Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Japan: Dreams ; 1990; directed by Akira Kurosawa

In the first of this film’s eight segments, entitled “Sunshine through the Rain,” a young boy is warned not to wander into the woods to witness the wedding procession of the foxes. Of course, he fails to follow this warning, and upon his return is told that an angry fox came by to deliver the knife with which he’s now expected to kill himself. Only by seeking out the foxes in their home under a rainbow and begging for his life does he have a hope of surviving. But the foxes “don’t usually forgive.” So the boy sets out across a field of wildflowers towards the rainbow, carrying the knife…and like so many real dreams, the story ends there, without revealing the outcome.

In “The Peach Orchard,” Kurosawa himself is again represented as a child who follows a mysterious little girl with jingling bells outside of a tea house and is led to what used to be a large orchard of peach trees, which have all been cut down. The boy sees another huge gathering of elaborately costumed people who are in fact the spirits of the trees. Once they see that the boy is truly saddened by the loss of the orchard, and not simply because he likes to eat peaches, the spirits agree to show him the beauty that has been lost. After a ceremonial type of dance the entire orchard of beautiful peach blossoms returns. As the boy watches in wonder, the spirits disappear and he sees the young girl again behind some trees. Following her, he stands before a single tree and admires it. But soon, both the girl and the orchard are gone again, and he is gazing at one lone, small, blooming tree.

“The Tunnel” changes pace by being a dark dream about an adult man walking through a tunnel at night. A war veteran, he is deeply tormented and haunted by survivor’s guilt, symbolized by a snarling guard dog who comes twice to bark at him. The old captain first sees the ghost of one soldier who doesn’t yet know for certain that he died, and wishes to go back to his parents across the river, who he believes are expecting him. Next comes the entire platoon that the man commanded, still completely loyal and obedient to him. He expresses to them his disgust at the stupidity of war, and the pain he feels for having survived while they all perished, a fact for which he blames himself. Finally, he sends them back so that they can cross over to the other side and rest in peace.

In “Crows,” a young man (clearly an aspiring painter) observing a Van Gogh painting gallery steps inside the picture called “The Bridge at Arles.” He then goes on an adventure walking through various works by the artist, and landscapes so boldly colored that they look exactly like Van Gogh images made real. A French woman washing clothes near the bridge guides him toward the artist himself, whom the man finds painting in the middle of a farm field. The eccentric artist imparts some insights into his own compulsion to paint things, and then leaves the young man to wander about through his unusual world, at last seeing Van Gogh one more time at the crest of a hill. Crows then appear, and the scene transforms into the painting “Wheatfield with Crows.”

“Mt Fuji in Red” & “The Weeping Demon” both deal with nuclear devestation. In the first, nuclear power plants explode as Mt Fuji erupts, causing mass chaos and precipitating a sort of apocalypse for Japan (at least.) Most of the small country’s population throw themselves into the sea to escape slow, horrific deaths. We see five people left: a woman with her young daughter and infant, an older, knowledgeable man, and the younger one representing the director. The older man, now obviously full of regret, was involved with the power plants and identifies the poisonous colored clouds of deadly ions, and the mutations they each cause. The woman is infuriated at the foolishness of believing that this could be controlled without ever leading to such a catastrophe, and that her children will never even get to live their lives thanks to the disaster. Knowing that he situation is hopeless, the older man departs into the ocean, and the younger one pitifully removes his jacket and tries to waft away the red cloud that is enveloping them while guarding the woman, who in turns attempts to shield her kids. Of course these last futile efforts to cling to life will be in vain.

In the second follow-up dream, a lone stranger wanders through a wasteland and encounters a humanoid creature in rags that was once human but has now become an ugly single-horned demon. The demon shows the man giant mutant dandelions and other strange plants that are the only things that now grow there. It explains how all of this total destruction of nature came to pass—once again, through the stupidity, arrogance, and carelessness of mankind—and that other 2-and 3-horned demons may soon kill him. The demon doesn’t want to die, but the other ones are doomed to immortality, suffering forever in this hideous land of their own creation, paying for their sins. The human is taken to see the other demons, all writhing and screaming in unspeakable agony. But the first demon’s horn is becoming more painful as well, and it begins to chase the man, asking if he’d like to be a demon too.

The last dream, “Village of the Watermills,” takes place in an opposite kind of setting: a gorgeous place full of healthy plant life and clear streams. The younger man wandering through sees children placing flowers on a rock as a memorial for another visitor who once died there. He then speaks to an elderly man who’s assembling a new wheel for a watermill. The old man—the last representation of Kuroawa—tells him all about life in his idyllic little ‘Watermill Village’ (aka ‘The Village.’) Its people live in perfect harmony with nature and reject modern technologies and conveniences, believing that nature is still more miraculous and amazing than anything manmade. The elderly man states that humans lose sight of what is most truly important: clean air and water. In thinking that they can make life easier and better, they wind up harming the earth and thus themselves. The old man then attends the village’s funeral march for an old woman (his first love.) Because of their lifestyles, these people typically live to be at least 100, so their funerals are usually celebrations of the deceased’s life and a way of thanking them for all their hard work. Clearly inspired by this society’s wisdom, the young man leaves a flower on the rock, and crosses back over the bridge that brought him into the village.

