Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Takashi Miike, 1995)

shinjuku-triad-societyThese days Takashi Miike is known as something of an enfant terrible whose rate of production is almost impossible to keep up with and regularly defies classification. Pressed to offer some kind of explanation to the uninitiated, most will point to the unsettling horror of Audition or the audacity of the controversial Ichi the Killer whilst looking askance at the totally unexpected craziness of Yatterman or the child friendly Ninja Kids!!!. Before he was the gleefully unpredictable festival favourite, Miike, like many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself in V-cinema, often with violent tales of modern day yakuza. Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Shinjuku Kuroshakai: China Mafia Senso) was Miike’s first venture into the mainstream theatrical world but retains his V-cinema focus with additional intent.

Set in the shady, sleazy, noir-tinted world of ‘90s Shinjuku, Shinjuku Triad Society opens with a voice-over from one of its central players telling us that this is a love story – sickening and sweet, as real love is. The action kicks off with this same character, a rent boy, Zhou, attempting to evade a police raid, slitting the throat of a regular street cop on his way out. Zhou is the lover of an unpredictable member of the Taiwanese mafia, Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), who is creating several problems in the underground crime world both within Triad circles and with the local yakuza. Half Chinese policeman, Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shina), has been landed with the case but things begin to get personal when he discovers that his younger brother, Yoshihito, has been hired as a junior lawyer working directly for Wang’s gang.

Yakuza films often have a very strong homosocial atmosphere, emphasising the fraternal bonds between men but Shinjuku Triad Society is especially notable for its inclusion of explicit male homosexuality within the gangster underworld. If yakuza films are family dramas with funerals instead of weddings, Miike uses this intense male bonding as a comment on the wider nature of the family with an added focus on the place of the foreign in Japanese society. Wang and Tatsuhito are not so far removed in their desire to rebuild their own family unit, partly as a kind of protective measure against the world around them in which their Chinese heritage becomes a perpetual barrier. Wang has done this as the head of his own clan and with his lover Zhou at his side whereas Tatsuhito is intent on restoring his birth family by “rescuing” his brother from the clutches of the “Dragon’s Claw”.

Tatsuhito’s brother is, of course, a grown man who has the right to become a member of the underworld family, rejecting the blood ties to his policeman brother and doting parents if that is what he wants no matter what his brother might feel about it. Tatsuhito is disturbed to discover that Yoshihito has become Wang’s lover, even if he claims to be using him in order to progress his career. Both brothers threaten each other at gun point with Yoshihito exclaiming “if you don’t like the way I am, just kill me” which Tatsuhito refuses to do though it remains unclear if his brother’s sexuality is objectionable to him or merely a facet of his rejection of the values Tatsuhito holds dear.

Sexuality becomes a weapon as Zhou manoeuvres and manipulates through provoking and satisfying sexual desire. These are, however, consensual relationships even if a part of a wider, transactional game whereas anal rape is actively being employed as a police interrogation tactic (with a somewhat surprising spin). Even Tatsuhito, whose partner mocks him for a supposed dedication to being a “regular” cop, unwilling to take bribes or give in to corruption, himself engages in this behaviour anally raping a female prostitute from whom he wishes to extract information. Playing into the film’s darker themes of the interplay between sex, violence, and transaction, the prostitute instantly falls in love with him. Tatsuhito is clearly no saint even at the film’s beginning, but even so he continues to fall still further, seemingly outraged on discovering the true purpose of Wang’s “philanthropy” in his Taiwanese homeland, but doing relatively little about it other than adding it to the growing list of reasons why Wang must die. Eventually crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker in the most taboo of ways, Tatsuhito finds himself rewarded even if his boss seems to be aware and in approval of what he’s done.

Tatsuhito may succeed in some of his aims, even if he has to exile himself from the family he was trying repair in the process though the closing voice over makes clear that he gains little in the long run and becomes nothing more than marginalia in the long, sad history of Shinjuku’s violent backstreets. Starting as he means to go on, Miike is entirely unafraid to step into some very uncomfortable areas, not least the way non-Japanese and those with partial Japanese heritage are regarded in the society of the time as well as the way these attitudes are filtered through recent Japanese history. Tatsuhito finds himself conflicted, choosing Japan in choosing the police but finding that it often fails to recognise him as its own son, whereas Yoshihito, in a sense, chooses China in associating himself with the Taiwanese gangsters. This central opposition of order and criminality is itself uncomfortable, but then undermined by the unorthodox nature of the local yakuza. Often strange and eerie, Shinjuku Triad Society takes place in a noirish world where there is no guiding morality – one to which Miike would often return though perhaps never with so much biting irony, where the absence of hope continues to imply its possibility.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues:

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare, Ettore Scola, 1977)

