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Key Films #35

Wicked City[Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The representation of women in this film is contentious, to say the least.  As with certain other films directed by Kawajiri, such as the analogous Demon City Shinjuku (1988), and perhaps his best known work, the violent and vivid samurai fantasy Ninja Scroll (1993), the female characters here tend to fall into two distinct types.  Although strong-minded and independent enough in their own way, they exist, either as pawns to be placed in perilous situations that arise for no other reason than to facilitate an act of heroism from the archetypal male lead, or they become helpless victims that are subjected to lengthy and gratuitous scenes of sexual sadism and violent abuse.  While the practicalities of this particular example might seem tame when compared to a more notorious title, like the infamous Urotsukidōji series (1987-1989), or even a live-action feature, such as the Takashi Miike directed Ichi the Killer (2001) - both of which seem to objectify sexual violence and degradation to a pornographic degree - the air of sexism still detracts from the other areas of the film, which - in their design and initial direction - attempt to reach beyond the obvious levels of adolescent titillation to instead explore a rich and deeply layered mythology that is fascinating throughout.

That Wicked City begins with a scene of male/female seduction that very quickly descends into a physical nightmare of psychosexual dread (as the central character finds himself terrorised by a literal "black widow"; a spider-woman with a snapping vagina that opens up like a ferocious Venus Flytrap) will do little to curb the previously discussed issues regarding the representation of women (and female sexuality) as viewed through the male gaze.  However, in this instance the sequence is somewhat necessary (even justifiable) in establishing the conception of the film, and the basic idea of something "otherworldly", or extraordinary, lurking within the realms of the mundane.  To illustrate, Kawajiri begins the scene as if it were just another routine romantic liaison between two attractive office workers meeting for drinks at the close of an exhausting day.  However, the subsequent revelation of a lifeless hand protruding from one of the washroom cubicles as the woman seductively applies makeup, tips the audience off to a potential threat.  As the couple make their way back to her place - passions enflamed, as if the author is bringing to life a storyboard from an imaginary Adrian Lyne directed soft-core thriller - Kawajiri lets the tension and anticipation simmer and swell.  The seduction and love-making seem too easy, almost staged; the effortlessness of the endeavour at odds with the film's mutating colour palettes, or the growing pulse of an ominous synthesizer on the soundtrack.

When the revelation finally occurs the effect is as disarming, frightening and bewildering for the audience as it is for the central character.  Our expectation or anticipation for violence - for the female to reveal her true intentions, as a charlatan, or worse - is far exceeded by the transformation from attractive young woman into monstrous beast.  This moment, at first juvenile and misogynistic in sub-text, represents the sensibility of the film in miniature.  It's an example of Kawajiri dismantling the walls of reality; confronting his audience with the existence of a "Black World" that exists hidden within the walls of our own cities - in the spaces between spaces - like a twisted mirror to our own seemingly polite and cosmopolitan milieu.  From here, Kawajiri will use such images to occasionally punctuate the progression of a supernatural police procedural that predates both The X-Files (1993-2002) and Men in Black (1997), using just enough violence, titillation and surrealism to create a lasting feeling of terror and uncertainty.  It would be easy enough to dismiss the film for the treatment of its female characters - a personal concern in many Japanese films of this period - but to do so would be to overlook the film's finer points, from Kawajiri's always impeccable direction, to the rich, mythological world that his writers create.


Yojimbo [Akira Kurosawa, 1961]:

The amalgamation of intense political drama, stunning samurai set-pieces and explosions of physical slapstick, creates - through the progression of scenes - the feeling of a film at war with its own ambitions; the drama, too often interrupted by a fight or skirmish; a scene of conflict, too often cut short by an expulsion of boisterous humour; the punch-line, too often lost amid the political intrigues that define the life in this rural setting.  Draped in the influences of the Hollywood western (and the work of John Ford in particular), the film seems characterised by an overall crisis of identity; an unevenness, as if Kurosawa and his collaborators were in a way "pitting" the various genres against one another; allying themselves, initially, with the iconography of the European art film (black & white cinematography, tracking shots, cinemascope compositions, long silences; a general feeling of emotional detachment, or alienation) only to then sell out or betray their new associate by joining forces with the rough physicality of a traditionally "blue-collar" American genre (with its bumbling old drunks, clownish villains and cowards fleeing battles like children throwing fits).

Of course this, as a creative proposal, is also an extension of the main character's own role in the ensuing narrative; this story of a wandering rōnin, Sanjuro Kuwabatake, who flits between the two rival gangs that have occupied the fringes of a village; displacing its citizens and generally disrupting the flow of life.  While Sanjuro moves between the two sides in an effort to set both factions off against each other, the filmmakers likewise cross back and forth between serious scenes, driven by strong political power struggles and elements of actual history, with sillier or more exaggerated sequences of coarse violence and over-the-top physical comedy.  This creates a war, not just between the characters on-screen, but between the expectations of the audience left with no alternative but to embrace the film and its often staggering emotional shifts.  Nonetheless, there are images here that manage to transcend this tonal divide and that capture the eccentricity of the film and its often peculiar or incongruous concoction of influences and ideas.  For instance, the near-iconic image of the dog, retreating from the aftermath of battle with a human hand in its mouth is, in a single gesture, able to convey the insanity of war in all of its stark, satirical absurdities, while also providing a more serious comment on the harsh realities of life during the time of the film's period setting.


Wes Craven's New Nightmare [Wes Craven, 1994]:

Anyone kind enough to have browsed the pages of this blog for more than thirty seconds will already have noticed a particular theme or interest that permeates a great many of my notes and observations.  It's a fondness for works that are self-aware; that acknowledge the relationship between the audience, the material and those that create it, and that use this particular approach to inform a basic level of commentary, if not critique.  I have no idea where this interest comes from, or how it began, but it's something that I've become much more self-conscious about since the beginning of the "key films" series, as I tend to return to this same (limited) critical theory so often now that I can only imagine it inspires much eye-rolling from the unknown reader, and perhaps even some occasional jeers.  I've tried to escape from it, even choosing not to write about a particular film - Nicolas Winding Refn's Fear X (2003) - because there was no other way to adequately approach the subject matter beyond the film's clear emphasis on voyeurism and the role of the central character as a surrogate for the viewing audience investigating the images on-screen.

Once again, I'm faced with a film that is so intrinsically self-aware and preoccupied with dismantling the line between fiction and reality that such critical insights become unavoidable, if not genuinely necessary.  The practicalities of Wes Craven's New Nightmare - the name of the director in the title establishing, upfront, a sense of authorship and intent, is already an obvious sign of self-awareness, or self-reflection - relate very clearly to the notion of the "fourth wall" and in taking a representation of evil that exists on the page (and eventually, on the screen) and bringing that evil out, into the "real world" - or into some fabricated Hollywood facsimile - in order to question the role of the horror movie in depicting this evil, and indeed the responsibilities of those that create it.  In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the badly disfigured form of a murdered child killer, Fred (later Feddy) Krueger, was confined to the world of dreams; haunting the thoughts and fears of a generation of suburban youngsters directly related to the unsavoury circumstances of his initial demise.  This, as a concept to base a movie on, was pure genius, with Craven understanding that what movies are, traditionally speaking, is a representation of a kind of dream-state; an unconscious space where the viewer remains passive, witnessing images both pleasant and disturbing, with no real physical recourse to alter or interfere with the narrative, as presented.

In later instalments, Freddy became something else.  He transformed from a figure intended to represent the unspoken evil that haunts children and young adolescents (the traditional "bogeyman" archetype) into everything from a symbol of homosexual panic, to the fear of the adult world (with its adult responsibilities), before eventually become a genuine post-modern media personality, too recognisable to be truly terrifying, too self-aware, as a legitimate pop-cultural icon, to instil fear.  With this New Nightmare, Craven is essentially bringing his evil back down to earth; reinforcing it by illustrating the power of Krueger as something no longer bound by the perimeter of the silver screen but able to transcend the boundaries of a constructed fiction.  In one sequence, his outstretched hand adorned with razorblade fingers reaches out, almost three-dimensionally, over the Los Angeles skyline, visualising the idea of Freddy not just as meta-textual but metaphysical.  If movies are able to enter our subconscious - their images, scenes, stories and characters staying with us long after the film has ended - what better way for the evil of Freddy Kruger to retain his grasp on the unconscious minds of his teenage victims?  It's a chilling thought...


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