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The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) Censored by the Freedom of Speech Advocates (the United States) until 1952.

Here is a Kurasowa film that was made in 1945 during the final days of WWII, but prevented from general release by American censors until 1952 when the U.S. forces essentially withdrew from Japan ostensibly because the film contained elements of the bushido code.

This is not your run of the mill movie in the eyes of most westerners.  It is less than an hour long and filmed against what is clearly a painted set meant to be the mountainous horizon of Japan.  In addition, half of the dialogue is poetry that is sung making it more of a narrative now that I think about it.  People attribute these cinematic devices to director Kurasowa’s faithfulness to the “noh” style play upon which the story is based.  If, like me, you have no idea what that is, noh is a genre of classical Japanese musical dramas that has been performed since the 14th century.  Apparently, the plays focus on technical form rather than creativity and what we would call traditional “acting today.”

While researching this review I noticed something; that is, people either loved this film or hated it.  Very few opinions were “middle of the road” when discussing the merits of the movie with some going so far as to say “well it left me feeling that the best part of this film was its short 58 minutes.”  Something I’ve never heard or read about a Kurasowa film until now.

The film follows the Japanese jidaigeki or “period drama” telling the story of The Gempei War, which has just ended and now, two brothers – allies of that war – have turned into enemies.  Yoshitsune, a victorious general in the War, is being hunted by his brother, Yoritomo. Yoshitsune, along with six men, attempt to reach Hidehira Fujiwara, who may offer Yoshitsune safety. To do so, they have to pass through a barrier in the Kaga Province, under the command of its magistrate, Saemon Togashi.  The film is how are they going to get through the barrier.

Getting through the checkpoint is not going to be as easy as passing through a tollbooth.  With Yoshitsune’s right hand man, Benkei (a formidable historical figure in his own right), leading the way, the six men, disguised as monks, with Yoshitsune disguised as a porter and another real porter providing comedy relief (and in my opinion helping to save their skin in the end), travel to the barrier, but word has already reached the officials that the fugitives are moving incognito as wandering ascetic priests.  Naturally, they are stopped at the checkpoint since they fit the description of (and are in fact) the wanted men.

Since all of the fugitives have been trained in ritual, their show is very convincing.  Togashi proceeds to ask a number of questions designed to prove their priesthood.  As a real priest, Benkei has been steeped in the traditions of the Buddha and he alone speaks, and he does so convincingly.  Togashi’s final test requires Benkei to recite his mission for the temple he claims to be collecting donations for.  He famously takes up a blank scroll and recites, partially from memory and partially improvisational, in typical Buddhist fashion.  Togashi’s suspicions ostensibly assuaged, the band of merry men are allowed to pass, but as they depart, Togashi’s right-hand believes he recognizes the one of their number as Yoshitsune.  Benkei thinking on his feet, beats the heck out of his lord Yoshitsune with his staff.  In Japan during that time, no retainer would ever lay a hand upon his master, and thus the guards are convinced of their authenticity.

The best part of this movie is not the dialogue in and of its self, but the psychological questions hanging out there.  Does Togashi know that it is indeed Yoshitsune’s band and therefore allow them to pass out of some admiration for their performance?  Or has Benkei truly succeeded in fooling them?  Other versions of the story try to leave their audience hanging by making them try to guess what he knew and when did he know it.  In this film, it is clear that Togashi knows and that Benkei knows that he knows.  This may not be so easily diffused from a single viewing.  Kurosawa himself, it could be argued, winks and nods at this reading, but he never spells it out in the final product (through montage, composition or otherwise).  Instead, he leaves it to the cunning of his actors who make these points.

So here are my middle of the road thoughts on The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail the film’s narrative singing gets a little annoying after the first song, but the tension described in the preceding paragraph add significantly to the merits of this movie.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Detective Dee—The latest “wuxia” movie recommended by our woman from the land down under.

Detective Dee—The latest “wuxia” movie recommended by our woman from the land down under.  With guest co-author Bonnie (who has not actually seen the movie but still feels free to offer an opinion and research and who may have imbibed some sense of Detective Dee via osmosis when her parents were reading the Judge Dee mysteries based on this character many years ago).

I am sitting in the Houston airport for the next 9 hours waiting for my plane to  . . . well you’ll read about that later.  Anyways, I asked Dangerous what she thought the next movie we may want to take a look at should be and she said take a look at Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010).  So I did.

Detective Dee is played by Asian movie and pop legend Andy Lau (Battle of Wits—Mozy Warriors and many others) and is a good “popcorn” movie.  Detective Dee is the latest “wuxia” movie directed by Tsui Hark—a pioneer of the wuxia genre.  Wuxia films are particular to China; they blend martial arts with chivalry and tend to have a protagonist who is similar to, but not quite the same as, a Western knight-errant.

Not only does this movie have Andy Lau in it (which always makes it a must-see in my book), but it is directed by the formidable Tsui Hark (who will, incidentally, be helping to judge the feature films category at the Cannes Film Festival this year). Hark also directed Once Upon a Time in China (for a link to our friend Silver’s masterful review of that flick, click here). Standing at 5’9” (it’s amazing what you can find out on IMDB), he is considered a master of the kung fu action genre and, from what I saw (and what Bonnie didn’t see) here, I have to say that he is a master of the wuxia subgenre as well.

The story is about a woman who is about to become emperor and unite China.  Naturally she is getting many people in the kingdom all pissed off because a woman is about to ascend to the throne.  In honor of her coronation a 1,000 foot Buddha is being constructed overlooking the palace.  Officials working on the statue are starting to self-immolate; that is, bursting in to flames from the inside out. (I hate it when that happens!) With the coronation not far off the soon to be empress needs these crimes solved to avoid any taint on her ascension to the throne.

