The Funeral (お葬式, Juzo Itami, 1984)

The FuneralThe Funeral is the debut film from actor and director Juzo Itami, probably best known for his crazy food odyssey Tampopo. Like all of Itami’s films, The Funeral is, essentially, a social satire and though not as raucous as the later Tampopo it does a fine job of mixing a traditional comedy of manners with a poignant examination of end of life rituals. Full of naturalistic details, The Funeral is a surprisingly warm film that’s much more about laughter than tears.

Successful actress Chizuko suddenly gets a phonecall in the middle of a shoot to say that her father has died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her mother would appreciate it if they could hold the funeral her house and if Chizuko and her actor husband Wabisuke would take charge of the funeral arrangements. Wabisuke is extremely reluctant but eventually agrees letting himself in for a whole new world of complications as the couple find themselves negotiating on the price of coffins, organising food for a wake and trying to work out what the most appropriate “donation” for a priest is. That’s not to mention trying to accommodate the wishes of all the relatives who will also be descending on them for the duration of the funeral which will last three whole days….

Funerary customs are the sort of thing you just assume everybody knows to the point that it can be a little embarrassing if you find yourself in the situation of having to ask. Luckily there are trained professionals available to help organise the main structure of events but when it comes down to the small details – what you should say, where you should stand and for how long, who’s invited and who isn’t, things can get tricky. In one hilarious moment, Chizuko and Wabisuke find themselves watching a VHS tape entitled “The ABCs of Funerals” and taking notes furiously as if learning lines for a new play.

Suddenly everything is a complicated decision and everyone seems to have their own opinion on matters. Having successfully got hold of a coffin, the couple need to decide whether to take the body home first or transport it in the coffin as advised by their very helpful funeral director. The majority of the family are in favour of the comparatively simpler option of putting the body into the coffin now and leaving it that way but an older uncle seems quite distressed by this new fangled business and laments that they don’t do it like this back home.

Said older uncle and business tycoon continues to find fault with various things including the direction of North which he insists the deceased’s head should be facing causing him to stare at the coffin and walk around the house waving his arms trying to work out, literally, which way is up. However, he’s also responsible for one of the more shocking breaks with appropriate behaviour as he starts trying to stage direct the final goodbyes so he can get a good photo, at one point asking the grieving widow to just “hold it a second” and “maybe get a little closer to his face” while he snaps away trying to capture the moment. Mind you, he’s not the only one to throw the book of etiquette out of the window as most people would probably list inviting your mistress to the funeral of your wife’s father as one of the top ten things you should never do.

However, these moments of everyday lapses in morality are just one of the film’s charmingly naturalistic elements like the priest (played by veteran actor Chishu Ryu) arriving in a very expensive car and obsessing over a series of French tiles. From a collection of shoes in different sizes scattered outside the family home to the children’s morbid curiosity in checking out the furnace at the crematorium the film is shot through with the tiny details of everyday life that are likely to find recognition everywhere. In fact the brief period of time with the whole family assembled together before the funeral really begins could easily be any other springtime celebration rather than the solemn occasion that has brought them all together this time. Even the artsy black and white video shot by a friend of Wabesuki’s to document the event shows the family laughing together and the children playing happily even as they learn the proper way to light funerary incense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of sorrows too – the film is called The Funeral after all and the final funeral oration given by the grieving widow is likely to leave many viewers complaining of something in their eye (especially given the couple’s rather strained relationship in the early part of the film). However, as usual Itami successfully manages to avoid sticky sentimentality in favour of a warm, natural and most importantly funny exploration of family dynamics and social customs. Not as madcap or laugh out loud funny as some of Itami’s later work, The Funeral is nevertheless a wry and witty comedy that knows how to play a merry tune on your heartstrings.

Shanghai 13 (上海滩十三太保, Shàng Hǎi Tān Shí Sān Tài Bǎo, 1984)

vlcsnap-2015-02-04-17h43m36s189Look at baby Andy Lau!!!

Review of Chang Cheh’s 1984 kung fu extravaganza Shanghai 13 up on UK Anime Network. Out now on UK DVD courtesy of Terracotta Distribution and their new Classic Kung Fu collection!


Shanghai 13 is the second in Terracotta Distribution’s new strand featuring Kung-fu classics. Directed by one of the masters of the genre, Chang Cheh himself who directed such well loved pictures as One Armed Swordsman and The Five Deadly Venoms, Shanghai 13 certainly falls into this category though its charms may be enhanced through the glow of nostalgia. Thin on plot but high on action, Shanghai 13 is not a film to give your brain much of a work out but it will get those fists flying!

Set during the Sino-Japanese war, a government official – mister Ko, has discovered he existence of a secret plot to collaborate with the Japanese. With the help of the famous safecracker Mr Blackhat, Ko obtains the incriminating documents and becomes a prime target for those behind the conspiracy. Mr Ko needs to get to Hong Kong where he can expose the conspiracy to sympathetic forces and enlists the aid of the famous “Shanghai 13” group of outlaws and heroes for protection. However, not all of the 13, it seems, are on his side!

Let’s be honest, not that many people really care about the plot of an action movie which is just as well because the plot of Shanghai 13 is about as thin as they come. Structurally, it’s akin to a video game where Mr Ko and his current protector must face a series of bosses with increasingly impressive fighting prowess in order to “level up” until they finally get Mr Ko to safety. The whistleblowers are the good guys and the people who are trying to stop them are the bad guys. It’s fairly black and white in that everyone on the “right” side is fighting for China and everyone else is either a traitor, Japanese sympathiser or just a soulless mercenary willing to sell out their country for a few coins. If you were looking for the kind of action movie with a nuanced plot, a bit of romance or emotional connection you’d best move along, there’s nothing to see here.

However, if killer action scenes are your bag you’ve come to the right place. Chang Cheh is not a legend for no reason even if Shanghai 13 is not his strongest effort. The film is sort of bookmarked by each of the titular 13 heroes who each have their own outlaw titles and particular fighting style. As usual, Chang has amassed some of his regulars which include some of the most famous names in kung-fu history such as Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng but he’s also made room for a few newcomers like an extremely young Andy Lau! The action scenes maybe fairly episodic but each are well designed and varied thanks to being entered around each of the fighter’s particular skills.  Again, they may not be reinventing anything, but each action sequence is impressively choreographed and exciting in its own right.

Shanghai 13 might not be the best example of its genre but it is certainly a typical one. Very much of its time, its appeal maybe be greater to those who view it through a heavy film of nostalgia but that’s not to say it isn’t often hugely entertaining to first time viewers too. The presentation is fairly pleasing and the disc includes both the original Cantonese language track plus an English dub for those who prefer it. The English subtitles are sometimes a little strange and riddled with obvious grammatical errors but not so much as to make them unintelligible though they may detract from some viewers enjoyment of the film. Shanghai 13 is undoubtedly a lesser offering from the great Chang Cheh, but fans of classic kung-fu are sure to plenty to admire nonetheless.