All posts by Rafael Moreira

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ORNITHOLOGIST (2016)

O Ornitólogo

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao Teijo, Han Wuen, Chan Suan

PLOT: After being swept away by rapids, Fernando, an ornithologist looking for black storks, finds himself in a mysterious forest where he’ll undergo a transformative spiritual journey mirroring the life of Saint Anthony of Padua.

Still from The Ornithologist (2016)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The Ornithologist is the allegorical tale of an atheist ornithologist’s conversion through a succession of increasingly bizarre occurrences. Given that these moments vary from slightly odd to truly surreal, the film plays the weirdness card, although the limited number of remaining slots in the List make its inclusion uncertain.

COMMENTS: The first shots of The Ornithologist, after an introductory quote by Saint Anthony, depict a dark, calm river with a bird and plant life, accompanied by the ambient sounds of nature. After the film’s weird notes kick in, the atmosphere remains remarkably the same: quiet and naturalistic, persistently treating the strange sights of Fernando’s mystical journey as perfectly normal. The stunningly shot setting, a Portuguese forest that director João Pedro Rodrigues populates with strange images and figures, also persists for the entirety of the movie (save for the very last, and very weird, scene).

After he crashes his kayak, the titular protagonist is rescued by two female Chinese pilgrims, on their way to Santiago de Compostela, with whom he spends the night. This moment marks the film’s first foray into Fernando’s symbolic journey, as well as a turn to a darker tone. When a menacing sound is heard, the frightened pilgrims assume it’s a demonic entity just as quickly as Fernando casually rebuts their belief, claiming there’s no God or Devil. Shocked by his lack of faith, they oblige him to sleep outside of their tent, and the next morning finds him tied to a tree.

From that point on, the steps on the ornithologist’s conversion grow progressively surreal; some are blatant in their symbolism (such as the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a white dove), others more obscure (naked amazons shooting him with a rifle, only to have a quick chat with him after he revives). Most are blasphemous and/or contain homoerotic undertones. They include Fernando’s baptism in urine (!), sex with a mute shepherd named Jesus (!!!), and the appearance of what appear to be embalmed animals in the woods, among other outrageous stops in his mystical-existential self-discovery arc.

These episodes are consistently engaging and reveal Rodrigues’ fascination with Christian iconography, mysticism and eroticism (a potently heretical mix), as well as his intention to filter universal religious symbols through his personal sensibilities. The “enlightenment quest” narrative will likely remind weirdophiles of ’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain, but the film is stylistically much closer to ’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, The Ornithologist‘s bizarre and phantasmagorical apparitions seamlessly blend in the environment as if they were no less natural than a tree or a bird. Accordingly, our main character remains stoic throughout his adventure. Speaking only when needed (that is, sparsely), his language, like the film’s, is mostly non-verbal. Actor Paul Hamy subtly conveys feelings of confusion and curiosity; interestingly, he has explained in interviews that he likes physical expression, comparing himself to a sculpture that the director shapes in front of the camera. The Ornithologist displays this particularly well, as Hamy’s character is aloof and his metamorphosis occurs internally, manifesting itself mostly in his careful physicality and expressions.

Even if you have difficulty relating to Fernando, it’s apparent that this is a very personal affair for Rodrigues. At one point near the end, the director himself literally steps into the shoes of the main actor. The character’s name changes to António (another reference to Saint Anthony), signalling that his transformation is complete. Fernando is not meant to be an avatar of the audience but, rather, of his creator; as a result, viewers without familiarity or investment in the narrative of Saint Anthony may find themselves estranged. The story is clearly very important to Rodrigues, and ultimately asserts itself as vaguely autobiographical. This is not to say, however, that its deeper meaning is impenetrable. Surely, watching The Ornithologist is, above all, an experience, and the beautiful cinematography and pervading atmosphere, languid and sometimes sinister, will please the adventurous viewer. But I believe exploring the film’s symbolism is a rewarding enhancement. Like Fernando, we feel shipwrecked and disoriented in such a strange environment, but by the end, we’ll probably have changed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Rodrigues toys with his audience with the deadpan playfulness of Luis Buñuel, whose films The Ornithologist sometimes recalls in its tricky approach to religious themes… If nothing else, the film reminds one of how strange and beautiful existence can be.”–Ben Sachs, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

298. PERFECT BLUE (1997)

Pafekuto buru

“When you are watching the film, you sometimes feel like losing yourself in whichever world you are watching, real or virtual. But after going back and forth between the real and the virtual world you eventually find your own identity through your own powers. Nobody can help you do this. You are ultimately the only person who can truly find a place where you know you belong. That in essence is the whole concept. It is rather hard to explain.”– on Perfect Blue

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Satoshi Kon

CAST: Voices of Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Masaaki Ōkura; Ruby Marlowe (English dub), Wendee Lee (English dub), Bob Maex (English dub)

PLOT: Japanese pop idol Mima Kirigoe decides to retire from her group CHAM in to become an actress and change her image. She joins a soap opera where the storyline mysteriously reflects her own experiences, endures a stalker who posts intimate details from her life in a fake online diary, and finds several of her co-workers murdered. These events launch her into a psychotic identity crisis.