4963Ettore Scola, one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Italian cinema in the late 20th century, returned to one of the country’s darkest moments for the film which is often regarded as his masterpiece – A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare). Set on one particular day in 1938 when Mussolini rolled out the red carpet for his fascist brother in arms, Adolf Hitler, it focusses less on this “historic” meeting of “likeminded” leaders of state than it does on two small figures each lonely and excluded from the festivities for very different reasons.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence of archive footage of Mussolini welcoming Hitler and other major German politicians of the time to a series of festivities in Rome. Today, there is to be a large scale parade to demonstrate Italy’s military prowess before their new allies. Antonietta (a surprisingly dowdy Sophia Loren), wakes her entire family including her six children and boorish husband so that they may get ready to attend the parade like good little fascists. She herself will not be going (though she would like to) as housewives and mothers do not get days off and she simply has too much to do. However, her day is disrupted when her pet mynah bird (Rosamunda) escapes and lands on a balcony opposite. Now she notices the gentleman who lives across the way hasn’t gone to the parade either so she decides to ask him if she can try and coax the bird back in through his window.

The man, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), is in something of a nervous mood. When we first see him he’s addressing a large number of envelopes whilst gazing mournfully at the photographs on his desk with half an eye on the pistol to his left. Somehow everything he does carries an air of finality, as if he’s tidying himself away, putting his affairs in order once and for all. Yet, Antonietta’s unexpected call reawakens something in him and suddenly he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. He tries to convince her to stay but she’s shy and slightly confused and, after all, she has so much to do, that she declines his offer and returns home only to feel a slight degree of regret and even resentment when she assumes he’s telephoned another woman right away. However, Gabriele pays a return visit on her and the two end up spending this very “special day” together.

A Special Day is about fascism and the fascist era in some senses, but in essence it’s about Antonietta and Gabriele – two lonely, lost souls each trapped in prisons to some degree of their own making but also those created by society. Antonietta is an ordinary middle-aged housewife. As a mother of six she’s more than fulfilled her societal role though she and her husband are thinking of another child as you get a special “big family bonus” with seven. Her husband is a high ranking fascist official and Antonietta herself is a big fan of Il Duce. Gabriele, by contrast, is an anti-fascist though perhaps more of a passive one. He had been part of the party for appearance’s sake but as we discover in passing fairly early on in the film, Gabriele is gay and an intellectual neither of which is particularly compatible with the fascist state.

Gabriele, played by Marcello Mastroianni brilliantly cast against type as the suave yet melancholy man out of place, has lost his job as a radio announcer precisely for the crimes of being gay and of being under committed to fascist principles. They fired him for not being a member of the party even though he was one because they said theirs was a party of “men”. The fascist credo says those who aren’t husbands, fathers and soldiers are not “real men” and Gabriele is none of these things. He also has a medical certificate which certifies him as not being a homosexual which is fairly counterproductive because, after all, who carries something like that around if they don’t have anything to prove in the first place.

Gabriele hates the fascist state most because it makes you deny what you are, to try to appear different to your authentic self so as to conform better to someone else’s ideals. Just as Gabriele’s identity has been erased by the desires of society at the time, so too has Antonietta’s though she is less well equipt to see it. She even has a scrapbook of fascist photos with slogans which proclaim that genius is something which only belongs to men and that a woman’s role is in the home, supporting her husband and raising his children. Effectively brainwashed, it had not previously occurred to Antonietta to question these ideas before but meeting Gabriele has planted the seed of doubt in her mind. She too has been forced to suppress her true nature and only now does she start to possess the courage to reassert herself.

Loren turns in virtuoso performance as an ordinary, aging housewife ashamed of the hole in her slippers and the ladder in her tights. Full of minor touches of brilliance such as her brief look into the mirror as if suddenly realising how old she’s become and starting to feel shy in front of this man she feels an obvious attraction to or her extended dreamy look towards the end of the film when suddenly surrounded by her family and finding herself mildly horrified by their fascist ideas, her performance in A Special Day must rank among her finest even in a career which is often marked by brilliance. Mastroianni, also cast against type, gives an equally accomplished performance as the quietly defiant Gabriele who knows what kind of fate awaits him and has already made his peace with the unfairness of his situation.

The film is cast in a heavy brown colour palate, almost sepia in tone, which gives it the feeling both of looking directly into history as if in a moving photograph and of emphasising the oppressive and rigidly restrictive society of the time. This is not a time for dreamers and outcasts, those who don’t readily conform to the fascist ideals will be ruthlessly discarded. However, through encountering each other and finding another weary, frustrated soul, something is reawakened in both of these isolated individuals. Here, there is hope for the first time. That if even two people can wake each other up enough to pierce this strange mass delusion then perhaps there might be a way out after all.


