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!

A Mongolia Tale (Fei Xie, China, 1995)

Bayinbulag (Ganghulag) and Somiya (Bayirtcya), two children from different families, grow up under their adoptive Grandmother (Dalarsurong) in a Yurt on the Mongolian grasslands. But their happy life is threatened when Bayinbulag is sent away to school for eight months. So Grandmother proposes that the pair marry because that way they can all stay together. Both children agree, however fate means Bayinbulag ends up away from home for three years because he’s sent on to college. When he returns it’s to discover that Somiya is pregnant by the local lothario. It’s not Somiya’s fault but an angry Bayinbulag is unwilling to forgive her for what he regards as a betrayal and despite Grandmother’s pleading he walks out on both women. 12 years later Bayinbulag, now a professional musician, returns to his village to look up Somiya and amidst the sprawling grasslands of his youth realises the value of what he’s lost.

Strange and stirring tale which elides its spectacular Mongolian landscapes with three likeable and involving characters so skilfully that by the end we feel it’s not just a relationship that’s been severed but a connection with the natural order of things. Fei Xie’s direction evocatively captures the lifestyle of a nomadic people, circa late 1970’s/early 80’s, who herd sheep and horses for a living (the latter dependent – so we’re told – on their being a man in the family), who live in a Yurt (basically a big tent with its own front door) and who have to literally move their home from the uplands to the lowlands every autumn to avoid the winter snowfalls. Travel is mostly either by foot, horse or horse-drawn carts. It’s a physically demanding life to say the least but Bayinbulag and Somiya take to it like ducks to water and the engaging, naturalistic performances from the child actors pull you right in. The film has a smart way with metaphor and symbol without overdoing it. Bayinbulag’s seeming destiny as a child of the grasslands is neatly linked with a new born foal that’s gotten lost and whom the children discover outside the door of their home one winter’s night. In time the boy learns to ride the horse – given the splendid monicker of Ganggang Hara – and the animal becomes as much a part of the family as the children. When the older Bayinbulag bades a permanent farewell to Somiya and Grandmother it’s Ganggang Hara who comes racing across the plains after its master as he rides off on the back of a truck – a great scene. And I liked the way the children’s budding sexual awareness is ever so gently hinted at in a visit to a temple as the children gaze, uncomprehending yet fascinated, at the statue of a goddess. Despite that Xie’s film has a slight emotional distance from its characters. We certainly like Bayinbulag, Somiya and Grandmother and yet his film never lets us get too close to them. But once the final third rolls around, with the now 30-something Bayinbulag returning home for a reunion with Somiya, the latter’s account of her life comes tumbling out and your heart just aches for the poor girl.

We learn that Somiya’s eldest daughter, the sweet Qiqig (Wendilya), is the bastard offspring of the man who seduced her 12 years before and as such the butt of insults from the rough, drunkard husband with whom Somiya’s subsequently had four other kids. In flashback we see how Grandmother went senile and spent her days searching for Bayinbulag, in her confusion bringing in strays and drunks and pretty much anyone else who crossed her path. In another we learn that Ganggang Hara died towing Grandmother’s body to its burial spot leaving Somiya stuck with the newly born Qiqig in the middle of a fierce snowstorm only to be rescued in the nick of time by her future husband. It all sounds as if Bayinbulag should be horsewhipped for his callousness but the film is fair in showing why Bayinbulag felt he had to go and Somiya’s final request to him – that if he has a child he give it to her to raise – suggests that what’s really been lost here is not simply a happy marriage between these two but a way of life inextricably connected to the Mongolian grasslands. It’s that awareness that makes the film poignant, mysterious and kind of rousing, really. The casting of Bayinbulag and Somiya at different stages of their lives never feels less than spot on and Renhua Na as the elder Somiya brings a touchingly forlorn quality to her performance without tipping over into melodrama. I especially appreciated the parting gift of a pen from Bayinbulag to Qiqig. It’s a moment that carries its own resonance because we learn early on that Somiya – because she’s a girl – was never sent to school thus never learnt to read or write. And there’s a most poignant use of song by Bayinbulag – a response to the older Somiya’s litany of woes – in which the lyrics he gently sings embody the film’s theme. The movie is beautifully shot by cinematographer Jing Sheng Fu, with its visual design of characters at work and play in the midst of vast landscapes, subtly working on the viewer to persuade us that these two elements are inextricably linked. “We are Mongolia’s children,” sings Bayinbulag, “In love with the land of our birth.” All true and the sadness of this lovely film is that it’s about a man who forgets that and comes to realise too late what it’s cost him.

