Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Hakuchi

Hakuchi (1999, Macoto Tezuka)

Based on the novel of the same name from author Sakaguchi, Hakuchi is set in an undefined time period (although it is safe to assume that is more or less contemporary) and during an undefined war that is ravaging Japan. The country is frequently bombed, with several city quarters looking like what Berlin did at the end of WII. Essentially, it is an alternate universe, a dystopia if you will.

A young television show assistant director named Izawa (Tadanobu Asano from Ichi fame) is experiencing a personal crisis. He has no woman, the show he works for at the media center, a very Tower of Babel-esque structure that oversees far off into the distance, is nothing but pop culture dreck mixed with some nationalistic propaganda for good measure. He is abused by his immediate superior as well as by the frequent guest star on the show, a late teen pop sensation named Ginga (Reika Hashimoto) , supposedly just a stage name. Izawa lives in a poor neighbourhood, and although his downstairs neighbours are alright, it is quickly established that his neck of the woods is filled with oddball characters.

Quiet, shy and battling a personal struggle with his emotions and deepest innermost thoughts, he comes harrowingly close to committing suicide on multiple occasions. In his youth he would make short films with an 8mm camera, which he still owns, but there is currently little hope for either his artistic strengths of ever expanding, or to find general comfort and solace. As fate would have it, one day the ‘slow’ wife of the literally insane next door neighbour flees her home and takes refuge in Izawa’s closet. Maybe, just maybe, it is with this ‘idiot woman’ (hence the title of the film, Hakuchi) that Izawa will find a glimmer of light in his life.

About half way through the running time of Hakuchi, a thought struck me. It came quickly and made me pause the film for a moment. It occurred to me that this movie was very much like the much-maligned Southland Tales. Dystopian future, the country at the doorstep of destruction, crazy settings and characters, some music videos, etc. However, while I was never able to really get into Southland Tales, I found myself liking Hakuchi quite a bit. It would be difficult to pinpoint one argument, or one theme that the movie attempts to develop. It’s a mish mash of many ideas, themes and arguments, but rather than making a mess of things, which I felt Southland Tales unfortunately did, I think Hakuchi survives the experiment, maybe not unscathed, but in good shape nonetheless. There is an existential element to the story that lends itself well to cinematic adaptation. I read that the novel itself is filled with intriguing elements of existentialism, which can always pose problems when the time comes to create a filmic translation.

I think what director Tezuka opts to do here is let, for the most part, the visual guide the experience. There is dialogue, some of it rather good, some of which rings quite false, but from beginning to end I felt the visual style of the film was impressive and very immersive. I couldn’t possibly tell you what the budget on the film was, but I had the impression that it couldn’t have been overwhelming. There are simple tricks at works here. Lighting and its colour, which consequently dictates what the shadowing in a shot will be like. Camera angles, line of vision, panoramic shots, makeup. Many of these elementary visual hallmarks of filmmaking are used to maximum effect here. In fact, when a rare shot that does not look good rears its ugly head, it usually has computer generated imagery in it. Fear not, I’m not one of those ‘oh god, CGI is so terrible’ movie buffs, but of all the visual enhancement tools a film can use, that one always strikes me the most when used improperly. Notwithstanding that factor, Tezuka brings a confident visual tone to the film that really carries a lot of the load.

The characters themselves, particularly the two most important ones, Izawa and the ‘idiot woman’ are a nice fit. Izawa doesn’t say much in the film quite frankly, but that never bothered me a whole lot. After all, the story doesn’t take place during his transition of hope to despair. Instead, as the film opens, he already finds himself in a state of depression. He cannot relate to this decadent society and therefore has little to say anyways. It’s in his actions with the idiot woman that we see the lighter side of him emerge. And what a character to find happiness with…this slow, incompetent woman. She’s an oddity, but when she even rejects her own household and finds herself alone and ‘hated’ as she claims at one point, it is then that these two characters find a fit for each other. Peanut butter and bread before anybody tried for the first time. It’s a strange relationship, with many scenes occurring in what I think were dreams, but there is an underlying sweetness to it. I like it when a movie…maybe not pushes the envelope, but puts a twist on the old romance angle. It’s a very understated performance from Asano and one could argue that he practically doesn’t do anything at all, but I wouldn’t go that far and in fact thought he fit the role nicely.

Not all the characters are enjoyable unfortunately. The bloke who I presume is the producer of the show is very much a caricature. Dressed and behaving practically like a general, I felt many of the scenes involving him were too on the nose (interestingly, I’m noticing that a lot of the films I’ve watched in this bracket, when trying to go for something ‘political’, suffered this same fate). The first few minutes of his appearance ere amusing, but he grew tiresome after a short while. The other character that needs mention is Ginga, the cranky pop star. She is the princess, the one audiences supposedly look up to and admire (no evidence of this is ever given, which I kind of liked in fact). Her song are either pathetic propaganda or simply pathetic pop songs. I’d love to insert a Hanna Montana joke but, honest to god, I’ve never heard one so that will have to wait for another battle. The movie makes her something of an double-edged sword. On the surface she is practically Satan’s pawn, but backstage she behaves with this odd mixture of kindness and selfishness. The film eventually offers a monologue scene in which she reveals the truth behind her bitchy façade. I’m not sure I completely bought it however. Even a full day after watching the movie I’m not entirely convinced the film earned that moment.

