Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

乾いた花 (Pale Flower)

Directed by Masahiro Shinoda

Nothing ever changes. It’s been three years since they locked Muraki up. Imprisoned for killing another gangster, Muraki served his time like a good yakuza soldier. Now back on the outside, he sits on a subway, silently regarding the crowd that surrounds him. What stupid animals, he thinks to himself. They’re practically half-dead, going around as they do every day. Was it really such a crime to kill one of them? Don’t misunderstand him. Muraki is not some villainous psychotic or murderous sociopath. He looks upon his fellow man with resigned contempt bred from many years of disillusionment. Come to think of it, he may feel a bit sorry for those masses of humanity doomed to lives of meaningless repetition and pointless existence. Was it really such a crime to kill one of them? After all, were they alive in the first place?

Nothing ever changes. The illegal gambling game run by his boss still operates every day with the same dealer calling bets. When he enters the gambling den, his fellow gangsters regard him not with joy or respect, but mild surprise. Has it really been three years? Time flies when you’re standing still. There is no future. There is no past. There is only the present and the clinking of gambling tiles. The players change, but the game stays the same. This is the world of Masahiro Shinoda’s gritty masterpiece Pale Flower: an existential wasteland populated by wax figures with fists full of money and lost souls searching for a purpose in a world without meaning.

It is during his first trip back to the gambling den that he finds a strange young woman participating in the festivities. She gambles without any caution, throwing down stack after stack of bills only to lose them as soon as they hit the table. After the game ends, she approaches Muraki. Her name is Saeko, and she wants more. Not more money, mind you. She could care less about the money. She wants a bigger thrill. She asks if there are any larger games taking place, with stakes in the five to six digits. Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, Muraki takes Saeko on a journey through the Tokyo criminal underground.

As they bounce from thrill to thrill, Muraki and Saeko partake in a kind of nihilist communion, throwing caution to the wind. They seek bigger and bigger kicks, all in some vain attempt to feel something, anything at all. The moments of excitement break up long periods of devastating ennui. Indeed, when they are not in immediate danger, they seem bored; bored with their lives, and bored with each other. It makes one wonder about the true nature of their relationship. Are they really in love? Or do they recognize each other as a means to an end, serving a symbiotic relationship of mutual destruction? The film gives hints, but no answers.

But there are bigger things brewing in Muraki’s world. During his stay in prison, his gang joined with a rival group in order to stave off the intrusion of a third gang from Osaka. It isn’t long before one of Muraki’s friends is murdered. Such an affront to the yakuza cannot be ignored, so Muraki is ordered to kill a rival yakuza in retaliation. Despite his three year sentence for killing somebody, Muraki accepts his fate. It’s his job, his raison d’être. How could he turn it down?

But something is worrying him. Saeko has been acting particularly strange lately. She soon reveals that she has started taking dope in order to get a bigger high. The temporary thrill is so succulent that she no longer needs Muraki and his yakuza antics. So Muraki offers her the chance at the ultimate thrill: to witness a hit. Certainly that is a high that she has never felt before. In a phenomenal sequence, Muraki knifes his target in a restaurant in front of Saeko. He is taken away to prison where he awaits another long prison term. Another body, another sentence. Nothing ever changes.

Pale Flower is more than just a yakuza story. It is an examination of the cultural zeitgeist that pervaded Japan during the 1960s. Shinoda said that he chose to do the film on the yakuza because he believed it to be the only place where Japanese ceremonial structure was still sustained. So we see Shinoda’s characters in their underground world, trapped like flies in amber. Without a purpose, their only option besides the maintenance of the status quo is self-destruction.

But perhaps I have given this film an unfair description. Most of the time when I encounter the words “ennui,” “existential,” and “zeitgeist” in a film review, I am almost always guaranteed a slow, cloying film. Pale Flower is the opposite of that kind of film. It brims with an almost uncontainable energy. It is one of the rare films that makes gambling scenes suspenseful and exciting despite the fact that we are literally watching people sit in a row and play with tiny tiles. Toru Takemitsu, one of Japan’s greatest composers who would go on to score over 100 films including Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), provides a dense, nervous score that keeps the ears on-edge and tensions high. The black-and-white cinematography is second to none, reminiscent of classic American film noir and French crime films. In the scenes that take place in dimly lit back alleys, I was amazed that the characters didn’t run headlong into Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin.