Execution In Autumn (Lee Hsing, Taiwan, 1972)

In an era when executions are only carried out in autumn by royal decree Gang Pei (Ou Wei), a spoiled and only son, is sentenced to death for murder. With autumn a year away and horrified at the realisation that Pei’s death means her family will have no male heir his doting grandmother Liao (Bi Hui Fu) arranges to have loyal servant girl Chan (Li Tsiang) smuggled into the stockade so she can sleep with Gang Pei. That way, at least grandmother can be assured of an heir to carry on the family line. But an angry Gang Pei refuses to cooperate. With time running out, can he be persuaded to change his mind?

Despite its superficial resemblance to Shaw’s martial arts movies this Taiwanese gem is a work of unusual depth and substance. Its tale about the flowering of a brutish man’s better nature even as death bears down on him is told with such artistry that it has something of the quality of myth about it. Our protagonist Gang Pei quickly prove his own worst enemy – not only is he an arrogant bully whose loudmouth behaviour during his trial is so obnoxious it earns him a death sentence when a show of contrition might have got him off – but while in prison he rages with violence against everyone and everything. However the cleverness of Chang Yung-Hsiang’s script is the way that what at first seems like an exercise in ruthless pragmatism (who cares about Gang Pei, the family must have an heir!) is really about the redemption of this violent man. There are hints of this early on. Grandmother Lia bemoans the fact that she’s the one who created this monster because she so spoilt Gang Pei as a child and we see flashbacks underline this. The gaoler Lao Tao (Ko Ting Hsiang) is forced to administer brutal beatings to subdue Gang Pei yet his eyes hint at a man clearly troubled by his actions. When he reveals to Pei that he too spoiled his own son and that the kid grew up a troublemaker until he was killed in a fight – “When I beat you, I thought I was beating him” he tells Pei – we understand why he’s agreed to help smuggle Chan into the prison despite knowing it’ll be the death penalty for him if he gets caught. So in a way the story’s also about adults trying to make amends for their failure as parents.

But as interesting and intriguing as that is it’s Li Tsiang’s sweet performance as servant girl Chan which gives the film its heart. Fate (because there is no other decent woman grandmother can call upon) and a sense of obligation since grandmother took her in as a child, ultimately persuade Chan to agree. But arriving at Pei’s cell in a bridal outfit in the middle of winter, her first meeting with him goes disastrously because the latter still believes he’ll be freed through the intervention of relatives. When the penny drops Pei reacts with understandable outrage at the prospect of having been written off as an animal suitable for no more than breeding. There are so many ways this scene could have been laughable – I mean, here’s a rough man in his cell with a pretty girl dressed in a bride’s outfit who’s come to shag him – but both actors are so good (Ou Wei really sells the idea of Gang Pei as a brute with a hint of conscience) they make every line, every gesture, every look, resonate. The encounter ends on a bleak note but a second, in which Chan recognises the goodness underneath Pei’s rough exterior, is once again beautifully played and really socks over the attraction between these two with the subsequent change in Pei’s behaviour ingeniously shown not through action but inaction. It’s in Pei’s obedience to prison rules where once he’d fight against everything, it’s in his refusal to lash out at a warden who kicks him for dawdling. But it’s most strikingly embodied in the scene in which the gaoler comes to Pei the night before his execution, frees him of his shackles, opens the cell door wide and urges him to flee with Chan at his side. However Pei won’t go because he knows if he did it would be the gaoler’s death. It’s a deeply moving scene for what it says about both men and Ou Wei plays it with a quiet dignity.

Lee Hsing is not a filmmaker I’m familiar with (although on the strength of this I intend to correct that ASAP) and his direction here is excellent. His film has an overall melodramatic flavour but in practice it feels like a drama. He not only gets strong, involving performances from the small cast but really knows how to incorporate the large and evocatively designed studio sets (both interiors and exteriors) into the unfolding story in a way that renders them more than merely decorative. He achieves this by aligning the passing of the seasons with the changes in Gang Pei. Our protagonist is at his most unbearable in winter, begins to change in spring, matures in summer and faces his execution the following autumn with a dignity and courage inconceivable at the film’s start. It’s a simple conceit but it works really well because Hsing doesn’t overdo the comparison – it’s a few lines of dialogue at the beginning, the occasional cutaway – and it underlines the elemental nature of this story about a man who can’t tell the difference between right and wrong until someone’s love shows him the way. Even Chan, the humble family servant, so grows in stature as a result of her time with Pei that she’s able to stand up to an avaricious cousin who wants to seize the family home for himself. The final scene of Gang Pei being escorted to his place of execution brings the story full circle (the film opens with an execution of pitiful, desperate wretches). The difference is that as Pei rides in the cart to his doom through a bleak, mist-shrouded forest he is neither angry nor afraid. As Chan and another family servant look on from the bushes they – and we – perceive not a monster but a man of honour and dignity. It’s a great climax and the final seconds as Gang Pei and his guards vanish from sight over the brow of a hill feels perfectly judged.