Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tokyo Drifter/Branded to Kill

Tokyo Drifter

TOKYO DRIFTER and BRANDED TO KILL (Suzuki, 1966 and 1967)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Dec 13, 2011
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Yesterday, word broke that Seijun Suzuki had passed away on Feb 13 at the age of 93. I originally wrote this dual review on the occasion of Criterion's Blu-ray re-releases of two Suzuki titles from the early days of the Collection, “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill,” probably his two best-known films. It appears that re-watching both Suzuki joints inspired me to a more playful mood. Which sure sounds right to me.)

Seijun Suzuki doesn't often do establishing shots, and when he does they don't establish shit. Transitions? Listen, buddy, every cut is a transition of some kind and it's not Suzuki's fault if you can't follow it. Match cuts? Kind of you to ask, but as one killer in “Tokyo Drifter” (1966) says to another, “Because you were kind, you'll have to go to hell!”

I exaggerate a bit, but let's just say that seamless continuity isn't a priority for Suzuki and, also, I wasn't exaggerating at all.

One of the greatest pleasures of watching a Seijun Suzuki's best films is the comforting knowledge that you cannot possibly know what image you're going to see next. A killer preparing for his climactic showdown with the enemy may suddenly decide to bounce a balloon around his apartment. Two may men may suddenly walk into a bathroom locked arm-in-arm. A car chase begins and before you've figured out who's driving or if there's even another car involved in the chase, it's already over and we're back at the nightclub. Are those two gunmen engaged in a shootout to the death or are they just two guys who happen to like guns? Are they even in the same town? Screen geography, in Dude-speak, is just, like, you opinion, man, and when Seijun Suzuki wants your opinion, he'll tell you what it is. And you still might not understand. But you'll love every second of it.

Unless you don't. One of the more irritating aspects of watching Seijun Suzuki's best films is the discomforting knowledge that you cannot possibly know what image you're going to see next. The barrage of disorienting, off-kilter compositions can lead to sensory overload and exhaustion exacerbated by the lack of the familiar guideposts provided by more traditionally and coherently structured narratives. I sometimes wonder if Suzuki could have made the greatest 60-minute films of all-time. Not that he dawdles - “Tokyo Drifter” clocks in at a brisk 82 minutes, and “Branded to Kill” (1967) at just 91 – but his Red-Bull-charged cinema can lead to a nasty crash and burn, a deflationary death by a thousand little catharses, so be careful not to overdose. Unless you want to.

Branded to Kill

“Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” represent Suzuki at his creative peak. He had made a name for himself furiously cranking out three or four B-movies per year at Japan's Nikkatsu Studios in the late '50s and early '60s, drawing particular attention after the success of increasingly kinetic and violent films like “Youth of the Best” (1963) and “Gate of Flesh” (1964). As Suzuki's creative control over his project grew so did his penchant for formal, genre-bending experimentation, and so did the studio's frustration with a director it couldn't easily pigeonhole or comfortably market. Can't you just make us a nice, normal movie?

Sorry, Mr. Studio Executive, I'm afraid you'll have to go to hell! Suzuki kept exploring previously uncharted stylistic territory, skirting the boundary between commercial and avant-garde (with a bullet), until “Branded to Kill” proved to be a breaking point for Nikkatsu. The studio chose to rid itself of this troublesome director, canning Suzuki for alleged insubordination, upbraiding him for his “incomprehensible” films, leading to a protracted legal battle and a decade-long blacklist that terminated the most prolific part of Suzuki's career, though he would gamely bounce back with a few late-career gems, my favorite being his underrated tour-de-force “Pistol Opera” (2001).

“Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” are sometimes thought of as a paired unit, though they are actually radically different films, the first a neon-jazz color explosion. Both offer bare-bones distillation of yakuza plots. The main character in “Tokyo Drifter” (Tetsuya Watari) becomes an underworld target while staying loyal to his master; the protagonist in “Branded to Kill” (Joe Shishido, a Suzuki regular) is currently the third-best assassin in Japan (apparently they keep meticulous rankings) and he'll do anything to move up the charts, but finds it difficult to climb the rankings after he screws up a job. Also he really, really likes to sniff boiling rice.

But enough about the plot and the characters and other irrelevant nonsense. Suzuki's best films are about outrageous set designs, endless fracturing of the visual field, frames nested within frames, and maddeningly repeated audio cues. Pure audiovisual pleasure, if that's your definition of pleasure. Suzuki's “discovery” by non-Japanese audiences took far too long, but once cinephiles around the globe started mainlining him, they also discovered there was nowhere else to get a fix quite as potent. Plenty of viewers first got hooked with either “Tokyo Drifter” or “Branded to Kill” and not a one has ever regretted the decision.