Indeed, the film’s true power is its ability to depict such nihilism, such complete languor despite its energy. There is never a dull moment. Shinoda simply doesn’t allow them to occur. It moves with such speed and bravado that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for another dime-a-dozen yakuza flicks that were churned out by movie studios during this era. It looks, sounds, and acts like one of those B-movies that sustain such directors as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But it is something much more. It is nothing less than a cry in the dark from a generation with no direction to go but down and out.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Hey everyone!

I've got some incredible news!

I've just been accepted to New York University - Tisch!!!

For those of you who don't know....I want to be a film director. That's one of the reasons why I started this blog.

Well....Tisch is considered by many to be THE BEST film school in the United States.

Past graduates include:

Martin Scorsese

Oliver Stone

The Coen Brothers

I will LITERALLY be following in their footsteps come this fall.

For everyone who has read and supported this blog, thank you!

Thank you for encouraging me and my dreams!

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!

Editor - Nathanael Hood

Sunday, March 20, 2011

俠女 (A Touch of Zen)

Directed by King Hu

"Someone like Jean Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good Kung Fu film.” - Werner Herzog

In 1949, American mythologist Joseph Campbell published what would become one of the most important non-fiction books of the twentieth century, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Within its pages, Campbell introduced his theory of the existence of an archetypal hero and story found throughout world mythology. He argued that all of the myths throughout the world’s cultures share a similar fundamental structure, which Campbell named the monomyth. The monomyth can be summarized as such: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” From this central storyline, the world has derived countless variations which have defined their myths, legends, and ultimately their cultures.

But if you journey around the world, you will find that certain cultures have developed mythologies that are usually explicitly associated with them. Though these mythologies may contain similar themes, characters, and morals to other cultures, they are branded as belonging to one society. America has the Western, with its tales of cowboys and Indians, train robberies and stagecoaches, gunslingers and bandits, sheriffs and outlaws, black hats and white hats. Though the cowboy is not a uniquely American archetype (they are found throughout South America and Australia), the Western is a decisively American genre. In the film industry, even Westerns made in foreign countries like Italy are almost always set in the American West. The Western encapsulates the American experience to such a high degree that it has become an intrinsic part of the American identity. Westerns aren’t just stories of villains and heroes. Westerns are the stories of America itself.

There are several other distinct cultural mythologies that are married to one particular culture. Japan has the bushido tradition, filled with noble samurai who embody their nation’s spirit and traditions. Europe has chivalry, with tales of medieval knights, sorcerers, and dragons. And China…well, China has wuxia.

Wuxia is a distinctly Chinese cultural tradition. Whereas America has cowboys, Japan samurai, and Europe knights, China has martial artists. Taking their roots from as early as 300 BCE, wuxia has developed its own distinct tropes and archetypes. Wuxia heroes are martial artists who predominantly come from low social classes. These heroes are frequently committed to a moral code, usually influenced predominantly by Buddhism, and fight for the benefit of the poor and helpless. They are characterized as having several particular abilities, predominantly: mastery over martial arts and weapons, the capacity to move quickly and weightlessly over objects like water, trees, and walls as if they were flying, the use of “inner energy,” or “qi,” and the skill to kill, paralyze, or control opponents by attacking specific acupressure points. These are all intrinsic parts of the wuxia archetype.

