Archive TV Viewing: February 2018

Space 1999 ‘War Games’

The show at its best as Alpha is almost completely destroyed with half its crew lost, in a remarkable fusion of special effects mayhem (including a giant battleship sliding over the top of the camera a good three years before Star Wars did the same thing) and metaphysical ideas about man’s right simply to exist in a beautiful yet cold and unforgiving universe. At times the production values feel almost overwhelming – especially if you’re watching on a really big screen – and once Koenig and Russell get to the planet (one of Brian Johnson’s most vividly realised creations) the callous attitude of the aliens they encounter slyly gives way to the real point of the story about humans unable to overcome their own innate instincts. This could be, as critics often charged, far too pessimistic a view, but the episode strikingly turns this around in a heartfelt speech from Russell (Barbara Bain really acting her socks off here) as she unapologetically declares “We are what we are!”, even if that recognition means the destruction of the aliens paradisiacal home. The reason behind all this carnage is carefully set up in the aliens (Isla Blair and Anthony Valentine) exchanges with Helena and not at all the deus ex machina plot device it’s sometimes ignorantly accused of being. Great stuff, with some unforgettable images – Eagles blown apart on launch pads, Alphans sucked out into space, our first view of the alien landscape, Koenig drifting in space (including a striking moment where the camera tracks Koenig’s hand as he reaches out having seemingly heard Helena’s voice) and a lyrical – practically poetic – final scene that’s as far from the hard driving action of the first act as you could imagine and yet totally works. Victor gets to deliver a touching Alpha memorial speech, Alan Carter performs heroics and there’s pretty much something here for everyone. A great episode.

Danger Man – ‘The Mirror’s New’

Drake in France investigating a murderous English diplomat (Donald Houston) in an episode that’s pretty much perfect from start to finish. Houston is spot on casting as the seemingly dull and square civil servant whose dutiful demeanour conceals a seriously wild side (amusingly, we’re told he’s been corrupted by the Continental lifestyle!), McGoohan is dynamic as always and posing as an unlucky encyclopedia salesman gets a lovely scene to play with a game Wanda Ventham that’s a hoot. The clever script gives Houston’s character a bump on the head early on causing him to lose a day without realising and this element shakes up to splendid effect what might otherwise be an all too predictable plot. Michael Truman is the credited director and he really makes this look like a little feature film. Highlights include Drake insisting that his quarry explain just what he won his medals for in the war, a marvellously played bit of cat and mouse-ery between hero and villain in which the latter gradually realises the game is up. Some great lines too, especially Paddy’s snarling observation on a couple of hoods, “Those two look like they’re waiting for someone to drop dead so they can eat”! Terrific stuff which I thoroughly enjoyed and bonus points for the ingenious use of Ravel’s Bolero.

Danger Man ‘The Man With The Foot’

Drake takes a holiday in Spain after an assignment goes wrong. An amusing shaggy foot story as Robert Urquhart’s informer-for-the-opposition spots Drake and his hunting rifle and comes to entirely the wrong conclusion about his motives. Urquhart (looking here like Eric Morecambe’s brother) is very funny indeed as the hapless ‘tec – constantly putting his foot into puddles (one of the story’s neatest gags is that this is Spain in the off season) and thinking he’s going about unobserved when Drake has him clocked from about a mile away. It’s a shame he and McGoohan don’t have more scenes together but the story’s the thing and it’s a mark of the talent both in front of and behind the camera that despite being about nothing very much this is all highly entertaining from start to finish. Great guest cast too with Bernard Lee and Isobel Black joining in the fun. And this is one of the few live action ITC shows with a genuinely feature film look about it. The production values and general care and attention all look notably higher and more polished than the average ITC lark not least a climactic car chase shot in freezing winter conditions that looks really good. To take a crew out in conditions like that and get those shots just shows what a first class team they had on this series.

Joe 90

I’ve been watching a few of these so this deserves an intro of its own. I think Joe 90 has been severely underrated over the years and watching these episodes in such amazing clarity courtesy of Network’s BR releases makes you realise first just how well made – how detailed – the sets were. It’s a joy to look at, frankly. And secondly, the scripts – for a puppet/children’s show – are really quite sophisticated. An episode like ‘Three’s A Crowd’ – which is all about the characters and their relationships with each other – is sharply observed for kid’s fare. Not patronising or condescending in the least. The voice acting too is as good as it gets. Because the puppets are no longer caricatures the actors don’t have to supply the kind of exaggerated delivery to match which defined Stingray and Thunderbirds. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how genuinely touching some of the exchanges between Mac and Joe can be – or how devious and manipulative Shane and Sam prove when they’re trying to con Mac into letting Joe go off on some incredibly dangerous assignment. I also love the essential cleverness of the format; this idea that because Joe’s a 9 year old kid none of his adversaries are going to take him seriously. They use that getout a lot in the scripts but it never really gets old and the stuff in the first episode with that Russian guard being laughed at as he informs his boss that a 9 old kid’s just made off with their country’s high-tech fighter is great. The other attraction for me is the laid back approach to all the technology. They don’t make a big fuss about Mac’s flying car or even the Big RAT. It’s a refreshing contrast to Thunderbirds and Scarlet and the cosy feel of the show – this inventor and his adopted son in this cosy cottage in the depths of the English countryside – there’s something very charming about that. I think the show’s one of the best things Gerry and Sylvia Anderson ever did. It’s so nice to see the show getting its due with these beautiful HD restorations.

