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Key Films #23

Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute [Shôhei Imamura, 1975]:
The voice of the director establishes context.  The film we're about to see is a documentary.  The subject matter, the story of Japanese women forced into prostitution during the first half of the twentieth century, is told by the women themselves.  Imamura's camera records the still life of the Malaysian waterfront as the voice of a woman - our guide to this eventual narrative of recollection - introduces herself, and in the process, sets the scene.  The age and deterioration of the voice is mirrored by the dereliction of the boats and houses that we pass by on our voyage.  People stop and wave to the camera, acknowledging the presence of Imamura and his crew, as well as the actuality of the film itself; the authenticity of it.  These images, in contrast with the interviews that follow, are intended to establish the world of the film (as it existed in 1975) against the nostalgic recollections of the women, and how the physical appearance of these places bring back the memory of certain events.  With Imamura as mediator, walking in step with this woman - microphone in hand - the film becomes a journey into the past; into places that are both real and significant to the story of this woman, and to all these women, kidnapped and forced into prostitution, and told that they were "serving" their country, only to be shunned by it following the end of the First World War.
Again, Imamura is using his film - his cinema - to give a voice to these people; to intervene on behalf of those on the margins of a society and as such denied the opportunity to make clear their own chain of events.  Like the director's earlier film, the anecdotal History of Post-War Japan As Told by a Bar Hostess (1971), the presentation of this world gives perspective to the recollections of its subject.  It creates personification.  These places - which hold so many kept secrets - are in a sense a reflection of this woman; an extension of her own story (as historical document), as tangible and 'concrete' as the buildings themselves.  In allowing these women to tell their stories, Imamura is shining a light on one facet of Japanese history.  Documenting, through the experiences of the women, the exploitation that the modern Japan - the now thriving, industrious nation that we know today - was built upon.  However, he's also suggesting the importance of these women, as a celebration.  Acknowledging that their ability to deal with the cruel reality of the circumstances they'd been forced to endure may have actually benefited the economy back home; making possible the great success of Japan in that period between the first and the second world wars.  As ever, the compassion and the sensitivity that Imamura shows to these characters in committing their stories to film (without judgement or denigration), is entirely overwhelming.
The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) [Tom Six, 2011]:
The film we are watching is already at an end.  A survivor - bound, ass to mouth and mouth to ass, between the bodies of her fellow victims - pleads, wet-eyed and muted, for the sympathy of a viewing audience.  A pool of blood seeps out onto the carpet, like a shadow; a Rorschach test that mocks the need to make sense; to presume the "why?" when some things are beyond reasonable explanation.  Better to rationalise; to put into context.  It's only a movie... and it is.  The closing shot begins.  We're outside the house, looking in at this macabre scene through the shattered glass of the bedroom window.  Already we're being placed, literally, on the outside of the drama, as viewer, or voyeur.  Again, we think of Hitchcock.  The camera begins its slow craning motion, moving upwards, over the slate roof of the house with its innocuous skylight, into the reality of the everyday.  The treetops of the black forest against the grey of the morning sky seems more like an image from a Lav Diaz movie than the kinetic torture of a film like Hostel (2005) or Saw (2004).  We've experienced the real horror - the experiment and it's sickening consequences - but in this small movement of the camera between heaven and earth, we find... transcendence?  A moment, quiet and contemplative.  Then the credits roll.
The film we are seeing is The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009).  It unfolds, first as flashback - as a self-contained dramatisation - before switching perspectives.  As the director's credit appears, we move from the scene itself to a recording; the same image as a transmission on a flat screen monitor.  If this original film could be accused of being provocative for the sake of provocation - its grotesque scenario used as a contentious talking point and little else - then what follows is truly remarkable.  Rather than simply rehashing the plot of the first film (as sequels generally do), director Six uses this character - the 'voyeur' - to investigate the impact of his original film, while also making a far more interesting, even intelligent point, on the use of the cinema as a projection of our own fears, anxieties and concerns.  The central character - this strange little man who watches the everyday life of people unfold on security monitors as part of his daily work - has suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse.  His existence is as such without colour and without hope.  He finds in the violence of The Human Centipede not only an outlet for his own pain and frustration, but ultimately a way to feel connected; to be closer to people; to be a part of something even greater than himself.  The final twist makes this connection explicit.  It is after all "just a movie", but Six makes us question the necessity of these movies (and movies in general) and how the idea of voyeurism and projection on the part of the audience (of our own fears 'satiating' the subject matter, bringing it to life) gives the film its "influence."
