Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – August 2014

In this monthly column we look at the best releases each month in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, which a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. This month we’ll be reviewing one of the most radical gangster films ever to emerge from Japan, as well as two classics of silent cinema.

Branded to Kill (Blu-Ray & DVD, Arrow)

Director Seijun Suzuki spent much of the 1960’s slowly dragging the Japanese gangster film into weirder and more wonderful territories. This began subtly at first, as in the yakuza genre classic Youth of the Beast, but eventually progressed to films such as Tokyo Drifter, which boast surreal, dreamlike shootouts and a hitman who sings his own theme song. None of this particularly impressed Suzuki’s bosses at Nikkatsu studios, who cut his budgets and restricted him to working in black and white as a desperate attempt to rein him in. Suzuki’s response was Branded to Kill, his strangest yakuza film yet. Nikkatsu promptly fired him for making ‘movies that make no sense and no money’ and Suzuki found himself unable to direct another film for a decade. However, Branded to Kill also cemented Suzuki’s reputation of one of the great maverick directors of Japanese cinema. Today, Suzuki is considered something of a counterculture hero, whose work has gone onto influence the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Takeshi Kitano and Jim Jarmusch. So what exactly is it about Branded to Kill that caused Nikkatsu so much trouble?

In one sense, Branded to Kill’s story is deceptively simple. Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) is the current “Number Three Killer’, in a bizarre version of Japan where hitmen are all numerically ranked based on their deadliness. He embarks on a series of unusual assassinations, but when he botches one of the jobs he finds himself the target of ‘Number One Killer’, a figure who many believe to be nothing more than an underworld legend. Number One Killer’s sadistic, psychological methods of assassination begin to take their toll on the previously blank-faced Hanada, and soon he succumbs to a frenzied paranoia. Branded to Kill’s seemingly simple plot strands can feel strangely elusive even on second viewing, and that’s before the film’s weirder elements start creeping in, such as Harada’s sexual attraction to the smell of cooking rice, or the woman with walls covered in hundreds of pierced butterflies.

Branded to Kill’s soundtrack comes in the form of a stylish 1960’s jazz score, which not only lends a mood of icy underworld cool to the film, but can also feel like a key to understanding the film itself. Like a jazz musician, Suzuki took an improvisational approach to his work, rarely planning in detail and allowing inspiration to come to him in the moment. The result is a film filled with ideas, both chaotic and inspired. Cuts come as suddenly as the gunshots that pepper the film, throwing us abruptly into new situations in often bewildering ways. Suzuki also repeatedly demonstrates a fantastic eye for weird and wonderful images, seen most notably in the surreal and disturbing butterfly covered home of the film’s femme fatale. Branded to Kill also benefits from healthy doses of black humour, as in the scenes where two hitmen are forced to co-exist in a small apartment, despite the fact they’re trying to kill each other. Depending on your perspective, Branded to Kill is a film where its greatest strengths could also be considered its weaknesses – it’s relentlessly nihilistic tone, its favouring of stylism over story, and it’s fragmentary and undeniably confusing storytelling methods.

Japan’s cinematic golden age, which had sustained the industry for two decades after the release of Rashomon in 1950, came to an unfortunate end in the 1970’s. As an attempt to lure audiences away from their televisions and back to the cinema, a staggering quantity of Japan’s film output became dedicated to the production of erotica films. This change perhaps explains the surprising existence of Trapped in Lust, a softcore re-imagining of Branded to Kill, which is included on this Arrow release as a special feature. The disc also comes with interviews with Branded to Kill’s director and main star. This Arrow release’s best feature however ends up being the quality of the picture itself. Branded to Kill has been subjected to some poor quality DVD releases over the years, and its great to be able to finally appreciate the film’s noir-tinged shadows and monochrome cool as it was originally intended. Branded to Kill is a film both bewildering and inspiring; the yakuza genre on an unpredictable collision course with pop art and surrealism.

Faust (Blu-Ray & DVD, Masters of Cinema)

F.W. Murnau’s silent Faust is a film that exists in a world of grandiose imagery and epic ideas. We open on the image of the horsemen of the apocalypse thundering towards us across a stormy sky, while demons and archangels argue nearby over the true nature of humanity. The world Murnau depicts is one of big ideas, but thankfully this film also possesses a big enough imagination to pull it all off. Soon, Faust (Gosta Ekman), an elderly alchemist in the village below, finds himself sucked unwittingly into this world, as the cosmic beings above agree a wager with him acting as the unknowing pawn. Desperate to save the people of his village from a plague, Faust makes a satanic pact, only to be rejected by those around him as a result. With the demon Mephisto now acting as his ever present accomplice, Faust embarks on a life of debauchery and wealth, but soon finds himself yearning to return to the world he left behind.

