Wednesday, October 14, 2009

To Sir, with honor...

If you only watch one movie about samurais and revenge this year, it just has to be Hara Kiri.

Hara Kiri takes place in post-fuedal Japan. After the warring lords laid down their arms and the Empire took hold, many samurais were left jobless. In a peaceful Japan there was little work for hired swords.
Now, per the samurai code, there is no honor in a life of poverty and there is even greater dishonor in a death from poverty. Therefore, the only way to meet one's end as a true warrior was to commit hara kiri. If you don't know the deal with hara kiri (AKA seppuku), I give you this excerpt from the Wikipedia article:

"In time, committing seppuku came to involve a detailed ritual. This was usually performed in front of spectators if it was a planned seppuku, not one performed on a battlefield. A samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, and fed his favorite meal. When he was finished, his instrument was placed on his plate. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem.

With his selected attendant (kaishakunin, his second) standing by, he would open his kimono (robe), take up his tantō (knife) or wakizashi (short sword)—which the samurai held by the blade with a portion of cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his grip—and plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The kaishaku would then perform dakikubi, a cut in which the warrior was all but decapitated (akin to a coup de grâce. The maneuver is done such that a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body). Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was a skilled swordsman. The principal agreed in advance when the kaishakunin was to make his cut. Usually dakikubi would occur as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen. The process became so highly ritualised that as soon as the samurai reached for his blade the kaishakunin would strike. Eventually even the blade became unnecessary and the samurai could reach for something symbolic like a fan and this would trigger the killing stroke from his second.

This elaborate ritual evolved after seppuku had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and become a para-judicial institution (see next section).

The second was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honorably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second."

That's an honorable death. A methodical and glorious suicide.
Go big or go home, I guess.

So, word starts to get around Japan that a samurai went to a lord's house and asked for permission to commit hara kiri on the grounds. The lord and his advisers cringe at the thought of this spectacle, so they give the samurai some money and ask him to go somewhere else.
This story gets to some down-and-out samurai, and they decide to do something very similar, and very stupid, in hopes of receiving some charity.
A lord's advisers and samurai hear of this disgraceful disception and decide to treat anyone who comes to their grounds with a similar objective, very uncharitably. And what goes around, comes around.

What occurs, I really cannot spoil for you, but I promise you that it will be hard to watch.

No one takes revenge like a samurai. This a flawless and artistic movie about honor, desperation and loss. It's about what is worth living for, and what is worth dying for. Most of all, it's about the courage to know when there's no way out except on top of one's own sword.

The movie was made in the '60s but it feels fresh and exciting. It's black and white, but when the blood spills your imagination fills in what the monochrome leaves out.

Watch this movie.

Friday, January 2, 2009

To the center of the city in the night, waiting for you...

I've got a cold that came over me on New Year's Eve. Not the day anyone would want to get sick, but it was better than having been sick while in Maryland.
Dan and I packed up presents, food, some clothes and the dog into the Chevy Malibu and made the 7 hour drive to Columbia to spend Christmas with his family. We left late on the 24th, by the time we got to Maryland it was already Christmas.
Part of our gift to his family was that we cooked Christmas dinner. Pork roast glazed with an orange cranberry bourbon sauce, brussels sprouts mixed with bacon, butternut squash soup, sweet potatoes, spinach and biscuits. It was delicious.
This Christmas has been extended for us because we won't get the chance to exchange presents with my father and brother until Saturday and my mom and step-dad on Sunday.

Since I've been sick the past two days I've been doing what I always do when I'm sick: Clean the house a little and watch movies.
I've watched Once Upon A Time In China, Hello Dolly! and Control so far.
The first two are old favorites that were available instantly on NetFlix, and just as chicken soup is comfort for the body, these movies were comfort for my mind.
I just adore Hello Dolly! directed by Gene Kelly and I'm glad it's enjoying a sort of rebirth through WALL-E. it didn't do well at the box office and many fans of the musical de-cry the fact that Barbara Streisand was given the role of Dolly instead of Carol Channing. Yes, she may have been a little young for the role at the time, but I think it's a too harsh to dismiss an entire film because of a slight to Carol Channing. Michael Crawford is priceless as Cornelius Hackle and even though Babs may be young, the meddling ways of Dolly seem natural to her.
But we're talking about a movie made by Gene Kelly, so what we really should be talking about is the dancing. So much dancing, dancing for dancing's sake. You'll notice in watching it that it's heavy with male dancers as opposed to female dancers. This is part in parcel to Kelly's belief that men are better dancers, and that dancing is a true athletic pursuit that more men should be encouraged to engage in. The wonderful type of all-style dance that Kelly made famous in Singing in the Rain and American in Paris comes out in full force in every number.
Combine that with the lovely songs sung by Crawford and Babs, and the great comedic performances Kelly coaxes out of the cast and you've got a family classic. Plus, Louis Armstrong makes a cameo, if that doesn't add a little coolness to the movie, I don't know what would.

Once Upon a Time in China, if you like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and would like to know what inspired all that fancy wire-fighting Kung Fu, watch this movie. One of Jet Li's first movies, he plays the role of Chinese folk hero Dr. Wong. Just as Hello Dolly! is all about the dance routines, Once Upon a Time in China is all about the fight sequences. The story involves the beginning of China's struggle to remain true to its cultural heritage in a time when western civilization begins encroaching. We rarely hear the stories of how the Chinese workers who helped build America's railroads and cities came here. Unfortunately, it's not a fairy tale.

Control seems like a documentary. It's called a biopic of Ian Curtis, the late lead singer of Joy Division. It's based on the book Touching From a Distance by Curtis's widow, Deborah. But it's so much more. It's more like a tribute to Curtis. A way to let his fans get to know him, since so many of us have never and will never get to meet him.
It's the first film by photographer Anton Corbijn, who knew and photographed Joy Division. The film was shot in color but printed in black and white, since all of the pictures of Joy Division are in black and white, save for a few film clips. The result is a bleak tale of a man who could not seem to find what he wanted. Sam Riley disappears completely in the role, and you feel as thought, like I said, that you're watching a documentary. Even though Curtis's light eyes are missing (Riley's eyes are brown), his soul seems to be there. Many of the sets are the actual buildings that the real-life moments occurred in. The most sobering of these is the home of Ian and Deborah. The kitchen we see is the very kitchen where Curtis took his own life right before Joy Division was to embark on their U.S. tour.
As this lovingly constructed window into what was Ian Curtis's life and death ends, The Killer's cover of "Shadowplay" plays over the credits. The viewer gets the sense of how iconic Curtis has become, and we're left to wonder if the icon has endured, would he be even more famous and influential? It also seems like a ghost of the story of so many other artists who commit suicide, since the feeling of isolation has seemed to permeate all of their souls.
Sadly, after the film was released and gained popularity in July of 2008, someone stole Ian Curtis's headstone from his grave in Macclesfield. It is inscribed simply "Ian Curtis 18-5-80 Love Will Tear Us Apart."
It's sad to think that while all of us who love his music wish we could be closer to him, someone felt the need to be selfish about it. I hope they return it.
Love Will Tear Us Apart.