She calls in Detective Dee, the Sherlock Holmes of China.  Dee also happened to be one of the leaders of a revolt against her when he emperor-husband died under mysterious circumstances.  I guess when you need the best you need the best.

Detective Dee starts his investigation which begins to reveal an ugly trail of deceit and murder perpetrated by the Empress to seize power. Her motto is “everyone is expendable in the pursuit of power.” As Dee gets closer and closer to finding the truth, the stakes get higher and higher for his life. However, it is Dee’s old assistant, who was tortured by the Empress to the tune of having one of his hands cut off, who is responsible for the Phantom Flame deaths. His axe to grind is simple: revenge. He was tortured for years and as we know, payback’s a bitch. His plan is to have the Buddha crash down on the coronation ceremony, killing everyone in the palace. Dee figures this out and puts a stop to the madness.

This movie is interesting because the viewer does not have a clear “hero riding on a white horse” to sympathize with. The Empress and the assistant are each quite a piece of work; the Empress has got a trail of dead bodies as long as the Boston Marathon, while the assistant has been putting beetles into people to cause them to self-immolate (they weren’t really immolating themselves out of anguish over watching a woman ascend to the throne, as it turns out).

Any of you who know anything about me know I am a big Asian movie fan.  So it’s good to see another big budget, big screen Asian movie hit the theaters, though it probably will not get any decent play in the states a la Red Cliff (bastardizing the movie by leaving two hours of film on the cutting room floor).

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Business of Movie Theaters–Helps to Explain the Crap

I found this article by Edward J. Epstein who wrote a book on the economics of the movie business:

Once upon a time, movie studios and movie theaters were in the same business. The studios made films for theater chains that they either owned or controlled, and they harvested almost all their revenue from ticket sales. Then, in 1948, the government forced the studios to divest themselves of the theaters. Nowadays, the two are in very different businesses. Theater chains, in fact, are in three different businesses.

First, they are in the fast-food business, selling popcorn, soda, and other snacks. This is an extremely profitable operation in which the theaters do not split the proceeds with the studios (as they do with ticket sales). Popcorn, for example, because of the immense amount of popped bulk produced from a relatively small amount of kernels—the ratio is as high as 60:1—yields more than 90 cents of profit on every dollar of popcorn sold. It also serves to make customers thirsty for sodas, another high-margin product (supplied to most theater chains by Coca-Cola, which makes lucrative deals with theater owners in return for their exclusive “pouring” of its products). One theater chain executive went so far as to describe the cup holder mounted on each seat, which allows customers to park their soda while returning to the concession stand for more popcorn, as “the most important technological innovation since sound.” He also credited the extra salt added into the buttery topping on popcorn as the “secret” to extending the popcorn-soda-popcorn cycle throughout the movie. For this type of business, theater owners don’t benefit from movies with gripping or complex plots, since that would keep potential popcorn customers in their seats. “We are really in the business of people moving,” Thomas W. Stephenson Jr., who then headed Hollywood Theaters, told me. “The more people we move past the popcorn, the more money we make.”

Second, theater chains are in the movie exhibition business. Here they are partners with the studios. Although every deal is different, the theaters and the studios generally wind up splitting the take from the box office roughly 50-50. But, unlike the popcorn bonanza, the theaters’ expenses eat up a large part of their exhibition share. They pay all the costs necessary to maintain the auditoriums, which includes ushers, cleaning staffs, projectionists to keep the movies in focus, and the regular replacement of projector bulbs that cost more than $1,000 each. The way they can squeeze out more profits from this business is to cut expenses to the bare minimum. Not uncommonly, theater owners delay changing projector bulbs even if they do not produce the specified level of brightness on screen. Or, rather than using a separate projectionist for each film, multiplexes use one projectionist to service up to eight movies, an economy of scale that saves seven salaries. While these projectionists are able to change reels for one film while other movies go unattended, this practice runs the risk that the other films might momentarily snag in the projector and get burnt by the lamp. To prevent such costly mishaps, projectionists slightly expand the gap between the gate that supports the film and the lamp, even though this puts a film slightly out of focus. This is often considered an acceptable trade-off to the financially pressed chains. “I’ve never heard a teenager complain about PQ [picture quality],” one movie chain executive said. “If they find it too dark, they still have the concession stand.”

Third, the theaters are in the advertising business. They sell on-screen ads. And some advertisers are paying more than $50,000 per screen annually, especially to theaters willing to pump up the volume to near ear-shattering level so that seated customers will pay attention. Since there are virtually no costs involved in showing ads, the proceeds go directly to the theater chains’ bottom lines. But to fit paid advertising into the gap between showings, multiplexes have to cut down on the length of the studios’ coming attractions (which are free advertising), a decision that hardly pleases studios. (Often, getting the coming attractions shown involves the studios “leveraging our goodwill,” as one studio executive explained. The studios will threaten to hold back a popcorn movie, such as the new Harry Potter or Star Wars sequels, unless the chain agrees to play a full reel of trailers.)

To keep their people-moving enterprise going, theater owners prefer movies whose length does not exceed 128 minutes. If a movie runs longer than that, and the theater owners do not want to sacrifice their on-screen advertising time, they will reduce the number of their evening audience “turns” or showings from three to two, which means that 33 percent fewer people pass their popcorn stands. Even so, if a long movie promises to bring in a big enough audience—a promise King Kong made but did not deliver—the theaters will play it. Indeed, the ultimate test for the popcorn economy is: Will a movie attract enough consumers of buckets of popcorn and soda to justify turning over multiple screens to it? Theater owners know that the popcorn audience is mainly teens. And, since the observation of teen test audiences over many years has demonstrated that they prefer action to dialogue, expect a salty, supersize portion of amusement-park movies this year.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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