Tag Archives: alienation

Two hard-to-believe 2015 films

The Argentine “El secreto de sus ojos” (co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella) won the best foreign-language film Oscar for 2009. It was updated and relocated to LA for a 2015 American version, with the title translated (without the definite article of the Spanish title) as “Secret in Their Eyes,” co-written and directed by Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass). I did not think that Chewetel Ejiofor’s character, Ray Kasten, was credible (I blame the writers more than the actor). There were other even greater challenges to suspending disbelief, such as finding someone in a full Dodger Stadium, and the meeting of the suspect, the two who roughed him so that he had to be released, and the grieving mother of a daughter slain a dozen years earlier in an elevator (well on the ground floor with the mother set to go up in the elevator that has carried the other three down).


There is also an unexplained image of a cop played by Michael Kelly pouring something (I think bleach) into a burning car, and what happened to the killer.

Julia Roberts is completely deglamorized as the grieving mother (a policewoman called to the scene with Ray). I think switching the roles of Roberts and Nicole Kidman (a prosecutor for whom Ray carries a torch, even a dozen years after moving to NYC) might have helped, but IMHO there was no reason to make an American version. (The Argentine one already stretched my ability to suspend disbelief).

I did, however, like the aerial nocturnal shots of LA and, in general, the dark cinematography of Roberts’s husband (and father by her of three children), Daniel Moder. And supporting performances by Dean Morris, Joe Cole, and Alfred Molina.


It ran 111 minutes. Running even longer, the similarly opaquely titled 2015 Jia Zhanke film “Mountains May Depart” (Shan he gu ren) runs even longer (126 minutes). Alienation as well as ecstasy (at least joy) seem tied to westernization in Jia’s vision, which begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s ”Go West.” I have no doubt that the original VP song exhorted going west within North America, derived from Horace Greeley’s admonition “Go west, young man.” With an opening derived from the Soviet national anthem and the images of the Pet Shop Boys’ music video of Lenin, Red Army soldiers, etc. has a different connotation. Those dancing in rural China (Fenyang, Shanxi) probably don’t understand the lyrics, however.

Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao, is the sole dancer at the end (set in 2025), and the focus of those discoing ca. 1999 at the start. The first part of the movie is a triangle with her (her character’s name is Tao Shen) at the apex, choosing the aggressive entrepreneuer Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi) over the mineworker (in the helmet department) Liangzi (Liang Jing Dong).

Fired by Zhang because he refuses to stop seeing Tao, Liangzi leaves the area and becomes a coal miner. By 2015, the second section, he has lung cancer and insufficient funds for treatment. Tao is divorced and has lost custody of her son, whom her husband named “Dollar.” Dollar, who is about nine years old, visits for the funeral of his mother’s father, then is going to move from Shanghai to Melbourne. For me, the middle section is the best part of the film.

The final part is set mostly in Melbourne. Dollar has forgotten how to speak Chinese and does not seem to be doing very well in a Beiinghua class that consists mostly of other young Chinese who have lost (or never had) command of their mother tongue. He seduces his teacher (this stretches credulity to the breaking point). After having her translate in a confrontation with his father (whose second wife is apparently gone, certainly is not present even in allusions or Skype calls), Mia (Sylvia Chang, who is Taiwanese) is going along with Dollar to visit his birth mother (Tao), though the film does not get that far and ends with her alone in a field dancing to “Go West” (playing in her head).


There is nothing futuristic about the 2025 segment (in, remember, a film released in 2015). The width of the image has swelled from segment to segment. Has the vision of anyone in the movie similarly expanded? The setting has changed, and for Dollar the language. Liangzi does not appear (nor is he alluded to) in the final part. That is awkward. The placement in 2025 just seems arbitrary to me.

˙2018, Stephen O. Murray


Romance of a Japanese neurasthenic, ca. 1909

It’s hard for me to imagine that 1909 readers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun could keep track of (or care about!) the very slow development and shifting consciousness of Daisuke, the hypochondriac slacker protagonist of Sôseki Natsume’s novel Sorekara (And Then), a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1906 Botchan. I found the book very easy to put down and can’t imagine being eager to pick up the next installment and then the next installment (the paper was — and still is — daily; I don’t know if the serialization was).


