Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Chung Ji-young, 1990)

North Korean Partisan in South Korea poster 1Under the intense censorship of South Korea’s military dictatorships, “anti-communism” had become the single most important cultural signifier to the extent that all films were in some sense “anti-communist” even if some were more obviously anti-communist than others. As power shifted away from the dictators and towards a new era of democratic freedom, a more nuanced view of the recent past became possible with the “division film” taking the place of the old-fashioned anti-communist drama. Rather than demonise the North, the division film emphasised the tragedy of partition, painting the two Koreas as equal victims of geopolitical finagling.

Arriving in 1990 shortly after Korea’s democratisation, Chung Ji-young’s Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea (南部軍 / 남부군, Nambugun) is among the first to directly address the subject of the Korean War from the perspective of the North Korean partisans, albeit obviously from those who eventually came South. Adapting the memoirs of war correspondent Lee Tae, Chung ignores ideology in order to explore the gruelling experience of guerrilla warfare largely being fought by ordinary people with strong convictions rather than by career soldiers or committed revolutionaries.

Lee Tae (Ahn Sung-ki) himself is an “intellectual” North Korean newspaper reporter working as a correspondent in Jeonju which is currently in North Korean occupied territory. When they get word that the Americans and South Korean forces are on their way, the newspaper staff evacuates and eventually ends up heading into the mountains to join the partisans. As he has previous experience, Lee Tae is given command of a platoon and the instruction to try and make up for his bourgeois intellectualism with hard work on the job. To keep them all in one place, Lee is assigned a series of other “intellectual” recruits including conflicted student Kim (Choi Min-soo) who joined the fight to figure out what this “inhuman” war was all about.

One of the reasons Kim is so conflicted is that he brought his hometown, high school-age girlfriend with him and wonders if that was a very responsible thing to do, especially when they are eventually separated by the command chain who decide to send her to headquarters while Kim stays with the troops. Though we are shown that the North Korean soldiers are just ordinary men and women who call each other comrade, the regime itself still comes in for subtle criticism for its oppressive hardline austerity. On the run and separated from his unit, a wounded Lee is accompanied by an earnest nurse, Min-ja (Choi Jin-sil), with whom he falls in love, but when the romance is discovered by a superior officer Lee is taken aside and reminded that here there can be no love, only revolution. He must give all of himself to the cause, reserving nothing for such bourgeois affections as romance. Both Lee and Kim spend the rest of the picture trying and failing to reconnect with their respective women while fantasising about a different kind of life in which they would not have been kept apart.

Yet, despite the fact that we clearly see a world of near total equality among the partisans, it is clear that Lee’s own thinking at least is not quite as progressive as one might assume. Bonding with Min-ja and dreaming of the future, he envisages a life for himself as a reporter in Seoul at which point she asks what she’s supposed to do and receives the answer “have dinner ready for me”.  Min-ja, apparently an orphan whose brother was killed fighting for the South, found herself becoming a field nurse for the North and perhaps has a lower ideological consciousness as a result, freely offering her medical knowledge to anyone who might be in need of it. “Why is it that we’re fighting?” she asks Lee, “you both need me”, embodying the wounded innocence of the one Korea unfairly torn apart by forces beyond its control.

All gusto and determination, Lee and the others start out with pluck and positivity but gradual disillusionment accompanies the shift from the warmth of spring to the dead of winter as the partisans find themselves starving to death on a frozen mountain. Win or lose, the victory belongs to the US or USSR, one particularly dejected soldier intones laying bare his loss of faith in the primacy of North Korean communism and accepting that they are all playthings in a proxy war being fought by Koreans on Korean soil. Kim fails to find “meaning” in conflict and emerges only with shame and regret while others clutch at pamphlets dropped by the Americans promising an amnesty for those who surrender willingly. Lee trudges on alone, frostbitten and starving, encountering only the dead and finally contemplating suicide only to be given one last source of hope and to have that too crushed. Chung humanises the communists, but still they have to lose in the spiritual as well as the literal sense. Ending on a howl of existential despair, the film dedicates itself to all those on both sides who fell on Jirisan or sacrificed their lives for a vision of a better world but does so with pity more than admiration for all that they suffered as victims of their times.