At basically 2 ½ hours long, there is plenty to dissect and discuss (there are references to a Japanses emperor and such), but I shall refrain from continuing. Suffice to say that Hakuchi, while not a masterpiece by any stretch of the definition, is certainly a well crafted movie overall and one that has its fair share of visually stimulating and thought-provoking moments. A few loose screws, but overall a neat movie.

Review: Nostalgia for the Countryside

Nostalgia for the Countryside (1995, Nhat Mihn Dang)

In a very small, quaint farming and agricultural village lives the 17 year old Nham and much of his extended family. The community is for the most part kind and closely knit. His mother for instance has never even left the boundaries of the village during her entire life!

Life is pretty hard since the working hours are long, but there are deeper, more emotional impacts afflicting these characters. Nham is a bit of a dreamer who enjoys writing, most notably poetry, but never finished school and wonders what the future has in store for him. His sister-in-law Ngu is anxious to receive of her husband (Nham’s older brother) who has gone away to earn some money. In all their married life, Ngu’s husband has only shown up a to the village a few times. She and Nham are particularly close and keep each other company at home and in the fields. Things become complicated one day when Nham’s slightly older and beautiful Quyen cousin returns to the village after many years of working and living abroad. She has returned to see her family and friends again and, for all intents and purposes, to satisfy her nostalgia for the Vietnamese countryside where she grew up. After so much time with her husband away, is it clear that Ngu has begun to take a certain liking to Nham, but the latter clearly has his eyes set on Quyen, who arrives with a different fashion sense, different values and different experiences, not to mention a great smile.

To put in bluntly, this movie is quiet. It is calm, it takes its time to soak up many things for there are many things the viewer can take away and appreciate, whether they be on a more surface level or hidden thematic cues. Nham himself is an intriguing character. As I’ve mentioned earlier, he left school at an early age in order to assist his mother with the family business of agricultural. He has spent almost his entire life in this small village and is a diligent dedicated worker, but he finds his world changed just a little bit with the arrival of Quyen. What I liked about this storyline was that the film never attempted to drive home some kind of ‘country boy must choose between the country with family or the big city with the girl’ plot. Or at least if it did I felt it was handled in rather subtle and mature fashion. There are many little, quiet moments of awakening for Nham, who I believe is at once infatuated but also just interested in Quyen. She is beautiful, but she is also so different. He opens up a little to her, but never fully. Quyen in return appreciates Nham’s company and enjoys following him around. We don’t know if she unequivocally has started to really like him, but it is clear she fancies Nham to a certain degree. It’s all underplayed. Nobody gives in to great moments of passion, thus infusing the film with some added melodrama. It’s a case in where each character knows their own place in the world and where they belong, but at the same time are enjoying these new special encounters (or rekindled encounters I guess since Nham and Quyen had, as the movie points out, known each other as children). The role of the bitter character goes to Ngu, who is fed with rumours that her absentee husband has abandoned her anyways. Add to that the Nham is a fine young man himself and we have the making of a love triangle, but one that always plays itself delicately, as if beneath the surface. The hints are all over the place that a love triangle is building up, but as I mentioned before, nothing ever explodes. I felt that was a very respectful decision by writer/director Dang towards his characters. He understands what the stakes are and, given the social context of the characters, knows what buttons to push and how.

There are a slew of other great moments involving other characters such as Nham’s uncle, his little sister who wants to partake in the school’s beauty contest and his mother. Many of these characters are easy to identify with. Every character here feels like he or she is based in reality, which I liked very much. None play major roles in the development of the plot I'd say, but they all add their own flavour to the culture, lifestyle and tone of the region where the film is set.

From a technical standpoint, both the visuals and the score are excellent. Dang captures the potential beauty of the North Vietnamese countryside aptly. Sometimes it’s muddy, other times it’s cloudy, but it always looks good in this film. Coupled with the score, which in my opinion is very soft, sweet and romantic, I imagine one could argue that Nostalgia for the Countryside, while portraying realistic characters, also offers a bit of a romantic vision of work and life in general in the agricultural fields. Maybe, maybe not. The movie, via the panoramic and naturally lighted shots as well as the beautiful score, certainly makes working in the fields look like an okay experience to me. Then again, we see characters sweat, we see them tired, we seem them work overtime in the evening, we see them having to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to make a trip to the city market so they can sell off their produce. I felt there was a fine balance between the romantic vision and the perhaps more difficult, realistic vision of life in the countryside. A little of influence from Days of Heaven maybe?...

If I were to fault the film on one account, it would be with regards to the event that propels the story into the final act. I won’t give it away (which may weaken my argument) and I’m not arguing that it is impossible either, only that, after so many natural, realistic scenes, this one felt forced. Director Dang wasn’t entirely sure of where to go with his story and therefore came up with this ‘event’ that I’m just not sure the movie needed. It’s something that can happen, I simply didn’t understand why this story, at that particular moment, required it. It’s a shame because I feel the final 20 minutes or so aren’t as good as what came before because of that.