Criterion's SD releases of “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill” way back in another century were two of their more disappointing efforts. The details aren't worth going into nearly twenty years later, but at this point they only qualify as collector's items or for “emergency viewing only.” The 2011 Blu-ray upgrades both represent massive improvements. For one thing, they're both 2.35:1 anamorphic transfers, like they're supposed to be!

Brighter, whiter colors in the new high-def “Tokyo Drifter”still look like they “bleed” a little bit, but the color arrangements in the film are so audacious and over the top, it's hard to judge exactly how accurate this transfer is. Let's just say it's wild, man. And a whole lot more vivid than the old SD. The black-and-white image in “Branded to Kill” has a lot more depth and detail than the old SD (it's nowhere close) though there are still a few modest signs of print source damage evident in a few places. But nothing troubling.

Both films get LPCM mono mixes, and both sound a bit thin and tinny, perhaps because they were meant to in the first place. The “haunted” sound of some of the effects in “Branded to Kill” is actually quite effective. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio for both films.


Tokyo Drifter:

Criterion has imported a March 1997 interview with Suzuki (20 min.) from the old SD release. It was recorded at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles during a retrospective of the director's work, and it's quite engaging. Suzuki exhibits a pragmatic streak, speaking more about business matters than creative decisions, though he is justifiably pleased to speak about how important it is for the director to be the only person who knows what to expect in a film.

Criterion also presents a newer interview with Suzuki and assistant director Masami Kuzuu (2011, 12 min.) in which they discuss the production of “Tokyo Drifter.” Suzuki is on oxygen during the interview, but is still quite sharp and entertaining. A Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

The 1999 SD had slim liner notes by critic Manhola Dargis. The 2011 re-release comes with a 12-page insert booklet featuring as essay by critic Howard Hampton.

Branded to Kill:

The extras are similar to the ones on Tokyo Drifter. Another excerpt from Suzuki's Nuart interview (14 min.) is imported from the 1999 SD. The disc also includes a newer interview with Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu (2011, 12 min.) and a newer interview with star Joe Shishido (2011, 11 min.) A Trailer (3 min.) is also included.

Missing from the old 1999 SD is a Poster Gallery from the collection of composer John Zorn who also wrote the slim liner notes for that release. Those notes have been replaced in the 2011 release with a chunkier 16-pager insert booklet featuring an essay by critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns. 

Final Thoughts:
There was nobody quite like Seijun Suzuki. And there never will be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Released Jan 13, 2015

(Re-posted because it's Valentine's Day.)

German dynamo Rainer Werner Fassbinder is legendary for his sheer volume of work and the astonishing speed at which he produced it. The mere fact that “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1972), his twelfth feature in just three years, was shot in ten days is therefore not a shock on its own, but the incredible refinement and precision of a film “dashed off” so quickly defies belief.

Granted, Fassbinder had already directed “Petra” as a play and called on Margit Carstensen to reprise the title stage role for the film while filling out most of the rest of the cast with battle-tested members of the Fassbinder troupe who already knew how to meet his stringent demands. In addition, the entire film is set in or just outside Petra's bedroom (more on that in a moment), but don't let that fool you into thinking this was a simple, no-frills shoot.

Petra's lair
For starters, though Fassbinder employs many long master shots of dialogue-intensive scenes, he did not ask cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to just set up for static, functional coverage. Ballhaus's camera prowls the expanses of the main set, the bedroom of successful German fashion designer Petra Von Kant. The ostentatiously-decorated room, Petra's lair really, is filled to overflowing with mannequins, dolls, and other tchotchkes (the shadow of a dachshund figurine looms above Petra's doorway). The chamber is dominated by a wall-sized rendition of Nicolas Poussin's painting “Midas and Bacchus,” providing the only male presence (most notably with Bacchus's prominently dangling ding-dong, a companion wiener to the dachshund) in the otherwise all-female cast. This set-up serves as one of many of the nesting frames within frames that would become a Fassbinder hallmark.

In this gaudy den, the powerful Petra bullies her assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann, brilliant in a completely silent role) while entertaining the handful of guests who wander fly-like into her spider's parlor. Chief among them is young, working-class Karin (RWF superstar Hanna Schygulla), who has recently returned to Germany from years abroad and is looking for a helping hand. Petra, unable to keep either hand off the lovely Karin, eagerly offers her privileged assistance and vows to make “simple” Karin her next great fashion model.

Karin and Petra
I think “Petra Von Kant” is one of the best-acted films I have ever seen, and not just for the impressive delivery of lengthy, emotional dialogue. It is a postural and gestural tour-de-force. Witness the shot where the much-beleaguered Marlene presses her palm against a window and hangs her head for a lengthy beat while eavesdropping on Petra and her cousin (Katrin Schaake) in the next room. Or the way Petra freezes motionless, her head perched menacingly over Karin's shoulder as the young woman relates her tale of woe. The actresses claim that most scenes were shot without rehearsal, and Fassbinder seldom used multiple takes, but each movement, each pose is so finely calibrated it seems it could only be the product of months of relentless practice. Or a few years in the Fassbinder Antiteater (Anti-Theater) troupe.