Nambugun: North Korean Partisan in South Korea was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Jang Sun-woo, 1990)

The Lovers of Woomook-baemi posterJang Sun-woo, a former political activist and underground filmmaker, is best remembered for formal experimentation and pointed social commentary, but his third feature The Lovers of Woomook-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Umukbaemi Eui Sarang) stands out in his filmography in its fiercely naturalistic portrayal of working class life on the margins of a society in flux. Based on a novel by Park Yeong-han, The Lovers of Woomook-baemi is a classic melodrama with infidelity at its core but it’s also a story of futility, the destructive effects of patriarchal social codes and toxic masculinity, and the frustrated promises of a new era for those excluded from its various benefits.

Jang begins his tale in the middle as Bae Il-do (Park Joong-hoon), a frustrated husband, returns home late to a troubled “wife” (Yoo Hye-ri) who promptly kicks him out again. Complaining furiously, Il-do dreams of another woman, Gong-ryae (Choi Myung-gil), with whom he had a brief affair, idly thinking that he might have been happy if he hadn’t got his current partner pregnant and got himself stuck with her for life even if they aren’t technically “married” in the legal sense.

Moving backwards, we see Il-do, having failed in Seoul, returning to his home village with his common-law wife Sae-daek and infant child after an offer of work in a small seamstressing firm. The only man among a room full of mostly elderly women, Il-do is something of a novelty but is also taken by the woman on the machine next to him, Gong-ryae, who he later learns is also unhappily married and intensely lonely in her small town existence. After some initial indecision, the pair embark on an affair (still illegal at the time of the film’s release) but their prospects for future happiness seem slim given the restrictive quality of their lives.

The world that Jang depicts, for all its naturalistic flair, is intensely misogynistic. Il-do’s early recollections of Gong-ryae revolve around her bad marriage to an impotent man (Lee Dae-Geun) who mercilessly beats her – indeed, we later see her turning up for work after suspicion has arisen about her relationship with Il-do with a black eye and bruises on her face while the other women giggle over the obvious awkward gossip. Domestic violence is, however, just a part of life in the village and the older women in particular view it as a sign of a healthy marriage. One woman even exclaims that she wishes she had a man to beat her but thinks she’s unlikely to find anyone given her age and the fact that she already has numerous children.

Il-do, by contrast, proves somewhat popular among the ladies at the shop because of his relative lack of machismo. Like Gong-ryae, Il-do is also a victim of domestic violence – his wife beats, slaps, and attacks him verbally, later even dragging home home by the testicles along a very public walk of shame. He is not above violence or aggression but as in much of Jang’s work, male violence is a sign of weakness rather than strength and each of Il-do’s violent episodes is more to do with defeat and repressed emotion than it is about strength or conquest. This also seems to be true for Gong-ryae’s husband whose violence and jealously is perhaps a reaction to his impotence, but when we later meet him we find a man much like Il-do. Chastened, Gong-ryae’s husband politely asks the man who bedded his wife if he knows where she is and if he sees her to please tell Gong-ryae that he’s sorry and wants her to come home.

As he does with Gong-ryae’s husband, Jang plays with our sympathies and allegiances, switching perspective to reveal to us that villains and victims are often one and the same. Sae-daek originally seems like our villain – a shrewish, henpecking “wife” who won’t let our hero go despite the evident toxicity of the pair’s non-marriage, but seen from her point of view we understand her plight. After running away from a violent home environment she winds up a bar hostess in the city where she builds up a spiky relationship with Il-do which goes south when he gets her pregnant. Despite this being the age of illegal adultery, it’s not so much a marriage certificate that binds a man and a woman together for good or ill but a child. As a neighbour puts it, a woman might leave her husband, but what sort of woman leaves a child? Sae-deok cannot care for her child alone and she cannot abandon it with Il-do and so she must keep him no matter how much personal suffering she must endure as the common law wife of a no good philandering ne’er do well.