All in all, Nostalgia for the Countryside is a very nicely put together film with engaging characters and superb visuals. If it weren’t for the final 20 minutes, I'd happily claim it to be one of the best films I've seen in recent years. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Still, I think I'll be re-watching this one very soon.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Down the Drain

Down the Drain (1993, Shinobu Yaguchi)

I take it some of you are aware of, or have even experienced situations when Murphy’s law was hanging down on you. For the unaware, Murphy’s law dictates that whatever can go wrong will indeed go wrong. In Yaguchi’s Down the Drain, whatever can go wrong for the young Junco (Saori Serikawa) does indeed go horribly, horribly wrong, and consistently so.

Underperforming at school with and seeing her hopes of entering college flounder before her very eyes, Junco’s friend lends her a bus pass for her to visit her grandmother. Once on board however, a ticket officer discovers that the pass is not hers (I’m not sure how that works in Japan, but I ran with the idea anyways) and asks her to come with him to a police station. Mistake number one. When the police are distracted, Junco makes a dash for it. Mistake number two. And so begins a long, long few days or so for our unlucky heroine. A ruptured relationship with a boyfriend, a deceased grandmother, her former clique from school turning on her, a car accident, house break-ins, rape… things go really downhill.

Before any of you begin to think that this sounds like just a silly comedy, allow me to say two things. The first is that yes, the film is silly just by the nature of its plot. However, Down the Drain succeeds in juggling the comedic and darker aspects of the storyline. There are indeed some zany moments that stretch beyond believability, but Down the Drain also makes sure to preserve a certain tone which fits the context of the character. Junco is, like many teenagers do, experiencing a difficult period of adolescence. Her grades aren’t the best, there is the pressure of a college future, boyfriend issues, and she is feeling a sense of alienation from her family. Rather than take those elements and make fun of them, a trap that other comedies would easily fall into, the film uses them to create a black comedy. Her emotional and psychological state thus becomes the inspiration for events that at times offer some hope and at other times test her resilience. I wouldn’t want to make the argument that the film makes genuine attempts at being profound and thought provoking, but I nonetheless had the impression that it was making effective use of Junco’s adolescent problems, while still keeping things rather wild at times. I fear that I’m not explaining this well at all, but hopefully anybody willing to watch the film despite my horrendous argument for its quality will understand what it is that I’m trying to get at.

For the record, there are no cute laughs to be found here. As I mentioned above, this is a black comedy. The comedic quality of the movie resides not only in the absurd nature of the events that transpire but also in the dialogue. There are some brutal lines in the film, but I found myself unleashing some belly laughs for several of them. Early in the film the viewer is privy to Junco’s boyfriend’s thoughts for a brief a moment as he mulls over her many quirks. He describes how she enters a trance like state when working on mathematical problems, how numbers in general seem to have potent effect on her, which at times causes her to drool. It is almost as if ‘numbers make her come.’ (actual quote). Now, some of you might not find that funny at all and I can understand that. However, in the context of the film, with this absurd, weird and dark tone set up already, I thought that was pretty funny.

Saori Serikawa is quite likable in the starring role. While she may not be given that much to do seeing as how a lot happens to her rather than her doing things, I thought she was quite likable. Through it all I did support her in this mess of an adventure. The most memorable character however is a sexy and witty homeless women who, in truth, isn’t really homeless at all since she sneaks into peoples homes while they are away. How Junco gets into this mess I won’t divulge so not to spoil the fun, but that entire sequence is oddly entertaining. The character returns later in what is easily the movie’s most controversial scenes. I haven’t seen the recent Seth Rogen comedy Observe and Report, but I am aware of the scene that many moviegoers are complaining about. There is, I would argue, a similar scene in Down the Drain. While the act itself is not funny (as pathetic as I can be at times, I do retain certain minimal standards), I must admit that the before and after scenes are indeed pretty funny. I’ve probably lost a significant amount of credibility with that confession alone, so I’ll make this short and escape with my skin intact.

Down the Drain is not one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, but I did find entertainment its is dark tone and strange sense of comedy. I liked the main character of Junco and understood her plight, the actress playing her was strong. Several supporting characters, most notably the homeless woman, were fun to have around. All in all, when a comedy works, I personally find it difficult to pinpoint major complaints. The film simply tapped into my own weird sense of humour.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Random thoughts: La Pointe Courte

La Pointe Courte (1954 Agnès Varda)

La Pointe Courte is was Agnès Varda's directorial debut. A slow and carefully crafted movie, it tells two seperate stories, both of which occur in the same small and impoverished fishing town somewhere in France. One plotline has the town's fishermen having to deal with not only their personal economic hardship, but with the intervention of health inspectors who claim, rightfully so even, that the fishermen are using illegal and ecologically harmful practices to perform their trade. The second story sees a couple discuss the strength and merits of their marriage, which is seemingly on the rocks. The husband is originally from the small fishing town, whereas the wife is a business type woman from Paris. Scenes from each plotline are cut and interspersed throughout the film.