Joe 90 ‘International Concerto’

Not only a lovely showcase for Barry Gray’s music – seriously, how good is that Cook’s tour sequence as Gray takes the national anthems of a half dozen countries and weaves them into a patchwork quilt symphony as we follow pianist/spy Igor Sladek (great name, that!)around the world – but also a cracking script. Sladek ends up nabbed by the bad guys on the eve of his final concert performance but allowed to go ahead before being carted off to the gulag because the studio he’s giving the performance in is ringed by guards and the building’s completely sealed off. He can’t possibly escape in the middle of a live concert performance – or can he? The central conceit of the script – that no one can play quite like Igor Sladek – leads to an ingenious climax as the pint sized Joe, having received Sladek’s brain patterns, is smuggled in to take his place. One of the funniest moments is Joe, having received the brain patterns of Sladek, taking over the piano from Igor as the Colonel, listening outside and completely unaware of the switch, declares of Sladek’s performance, “Inimitable!”

Joe 90 ‘Breakout’

Another good one and a Mac and Joe standalone with Sam and Shane nowhere in sight. I’m very fond of this, partly out of nostalgia, as it was one of the earliest episodes I taped on VHS back in 1983, but mainly because it’s a story that holds up. This has the pair on vacation at a fort in the Canadian Rockies when a couple of escaped convicts ambush the President’s train and hold him to ransom on a rapidly crumbling bridge. Like ‘Double Agent’ it has a harder edge along with humour. That the action is all taking place in the snow also gives the miniature sets – for me anyway – an especially charming quality. The miniature cannon and the monorail train zipping through the snow look terrific and Joe’s confrontation with the baddie who refuses to believe the gadgets in his WIN briefcase are anything other than kid’s toys is all too plausible. Something else I’m noticing is just how fluid and accomplished the puppetry is in Joe 90. The way the puppets seem to mimic human reactions with their movements is a huge step forward over Captain Scarlet. Combine that with the excellent, naturalistic voice acting and it’s surprising how involved you find yourself getting. As with all the other episodes Jonathan Wood’s restoration work is magnificent and I kept noticing little details – such as one of Joe’s bullets cracking the glass on the copter behind the baddie during the final shootout – I’d never picked up on before.

Joe 90 ‘Double Agent’

Which could just as easily have been titled ‘Let’s Kill Everybody!’ and definitely one of the best stories Tony Barwick ever wrote. There’s a traitor in the ranks, Joe’s got the brain pattern of WIN’s top courier and a briefcase full of top secrets that’ll explode if anybody tries to open it and an itinerary. There’s just one problem – Joe isn’t going where he’s supposed to be going. Pretty soon Mac’s at his wits end and the accusations begin to fly amongst the team. Are Shane and Sam conning Mac because the mission’s so dangerous they won’t tell him the truth? But from WIN’s perspective maybe it’s Mac trying to sabotage the mission so they’ll stop pestering him to use Joe. There’s intrigue and mystery but the heart of the story is this character conflict between Mac and WIN over little Joe. The truth of course turns out to be something else again and a shootout at the end climaxes in a delightfully brutal payoff. Great fun and again quite hard edged. If you contrast this with something like ‘Relative Danger’ – which was this rather sweet little family tale – you can see the sort of variety of stories the format allowed. Speaking of which…

Joe 90, ‘Lone Handed 90’

Joe falls asleep while watching a western and dreams of himself as the sheriff of Joesville doing battle with the infamous WIN gang. A total charmer and one of the highlights of the series. It’s not just that the episode has such fun riffing on the clichés of the western (a bank robbery, saloon bar shootout, jailbreak, a train chase) but the modelwork is of such exceptional quality throughout that it’s just a joy to look at. Sam, Shane and Mac are a hoot as the bickering villains and Joe is amusingly unflappable as the pint sized hero. The saloon bar scene – in which a shootout erupts after Shane guns down Joe’s glass of milk – is so well done you can almost forget you’re watching puppets. Barry Gray’s western style rearrangement of the Joe 90 theme is a charmer and there are some nice in jokes of which barmaid Sylvia’s “Keep it going, Gerry!” is the obvious – but not the only – one.

Feathers in the Wind (Song Il-Gon, South Korea, 2004)

Struggling to write his new screenplay, movie director Jang (Jang Hyun-sang) arrives on a remote island and books into a deserted motel run by a young and unfailingly cheerful woman named Lee (Lee So-yeon). She lives with her uncle, a man who hasn’t spoken a word since his wife walked out on him. Ostensibly Jang intends to work on his script but what’s really prompted his arrival is that 10 years earlier he and his musician girlfriend stayed on the same island and agreed to reunite there a decade later. Although the pair have long since separated Jang wants to find out if his ex remembers their agreement. But as Jang settles in it begins to look as though his old flame won’t be turning up. Then one day a shipment for him arrives at the island. To his frustration no sender is listed but the delivery is a piano. Is this a sign that Jang’s former lover is on her way?

There’s a beguiling quality to director Song Il-gon’s follow up to his splendid Spider Forest (2004). Like that film this is also about loss, memory and renewal and it’s filled with a symbolism the meaning of which proves tantalising rather than frustrating. The film hooks you right from the start because Jang’s quest is an easy one to empathise with. After all, there can’t be many people who haven’t wondered – if only in passing – what it might be like to reunite with a former lover, to wonder if – a decade down the line – you’re still on their mind as much as they are on yours. It helps too that Jang doesn’t seem driven by self-pity or much in the way of bitterness (well, other than refusing to root for the German footie team during the world cup because his former love left him for a Kraut, I suppose). As the story develops there are hints as to where Il-gon’s going with this. Lee’s uncle – living in self-imposed silence because his woman’s left him – feels like the kind of person Jang might become and the film’s refusal to show us the face of Jang’s lover as anything other than an out of focus blur implies that contrary to expectations a happy reunion probably isn’t on the cards. Other possibilities then present themselves. Jang’s desultory chats with the exuberant Lee have us assuming it’s these two who’ll fall in love and yet the performances from Hyun-sang and So-yeon are so naturalistic and unforced, their dialogue so devoid of any cute bits of business, that the film’s ultimate destination remains hard to guess.

