Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 10 Found Treasures of 2010

I see hundreds of films a year, but few stay with me like Noboru Tanaka's Secret Chronicle - She-Beast Market (Maruhi - Shikijo Mesu Ichiba). I waited years to see it, and, boy!, was it worthwhile.

Made in '74 by the great Nikkatsu Studios, I guess it's technically a "pink" film, but it's far removed from most of its ilk. It's the story of a junkie prostitute (Meka Seri) trolling for love and dollars in an impoverished urban wasteland. She's forced to contend with a prostitute mother who's competing directly with her, and compelled to take care of a mentally disabled brother with whom she has occasional sexual relations out of sympathy.

In tone, it feels like the best of Italian neo-realism. It's shot in a forceful hand-held style in grainy black and white, it uses an unconventional cutting method, and the performances are so real they're tear-inducing. There is a bizarre, quirky sense of humor at work, and several scenes are truly disturbing and violent. Of course, being a "pink" flick, there are plenty of Nikkatsu's mandatory sex scenes, but these are far less contrived than usual, and Tanaka (always a master!) conveys so much through the sexual exchanges that they're more like subtext than sex.

Audiences looking for a feast of pink back in '74 must have thought they'd stumbled into the wrong theater with this one. It has more in common with Hector Babenco's Pixote or Fellini's La Strada than Nikkatsu's more conventional pink output.

Actress Meika Seri, who is a volcanic presence, also appeared in In the Realm of The Senses and as a junkie prostitute in Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor.

Best available DVD of the film is the Japanese Geneon disk.

I wrote about this sublime piece of erotic grotesquerie in a recent blog, so I won't go all redundant here. It's sufficient to say that for those who like their sex mixed with the twisted (served with a ripe sauce of audaciousness!), the late Teruo Ishii's Orgies of Edo (Zankoku ijo gyakutai monogatari: Genroku onna keizu; '69) is just the ticket.

Released the same year, and also directed by Ishii, Love and Crime is another of the director's anthology pictures. Like Orgies of Edo, it has its problems (pacing, for example), but it is an extraordinary cinematic document for its time, and tackles subjects nobody else was doing back then (hell, they're not even doing them now!).

The first story involves a man and woman who hook up to kill. Ishii's stylings are immensely interesting here and the atmosphere is thick. Of the three, this is the most accomplished and well-rounded.

The second episode is a retelling of the Sade Abe story, which was completely fleshed out in In The Realm of the Senses. Because it's extremely truncated, it has little time to develop the fascinating relationship between master and slave.

Despite the fact that it's short and not big on logic, my personal favorite story is the third entry.

A dutiful wife, repulsed by the insatiable appetites of her husband, a remorselessly lecherous victim of leprosy, takes a lover. When the freak discovers her indiscretion, he initiates a brutal confrontation. Scenes of the hideous freak attempting to kiss and cuddle his lady are priceless, and reminded me of the works of comic artist Hideshi Hino.

Director Ishii always shines when depicting deformity and bizarre sexual congress. His passion for such material is obvious.

My first exposure to the amazing, dream-like films of Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska was a TV screening of Wrony (aka Crows; '94); my good friend and fellow cinephile Wendy Rawady kindly showed me her recording. I was enchanted by it.

In this, a young girl, upset with the adult world and ignored by her friends, exacts "revenge" by kidnapping an even younger child. This act launches the girls on an incredible journey of discovery in which the older girl becomes a proxy parent for the younger girl. The duo attempts to leave Poland by boat, but complications arise. The film's magic is in its performances and gentle style. Even though the subject matter is potent, the tone is closer to a fairytale, and there is a strong theme of responsibility.

from Wrony (Crows)

Eager to see more Kedzierzawska films, I managed to track down her Diably, diably this year with the help of a Polish Facebook 'friend'. Diably, diably, made three years before Wrony, is a most atypical coming of age tale about a young Polish girl who becomes fascinated with Gypsies.

Although her parents and friends constantly disparage them, this only fuels her curiosity for their unique culture. Not surprisingly, she finds acceptance and love among the Gypsies until they are forced to hit the road. Justyna Cimmny's performance as the young woman (Mala) is breathtaking, as is Zdzislaw Najda's luminous cinematography, which has a Days of Heaven feel to it.

Diably, diably is one of my fondest found treasures of the year.

Mindful of not spoiling some wonderful revelations, I'd prefer not to say too much about The King of Masks (Bian Lian; '96), an extraordinary Chinese movie (and true story!) about an extraordinary artist who is seeking an heir to whom he can hand pass on the secrets of his art. His art involves the rapid, seamless changing of silk face masks.

At its base, this is a deeply moving story of survival and persistence against all odds. Once again, the protagonist is a young, lonely girl who invents the perfect solution to a personal dilemma. The "King" of the story, it seems, finds the answer to his prayers.

Of course, things don't quite go as planned for either party.

This beautiful piece of cinema focuses on lost traditions and values, but is never cloying or sappy. It's a story of hardship and tolerance and the need to be open to change.

Only discovered this year by me, it's utterly brilliant.