First and foremost, I admire the openng few minutes of the film. There are several elements, both in terms of filming style and storytelling technique that are set up in the early goings. The relatively slow and long shot down the street at la Pointe Courte showing how desolate this town is is a strong introduction since it that kind of information to sink it. Then the viewer notices a rather well dressed man standing in the shade. His clothing tells me that he probably isn't from around here, and therefore his presence should stick out. What is he doing however? Well, he is waiting under a tree in the shade. Now that may be only because it's a warm day to be wearing that kind of clothing, but because the lighting and shadowing has the upper part of his body almost hidden from view, I had the impression that it was a strange attempt at hiding away. Silly agency man.

There were many, many other visual cues that struck my eye and displayed Varda's skill as not only a story teller, but as a visual artist also. She captures the plain and beat down physical nature of the town as well as the sometimes jovial, sometimes frustrated nature of the townsfolk. I felt director Varda often captured scenes from the right angles, which therefore meant avoiding needless cutting and editing. As I mentioned earlier, it's a slow moving story, but it's interesting to watch unfold.

It turns out he is an fishing inspector, a man sent from 'the system', a man from the outside whose presence in the town, as we soon learn, is not appreciated. I thought that was a great setup. This notion of an agency, an outside force, trying to apply rules which were probably created far away from this town who arrive against the will of these fishermen was intriguing. What made it more so was the fact that the fishermen themselves are clearly not following the rules and regulations nor are they using wise and safe practices to perform their trade. There's this dynamic at stake in the film in which a hated agency is trying to stamp its force onto these people, and yet the fishermen are not so easy to cheer for since they're constantly circumventing the law and using some kind of weird unsafe product. No one here is really a good guy essentially, but everyone has to make a living nonetheless. Life is sometimes hell and we all have to do what we do. I thought that was interesting.

Juxtaposed with that plotline is the reuniting of the married couple. Right from the first scene, I sensed that there was a certain nervousness between the two. It doesn't last that long, with the couple eventually playing a cat and mouse game of 'breakup or not', but those first few moments were great. The conversations feature dialogue that was at times odd to hear and at other times felt quite right. It was strange how the film toyed with the characters' emotions and how those emotions were relayed through the dialogue. It was pointed out earlier by someone how a fair bit of it feels unrealistic, and I would tend to agree in fact. Many of us had gone through this type of discussion/argument and I don't remember ever talking like that. The reason I thought it worked however was precisely because of the nature of this plotline in comparison to the other one. Here we have a married couple whose relationship may be on the brink of extinction. It seems terribly at odds with the harsh reality of the rest of the town. I'm not saying a marriage on the rocks is unimportant, on the contrary, but it is idiosyncratic nonetheless. There is a problem affecting almost everyone living in this desolate little town and here are these two people engaged in this 'trouble in paradise' discussion invovling some rather theatrical dialogue. They don't even seem to notice or comment on the reality of the town's situation. In fact, the husband even mentions how he is content with his life here (or work, I don't quite recall). Harsh economic reality versus this romance dilemma, both played in different styles.

The cats, those darn cats. I was really curious about them. No home, or maybe everywhere was home? The fishermen are looking for a way out of their troubles as are these little felines? Then again, I have the suspicion I'm over-thinking the presence of the cats. Maybe they simply 'are,', notthing else. Still, I find there to be several great shots of them, as though Varda made considerable effort to shoot them carefully and make almost everyshot involving a kitten look interesting.

The film, while simple to the naked eye, demonstrates a certain structural and thematic maturity from director Agnès Varda, a reality made ever more impressive when one considers that this really was her first ever feature length movie. I'll be watching more Varda thanks in part to a world cinema marathon taking place right now over on the Filmspotting message boards.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Spring and Chaos

Spring and Chaos (1996, Shôji Kawamori)

Back in the first few decades of the 20th century lived a Japanese poet and author named Kenji Miyazawa. Born in a relatively well-to-do family in which his father acted as a money lender for the poor farmers in his native region, Kenji was at an early age disgusted with the practice his father had mastered, seeing it rather as a nasty, one-sided and hopelessly selfish affair. A bright man, he graduated easily in the agricultural sciences program at university, but rather than taking over his father’s business (there was a nasty rift between the two) or becoming an assistant teacher at the university he graduated from, he chose to write stories and poems instead.

He was deeply concerned by the plight of countryside farmers and many of his writings, while perhaps seemingly childlike upon a surface reading, were layered with many thoughts and ideas about those afflicted in the lower economic strata of society. He taught agricultural sciences at high school for a short period before eventually becoming the head of a farmers association, introducing new techniques and tools to the farmers and working on some land himself. A colourful, sometimes eccentric man, an admirer of the arts and of nature, he died of pneumonia at the devastatingly young age of 37.

A touching story, no doubt, one clearly filled with potential for a dramatic feature length film that could be gunning for whatever the Japanese Oscars are. Well, director Shôji Kawamori and his team of artists created their own short length film back in 1996, Spring and Chaos, but with some twists. First and foremost, it’s an animation film mostly in 2-D but with a few sequences featuring CG technology. Secondly, instead of transplanting Kiyazawa’s life to paper in ordinary fashion, this world is populated by humanoid cats. Lastly, the film focuses very much on Miyazawa’s often deemed eccentricity. He is certainly a go getter, a man with his own views and ambitions, but is also a bit of an oddball at times and enters elaborate hallucinations influenced by his emotions, thoughts and experiences.

