I need to get my cable telly sorted out. I have a nice large flatscreen TV set, but no HD channels – so everything looks blobby, and even with my piss-poor eyesight it’s off-putting. As a result, I’ve been mostly watching DVDs and Blu-rays. Sometimes as many as three or four a day on the weekends. Such as the following:
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin*, Chia-Liang Liu (1978, Hong Kong). Most movies are, of course, commercial endeavours. That’s why we have the concept of “box office”. The amount of money a film makes is taken as an indicator of its success – and, by foolish people, of its quality. And yet, commercially successful works can prove to be lasting art, even if not designed to be. Of course, there are directors – and this applies to all creatives – who can convince themselves their crass banal commercial output is real art, but their films usually go straight to DVD. Which is a long-winded way of saying that a Shaolin kung fu film is an unlikely entry to find on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, given that it was likely banged out quickly to capitalise on a particular movie craze. (We are after all talking about a film produced by a company who made 1000 films between 1958 and 1997.) And yet, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not only considered a classic of the kung fu genre but, by virtue of being on the list, a classic of cinema – perhaps because it’s so exemplary of its genre. A young man decides to seek vengeance after his friends and family are killed by Manchu soldiers, so he enrolls in a Shaolin temple and works his way up the 35 levels of kung fu. I had expected this to be a bit dull – I’m not a fan of martial arts films – perhaps a bit like A Touch Of Zen; but it actually proved a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the structure, the young man working his way up each of the 35 levels, often failing comically at first on each level. Worth seeing.
The Decline Of The American Empire*, Denys Arcand (1986, Canada). Four couples arrange a dinner party. The men make the food at one of the homes while the women visit the gym. They talk. You know when people joke that literary fiction is all about white middle class people and their disintegrating marriages? This is the cinematic equivalent. And it’s very dull. I’ve no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative, and while it has the odd moment of wit (and what film doesn’t? Um, best not answer that…) it offers no new insights – on a topic that is probably the most documented in Western literature and cinema, the white middle class marriage. Not worth seeing.
Floating Weeds*, Yasujiru Ozu (1959, Japan). The only other Ozu I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and that was back in 2009. I’m aware of his stature in Japanese cinema, but while I’ve watched a number of classic Japanese films I’ve not made any real effort to explore the country’s cinematic history. I know people who rate Ozu very highly, but on the strength of that previous film I wasn’t entirely sure why. Floating Weeds, on the other hand… It’s good; actually, it’s very good. It’s a little problematic – the central male character is violent towards women on several occasions, and it’s very unpleasant to watch. But the cinematography is wonderful to look at, and the relationships between the characters are handled with intelligence and nuance. Having said that, the pacing is somewhat on the leisurely side and the plot is perhaps overly stuffed. The film is set in 1958 at a seaside town. A travelling theatre troupe arrives, and it turns out the troupe’s star is the father of the young man who works in the post office and whose mother runs a local tea shop/bar. The lead actress of the troupe, who is in a relationship with the star, is afraid she’s losing him, so she pays another actress to seduce the son… Then it transpires the troupe is out of money and will have to disband, and certain relationships all start to implode quite messily. I think I might watch some more Ozu after seeing this one – and not just that one film of his on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve yet to see…
City of God*, Fernando Meireilles & Kátia Lund (2002, Brazil). A charity shop find. The film is set in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the title, and is apparently based on real events. The film’s narrator is on the edge of violence between rival drug dealers in City of God, and the movie is presented as a series of stories told by him about the various major players, and often jumps back and forth chronologically – in fact, the film opens with the scene which starts the final sequence of the plot. The bulk of the cast were apparently non-professionals, trained up by the directors, as they felt that would give the film a more authentic feel. And it does. I’m guessing the casual violence is also authentic – and it’s horrible and disturbing to watch, such as, for example when there are things like a young boy walking into a brothel and shooting everyone he sees. That young boy, named as “Little Dice” in the subtitles, grows up to be one of the two main drug dealers in the favela, and he only leaves his rival alone because his best friend, Benny, is friends with him. But when Benny is shot and killed, all-out war erupts. And it’s war with young men and boys as the fighters, using all manner of firearms. City of God is one of those films which makes you wonder why governments around the world insist on criminalising drugs. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to win the “War on Drugs”… The film span off a television series, City Of Men, which was itself adapted for cinema. The non-professional cast, incidentally, couldn’t return to their old lives in the favelas after filming, and so were given help to improve their situation. Which is about the only heart-warming thing about the whole film.
Woman of The Dunes*, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964, Japan). Teshigahara is a director new to me, as is Kobo Abe, the author from whose novel this film was adapted (and it’s not the only Abe novel Teshigahara adapted). But on the strength of Woman of The Dunes I’ll definitely be trying more Teshigahara movies and perhaps even having a go at reading one of Abe’s novels. In this film, a high school teacher on holiday is indulging in his hobby, collecting and categorising seaside insects. He falls asleep in the sun and misses the last bus home, but some men from the nearby village offer him a bed for the night. This proves to be in a house in a pit in the sand dunes, a pit that can only be accessed by rope ladder. And the following morning, he learns he is to be kept a prisoner there with the house’s occupant, a young woman. The pair are, in effect, sacrifices to the sand. As long as they remain in the house in the pit, shovelling at the sand, it won’t engulf the village – and it’s implied there are other pits too. The teacher, of course, tries to escape, but none of his attempts succeed. Eventually he resigns himself to his situation, and the film ends with a shot of a missing persons report dated seven years later. Good film, definitely worth seeing.
The Fireman’s Ball*, Miloš Forman (1967, Czech Republic). Forman and screenwriters Ican Passer and Jarosalv Papoušek visited the town of Vrchlabí in order to work on the script of their new film, and while there attended a real fireman’s ball and were so amused by its piss-poor organisation that they decided to base a film on it. There’s a sort of black humour common to East and Central Europe – I’ve seen it mostly in Polish films, probably because I’ve seen more films of the region from that country – and The Fireman’s Ball is a beautifully-judged example. It’s not just the constant bickering and fatalism, but the way things always play out for the worse. The firemen have arranged a raffle for the ball, but as the film progresses the prizes go missing one by one. They arrange an impromptu beauty contest so the winner can present a gift to the retired chairman of the fire brigade, but the contestants all refuse to participate when called up onto the stage. An old man’s house bursts into flames, but all the firemen manage to rescue his some of his furniture. The film’s start was somewhat unprepossessing, so I wasn’t expecting much. But once the ball was in full swing, it definitely picked up and I really enjoyed it.
The War Game*, Peter Watkins (1965, UK). From the perspective of twenty-five years later, the Cold War may seem like a weird period of global insanity, but it certainly felt very real at the time. US/USSR posturing inspired countless plots for books and films and television, and while the threat of World War III never seemed all that likely – the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, and the West responded by, er, boycotting the Moscow Olympics – the consequences of nuclear armageddon were all too often publicised. In films such as The War Game, Threads and The Day After. The third of those is pretty terrible, a piece of meretricious and melodramatic US tosh, marketed on its supposed accuracy but more closely resembling a soap opera. Threads is especially effective, although its low budget does tell against it. And it might well be said the same is true of The War Game. Unlike the other two, The War Game is framed as a documentary describing life after a nuclear strike on the UK. And it’s very effective. So much so, in fact, that the BBC refused to broadcast despite commissioning it and it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985 – despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1966. After watching this, I decided to buy a copy, but the BFI one shown is deleted. So I ended up buying a collection of Watkins films released in France. So that should make for some cheerful viewing… Definitely worth seeing, nonetheless.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 640