The evocation of a gusty, rain-swept island in offseason really gives the film a fateful, foreboding feel and yet the mood is undercut by delightfully out-of-left-field moments such as Lee’s tango with an unidentified female partner on the roof of her hotel, or Jang discovering and freeing a beautiful blue peacock that’s gotten entangled on the beach. There’s a joy in this film that creeps up on you and takes you completely by surprise. Even Lee’s Uncle, who’s been suffering in silence the whole film, eventually gets his wife back and Lee’s discovery of a letter hidden in the piano addresses Jang’s (and ours) curiosity about what happened to his ex. In the Latin rhythms of the film’s score and the persistent motif of the Tango (there’s a lovely scene around a bonfire in which Lee takes Jang as her partner for a little twirl) one senses the use of this splendidly eye-catching dance as a symbol of life and counterpoint to the solitude and loneliness that seems to bedevil all the characters in one way or another. When the attraction between Jang and Lee which has been coursing under the surface finally bursts into the open we really root for Lee to make it to the ferry in time to tell a departing Jang that she will indeed meet him in Seoul a year from now. The final scene is a classic “Will they, won’t they” setup which ends happily. But although we’re pleased and satisfied these two are together the real pleasure of the movie is something deeper than the fizzy high of two likeable characters reuniting, it’s the sense that in the course of the story a weight has been lifted from Jang’s soul and that the viewer comes away feeling just as refreshed as he does.

Yakuza Graveyard (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan, 1976)

An increasingly disillusioned Dirty Harry-style cop named Kuroiwa (Tetsuya Watari) finds his investigations into a Yakuza group hampered by his corrupt superiors. As Kuroiwa finds himself attracted toward gangster’s wife Keiko (Meiko Kaji) his mutual dislike of Iwata (Tatsuo Umemiya) – the man lined up to take control of Keiko’s group – erupts into an epic brawl that unexpectedly results in both men becoming sworn friends. But when word of Kuroiwa’s kinship with Iwata is leaked to his superiors by devious loanshark Teramitsu (Kei Sato) Kuroiwa finds himself relieved of his duties. Then Iwata is arrested and murdered in the police station – the result of the Chief of Police conspiring with Teramitsu to seize control of Keiko’s syndicate. With his friend dead Kuroiwa busts into a meeting between his superiors and Teramitsu at police HQ to exact bloody revenge.

Vivid Fukasaku vehicle distinguished by a copper being the lead rather than a gangster, in a pacy, highly entertaining portrait of his supposed decline (I loved the scene in which Kuroiwa lounges in his high rise flat knocking back the whiskey and listening to Western rock music late into the night before the cops arrive to tell him off!) in which our protagonist’s corrupt superiors – nearly all of them doing deals with the Yakuza – make our hero seem downright pure by comparison. He, after all, just wants to beat the shit out of the bad guys while arresting them. Tetsuya Watari (wearing a wicked pair of shades and conveying his pent up frustration by repeatedly smacking his fist into the palm of his hand much to the annoyance of his superiors) is a most agreeable substitute for Bunta Sugawara and his affection for Meiko Kaji’s gangster wife is put across with that characteristic Fukasaku mixture of tough love and tenderness. What’s compelling here is that despite his tough guy front Kuroiwa really feels for the suffering of those unfortunates – such as a pair of Yakuza footsoldiers ordered to take the rap for a shooting, or the mistress he’s supporting after he shot and killed the woman’s gangster husband – who are otherwise powerless in the criminal underworld. Even Kuriowa’s unlikely friendship with Iwata seems plausible because the two are such mirror images of each other. They’re both violent but also direct, uncomplicated, loyal and not at all given to the kind of scheming and backstabbing of their comrades. That gets our sympathy because both men work for bosses who are either corrupt and conniving or cowardly and ineffectual. When Kuroiwa and a fellow cop take a troublesome Yakuza into the police gymnasium to beat some sense into him the fun is rapidly curtailed by gutless superiors.

We’re shown a world in which the elderly Yakuza bosses have completely lost control of their younger recruits leaving an unscrupulous free for all – devoid of honour or humanity – in their wake. One of the running gags here is the spectacle of a senior Yakuza constantly threatening to kill all those who disobey him while everyone else just ignores the old fart. I really liked that the film doesn’t go down the route of depicting Kuroiwa as a bad apple in the cop barrel who finds his natural home with Yakuza thugs. It’s more heartfelt than that. With the exception of the bosses most everyone Kuroiwa comes into contact with is soaked in torment and misery. Even the seemingly formidable Keiko, who spins Kuroiwa a yarn about how she’s a half-breed Japanese/Korean who yearns to return to her homeland is ultimately revealed to be a junkie who’s been on the streets selling her body since she was 13. Fukasaku’s vigorous visual style also never ceases to fascinate and there are some tremendously evocative moments here. I really liked the scene where our hero invites Keiko into his dark high rise flat as a sudden breeze comes through the open windows, ruffling the clothes that are hanging off washing lines strung back and forth across the apartment. It’s an image of utter, solitary desolation that indelibly renders Kuroiwa on the same level as all those wretched souls he’s taken pity on. It all adds up to a climax in which it’s not just the gangsters that need sorting but disgustingly corrupt cops and Kuroiwa’s just the man to do it. The film boasts the most amazing closing scene as a dying Kuroiwa is approached by one of his cop mates to whom our shot up hero responds by flicking the V’s at him! It’s a thrilling gesture of “You can all go Fuck Yourselves!” defiance that you feel Jimmy Cagney in his gangster prime would have loved to do if the Hays Code hadn’t been around to stop him. What’s more, our sympathies are totally with Kuroiwa by this point. One of Fukasaku’s best.