As was the case with so many of the films watched thus far in the Far East brackets, I was unsure of what to expect (which, in my opinion, is the reason why I give this bracket perhaps one extra push over the U.S. one). It was a peculiar viewing experience to say the least, but one that, once it was all over, I certainly appreciated. Spring and Chaos attempts to juggle the more straightforward biopic aspect associated with a story of this nature, the fantasy element that a filmmaker can create with an animation, it here being the world inhabited by humanoid cats, and an extra layer still, this one exploring the fantastic hallucinations experienced by the titular character. When you mix those three together and see what you get, the results are pretty darn good.

Granted, the film’s running length is a paltry 56 minutes, including credits, therefore limiting the amount of story director Kawamori could possibly cram in. This becomes a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, I applaud the filmmakers for avoiding just that: not cramming in too much information in such little time, which would have, in my opinion, risked making the film a tad dry. On the other hand, despite some mesmerizing scenes, by the end, I actually wanted to see a bit more. Before watching the film I took it upon myself to discover who this man was and what constituted the storyline of his life in general terms. He was an activist, let there be no mistake about it. He was also a highly intelligent man and, lest I forget, a creative one as well. I was certainly no biographer by the time I viewed the film, but I also knew that certain things were a bit rushed. By the end of the film, I felt that a newcomer to this man’s life would have gotten the gist of pretty much all the important aspects that he did and of what influenced him. However, I was nagged by the feeling that with perhaps 15 or 20 more minutes of running time, the film would have fleshed out some aspects of his life, would have given time for them to breath a little bit more. It felt a bit like classes one takes in university or in college (at least in what I studied): by the end of the hour or so, you’ll have pretty much understood the topic of the day, but to really have a feeling for it, you know you’re going to have to do all those readings once at the library if you’re going to pass that exam.

What the film does remarkably well is transform all the human people into cats. Now, for the life of me I wouldn’t be able to explain why exactly this stylistic choice was chosen (he had stories with animals, another film adaptation of a story of his featured humanoid cats,…), but it did make the world peculiar and fun. The filmmakers paid close attention in providing these characters with physical characteristics that were indeed akin to felines. When Miyazawa argues with his father over his future and that of the family business, they both start hissing at each other. When a character is taken by surprise, their tail rises quickly. When the wind blows, their whiskers move slightly. It’s all pretty cool, that is, if you care to watch a film with humanoid cats. The detail in the animation is quite impressive. The film may not last very long by the standards we are accustomed to, but there a few shots in Spring and Chaos that don’t impress. It’s drawn in what I assume to be, based on my whity perception of Asian cartoons, anime style, and it looks great. There were a few moments during which I didn’t feel the meshing of 2D and CG animation felt genuine however. It’s 1996, the technology wasn’t what it is today, and maybe the budget on the film was nothing spectacular, I honestly don’t know for sure, but when something sore stuck out, which was rare anyways, it usually had CG in it.

Many sequences provided sheer brilliant animation however. Miyazawa goes through two intense hallucinations (or dreams perhaps, it’s all in his head anyways) and both feature some really inventive creations and even some rather dark imagery, as in not ‘kid friendly’ dark imagery. Another scene involves Miyazawa telling one his stories to his ill sister and the animation jumps from one style to another, from one image to the next…it’s this fascinating mishmash of ideas. I suspect that many of the images are nods to the actual stories Miyazawa wrote in his day, but since I haven’t read any, I can’t say for sure unfortunately.

Overall, Spring and Chaos is a surprising little movie. It has a solid story, an intriguing character and features creative imagination, both for the more straightforward narrative aspects and for some of the psychedelic moments. If the story had been allotted more time to breath, this would be a home run hitter.

Disney Marathon: Dumbo

Dumbo (1941, Ben Sharpsteen et al.)

Following the box-office failures that were Pinocchio and Fantasia, it was high time Walt Disney and his gifted crew actually produce a profitable but high quality feature length film. Looking for inspiration in children’s stories yet again (as was the case with both Snow White and Pinocchio) Disney came across a relatively unknown tale about an elephant with oversized ears that could make him fly. Dumbo was written by Helen Amberson and illustrated by Harold Perl. The book only contained 8 illustrations and a handful of lines. With Disney clamouring for a quality but relatively inexpensive production, the fit seemed perfect.

A little bit like with Pinocchio, the production on Dumbo was not without its share of hiccups. The most notable of them was of course the animators strike. It lasted a good five weeks and apparently disrupted the previously harmonious atmosphere in the studio. As a little jab to those who participated in the lock-out, there is a scene in the film in which clowns working at Dumbo’s circus give praise to themselves while sharing some drinks and subsequently storm out of their tent to demand a pay raise. Water colour paint was the animators primary tool to render the backgrounds, which incidentally are not really as exquisite as those seen in some of the previous films in this marathon (hence the cost cutting.). The character of Dumbo was originally supposed to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, but shortly before the film’s release Japan and the United States entered war, and thus that idea was dropped.