A bitter tear
Perhaps the most famous of Fassbinder's dictums was his belief that the person in a relationship who cares least wields the most power. Most of his films explored this dynamic to some degree, but never more vividly than here. After wealthy Petra's initial seduction of the seemingly vulnerable Karin, the film jumps ahead in time to show Karin lounging in bed with a glossy magazine while Petra pleads with her for affection (silent Marlene lurks on the periphery, typing away and judging without comment). Petra is so desperate she even begs to be lied to, but Karin is more interested in seeing her picture in the paper. In a simple cut, the potent businesswoman has shriveled in the presence of a partner who does not return her love, yet still commands it.

Fassbinder viewed this as an autobiographical work with Petra as his stand-in and Karin as a fictionalized version of his former lover (and actor) Gunther Kaufmann. You might find his view of romance (passion inevitably linked to debasement) chilling but it is convincingly rendered here. Petra is cruel, childish and indulgent but her pain at being used and abandoned by Karin is eminently palpable. Carstensen's languid, self-conscious poses provide the proper distance for the receptive viewer to feel the all-encompassing despair at a deep level, the depth where tears are the most bitter.

I haven't even mentioned the costumes yet. When given the chance to dress fully for battle, Petra does not disappoint with an outfit straight out of “What's Opera, Doc?” Later she dons a wig and dress to look as much as possible like the departed Karin. Add in one of the very best titles from a director who sure liked a good title (see also “Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?” or “Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven”) and you can understand why “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” is viewed by many as one of Fassbinder's masterpieces. Not bad for ten days' work, anyway.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The new digital transfer was supervised by Michael Ballhaus. “Petra” was previously available on a competent SD transfer from Wellspring, but this high-def upgrade is a genuine revelation. Petra's room is an operatic hoarder's playground and the sharp image detail enables the viewer to appreciate every object, every nook and cranny of one of the most vividly-rendered rooms in cinema history. The colors pop with new life as well, making even Petra's subtle (and not so subtle) makeup changes stand out. It's generally understood that Fassbinder's earliest films were rough-and-tumble with his later films becoming more lustrous and ornate, but some of the movie in-between are absolutely gorgeous to behold. “Petra” is at the top of that list and this 1080p image is a real treat.

The linear PCM Mono track is crisp but relatively flat. However, the songs employed strategically throughout (including The Platters' “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “The Great Pretender”) have a pleasing richness. Optional English subtitles support the German audio.

It's not quite loaded with extras, but Criterion has included some material that should fascinate Fassbinder fans.

The two best features center on the actresses in “Petra” and many other Fassbinder films.

“Outsiders” (2014, 30 min.) edits together newly conducted interviews with Margit Cartensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake and Eva Mattes (who plays Petra's daughter). They are open about the manipulative games the director would play with his inner-circle though Mattes, not really part of the Fassbinder clique, says he was quite kind to her.

We get a more in-depth take on this inside information with another feature. “Role Play: Women on Fassbinder” (1992, 59 min.) is directed by Thomas Honickel and jumps back and forth between four interviews with Fassbinder actresses: Carstensen, Schygulla, Irm Hermann, and Rosel Zech (who didn't appear in “Petra” but was in a few late Fassbinder films, most notably as the title character in “Veronika Voss”). All of the women have plenty to say about working with Fassbinder, but I was most engaged by Irm Hermann's frank discussions about a man who did not always treat her kindly but for whom she clearly felt a great deal. Hermann sometimes gets overshadowed in discussions of “Fassbinder's women” as she played many thankless, less glamorous roles, but she is as crucial to his body of work as any of the other stars. A few of the women also discuss the (near) breaking-points they reached with Fassbinder as their collaborations progressed. This is a great, great feature, one of favorite Criterion extras in some time.

The disc also includes an interview (2014, 7 min.) with the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and an interview with Jane Shattuc (2014, 23 min.), professor of visual and media arts at Emerson college. Shattuc discusses the allure of and challenges posed by “Petra Von Kant,” a film that's difficult for anybody (feminist or otherwise) to really embrace unproblematically. Which is what makes it so damned interesting.

The fold-out insert booklet (I'm not a fan of this new format but it looks like it's here to stay) includes an essay by film critic Peter Matthews.

Film Value:
“Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” is probably my favorite Fassbinder, but “Petra Von Kant” isn't far behind. There's no need to choose of course, now that both are proudly enshrined in the Criterion Collection. The high-def transfer provides a much-deserved upgrade for a beautiful film and is nothing short of a joy to behold. Fassbinder's women get plenty to say on the extras as well. Can a love story be rated as one of the greatest if it is almost completely hopeless from its inception? Why the hell not? Petra and Karin. Ali and Emmi. Fassbinder sure knew how to tell 'em.