Ghosts!! The spirits in these four ancient Japanese folktales are haunting in every sense of the word; some are jealous, some greedy, some vengeful, others simply wounded. First an ambitious swordsman abandons his wife for a more promising position in a distant province, only to realize too late what he left behind. Next, after a young woodcutter loses his mentor to a beautiful ice creature’s attack, she spares him so long as he keeps this terrible secret. Then a court of dead warriors and their fallen emperor charter a blind musician to sing the songs of their glorious last stand, after which they intend to (literally) rip him apart. And lastly, a lord’s attendant is visited by a mysterious face in the reflection of his tea. Kobayashi’s innovations are overwhelming, but his use of color in particular blew me away. In his fantastical, disorienting painted backdrops of the horizon, eyes float among the clouds, always on the lookout to teach mankind a lesson.
Criterion horror continues with pioneer Fernando de Fuentes. Lost in the woods one night, a young married couple and their (more-than-just-a?) friend take shelter in an old monastery, only to realize their hosts are a cursed order of monks, undead and stuck out of time. This pointed morality tale gets great creepy mileage out of simple images–a mysterious shadow, window shutters clattering, dinner bowls full of ashes–which escalate until the skeletons and mummified corpses show up.
Kicking off scary movie season with Věra Chytilová’s story of eleven Czech high schoolers on a skiing intensive, cut off from civilization at a mountain cabin. As their food runs low, their sinister instructor proposes a choice: one of the group must die to save the others. 80’s horror movies were famous for throwing teens in the woods and showing us how stupid and hateable they were, so they could just get them naked and murder them in spectacular fashion. Chytilová doesn’t shy away from how frivolous and cruel kids can be, but she doesn’t dehumanize them either. Instead, she uses her fable to point the finger at cynical leaders who pit people against each other, and exploit their worst instincts.
Kiarostami’s last film shows that until the very end he was pushing the boundaries of how much stillness a movie could contain. It’s just 24 meticulously composed shots, and I can only describe each one as a kind of breathing photograph. A painting or (seemingly) still image gradually comes to life with tiny, almost imperceptible movements, each one a slightly different magic trick. Kiarostami subtly animates elements on the edges of the frame, or lets digitally superimposed wildlife wander into a portrait. The sounds of trees expanding and tides rolling are as muted and tactile as canvas stretching, and he brings in the occasional music cue (Puccini, French street performers, even Andrew Lloyd Webber??!) to pull you in deeper. The overall effect is that we’re watching the oldest use of the camera and the most radical, and the meditation that this film generates was like a massage for my very over-stimulated COVID-era brain.
The Bri-terion Collection
I’m loving the Criterion Channel streaming service, so every week I’m going to share my favorite new find.