Foreign Cinema Soiled

I always love it when a groundbreaking film appears in our cinemas and the press jumps on top of it spewing forth grandiose phrases about how important it is to our changing cinema, when they forget to mention that another country has been doing it for years, sometimes decades.

It always bothered me that “The Matrix” got this sort of press. Somehow several decades of martial arts cinema was suddenly over looked and then everything that was released in China over the next 5 years was compared to “The Matrix”. Baffling, I say! And frustrating to one who loves Hong Kong cinema. It was nice to hear so much praise being handed to “Infernal Affairs” when Scorcese’s film won so many Oscars this last year and when Sophia Coppola praised Wong Kar Wai when she won best screenwriter for “Lost in Translation”. Credit where credit is due I say.

Which is why it always bothered me when critics and journalists praised Clint Eastwood’s”Letters from Iwo Jima” saying it might finally open up Japanese cinema to look at the war from a different point of view. And some Japanese journalists were saying this. Others have claimed that Eastwood’s vision is what Americans would like to believe the Japanese were like. I personally had mixed feelings about the film myself. I wondered specifically how accurate the Japanese men were when they acted more like American men. But like most films, we’re critiquing the American film as if no films had come before it, which I wondered if that was the case or not. Recently a film was recommended to by the lovely people at Netflix. A film directed by Kon Ichikawa called “The Burmese Harp” which was originally released in 1956. It is an anti-war film depicting Japanese soldiers in very much the same way that “Letters” depicted it’s soldiers.


“Harp” is about a young group of soldiers just after the end of the War who are brought to a camp in Burma, India. One of these soldiers, a young officer who plays the harp, is ordered by his Captain to go and convince a group of Japanese soldiers that they should surrender to the British. The British officers give him a half an hour to convince the Japanese soldiers burrowed in the side of a mountain (imagery very similar to “Letters”). The young harp player encounters a group of soldiers unwilling to surrender, how would that, after all, help their country? These are the same conflicts brought to light in “Letters” and this is from a Japanese perspective. They didn’t need an American filmmaker to bring these issues to light. It was done almost fifty years ago! But we take credit regardless. The rest of the film follows the divergent stories of the men in the camp and the harp player and the very difficult decision he has to make. Needless to say it is an incredibly beautiful story. Worth watching.

I’ve seen several great anti-war films over the past year, many foreign.

“Forbidden Games” Dir, Rene Clement. Brilliant. War and how it affects children.

“Japan’s Longest Day” isn’t so much an anti-war film (though close) but it does give an intriguing look at the few days leading up to Japan’s surrender and some of the craziness that ensued. It’s interesting because the director doesn’t take a strong stance one way or the other.

“Underground” Dir., Emir Kusturica

“Shame” Dir., Ingmar Bergman

“The Human Condition” A breathtaking, raw and potent trilogy that at it’s 9 hours length leaves you feeling like you’ve just gone through a war youself.

One of my personal favorites is the British version of “Lord of the Flies” which is available on a nice Criterion DVD.

It feels like there’s been more, but the director of “The Burmese Harp” has several more as does Akira Kurosawa (one of my favs) that I intend on viewing soon enough.

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