lot of viciousness. Without giving away the big ending twist, I'll say that this film goes to some pretty extreme places, and it's perhaps not surprising that the script was written by Hiroshi Takahashi, the writer behind several J-horror stories, most notably RINGU/THE RING.

Shot at the same time, with just a rough draft of a script, EYES OF THE SPIDER is perhaps Kurosawa's more immediate testament on revenge and violence. It's unavoidable to call this is a companion piece to THE SERPENT'S PATH, even employing the same actor, Sho Aikawa, in a similar role of a father grieving his daughter's murder and then seeking revenge. But in this film, the revenge is over in maybe 20 minutes, and then he turns to his new family. A yakuza friend takes him in, gets him a boring desk job. The boring desk job turns into a hitman job, but is still just as boring. It becomes another hour or so of juxtaposing violence with the mundane, a commentary on the mundanity of violence (or the violence of mundanity). Definitely the harder of the two movies to watch, and not just because it was the more boring one or because it started at nearly midnight. It's hard to reconcile the visceral thrill of the first 20 minutes of revenge with the absolute mundane banality of violence the rest of the way. It's like Kurosawa wants you to watch violence and not be affected by it, but hopefully affected by it's lack of impact (at least, I was...once I thought about it for a day or so).

And that was Friday at Asianfest.

Note to longtime readers: You may notice I've once again changed the convention for movie titles. Now movie titles are all caps (instead of in quotes or underlined/italicized). This seems to be more standard. Exceptions will be made for rare titles that specify capitalization, such as adaptation. (all lower-case, with the period as part of the title). These cases I'll still underline to identify as a title (unless even that doesn't work, in which case I'll just struggle some more).
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