Il-do likes to drift off into philosophical reveries in which he idly remarks on the futility of his existence, but in a very real sense he’s not wrong. He tried life in the city but it didn’t want him and he came home. Sae-deok, oddly enough, likes it in the village with its sense of community especially among the other put upon and oppressed women who attempt to support each other (whilst accidentally supporting the mechanisms which continue to oppress them), but there’s no pretending there’s anything more to life in Woomuk-Baemi than work and drink. Il-do knows this, as does Gong-ryae, and it’s their mutual sense of existential ennui which finally forces them together in an impossible attempt to rebel against the futility of their existence through transgressive sex and an attempt at emotional connection.

In the end, Il-do is dragged (by the short and curlies) back into the past – literally, as Sae-deok takes him back to his mother’s house to complain about the terrible way she’s been treated. Creating a scene outside, Sae-deok eventually manages to get through to her mother-in-law who had previously rejected her because of her lowly peasant background and history of sex work, enabling the two women to bond in their shared disappointment with Il-do who has now failed as a “man” on every possible level. Briefly reuniting with Gong-ryae in the greenhouse in which they used to meet, now reduced to ruins, Il-do declares that his love is like a mummy – wrapped so well it will endure for thousands of years without decay, but it’s already too late. Choices have been made, implicitly, which cannot be reversed. Jang leaves his protagonist where he started – frustrated and inert, suffering without hope in an oppressive environment which he knows, in his heart, he does not possess the courage to resist.


Available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes an audio commentary in English from film scholars Darcy Paquet and Marc Raymond, and Tony Rayns’ documentary The Jang Sun-woo Variations, as well as a 36 page bilingual booklet featuring essays by Rayns and film critic Lee Yeon-ho. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼, Lau Sze-yue, 1990)

look out officer BD 1The thing about classic Hong Kong comedies is, they were made for a very specific time and place as a quick populist diversion not intended to have much of a life beyond their original release. Despite the thrown together, sketch show-style progression from one tenuously related set piece to the next held together by quick fire comedy, they could also be surprisingly subversive as in this 1990 comedy starring a young Stephen Chow. Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼) is a silly buddy cop comedy and supernaturally tinged procedural but it also satirises the Hong Kong government’s response to the growing “boat people” crisis in which, as is declared in the film, those who’ve come from Vietnam for “economic reasons” will be regarded as illegal immigrants and deported. 

The film begins with two policeman as one berates the other for stopping to burn “ghost money” on the street, describing his need for ritual as like that of an old woman. The first policeman, Biao (Bill Tung), then gets a message on his pager to check out an abandoned warehouse. Piling into the police car, Biao and religious cop Chin (Stanley Fung) arrive but don’t find anything suspicious. Chin decides to leave while Biao wants to investigate further. Poking around, Biao finds himself directly above some kind of large scale drugs lab into which he heroically jumps and beats up most of the grunts waiting below before the head gangster turns up and throws him out of a window. Biao’s body lands directly on the top of Chin’s car who has returned after having second thoughts and wanting to make sure his partner is OK.

The “official” explanation is that Biao has killed himself because of his excessive gambling debts. Up in heaven he gets put on trial (alongside recently deceased dictators Ceausescu and Marcos) and the judges find that his death is indeed suicide despite his protestations. Eventually they agree to let him go back to Earth as a ghost to prove he was murdered and take revenge on the killer. Biao gets assigned a “saviour” whom he will know thanks to an unusual birthmark. The “saviour” turns out to be rookie cop, Sing (Stephen Chow), who is not exactly top of his graduating class but aided by Biao’s supernatural powers he just might be able to find the real killer after all.