One Cut of the Dead (Yuya Nakaizumi, Shinichiro Ueda, Japan, 2017)

A film crew shooting a low-budget zombie pic in an abandoned WW2 facility suddenly come under attack from real zombies. Cleverly conceived movie-within-a-movie which kicks off with the zombie movie proper before flashing back to show how the crew and project came together and then reruns the whole movie again. This time showing us all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans as the crew are forced to improvise desperately during what turns out to be a live broadcast for a zombie themed tv channel and we get to see just why certain moments came out the way they did. It’s an entertaining mixture of scares, family drama and – once we see behind-the-scenes – laugh out loud hilarity. My favourite being the drunk cameraman who gets so insensible the increasingly desperate crew pitch him into the action as a zombie. Although this seems initially like just another zombie flick what it is more than anything is a heartfelt tribute to the ingenuity of low budget filmmakers everywhere. Also refreshing to see a genre entry that is actually at its strongest in its last act rather than its first. The cast are all game with Harumi Shuhama the standout as the movie director’s wife, self-defence hobbyist and wannabee actress who gets a bit too carried away by her role. On the strength of her performance here I really hope Shumhama gets more opportunities to show what she can do because she’s got a real screen presence.

Devotion to Railway (Minoru Yamada, Hideo Sekigawa, Japan, 1960)

After four years of work youthful train attendant Yajima (Katsuo Nakamura) sees no value in his job and wants to quit so he can marry girlfriend Kimie (Yoshiko Sakuma). She, however, thinks that job security is more important than a hasty marriage. So Kimie boards the Sakura – the Nagasaki bound express Yajima’s been assigned to – in order to convince him to stay. But even as the two lovers argue, the personal problems of numerous other passengers loom large and then the tracks are hit by a landslide which strands the Sakura in the middle of the night at the centre of a typhoon. It’s a race against time to clear the tracks and get the train moving again. But with his own relationship in question does Yajima have what it takes to be a team player?

Devotion to Railway is a real charmer. On one level it’s an affectionate portrait of the railway employees who do all the heavy lifting keeping the train running and the passengers happy. It’s so successful in this that by the end you almost want to go out and enrol as a trainee conductor yourself. But on the other it’s also like an entry in the disaster movie genre with a bunch of strangers thrown together each with their own little storyline and events coming to a climax when the storm hits, an avalanche halts the train and Yajima is forced to make a life-changing decision with consequences for all involved. Kaneto Shindo wrote the screenplay and it’s very much in line with the socially conscious movies he was making in the 1950’s. If you only know his work from macabre 60’s films like Kuroneko and Onibaba this might seem amusingly square in comparison but it really isn’t (in fact something in the imagery of the storm sequence, in which crew and passengers pile out in the pounding rain to claw the rocks and boulders away with their bare hands, evokes an elemental struggle for survival entirely in line with his better known movies). The film smoothly juggles Yajima and Kimie’s dilemma with multiple sub-plots – that of a passenger stalked by an assassin, a young man eloping with an older woman, a pampered fat cat politician who kicks up a fuss because his gold watch has been stolen, a pretty young lady escorting vital blood supplies (which, in that cliché-of-clichés, must arrive on time or else!) and plenty more besides – all of which are engagingly put over and satisfactorily resolved. I especially liked the happy honeymoon couple travelling on the train whose wedded bliss is used as a kind of remainder to Yajima of what he stands to gain – or lose – depending on his actions.

And I loved the scene in which Yajima’s character is put to the test. It comes when the avalanche has hit, the train’s stuck, there’s torrential rain crashing down, Kimie’s looking anxiously on, all these passengers are coming up to Yajima with heart-tugging entreaties and poor Yajima’s in a paralysis of indecision. You really wonder if his desire to quit means he’s going to turn his back on them. But then he leaps out the door to help and his action actually encourages the rest of the staff and not a few of the passengers, Kimie included, to join him. The spectacle of everyone pulling together proves so rousing it even persuades one traveller with suicide on his mind to stay alive! Without being overly sentimental or heavy-handed the movie says something meaningful about the value of being part of something larger than your own selfish desires and the way ones actions can have a positive effect on others. Even the train’s pickpocket ends up returning the gold watch he’s swiped but the film’s humanist theme is put across so well we don’t see even this development as unlikely. Katsuo Nakamura gives a pleasant enough performance as Yajima but I really liked the beautiful Yoshiko Sakuma who plays it sweet and sincere as Kimie. This woman lights up the screen with a plaintiff, soulful quality. It’s a touching moment when she admits that her stubbornness regarding Yajima’s job is driven by her own impoverished childhood and an uplifting one when Yajima’s senior, Matsuzaki (Rentaro Mikuni) – the kind of firm yet affable boss we’d all like to have – tells her to stop worrying and just jump into marriage. I got a kick out of seeing these two together again since I’d just rewatched A Story from Echigo, made a few years later, in which Mikumi plays a nasty piece of work who ends up raping Sakuma’s character but they’re all good friends in this one. The passengers are a lively bunch too, especially the fat cat politician and all his fawning acolytes who greet him at each stop with chants of “Banzai!” He gets a well deserved comeuppance at the end when a fellow passenger flat out refuses to be awed by his presence.

