Friday, September 9, 2022

One old and one newer Japanese film viewed at the 2022 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

Advertising for the 2022 Hong Kong International 
Film Festival in Causeway Bay
Riverside Mukoritta (Japan, 2021)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Fantastic Beats program
- Naoko Ogigami, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Tsuyoshi Muro, Hikari Mitsushima, Hidetaka Yoshioka
Some years back, I viewed an Ukranian crime drama whose proceedings I didn't generally care that much for, yet had one scene in it that stuck with me for a long time.  More specifically, there's a scene in The Tribe in which people drink vodka and eat dried sausage in a way that looked good that I longed to emulate them in doing so, and have proceeded to do so on a number of occasions since!  Strange but true: I feel similarly about Riverside Mukoritta and its repeated dining scenes featuring its main character consuming a simple meal with great relish!
Newly released from prison, Takeshi Yamada (portrayed by Kenichi Matsuyama) has found a job at an ika shiokara (squid guts) bottling factory and housing at a cheap, rundown housing facility with an eccentric landlady (played by Hikari Mitsushima) and other interesting characters, including Kozo (Tsuyoshi Muro), a neighbor who, in return for using Takeshi's bath facilities -- as his is not working (properly) -- plies him with vegetables that he's grown himself.  A quiet introvert type, Takeshi is nonetheless drawn into the lives of these other folks, such as a tombstone salesman (Hidetaka Yoshioka) -- who fantasizes about eating luxury foods like fugu (blowfish) and wagyu (premium Japanese beef) -- and the ghost of a woman, who Takeshi actually encounters and has a chat with without realising she's a supernatural being!
The ostensibly whimsical -- but sometimes too deliberately so for my liking -- drama also features a subplot involving Takeshi learning of his estranged father's death and trying to figure out what to do with the deceased's remains which sputters from plot point to plot point but, actually, is what gives  Riverside Mukoritta heart and soul.  On the other hand, the subplot involving the widowed landlady being unable to let go of her late husband leads to a scene which I think is was meant to be erotic but which I found on the strange and creepy side!     
Adapted by herself from a novel that she wrote, Riverside Mukoritta appears to be very much director Naoko Ogigami's baby -- and it may well be that she might have been overly indulgent with it.  Leisurely paced and clocking in at slightly over 2 hours in length, I am moved to wonder if it would have been more enjoyable and felt more substantial if it had been more tightly edited.  As it is, it actually may have been the least involving offering of the 16 I ended up viewing at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival; though I am grateful to its makers for getting me to realize that the combination of Japanese white rice, ika shiokara, and fresh or slightly pickled cucumbers and tomatoes can make for surprisingly enjoyable, even satisfying, meal!
My rating for the film: 6.0  
The Wandering Princess (Japan, 1960)     
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Portraits of Women -- A Tribut to Tanaka Kinuyo program
- Kinuyo Tanaka, director
- Starring: Machiko Kyo, Eiji Funakoshi, Ryomei Ryu
Like her earlier Forever a Woman (AKA The Eternal Breasts) (1955), Kinuyo Tanaka's The Wandering Princess is a drama based on a real life individual but which I assume took some literary liberties since its protagonist is given a different name from the woman she clearly whose memoirs this film is an adaptation of.  Thus we have Machiko Kyo portraying a woman named Ryuko even though The Wandering Princess is based on the memoirs of Hiro Saga, the Japanese noblewoman chosen to be the bride of Pujie (essayed in the film by Eiji Funakoshi), the younger brother of the last Emperor of China, Puyi (also played in this film by a Japanese actor: in his case, Ryomei Ryu).

Filmed in color and on what appears to be the largest budget of any of Kinuyo Tanaka's productions, The Wandering Princess is often impressive to behold and has the kind of story that could be described as epic.  Beginning in Kyoto, Japan, a large chunk of it ends up taking place in Manchukuo, the puppet state set up by the Japanese in Manchuria.  (More than incidentally, it has a substantial amount of Mandarin dialogue and actually could be described as a bilingual Japanese-Mandarin film!)  And while it could be described as a historical romance, it invariably also has scenes involving soldiers -- Japanese, Manchu and Chinese -- and violent, and/or tragic death.
The titular "wandering princess" is portrayed both as a loving wife -- who genuinely loves, and is loved by, her husband and also a pawn in a political game being played by senior officers of the Japanese military (who are made clear to be the people wielding power in both Japan and Manchukuo).  The result is that Ryuko is an entirely sympathetic figure.  And, actually, so are her fellow pawns in the political game: husband Pujie and, ultimately, Puyi too.  

So sympathetically are they portrayed that one can't help but feel that The Wandering Princess is a propaganda production for Ryuko and the Qing Dynasty/Manchu imperial personages.  As a result, this (re)viewer felt torn between appreciating the involving drama as a sure-handed cinematic work -- many of whose details are impressive, including such as having Ryuko and the Japan-educated Pujie speak Mandarin with Japanese accents and Puyi speaking Mandarin without it! -- and wanting to take a more emotionally detached, even cynical, view of it all!  
A historical note: in the film, Ryuko bids to be reunited with Pujie, who she had been physically separated from and imprisoned by, first, the Soviet Red Army and then the Chinese Communists.  And, as it so happened, one year after The Wandering Princess' release, the real life Ryuko (Lady Hiro Saga) was allowed to go to China and live with him in Beijing, until her death in 1987.  

My rating for this film: 7.5

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