The Eel

It's interesting to have Imamura's clinical documentarian eye turn to melodrama. What you get is still pretty raw – there's drunken scuffles, mental illness, sexual harassment, an attempted rape, an attempted suicide and a pretty toxic financial entanglements. All of those things make sense from the director of The Insect Woman. But while that film was based on a real story the director gleaned from a woman he met and interviewed, The Eel is based on a novel. It therefore has structure, and its metaphors and symbols are denser, if not particularly subtle.

The film is bookended by two violent scenes. The first is bloody and ethereal, almost out of an Argento serial killer film, with blood spraying the camera. The main character Yamashita discovers his wife in bed with another man, and butchers her with a knife. He gives himself over to the police and serves an eight-year prison sentence before being released on parole with a pet eel as a companion. Yamashita prefers the company of the silent and obedient eel to that of people, who have the annoying habit of not doing what he wants. Perhaps prison sent him loopy. Or perhaps the pathology was always there, and his wife was murdered because of it. The film is about Yamashita learning to embrace other people and their messy lives. He lets go of the eel and his own solipsism when he becomes a member of a community.

The film begins with shots of office blocks and Yamashita at work. This is a different kind of prison, and Imamura suggests that a move away from the big city is the first step towards rehabilitation. The film is laden with further symbols and contrasts. After his horrific knife-work, Yamashita trains as a barber, almost as a way to learn to keep his blades under control. This is a not-too-subtle nod to the sexual repression Yamashita imposes on himself, as well as his sense of sexual inadequacy. He refuses to use a spear to catch eels with his fisherman friend, preferring to lure them into a long tube – a feminine rather than masculine way of killing things.

It's good that the romantic interest Keiko has also had enough of sexually rapacious exploitative men, finding the sullen but protective Yamashita the one safe harbour in stormy weather. She also lures him in with bento boxes while he's out fishing, underlining Yamashita's identification with the solitary eel that refuses to bite. The final moment of violence in the film is a chaotic brawl in which she accidentally hits Yamashita over the head, and then smashes the tank of his pet eel, setting it free. This is shot in the clear light of day, and it feels real rather than hallucinatory. It's about life breaking in and purging the demons that set in when you spend too long chasing a paycheck in a soulless megalopolis.


Solo: A Star Wars Story

It's a shame this thing bombed when going up against Infinity War, because it's an enjoyable space heist / western and exceeded my low expectations. Solo is a trainee cowboy who learns how to ride his first spaceship, embark on his first train robbery, and generally cross and double cross with the big bad sheriffs of the universe. There is even a hint of colonised Amerindians and enslaved robots. Both groups get the chance to cast off their chains because of Solo's shenanigans, which means the film doesn't avoid reiterating a white saviour complex. The way the mute oppressed fuel refiners are depicted is particularly cringey.

That aside, this is a lot of fun. Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover have the tricky task of impersonating the performances of other actors, but apart from a few ticks they settle into their own groove, for which we should be grateful. More interesting than either of them is Woody Harrelson's grizzled veteran shyster Beckett, and Emilia Clarke as the ambiguous Qi'ra, both of whom have to make their own compromises with the powers that be. I'm kinda hoping to see more of Qi'ra, and Solo leaves open the possibility of an appearance in other standalone Star Wars stories. I have a hunch that although they may not be as successful as the new trilogy, these one-offs may end up being better films.


Gave a bit of thought about why Qi'ra was such an intriguing character over the week. She's there ostensibly as the love interest, but the expectation is sent up by her decision not to follow Solo at the end of the film, and instead join the bad guys. That choice highlights the fact that she is a woman trapped by other men, and that includes Solo. There's an intriguing bit of symbolism added to this. Han Solo has a lucky charm of two dice on a chain which he gives to Qi'ra at the beginning of the film. When we see her next, she is an employee and possible lover of Dryden Vos, who dispatches underlings with a double-headed laser knife. At the end of the film, Qi'ra upgrades Vos to Darth Maul, who lights up his double-bladed lightsabre to show off what a great guy he is to work for. Qi'ra gives Solo back his trinket. He's unreliable, like his dice – and his luck. The red weapons are more deadly, but also more powerful. They hold out the prospect of her being her own woman.


Tale of Tales

This is right up my street – baroque, grotesque fairy tales with astonishing attention to detail and with the special effects dialled right down. Guillermo del Toro would be proud of the sets and costumes, but Tale of Tales is less controlled than a Del Toro film, where ideas are carefully explicated. Matteo Garrone is more relaxed on set, happy as he says to follow his gut.

The film is an adaptation of a 17th century collection of Italian fairy tales that inspired the Brothers Grimm. They are early, more adult versions of the child-friendly stories we're familiar with. Garrone's focus seems to be on the workings of desire in women, as teenagers, mothers and spinsters, who want a husband, a child and their beauty back respectively. All three get a version of what they want – which doesn't last.

The film isn't coy about its theme: violent desires end violently. But whether it's better to be content with your lot isn't clear, at least in Garrone's retelling. Selma Hayek's overbearing mother engineers her own downfall. But the heroine of 'the Flea' (which departs quite a bit from the original tale) kills the ogre, humbles her father, and becomes Queen. Desire is an inevitable part of the human personality. It's often (self-)destructive, but sometimes it works out anyway.