Saturday, July 25, 2015

Guilty Conscience

An Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
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From Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, comes a subtle condemnation of the Japan's War generation. The narrator is a once famous artist Masuji Ono who helped the war propaganda machine with his mastery skills. Now (1948-49) the war is over and his home country defeated and demoralized, Ono sees the new generation wants to erase the shameful past and move on. Triggered by his daughter's in-depth marriage negotiation, Ono slowly examines if leaving the floating world of pleasure and trivial matters of the art world in order to pursue something more important- the country's war effort with patriotic zeal, was indeed the right path to take as an artist.

I thought it was about time that I take a swipe at the Floating World for the namesake of my blog and gmail account. Nothing much really happens in The Floating World. Ishiguro is a great writer with immense talent. His writing is as subtle as ever - both Japan and England are seen as extremely polite society where hardly anyone says what's in his/her mind directly. Ono, with his deep seeded guilty conscience, everything he hears from his two daughters and their husbands, his colleagues and acquaintances has some sort of accusatory insinuations in his mind. Being an artist is a complex subject in time of war for Ishiguro: Ono is easily forgiven by society just because he is a mere artist, but not forgiven by himself who thought he was doing something right at the time which caused the nation irreparable damage. An Artist of the Floating World is a quiet but spikey examination of the aftermath of WWII Japan.

Masterful, Lean Film Noir

*Originally published on 3/2/15 for this year's Film Comment Selects Series. Phoenix is currently in theaters in NYC. For tickets and showtimes, please visit IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Phoenix (2014) - Petzold
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Christian Petzold, (Gespenster, Barbara) perhaps one of the most gifted storyteller working in cinema today, strikes gold again with a Hitchcockian postwar noir revenge flick, Phoenix. Clocking at very lean 98 minutes, the film tells about a concentration camp survivor Nelly (beautifully played by Petzold's muse Nina Hoss in her 6th collaboration with the director), coming back to now American GIs occupied Berlin with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine and start a new, as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot wound in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists to have her old face back if at all possible. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. They were a famous musical duo before the war (Nelly a chanteuse, Johnny a piano player).

Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and back, to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience. But we do it with Vertigo anyway in order to go along for the ride. In Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum in this rather hokey premise.

Hoss is superb as a conflicted woman, hiding a terrible secret in front of unusually unsuspecting husband. You can detect her bottled up emotions in her expressions without losing her composure. It's just a marvelous acting. Unlike his kindly doctor in Barbara, Zehrfeld's Johnny is a cold-hearted man whose priority is surviving. Kunzerdorf has a real presence, as a woman deeply scarred by the atrocity. Her Lene is the real tragic figure in the film. Stefan Will's jazzy bass score adds to the era it's portraying and helps setting the mood of the film. Cole Porter and Kurt Weill's music dominate its soundtrack and Hoss's rendition of Speak Low at the end is at its most haunting.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. She asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask how the camp was, once she reemerges. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to buy that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but the Nazi Germany made her to, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economical pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis.

The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. And what an ending! Phoenix is a deeply moving, deeply satisfying film by an incredibly talented director at the top of his game.