The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975)

manila-large-900About half way through Lino Brocka’s masterpiece of Philippine cinema Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag), the hero, Julio (Bembol Roco), sits watching the window where he thinks the woman he loves may be being held prisoner as a trio of guitar players strums out The Impossible Dream, unwittingly narrating his entire story. Julio is no Don Quixote but he has his own Dulcinea and, as the song says, without question or pause he is ready to march into hell for the heavenly cause of rescuing her from clutches of this cruel city. Not quite content to love pure and chaste from afar, Julio plays Orpheus descending into the underworld, plunged into a strange odyssey through a harsh and indifferent world driven by mutual exploitation and the expectation of violence.

Orphaned fisherman Julio has been in Manila for some months in search of his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), lured away from her hometown by the false promises of the elegant Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo) who claimed there were good factory jobs waiting for pretty girls in the city which also provide the opportunity to study. After she abruptly stopped writing home, Julio left to find her but months of searching have left him with few leads other than tracking Mrs. Cruz to a Chinese grocers where he sometimes thinks he sees a familiar silhouette in an upper window.

The first of Julio’s falls brings him into the world of the casual day labourer, reliant on the transience of ongoing construction and at the mercy of corrupt foremen. Having been mugged and deprived of all of his savings, Julio is completely broke and lucky to have found this job for which he will be paid 2.50 pesos per day, which is 0.5 pesos less than the wage he was getting on his last job. Later he finds out that his payslip says 4 pesos, but whether that extra 1.50 is imaginary or finding its way into the pockets of the foreman is anyone’s guess. In any case, the money is rarely paid in full but offered under the system of “taiwan” in which the company effectively refuses to pay the current wages but offers an advance on future ones for a small fee. Should an employee complain, he will simply be fired. Conditions are poor with no safety provisions and fatal accidents are not uncommon. When the project nears completion, workers will be unceremoniously laid off with no warning or additional pay, overtime is available but is paid at the basic rate.

Julio is a single man and is only ever thinking of his quest and so he is prepared to suffer. The labourers he meets are all good men and friendly, quick to help him find his feet in this often harsh terrain. Sleeping in the communal dorm, Julio makes friends with some of the other workers who each have their own dreams from studying at night school for a corporate job to becoming a famous singer but his closest ally becomes a kind man trying to support his paralysed father – shot in the back by police after refusing to leave the family’s ancestral farm illegally grabbed by a Spanish millionaire, and his younger sister all now living in a fetid slum.

Julio’s second fall occurs after he loses his job at the construction site and finds himself roaming around the city, ending up in a dodgy part of town apparently very popular for cruising. Picked up by a friendly local, Julio gets himself another place to stay but soon finds out the main idea is to recruit him as a rent boy for an exclusive gay club. Talked into it and persuaded by the possibility of earning ten times what he’d get in construction, Julio tries prostitution on for size but is not interested in sex with other men and finds it impossible to adapt to the kind of showmanship the role requires. His experiences do, at least, provide a kind of mirror for what he fears has befallen his lady love though the gay club is a much more open environment in which the staff is free to leave at any time, turn clients down, and generally take in the atmosphere whilst waiting around.

The city is a willing collaborator in Julio’s fate. Naivety has no place here where the only route out of oppression is to become an oppressor. Early on Julio mentions going to the police to get help for Ligaya but is cautioned against it. Impotent and hopeless, Julio’s rage only grows as he watches friends die in cruel, ridiculous and unnecessary ways to the point at which he almost kills a purse snatcher in a kind of vengeance against an unkind society. Brocka breaks the contemporary action with frequent flashbacks as Julio remembers happier times with Ligaya some lasting mere seconds and others minutes reflecting Julio’s growing madness and unresolved rage. To try to live here is to dream the impossible dream, but for Julio there can only be one way out and it lies in violence, loss and defeat. Laying bare the futility of life under a dictatorial regime with all of its fear and emptiness, Manila in The Claws of Light is a quietly angry film, filled with a young man’s fire as he finds the world denied him, his dreams impossible, and his hope already in ashes.


Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

The Fossil (化石, Masaki Kobayashi, 1975)

fossilThroughout Masaki Kobayashi’s relatively short career, his overriding concern was the place of the conscientious individual within a corrupt society. Perhaps most clearly seen in his magnum opus, The Human Condition, Kobayashi’s humanist ethos was one of rigid integrity in which society’s faults must be spoken and addressed in service of creating a better, fairer world. As might be expected, his often raw, angry social critiques were not always what studios were looking for, especially heading into the “difficult” 1970s which saw mainstream production houses turning on the sleaze to increase potential box office. Reluctantly, Kobayashi headed to TV on the condition he could retain some of his footage for a feature film. Adapted from the 1965 novel by Yasushi Inoue, The Fossil (化石, Kaseki) revisits many of Kobayashi’s recurrent themes only in a quieter, more contemplative way as an apparently successful man prepares to enter the final stages of his life, wondering if this is all there really is.

Itsuki (Shin Saburi), a selfmade man who hit it big in Japan’s post-war boom town by founding his own construction firm which currently employs over 1000 people, is about to catch a plane to Europe for a trip that’s pleasure disguised as business. As he leaves, his younger daughter informs him he may be about to become a grandfather for the second time after the birth of her niece, though she is worried and is not sure she wanted a child at this precise moment. Brushing aside her nervousness with an odd kind of fatherly warmth, Itsuki seems pleased and states that he hopes it’s a boy this time. Nevertheless he leaves abruptly to catch his plane. During the flight he begins to become depressed, reflecting that since his wife has died and both of his daughters have married and have (or are about to have) children of their own he is now totally alone. Never before has he faced a sensation of such complete existential loneliness, and his arrival in Paris proves far less invigorating than he had originally hoped.

Wandering around with his secretary, Funazu (Hisashi Igawa), who has accompanied him on this “business” trip, Itsuki catches sight of an elegant Japanese woman in a local park and is instantly captivated. Improbably spotting the same woman several times during his stay, Itsuki later discovers that she is the wife of a local dignitary though not universally liked in the Japanese ex-pat community. At this same work dinner where he discusses the merits of Madame Marcelin (Keiko Kishi), Itsuki experiences a severe pain in his abdomen which makes it difficult for him to stand. Feeling no better back at the hotel, Funazu arranges a doctor’s visit for him. The doctors seem to think he should head straight home which Itsuki is not prepared to do but when he masquerades as Funazu on the phone to get the full verdict, he finds out it’s most likely inoperable intestinal cancer and he may only have a year or so to live.

This unexpected – or, perhaps half sensed, news sends him into a numbing cycle of panic and confusion. At this point Itsuki begins his ongoing dialogue with the mysterious woman, arriving in the guise of Madame Marcelin only dressed in the traditional black kimono of mourning. Telling no one, Itsuki embarks on a contemplative journey in preparation for a union with his dark lady in waiting which takes him from the Romanesque churches of the picturesque French countryside back to Japan and the emptiness, or otherwise, of his settled, professionally successful life.

Like the hero of Kurosawa’s similarly themed Ikiru, Itsuki’s profound discovery is that his overwhelming need for personal validation through work has led him to neglect human relationships and may ultimately have been misplaced. On his return to Japan, Itsuki makes the extremely unusual decision to take a day off only to receive a phone call regarding an old friend and former colleague who, coincidentally, has aggressive cancer and has been asking to see him. Not wanting to mention his own illness, Itsuki parts with his friend feeling it may be for the last time but eventually returns for a deeper conversation in which he probes him for his views about his life so far and what he would do if he had, say, another year to live. His friend has come to the same conclusion, that his working life has largely been a waste of time. What he’d do differently he couldn’t rightly say, things are as they are, but if he had more time he’d want to do “good” in the world, make a positive change and live for something greater than himself.

Itsuki isn’t quite as taken with the idea of “goodness” as a life principle, though he does begin to re-examine himself and the way he has treated the people in his life from apologising to the stepmother he failed to bond with as a child to reconnecting with an old army buddy who maybe the closest thing he’s ever had to a “true friendship” – something which the mysterious woman reminded him he’d been missing for a very long time. Meeting Teppei again, Itsuki is introduced to his walls of fossilised coral and all of their millions of years of history frozen into one indivisible moment. Feeling both infinite and infinitesimal, Itsuki is reminded of his immediate post-war moment of survivor’s guilt in which he and his friend agreed that they’ve each been living on borrowed time ever since.

Given a sudden and unexpected chance of reprieve, Itsuki is even more confounded than before. Having made a friend of death, he may now have to learn to live again, even if his mysterious lady reminds him that she will always be with him, even if he can no longer see her. Though he’d wanted nothing more than to live to see the cherry blossoms in the company of the living Madame Marcelin whose vision it was that so captivated him, his old life is one he cannot return to and must be preserved in amber, frozen and perfect like Teppei’s fossilised coral.

