Category Archives: Film

Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective

Film still from "Branded to Kill"

Film still from “Branded to Kill”

Seijun Suzuki is one of Japanese cinema’s legendary eccentrics. He was fired from his job at Nikkatsu Studios in the late 1960s for, as he put it, making films that “made no sense and made no money.” Over the last couple of decades, he has developed a global cult following for those stylistically outrageous send-ups of gangster movies, as well as the mysterious ghost stories he created upon his return to filmmaking in the 1980s.

Though he is virtually a household name in Japan (he was once voted the country’s best-dressed man), very little has been written about Suzuki in the United States—until now. My book Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki has been published by the Freer|Sackler. To celebrate, we are devoting the next three months to a retrospective of Suzuki’s work, co-organized with the Japan Foundation and comprising more than twenty films, some of which have never before screened in the United States.

We kick things off this evening with Suzuki’s most notorious film, Branded to Kill, the outrageous excesses of which led to his firing from Nikkatsu. After the screening, I will be on hand to sign copies of Time and Place Are Nonsense. For the rest of the month, you can sample films from the most fertile period of Suzuki’s career: the mid- to late ’60s, during which he twisted B movie scripts into dazzling, funny, and shocking artistic statements. These films are rooted both in the gleefully nihilistic outlook Suzuki gained as a soldier in World War II and in the wild, bawdy underbelly of Japanese aesthetic traditions, such as Kabuki theater, that has fascinated him throughout his career.

I hope you’ll join us and come back in November and December, when we delve into Suzuki’s equally fascinating later career. The complete film schedule is available on our website. And if you have friends in other parts of the United States and Canada, please tell them to keep an eye out for the retrospective. Between now and next May, it will be traveling to cities throughout North America.

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Close Up: Turkish Filmmaker Ҫağan Irmak

Film still from "Whisper If I Forget"

Film still from “Whisper If I Forget”

On Friday at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium, we inaugurate a new partnership with Turkish Airlines in Close Up, a series that will periodically bring Asian filmmakers to the Galleries to present their work. Appropriately enough, our first guest, Ҫağan Irmak, is one of Turkey’s most popular and accomplished directors. I’m not too proud to admit that until a few months ago, I had never heard of him. I am eternally grateful to the friend who clued me in, because now I’m hooked. Irmak makes popular entertainment of the most satisfying kind: films that balance humor and sadness, address serious issues without becoming heavy-handed, and aim for a broad audience without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

In Are We OK?, playing September 18, a heartbroken sculptor befriends a suicidal, severely disabled man in a story that mixes sadness, joy, and touches of magic realism. Spanning four decades, September 20’s film, Whisper if I Forget, follows an aging diva suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s as she returns home to make amends with the sister she betrayed on her way to stardom. This touching tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and the strength of family ties revels in a nostalgia for ’70s rock-and-roll kitsch that will bring a smile even to those who have never donned a pair of bell bottoms.

Coming upon new filmmakers is one of the great pleasures of my job. It is an even greater one to be able to share them with you. I hope you enjoy discovering Irmak’s work as much as I have.

After each screening, please stay for a Q&A with the director.

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Twenty Years of the Hong Kong Film Festival

Still from the film "Diva"

Still from the film “Diva”

Twenty years ago, the Freer debuted its very first Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, a partnership that remains strong to this day. Over the years, this ever-popular annual festival has treated our audiences to the films of some of the biggest directors in Hong Kong cinema, among them Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Johnny To, and Ann Hui. Actors and actresses such as Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Maggie Cheung, and Sandra Ng have become like old friends to our devoted crew of festival regulars, who come back year after year to watch them onscreen.

To celebrate this milestone, we are bringing a stellar selection of new and classic films to the Meyer Auditorium in July and August, from the street-racing action of Derek Yee’s Full Throttle (which also played in the first festival in 1996) to Fruit Chan’s award-winning sci-fi comedy The Midnight After—one of the most lauded Hong Kong films of last year.

We also have some special events up our sleeves. On July 26, we honor Hong Kong’s rich history of kung fu movies by showing the classic kung fu extravaganza Martial Club. After the film, a group of martial arts masters, some of whom have even appeared in Hong Kong movies, will take to the stage to demonstrate their skills and discuss kung fu cinema with Hong Kong producer, author, and martial arts expert Bey Logan. There will even be a traditional Chinese Lion Dance to get everyone in the mood.

We will also look to the future of Hong Kong cinema when Heiward Mak graces our stage on August 16 to present her backstage drama Diva. And because it is our longtime Hong Kong movie fans who have made this festival one of our most popular events year after year, we are giving you the chance to pick a Jackie Chan classic to show on August 14. You can vote online on our Facebook page or in person at any screening through July 26.

I look forward to seeing Hong Kong movie fans, old and new, at our festival this summer!

The Traveler’s Pen

Still from "Old Men," courtesy of Icarus Films

Still from “Old Men,” courtesy of Icarus Films

As a young woman, Val Wang—inspired by Zhang Yuan’s seminal independent Chinese film Beijing Bastards—left her family home in the DC suburbs to move to China. Partly a declaration of independence and partly a way of connecting to her émigré family’s roots, Wang’s time there resulted in the book Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China.

