The Face of Another -1966-

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Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 124 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

The third collaboration between Teshigahara and novelist Kôbô Abe is yet another absorbing, beautiful rumination on what it means to be an individual and his/her place (or lack thereof) in a modernizing world. While Woman in the Dunes is the most focused of the bunch and certainly deserving of the praise it receives, Face might be my favorite of the three.

I’ll have to spend some more letting the trilogy bounce about in my brain, but as a big fan of science fiction, I gobbled up the futurist speculation and Frankenstein­-esque fiddling with the supposed “natural order” of things. The doctor’s laboratory is a beautifully constructed set and lends itself to dozens of amazing shots throughout the film.

Like Woman in the Dunes, Face is very much concerned with the way in which the individual both loses and acquires freedom when in isolation. Whereas the protagonist in Woman in the Dunes was a prisoner in the desert, contrained by both men and the elements, the protagonist in Faces experiences a social isolation following a horrific facial disfigurement. While he is still walking the same streets from before his injury, his identity is diminished and possibly extinguished altogether. While we often find it so easy to throw around greeting-card pleasantries such as “Beauty is only skin deep; what really counts is what’s on the inside,” we tend to ignore the reality that our superficial features and the responses they provoke from our peers has a profound effect on who we are on the inside.

The protagonist deals with such a conflict as his new face begins to change his behavior. Don’t worry, the face doesn’t have a mind of its own or anything hokey like that. It does, however, provide the protagonist a measure of anonymity and a clean moral slate. He has no friends or enemies, assets or debts, and any action he takes can be attributed only to a man who, technically speaking, does not exist. More mainstream films of recent years have tackled such themes (such as Raimi’s Darkman, Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In), but Face digs far deeper.

Just as interesting as the protagonist’s story is the speculation of his doctor, the inventor of his new face. The doctor envisions a world of universal anonymity in which everyone lives the protagonist’s experience simultaneously. Trust, suspicion, and reputation would lose all meaning, the doctor envisions, as would the substance of compliments and insults. After all, why would you care what other people think if you know nothing about them? It’s too bad that neither Teshigahara nor Abe lived to see developments such as Reddit, Xbox Live and especially 4Chan – such networks emulate much of the Doctor’s thought experiments, and the results range from amazing to terrifying to head-scratching.

The film does have its problems. The subplot with the girl and his brother doesn’t add to the film (unless I’m seriously misreading it) and could just as well have been left on the cutting-room floor. Also, people with less patience for high-concept science fiction may think the movie feels too close to being an extended Twilight Zone episode. Nonetheless, I thought the movie overall was near excellent and a must see for TeshigahAbe (power couple!) fans.

– Like Woman in the Dunes, Face also features a rowboat idling in the sand. Huh.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-01)

Woman in the Dunes -1964-

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Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 148 mins.

***MINOR SPOILERS (albeit through the lens of my interpretation and relatively free of specific plot details. And it probably won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film.)***

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

If Pitfall was a walk into the abyss, Woman in the Dunes is a permanent vacation. I don’t know which genre this film is conventionally described to belong – it defies clean categorization – but it comes closest to being a horror movie. It truly* scared the shit outta me. Here’s why:

(Note: The following italicized portion digs into my personal thoughts regarding issues such as rights, freedom, obligation, and oppression. I don’t mean to preach, but I must touch on them so that the reader understands why the ending frightened me when it may not frighten others so such a degree. If you don’t care why I had such a reaction to the ending, feel free to skip it.)

A fellow film fan (whom I deeply love and respect) informed me that once could interpret the film’s ending as upbeat. After all, the once-tormented protagonist finds contentment and a measure of newfound ingenuity. To me, this was one of the more frightening endings to any movie I’ve recently seen. The protagonist has been broken; once defiant in the face of oppression, he is now compliant, relishing in the little victories of self-sufficiency. He has been broken like a wild animal sold to the circus.

 Granted, one could argue that everyone (myself included) falls somewhere on the spectrum of institutional domestication, whether that institution be a relationship, a family, a job, a country, a religion, etc. The protagonist is more “free,” one could argue, because he is no longer dependent on his job, or the union to which he belonged, or the bills he had to pay. However, I don’t categorize all constraints to my actions as “oppression.”

 True, my weekly schedule has restrictions because I must commute to work. However, this restriction has not been unduly thrust upon me. I made a contract with an employer that we both view as mutually beneficial. Some may retort that I (or, more likely, someone in more dire conditions) am a “wage slave.” But to say that a job amounts to wage slavery implies that the employee in question has a right to receive x amount of income. On the flip-side of rights are obligations. If I have the right to receive x, someone else has an obligation to provide me with x. I fundamentally disagree that anyone has an obligation to provide me with a living. Their refusal to do so is not a violation of my rights and is, therefore, not oppressive. In a similar vein, I was born without wings, restricting the mobility that I would otherwise have. But am I being oppressed by lack of wings? No, because I have no fight to them. Again, constrained options does not always signify evidence of oppression.

 I also take issue with the claim that self-sufficiency (such as the kind the protagonist exhibits) demonstrates that someone is free from depending on others. I have heard this trope many times in my life, and I call bullshit on it. Self-sufficiency is not freedom – it is poverty.

 Think of all the items you use and consume in a given day. How many of them could you make by yourself? How would you even begin to build a single pencil? I wholeheartedly reject the premise that one must acknowledge his/her dependence on others and accompanying oppression, or else live life as a recluse or a hermit. The capacity for cooperation and interdependence is what makes humanity beautiful. The trick is to make sure that these relationships are increasingly voluntary and decreasingly coercive.

 Plus, the protagonist still seeks the praise of the villagers, so even his self-sufficiency if done for the sake of others. In my opinion, such a state of affairs is no different than the institutions from which he supposedly escapes.

The film is even more hauntingly beautiful than Pitfall. Extreme close-ups of sand glisten like precious stones, and the sliding of the dunes encroaches like some sort of alien slime. Collective action (the large quantities of tiny grains of sand in this case) adds up, that’s for damn sure. Woman in the Dunes also gets lotsa bonus points for making great use of its single, cramped setting without ever getting boring or feeling stagey.

–Teshigahara likes his bugs something fierce.

*Thankfully, not literally.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-01- 23)

Pitfall -1962-

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Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 97 mins.

Worth my time? Yes (Watched on DVD)

It’s interesting that I watch this film so soon after Ghost since it’s pretty much the same movie without the requisite Hollywood resolution and ending.

The conspirators’ plan, whatever it ultimately was, seems so have left an awful lot to chance. It’s not really important to the film as a whole, so I’ll let it slide. The film succeeds where it counts – I’m always up to see a new possibility of how hellish the afterlife (were it to exist) is.

–      Great score and theme tune.

–      The fight in the water definitely inspired the climax of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

(Watched and originally written on 2013-01-09)