I’ve seen four films now from Masaki Kobayashi, and I think I’m ready to put him on my list of favorite filmmakers. I had previously been impressed with Harakiri, Kwaidan, and the epic The Human Condition, but this latest viewing may have left the largest positive impression out of all of them (so much so that immediately after the film ended I went online and ordered Criterion’s recently-released Eclipse collection Masaki Kobayashi Against The System). As the title of that set indicates, Kobayashi spent a good part of his career focusing on stories of individuals standing up against unjust society structures and attitudes, and Samurai Rebellion represents one of his more definitive statements in that area. Toshiro Mifune plays Isaburo Sasahara, a loyal vassal who is forced to marry off his son Yogoro to Ichi, the castaway mistress of the powerful daimyo. Isaburo and Yogoro are initially hesitant, but they understand their duties and accept. As time passes though, Ichi is accepted into the family. However, after the daimyo’s first son unexpectedly dies, there is a need for Ichi to return to the daimyo in order to care for the son that she had with him before being tossed aside. Isaburo and Yogoro are unwilling to part with Ichi, which leads to heated confrontations and inevitable tragedy.
In a career filled with brilliant and iconic performances, Toshiro Mifune may never have been better than he is in this film. He starts the film as someone who is completely compliant to his lord, a man who sacrificed any chance of individual happiness for the “greater good”, quietly accepting a loveless marriage and his overall role in life . His only real moments of happiness and pride come either when he gets to show off his skills as a swordsman or when he has conversations with the province gate guard who is his good friend (Tatsuya Nakadai in a small but critical role, who finds himself torn between his friendship and his loyalty to the daimyo). As the film moves forward, Mifune watches as injustice after injustice is made, until he reaches a point where he won’t submit to pressure any longer. He’s supported by a string of strong supporting characters/performances, with Yoko Tsukasa’s Ichi standing out as the one with perhaps the strongest will and resolve out of all the characters. Kobayashi is a master at quietly building tension, keeping everything spare and controlled until the moment when it all explodes, and because he has so much skill at character development and pacing, it’s almost impossible not to be riveted the whole way through. This film really is Kobayashi operating at the peak of his talents as a filmmaker. I’m not usually someone who likes to use the word “perfect” in relation to anything, but that word might very well apply here. 10/10.
Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 film was originally conceived as the third part of what eventually became the two-part Chungking Express. The material that didn’t make the cut for that film became its own film, serving as a loose continuation but also as its own distinct statement. The big difference with this film, apart from how it intertwines its stories instead of separating them into two halves, is its tone. Chungking Express operated mostly in offbeat romantic territory; Fallen Angels veers closer to noir, darker and, in a couple moments, more explicit than anything else in Wong’s filmography. This is apparent right from the outset, with the film’s first main character, a hired killer played by Leon Lai, preparing for his work over a piece of music that heavily samples Massive Attack’s ‘Karmacoma’. His actions are intercut with the work of his female partner, played by Michelle Reis, who cleans his apartment and gives him new assignments, while remaining strangely elusive and out of his sight.
It’s an effective opening, introducing Lai and Reis in a way that is kinetic and exciting while also orientating the viewer to the portrayal of nighttime Hong Kong that the film is going to explore. Wong, once again working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, mostly uses wide-angle lenses to add to the film’s occasionally-nightmarish atmosphere; everything is slightly distorted, which fits with the film’s secluded and mysterious personalities. Still, despite its perpetual nighttime setting, the film isn’t all darkness, and the tone lightens considerably with the introduction of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character, a mute escaped convict who finds a way to generate income by breaking into closed-up shops at night and selling whatever goods are available to sometimes-unwilling passers-by (his name and explanation for his mute condition are just a couple of many subtle references to Chungking Express). Both Lai and Kaneshiro’s characters move through the film attempting to establish some sort of connection, whether it’s with an unseen love or with a father on his last stretch of life. It’s not accidental that the film’s only glimpse of sunlight comes at the very end, when two previously-separate characters finally connect with each other. A couple elements keep the film from registering on the same level as Chungking Express (particularly Lai, who doesn’t really register as the hitman, lacking the presence that someone like Tony Leung could have brought to the role), but it’s an interesting semi-detour for Wong that is both refreshingly familiar and refreshingly different. 7/10.
Does a cameraman have an ethical responsibility to intervene in the situations they are recording, or is their role simply to document the times? Acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s directorial effort from 1969 poses this question, among many others, while documenting one of the more tumultuous eras in American history. Robert Forster’s John Cassellis works as a television cameraman, someone who has no problems getting coverage on a car accident before calling for an ambulance. His detached but hard-nosed approach to his profession is challenged when his department informs him that the FBI is looking at his footage. While this is going on, he finds himself in a relationship with a humble small-town teacher, a big change from his usual practice of one-night-stands. Throughout the film, Waxler weaves this fictional story with documentary footage, culminating with fact and fiction blending together during the Democratic National Convention and the riots that accompanied the proceedings.
As an experiment of blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, the film is never anything less than fascinating. As a statement on the strange power of the camera and the potential ethical responsibilities that come about when wielding one, it’s thought-provoking and its message is certainly still relevant for modern times, especially in an age when so many people carry around cell-phones that double as video recorders. As a piece of effective drama, however, it’s maybe not quite as successful, its storytelling a little too fractured and strangely passive to really generate much real interest in the central characters. Forster has a cool, almost Charles Bronson-esque presence, but at least at the point of his career when this film was made, he still had some work to do as an actor. Still, much like the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Wexler isn’t particularly interested in serving up a conventional piece of entertainment, and elements like performances and narrative aren’t really his main concern. His work here pushes boundaries, and it’s easy to forgive any unevenness when for most of its running length it’s delivering such a fresh and intellectually-stimulating experience. 8/10.