October 8, 2011

NYFF 2011: Critic's Notebook II

by Steve Dollar


One year ahead of its 50th anniversary, the New York Film Festival inaugurated a new era this month. The Film Society of Lincoln Center's new megabucks Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center—and what's the shorthand for this joint? The Ellie? The "FC"?—added two theaters and a video amphitheater to the mix, allowing for a leisurely expansion. Actual screenings were bumped up 50 percent, to more than 300 during the fest's 17-day run, with sidebars and revivals and special events out the yin-yang and a fresh panel discussion any time you paused in the lobby between shows.

It's a nice burst of energy for a festival that can seem pretty staid if you've just dropped in from, say, Fantastic Fest (as I did). The cultural underpinnings of the Upper West Side are stupendously funkless, even if the Ellie's new cafe serves up a delicious $12 tuna sandwich. So programs like the 37-title Nikkatsu retrospective—evocatively billed as "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses"—can feel practically revolutionary, especially while reclining in theater seats fashioned from rare Bolivian rosewood (or something). The series, which celebrates the Japanese movie factory's centennial, runs through Oct. 16 and boasts a ton of classics. Many of these you can now see on DVD. The Criterion Collection finally capitalized on resurgent interest in 1960s genre rarities, stoked by obsessed programmers for Japan Society and the New York Asian Film Festval, in its Nikkatsu Noir and Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara box sets.

A Diary of Chuji's Travels

The sidebar is peppered with nearly impossible to see rediscoveries: early silent films like 1927's A Diary of Chuji's Travels and harshly realistic World War II dramas like Mud and Soldiers. Shot on location in China in 1939, the latter film blends the actual wartime landscape with fictional scenarios of personal heroism among a group of soldiers whose performances make the film feel close to documentary. It's practically an Eastern version of The Big Red One. Nikkatsu shifted into independent production in 1954, leaving behind such propaganda to reflect the influence of Western pop culture, allowing its directors an extraordinary range of creative freedom to manufacture taboo-busting eye candy. The studio fostered the enigmatic Seijun Suzuki, of Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh infamy, and its consuming indulgence of underground culture has not diminished. The series reaches the 1980s with some latter-day "roman pornos": softcore flicks like Shinji Somai's Love Hotel, a melancholy tale about the crisscrossing of two lost souls that begins—as, strangely enough, so many of these films do—with a savage sexual assault that miraculously plants the seeds of a twisted romance, framed in lyrical long takes and a lurid neon afterglow. It's a valuable selection, as you can always pop Pigs and Battleships or The Burmese Harp into the DVD player. But not this.

You also don't see Joe Shishido every day. The elegant 77-year-old leading man in more than 50 Nikkatsu productions, best known as "Joe the Ace," was holding up very well indeed during a visit last weekend. As he sipped from a bottle of Stella Artois in a festival green room, he happily talked about something most American actors try to avoid mention of: His plastic surgery.

Gate of Flesh

The actor, who signed with Nikkatsu as a contract player in 1954, only became popular in gangster roles after he went under the knife and dramatically changed his appearance. It was an extremely unusual move at the time. "I thought being skinny was more handsome and stylish but people said that skinny was no good," he said through a translator, taking an index finger and slicing it down a cheek to illustrate the solution. "Okay. So if I want to look fat I'll make my cheeks bigger." After his surgical augmentation in 1957, some viewers compared him to a chipmunk, but his career blew up. (Shishido removed the implants in 2000, videotaping the surgery for a documentary he may never release.) Though he appears in films like 1964's Gate of Flesh—as a killer who takes refuge in a brothel—and Yasuharu Hasebe's visually ambitious gangster saga Retaliation, Takashi Nomura's A Colt Is My Passport (1967) remains Shishido's favorite. His performance as a doomed hitman caught between warring Yakuza factions is as defining for the genre as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry remains for the urban cops-gone-wild drama—even though the actor said he aspired more to the profile of a Burt Lancaster, whose manly build convinced Shishido and his friends that he must have worked in the circus.

The film's jazzy editing and bravura set-pieces, which bustle between go-go bars and empty factory landscapes, were shot in dynamic black-and-white. "I told them it had to be that way," Shishido said, still radiating screen presence in an elegant black suit. His involvement with the production also extended to the film's pyrotechnics. Dissatisfied that Nomura had only detonated a custom rigged Mercedes-Benz, the actor suggested a scene that would be even more spectacular.

A Colt Is My Passport

"We shot in February and it was cold," he recalled. "I dug a hole and my idea was to put dynamite in the hole and I wanted a fly to come land on the dynamite. But in February there are no flies flying around. So I told the people who prepare the set to find a fly for the scene. They said, 'Of course, we'll find as many flies as you want. If we go to the Nikkatsu commissary, we will find them easily.' Without those flies this movie would not have been successful!"

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Posted by ahillis at October 8, 2011 12:26 PM