Interesting notes: Dumbo is 1 of the only 2 pre-1943 Disney films to make a profit at the box-office. It cost $813,000, well below the cost of all the studio’s previous movies. Running at 64 minutes, the film is clearly one of the studio’s shortest efforts. Cliff Edwars, who famously voiced Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, returns here for a short cameo as a very awkwardly named crow, Jim Crow (he talks like a southern African American. Ouch).

The story here is really, really simple. One day, a stork, in classic fantasy fashion, delivers the newborns to all the female animals resting at the circus they work at. All except Mrs. Jumbo the elephant receive their children. Mrs. Jumbo is thankfully rewarded for her patience a few days later as the circus travels by train to their next destination. The stork finds their train and delivers a newborn elephant to mother Jumbo, whom she promptly names Jumbo Junior. She and her fellow female colleagues quickly discover that Jumbo Jr. has oversized ears. What a freak they all claim! All except, of course, for Mrs. Jumbo who, in excellent motherly fashion, gives him the love and tenderness that a baby deserves and needs. As one of the female elephants snorts, the child possesses ears that only a mother could love. Worst still, they tease the baby by calling him Dumbo instead of Jumbo. Humpf…bitches.

One day, as Dumbo is being mocked yet again by onlookers, Mrs. Jumbo rushes to her child’s defence. The animal trainers and circus owner rush to see what is going on, creating only more ruckus. It is deemed that mother Jumbo is clearly an animal too wild for the public and is imprisoned in solitary confinement. Separated from is mother and laughed at by spectators and even the freaking clowns, Dumbo is befriended by a mouse named Timothy, who makes it his own duty to help Dumbo rise to fame…

Dumbo was a strange viewing experience for me. Clocking in at a paltry 64 minutes, the filmmakers had put themselves in a strange predicament where they couldn’t stretch the scope of the story or the set pieces too much because they were not allotted the sufficient running time to do so, and yet they had to make a film that was sufficiently cinematic in terms of animation and tell a cohesive story in 1 hour. Treacherous territory I’d say, and by the end, I felt I had watched a film that would have been fine as a 1 hour television special. I think that if I had paid to see Dumbo on the big screen, especially after seeing Fantasia, I would have felt a bit ripped off. Now, I will concede that I look stupid typing such a complaint since Dumbo was one of the more financially and critically successful of the early Disney movies. An opinion is an opinion however and we all have them. I simply find the scope of this film really small, even after considering the constraints Disney put on his crew during the production. When the film ended, my initial reaction was: ‘That was it? The movie is over?’ I never had the feeling that a whole lot was happening, whether 5 minutes in, 20 minutes in or 30 minutes in. As I mentioned, as a tv special or as short at a film festival, I think the film would be fine, but as a major picture (which was how it was pitched and advertised by Walt Disney), I’m not so sure this one stacks up with the others that well.

But that can be considered a minor complaint, which is why I wanted to get it out of the way quickly. There is a fair amount of things I found rather enjoyable about this effort. For a cartoon that apparently put some limitations on the tools the animators had at their disposal (money and time), the film looks pretty decent I’d say. I have been really pleased to see how fluid much of the animation we have witnessed so far has been, and I thought that trend continued in Dumbo, budgetary restrictions or not. The three previous films viewed in this marathon displayed far greater detail and originality in design, granted, but I didn’t find Dumbo ever looked totally cheap. It looked good throughout. In fact, I thought the animators found fun and unique ways of providing a certain visual flair by depicting what could have been ordinary scenes with slight twists. The construction of the circus tent (after the train ride and once they have reached their destination) takes place at night, during a storm and has the participation of many of the circus animals. The animated lighting and shadowing looks very good in that sequence. Another moment features the circus clowns who gather in their tent for drinks after a successful show. The filmmakers have the viewer see the clowns take off their costumes and chat from outside the tent. With the light on inside, each clown becomes an easily discernable shadow moving along the tent’s walls. Those are two examples of scenes that took what could have been either boring (building a tent) or costly (tons of different clowns in a tent) scenes and make them work very well from both a visual and character development standpoint. The viewer understands how the clowns behave after the shows and what their aspirations are, and the dynamic involvement of the animals in the preparation of the circus is explored, as well as Dumbo’s clumsiness. Another sequence that I found hysterical was the clown show with a fake apartment on fire and the clowns playing the roles of goofy fire fighters. While it perhaps does not show off any stupendous animation quality and in fact looks a bit plain, I couldn’t stop laughing. The individual actions and jokes the clowns perform in that set pieces are so stupid, so moronic, yet I felt virtually every single one of them hysterical. The clowns even look dumber than regular clowns. It’s a ridiculous sequence but I felt the need to highlight it because I hadn’t laughed that hard since the beginning of the marathon. The Seven Dwafs may have been more interesting characters, I won’t deny that, but yes I found these clowns to be funnier.

Which brings me to Dumbo himself. I felt that the character of Dumbo suffered from the ‘Snow White effect’ (shotgun! copyright!whatever...), that is, a central figure whom the viewer knows little about, whether during the early stages, the middle, or even the end of the film. The most logical rebuttal against this argument would be that the elephant is a mere infant, incapable of speech at the moment and still learning his way in the world. This is a fair rebuttal, I won’t contest its validity, but that didn’t change the fact that I knew very little about this kid, which made him a difficult character to get involved in. Also as in Snow White, a sidekick, in my humble opinion, upstages the central character in the blink of an eye. Timothy the mouse has a cocky flair to him that I enjoyed witnessing. Not only did the filmmakers inject him with some attitude, but they balanced his character out with a kindness. He may have some quick one liners, but he’s a good guy basically who recognizes that Dumbo is a rejected member of his society and chooses to come to the elephant’s aid. Of course, Timothy also makes mention of earning fame and fortune, but I never had the impression that that was the main goal on Timothy’s mind. He really wanted to be friend’s with Dumbo and help him out.

