Tag Archives: Period piece

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: KAGERO-ZA (1981)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yusaku Matsuda, , Katsuo Nakamura, , Eriko Kusuda

PLOT: A playwright gets caught up with a rich industrialist’s two wives, putting both his life and soul in mortal danger.

COMMENTS: After the success of Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki returned to the Taisho era for another morbid tale with supernatural undertones. Zigeunerweisen was often unfocused and difficult to follow, but Kagero-za is even more loosely structured, borderline incomprehensible at times. Its title refers to a haze seen on particularly hot days, which can play tricks on the eyes and create illusions. In keeping with this title, the film moves with the slow, languid pace of a dream. It’s never certain if what’s being seen is real or illusion.

The film begins, fittingly, with an illusion seen in a heat haze. Or was it an illusion? A young man (Yusaku Matsuda) meets a mysterious married woman, Shinako (Michiyo Okusu), who asks him to escort her to a nearby hospital, for fear of an old woman she saw selling bladder cherries at high prices—and also advertising them as women’s souls. When they investigate, the old woman seems to have vanished into the vapors that she came from, and the married woman ends up giving the man her soul instead. From this point onward, the man is repeatedly drawn to her, seduced by circumstance and seemingly doomed to commit double suicide with her when her rich husband (Katsuo Nakamura) finds out about the affair.

But all is not what it seems. The woman’s husband has another wife, Ine (Eriko Kusuda), who may or may not be dead. In the film’s most explicit commentary on the effects of Westernization in the Taisho era, the husband is said to have met Ine while studying abroad in Germany, captivated by her blond hair but also determined to make a Japanese woman out of her. The fact he studied abroad in Europe suggests that he is either an industrialist or a member of the new class of elites which led the charge of modernization in Japan at this time. Shinako, the other wife, is relegated to the shadows, barely noticed by her husband. However, she serves as a reminder of Japanese tradition in its purest form, repeatedly coming back to haunt her husband and her lover in an unending cycle which torments all involved.

Halfway through the film, Shinako portentously muses that “If dreams didn’t end, they wouldn’t be dreams anymore.” With this in mind, it might be best to take the world of Kagero-za as a dream which becomes its own reality. What begins as a fairly simple love triangle with Gothic undertones becomes progressively stranger in its second half, going off on feverish tangents which range from freemasons exchanging dolls with intricately carved sex organs hidden inside to a children’s kabuki theater which ominously reenacts the film’s central love triangles, while an unseen playwright gives directions from on high and the real-life characters look on with expressions of frozen alarm.

Of course, none of this makes much sense, but it wouldn’t be a Seijun Suzuki film if it did. It’s a dream journey not unlike ’s Eyes Wide Shut, except that it involves a man’s affair with a married woman and his subsequent internal and external crises, rather than a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s real or imagined infidelities. Still, the pacing is interminably slow and the particulars of the central affair (which is more imagined than real to begin with) are rehashed to the point that they lose all sense of meaning or tension. It’s worth watching for its stunning cinematography and surreal depiction of cultural corruption in pre-WW2 Japan, but it’s a pretentious and muddled step down from the chilling and subtly supernatural Zigeunerweisen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the wantonly eccentric narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, though, given Suzuki’s contempt for coherence, it might as well take place in another planet… [T]here’s no denying Suzuki’s knack for ravishing disorientation even if you take one character’s description of ‘a too complicated game to enjoy’ to apply for the film.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine (DVD)

CAPSULE: ZIGEUNERWEISEN (1980)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Toshiya Fujita, , Naoko Otani, , Kisako Makishi 

PLOT: Two professors and a mysterious geisha form a bond that transcends life and death.

COMMENTS: In the West, Seijun Suzuki is primarily known for his hallucinatory 1960s thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, especially Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Over a decade later, however, Suzuki made a series of three period films set in Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1925). Filled with hallucinatory imagery, intoxicating period atmosphere, and ghostly ambience, in Japan these three films, known collectively as the Taisho Trilogy, are held in equal esteem with Suzuki’s early films; but they have been difficult to find in the U.S. until recently. Arrow Films gave them a limited release in 2017 in a lavish 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set, but now Arrow has streamlined both the size and cost of the set, finally putting these three hidden gems back into circulation as part of an affordable 3-disc Blu-ray box set. The extras from the previous set (which include introductions from critic Tony Rayn, a making-of featurette and a vintage interview with the late Seijun Suzuki) have all been carried over to the new release.