Daisuke is quite content to live on the allowance his father and older brother give him. He focuses on any signs of heart problems, grooming, and reading European literature. “Daisuke had never considered himself idle. He simply regarded himself as one of those higher beings who disposed of a large number of hours unsullied by an occupation.” He has a horror of working at a job to pay for food and lodging… and has been able to avoid getting a job because of his indulgent father and brother, whose company may not be as impeccably honest as they lead Daisuke to believe. That is never definitively settled in the text. Not a lot is!

Having turned 30, it is past time for Daisuke to marry. He has rejected every candidate his father, brother, and/or sister-in-law suggest. Now there is one whose marital alliance would aid the company. Daisuke has no specific objection to the young woman, but has come to realize that he is in love with a married woman.

Not just any married woman, but Michiyo, the wife of his university classmate and friend, Hiraoka. Daisuke arranged the marriage himself when his friend said he wanted to marry Michiyo.

Three years later the couple has returned to Tokyo after Hiraoka’s assistant embezzled some funds (500 yen). Hiraoka seeks Daisuke’s help to find a job and to borrown the money he put up to cover his subordinate’s theft.

Daisuke cannot avoid seeing that Hiraoka not only neglects his wife, but doesn’t even provide sufficient funds for her food. They had a son who died after a few months, and Michiyo is sickly.

Daisuke decides he is in love with Michiyo and cannot acquiesce to the marriage his family is promoting. Before he can take Michiyo away, he feels that he must get the permission of Hiraoka, for whom he now feels no friendship. The permission to poach the wife is the same “règle du jeu” as in Jean Renoir’s movie (“règle” has been pluralized in the English title, “Rules of the Game”), which I just tried for the first time to appreciate.

I find Sôseki’s novel even less amusing than Renoir’s film and very, very slow moving. Though open-ended, the denouement is not hopeful. Hiraoka writes an account of Daisuke’s perfidy to Daisuke’s father (who cuts him off), which strikes me as quite caddish. Hiraoka granted permission to Daisuke to take Mishiyo off his hands, admitting he does not love her and knows she does not love him. But she is sick and he says he cannot turn her over in such damaged condition. I think it quite likely she will die and that Daisuke will have squandered his patrimony for nothing. But Sôseki does not reveal what the future (and then!) held for the pair, whose relationship is a scandal even though there has been no physical consummation (adultery). Daisuke seems ill-equipped, especially by inclination, to support himself, let alone a wife, let alone a wife with medical problems (who will not be able to produce an heir).


I guess Daisuke is alienated, though I’m more inclined to regard him as spoiled. Certainly, as he realizes, Daisuke is very ineffectual, partly because he has no assets of his own, only a monthly allowance. Throwing over comfort and everything he has known and valued for love makes him something of a romantic hero, however.

Translator Norma Moore Field has appended a biographical sketch with an emphasis on the sort-of “trilogy” of Botchan, Sorekara, and Mon (The Gate, 1910). She sees them as dominated by three A’s: abandonment, alienation, and ambivalence with the protagonist of each older than in the previous book, and argues that they are not especially autobiographical. She notes but does not explain that Japanese consider Sôseki their greatest modern writer, though others (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami) have been embraced more by western readers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray



The love of an inflatable life-size sex doll


The premise of Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2009 “Air Doll,”(Kûki ningyô), an undersocialized if not outright autistic 30-something man, Hideo (Itao Isuji) is in love with an inflatable life-size girl, Nozomi (Korean actress Bae Doona [Cloud Atlas]), while a flesh-and-blood young woman tries to get closer to him, will remind North American viewers of “Lars and the Real Girl,” the 2007 American movie starring Ryan Gosling, directed by Craig Gillespie. Lars was not as warm as Elwood P. Dowd with his invisible rabbit, Harvey (1950), but those around him accepted the personhood of the not-real girl as those around Dowd did his invisible rabbit friend.