The production values are also exceptionally good. For starters much of the movie looks like it was shot on an actual train. Most of the backgrounds visible through the carriage windows are clearly not rear projection screens but the real deal. The sleeping compartments, passenger and dining carriages are barely wide enough for a single person to walk down yet the camera is frequently dollying away from or toward the actors with an agility that belies what must have been extremely cramped conditions for cast and crew. Cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa’s framing and compositions are fascinating. As if reflecting the compact spaces there are times here where his low camera angles mean he’s got heads and bodies all over the frame but the effect never seems less than wholly pleasing. The emphasis on low camera angles and moody lighting effects gives the movie a distinctly noir-ish atmosphere that really comes into its own once night falls and a would be killer stalks his victim as the storm hits. Speaking of which, the big storm sequence is very well staged on what likes a real location with the actors getting absolutely drenched in the rain. It’s a great looking film (some of the train POV shots of the surrounding landscape as it makes its journey from Tokyo to Nagasaki are gorgeous) and kind of amazing that it’s almost completely unheard of. Granted, maybe this is just a standard studio film at a time when Japanese cinema was churning out hundreds of such films a year, but if so it speaks to the high standard of even the less high profile ones.

A Story from Echigo (Tadashi Imai, Japan, 1964)

In 1937 the success of an Echigo peasant named Ryukichi (Shoichi Ozawa) at a sake brewery many miles from home leads to jealousy and resentment on the part of workmate and Echigo villager Gonsuke (Rentaro Mikuni). When he’s urgently summoned home one December on account of his mother’s illness, Gonsuke encounters Ryukichi’s wife Oshin (Yoshiko Sakuma) and rapes her in the snow. After warning Oshin to keep quiet Gonsuke returns to the brewery and mockingly torments the good-natured Ryukichi with rumours of his wife having an affair. As these rumours gnaw at Ryukichi, affecting his work and driving him to drink, a horrified Oshin discovers she’s pregnant with Gonsuke’s child. When Ryukichi finally returns home his suspicion over Oshin’s alleged infidelity give way to delight at discovering his wife’s pregnancy and the natural assumption he’s the father. But a local midwife inadvertently reveals the truth to Ryukichi whose confrontation with Oshin has horrific consequences.

A riveting tale of betrayal and revenge this, with a tone that moves by increments from threat, to dread, to horror and a fatalism that engulfs everyone. Early scenes paint Ryukichi as hard working and guileless. He’s an easy character to like but a promotion at work, his pretty wife and his trusting nature quickly have us fearing the worst because Gonsuke – a pressure cooker of resentments just waiting to explode – is such a bullying, manipulative creep. A stopover at a tavern on his way home in which Gonsuke’s desires are inflamed by booze and tales of lust from the resident barflies has us dreading the moment he encounters Ryukichi’s wife Oshin on the path to their village. And as good as Mikuni and Ozawa are here Yoshiko Sakuma is an absolute heartbreaker as Oshin. Her torment – made pregnant by the man who raped her, ashamed and suffering in silence as she conceals the pregnancy from her fellow villagers – could have been the stuff of a standard tear-jerker. But after the rape the film takes a deep dive into Oshin’s past and in concise flashbacks both lyrical and foreboding Oshin’s childhood dreams are contrasted with her utter powerlessness as a servant girl sexually abused by her employers. One watches in a sort of grim horror as Oshin tries to abort Gonsuke’s bastard child before her husband discovers the truth. She sneaks out in the middle of the night to press heavy weights on her swollen belly, kneels waist deep in the icy waters of a river – all to no avail. I was really struck by the effect Imai gets by crosscutting these scenes with those of Ryukichi at work as he’s tormented by dream images of Oshin in the embrace of her phantom lover. If Oshin is powerless then the implication is that Ryukichi is equally vulnerable because he can’t live without this woman. All the characters here seem at the mercy of forces beyond their control. When Oshin finds herself on a clifftop tempted to commit suicide it’s the same spot from which Ryukichi’s father fell to his death years earlier. This sense of sympathetic characters struggling to escape a fate pre-ordained proves incredibly gripping because Imai never allows us to quite lose hope.

Even a third act shocker – in which Ryukichi snaps and chokes Oshin to death in the mud of a rice field, but then takes her body into the hills, tenderly cleans and dresses it in her favourite kimono and mourns her until the horrors of decomposition set in – is a macabre knockout because it so embodies the intense love between these two characters; a romantic fatalism that Gonsuke’s lies can strain but never break, not even in death. Not that Gonsuke escapes either. In the film’s final scene this loathsome man – having received his call up papers – is spied by Ryukichi being marched off to war. You have to laugh at the expression on Gonsuke’s face. Cheered on by his fellow villagers he may be but Gonsuke wears the look of a man who knows he’s been given a death sentence. It comes quicker than anticipated though as Ryukichi hurtles out of the crowd to pull Gonsuke over the cliff edge, just like his father before him. It’s all over in seconds. Blast of music. Cut to credits. It’s such a stark and unexpected ending it leaves you floored. With this Imai made one of his best films. His humanist sympathies for the peasant characters are so heartfelt, the drama so powerfully drawn, that the story feels universal – one of those eternal tales that could be happening anywhere at any time. Shunichiro Nakao’s stark b/w cinematography so vividly captures Echigo village in winter that you can practically feel the chill coming off the screen. Most everything here looks like it was shot on rugged locations, with the actors – poor Yoshiko Sakuma in particular – trudging through heavy snow, kneeling waist deep in a freezing cold river and then having to be drowned in a muddy field (a sequence that feels every bit as agonising to watch as it likely was for her to do). Imai’s interest in the lives of his poor characters also means the film is peppered with fascinating local colour ranging from the backbreaking work involved in Ryukichi’s job of making sake to the rituals required for the village funeral of Gonsuke’s mother. It’s all never less than wholly absorbing and Sei Ikeno’s ominous and mournful music underscores the grim events of this powerhouse movie perfectly.