As it turns out Chin dabbles in Taoist magic (to make his arms longer, for no particular reason) as do the gangsters who seem to have demonic forces on their side. Biao never saw the face of the man who killed him because he had him in a headlock, but he does remember his terrible body odour thanks to being shoved under his armpits. Victory in the final battle relies on conjuring a unique charm which consists of equally stinky ingredients including virgin’s urine, cat poo, and flatulence neatly bringing several of the film’s running jokes together into one satisfying punchline.

Running gags there are a plenty from the grumpy old cleaner at the police station they’ve nicknamed the 1000 year old virgin who likes to mop up the men’s toilets while they’re busy so she can assess the policemen’s “capabilities” for herself, to the cat who keeps defecting on the altar, and Sing’s general weediness. The supernatural procedural runs in tandem with the usual romantic comedy subplots including Chin’s over protective attitude to his grown up daughter who inevitably ends up in a relationship with Sing thanks to Biao’s supernatural wingman-ing. One of the “charms” Baio has been given to help him in his quest is a “lewd” spell which suddenly makes the victim randy for the first person they see. Biao uses this to get his own back on Chin for leaving him behind by making their austere superior officer suddenly come over all goey only to have her snap out of it and accuse him of sexual harassment.

The humour maybe distinctly lowbrow, but there is a degree of satire lurking in the background as Sing is sent into a “massage parlour” with a codeword in Vietnamese only to discover that all the girls in the place can understand it and immediately parrot back the recent ordinance of Vietnamese immigration. Later, a Vietnamese man threatens to commit suicide over the cruel and inhumane treatment he has received as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a life in Hong Kong, fearing he may be forcibly deported and will be killed if he has to go back to Vietnam losing everything he’s tried to build in Hong Kong.

When Biao eventually gets back to heaven they don’t want to let him in even though he’s cleared his name because heaven has a quota and he doesn’t meet the criteria. All is not lost, however, because you can buy your way in as an immigrant with ”special investor” status. In heaven, it seems, everything is fine so long as you have money. As above, so below. Another characteristically nonsensical, juvenile comedy from Shaw Brothers, Look Out, Officer! is as silly and of its time as one would expect but it is undeniably entertaining and unexpectedly moving in its final moments.


Remake of Philip Chan & Ricky Lau’s Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)

Making of “Dreams” ( 夢 黒澤明・大林宣彦映画的対話, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1990)

making-of-dreamsYou might think there could be no more diametrically opposed directors than Akira Kurosawa – best known for his naturalistic (by jidaigeki standards anyway) three hour epic Seven Samurai, and Nobuhiko Obayashi whose madcap, psychedelic, horror musical Hausu continues to over shadow a far less strange career than might be expected. However, Dreams is a major aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, eschewing his more straightforwardly conventional approach for an exercise in surrealist social commentary inspired by classic noh theatre traditions. Obayashi was also on hand in an ancillary capacity, capturing the making of a late Kurosawa classic. This is no mere “making of”, as the opening crawl makes clear, but an in depth examination of Kurosawa’s career to date conducted director to director with reverence and sensitivity for a veteran talent.

Broadly moving through the film chronologically, Obayashi includes a decent amount of typical “behind the scenes” footage from the first episode in which the young I unwisely peeps on a solemn fox wedding, right through the to classic turn from Chishu Ryu as a wise old man living a natural life in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth. The footage is captured on a selection of video cameras typical of the time with all of their low grade resolution though they often capture unexpected sides of the production process. On set, Kurosawa is a genial if sometimes exacting presence, taking the time to apologise after speaking a little too harshly to a child actor, thanking his crew for waiting around so long in the cold, and reminding them to take care travelling home on the icy roads.