As with other popular cultural traditions, wuxia eventually made the transition from written epics and operas to the cinema. The earliest wuxia films originated in the 1920s and featured such cinematic techniques as using trampolines and wires to assist in fight choreography and speeding up the camera to make the action appear more fluid and fast. As the decades went on, the wuxia genre evolved and passed through the hands of many of China’s greatest filmmakers. Chief among these was King Hu, the man who reinvented the genre in the late 1960s with the revolutionary Come Drink with Me (1966) and Dragon Gate Inn (1967). Hu emphasized the fantasy elements and special effects popularized by classic wuxia films while portraying the graphic, realistic violence portrayed in the “new school” of wuxia. His films were embedded with Buddhist themes, ideas, and imagery. Of all of his films, popular and inspirational to filmmakers as they were, few were as thoughtful, exciting, and masterfully made as his 1971 three hour epic, A Touch of Zen.

A Touch of Zen told a massive story with a large cast of characters on a scale that was unheard of in wuxia cinema. The film centers of Ku, an amiable yet unmotivated scholar and painter who becomes involved in a massive plot of political intrigue and revenge. One morning he is approached by a mysterious stranger named Ouyang Nin who is searching the region for two people: the beautiful Yang Hui-Ching and her friend General Shih. It is later revealed that Yang’s father, an official, was killed by a corrupt eunuch named Wei when he discovered his plot to overthrow the government. As punishment, Wei had him tortured to death and then ordered the death of his entire family. Unbeknownst to Ouyang Nin is that both fugitives have taken up residence in a reputedly haunted abandoned fort next to Ku’s home. He quickly falls in love with the heavenly Yang and vows to help protect her.

The kind yet unambitious Ku.

Not that she needs much protecting. Yang is more than capable of taking care of herself. As a wuxia hero, she is highly skilled in martial arts, having been trained by Hui Yuan, the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery. Skilled as she may be, though, she doesn’t stand a chance against an army of Wei East Chamber guards, a group of masterful warriors. After the consummation of their love, Ku devises a plan to defeat the army looking for Yang and Shih. He enlists a group of locals to booby trap the fort after spreading rumors that it is filled with vengeful ghosts. When the army arrives, they are quickly dispatched by a series of traps and mechanical devices which kill most of them and scare off the survivors. However, after surveying the aftermath of his victory, he finds that Yang has left.

After a long period of searching, he finds Yang at Hui Yuan’s monastery, having given birth to Ku’s child and becoming a nun. However, this does not stop Wei, who sends another army led by the powerful Hsu Hsien-Chen. They assault Ku and his child, which results in Yang and Hui Yuan coming to their rescue. In the ensuing fight, Hsu is defeated and injured. However, in a last deceptive move, he tricks them into thinking that he is surrendering, only to attack at point-blank range, badly wounding both Hui Yuan and Yang. After Hsu is killed, it is revealed that Hui Yuan has been mortally wounded. Yet instead of blood, he bleeds liquid gold. He staggers to the top of a nearby hill where Ku and Yang watch him meditate with the sun forming a halo around his head. As the sun sets, it turns Hui Yuan into a stark silhouette. Pointing to the left, and therefore presumably to the West and the Western Pure Land, Hui Yuan breaks the cycle of rebirth and attains Buddhahood.

A Touch of Zen represents a consummation of masterful aesthetics, symbolism, and superior cinematic technique. It is more than just a simple martial arts film. It charts the spiritual development of its characters as they strive towards justice and, ultimately, enlightenment. The character of Ku is a perfect example. Ku is by his very nature an unusual wuxia character as he is not a practitioner of martial arts. Additionally, he is more of a spectator to the events of the film, sitting back and planning instead of directly fighting the enemy. In fact, the transformation of Ku from an unmotivated scholar to a master strategist invokes the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and complacency. The final battle between Hui Yuan and Hsu is highly abstract, utilizing bizarre cut-aways of animals and color negatives. It suggests a supernatural interpretation of the triumph of goodness and Buddhism over the forces of evil and chaos.

And of course, the fight scenes are superb. The film would influence such modern wuxia epics as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) where the martial artists break the laws of physics and gravity with every movement of their bodies. So masterful were the effects and choreography that A Touch of Zen won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Chinese film in its history to win an award. It was even nominated for the Palme d’Or, but ultimately lost against the Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975).

