#68- Onibaba

Quick recap: Two women, an old woman and daughter-in-law, make a living by killing soldiers and then selling their armor for money in medieval Japan . One day, the old woman kills a soldier who was wearing a demon mask. She then uses the mask to keep her daughter-in-law from having sex with the creepy guy next door, because that’s apparently how problems were solved back then.

the good old days

the good old days

Fun (?) fact: When the old woman removes the demon mask from the dead soldier, she is greeted with a gruesome, disfigured face. The director has stated that the makeup effects were supposed to symbolize A-bomb survivors and how they were seen as outcasts.

My thoughts: I realize that I have seen a lot of foreign films lately, which has its pros and cons. On one hand, I’m getting to watch something that most people claim they know about, but really don’t. On the other hand, I have to be really cautious to remember that ‘foreign’ isn’t a genre of movie. As I watched Onibaba, I was reminded on several occasions of another Japanese film, The Woman in the Dunes. In reality, there really isn’t much the two have in common, except for their language. This project has become a bit more complicated as I am starting to reassess some of my views on movies.

Since I mentioned genre, I think it’s fitting to add that Onibaba  is considered a horror film to many people. That strikes me as odd because the mask doesn’t even show up until the last half to two thirds of the film. Most of the film is comprised of the daughter in law sneaking out of her hut to get with the creepy neighbor and the old woman being angry about it. I suppose that the first few scenes that show the woman killing the soldiers and then throwing them in a pit may seem scary, but I wouldn’t classify the whole film as ‘horror’. The mask itself was rightfully scary, especially when the daughter-in-law encountered it in the reeds and the final scene where the old woman finds she can’t remove the mask is also unnerving. But not a horror film ,in my opinion.

I'd say this demon was just bad at getting its picture taken, than scary

I’d say this demon was just bad at getting its picture taken, more so than scary

Another reason why I don’t believe Onibaba to be a horror film is because the movie doesn’t center on the mask, but instead the conflict between the two women. Hachi, the creepy neighbor returns from war at the beginning of the movie with bad news. His friend, the old woman’s son, and daugther-in-law’s husband, has been killed. As can be expected, everyone is sad about the whole affair, although not very long because Hachi almost immediately starts hitting on the daughter-in-law. She refuses him at first, mainly because that would be a jerk move, to see another guy while you are still living with your mother-in-law and your husband has only recently died. But soon, feelings overtake her and she starts sneaking out and having sex with him. Now if this had been a modern movie, we might have expected the old woman to sit the girl down and tell her to stop being a jerk. But of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, the old woman tries to convince the girl that a demon will get her if she continues seeing Hachi. The girl doesn’t listen because, you know, sex. So then the old woman tries to come on to Hachi and offer herself instead. He refuses because the old woman is kind of creepy. It just seems like a lot was done to keep the girl from seeing Hachi instead of actually talking to her. I found the situation much more amusing than scary.

On a different note, I am once again surprised by what was allowed back in 1964. There is lots of random nudity and of course sexual scenes. I’m pretty sure there is male frontal nudity as well because at some point the young couple just said ‘screw it’, and started running around naked to piss off the old woman. The scenes where the soldiers are killed are also violent, almost on par with what you might see today.

This actor really played up the role of 'creepy neighbor' more so than 'sexy man'

This actor really played up the role of ‘creepy neighbor’ more so than ‘sexy man’

Final review: 2/5. The movie ends when the old woman realizes that she is being punished for meddling in between her daughter-in-law and Hachi but also Hachi gets killed so everyone learns a valuable lesson about something. I wouldn’t sit through this again or even recommend it.