The friendship between Dumbo and Timothy possesses some thematic value as well. Moments before Timothy meets Dumbo, he scares away all the female elephants who mocked the child. The running joke of course is that elephants are petrified of mice. The fear of what they don’t know. The elephants also mock Dumbo since they have chosen not to understand him, but rather judge him by his physical traits. Essentially the movie presents the viewer with a curious duo featuring a freakish looking elephant and a mouse, whom all elephants are supposed to be terrified of. In a sense, one could call Dumbo a very early anti-racism story. Whether or not Disney really had intended exactly that I don’t know, but their thematic intentions couldn’t have been far off.

The characters I enjoyed watching despite some ridiculous writing choices were the crows, which are accorded far too little screen time since they appear with perhaps only 10 minutes or so left at the end. They’re black, they talk like southern African Americans, they smoke, they’re cocky, they make fun of Dumbo and Timothy. For crying out loud, the leader of the group is called Jim Crow! For all those issues, I found them really fun. Is that the little racist in me wanting to be set free and rejoice in retarded stereotypes? Maybe, I don’t know, but holy cow those birds were fun to have around for the climax. At least they decide to help out in the end, so I imagine they were okay all along…

Speaking of climaxes, Dumbo is yet another film in this marathon that has a very rushed ending. Snow White (to a large degree) and Pinocchio (to a certain degree) suffered the same fates. Fantasia doesn’t really count since that was an entirely different beast, but I’m anticipating an ending one of these days that doesn’t feel as though it were constructed on the last day of production.

What am I missing? Oh yes, they hallucination sequence which occurs once both Dumbo and Timothy have inadvertently intoxicated themselves with alcohol. That is, as many viewers and critics have said over the years, the highlight of the film. I’d be foolish to even attempt to disagree. It is really well animated. The rainbow selection of colours set against the black backdrop, the shape shifting elephants dancing and prancing around, the quick pace of the sequence, etc. It’s undeniably a riské effort by the Disney studio. The Queen’s servant tried to kill Snow White, Pinocchio smoked a cigar and had a pint, but with Dumbo, the filmmakers really tried to push the envelope in terms of creativity and abstract animation in relation to its purpose in the narrative. Fantasia displayed the abstract for the sake of beauty and art. This is an actual psychedelic trip the main characters embark on when under the influence of intoxication. I’d wager that I would have made a fine addition to Fantasia itself. Who knows, maybe the sequence was concocted from some left over ideas on the previous production. Notwithstanding the shocking fact of Dumbo getting drunk, I sincerely believe the hallucination possesses some thematic resonance. The sequence features spooky, abnormal elephants performing strange acts accompanied by a strange song hinting at a definite fear of elephants. I think this worked very well in the context of the story. Dumbo, up until this point, has been shunned by his peers and mocked by almost all who have set their eyes upon him. He is the freak in everybody’s eyes (except his mother and Timothy), and I think the lad has gone into a certain depression. A lack of self confidence, a lack of friends, all this mental and emotional stress affecting the boy culminates in this bizarre sequence. He is a monster and that paranoia is unleashed once his faculties are no longer fully his own (aka, he’s drunk and not thinking straight). Of course, why the hell does Timothy experience the same visions then? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but I’m sticking with a half-baked theory.

Just like with the other entries, here are some small annoyances/questions I had during my viewing: 1-If Mrs. Jumbo is so insulted when her son is taunted with the name Dumbo at first, why does the name stick? Why does even Timothy call him that if they’re friends? 2-Why were the female elephants so insulted when the stork asks who was expecting baby upon delivering Jumbo, uh, I mean Dumbo? Moments later they claim this to be a grand occasion yet they didn’t want a baby? 3-Also, I never liked the story about storks delivering babies. Even as a kid I felt that was a stupid myth/fantasy. 4-I really, really like the hallucination sequence, but how exactly do Dumbo and Timothy start hallucinating? I mean, holy cow, what was that drink and where can I get some? Was there some LSD solution in that bottle or something? Absinthe? Really, it’s a fantastic sequence, but how in blazes does it take place if they only drank a bit of alcohol?

All in all, Dumbo is a fine effort in its own right. Moments of greatness with many okay-to-good moments surrounding them. When compared to the previous entries in this marathon, especially its immediate predecessor, Fantasia, I don’t think it’s that good however. It’s good, no doubt, but small fry Disney nonetheless.

Want more on Dumbo? Check out Bill's Movie Emporium review of the film.

Review: The Power of Kangwon Province

The Power of Kangwon Province (1998, Hong Song-soo)

Writer director Sang–soo Hong’s sophomore effort, The Power of Kangwon Province, offers two stories for the price of one. Both are connected in some ways however. This might not seem like the most clever device known to movie buffs like us, but as is often argued, even though all stories have been told already, the magic and merit of the film is in how the filmmaker presents it.