Elwood gets to keep his delusion in “Harvey.” Lars gets over his fixation on the inflatable doll and pursues a relationship with Karin (Emily Mortimer), who has been patiently accepting. But, though Koreeda has been labeled the “Japanese Steven Spielberg,” there is no happy ending in “Air Doll.” “Air Doll” is far darker a movie than the two American movies it brought to my movie-drenched mind. (“Ex machine” is rather different…)


Koreeda’s movies intertextualities are unleashed by Nozomi getting a job in a video store, where mention of movies is a given.


The often naked charm of Bae Doona, whimsy and piling on of messages about urban loneliness (and the disposability of everything, including human relations, and human corpses literally put out in the trash) is not really sufficient to support the running time of 125 minutes (Koreeda edited the movie), though the cinematography of Taiwanese Mark Lee (Lee Pig-Bin’ In the Mood for Love, Norwegian Wood, Renoir) provides visual riches.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Ozu’s Last Film

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Sanma no Aji” (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962), what turned out to be the last movie made by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63), mostly takes place in evenings, and there is no shot of leaves to indicate that it is autumn, and none of the characters wear (or take off) overcoats.

The movie was shot in vibrant color (the reds particularly pulsate, but there are yellow seats, yellow and blue ceramics that also seem drawn from the Douglas Sirk palette, prefiguring the saturated colors in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which was set only a year later than “An Autumn Afternoon”).


Part of the movie (a drunkard who was once a middle school teacher of a group of alumni who still see each other regularly) prefigures Kurosawa’s last film, “Madadayo.” Now running a noodle stand, the teacher who had been nicknamed “the Gourd” (Eijiro Tono) bows lower to his former students than they do to him, though they still use respectful forms of address to him. And, having kept his daughter to run household, “the Gourd” is held up as an example for the widower Hirayama (Ozu regular Ryû Chisû) to avoid.

Ryu’s kindly business executive (Hirayama) puts back a lot of alcohol (beer, sake, Johnnie Walker black-label) during the movie, but always keeps his dignity. Once he realizes that his daughter is sacrificing her own life to take care of him and his younger son, he presses Michioko (Shima Iwashita) to marry (which involves go-betweens arranging a union). The movie ends on the father’s first night without the daughter who has been taking care of her since the death of his wife (that is, Michioko’s wedding night, but the wedding is not shown, nor is the groom, and the focus remains on the now womanless household of her father).

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As usual in Ozu sound movies, there was no camera movement, and no high angle shots. The cameras were usually stationed at 3.5 feet above the floor, with actors moving through the frame, but cuts were frequent enough to avoid the staticness of the movies of Ozu’s Taiwanese admirers (Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang). The musical score by Saitô Kojun worked very well without calling attention to itself.

It’s difficult to tell if Michioko was ambivalent about marriage or concealing her wishes to run the household of her deadbeat brother and mostly absent father. The focus is primarily on the aging father (the never-married Ozu’s alter ego) and the relationship seems more one of filial piety (and paternal responsibility) than the kind of close emotional father-daughter bond in “Late Spring” (1949).

An older son, Koichi (Kinoshita-regular turned Ozu-regular Sada Keiji), who lives elsewhere but needs money from the old man, comes across as a spendthrift, though he believes he is unjustly nagged by his frustrated wife, Akiko (Okada Mariko), whose impatience seems fully justified to me. (I’m not entirely sure whether Akiko and Michioko have jobs: I think both do.)

There is baseball on tv distracting one of the old schoolmates from conviviality, there are power-lines in abundance, along with red-and-white smokestacks, name-brand golf clubs, imported whiskey and cigarettes—all signs of the crumbling of the old order. The film ends in a long shot down a hall of a saddened Hirayama sitting in a semi-stupor (though it is possible to infer that he has found a possible second wife who reminds him of his first one, so that his future may not be as bleak as this final shot of Ozu’s career…)

Although the male characters are by no means lacking in selfishness, and the women show some irritation at their helplessness, drunkenness, and profligacy, the characters accept without question traditional roles, even as there are many signs of rapid social change, including social atomization and the obsolescence of traditional responsibilities.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray