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Yôkihi Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Yôkihi Review
    As I said in the my review for Masters Of Cinema's last Kenji Mizoguchi releases Ugetsu Monogatari and Oyu-Sama, Sunday afternoons seem to be the province of such measured and delicate social dramas of Japanese idiom, etiquette and familial intrigue. The latest double disc offering boasts two of the last three films that the acclaimed director made and, most interestingly of all, one of only two productions that he mounted in colour. Primarily based around the circumstances and the attitudes of, and towards, women of two different time periods, both Akasen Chitai (1956) and Yokihi (1955) explore the consequences of change - a theme that Mizoguchi is constantly drawn towards - and how its often profound effects either alter fortunes forever, or merely exacerbate an already untenable position. This particular couplet showcases the director at his best, and his worst, however. Whilst the later film, also Mizoguchi's final one, is a superb production that mirrors its era and the prevailing societal climate with clinical precision and boasts superb performances in a clever and powerful melodrama, the earlier one is a clear misstep that not only reveals the director's discomfort with the material and apparent unsuitability for what was a Japanese/Hong Kong co-production that, fatefully, sank the Chinese film studio that backed it - Shaw and Sons - and saw it rise, phoenix-like from its own ashes, to become the famous, cult institution that was The Shaw Brothers.

    We'll look at this colourful curio first.

    “You want to use your daughters to further your own aspirations?”

    “Well ... what's wrong with that?”

    Fittingly enough for a colour production, Yokihi is a period drama set in China's Tang Dynasty, and details the tragic romance of the Emperor Xuan Zong and a commoner from the hot kitchens of a provincial town who eventually becomes his highest ranking concubine. Based on the poem 'Period of Long Lament', this luxuriously presented tale chronicles how the sad Emperor (Masayuki Mori), mourning the death of his wife, falls under the spell of the beautiful Yang Kwei-fei ( Machiko Kyô ) and the two become lovers, much to the consternation of the people and Zong's generals, aids and advisors who view this peasant girl's rise to fortune and glory with resentment and spite. But their love is stronger than such jealousies and also blind to the implications that such dissent could cause. When the girl's prior “family” - a bunch of hangers-on, get-rich-quick merchants and unashamed exploiters - receive positions of wealth and status within the Emperor's fold, a mutiny is orchestrated by those who perceive that laws have been broken in the way that Yang Kwei-fei has simply inveigled her own people into power. With the love between the two blossoming like the trees in the Imperial Garden, that only seemed to rejuvenate once Zong clapped on the former scullery-maid, the rebellion gathers steam and soon an overthrow is plotted and death comes calling at the palace. The course of true love, eh?

    Despite a fine performance from the ever-popular and prolific Machiko Kyô as the girl relocated My Fair Lady-style from a life of servitude to a life of pomp and ceremony, the film is emotionally stilted, horribly theatrical and often over-acted. The use of unconvincing sets only cements the overt staginess of the production, the theme of a girl strategically placed within a powerful court to facilitate a better lot for her shrewd wards smacks of quasi-Shakespearean, string-pulling manipulation and the plot developments aren't in the least bit subtle or in any way moving. The narrative is too elaborate to carry the intimate weight of Mizoguchi's other work, and that is totally necessary for this plot to properly come to life, and the sense of a director whose heart simply isn't in it is all-pervading. The cinematography from Kohei Sugiyama doesn't take advantage of the Eastman Colour that could have injected some spontaneity and vibrancy, Mizoguchi's celebrated long-takes largely either absent from the film or simply unmemorable. But it is not so much the directorial or visual flourishes that one associates with Mizoguchi that plague the film beyond the repair - it is the uncomfortable depiction of Chinese customs and society that hits an irredeemable bum note. This is why the film failed so miserably in China. Mizoguchi doesn't know how to tell a Chinese story without it deteriorating into a sort of pantomime-cum-farce of silly postures and expressions - from the Emperor especially - and risible school-play acting from all except Kyô, who brings a Cinderella quality to the role before the inevitable darkness overcomes her when she realises the calamity her relationship with Zong means for the country.

    “No-one can replace Wu-hui. Please don't destroy my memories.”

    I'm no expert in the customs and rituals of Dynastic China, I only know what I've seen depicted in Asian Cinema, but even I can see that Mizoguchi has struggled with the setting, it's form and etiquette a paradox to him that he seeks to solve with pomposity and verbose, stage-bound exchanges - little scheming words in ears, c.o.d. rallying calls to huddled-in mobs of soldiers, an Emperor who merely floats in a stupor that is utterly unconvincing. This severely harms the free-flowing fable-like style that normally makes his films so intuitive, intelligent and worthwhile. Sadly, Yokihi is best viewed as an experiment in colour photography, but, coming as it does almost at the end of his career, this is still a miscalculation that sticks out like a sore thumb and doesn't fit his standard vogue. Mizoguchi may have been thinking that this would broaden his horizons and make him more adaptable and versatile, but it seems apparent that his idea of period China was undeniably erroneous from Day One and, in realising that he was out of his depth, the director allowed much integrity to drain away from the movie.

    Things improve dramatically with the second film in the package. Mizoguchi's final production, Akasen Chitai, is rightly hailed as a classic. It conforms to most of the usual trademarks of a Mizoguchi film - intense scrutiny of the plight of desperate women suffering under a society that keeps them downtrodden and forced to find honour in the hinterland of depravity and self-sacrifice. The title translates literally to Red Line District, but nobody could mistake its true meaning as our own christened moniker of Red Light District, and the story revolves beautifully around the fates and fortunes of a group of prostitutes who are struggling to makes ends meet (no pun intended, folks!). Set in the contemporary 1950's after the American post-war occupation has ebbed away, the film centres on the Dreamland brothel in Tokyo and concentrates on the dilemmas and emotional battles that these women, who all have profound and gut-wrenching reasons for pursuing this line of work, experience over the period of several months.

    “A murderer and a lunatic in one night - it's enough to drive you mad!”

    Mizoguchi had a fascination with prostitutes - indeed, he had a life-long relationship with them beyond the movies he made about their conditions - and, although he had often featured them in his work, Akasen Chitai is their epitaph and anthem all rolled into one. When outgoing, vivacious Mickey (Machiko Kyô again) arrives at Dreamland, things begin to heat up for the established group. Not only is Mickey drop-dead gorgeous and obviously popular, but she thinks nothing of poaching the other girls' punters. Mickey may not be the catalyst for what is to come, but her arrival marks the beginning of a transitional period for the brothel. The government is attempting to pass a statute that will outlaw prostitution and this will inevitably mean shutdown, poverty and death for the girls. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao), even by the trade's standards, is the slutty, money-hungry one, literally bleeding her clients dry. Hanae (a fantastic Michiyo Kogure) is only plying her womanly wares to put money on the table for her baby and afford to buy medicine for her tubercular husband. The pair has hit rock-bottom, but both have vowed not to commit suicide - which just shows that no matter how playful and easygoing the scenes in the brothel can be there is real tragedy looming on the horizon for these women. Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) epitomises the sad decline of personal respect and mental well-being. Only prostituting herself to put her son through education and get him a good job and quality of life, the fierce irony of their relationship comes to a disastrous head that Mizoguchi deals out with surprisingly wrenching force, becoming one of three celebrated finales to the film, but possibly the most impact-full one.

    “I'm going to have a bath and watch a Marilyn Monroe film.”

    Accompanied by a weird electronic score from Toshiro Mayazumi - the first that Japanese cinema had received - that could either be a Theremin or some other sound-wave device and would normally be associated either with science fiction (The Day The Earth Stood Still/The Thing From Another World) or mental breakdown (Spellbound), the film is strikingly intimate and brilliantly evocative. The punters are as desperate a bunch as the ladies of the night. One is totally in love with Yasumi and is stupidly falling for her acceptance that she will move in with him. Others are revealed to be hollow, lonely fools who are taken advantage of by the girls in a neat twist on popular conceptions. A fracas in a bath is a direct reference to an encounter that Mizoguchi, himself, once had with an enraged prostitute and the film is often quite frank about what would still have been considered a taboo subject in western cinema. Whilst there are no sex scenes, other than some slight canoodling, we do get to see Machiko Kyô's cute little bum and there are plenty of shots of the older, less sought-after whores literally dragging poor passers-by in off the streets.

    “A woman like me ... working in a place like this - I'm up to my neck in debt!

    Although the film starts with a rather heavy-handed discussion between the brothel keeper and a local constable that is constructed to serve as a scene-setter and an explanation regarding the current social climate, Akasen Chitai is both thoughtful and erudite. The build-up to the devastating triple-whammy climax is enjoyable as well as being dramatic. The pace of the film is actually quite fast and there is evidence that Mizoguchi is further expanding his visual oeuvre with cross-cutting between characters having a discussion seated around a table, whereas originally this would have been done in one extended take. His favourite trick of running several stories along parallel lines is very successful here and the environment and tone of the movie is always interesting and accessible despite the subject matter and the serious strife and torment that we know will ultimately arrive at the girls' doorstep. Once again, when it comes to such vintage foreign cinema, you never really expect to enjoy something as much as you end up doing. Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari is a genuine classic and a terrific ghost story that is right up my street. But his exploration of class distinctions and the female wasteland of broken dreams is something that I would normally run a mile from, yet several times now, the director has wrung a peculiar fascination from me in such depictions. His style is utterly unique, even in the general genre of Japanese melodrama from the era. He takes chances and sticks to his guns which is admirable and rewarding - which just goes to compound the disappointment felt when viewing Yohiki which struggles to keep its momentum and even short-changes itself when Mizoguchi attempts to provide some landscape shots of armies on the move. No matter what he does with that film, it looks painfully thin and theatrical, when his canon of work - even the most talky and location-restricted - have a profound cinematic quality that is compelling, hypnotic and technically assured.

    Whilst Akasen Chitai earns itself a strong 8 out of 10, Yokihi stumbles too often and is lucky to get a 6 from me. Thus, overall, the movie marking for the pair drops down to a still very respectable 7 out of 10. Mizoguchi was a marvellous filmmaker and it is to Eureka's credit that they have sought his work out and made it available for new appreciation and interpretation. His stories may be as old as the hills, but the themes they discuss are timeless issues of pathos, hope and emotion. Recommended.