Where the film differs from the general “making of” DVD extras is in the typical Obayashi touches in the presentation of his material which is assembled from over 190 hours of footage and runs half an hour longer than the film itself. Obayashi is very keen to showcase Kurosawa’s artistic storyboards, often contrasting the illustrations either with the raw live footage or completed film by means of super imposition or split screen. Later he also adds in animatic storyboard manipulation, overlapping with the completed footage similarly bleached into a manga-esque black and white outline. Obayashi then spins the other way with an even more meta approach by incorporating classic cinematic references as in the opening and closing of the iris, classic Kurosawa side and horizontal wipes, and setting Kurosawa’s meeting with a foreign director inside the frame of a film negative itself. Neatly moving from a concept drawing to placing the finished image within that same panel, Obayashi takes us from thought to realisation by means of a simple yet effective visual technique.

The second biggest draw is in the intercut footage from a long discussion between the two directors in which Obayashi interviews Kurosawa about his long career and working methods. Illuminating his ideas of Dreams in particular Kurosawa states his intentions to chart the course of a life very similar to his own, but also emphasises what he feels has become the central theme of his work – humanity and its refusal to choose the path of happiness. Obayashi also raises the sometimes controversial topic of the position of women in Kurosawa’s cinema which is often said to be overly masculine. Kurosawa semi-rejects this view of his work, but admits that early criticism left him less willing to engage with women’s stories. After casting Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth, her character was frequently criticised as being “unwomanly”, or appearing too masculine in her behaviour. A claim Kurosawa rejects, but this unwillingness to accept the existence of “strong” women from critics looking for reflections of their own world view seemingly put him off the idea of attempting to capture women’s stories, lacking the confidence to do so properly.

Moving from black and white to colour and using montages and super impositions, Obayashi re-orders and re-imagines his recollections just as van Gogh does his world through his paintings in one of the film’s most elaborate sequences. “Making of Dreams” therefore becomes a much more interesting title than it first appears, not only detailing a “making of” this particular film but all films in so far as a film is a dream. A meeting of minds in more ways than one, Obayashi’s film demonstrates his reverence and affection for the veteran director but his contribution amounts to more than a simple exchange of views and experiences in a mutually illuminating commentary on the careers of these essentially very different artists.


 

Dreams (夢, Akira Kurosawa, 1990)

dreamsDespite a long and hugely successful career which saw him feted as the man who’d put Japanese cinema on the international map, Akira Kurosawa’s fortunes took a tumble in the late ‘60s with an ill fated attempt to break into Hollywood. Tora! Tora! Tora! was to be a landmark film collaboration detailing the attack on Pearl Harbour from both the American and Japanese sides with Kurosawa directing the Japanese half, and an American director handling the English language content. However, the American director was not someone the prestigious caliber of David Lean as Kurosawa had hoped and his script was constantly picked apart and reduced.

When filming finally began, Kurosawa was fired and replaced with the younger and (then) less internationally regarded Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. The film was an unmitigated failure which proved hugely embarrassing to Kurosawa, not least because it exposed improprieties within his own company. Other than the low budget Dodesukaden, Kurosawa continued to find it difficult to secure funding for the sort of films he wanted to make and in 1971 attempted suicide, thankfully unsuccessfully, but subsequently retreated into domestic life leaving a large question mark over his future career in cinema.

American directors who’d been inspired by his golden age work including George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were keen to coax Kurosawa back into the director’s chair, helping to fund and promote his two biggest ‘80s efforts – Ran, and Kagemusha, both large scale, epic jidaigeki more along the line of Seven Samurai than the arthouse leaning smaller scale of his contemporary pictures. The success of these two films and the assistance of Steven Spielberg, allowed him to move in a radically different direction for his next film. Dreams (夢, Yume) is an aberration in Kurosawa’s back catalogue, a collection of thematically linked vignettes featuring surreal, ethereal, noh theatre inspired imagery, it was unlike anything the director had attempted before and a far cry away from the often straightforward naturalism which marked his career up to this point.

Inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams from childhood to the present day, Dreams is divided into eight different chapters beginning with a solemn wedding and ending in a joyous funeral. Each of the segments takes on a different tone and aesthetic, but lays bare many of the themes which had recurred throughout Kurosawa’s career – namely, man’s relationship with the natural world, and its constant need to tear itself apart all in the name of progress.