Tonally European, perhaps taking inspiration from Death in Venice, and bringing in a Christianising moral viewpoint pitting the values of honest hard work against genuine human feeling, The Fossil is the story of a man realising he has been sentenced to death, as we all have, and makes his peace with it only to learn that perhaps his sentence will be suspended. Yet for a time death was his friend and her absence is a void which cannot be filled. This life, this new life so unexpectedly delivered, must be lived and lived to the full. Itsuki, who had prepared himself to die must now learn to live and to do so in a way which fulfils his own soul. Originally filmed as a 13 part TV series now reduced to three hours and twenty minutes, The Fossil’s only consolation to its medium is in its 4:3 frame which Kobayashi’s unobtrusive style fully embraces with its ominous distance shots, slow zooms and eerie pans backed up by Toru Takemitsu’s sombre score. Kobayashi, who’d given us a career dedicated to railing against the injustices of the system, suddenly gives us the ultimate rebellion – against death itself as a man who’d prepared himself to die must judge the way he’s lived on his own terms, and, finding himself wanting, learn to live in a way which better fits his personal integrity.


 

Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kenji Yoshida, 1975)

seagullSparkling seas sound like hopeful things, especially if you’re a majestic seagull flying far above, bathed in perpetual sunshine. But then, perhaps the water below is shining with the shards of broken hopes which float on its surface, is its beauty treacherous or in earnest? So asks the singer of the title song which recurs throughout the film as if to undercut even its brief moments of happiness. There is precious little joy to be found in the lives of the two protagonists of Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kamome yo, Kirameku Umi wo Mitaka: Meguriai), only pain and confusion as they try to rebuild their ruined lives in an uncaring city.

Katsuo is a drifting young man, one of the many to have escaped the mining industry after the pits began to close down but now finds only temporary manual work available to him. In Tokyo, he works as part of a window washing team, gazing into high rise office buildings which are a world away from his precarious hand to mouth existence. In one particular window he spots an office lady attempting to straighten her stockings in an otherwise empty room. Smitten he decides to pursue the woman though she is far from interested in a peeping tom of a window guy who’s coming on far too strong.

Kumi has her own problems. Like Katsuo she’s found herself in the city after escaping a life of poverty and the unwanted attentions of a relative in a fishing village. Her sights are set a little higher in the increasingly consumerist environment of ‘70s Tokyo, hence her high rise career and desire to find the right kind of husband. However, even here, she doesn’t seem able to get away from possessive men and is stalked by an ex-boyfriend who just won’t take no for an answer.

Eventually Kumi and Katsuo grow closer but on a visit to the beach come across an injured seagull which Kumi immediately tries to bury despite the fact it isn’t actually dead yet – better to die than live on in shame, says Kumi. Katsuo disagrees and decides to take it home and nurse it back to health though Kumi breaks up with him because of it. After a chance encounter the pair get back together but their fragile love story is under attack from every possible direction.

Katsuo and Kumi have each led difficult lives though they have very different ways of coping with trauma. Katuso has retreated into a fantasy world inspired by Gaugin’s famous painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. When he first meets Kumi, all Katsuo can talk about is Resipuruko and how wonderful everything will be when he gets there. The speech exasperates Kumi who at first feels stupid for not having heard of Resipuruko, but then cheated to discover its just a made up place of the kind that children create out of fun. Nevertheless, Resipuruko continues to become a symbol in their lives, a place of hope and peace in which they would be able to live together freely and in comfort, away from the difficulties of everyday city life.

Katsuo is cheerful and optimistic. Not exactly forward looking but proceeding in the name of hope. Kumi is driven more by fear and resentment, constantly looking behind her rather than ahead. Though Katsuo’s life has not been easy, Kumi has experienced more suffering with less agency which has left her with far less capacity for making the best of things. Like Nina in Chekov’s play, she is the seagull – something beautiful, destroyed, just because it could be. Katsuo’s efforts to heal the wounded bird run in parallel to his desire to save Kumi but then, the seagull wants to be free and Kumi is forced to feel as if she never will be.