Technically, I didn't see this for the first time this year -- I saw it when I was about ten year's old on TV. But seeing Henry Verneuil's Le Casse (The Burglars) again on DVD just recently was akin to seeing it for the first time.

What a superb thriller it is, and what a great reminder it is that Jean-Paul Belmondo was one of the world's greatest action stars. Despite the fact that he's most often associated with Godard films such as Breathless (which has had greater international prominence), he was the Steve McQueen of his era with a mighty handful of ace crime pics to his credit such as Cop or Hood ('79), The Thief of Paris ('67), and the amazing Peur Sur La Ville (aka Fear Over The City; 75).

The new French DVD's of Le Casse and Peur Sur La Ville are revelations.

This ultra-rare epic from director Shohei Immamura was released on Blu-ray Disc (Region B only ) by Eureka UK in 2010. It's a mind-boggling, complex piece of work.

The story involves an engineer who arrives on a strange island to supervise the building of a well. The island is a melting pot of traditions that are being steadfastly embraced and rejected at the same time. The engineer is forced to traverse both the disparate beliefs and his own impulses. Adding to the tension is the presence of a disgraced family whose adherence to incestuous traditions has made them pariahs.

If the film sounds like a difficult proposition for the viewer, it certainly is. Immamura, who always concerned himself with fringe societies and their passing, mines territory that would have fascinated directors such as Werner Herzog also. This epic of grotesquerie and cultural collisions is truly one of a kind, and I can only be grateful that at least one distributor in the world deemed it important enough to issue as a Blu-ray only with exceptional extras, a booklet, and a dazzling rendition of the negative materials.

If you're up for adventure, invest some British pounds in this beauty.

And speaking of British, you'll find nothing more British than the 600+ books of the late queen of childrens' literature Enid Blyton.

An unbelievable gesture this year has been the release of two Enid Blyton serials on DVD. These are not the sorry color TV shows from the 70's or the more valiant attempts to do 'The Famous Five' right in the 90's.

Nope, these were produced by the Children's Film Foundation in the late 50's and are in glorious black and white. They totally capture the spirit and intention of Blyton's famous novels like nothing I've ever seen and they're richly produced.

Arguably the best ever adaptation of a Blyton story

I love them!

On top of the treats that are the disks themselves, both DVD's come with booklets that contain lashings of information and hot historical tidbits.

The transfers are impeccable and Blyton expert Norman Wright's contributions are smashing.

When I first read Blyton from my sick bed in the late 60's, what I saw in my head was close to the images in these fantastic serials.

Other Treasures of 2010:
Messiah of Evil
The Icons of Suspense Collection - Hammer Films
Oshima's Outlaw 60's
Tokugawa Sex Ban
Inochi Bonifuro
Gangs of Oz Parts 1 & 2
Koji Wakamatsu Volume 2
Crime Investigation Australia Series 2
Graphic Sexual Horror
Village of Doom


  1. Your intriguing film list makes me wish I had a region free DVD player!

  2. Toxaemia -- it's well worth having a machine that can play everything in all regions. I can recommend the Panasonic DMP-BD80 OR 60. Try ht**://* (just replace *'s with pp and m (I did this to avoid linking)
    Also: there is a Sherwood player on* that may still be region-free. It's a bit of a tricky area because for players like the Panasonic you also need a multi-region TV. For the Sherwood you don't. But some Sherwoods are no longer multi-region capable.

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterDecember 27, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    I dont understand why all DVD players cant be region free, it would make things so much easier. I just think the girl-ufacturers are being unneccessarily awkward.

  4. Have to agree with you wholeheartedly on the ones I've seen. Tanaka is probably my favorite of the directors I've delved into this year,or at least he's neck and neck with Sato.

    I should really watch Love & Crime. I think when Ishii hits his stride the films are fucking great for it, but unfortunately he has a glut of rather banal output to wade through as well.

    @Toxaemia--there are some rather cheap alternatives to investing in a region free DVD player. Many low-end DVD players (e.g., COBY brand) can be hacked rather simply (instructions can be found via online search). Portable DVD players will often play any region--do your research first, of course. You can even buy a PAL DVD playback kit for the original Xbox for $10 or less which will allow you to watch PAL 0 & R2 discs--haven't tested any R4 discs, though.

  5. d -- yes, when Ishii hits his stride, he's amazing. He is, admittedly, responsible for a lot of dreck, too. Can't say the same for Norifumi Suzuki. I haven't seen one film from him that wasn't interesting. TOKUGAWA SEX BAN -- incredible! Good suggestions re: the multi-zones. I mentioned the Pana because it's Blu and Standard all-Region. Plays everything!

  6. Imamura is king. Definitely one of my favorite Japanese directors as you can see for yourself

    If you liked Le Casse, you'll love Le Clan des Siciliens. Great stuff and another great Morricone score. Verneuil has pumped out a lot of less than great gems.

  7. Paul -- yes, Immamura is/was an amazing filmmaker. I'm sure you will enjoy PROFOUND DESIRES OF THE GODS.

    I like your PORNOGRAPHERS article very much and commented on it quite a while ago. You revealed the magic of his technique in vivid language.