Casting his central protagonist simply as “I”, Kurosawa begins with an exact recreation of his childhood home and a little boy who disobeys his mother in leaving the house during a spell of sun streaked rain. Weather like this is perfect for a “kitsune” wedding, only fox spirits do not like their rituals to be witnessed by humans and punishment is extreme if caught, still, the boy has to know. His fate is echoed in the second story in which the still young I is lured to the spot where his family’s orchard once stood to be berated by the spirits of the now departed peach blossoms in the guise of the traditional dolls given to little girls at the Hina Matsuri festival. The spirits are upset with the boy, who starts crying, but not, as the spirits originally think because he’s mourning all of the peaches he’ll never eat but because he truly loved the this place and knows he’ll never see the glory of the full orchard in bloom ever again.

The spirits recognise his grief and contritely agree to put on a display of magic for him so that he may experience the beauty of peach trees in full blossom one last time. However, the illusion is soon over and the boy is left among the stumps where his beloved trees once stood. Later, the adult I finds himself in a monstrous nuclear apocalypse which has now become much harder to watch as the Ishiro Honda inspired horror of the situation has turned mount Fuji and the surrounding sky entirely red with no escape from the invisible radioactive poison. Quickly followed by I traipsing through a dark and arid land in which giant mutant dandelion provide the only sign of life aside from the remnants of post-apocalyptic humanity reduced to devouring itself in scenes worthy of Bruegel, these sequences paint the price of untapped progress as humans burn their world all the while claiming to improve it.

Humans are, in a sense, at war with nature as with themselves. The Tunnel sees an older I return from the war to encounter first an aggressive dog and then the ghosts of men he knew who didn’t make it home. Apologising that he survived and they didn’t, I contrives to send the blue faced ghosts back into the darkness of the tunnel while he himself is plagued by the barking, grenade bearing dog outside. The mountaineers of the blizzard sequence are engaged in a similar battle, albeit a more straightforwardly naturalistic one of human endurance pitted against the sheer force of the natural world. That is, until the natural becomes supernatural in the sudden appearance of the Snow Woman which the mountaineer manages to best in his resilience to the wind and cold.

The better qualities of humanity are to be found in the idyllic closing tale which takes place in a village lost to time. Here there is no electric, no violence, no crime. People live simply, and they die when they’re supposed to, leaving the world in celebration of a life well lived rather than in regret. People, says the old man, are too obsessed with convenience. All those scientists wasting their lives inventing things which only make people miserable as they tinker around trying to “improve” the unimprovable. As the young I says, he could buy himself as many peaches as he wanted, but where can you buy a full orchard in bloom?

Of course, Kurosawa doesn’t let himself off the hook either as the middle aged I finds himself sucked into a van Gogh painting, wandering through the great master’s works until meeting the man himself (played by Martin Scorsese making a rare cameo in another director’s film) who transforms his world through his unique perception but finds himself erased by it as his art consumes him to the point of madness. I wanders back through van Gogh’s landscapes, now broken down to their component parts before eventually extricating himself and arriving back in the gallery as a mere spectator. Even if the work destroyed its creator through its maddening imperfection it lives on, speaking for him and about him as well about a hundred other things for an eternity.

For all of the fear and despair, there is hope – in humanity’s capacity for endurance as in the Blizzard, in its compassion as in The Tunnel, and in its appreciation for the natural world as in The Peach Orchard alongside its need to re-envision its environment through the glorious imperfection of art. There is the hope that mankind may choose to live in The Village of the Water Mills rather than the hellish post apocalyptic world of fear and greed, however small and slim that hope maybe. Creating a living painting filled with hyperreal colour and a misty dreaminess, Kurosawa’s Dreams, like all dreams, speak not only of the past but of the future, not only of what has been but what may come. Equal parts despair and love, Kurosawa’s vision is bleak yet filled with hope and the intense belief in art as a redemptive, creative force countering humanity’s innate capacity for self destruction.