At one point Kumi says she and Katsuo are on different sides of an invisible window and it’s true that they’re opposites in many ways – he thrives on fantasy, she is destroyed by reality, but they could be perfectly happy together if it weren’t for the vagaries of fate.  Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter, is a tale of tragedy as young lives are ruined by time and circumstance, leaving them with only broken hearts to face the unfair world before them. Resipuruko exists only in a spiritual sense, but it can be called forth if you believe in it enough. Dreams are fragile things, whether realistic or fantastical, but they, like the seagull, deserve their time to fly unfettered.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The March of Fools (바보들의 행진, Ha Kil-Jong, 1975)

March of FoolsAside from the original 1960 version of The Housemaid (and this perhaps only because of its modern “remake”), mid 20th century Korean Cinema has been severely neglected overseas. Ha Kil-jong’s The March of Fools (바보들의 행진, Babodeul-ui haengjin) is almost unknown abroad but consistently tops Korean lists of the country’s best cinema and has been both enormously influential on later filmmakers and fondly remembered by audiences.

The story centres around two philosophy students, Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who are making the most of their youthful freedom. Beginning as a camp comedy, the film follows the pair as they rub up against oppressive squares who take issue with their longish hair (as in one comical sequence where they amusingly escape from a policeman who could do with a trim himself) or berate them for smoking on campus. They’re pretty broke most of the time but they each pay a couple of bucks to go to a mixer to meet girls and they both spend the rest of the movie chasing their respective ladies. Byeong-tae ends up leaving the party to meet his date, Young-ja, outside but she makes him wait for her at a snack stand before flirting with her professor to try and get a better grade. Only partially succeeding, she then asks Byeong-tae to write the paper for her in return for a proper date. Yeong-cheol has much less luck with Young-sook who declares him “boring” and walks out, but the pair meet again a few times later.

Yes, there are drinking parties and sports – the authentic “college” experience, but these are turbulent times and though Ha Kil-jong is prevented from including as much political action as he’d have liked, the subtext of student rebellion hangs in the background. The film caused trouble with the censors at the scripting stage and even once completed was subject to a number of cuts which removed all references to student protests or so called “immoral behaviour”.

The cheerfulness of the early part of the film is there to deepen the despair present in its later moments, though this same despair and desperation were the things the censorship office sought to dampen with their frighteningly effective yet often minimal cuts and changes to the innovative editing structure. All of these young people talk about their dreams for the future and mostly these are small personal things, no one talks about changing the world or getting into politics. However, all are also facing the fact that the dreams they’re chasing are unattainable. They have no positive future or freedom to change their own path – a job, a marriage, children, death. All mapped out already, but if you fall from one of the branches, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Young-ja sort of knows this, she jokes around by saying she wouldn’t marry Byeong-tae because they’re the same age. He’ll be drafted into the army, then have to finish university, so she’ll be “an old maid” before their lives can even get started. She would be better off to find an older man who’s already been through the army, finished his education and has a steady a job. Byeong-tae is also a philosophy student which doesn’t exactly scream employment potential either. Yet, when the couple are to be separated at the end of the film in a scene which has become a landmark in Korean cinema history, she shows her true feelings for the first time as, perhaps, she is about to watch her dream pull away from her.

Yeong-cheol keeps repeating the same strange dream of going whale hunting after he becomes rich. He also always rides a bicycle but every time someone asks him about it he looks confused and says “this is my car”. Yeong-cheol is the weedier of the pair and has failed the military examination which takes place at the beginning of the film because of his poor eye sight. He couldn’t go into the military even if he wanted to and is much less equipt in terms of his personality to cope with the quite turbulent environment of 1970s student radicalism with the constant university shutdowns and pressure from above to conform to the standards of the time.

The “Fools” of the title are the young people like Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who know everything is pointless but somehow persist with their ideals and maintain the idea, at least, of a brighter future even if not actively pursuing any kind of “revolution”. Ha Kil-jong was educated in America alongside such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola and brought some of that mid 1960s radicalism back with him when he returned to Korea in 1970. Because of the effects of the censorship placed on the film which not only required dialogue to be erased or scenes to be cut entirely but even disrupted the sequence of the editing, the finished film is not necessarily the one which Ha was trying make but does place him among one of the most innovative directors working in the comparatively difficult 1970s Korean Cinema environment. Sadly, after making two sequels to this film Ha Kil-jong died of a stroke at the tragically young age of only 38 robbing us of the masterpieces which would surely have followed. At least with the stunning restoration completed by the Korean film archive which presents the film in the “most complete” form possible, his vision might be more clearly seen by viewers around the world.


The March of Fools is the second film in the Korean Film Archive’s series of blu-ray releases and like the other films in the collection includes English subtitles for the main feature as well as for the commentary track but also features an English language commentary from Korean film expert Darcy Paquet as well as some of the censored footage and comes with a 42 page booklet in both Korean and English.

Unsubtitled extract from towards the end of the film: