19.6.22

Warm Water Under A Red Bridge

Imamura's final film takes the fable-like quality of his late masterpiece The Eel and pushes it further – it's soppy and silly and a bit of a disappointment. We have another exile from the city – a laid-off salaryman trying and failing to find another job in Tokyo, whose wife and son have moved out to live with his parents-in-law. He has befriended a hobo philosopher who dies at the beginning of the film, but leaves behind a tale of treasure he's hidden in a village townhouse next to a river with a red bridge. Our hero goes after it, and finds renewal (and new love) in rural Japan.

Imamura's camera retains a documentary quality – with very long takes capturing the action at a distance. Conversations are held with a two-shot, and rarely cut to close-up. The naturalism is broken up by intrusive sound cues, and occasional really garish effects, making the film quite ugly to look at. Although there isn't a voiceover, the tone of the story resembles something like Amélie or The Royal Tenembaums – highly-stylised films that emphasise the make-believe world they are portraying (the immigrant student marathon runner and his demented trainer really do look like they've stumbled out of a Wes Anderson film). Imamura's film was release a year after those two, and it looks far worse.

There's no golden bhudda to be found, of course. The treasure is the women who live in the house, who gush unreal amounts of water when they orgasm. The film is refreshingly sex-positive – the philosopher keeps popping up in flashback to insist that debauchery is a fine goal to have in life, and that throughout history the wealthy have squeezed the lower classes so they have time to indulge in it. Saeko is unfortunate that her body betrays her strong sexual appetites so obviously – and the film hints at her sense of shame, although that's quickly overcome through the intervention of our good-natured hero. Ultimately the waterworks are a symbol of natural replenishment and health, and something to be celebrated. It's unfortunate that the film does so in such a crass and silly way – ending on a shot of the fountain made by the main characters copulating creating a awful-looking CGI rainbow.

18.6.22

Violence at Noon

Notable for the enormous number of cuts used in the film, which was startling at the time. Oshima may have wanted to suggest the fracturing of modern society with the technique, but given this has become how a lot of modern film looks nowadays (borrowing from innovations in advertising and music videos from the mid-1980s onwards) it just makes this 1960s artifact look sleek and dynamic. The opressiveness of rural poverty doesn't feel quite as grinding when sliced up into 20 shots a minute.

It's a tale of a violent rapist and serial killer and the two women that cover for him – they are in love with this monster and confused about what to do. Oshima begins the film in quite an uncomfortable way by implicating the viewer in the horrific actions of the criminal – his victim is sized up and then attacked largely from his point-of-view. Perhaps the suggestion is that we all have this capacity for sexual violence, Eisuke just can't control himself. At the end of the film he gives contradictory explanations for his behaviour, saying that the love of a beautiful woman might have caged these beastly impulses, and then going on to say he probably would have committed his crimes anyway.

Oshima is reluctant to explain away his behaviour as a product of poverty or neglect. In one of the most famous lines in the film, Eisuke sarcastically tells the teacher he has married that she taught him democracy. His behaviour isn't some holdover from the belligerent hypernationalism of the war years. Although his criminality emerges from the background of the failure of a collective farm, its clear that his capacity for violence and anti-social tendencies are there from the start. Oshima seems to be indicating that the ideals of humanity and love taught to children in schools are contradicted not just by conditions on the ground, but by human nature.

Eisuke's frustrated and murderous energy is contrasted by Genji – the depressive son of the head of the village, who vies with him for the affections of the two female characters. Genji despairs at the political responsibilities he is due to inherit. He is a good man put in an impossible situation, and resolves on suicide – whatever violent impulses he has are directed inwards. The relationship with his lover Shino begins as a commercial exchange (she borrows money to start a trout farm), but she is dutifully willing to join him in death. Eisuke's sexual jealousy inadvertently saves her life – he tries to rape her corpse, which revives her, but begins his descent into depravity.

Jealousy emerges as the dominant theme between the two female characters as well – Eisuke's wife Matsuko resents Shino's hold over Eisuke's sexual imagination. They are both dumbfounded by Eisuke's behaviour, and take too long to stop treating it as a private matter between themselves and give him up to the police. Women's misplaced sense of duty and devotion to men may be in Oshima's sights here. Outdated and oppressive gender norms end up perpetuating Eisuke's killing spree.

There's a lot going on in the film, and a lot of it is ambiguous or contradictory. For me it doesn't have the brutal clarity of Oshima's earliest films Naked Youth and The Sun's Burial, which are scrappier affairs, less formally innovative and more thematically direct. Violence at Noon is richer and more mysterious, the two women have more opportunities to escape the violent man that in other Oshima films, and yet frustratingly they remain infatuated with him.

17.6.22

2046

This sequel to In The Mood For Love is more up my alley. Tony Leung has a bit of a personality transplant and becomes a playboy, gambler and pulp novelist – indulging in all the vices he wouldn't allow himself as a dutiful but unhappily married man. Losing Maggie Cheung will do that to a fellow. Perhaps this past idealised but renounced love affair makes it impossible to commit anymore. Leung becomes even more of an observer, he's more distanced and cold towards the women he gets involved with. That aloofness is matched by Zhang Ziyi, but while the steamy affair she eventually succumbs to leads her to fall in love, Leung pushes her away. In a telling monetary metaphor, he's quite happy to buy affection, but he refuses to sell it.

Leung becomes a viewpoint character in what is a more distended and unfocused film – it's a bit more of a portmanteau like Chunking Express. Like that film, 2046 gives Faye Wong a happy ending running off with a young lover. The most bizarre addition to Wong Kar-Wai's repertoire is how that story filters through to a sci-fi novel Leung is writing, where his own feelings and reminiscences come to the fore. Leung is attracted to Faye, but recognises that it would be wrong to take advantage of this young idealist. Renunciation of love is what anchors Leung's personality – but he's sympathetic enough to give Faye Wong and Zhang Ziyi a way out of Hong Kong and an opportunity for a brighter future abroad.

The film doesn't add up to very much, and it seems to have changed quite a bit over a long period of development. It was originally meant to be shot in Shanghai, and wasn't supposed to be a sequel. The linking technique of a hotel room number was arrived at a bit randomly, and gradually the film started merging with In The Mood For Love. It could have turned into a mess (some might think it is a mess), but somehow in the edit Wong Kar-Wai manages to create a sense of momentum across the disparate plot strands. It might be my favourite thing he's done – Tony Leung has probably never been more handsome and charming, and Zhang Ziyi's passionate performance really gives the film a powerful punch.

12.6.22

The Matrix Resurrections

Very much enjoyed the cringe stuff at the beginning calling out the fact that this is yet another Hollywood cash-in sequel – especially the awful creative meetings raking over everything that made the first Matrix film such a beloved classic. It feels like Lana Watchowski poking fun at the plethora of exegesis her creation has spawned, as well as her price for going down the same rabbit-hole again.

There is also the implicit recognition that the first film relegated Trinity’s character to a cheerleader and romantic interest for Neo basically as soon as the awesome opening sequence ended. This new resurrected version is about Trinity’s own importance to the story – and how her love for Neo was so strong it could power the Matrix (and The Matrix) all on its own. The metaphor is a blunt one, but it’s nice to see her do the Superman thing for a change. And once again the business suits that imprison the minds of human beings are put in their place and forced to make room for the rebels and artists to liberate the world.

10.4.22

The Secret History

Like if Harry Potter went to Slytherin. Tartt is undeniably a better writer than Rowling – every couple of pages of The Secret History has a dazzling bit of description. But Rowling does a better job of interweaving the mysteries in her plots, where episodes are returned to and reinterpreted in the light of new revelations. Tartt's approach is more linear – new information is introduced about characters and events to explain the latest twist, which feels clumsier. It's forgivable though, expecially as the narration is in first person and the character of Richard may not be as skilled a storyteller as he, or we, would like.

The book is long and as a result occasionally plodding. The sheer extent of it makes deducing its themes difficult – it's about what it's about. The lasting impression it left me with was that the youthful dyonisian urge towards dissolution is universal – and the disturbing rituals the coterie engage in are just a more sinister manifestation of the decadent student experience of parties, drugs and rock music the main characters are so dismissive of. There's just a seductive upper-class veneer applied to their activites– which Richard, an interloper ashamed of his working-class background, cannot but be enchanted by. Wealth and beauty are dazzling but ultimately disguise what is (to put it politely) extremly reprehensible behaviour.

Bunny's character is dwelt on so long partly to set up a contrast with our narrator and protagonist. Bunny cannot afford the trappings of his class, and sponges off the wealth of his friends. Richard almost dies rather than admit his poverty and ask for help. But despite his flaws, Bunny has the capacity to see through the allure of his sophisticated friends, and was on the cusp of exposing their crimes, whereas Richard does everything he can to protect them. The act of writing his secret history may be a form of atonement, a realisation on the part of Richard that Bunny had the right idea in the end, and Richard has to finally burn his bridges with the university friends he loved so much. 

27.2.22

Disco Elysium

I want another 50 games like Disco Elysium. This takes the writing-first approach of Planescape: Torment and removes all the combat elements so that everything is about your character's interactions with the world, and the different bits of it you can unlock with your skills and choices. At times it feels like an adventure game, where you are collecting items and asking questions until you tick your tasks off the list. That may sound linear and boring, but thankfully the game's story, characters and universe are so rich that I was compelled to explore as much as possible, sinking a glorious 50+ hours following every lead I could find.

Even if the gameplay is limited, there is enough of it to be satisfying when your build allows you to pass a check. Die-rolls govern your every interaction, modified by your skills and prior actions. There's always a chance to succeed or fail – at the first big climax of the game, where your amnesiac detective examines a dead body, I managed to pass a 3% chance perception check which massively upends your assumptions about the cause of death, and I felt a huge surge of elation even though it was just a piece of (amost literally) blind luck.

There's a pleasing ludo-narrative consonance to developing your skills. You wake up not knowing anything and are tasked with investigating a murder. But as you tick off bits and bobs in pursuing the case, you gain experience points, which allow you to level up your skills and slowly learn, or re-learn, how to be a cop.

Even better, your skills can talk to you – giving you tips and dialogue options that can push you in the right direction. But not always – sometimes their advice works against your interests. This was the second revelatory moment in the game for me. In a conversation with a femme fatale character I passed a volition check which made me realise that all my other skills, particularly the one helping me detect lies, were being hoodwinked. My character was being seduced, almost mesmerised, by the figure he was talking to, to the point where my thoughts and impulses were betraying me.

If skills are a bit like companions, chipping in here and there with advice, the game adapts the standard RPG alignment system to give you options to explore and subscribe to different cop personalities (sorry cop, superstar cop, honour cop) and political philosophies. The latter are more well developed, and in the final cut version of the game include specific 'vision quests' revealing the implications of your political allegiances. In my playthrough I picked the boring moralist (or centrist) option, which I thought went furthest to minimise harm. But in this world, the moralintern are the ascendent power, and the game makes clear the damage caused by keeping things as they are.

The game's reflections on politics are commendably nuanced. The representative of the libertarian faction (a negotiator for a shipping conglomerate) is personable and helpful, but the organisation she works for is sinister and dangerous. The representative of the dockers union is unpleasant, slippery and corrupt, treating you as a means to advance his own ends. But ultimately those ends are more noble than they at first appear. Generally, the game is ambiguous about whether the sacrifices required for liberation are worth the price in blood, sweat and tears. A moralist abandons dreams of a better world for the crushing, unfair reality of today. But realising those dreams risks unleashing horrors that are far worse than the status quo.

The game's final comment on these alignment options might lie in the character of the killer – an old revolutionary that remains committed to a dead cause, with a psyche so poisoned and curdled by ideology that it starts unleashing random death on the neighbourhood. Committment to a grand project is suspect, the game appears to suggest. A better avenue for your energies is the limited good you can do in your interactions with people.

The one discordant note for me came towards the end, where the game inserts a kind of deus ex machina in the form of an alien creature imparting wisdom on our player character, whose bender is at root inspired by a break-up he never got over. The Insulidian Phasmid urges you to let her go: "Turn and go forward. Do it for the working class". The implication is that being hung up on a lost love is preventing you from reconnecting with the world and the downtrodden people in it (it's not for nothing that the only essential skill check to pass in the game is a Shivers one – it's the skill that plugs you into the rhythms of the city). But the following line puts a sour twist on that laudible sentiment: "She was middle class. It doesn't take a three-metre stick insect to tell you that". The tone is resentful, and implies that any inter-class relationship is inherently tainted and unworkable, which is a gross idea to latch onto one of the final climaxes of the game.

That's a small exception that proves the general rule, which is that Disco Elysium is written with great thoughtfullness and tenderness for its large cast of characters. It is also very funny, and has a knowing sense of its own inherent ridiculousness. But even in a playthrough committed to exploring its most farcical elements, the creators ultimately pull the player towards the great sadness haunting the setting – the threat of existential nothingness that warps every attempt at progress. The poetry of the game is inescapable, and is its most impressive and unique feature. It's a great novel disguised as a roleplaying game, a new milestone in interactive narrative. And I want a lot more of it.