Cold Eyes (Jo Ui-seok, Kim Byung-seo, South Korea, 2015)

Gifted with exceptional powers of memory and observation, new recruit Ha Yoon-Joo (Han Hyo-joo) joins a hi-tech surveillance unit known as The Zoo, whose agents are all named after animals. Codenamed Piglet and plunged into the hunt for a gang of bank robbers, Ha immediately runs afoul of her tough boss Chief Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) when she takes direct action in contravention of rules stating agents must only observe and report. But when further audacious robberies occur Ha and her team find themselves plunged into a face to face confrontation with the gang’s mastermind, a cunning, cold blooded killer nicknamed The Shadow (Jung Woo-sung) whose knowledge of surveillance techniques (and how to avoid them) is just as sharp as The Zoo’s. However The Shadow has problems of his own. He wants to retire only to discover that his employer has other ideas.

With its likeable characters, visceral action and swaggering visual style, Cold Eyes is an absolute blast. The film’s confidence is apparent right from its opening sequence in which two separate events – a meticulously planned and executed bank robbery overseen by The Shadow from the roof of one of the tallest buildings in Seoul, and a test of our heroine’s observational and tracking skills taking place on the streets below – are audaciously intercut without managing to confuse the viewer (no mean feat considering that at this point we don’t even know who any of the characters are). The sequence also plants a crucial visual clue regarding the The Shadow that goes right to the heart of Ha’s unique genius and pays off later in the story. The casting across the board here is first class. Young Hyo-joo has just the right combination of street smarts and vulnerability as the rookie cop (the poor girl’s reaction when she goes to take a piss and completely forgets she’s miked, up with the result that everyone back at HQ can hear her, is a hoot!) and she’s the perfect contrast to Sol Kyung-gu’s boss Chief Hwang, a man who treats his employees with what might charitably be termed tough love. Kyung-gu channels something of his tough yet amusing Public Enemy persona here even if he is hidden behind some bookish spectacles. But the actor also brings a vulnerability to the character that has us truly dreading the consequences when he comes up against Jung Woo-sung’s villain The Shadow, a truly formidable adversary who when threatened kills without hesitation, stabbing his victims in the neck and heart with a pen!

The Shadow may cut a vaguely dorky figure in his long overcoat and briefcase but we’re quickly shown this is a master tactician who plans his raids meticulously and lets hired thugs take all the risks while he watches safely from afar. The hints the film drops that The Shadow has been harshly trained from childhood by his cruel employer/father to know no other existence except killing are intriguing and because Woo-sung brings hints of vulnerability to the role we’re not entirely unsympathetic when he tells his employer he wants to leave only to be almost garrotted for his trouble and forced back to work. One of the strengths of Cold Eyes is that the characters are all imbued with funny little quirks – from the sly hint that Hwang bores every new recruit with the tale of his greatest arrest, to the cabinet stuffed with spare phones because The Zoo’s glam female boss (Jin Kyung) has a habit of taking out her frustrations by lobbing the nearest one across the room, to Ha wanting the girly-girl codename of Reindeer only to be saddled by her boss with the moniker of Piglet – all of which combine to make the characters vivid and engaging. The film fairly barrels along, combining Piglet’s desire to prove herself with the hunt for the gang and the mastermind behind them. On the technical side the film’s ultra slick visual style and propulsive editing grab you by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go. The film has several hi-octane robbery sequences plus a big car chase/shootout, but for a movie that’s essentially comprised of sequences in which our heroes do little except follow others through the streets on foot it’s really impressive just how relentlessly gripping all this is. A setpiece in which Ha finds herself sharing a lift with one especially repulsive suspect – who has his mind on call girls and thinks she might be one – is edge of the seat stuff. Another, in which The Shadow does overwatch on an exactingly planned bank robbery only to realise with dawning horror that the police radio transmissions he’s monitoring mean that his own team are under surveillance, marks a thrilling reversal of fortune for our previously untouchable supervillain.

There’s an especially nice touch in the way the filmmakers have – or appear to have – the camera attached to an object or person in a chase or fight scene. There’s a shot here where The Shadow takes a running jump through a window, comes crashing down on top of a car and then rolls off onto the ground, in which the camera seems to stay physically attached to the actor throughout the entire length of the shot. The effect is breathtaking (I can only imagine what it must have felt like on a cinema screen). The linear script avoids unnecessary subplots with the result that the film’s focus and momentum on the chase rarely stall and the climax is refreshingly free of the ‘multiple endings’ curse that afflicts the Hollywood equivalents of this sort of stuff. The final face off here, in which Ha saves herself from The Shadow and leaves the way clear for her boss to take him down, “Korean cops rarely get to shoot at live targets. Let’s make the most of it!” utters a wounded Chief Hwang brandishing a pistol as the killer barrels toward him, embodies the film’s taut yet humorous tone. It’s a winning combination. I was also touched by the space the film gives to a heartfelt remembrance for the one member of The Zoo who dies at The Shadow’s hands. The film’s coda – featuring a cameo by Simon Yam, the star of Eye In The Sky (2007), the Hong Kong movie of which Cold Eyes is actually a remake, is not only an affectionate touch but neatly sets up a potential sequel. That has yet to happen despite Cold Eyes being a big success at the local box office. Hopefully one day it will. In the meantime if you’re new to South Korean action cinema this is a cracking movie to start with.