Each segment has its own theme or moral, but they’re all somewhat related. The first dream is like an odd fable, and its lesson seems to pertain to respecting and treating nature properly--heeding good advice and keeping away from where you don’t belong. The second, also focused on a child (the ‘Kurosawa’ figure generally seems to grow up and old throughout the film), more plainly communicates about Mother Nature. Both of these raise the question of how many second chances people will get after their offenses against her.

“The Tunnel” addresses the subject of war--a most unnatural phenomenon, in the director’s view, and something weighing heavily on the collective Japanese psyche following WWII. “Crows” is a surreal journey through yet another uniquely designed dreamscape, meditating on the motivations of artists and their drive to capture pieces of the world in a certain way.

The two nuclear-themed dreams (or nightmares rather) are closely linked to each other and, of course, to the traumatizing memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, ideas are present about humans disrespecting and trying to assume control powerful forces of nature for their own ends; forgetting their true place as just another part of the earth, they believe themselves above the rest of the animals, plants, and elements. This dire mistake backfires, and they bring about their own demise though abuse. Even Japanese monster movies such as ‘Gojira’ (Godzilla) were ultimately intended as warnings about the misuse of scientific discovery and nuclear weaponry. The country's status as a world leader with regard to technology and industry might help explain the apparent fascination with science and science fiction.

Major global issues apparently concerned Kurosawa near the end of his life. In the last dream he leaves the viewers on a peaceful, hopeful note, trying to impart some significant but simple and badly needed messages, particularly to the younger generations--the future caretakers of the planet that sustains and gives life to all things.

Artistic and abstract, and steeped in the culture of Japan (which is a curious admixture of the very traditional and the very modernized), “Dreams” is utterly different from what American audiences are used to—not to mention that Martin Scorsese is likely the only cast member they’d be apt to recognize. However, once they overcome this initial ‘shock,’ they would find a series of engaging short plots that should speak to any human being, each one generally being at least as strong as the last. If I had to choose favorites, they would probably be the fourth, fifth, and eighth segments of the film, but it's a tough call. I’m always very receptive to anything with a pro-environmentalist, nature-exalting basis, and “Dreams” contains much remarkable scenery and dialogue along those lines--some of the most eloquent and compelling I’ve seen since ‘Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.’ And the two dreams regarding nuclear power pack quite an impact (at times almost nearing the terrible poignancy of the animated ‘When the Wind Blows.’) “Dreams” on the whole is about as stirringly beautiful a piece of art as Kurosawa could have hoped to leave for posterity.

I’ve been a fan of Japanese culture and entertainment, a good deal of which is pretty whimsical, dreamlike, and magical itself, for a long time (which has some roots in my Pokémon obsession, but started even earlier than that.) I like some anime, manga, and various genres of Japanese film, plus others inspired by or based on them--from the horror movies to samurai/martial arts subjects, or dramas. Japan's animation is a revered art form that is now extremely popular worldwide. One good psychological anime thriller I saw recently is “Perfect Blue” (1998; directed by Satoshi Kon.) I love all of Miyazaki’s and Studio Ghibli's films as well, most particularly the wildly imaginative “Princess Mononoke” (‘Mononoke-hime’) from ’97, "Ponyo" ('Gake no ue no Ponyo') from 2008, and "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" ('Kaze no Tani no Naushika') from 1984. Like much of his and other Japanese work, these also convey strong points about loving, protecting, and preserving our environment. They endorse respect and awe for natural forces by employing fantastical, mythic representations of them. And, of course, there's more anti-war sentiment to be found in the tragically realistic 1988 WWII drama, "Grave of the Fireflies" ('Hotaru no haka')--out of Studio Ghibli but not Miyazaki-directed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

China: Not One Less (Yi ge dou bu neng shao); 1999; directed by Yimou Zhang

Thirteen-year-old Wei Minzhi is brought in to replace Teacher Gao for a month in a very poor Chinese village’s elementary school. The girl, the only qualified person available to take on the job, is expected to control and teach the class, consisting of fewer than 30 students up through grade four. Because families often require their children to work, schools in such poverty-stricken areas tend to lose students rapidly. If Teacher Gao returns from caring for his ill mother to find the entire class intact, and “not one less,” then Minzhi will receive a bonus in addition to her regular pay. It becomes clear that the young girl will do absolutely anything to ensure this outcome. First, one female student is recruited by a much larger school as an athlete, but Minzhi is assured that because this is a good thing, it will not count against her. But soon afterward, the class troublemaker, Zhang Huike, leaves the class for the city, in a desperate effort to make some money for his family.