Up next: Cleo from 5 to 7 or Brazil

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#63- Woman in the Dunes

Quick recap: A schoolteacher explores the dunes, looking for a rare insect. Realizing he has missed his bus for the night, some villagers offer to help find him a place to sleep. They send him down into a dune with a widow, whose job is to shovel sand for a company. The next morning, the schoolteacher realizes he is trapped. With no way out, he begins to bond with the woman and eventually they fall in love.

obligatory 'tie her up because she lured me in here' dance before falling in love

obligatory ‘tie her up because she lured me in here’ dance before falling in love

Fun(?) Fact: Quicksand isn’t really all that deadly. Most of the time, it runs just a few feet deep and if you make slow movements, you’ll end up floating to the top and be just fine. I don’t know why, but I always assumed quicksand would be an obstacle in my life at some point and now I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t the enemy I feared. 😦

bonus fun fact! Apparently there is a fetish for people getting stuck in quicksand. Thanks, Google images!

bonus fun fact! Apparently there is a fetish for people getting stuck in quicksand. Thanks, Google images!

My thoughts:  When people gush to me about their love of foreign films, what they usually mean is Amélie. Which is fine, and I totally get it because it is a sweet movie, after all. But then I have the experience of watching an unexpected foreign film and I wonder why it isn’t getting the same recognition as all the others we ‘love’. Woman in the Dunes is a weird movie, but not so weird that it couldn’t be embraced by all the foreign film aficionados. In fact, if I had to come up with a tagline for this movie, it would be, ‘It’s not El Topo‘. Clear and concise, just the way it should be.

One of the thoughts that struck me throughout the movie was that I could never get a handle on what genre I was actually watching. This was the first time I chose to forgo research before sitting down to watch something and I must say that it increased my affection for the movie just a little bit more because everything is unexpected. The beginning of Woman in the Dunes would make for great horror film fodder: A young man, unaware of his situation, is lured into the dunes where there is no escape. The sand almost becomes a monster, a living thing. It is its own life force. And there is no escaping it. In fact, the widow must shovel daily, not just because it is her job, but also because if she didn’t the sand would bury her house within a couple of days, with her along with it. But it was also horror as the man realized he was just as trapped as his insects were, after catching them. This is his life now.

At some point, the mood changed and the plot centered more on the romance than the Sisyphus lifestyle. Earlier the sand had frightened me, but now it was being used for sexual tension. One of the aspects of living in a dune is that water is not readily available and when it is, it must be rationed. Therefore, when bath day rolls around, it is a big deal. The scenes with the schoolteacher and widow bathing each other were pretty hot and made me wonder if I had a future in writing sand dune related erotic novels. But then I also thought of a certain scene in the desert from El Topo, and the thought was gone. I guess it makes sense that love would blossom, seeing as literally the only other activity is shoveling sand.

woman-in-the-dunes

And then finally, after an escape attempt where the schoolteacher falls into quicksand, he is resigned to his fate. One day, he stumbles across an idea to pump water from underground so that it will be available at all times. When his lover is taken away due to an ectopic pregnancy, he even has a chance to escape. Instead of doing so, the schoolteacher climbs out of the dune to look at the ocean, and then puts himself right back where he was so that he can continue his project. It was a very depressing ending, although I suppose there are several ways to take it. My opinion is that there are aspects of life that seem like you may be trapped, and you very well might be, but there is always something interesting that you can throw yourself into and focus on.

Final review: 3/5. Very interesting concept, but there were some slow moving parts and it seemed like there was one disaster after another, which lost my interest a few times.

Up next: I actually haven’t a clue. I’m open to suggestions!

#47- Rome, Open City

Quick Recap: So, Italy was in bad shape during World War II. This movie tells the story of citizens fighting Nazi forces and trying to take back their country. Among the characters: a pregnant woman, a priest, and a ragtag group of boys help to lead the resistance. It sounds like your regular uplifting fare until you remember that these are the Nazis and so this will never end well.

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Fun (?) Fact: The film didn’t do so well when it premiered in Italy, mainly because the citizens had JUST gone through the horrifying events and weren’t looking forward to reliving them on the big screen. Italian audiences wanted escapism and Rome,Open City is just the opposite of that.

My thoughts: In case it hasn’t been spelled out well enough, this movie is BRUTAL. I knew it would be tough to watch because, you know, Nazis. But I wasn’t expecting this. After the credits, I immediately Googled what I could about the background of Rome,Open City and found that many of the characters are based off of real people. I think it was at this time that curling up into a ball sounded like the most plausible idea.