The Taisho era was a time of rapid modernization in Japan, but only in certain sectors of society, particularly the upper classes. Traditional ways of life and long-held superstitions about ghosts and spirits remained prevalent even as Western music, clothing, and technology began to seep into society. This is the world in which Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) take place. Zigeunerweisen opens with two men listening to a 10-inch gramophone recording of the titular “Zigeunerweisen,” a contemporary composition by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, in which a voice is heard saying something unintelligible. They note that hearing this almost inaudible voice is more interesting than the music itself—it’s the voice of someone they’ve never met, the unintentional preservation of an everyday moment which occurred halfway around the world.

The recording will appear again, but it’s not the only case in which characters will be haunted by disembodied voices. Ghosts are very present in the lives of Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a German professor at a military academy, and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s former colleague and vagabond friend. After parting ways when Nakasogo quit the academy to become a drifter, the two meet in a seaside town where Nakasogo seems to have been involved in the death of a local woman. Suzuki introduces Nakagoso with a feverish montage of close-ups, emphasizing his unkempt good looks and wild man charisma. We then see the a woman lying dead on the ground; a red crab appears from between her legs and fills the screen.

After Aochi helps Nakasago escape from the police and local mob, the two retreat to a local inn, where they entice a mourning geisha (Naoko Otani) to entertain them. Nakasogo is fascinated with her story of her brother’s suicide by poison, and how his white bones turned to pink ashes after being cremated. Nakasogo’s subsequent obsession with bones becomes a central theme throughout the film. He even coerces Aochi into making a pact that whoever dies first will donate their bones to the other.

There are many subplots and suggestions of supernatural intrigue throughout Zigeunerweisen, but it remains mostly submerged beneath the surface, more subtly felt than explicitly expressed. Nakasogo is often insinuated to be a demon in human form, and his secret encounters with Aochi’s wife (Michiyo Okusu) seem to take place in a parallel dream reality. One exception is an early sequence in which Aochi meets Nakasogo’s new wife (also played by Otani) and is enticed into coming back to her house, where a red light ominously flashes and time seems to stand still; Nakasogo’s wife slyly admits that she might be a fox (a common deceiver of humans in Japanese traditional mythology). The film’s chilling climax echoes this scene, bringing the story full circle and finally allowing its supernatural undertones to emerge fully formed.

Even earlier in his career, Suzuki was never a very effective storyteller. As lurid and visually stunning as his 1960s gangster films might be, they’re often unevenly paced and confusing, especially in the case of his hallucinatory tour-de-force Branded to Kill, which was considered so incomprehensible that he was effectively blacklisted from making films in Japan for over 10 years. Zigeunerweisen isn’t quite as difficult to parse out, but even though the running time is longer and the pace is slower, this is still classic Suzuki. The lack of tight storytelling and conventional horror techniques is made up for with imaginative visuals, feverish hallucinations, and a sophisticated sense of the supernatural, which is consistent with Japanese culture and the era in which the film takes place. A fascinating ghost story from the master of surreal Japanese crime thrillers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[W]ith Zigeunerweisen—shot in 1980, after Suzuki took a 10-year break from directing—Suzuki retires the cumbersome plots and predictable settings of his genre films, and lends his bizarre, outrageous, and completely visual language to a bona fide art film.” – John Behling, Slant Magazine

7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; the vulture the very creature he creates.”–Moby Dick

DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers

FEATURING: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

PLOT: Ephraim Wilson attempts to escape his troubled past by seeking employ with the Maine Lighthouse Company. His four weeks of labor, under the supervision of the often tyrannical and always erratic Thomas Wake, stretch out indefinitely when the relief crew fails to retrieve them. Trapped on the lonely island, they both find each other to be increasingly vexing company.

