Tuesday, January 13, 2009

River of Obscurity




"Doro no kawa" is the Japanese title of this deeply moving masterpiece. It was never released on VHS or DVD in the US. Its distributor, Unifilm, went under long ago.

I remember fighting terrible traffic in LA (circa '81) to get to the film's first session on opening day (1:30 PM on a Friday) at the Beverly Cineplex 14, a collection of small, box-like cinemas jammed into a corner of the top floor of the Beverly Center. Only recently was the complex shuttered.

The theatre placed a heavy emphasis on arthouse releases; I saw 'A Bigger Splash' there, 'Threshold' with Donald Sutherland, and the wonderful 'The Grey Fox' with the late Richard Farnsworth, amongst many others.

As soon as I fixed my gaze on the ad mat for 'Muddy River' that appeared in the LA Times' "Calendar" section, I knew I'd love the movie. Even the art engaged me.

Made in black and white, and set ten years after World War 2, the film tells the story of two young boys who become friends. One is the son of a woman who works on a "prostitution boat"; the other is the son of a fisherman. Director Kohei Oguri focuses on the friendship between the boys and explores how they easily accept cultural and economic differences. Their parents have a harder time reconciling the boys' friendship.

Joining great films about childhood such as "Forbidden Games", "The Elementary School", "Le Grand Chemin", "Leolo",and "Spirit of the Beehive", it is a perfect work of humanistic cinema that emphasizes character and culture. It is intensely moving and feels somewhat like Italian neo-realism -- Fellini's 'La Strada' comes to mind.

The film has been released on DVD in Japan as part of a box set; it is not available as a stand-alone title and is not subtitled in English.

It's troubling that a film which received a Best Foreign Film nomination in '81 went MIA soon after its meager theatrical run.

Unfortunately, sales figures of arthouse DVD's suggest that public interest in films like this is diminishing. All one can do is sing the praises of excellent work like this and hope a distributor takes a chance on licensing and exploiting it.

The costs of licensing, restoring, tranferring, and authoring films of this nature are often disproportionate to the returns. It is a serious problem that threatens the preservation of world cinema.

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