Still from Perfect Blue (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • A protégé of , Perfect Blue was the first full-length film Satoshi Kon directed after working as a writer and layout animator.
  • Perfect Blue was based on the novel “Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis” by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. After a failed attempt at a live-action adaptation, Kon was approached to direct an animated version. The screenplay, however, didn’t interest Kon, who was eventually allowed to make any changes he wished as long as he kept three of the story’s elements: “idol”, “horror” and “stalker.” Kon said “the idea of a blurred border between the real world and imagination” was one of his contributions.
  • Sadly, Kon died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at only 46 years old, with only four feature films to his name.
  • One of Kon’s notable disciples, , wrote a eulogy for that was published in the retrospective “Satoshi Kon’s Animated Works.” Kon’s work has influenced Aronofsky, with the harshest calling Black Swan (2010) a “rip-off” of Perfect Blue. Rumors suggest that Aronofsky bought the rights for a live-action remake of Blue; once the plans didn’t work out, he used them instead to emulate the film’s “bathtub sequence” in Requiem for a Dream.
  • Another of Kon’s western admirers, , placed Perfect Blue among his fifty favorite animated movies. Additionally, it was ranked #97 in Time Out’s list of best animated films of all time and #25 on Total Film’s similar list.
  • Perfect Blue won the Best Asian Film award at the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival (tied with The Legend of Drunken Master) and the Best Animated Film at 1998’s Fantasporto festival.
  • A live action version, Perfect Blue: Yume Nara Samete, which was more closer to the novel, was finally released in 2002. It was quickly forgotten.
  • Rafael Moreira’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mima’s doppelganger jumping between lampposts provides the most striking of many memorable compositions.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lamppost-leaping phantasm; ghost emailing stalker; middle-aged idol

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though it takes its time, Perfect Blue is an effective psychodrama taking place in the mind of a despairing protagonist. By the time fiction, reality, fears and projections start to cross, and the psychosexual and horror elements enter the scene, you will know for sure that you’re watching an unconventional film, with an atmosphere likely to remind you of both a giallo and a ian psychic labyrinth.


UK trailer for Perfect Blue

COMMENTS: For the first half of its (short) running time, Perfect Continue reading 298. PERFECT BLUE (1997)

LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

Poesía Sin Fin

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: , , , , Alejandro Jodorowsky

PLOT: The second chapter in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed cycle of five autobiographical films, “Endless Poetry” concerns his younger self’s fall for poetry, his resistance to his authoritarian father’s pressures to become a doctor, and his liberation from his oppressive family by joining Santiago’s bohemian artist circle.

Still from Endless Poetry (2017)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While representing some of the most accessible and straightforward storytelling that the author has ever conjured, Endless Poetry is still very distinctively a vision from Jodorowsky, a result of his passionate and eccentric sensibility full of personal symbolism and mystical allusions, bizarre occurrences, and self-aware theatricality. The List’s increasingly limited slots, and the fact that Jodorowsky is already well-represented here, is all that keeps this one at the margin.

COMMENTS: With The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry, legendary cult cinema hero and weirdophile favorite Alejandro Jodorowsky has entered, at 87 years old, an unexpected phase in his career where he embraces filmmaking as a therapeutic, expurgatory reliving of his past. In this second installment of his autobiographical project (intended as a five film series), we witness Jodorowsky’s adolescence in Santiago and his escape from the oppression of his father and the Darwinist worldview that he tries to enforce on his son, which clashes with the boy’s sensitivity and newfound interest in poetry sparkled by the writings of .

Very much in the same vein as its predecessor, this one takes the form of a psycho-autobiography where the artist renders his life as a mystical, oneiric and carnivalesque myth. Obviously, such a project could only be the product of Jodorowsky’s characteristic pretentiousness. If Dance, however, was relatively melancholic in tone, Poetry is more celebratory and narcissistic, portraying Jodorowsky’s awakening in an appropriately glorifying, joyous display. When Alejandro eventually runs away from home to join an artist’s collective, his immersion in poetry and a bohemian lifestyle is shown as an enlightenment and revelation of his true self and fate. His reception in the community of outcasts is the triumphant reception of a new member in a family, one in which he finally feels he belongs. Like his new siblings, Alejandro’s passion for art is absolute, and he insatiably wishes to “live” poetry. From this moment on, the film chronicles his experiences in the city’s artistic circle, discovering like-minded friends such as Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, and even a lover (played by the same actress who portrays his mother, in a Freudian stroke that remains integral to Jodo’s style).