The Devil’s Temple, Kenji Misumi, Japan, 1969)

During a period of turmoil in the middle ages, a former nobleman turned bandit called Taro (Shintaro Katsu) and his nymphet companion Aizen (Michiyo Aratama) seek refuge in an abandoned Buddhist temple high up in the mountains. When Taro’s ex-wife Kaede (Hideko Takamine) also arrives and tries unsuccessfully to win Taro back a bitter six month stand off ensues until one day a Buddhist priest (Kei Sato) turns up seeking shelter. Taro tries to kill the man but a strange light from the priest’s figurine of Buddha renders him insensible. Seeking revenge Aizen plots to destroy the priest’s authority by seducing him and revealing to Taro that he’s just as driven by earthly desires as any other man. But the changes in Taro prove deeper and more profound than anyone realises.

A film about the triumph of Buddhist contemplation over human desire sounds like a right chore but this atmospheric and highly charged chamber piece is fantastic. Shintaro Katsu of Zatochi fame may be top billed but his bullying, loudmouthed bandit character is a pussy compared to the two strong willed women fighting over him. Kaneto Shindo’s screenplay quickly establishes the true natures of Aizen and Kaede in the way both react to Taro’s slaughter of bandits who stumble across the temple and try to claim it for themselves. While Kaede immediately runs to wipe the blood off her former husband Aizen simply casts Taro a come hither look, offers him her naked body to worship and like a dog he comes running. With that the ruler and the ruled couldn’t be more clearly drawn. Most of the drama plays out within the setting of a decrepit temple and the action gets a huge boost from director Misumi’s mise-en-scene, not only his dynamic compositions, but neat touches such as the use of the colour red to symbolise Aizen’s moral degradation and the motif of a flickering flame from candle or fire to signify the fluctuating status of both women as they vie for control. One of the few exterior sequences here, in which Taro descends the mountain to a city to pillage for food at Aizen’s command – a city itself in the grip of riots – is quite brilliant in its impressionistic imagery of terrified farmers at the mercy of armed samurai. This glimpse of a world in chaos also raises the stakes of the drama. It’s almost as if the fate of humanity itself rests on the outcome of this little personal drama unfolding in a mountaintop temple.

The four performances are all good and all different enough to hold our attention. Katsu plays Taro as a violent, loudmouth bully, something that could easily prove tedious if not for the fact that with the malevolent Aizen hovering in the background ordering him around one quickly susses Taro is less monster and more a simple man led astray. That holds our interest.
Taro’s former wife Kaede brings a certainty to her mission of rescue but Hideko Takamine’s subtle performance also means we feel every slight and hurt she has to endure at the sight of her man reduced to little more than a brute. Intriguingly, she’s no saint either. Kei Sato’s priest correctly spots that Kaede’s desire to reclaim her husband is driven by jealousy more than any sense of enlightenment. No one here is above earthly passions and in one of the script’s cleverest touches none other than the priest himself is revealed to be Aizen’s former lover. Indeed it was his torrid affair with Aizen in a former life as a cavalry officer (in flashback we see the man killing a rival in battle so he can have Aizen for himself) that compelled him to convert to Buddishm! In a superbly choreographed setpiece the priest’s rigid adherence to Buddhist principles all crumble in the face of Aizen’s seduction. Pleasingly, the film avoids mocking the priest’s dilemma and Kei Sato has our sympathy as the all too human holy man who hasn’t a chance against the charms of Aizen. Indeed, alternately coquettish and then outright sexy, teasing and then demure, Michiyo Aratama’s performance is a real barn burner and dominates the film. She’s a great foil for everyone to play off and the character revels in her power. When Kaede spins her tale of woe, telling the priest how her husband has fallen under the spell of this evil woman, it’s the latter who secretly listens in with malevolent glee.

And I got a good chuckle out of the moment Aizen disrobes in the middle of seducing the priest, cheekily tossing her kimono over the head and shoulders of a temple statue of Buddha! One of the strengths of Aizen’s character is that it’s not immediately apparent just how monstrous she really is. At first she seems merely manipulative and selfish. But following her successful seduction of the priest (enhanced by the melancholy grandeur of Akira Ifkube’s score) Misumi stages a show-stopper of a scene as Aizen throws open the doors to her chamber and – hair and clothes streaming wildly in the wind as if the demon inside her has suddenly broken free – proclaims the victory of her body over Buddha. It’s a moment of delirious horror because we understand all too well the cruelty of Aizen’s worldview and the terrible hurt she’s willing to inflict on anyone for her own amusement. The payoff, as Taro questions Aizen “Does killing the Buddha… feel good to you?” leads to a shocking moment of retribution. The final scene – with Taro silently donning the priest’s gear to continue the dead man’s pilgrimage across a land wracked by despair – feels deeply resonant. Kaede’s at his side and I wonder if her enigmatic expression is that of Buddhist calm or an all too earthly satisfaction at a vanquished rival? I wonder too at the cause of that strange light from the priest’s Buddha figurine that wrought such change in Taro. Divine intervention or merely a trick of the light on an already addled and confused mind? Fascinating questions, great film.

When The Tenth Month Comes (Dang Nhat Minh, Vietnam, 1984)

In a small country village housewife Duyen (Le Van) receives a letter informing her that her husband has died in battle. Unable to accept the truth and yearning to meet her husband again Duyen persuades local poet Khang to write a letter in her husband’s name reassuring her infant son and ailing father-in-law that all is well. But after Khang reluctantly agrees to write further letters a personal message he sends to Duyen, in which he asks her to stop the charade and reveal the truth, is misinterpreted by the villagers as evidence of an affair between the two. With ghostly visions haunting Duyen’s life her son eventually discovers the truth when he hitches a ride to town with a group of soldiers. Back home Duyen must reckon with her father-in-law’s dying wish to see his son one last time.