Martin's fantasy - to purge himself of the violence that he's been a victim of since birth - is also his only way of connecting to those around him.  His experiment - his hope of continuing where the fictional madman Dr. Heiter left off - is really an effort to insert himself (literally, if not figuratively) into this living chain of human suffering, and to dominate it.  In doing so, his psychological pain will be matched by the physical pain of his tortured victims; allowing him to become 'one' with it.  Many of these sequences are beyond 'poor taste', as the film refuses to shy away from presenting the most gratuitous and sensationalistic violence.  However, the depth of the character and the intelligence of the way the director uses the influences of meta-fiction to deconstruct the 'need' for these films, is really quite astounding.  For all of its gore and degradation, it's the psychological aspect of the drama that cuts the deepest.  For instance, the use of the baby to suggest the destruction of Martin's innocence - with the cries of the baby heard during scenes of murder to make clear the effect that Martin's abuse has had on his own potential to exist - and how so much of this fantasy seems centred on the idea of destroying the society (or institutions) that made possible such abuse, hints at a deeper, less salacious relevance that works perfectly alongside the film's visual references to works like Repulsion (1965), Eraserhead (1977) and A Snake of June (2002).
From One Second to the Next [Werner Herzog, 2013]:
I'm not sure how much I have to say about this one.  The outline is fairly straightforward.  Herzog and his crew interview several people whose lives have been changed irrevocably as a result of road accidents.  Their accounts are moving and absorbing and often misdirect the viewer; manipulating our emotions, but only to make a point.  These recollections are structured episodically.  In the first story, a mother and her daughter recall fond memories of their respective son and brother, Xavier; the "X-Man."  They talk about him in the past tense - things he liked to do, things he was going to do, etc - which makes the viewer automatically assume that the child is dead.  However, he isn't.  The car that collided with him left the child severely disabled and as such no longer able to do the things that he'd dreamed about or enjoyed.  Herzog has the sister revisit the place where the accident occurred and she stands, completely motionless, as if spellbound - like the stunned characters in the director's earlier Heart of Glass (1976) - as she talks about the terrifying sensation of feeling the hand of her brother slip from her own grasp as the young child crossed the street.  The car came out of nowhere, and in an instant... he was gone.  Through the power of this memory as re-enactment, the audience is experiencing the accident through the emotional recollections of the daughter, making it possible for the viewer to identify and to relate.
In the second interview, a young man talks about his accident in vague terms, as if the memory itself has become fragmented and distant, like a terrifying dream.  We assume he's another survivor, recalling a series of specific 'haunting' details from his own accident; his ordeal.  Then it hits us.  His reckless driving killed a family of four.  The structure of the film continues like this, with Herzog developing the details of these stories naturalistically; revealing statistics through conversation and always keeping the emphasis on the stories themselves; these people and their shattered lives.  While it would be easy to demonise those who caused such accidents - turning them into villains or monsters to be hated by the viewer for their recklessness, or lack of attention - Herzog presents their experiences with the same sensitivity and distance as those on the other side of the wheel.  Recognising that these people have also been damaged by their accidents, psychologically if not physically, Herzog seems to be making the broader point that any one of us could kill or be killed; not through malice or spite, but through irresponsibility or a lack of alertness.  The movie plays to the director's strengths as a filmmaker interested in people and in their stories of survival; a theme consistent with films like Echoes from a Sombre Empire (1990), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and Wings of Hope (2000).


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