Sunday, May 22, 2016

Last Weekend at the Brattle: Mountains May Depart & Belladonna of Sadness

Odd coincidence - these two movies that played the Brattle as sort of a split-admission double feature are both being released on home video the same day this summer Second odd coincidence; this was the second stop in the Boston area for each, as Mountains May Depart was part of the Belmont World Film Series and Belladonna of Sadness was an opening night film for the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Seeing that makes me a little less frustrated to not get something up while they were still playing the Brattle; I've been generally dragging this year and am really hoping to make up some ground in the next few weeks.

Shan he gu ren (Mountains May Depart)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

The future is just as much a part of our lives as the past, but it often makes storytellers wary. Who wants to remembered for guessing wrong on details, let alone major happenings? Is risky, but sometimes your story has to extend that far in order to fully express what is teller is getting at, the way Mountains May Depart ("Shan he gu ren" in Mandarin) does. Its unconventional third act is not all that makes it an intriguing and noteworthy drama, though it is an essential part of the story.

The seeds, of course, are laid in the past, when 25-year-old beauty Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) has two suitors - "elite" Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), whose wealthy family owns the local gas station among other things, and Liang Jangjung (Liang Jing-dong), who like most of their town of Fenying has a job tied to the nearby coal mine. Though the coal is running out, Jinsheng buys the mine, which turns out to be a decent short-term investment as the price of coal goes up. By 2014, things aren't going so well for everyone; Tao is divorced, with her son Daole living with his father in Shanghai, while her other suitor is returning home in ill health. In 2025, "Dollar" (Dong Zijian) is living in Melbourne, 18 years old, barely able to communicate with the increasingly bitter father who has never really learned English, and the most interest he has in any of his classes involves Mia (Sylvia Chang), the fortyish but still striking teacher of his Mandarin class.

Mining towns like Fenying are dying all around the world; someone watching this in West Virginia would probably nod sadly at how familiar some of it is, even though writer/director Jia Zhangke seldom directly addresses the town as a whole rather than Tao, her friends, and her family. It's still an important reflection of what the characters do - in the past, the mine is something everybody practically takes for granted even if they know intellectually that it can't last forever, but the middle section of the movie lingers on death, whether it be the inevitable decay associated with mining coal or simple age. Jia doesn't portray Fenying as a ghost town at that point, but it's still very clear that the future is elsewhere, with Doale clearly not there for more than a visit in the middle and only the briefest of glimpses of the town.

Full review on EFC.

Kanashimi no Beradonna (Belladonna of Sadness)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2016 in the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement, DCP)

There wasn't much of a market for Japanese animation in the United States when Eiichi Yamamoto's Belladonna of Sadness was released in 1973, let alone films with the sort of limited animation and adult content that Yamamoto and producer Osamu Tezuka (often justifiably described as Japan's Walt Disney) were making in that period. As a result, it would take over forty years and a restoration for this film to get a theatrical and home video release in America, and while it's probably not worth that long a wait, it is worth discovering, especially for fans of art-house animation.

Yamamoto and co-writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda base their film on a nineteenth-century history of witchcraft by French historian Jules Michelet which contains several hypothetical short stories, which may explain why the story is so choppy - they are either trying to stretch something originally just a few pages long into ninety minutes or taking parts from several and making a single narrative out of them. So the film winds up having a reasonable enough frame, as poor farmer Jean (voice of Katsutaka Ito) and local beauty Jeanne (voice of Aiko Nagayama) marry, only for the local Lord (voice of Masaya Takahashi) find Jean's tribute offerings insufficient, leading to a prima nocte gang-rape that hangs like a cloud over the pair's intimacy, eventually leading to a deal with the Devil (voice of Tatsuya Nakadai).

In the middle of all this is a story of the young couple rising and falling separately (both become the town's tax collector at different points), the Lord committing to a costly war, and his mistress (voice of Shigako Shimegi) trying to strike at Jeanne out of jealousy. Knowing that Michelet's La Sorcière was more history than novel explains this somewhat - Jeanne's tribulations become a list of the pressures that medieval women had to deal with, which is interesting for scholarship, but not nearly as interesting an individual story as Jeanne finding herself punished and distrusted for being attractive, even by those who love her, and having to weaponize it to survive. That would not be original, perhaps, but it resonates in any place and time.

Full review on EFC.

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