One of the many odd jobs Wang took on in China was helping independent Chinese filmmakers with English subtitles. Her honest and intimate descriptions of her sometimes complicated relationships with people such as Zhang himself are among the book’s highlights.

Wang is one of two authors I invited to share a film they find meaningful as part of the series Road Works: Films Inspire Writers, presented this month in conjunction with the exhibition The Traveler’s Eye: Scenes of Asia. Wang chose Old Men, an ingenious documentary by another independent filmmaker she got to know, Lina Yang. The complex relationship between the two women, as Wang described in her book, should add spice to the discussion when she presents the film on April 12.

Keith Bellows, travel writer, blogger, and former editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, chose to confront the contradictions and controversies of the very industry in which he works by selecting Gringo Trails. This documentary looks at the impact of global tourism on the cultures, economies, and ecosystems of countries in Asia and South America.

Although Bellows won’t be able to join us in person on April 19, he managed to corral the film’s director, anthropologist Peggy Vail, and its producer, Melvin Estrella, to participate in an Q&A after the screening. Among the topics they’ll discuss is whether tourism is destroying the planet or saving it, and how tourists can change local economies for better … and for worse.

As The Traveler’s Eye illustrates, the ways that travel affects travelers and that travelers impact the places they visit are ideas artists have considered for centuries. I hope you’ll join us for these two contemporary takes on age-old themes.

Discovering Georgian Cinema

Film still from "Eliso" (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

Film still from “Eliso” (Courtesy of National Archives of Georgia)

The cinema of the Republic of Georgia is as varied as its landscape and the many cultures that have inhabited it over the centuries. This month, the Freer|Sackler teams up with the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of France, the AFI Silver Theatre, and the Goethe-Institut Washington to present a landmark survey of Georgian cinema—from the silent era through last year’s Oscar-nominated Tangerines. Cocurated by Susan Oxtoby of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Jytte Jensen of the Museum of Modern Art, this is the largest retrospective of Georgian cinema ever presented in the United States, and it includes rare 35mm prints from archives all over the world.

“This retrospective concentrates on three main periods of production,” Oxtoby wrote in the retrospective booklet. “The wonderfully creative films of the silent era; the flowering of narrative filmmaking that began in the mid-fifties … and is well represented here by a concentration of films from the 1960s and 1980s; and the new wave of Georgian cinema, which demonstrates the talents of the young filmmaking community today.”

We open the retrospective in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, February 13, with a screening of the silent classic Eliso, with live accompaniment by Trio Kavkasia and members of the Supruli Choir, performing a score by Carl Linich commissioned for the event. The composition is adapted from Georgia’s unique polyphonic folk singing tradition, a style admired by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Billy Joel, and the Coen brothers (who used it in The Big Lebowski, believe it or not). If that’s not enough to tempt you, the screening will be followed by a reception featuring Georgian wine, which has developed a devoted following of its own in recent years.

There are other special events planned as well. The silent double feature of Salt for Svanetia and Nail in the Boot on February 15 will be introduced by Georgia expert Peter Rollberg of George Washington University and accompanied by keyboardist Burnett Thompson. On February 22, Dr. Julie Christenson, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet cinema at George Mason University, will introduce Tengiz Abuladze’s once-banned Repentance, one of the first films to address the terrors of the Stalin era. It remains a fine example of Georgian filmmakers’ subtle rebellious character during the Soviet era, which some have compared to the similarly poetic strategies of Iranian filmmakers from the 1990s through today.

I’m grateful to my colleague Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art for offering us this rare opportunity to explore the cinema of this unique region. You can find the full schedule on the NGA’s website.

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

“The Bad Sleep Well”: How “Hamlet” Is It?

The Bad Sleep Well by Akira Kurosawa

“The Bad Sleep Well” by Akira Kurosawa

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer|Sackler.

In his 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie claimed that the director’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The similarities, after all, are clear. Both feature an ambivalent hero on a quest for revenge. Kurosawa himself named Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare his favorite authors, and Hamlet and Macbeth (which he adapted in 1959 as Throne of Blood) his favorite plays. In addition, Richie’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture and personal friendship with Kurosawa made his book the authoritative guide to the filmmaker’s work.

Thirty years later, Japanese Shakespeare scholar Kaori Ashizu questioned Richie’s theory. In her 1995 essay “Kurosawa’s Hamlet?” Ashizu suggests that Richie’s rarely questioned interpretation detracts from The Bad Sleep Well’s importance as a daring attack on the corrupt corporate culture of the time. While acknowledging similarities in plot, she points out that the true parallels don’t emerge until halfway through the film, so those going into it primed for a modern-day Japanese Hamlet adaptation will be disappointed. She further argues that previous scholars worked a bit too hard to find Hamlet-like qualities in the film’s hero, Nishi (played by the great Toshiro Mifune), and bent over backwards to find exact counterparts in the play for other characters in the film.

Still, she does see a distinct parallel between the venal business executives the film assails and Denmark’s rotten court. This intrigues me because it indicates just how deeply ingrained Hamlet is in both Western and Japanese culture. In another essay, Ashizu sketches a history of the play’s influence in Japan, from its first mention in 1841 through kabuki versions, modern stage adaptations, and various translations and interpretations of the play within a Japanese context.