Still from The Lighthouse (2019)

BACKGROUND:

  • Originally a ghost story (and, to a lesser extent, an adaptation of an unfinished Edgar Allan Poe tale), Robert Eggers and his brother Max, who co-wrote the screenplay, changed tack when Robert read a history of a pair of “wickie” Thomases trapped in a lighthouse off the coast of Wales in 1801.
  • The distinct visual texture was achieved through a combination of custom filters and the use of early 20-century lenses. Lighting was also a challenge, with so many lumens required for the exposure that the actors were practically blinded during shoots of some of the close-up scenes.
  • The Lighthouse‘s soundscape evolved from field recordings of actual weather and tidal events, later mixed in analog in the studio for a heightened, gritty effect.
  • To sexualize what otherwise would have been a prudish Victorian-style mermaid, Eggers and company drew design ideas by studying shark genitalia.
  • During production, there was no shortage of seagulls flitting and honking in the background—something appreciated by the filmmakers considerably more during the editing process than during the shoot.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are dozens of water-logged shots and scenes of mental deterioration, but the climax of The Lighthouse‘s frenzied, feverish collapse of sanity occurs in the penultimate scene, when the assistant wickie finally slays his demons and achieves his dream of witnessing, first-hand, the mysteries of the light atop the spiral tower.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Vindictive one-eyed seagull; visions of Neptune

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eggers made his name with The Witch, exploring madness in an isolated community. With The Lighthouse he elevates the isolation and cranks up the corporeal unpleasantness in a story drained of color, drenched in water, and cramped by pared-down screen edges. The narrative perspective is unreliable, the psychology is toxic, and the obfuscation of water, liquor, sweat, urine, and more saturates both story and image. An ending that demands both a classical education and a willingness to shut up and run with it tops it all off.


Official trailer for The Lighthouse

COMMENTS: The Lighthouse is a considerable achievement in many Continue reading 7*. THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

362. THE DEVILS (1971)

“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin

PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.

Still from The Devils (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
  • The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
  • Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
  • A young designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
  • The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
  • The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
  • Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.


Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils

COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical Continue reading 362. THE DEVILS (1971)

320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

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“I think I have worked out what God is punishing us for: everything.”—Friend, A Field in England

“So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.”

Gary Snider, “The Wild Mushroom”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reece Shearsmith, , Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope

PLOT: The English Civil War rages, and a group of deserters bands together. Through bribes, threats, and hallucinogens, an occultist’s agent induces a scholar, a soldier, and a simpleton to aid him in summoning his master, O’Neal. Once brought on to this plane, O’Neal forces the trio to seek and find a treasure of immeasurable value—under pain of annihilation.

Still from A Field in England (2013)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Field in England was the first major motion picture to be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, video-on-demand, and broadcast television.
  • The film’s budget was a modest £300,000 ($420,000 US) and took only twelve days to shoot.
  • No females appear on screen throughout the film, though the eponymous “field” is voiced (in a manner of speaking) by a woman.
  • On the film’s release, a craft beer was made available to cinema-goers with the film’s informal tagline, “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”
  • A limited (400-count) special edition double-vinyl soundtrack album went on sale accompanying the film’s release. For the true fan, a handful of these soundtracks included a blade of grass purportedly plucked from the titular field.
  • The number “320” suggests a strong bond to the spiritual and occult world.
  • Giles EdwardsStaff Pick for the Certified Weird List.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Seeing as how the film begins with a warning about “flashing images and stroboscopic sequences”, there are any number of images that might qualify (though by their very stroboscopic nature, they may be more of a subconscious kind-of-thing). However, the film’s coupling of sinister madness and unlikely humor is perhaps best exemplified by the shot of five souls romping through the field while in search of the mysterious treasure. (Although an earlier scene with a “giddy” protagonist is impossible to erase from one’s mind.)

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Magic mushroom faerie ring; tableaux “frieze” frames; tent from Hell

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Much like the instrumental meal in the story, the movie’s ingredients all work together toward weird ends—individually they are weird, and together they are greater than the weird sum of their parts. The viewer is presented with a black-and-white period piece with amusing, earthy dialogue and hallucinogens in lieu of sweeping drama and battle scenes. Lightning-fast editing, nebulous exposition, and too many occult nods to count all crash together like an ill planet upon the unsuspecting viewer.


Original U.K. trailer for A Field in England

COMMENTS: We hear a man running breathlessly and see a wild Continue reading 320. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)