I actually had this queued up to post a little later but having just watched the film today I was slightly shocked to hear that director Ettore Scola has died at the age of 84 so I’ve moved it up a little to mark his passing. A Special Day is such a beautiful film that I could have written far more about it but it was running so long already.

A Special Day is available with English subtitles on Region A blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Unsubtitled scene from near the beginning of the film:

 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Merry-Christmas-Mr-Lawrence-images-832f3814-1564-403a-a98a-313c5bb99deOf all the post-war Japanese filmmakers, the one who liked to twist the knife the most was surely Oshima. No subject too taboo, no pain too raw – he liked to find the sore spot and poke at it a little, if only in the hope of encouraging an accelerated healing, albeit one which would leave a scar to remind you that once you suffered. With Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Senjou no Merry Christmas) he takes an unflinching look at the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war and contrasts the Japanese forces with the different attitudes of the (mostly) British soldiers held within the walls of the camp.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, much of the action takes place in a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in Java in 1942. The titular Lawrence (Tom Conti) is one of the British prisoners here but unusually speaks fluent Japanese as he lived in Japan for a time before the war. The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also composes the music for the film) but largely ministered over by the more sadistic Sergeant Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano in an early straight acting role and billed here solely as “Takeshi”). Things kick off once Yonoi is called away to help preside over a military trial for a “difficult” prisoner who refuses to talk. However, Yonoi is somewhat taken aback by the upright soldier he discovers there. Celliers (played by David Bowie) is sentenced to death only to have the firing squad deliberately miss before he’s transferred to Yonoi’s camp.

As expected the conditions at the camp are not particularly pleasant. The first scene we’re treated to is Lawrence being called to witness an altercation where a Korean/Japanese soldier is accused of raping a Dutch internee. Hara taunts both of them with homosexual slurs and berates the Dutchman for not having resisted strongly enough. Kanemoto, the accused man, has obviously been badly beaten and is eventually ordered to commit seppuku which he eventually tries to do at that very moment by impaling himself on a bayonet. Seppuku is not something to be taken so lightly though so he’ll be patched up now for a ritual suicide later to be witnessed by the wronged parties (whether they wish to watch or not). Homosexuality, or more precisely, homosexual acts, are not to be tolerated among prisoners even if Hara later protests that samurai are not afraid of “queers” whilst insinuating that the majority of Englishman are gay anyway.

Latent homosexuality continues to be an ongoing theme throughout the film. The attraction between Yonoi and Celliers passes beyond simple admiration or even fascination. There don’t seem to be any other particular reasons for Yonoi to continue trying to protect Celliers as he does when he saves him from the firing squad and later allowing him a greater degree of freedom than other prisoners. Both men feel themselves prisoners of their respective social systems – Yonoi as the cold hearted samurai, efficient and unfeeling, yet with an intellectual core and a conflicted heart, and Celliers as a man desperately trying to atone for having once betrayed someone he deeply cared for in a misguided attempt to fit in. That said, both men are on opposite sides of a war and in any case that kind attraction stands against both of their countries’ current social customs. Again, a man is betrayed by a kiss and another man pays an extraordinarily high price leaving the other powerless to save him.

As Lawrence says there are no winners here, wars are just men doing what they thought was right at the time even if they really know that every one of them is wrong. The Japanese are rigid, repressed and anxious whereas the British are obsessed with honour in other ways and lean more towards the side of pragmatism when the going gets tough. A Japanese soldier may prefer to die, even going so far as to commit suicide, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of having been captured alive. A British soldier will accept becoming a prisoner but largely because he believes he has a duty to live on and serve to the best of his capacity. Once captured, his duty is to try and escape to return to fight and die for King and country until the bitter end.

What both sides have in common is the dehumanisation of its troops. When it comes down to it one man is as good as another. If a radio has been smuggled into the camp someone must be punished for that action, the exact identity of the perpetrator becomes almost an irrelevance. Likewise, if a war has been lost, someone must pay for wrongful acts committed by the losing side even if his actions are no worse than those of any other soldier.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence proves a beautifully sad condemnation both of the rigidity of war, of men who think they’re acting in righteousness when the very idea is the one which causes them to act unjustly, and of repressive social systems in general. Lawrence acts as the voice of reason whilst all the while admitting that he himself is also “wrong” and forced into certain actions and modes of behaviour with which he does not necessarily agree. Both of these empires are on the verge of crumbling, all this death and cruelty will prove to have been for nothing. War is a fruitless tragedy in which there are no winners, only losers on every side. “There are times when victory is very hard to take”, victors too need to abide by their own sense of decency without being swayed by vengeance masquerading as righteousness.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is available with English subtitles on blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection in the US (and was previously released on blu-ray in the UK from Optimum/Studiocanal but appears to be currently out of print).

(That final voice over is needlessy creepy, isn’t it?)