The story is for the most part neatly split into two halves, each one earning more or less the same running time with the link between the two being allocated the final few scenes of the movie. The first half focuses on a brief and passionate affair between Ji-sook (Yun-hong Oh), a young student currently on vacation and an older (although not terribly so), married policeman (Yoosuk Kim). Ji-sook is resting and exploring the natural sights and sounds in Kangwon, a province in the northern part of Korea. Together with two other female friends, they set about walking the trails in the forest and exploring and the hills and mountains. Upon marching back to their hotel one afternoon, they come across the policeman I mentioned earlier. Off duty, he is friendly and drives them back to the hotel. Later that night they meet again at a restaurant and share a few drinks. Ji-sook’s friends leave somewhere, leaving a very drunk Ji-sook and the horny cop alone. You can guess the rest.

The second half begins with two good friends, a professor and an aspiring professor, the latter who we learn is married, sitting at a restaurant. The aspiring professor explains to his friend that he has just cut the ties to an emotionally deep relationship he had with a much younger girl. This girl left a remarkable impression on him, and he confesses to have truly loved her at one point. His career status is on the rocks and so he decides to take a trip with his professor friend to, where else, Kangwon province. Once there, the two buddies eat, drink, try to escort a woman whom they suspect at first to be single (their assumption is eventually trumped) and hire some professional hookers to get jiggy with it for one night in their hotel room. They return home and the aspiring professor…I’ll stop here.

I can’t really give any more information than that, otherwise I would be spoiling the joy of discovering this world director Song-soo Hong has in store for the curious viewer. There are hints (one of which I have actually supplied) sprinkled throughout the film that indicate how two groups of people, as well as another separate incident, are all interconnected somehow. That is in fact part of Hong’s skill on display. His ability to show a very ordinary looking film but invest it with the funny, odd and sad coincidences that can affect anyone of us in life. We often walk right by people whom we may know, whom we perhaps knew or whom we even may not know until a later date in time. You might strike a conversation with someone you have never met in your life and may very well never see again, but those few moments spent with that individual will play a vital role for you or for someone you can help tomorrow, next week or next month. Of course, we don’t know any of that as it takes place, nor do the characters starring in this movie. Nothing overly dramatic, apocalyptic or condescending occurs in the film, this isn’t Crash, but what Hong does so well is weave these tales into the film. They don’t sound like they fit, the viewer may not see why they fit at first, but by the end, it is plainly obvious that they do fit and why.

I read somewhere, and even though it wasn’t from a film scholar or anyone of the same ilk I still found it intriguing, that what Hong does in this film is akin to what Kieslowski is known for. This perfection of weaving tales together that, while they can be looked upon as distinct if need be, they are in reality intertwined with one another, be it in the narrative or merely on an emotional level, Power of Kangwon Province juggling the two nicely with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the latter. For that reason I think that argument makes a lot of sense. Director Hong doesn’t rush anything either, much like Kieslowski. He wants the viewer to see and witness the details of their behaviour, what they think, what they do, what their reactions are to certain things. The craft is in the detail and the calm but very assured filmmaking. Shots will rarely demonstrate any kind of dynamic movement or flair. Hong obviously knows where he wants his camera to rest to capture the essence of each individual scene and lets it sit there. If I were to be bold for a moment and attempt a comparison of my own, I think the style is quite in tune with what Edward Yang does. The shot doesn’t need to move around, it can rest in one spot and capture all that is necessary to convey either the narrative or emotion or the physical beauty of a locale.

Where Hong doesn’t create like Kieslowki is in the stylistic makeup of his shots. Blue, White, Red, The Double Life of Véronique, all these films are jam packed with unbelievably rich texture in terms of colour. His films are like moving paintings. Hong on the other hand, at least in the case The Power of Kangwon Province, makes absolutely no obvious attempt at providing a scene with an artificial tint. Artificiality is not the name of the game with this film. Everything looks very naturalistic. Other than I imagine some necessary lighting and makeup choices, this looks like the real world. That makes perfect sense because I was under the impression that director Hong wanted to capture just that. Lives, stories, emotions and desires are intertwined in funny ways in the real world anyways. There was never a moment during which I felt someone was over acting, or acting just for the sake of it, to convey something that wasn’t necessary. Hong gets the most out of the people he hired for the job without ever resorting to cheap tricks. In fact you can forgive me if this comes off as silly or simply incorrect, but I’m detecting a bit of neo-neo-realism here. Or just realism, I don’t know.

Understandably, the film is a bit slow. I could think of a few scenes that could have been cut out. It’s one thing to put a realistic story on film, it’s another to indulge in showing things that may not really be all that necessary to begin with. I’m sure the film would have been fine with 10 minutes or so less. Nonetheless, I can’t complain too much since I was never dying of boredom. I liked the film quite a bit and there were moments that made me smile and think. Just that a few shots make me think ‘I get it, let’s move along now.’

Overall, The Power of Kangwon Province was quite a revelation for me given that I never had the privilege of watching a Hong film. I look forward to seeing more.