David Walsh reviews the 23rd Toronto International Film Festival: Part 2

2 October 1998

[Films reviewed below: Dr. Akagi ; Dance of Dust ; Flowers of Shanghai]

I thought Dr. Akagi directed by veteran Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura a remarkable film.

There are many glories in contemporary filmmaking, but they are often relatively ascetic ones, as if the current debased state of Hollywood, of commercial cinema in general, could be attributed purely to past excesses: too much voluptuousness, too much artificiality. I understand this thinking, but I don't accept it. The essential work of the film artist, to confront the human condition, including his or her own nature, at the deepest possible level and to represent it in a fashion that speaks to, moves and disturbs the viewer still takes place primarily, it seems to me, in the most complex fiction. There are occasions when simplicity represents the least line of resistance, or, at any rate, a definite limitation. Even masterpieces of a certain sparse and economical variety can make one yearn for something as contrived, but dense and detailed, as The Glenn Miller Story. We are, after all, living in a complicated world at the end of the twentieth century, and lack of embellishment may not be the final word in stylistic development, even if it often makes a pleasing contrast to the prevailing, well-budgeted bombast.

A complex fiction will almost inevitably contain the element of protest against the existing state of affairs. How can it not, if it probes deeply enough into contemporary existence? That element--a steady gaze and the dissatisfaction it must result in--is indispensable to any truly interesting work. I can't imagine trusting a film, or responding strongly to it, unless it presents a definite social world that is shown to influence the lives of its characters. Because that's the way the world is. Anything else would be a lie. But the working out of the relations between people, the portrayal of their inner lives require an absolute commitment to free and spontaneous inquiry.

I was impressed with Imamura's film because it seemed to embody those two principles most strongly and poetically: a fierce hatred of what exists and a genuinely radical willingness to confront and even embrace human behavior in all its dimensions.

The film tells the story of Dr. Akagi, a dedicated physician in a small seaside town in Japan during the final stages of World War Two. Imamura has explained that he made the film in homage to his father, a doctor who was apparently devoted to his patients and uninterested in money. The 72-year-old director remembers his father quoting the proverb, "Medicine is a benevolent art" and adding that this is "a somewhat rarely used description nowadays."

The film is adapted from a novel by the late Ango Sakaguchi, about a doctor who researched the cause of and cure for hepatitis. For Dr. Akagi, "being a family doctor is all legs. If one leg is broken he will run on the other. If both legs are broken, he will run on his hands."

Indeed Akagi, beautifully played by Akira Emoto, is often running in Imamura's film, from one patient to the next. He is deeply disturbed by the growth of hepatitis in the undernourished population. In his struggle against the disease, Akagi forms a team of disparate individuals: a dissolute monk, a morphine-addicted surgeon, a young nurse and part-time prostitute, and, eventually, an escaped Dutch prisoner of war who the doctor shelters. Their immediate goal is to create a microscope powerful enough to isolate the hepatitis virus.

The film seethes with hostility toward nationalism and militarism. While Akagi is a Japanese patriot, who believes that the war is being fought to liberate Asia from Western colonialism, his drug addicted friend, Toriumi, is entirely cynical. "To hell with Japan's future," he declares. Whatever Akagi's political or social outlook, his elementary devotion to humanity brings him into direct conflict with the military, portrayed as unrelentingly brutal, arrogant and stupid.

This is a rare work that celebrates both science and sensuality, rationality and its opposite. Akagi is tireless in his medical and scientific efforts, never taking a single moment for himself. His only son's death in the war comes as a crushing blow, but he perseveres. In fact, a final letter from his son, an army doctor, that arrives at the same time as the news of the latter's death, provides an important clue to Akagi's work on hepatitis. When it seems to him, however, that his research into the disease is causing him to neglect his patients, he throws his microscope away. "I'm a family doctor," he says.

Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), the doctor's young assistant, is a remarkable character. The daughter of a geisha and a fisherman, she's uneducated, but extraordinarily energetic and alert. Occasionally, she works as a prostitute to support her brother and sister. At one point, after she's gone to work for Dr. Akagi, who presumably can't pay her very much, Sonoko's siblings write her a note: "Dear Sis, we're starving. Please go back to whoring." But her true vocation is to work with the indefatigable Akagi. In one wonderful scene she throws herself on the protesting doctor, crying, "I love you! Some day I'll kill a whale for you!" At another point a local woman begs Sonoko to have sex with her son, who is about to into the army, because "virgins attract bullets." She accedes to the woman's request and afterward refuses to take any money from her, saying, "He f---s like a god. I'm limp."

Imamura is an interesting figure. He began as an assistant to the famed director Yasujiro Ozu, but his films, unlike those of many other well-known Japanese filmmakers, have concentrated on the lives of those at the margins of Japanese society--peasants, prostitutes, criminals, often with a strong erotic element. The Insect Woman (1963) recounts the fate of an impoverished peasant girl who rises and then falls within Tokyo's postwar prostitution racket. The central figure in The Pornographers (1966) is a likable, but seedy character who has incestuous designs on his stepdaughter. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a study of a psychopathic killer. Imamura dramatized the fate of victims of the Hiroshima bombing in Black Rain (1989).

