Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award
March 10, 2021 § Leave a comment
This review contains plot spoilers
At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears. Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.
In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara’s struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .
Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.
The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary–she elects adoption via Baby Baton.
Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)
Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose “Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.
New Year, New Forum
January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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Give the Gift of Documentaries: Under The Hollywood Sign’s December Two-For-One Sale
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s
September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve been going to screenings with Q & A’s afterwards. Though the films varied in quality and genre, there was a stultifying sameness to their aftermath: an interviewer and the director, sometimes joined by the lead actors, talking onstage in canvas folding chairs. The questions were rote, the answers rarely memorable, and the audience questions frequently inane.
Since the pandemic closed theaters, post-screening Q & As have changed, for better and worse. No longer inhibited by live audiences and stage lighting, interviewees seem at more at ease, and thus more likely to provide interesting answers to their interviewers’ questions. For the audience, seeing directors in their home offices, shelves of books and memorabilia in the background, is a far more intimate experience than seeing them onstage.
Still, Zoom Q & A’s are a mixed bag, as two recent programs at the American Cinematheque illustrate. An interview with Charlie Kaufman on his new feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, might have been illuminating if not for the interviewer, writer/director Tony Gilroy, who made it mostly about himself. After several minutes of Gilroy saying how excited he was to be interviewing Kaufman and how amazing it was that they hadn’t met earlier, given their mutual friends and professional connections, and then interrupting Kaufman when he tried to talk, I gave up. While bad interviewers weren’t unheard of at the Egyptian, I usually stayed for the Q & A’s, not only because they were live but because there were enough distractions—my companions, the rest of the audience, the huge gilded scarab on the ceiling—to engage me.
I fared better with Werner Herzog’s Q & A about his new documentary, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”. Herzog, who has been preaching the gospel of low-budget indie filmmaking for decades (his Rogue Film School, which meets periodically in Los Angeles and other cities, has become an institution), has often talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker. But this time, surrounded by books and binders in his office, his story seemed more vivid than in previous iterations, and more moving. About the arduous job he took during high school, Herzog said:
I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory, and I financed my own films….At that time it was expensive because you had to buy 35 millimeter raw stock celluloid and…develop it in a laboratory and cameras were big and clumsy and expensive….Today even with your cell phone, you can shoot a feature film that you can show in theaters….Never complain. Roll up your sleeves and you can make a one-and-a-half-hour documentary for under $5,000. And you can make a narrative feature film with actors for under $30,000. Just go out and earn it and start shooting.
“Parasite” and the American Aversion To Subtitles: An Evolving Story
February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments
Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.
Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.
Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.
After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”
Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.
“Pain and Glory”: Antonio Banderas In The Role Of A Lifetime
January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.
The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.
Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:
1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”: Sadec, a terrorist
1986 “Matador”: Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders
1987 “Law of Desire”: Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director
1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”: Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover
1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”: Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum
2011 “The Skin I Live In”: Psychopathic plastic surgeon
2013 “I’m So Excited”: Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz
As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.
After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.
“Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” and “Little Women”: Two Period Movies with Striking Parallels
January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.
What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.
Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.
A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”
Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.
“Joker”: A Good Movie Indebted to Far Better Ones
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and the Many-Worlds Theory
August 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
For someone with zero background in physics, I’ve developed quite an interest in quantum mechanics via the Many-Worlds Theory. Given its frequent appearance in literature and film, how could I not?
The Many-Worlds Theory was invented by the Princeton physicist Hugh Everett III, who published his dissertation in 1957. Like the Bohr model and Schrödinger Equation that preceded it, MWT explains the wave-like properties of protons and electrons, but it diverges in important ways: where Bohr and Schrödinger envisioned duality, Everett saw an infinite branching of outcomes. In Everett’s view, each event creates a split, and therefore a parallel universe, each with its own reality. His hypothesis is supported by physics: just as atoms can be in two places at once, so could everything made up of atoms, including us.
Though Everett’s theory was met with derision by Bohr and others for most of his lifetime (he died in 1982, at 51, having left academia to work in the defense and financial industries), it has gradually gained acceptance among theoretical physicists. Today the Many-Worlds Theory is taught and written about in universities, but its greater significance might be in popular culture. Decades after its controversial beginnings, Everett’s work has become a major theme of novels and films.
I first saw it illustrated in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film, “The Double Life of Veronique.” Two identical women, one French and one Polish, both musicians, sense each other’s existence throughout their lives. Though their paths almost cross in Krakow on a single occasion, when Veronique inadvertently captures Veronika in a photo, they never meet. Nonetheless, as Veronique says, “All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.”
Anyone who has wondered how life might have turned out on the road not taken has felt the possibily of parallel worlds. In Bruce Wagner’s 1996 novel, I’m Losing You, the agent Donny Ribkin runs into his ex-girlfriend and experiences a Many-Worlds reverie:
It was two years since the breakup, but their life together–for him–continued on a parallel, spectral track. He watched….as shadow-Donny and shadow-Katherine went about their daily couple-life: saw them vacation and marry, go to movies, buy a house….Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.
In the 1998 film, “Sliding Doors,” the world is split by the closing of a train door in the London Underground. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s character misses the train home, her life hurtles away from the one she would have lived if she had caught the train. Though two stories proceed with some similarities, they never converge.
Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I’ve so far seen three times. Its daring counterfactual ending is so fitting and just that it renders the real events of August 8-9, 1969 fantastical, an unreal nightmare. Whether or not he intended to illustrate Everettian physics, Tarantino has perfectly explained the Many-Worlds Theory: a single event sets into motion a series of others, moving reality onto a different track.
It was in the early 2000’s, considerably after I’d seen its depiction in art, that I learned of the existence of the Many-Worlds Theory. My gateway into quantum mechanics wasn’t film but music: specifically, that of the band Eels, whose frontman (and only full-time member) is Mark Oliver Everett, Hugh Everett’s son. The 2007 documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” follows Mark as he talks about his father’s life and work with physicists, both his father’s former colleagues and current faculty members at Princeton, one of whom is visibly moved to meet his mentor’s son.
The Many-Worlds Theory asserts that time is not an arrow but a fork, branching endlessly. . Because of art, it now enjoys widespread acceptance even among people like me, for whom math and physics were baffling, off-putting subjects. I hope that in some parallel universe, Hugh Everett is pleased.
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