The forlorn beauty of actress Le Van is front and centre in this touching portrait of a young widow unable to accept the fact of her husband’s death. The film reminded me of Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010) in that its character both desires above all else to speak to the dear departed and the film’s realistic tone gives way at certain points to fantastical visions of the deceased – the famous warrior who guards the local temple and who appears to Duyen, plus a visit to a ghostly market in which our heroine does indeed encounter her deceased husband – while leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether these visions are genuine or the product of a woman’s grief. The small cast of characters are all effective but it’s Le Van who – whether recalling happier times in flashback or facing poignant daily reminders of the husband she’s lost -captures our sympathy. That, together with writer/director Nhat Minh’s humanist theme – his recognition that what’s gone is gone and that only the living can help each other through their grief (which is also of course what you got in Hereafter) – is what gives the film its impact. I also really liked that the subplot about Duyen’s father-in-law who desires to see his son one last time before he dies is resolved – not through any kind of ghostly apparition – but by a kindly soldier friend of Duyen’s husband taking his hand and sitting with him in his last minutes. There’s a tenderness here reflected in Lan Nguyen’s b/w cinematography which brings a reflective, almost dreamlike, quality to Nhat Minh’s otherwise plaintive directorial style. That said, I was very taken by the slow motion ghost market sequence as Duyen finds herself wandering amidst both the living and the dead. Sure enough she finds her husband but her happiness is brilliantly undercut through the visual conceit of having her unable to grasp her husband’s hand. It’s not the old cliché of the insubstantial ghost but something more subtle, this idea that the two simply cannot connect and it again speaks to the story’s key theme.

Fangs Of The Cobra (Sun Chung, Hong Kong, 1977)

Tang (Hua Tsung) returns home to take over his father’s farm and falls in love with the pretty Ah Fen (Yao Hsia). When the villainous Brother Hu (Hung Wei) attempts to ensnare Tang in the clutches of his glamourous but devious girlfriend Cousin Man-ling (Danna) he only succeeds in drawing Tang and Ah Fen even closer together. With marriage in the offing Brother Hu lays plans to make Tang a widow on his wedding day so Man-ling can get at him. But both have reckoned without the protectiveness of Ah Fen’s childhood friend – a fully grown cobra named Xixi!

A girl’s best friend is her snake. That’s the motto of director Sun Chung’s likeable and hilarious charmer which benefits from a sweet chemistry between its two human leads and the outrageousness of its central idea that a fully grown cobra could be anything other than a dangerous menace. In this case Xixi (pronounced “Sisi”) is both cute pet and fierce protector to Ah Fen and so intelligent she can figure out a way to save a wedding party from being blown up in their car, stop the predatory Man-ling from seducing Tang, obey her owners command to attack and – in a climactic fight with a mongoose – slither up on top of a table to tip a jar of boiling water on its enemy’s head. I mean we’re talking one seriously smart snake here (probably graduated summa cum laude from Snake University). This is sort of like the Shaw version of Lassie with the sweetness of a human to human love story plus added sleaze and violence. I thought it worked really well but in a way it does so because it goes against the grain of what a Shaw movie usually is. Instead of tons of plot with fights and chases every few minutes the burgeoning love affair between Tang and Ah Fen comprises probably 2/3 of the movie. Yet watching these two never feels like a chore because the script has some nice touches such as Hu’s botched kidnap which sets the stage for a heretofore suspicious Ah Fen to recognise Tang’s sincerity toward her – exactly the opposite of what he’d planned. Tang’s hatred of snakes (his own mother died after having been bitten by one) means Xixi ends up banished from the house even after she’s saved him from some thugs and it’s interesting how bad we feel about that. As much as we don’t want anything awful to happen to Tang or Ah Fen we’d be really sad if Xixi got hurt. I also liked the way the script structures a bomb attempt on Ah Fen’s wedding convoy, leading us to fear the worst before revealing – in a terrific little flashback – just how everyone’s lives were saved by Xixi.

Speaking of Xixi, her performance is quite excellent. She straightens up on command, hisses when told, moves in the right direction as required and even lets Ah Fen stroke her in a most convincing owner/pet manner. If there was an Oscar for Best Snake performance (even in a competitive year) Xixi would slither away with it. She’s really good and I loved the way director Sun Chung keeps showing us Xixi watching over her mistress. There’s a scene here where the pair are lounging at the beach and Ah Fen tells Tang she’s pregnant. As Tang jumps for joy the camera zooms out to show this bloody snake watching them from the clifftop! It’s hilarious and yet at the same time there’s an oddly compelling quality about it. As for the rest of the cast they’re effective too with Hung Wei suitably shifty as our hero’s unscrupulous foster brother and Hong Kong actress Danna a hoot as the pouting sexpot. Danna’s got a good body and gives her softcore scenes a charge, not least on account of those amazing nipples of hers (like bullets they are). The film works up to a strong climax with Hu taking revenge after Tang sacks him by releasing a mongoose to kill Tang’s newly born baby boy. The resulting reptile vs animal smackdown is well staged with the pair snapping ferociously at each other and both Hu and Man-ling end up getting their just desserts as an enraged Xixi gives the lovers some lovebites of her own. Also of note is a neat little plot twist connecting the loathsome Brother Hu with the snake death of Tang’s mother. The film looks good too with evocative studio sets – such as Ah Fen’s shack on the river complete with ducks paddling by – and some quite spectacular location footage of the characters up in the mountains. Great closing scene too as Tang and Ah Feng, now family because of their baby, go looking for Xixi only to be greeted by the spectacle of.. well, see if you can guess!