A French film critic has noted: "Imamura believes above all in the powers that come from below, those from the people but also from the body, from sex, just as he also believes in the energy of desire, in spending oneself, in the trivial, in the absence of real answers."

The director has expressed the desire to make "messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films." One might add "compassionate." The most unsettling quality of Dr. Akagi is Imamura's willingness to condemn an authoritarian society while refusing to render judgment on the extreme, often self-destructive behavior of that society's victims.

Dance of Dust from Iran

Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili's Dance of Dust is a different kind of film. It is only 73 minutes long and has so little dialogue that subtitles are not provided. The film is composed of short, documentary-like sequences. It takes place in a village in a barren, windswept region of Iran where life is very harsh. The villagers make bricks by hand. Once they fire the bricks, they sell them and begin again. Some time passes before one realizes that a drama is taking place--aside, that is, from the drama of everyday life.

A boy and a girl are in love, but the girl's parents don't want her to marry him, presumably because he's poor and perhaps an orphan. When the girl makes, as a gift, a brick with her handprint on it, the mother drops it down a well. In anger, the boy does a kind of rain dance on piles of bricks which haven't been fired yet. A cloudburst destroys the villagers' work. The girl, who is presumably going to be married off to someone wealthier, goes away by train. The boy climbs the hills and calls her name.

I wouldn't make extravagant claims for the film, in line with my comments above, but the pictures of life and unending labor and the evocation of desire seem real and honest, and are sometimes beautiful. The boy's face, lined like a 40 year old's, is unforgettable.

Flowers of Shanghai by Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of Taiwan's leading filmmakers, and one of the world's. A number of critics and others have suggested that his new film, Flowers of Shanghai, is not up to his previous work. They may be right, but I'm not entirely convinced.

I admit it made me slightly nervous when I heard that Hou was making his first historical film. A general artistic problem is involved. An artist's first body of work is inevitably bound up with youthful anger, desire, dissatisfaction, fear. One pours out one's heart and soul with little regard for formal elegance. On the contrary, roughness, spontaneity, fragmentation are positive virtues at this stage. They often produce fresh and innovative work. But these moods and forms exhaust themselves. What then?

The desire to penetrate reality more deeply and the mastery of technique function more or less independently of one another. Often at the moment the artist achieves a certain level of technical mastery he or she is adopted by bourgeois public opinion and "canonized ... in their school textbooks," as Trotsky put it. Although it doesn't appear this way to the artist, of course, classicism (perhaps academicism) is often the aesthetic expression of the artist making peace with the world that has now begun to recognize and reward him or her.

A turn to historical works can manifest the same process, or, in our day, simply express the difficulties the artist faces in making sense of a very confusing present. On the other hand, it might reflect the genuine desire to understand the roots of the circumstances one currently confronts.

I don't know what conscious or unconscious mental processes went into Hou's decision to make Flowers of Shanghai, but my reading of the film suggests that it is a serious effort to come to terms with the present.

The film is based on a famous Chinese novel. It concerns the activities of a number of prostitutes and their clients in certain elegant Shanghai brothels in the late nineteenth century. At the center of the film lie the relations between Crimson, one of the courtesans, and her long-time client, Wang. He has recently lost interest in her and taken up with Jasmine. She fears abandonment, he is cold, she plays tricks, he turns angry ...

Other dramas are taking place. One courtesan, Emerald, buys her freedom from a brothel keeper. The contract governing the purchase, carefully and artistically drawn up, is witnessed by gangsters. A wealthy young man falls in love with a young girl, Jade, and proposes marriage. Such a union is out of the question. In the end he gives her 10,000 gen, five thousand for her freedom, 5,000 toward her marriage--to another man.

Hou's film is exquisite. It is impossible to do justice to it in words. His recreation of the conversations, drinking parties, conspiracies, and of the claustrophobic atmosphere in the brothels (the camera never leaves them) has something of genius in it. (One of the more disgraceful facts about the film industry in our day is that not a single film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, considered one of the leading filmmakers in the world for more than a decade, has been distributed commercially in North America. Has there ever been a comparable exclusion?)

The world represented in Flowers of Shanghai is horrifying: Byzantine, corrupt, lying. The women are bought and sold. Oppressed, they respond with emotional terrorism. They're monsters, by and large, themselves. None of them questions the existing set-up. And nothing here is called by its rightful name. Clients are "callers," appointments for sex "bookings." Money never changes hands in public. The women have beautiful names, but one wrong move will end them up on the street, without a penny. The rooms are magnificently furnished; everyone is polite and respectful. Out of sight there are beatings, deaths from starvation and disease. I don't know Hou's motive for making this film, but I would assume it has something to with the situation in present-day China. At any rate, it should.

 

See Also:
On what should the new cinema be based?
[17 June 1996]