The idealistic dilettantism that overwhelms and possesses Alejandro is never questioned; the daring and revolutionary mindset of his community is synonymous with liveliness, freedom, realization and self-hood, whereas the world of everyone else is depersonalized, Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ENDLESS POETRY (2016)

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film

READER RECOMMENDATION: CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (1970)

Reader review by Rafael Moreira

DIRECTED BY:

CAST: Ronald Mlodzik, Jon Lidolt, Tania Zolty

PLOT: Adrian Tripod, director of a dermatological clinic called House of Skin, wanders in search of his mentor, Antoine Rouge, who has mysteriously disappeared after a catastrophic plague related to cosmetic products kills the entire population of sexually mature women.

Still from Crimes of the Future (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Crimes of the Future is chock full of Cronenberg’s characteristic, and characteristically weird, themes of the relationship between the mind and body and their fragilities and possible degradations. What makes it different from his future efforts is that the film’s null budget renders it underproduced, alienated and experimental in ways that both augment its weirdness and undermines its cinematicness. The fact that it is shot silent with a commentary added later only feeds the dreamy, disassociated atmosphere.

COMMENTS: Crimes of the Future was the venerated and singular ‘s second film, made, like his first (Stereo), with minimal resources. Despite being his most inaccessible works, the main surprise is how these early films reflect Cronenberg’s unique, consistent persona and the preoccupations on which he has meditated in his whole oeuvre.

Crimes‘s practically nonexistent budget both limits and enhances its weirdness. On one hand, Cronenberg’s signature ideas are denied full realization, but his way of working around the lack of resources lends the film an utterly abstract presentation. One could describe the movie as a seemingly disconnected succession of scenes of people interacting and behaving strangely in clinical spaces and shadowy corridors, only made meaningful by the somnambulant commentary of Ronald Mlodzik. Another key agent of weirdness is the truly bizarre soundscape that Cronenberg crafted, which, when not silent, consists mostly of indistinct atmospheric sounds and white noise. There are very few moments where the music seems to be in tune with what’s happening on screen, rather than serving as an obscure, sometimes disturbing background ambiance.

The film’s glacial tone and sense of detachment is reminiscent of THX 1138 at times. The audience’s reliance on the commentary by protagonist Adrian Tripod to make sense of the movie’s distant, cryptic images further increases its dreamlike quality. Sometimes, the narration is itself bizarre, as it has to communicate the insular world where Crimes takes places—a world that, while visually familiar, is otherworldly in its character’s strange behaviors, its enigmatic corporations and, of course, the central premise of its sudden defeminization.

The most curious aspect of the experience of watching Crimes is noting how, even under the restrictive budget and obscuring experimental approach, Cronenberg’s defining obsessions of the flesh, body, sexuality, disease, and mutation are all present in full force. If one can get past the film’s impenetrable nature, Tripod’s regular voice-over actually reveals a typically surreal, purely Cronenbergian narrative rich in visceral details. As he journeys through a succession of organizations, the odd individuals he meets all present a form of derangement or peculiarity reflective of Cronenberg’s themes, as each of them adapts to the great change in their own way. For instance, a former colleague of Tripod from the “Institute of Neo-Venereal Disease” has contracted a “creative cancer” from one of his patients, causing his body to continually form a series of organs that are removed in what many have interpreted as a parody of childbirth, while a concierge believes he is developing a root-like antenna from his nostrils as an evolutionary step.

Crimes feels like a sketch of the director’s imagination, fully revealing the sensibility behind his more mellow and professional works, but shadowed by its foggy experimentality and lack of resources. If patient weirdophiles can go with Cronenberg’s pretense of crafting more of a film experiment than a film, they will find it an undeniably interesting, if hard to watch, experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… where Stereo was both creepy and austere, Crimes of the Future gives its remarkable characters more room to breathe and, in their own weird way, to play, picking their way around a modernist compound and narrated retroactively by the main character. It is fascinating viewing, and it’s always interesting to note what an acclaimed, spiky filmmaker was doing in his early career.”–Juliette Jones, PopOptiq (DVD)

[Crimes of the Future is included, along with Stereo, as bonus features on Blue Underground’s release of Cronenberg’s Fast Company–ed.]