Original international trailer (irritating English language voiceover only)

Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Joji Matsuoka, 1990)

Swimming UpstreamSometimes love makes you do crazy things. Some people find themselves accomplishing previously unattainable feats powered only by the sheer force of romance. Unfortunately for the hero of Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Bataashi Kingyo), Joji’s Matsuoka’s adaptation of Minetaro Mochizuki’s manga, the task he sets for himself is a very lofty one indeed and may actually require him to abandon his love to complete it. Then again, the object of his affections shows little signs of reciprocation in any case.

Love found Kaoru (Michitaka Tsutsui) with a bucket of water. That is, he was hanging around one day when swimsuited beauty Sonoko (Saki Takaoka) soaked him by mistake but far from being annoyed, Kaoru falls in love at first sight and begins to pursue the star of the swim team even if she remains resolutely cold towards him. Kaoru immediately joins up just to be close to her even though he is actually afraid of water and does not know how to swim. Nevertheless he sets himself the task of becoming an olympic swimmer and bringing home a gold medal for his lady love. Needless to day, Sonoko is still not very interested in him.

Assisted by a strange old lady of swimming coach in sporting matters, and with an unlikely ally in Sonoko’s mother when it comes to romance, Kaoru works hard at his twin goals but makes little progress with either. His world is briefly shattered when he spots Sonoko arm in arm with the school’s star swimmer and he also faces a romantic dilemma in the form of his friend Pu whose motorbike he keeps borrowing to try and impress Sonoko despite the fact that Pu obviously has a crush on him. Nevertheless, Kaoru is undeterred until, that is, Sonoko’s actions convince him he may be doing more harm than good.

Matusoka’s film is most clearly concerned with recreating the contemporary high school summer for the presumed target audience of teenagers. Though it loosely adapts a classic sports movie romance format with Kaoru giving it his all in training, it stops short of the triumphant underdog trope as Kaoru never achieves the kind of sporting success one would expect. Though he quickly learns to swim and makes some progress, Kaoru retains a lingering fear of the water and is among the very weakest at the club. Still deluding himself with his Olympian dream, Kaoru even attempts to challenge the champion swimmer of another team (played by a very young Tadanobu Asano in his first film role) in a race for the rights to Kaoru. Needless to say, nothing goes his way.

If duelling over the “rights” to a girl seems like an old fashioned idea, Swimming Upstream is a very old fashioned film in terms of its sexual politics. The film stars popular idol Saki Takaoka as the unattainable Sonoko but is told very much from Kaoru’s point of view in which Sonoko is something to be won rather than another human being with independent will. Sonoko’s behaviour often is hard to categorise but, to borrow a term from the film’s manga roots, could easily be described as tsundere wherein she consistently rejects Kaoru’s advances before warming up to the idea just as he’s beginning to cool off. There may a fine line between persistence and and inappropriate behaviour but Kaoru’s level of devotion is the kind that straddles it. The teenage audience of 1990, however, may have seen things a little differently than that of today.

The audience of 1990 would doubtless also have been shocked by Sonoko’s rebellious lack of compliance with regular social norms. Far from the docile, cute, obedient and polite aura of the traditionally perfect girl next door in which idol movies specialise, Sonoko throws angry looks at everyone and talks back to her mother with extremely harsh words (though her mother wisely refuses to be shocked by them). In fact Sonoko is universally awful to everyone to the extent that it later seems that even one of her closest friends does not actually like her very much, but the worse she gets the more Kaoru refuses to be dissuaded.

Matsuoka mostly chooses to keep things simple with a light hearted, summery atmosphere primed to appeal to his audience of youngsters. Though intended as an innocent romance, contemporary audiences may read more darkness into the relentless war between the icy Sonoko and determined Kaoru but the adolescent intensity of young love does at least ring true. Caught between the quirkiness of its general tone and the heaviness of its themes, Swimming Upstream flounders in making its central connection work, rendering its overworked metaphor of a finale less than successful but does offer strong performances from both of its central stars.


Clip (no subtitles)