The mythic scope of this classic tale granted Murnau the opportunity to craft some truly extraordinary visuals, which repeatedly demonstrate why Murnau has long been considered one of the great directors of silent film. In particular, Murnau was always a director with a remarkable gift for light, from the sunlit fields of City Girl through to the eerie shadows of Nosferatu. Faust is perhaps one of the strongest examples of this talent, with the film’s first half in particular offering numerous examples of both light and darkness used with the confidence of a master. This is also a film filled with striking and memorable imagery, such as the image of a nightmarish demon spreading out his wings across a village so completely they almost envelop the entire night sky, or the image of Faust sailing through the clouds looking down upon the immaculately constructed model villages below. The special effects, while naturally dated, draw upon an extensive book of imaginative tricks and are still impressive in the sheer quantity of ideas Murnau’s team were willing to try out.

Unfortunately, Faust’s bombastic start quickly gives way to a somewhat dreary second half, which exchanges the thunder and brimstone for an uninspired romantic melodrama. Faust, now transformed by his mystical pact into a young man, sets out on a romance with local village girl Gretchen (Camilla Horn), which unfortunately never really results in anything particularly memorable. In part this is due to Camilla Horn’s performance, which despite being her breakthrough role, feels too lacking in personality to carry such a prominent part of the narrative. In this sense, Faust is very much a film of two halves, though the sheer audacity of the first half still more than makes up for the flaws of the second.

One of the most interesting changes brought in by the coming of sound was the narrowing of the range of viewing experiences a single film could provide. Local cinemas would often put their own soundtrack to the silent films they received. This could range from a single organist playing a generic mood piece with little regard for what was occurring on the screen, to a carefully coordinated musical score performed with a full orchestra. This is nicely reflected in this release’s choice of three soundtracks to watch the film by. The bombastic main orchestral score perhaps fits the tone of the film best, but an expressive piano score and delicate orchestral harp are also present, and all three offer very different viewing experiences. Masters of Cinema have put together an impressively thorough package for this film, and the musical scores are joined by a commentary track, an alternative cut of the film, an hour-long documentary and extended interview with film scholar Tony Rayns. Faust is an inconsistent film, but also one packed with outstanding imagery and inventiveness, and here Masters of Cinema have perhaps created the definitive package for it.

Frau Im Mond (Blu-Ray & DVD, Masters of Cinema)

Early in Frau Im Mond (Woman in the Moon), an inter-title boldly proclaims: “for the human mind there is no never, only a not yet”. This same spirit of scientific curiosity and confidence runs through the whole of Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi epic, as it imagines a future that many in 1929 must have felt was within reach. Though produced 40 years before humankind first landed on the moon, Frau Im Mond imagines a near future where adventurers, idealists, and self-serving businessmen clash over the gold supplies hidden deep in the moon’s mountain ranges. Though the film is based to an extent on 1920’s scientific understanding, in ways that are often charming, it also works as a fun and imaginative adventure story with the visual flair you’d expect from director Fritz Lang.

Professor Mannfeldt (Klaus Pohl) is a washed up wild-haired scientist, condemned to a life of poverty and obscurity after his ideas about mining for gold on the moon were mocked by the scientific community. That is until a new generation of younger scientific thinkers come along and begin taking his ideas of space exploration more seriously. Soon a conflict develops between those who want to pursue the mission in the spirit of scientific discovery, represented by the heroic Helius (Willy Fritsch), and those who want to use it for the personal gain of the elite, as represented by the film’s near-perfect comic book villain (Fritz Rasp). They’re soon joined by all of the character types and story developments you would expect: from inevitable love triangles to plucky boy adventurers. Frau Im Mond is a film that plays with well-worn character archetypes rather than utilise believable psychological depth, which is perfectly fitting with its snappy, adventure serial-like tone.

Given the lightness of the story and characterisation, Frau Im Mond is a surprisingly lengthy film. This is only really an issue in the film’s first hour, which spends much too long wrapped up in a fairly unexciting chase after a stolen manuscript. However, this section of the film is helped enormously by Friz Rasp’s smarmy and reptilian performance as the film’s main villain, which results in easily one of the finest grotesque villains I’ve ever seen on screen. The film quickly picks up pace though once the crew set foot on the rocket and begins their expedition to the moon. They soon find themselves having to contend with lethal g-forces, stowaways, and of course, the inevitable betrayals that soon tear the crew apart. Frau Im Mond fully benefits from never taking itself too seriously, and works best as a fun, pulpy adventure story about a disparate cast of characters setting out into the unknown.

Though Frau Im Mond is a less artistically ambitious film than Fritz Lang’s other great science fiction epic, Metropolis, it’s still a film filled with fantastic imagery. Frau Im Mond imagines a future filled with sleek grey rockets, clunky levers and utopian designs. The moon’s surface in particular, as well as having a slightly inexplicable amount of breathable air, is one of the film’s visual highlights. All of this stands out all the more because of the outstanding picture quality of this Masters of Cinema release, which is easily one of the best looking restorations we’re likely to see this year. Some shots in particular look so crisp they barely look a few decades old, let alone like images taken from an 85 year old film. Frau Im Mond is a charming, old-fashioned, and most of all, fun expedition into a future that never quite came to pass.