For Harold Bloom, author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet is that rare character who transcends his own play, possessing an intelligence, wit, and depth beyond not only his fellow characters, but us as readers and playgoers, and perhaps even Shakespeare himself. He’s not so much a fictional character as he is a mythological figure (Bloom compares Hamlet’s status to that of Helen of Troy, Odysseus, and Achilles), deeply entwined with our development as a culture.

Ashizu notes “the long-lasting idolatry” of Hamlet “among young men of letters” in Japan. The intellectual Kurosawa certainly absorbed some of him. How much Hamlet is there in The Bad Sleep Well, and how much Hamlet is there in its hero, Nishi? You can judge for yourself when the film screens this Sunday.

The Bad Sleep Well will be shown on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.
Throne of Blood will be shown on Friday, March 14, at 7 pm in the Meyer Auditorium.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Landscapes in Motion

Landscape by Abbas Kiarostami, S1999.124

Untitled by Abbas Kiarostami (b. 1940, Tehran, Iran), color print, 1997, anonymous gift in memory of
Philip L. Ravenhill, S1999.124

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

No filmmaker did more than Abbas Kiarostami to bring the world’s attention to Iranian cinema in the 1990s. With their spare, humanist, and philosophically rich stories imbued with poetic imagery, films like Through the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us won awards at major film festivals. They also played to critical raves in North America and Europe, influenced a generation of Iranian filmmakers, and established Kiarostami as a major figure in world cinema.

But in the early 2000s, Kiarostami grew restless and—at the height of his worldwide popularity—embarked on a daringly experimental phase. He challenged traditional notions of film narrative and even the role and function of the filmmaker. In his 2002 film Ten, the master auteur, whose directorial achievements had been recognized with awards from Cannes and Venice, attempted to absent himself from the artistic process: he had his actors perform for cameras mounted inside a car as they drove around Tehran.

Five: Dedicated to Ozu, showing this Sunday at 2:45 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium, is an even more radical departure. Presented in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition Sense of Place: Landscape Photographs from Asia, it is a film constructed of five landscapes, each of which tells its own subtle story. Its stars are dogs, ducks, pieces of driftwood, and the moon. Landscape has always been important to Kiarostami; two of his landscape photographs appear in Sense of Place. It plays a major role even in his narrative films, and in Roads of Kiarostami, which precedes Five at 2 pm, he discusses landscape’s place in his artistic process. But in Five it is the sole subject—which isn’t to say that the film is dry or difficult. Several years ago I heard Kiarostami speak about his work. During his opening remarks he chose to show a humorous clip from Five involving ducks running back and forth on a beach. It was a real crowd-pleaser: comedy constructed purely from movement, timing, and ingenious framing.

If Kiarostami had continued to work in this vein he might have been seen, like Marcel Duchamp or Philip Guston, as an artist who abandoned the gifts that made him famous to deliberately explore more difficult aesthetic terrain. But in recent years he has returned to narrative filmmaking with Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. Though they were made in Italy and Japan, respectively, these films are as mysterious and beguiling as his earlier work in Iran. So maybe Kiarostami is more like Kim Ki-duk, a filmmaker whose foray into the unfamiliar enriched and refreshed his approach to what we knew and appreciated in the first place.

Readers and Movie Lovers: You Have Homework

Scene from Perfect Number.

Scene from “Perfect Number,” screening October 13 at the Freer

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

Our current film series Pages of Beauty and Madness: Japanese Writers Onscreen not only includes classics from such famous Japanese filmmakers as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Mikio Naruse, and Kon Ichikawa. We also go beyond Japan’s borders to bring you international film versions of Japanese literature. For example, Gibier d’Elevage (October 11) sets Kenzaburo Oe’s World War II-era novella The Catch in Vietnam War-era Cambodia. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (September 27), a notoriously racy ’70s cult film, stars Kris Kristofferson in its adaptation of a seriously disturbing Yukio Mishima novel.

But this series has more than just movies to offer. On September 20, Chicago-based jazz musician Tatsu Aoki brings his MIYUMI Quartet to provide live musical accompaniment for the avant-garde silent film A Page of Madness (cowritten by famed novelist Yasunori Kawabata). Yale professor Aaron Gerow, author of A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, also will be on hand to introduce the film and sign copies of his book.

So what’s your homework assignment? On September 29 and October 13 and 20, the film screenings will be followed by book club gatherings, giving you the chance to discuss the movies and the works that inspired them. The September 29 book club will look at the Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales that inspired both Rashomon and that day’s film, The Outrage (starring F|S September calendar coverboy William Shatner). On October 13 we’ll discuss Keigo Higashino’s eerie murder mystery The Devotion of Suspect X and its Korean film version, Perfect Number, and on October 20 we explore the world of manga and anime after the screening of 5 Centimeters per Second, which Makoto Shinkai adapted from his own manga comic book.

Visit the special Pages of Beauty and Madness display in the Sackler shop to pick up these books, and get reading!