The first part of the movie is your typical wartime drama with the rebels quietly meeting up and forming a resistance and the enemy doing everything they can to stop them. One of the main characters, Pina , is a widow with a son and another baby on the way. She is set to marry Francesco. The two of them meet up with another patriot, Giorgio Manfredi, and attempt to help him continue fighting the Nazis while laying low. On the day of their wedding, Francesco gets captured and taken away to be tortured. As the truck drives off, Pina runs behind it, crying out for her love. The Nazis shoot and kill her while her young son watches. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in cinema and yet, IT GETS WORSE.

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The other main character is Don Pietro, a priest fighting in the resistance. He is mostly involved in smuggling things to other fighters because as a priest, he is able to stay out after curfew. His motives stay in line with his faith because he believes in helping good defeat evil. He is well loved in the community, especially with a group of boys who also do their part to take down the Nazis. You can see where this is going. During the second part of the film, Don Pietro gets captured with Manfredi and must witness his friend’s torture and death. He is then sentenced to firing squad, where we come to the second most heartbreaking film in cinema history- the soldiers tasked with killing the priest deliberately miss their target so the Nazi officer gets impatient, pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head. Not bad enough? Those boys who loved the priest so much witness everything, including Pina’s son. And then the movie ends.

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So, yes, it goes without saying that this movie is disturbing and horrifying. But it’s at least a little comforting to know that Rome was eventually liberated and the Nazis ultimately defeated. The movie reminded me of ‘A Bell for Adano’, written by John Hersey. That novel also takes place during World War II, in the town of Sicily and the two forces at war are the Americans and the Fascists. The citizens of the town only want their old life back, and that includes a bell that means so much to them. The two are similar because both feature strong citizens who love their country. They aren’t looking for anything spectacular. World War II was complicated in many ways and it’s easy to get caught up in the military history, but to me, the most interesting stories are of the ordinary people just trying to survive.

Final review: 5/5. But I don’t recommend watching it unless you like to Ugly Cry.

Up next: HORRORFEST

#43- Spring in a Small Town

Quick recap:  A wife has grown tired of her daily life- chores, shopping, and taking care of her ailing husband. One day a man shows up who turns out to be the husband’s best friend but also the wife’s former love. Drama ensues as the two fall madly in love again. Once in awhile they remember that the husband is still around and sick to boot, and they feel like jerks in the end.

Fun (?) fact: The Communist party buried the film after its release in China because of lack of politics. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that people really started to appreciate the movie.

My thoughts: I audibly groaned when I found out this movie was next on the list because the whole thing seemed like torture to watch: a black and white foreign film about love and loss. Bleck. I especially winced as the opening credits came on the screen because they were jumpy and the audio kept going in and out. The opening scene is of the wife walking along the city wall as she does a voiceover explaining the unhappiness that is her life. It caught me off guard, to see such a ‘modern’ filmmaking tool such as voiceover to tell a story. I know this wasn’t the first film to do so, but it was still impressive to see, considering what the US had been churning out at the time.

As the plot revealed itself, I was calmed by its simplicity. Foreign films have a reputation as being hard to follow and I admit that I don’t have much experience watching films from China. So this was a pleasant surprise. ‘Simplicity’ might not be the best word to use to describe the film because the emotions that are laid out for the audience are quite complex. The friend cares deeply for the husband and his health but he is also still in love with the wife. He is a good person and really, all of the characters can be described as ‘good’. I felt sympathy for everyone, even the wife as she must make a decision to stay or go. Her love for her husband was apparent but she also had to reconcile with the reality that she had married a very sick man who was unable to give her what she needed.

Above everything else, I was mostly blown away by the fact that the entire story is told in two settings and between 5 characters. Big budget films can draw audiences in, but in the end, sometimes simplicity is needed to truly tell a story.

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Final review: 4/5. Modern audiences can still appreciate the story, although it isn’t for everyone.

Up next: All the President’s Men