Wei Minzhi then sets the other students’ sights on bringing him back. They calculate the amount of money necessary to get Minzhi to the city to search for the boy, and then attempt to raise it by working all day long to move huge stacks of bricks. This mission does not go as well as they hoped, so Minzhi ends up trying to sneak aboard a bus into the city, and finally, begins a lengthy, hot trek down the road alone. At last she is given a ride. In the city, she enlists the help of another young girl who had been with Zhang Huike at the station and then could not find him. Forcing this girl to assist her, Minzhi is able to set up an announcement to be broadcast to the city, telling her student where to come find her. When this fails, Minzhi is forced to pay the girl, then is left alone to try other methods. She spends hours writing up fliers, but after being told that they are hopeless, she takes a man’s advice and seeks out the manager of the local TV station.

Repeatedly turned away and told that she will never be allowed into the station, Minzhi persists and relentlessly waits outside the gates, asking every man she sees whether he is the station manager. Meanwhile, Zhang Huike has been begging for food, finally taken in by a restaurant owner in exchange for ceasing to annoy her customers. The station manager hears about the determined young girl who’s been waiting to see him, and kindly invites her in and offers to help her by having her on a show as their guest. Here she is allowed to tell the audience about the village school and plead for Zhang Huike to return. Luckily, he watches her tearful message at the café, and does come back. The happy ending sees the TV crew driving the two children back to the school, interviewing them. The entire village now celebrates the fact that many people who witnessed Wei Minzhi’s touching story have decided to help them, and all of the students and Teacher Wei write joyful words on the blackboard using their newly donated colorful chalk.

The struggles of the impoverished are certainly this film’s most glaring, prominent, and important theme. And as many a film proves, it's through the innocent eyes of children that these subjects can perhaps be most effectively showcased. Such a large fraction of the Chinese population now lives this way that to let them go ignored while other certain specific areas of the country flourish is atrocious, and is definitely horrible in the director’s eyes. The tremendous gap existing between the few rich and the many poor people is made apparent simply by comparing the scenes of the city versus those of the countryside. It is not even the most affluent type of city, yet the differences in the residents’ clothes, dwellings, and lifestyles are startling. The poor wear the same clothes over and over, attend class in a small, dirty, ramshackle building, and must constantly struggle just for enough to subsist on. The girl who tried to help find Zhang Huike was doing difficult manual labor for what converted to a mere few dollars a week. For most of us here in America it is probably next to impossible to even imagine having to face that sort of life, but millions in China and elsewhere all over the world do so every day of their lives. Movies such as this one are a large part of what brings the sad reality to people in far more privileged places.

Also evident is the director’s undisguised criticism of the Chinese “Communist” government. People must rely on the kindness and generosity of one another, because clearly, their rulers have little concern for their well-being. The blatant hypocrisy came through early on, when Minzhi sang the song she’d learned in praise of leader Mao. Later on, after the children recited the national anthem around the flagpole, Minzhi--consciously or not--displayed some wisdom and reflected the director's own apparent thoughts by changing the plan and having the class learn a different song that dealt with nature.

Sympathizing with Wei Minzhi is all too easy. Here is a 13-year-old put in charge of a whole class, who at first seems understandably out-of-place, shy, and unsure. However, in time her true personality shows itself: She can be decisive, take-charge, and even bossy when the situation calls for it. She is simply another person desperate for money—but she also is compassionate and obviously becomes attached to these students. Her naïve innocence and thus her complete, single-minded, dogged determination during the search for Zhang Huike was very moving. Undaunted by the discouraging, negative attitudes she encountered in the city from people who are much more advantaged than she is, that girl moved logically from one plan to the next, refusing to give up on the goal she couldn’t envision failing to reach.

The simple and almost documentary-like style of filming works perfectly for this movie, given the extremely realistic subject matter and simple lives being depicted (and hopefully respected by the audience.) Nothing about the look, feel, or message is flashy and superficial. All of the actors, in this spirit of neo-realism, are non-professionals. Natural scenery, bright sunlight & outdoor lighting, and a natural soundtrack of animal sounds, cars, etc. are found throughout much of the film. Very little music is used; the score is mainly reserved for particularly poignant moments, such as the students sharing their first Coca Cola, Minzhi’s long walk toward the city, or the explanation of Teacher Gao’s lessons on the significance of conserving their chalk--and hence why all of their limited resources are so precious. Ironically, as is very often the case around the world, natural beauty surrounds groups of people living in poor conditions with barely enough to survive, help their families, and possibly educate their children. “Not One Less” is an excellent, powerful film whose very positive ending should be an example for all—only if others care and are charitable can so many lives be changed for the better.