As a film, A Touch of Zen is a beauty to look at, featuring fantastic cinematography heavy in landscapes and visual motifs. The story takes the best from Chinese history and wuxia traditions to create something bold, new, and vibrant. The central story of the battle of good versus evil, justice versus corruption, and knowledge versus ignorance appeals to the commonality between all peoples. And yet, it is a distinctively Chinese film. No…that isn’t the right way to describe it. A Touch of Zen is nothing less than a Chinese masterpiece.


Saturday, March 12, 2011


Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
The United States of America

As I wander through the halls of my local movie theater, I sigh in despair as I glance at the movie posters. It’s gotten to a point where I don’t even bother to read the posters or learn the titles of the coming attractions, because they’re all the same: big, loud, chaotic action films with CGI monstrosities getting more screen time than the actors. Call me jaded or a snob, but I see a distinct pattern: producers are relying more on special effects and spectacle than on actual filmmaking techniques. In a recent review, Roger Ebert bemoaned how the techniques and cinematic methods developed and perfected over nearly a century by filmmakers is being forgotten and blatantly ignored in favor of hacks that have no concept of how to frame, shoot, and edit pieces of film. It seems that there is no room for artistic integrity in Hollywood these days.

But it wasn’t always like this. There once was a time where films carefully crafted by loving experts not only made money, but were celebrated. It was a time when cuts lasted more than 3 seconds and directors were not afraid of stillness and quiet. It was the time of the Hollywood New Wave. Inspired by the rise of independent filmmakers and developments in European cinema, particularly the French New Wave, the Hollywood New Wave stretched from the late 60s to the late 70s and produced many of the films which to this day are heralded as the greatest ever made. It was the era of Scorsese, Coppola, Penn, Altman, Polanski, and Bogdanovich. It was the time of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Rocky (1976), and Taxi Driver (1976). Truly it was a Golden Era.

But among these, there was a distinct group of films that did more than entertain. These were films that delved into the psyche of America itself. Films like East Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Five Easy Pieces (1970) dared to capture the country in a tumultuous time of change and transformation. They stared directly into the existential wasteland of progress and change and studied the individuals trapped by the currents. And though they were some of the most influential films of the movement, most have been largely overlooked. Masterpieces of self-reflection like Drive, He Said (1970), The Last Picture Show (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Fat City (1972), and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) are all but forgotten except among the most devoted cinephiles.

Among these lost treasures is a movie that can only be described as a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is a film about finding your place in a society that left you behind. It is a film of desperate dreams, dashed hopes, and cheated destinies. It is known simply as Scarecrow.

The film follows two drifters as they travel from California to Pittsburgh. The first is Max Milian, an ex-convict fresh out of prison. With a cigar perpetually hanging from his lips, he scribbles away in a notebook, counting the pennies that he earned and saved while in prison. With the tenacity of a bulldog and the stubbornness of a mule, he is determined to open a car wash in Pittsburgh and literally has all of his expenses worked out to the last cent. He is a bomb with no fuse, lashing out and attacking those who offend or confront him. On a lonely road under a bleak, overcast sky, he meets Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi, an ex-sailor who had been at sea for five years. Lion is Max’s complete opposite: childish, joyful, outgoing, and friendly. Originally repulsed by Lion, Max is won over when Lion offers him a match to light his cigar. United through a communion of tobacco smoke, Lion and Max strike up an unlikely friendship.

Lion agrees to become Max’s partner in his new car wash on one condition: they need to stop off in Detroit so he can meet his estranged wife Annie and his child whom he has never met. Lion holds a white package under his arm containing a present for his child. He explains that when he bought it, the salesperson asked if it was for a boy or a girl. Lion laughs and said that he had no idea.

In fact, Lion laughs a lot in this film. Through the years, Lion has discovered that he can get out of any problem and defuse any situation by using humor. He explains to Max that he got the idea from scarecrows. He believes that scarecrows don’t actually scare birds, but instead amuse them, making them leave. Max responds by calling him full of shit.

Their friendship develops slowly as they trek across the United States. They stop in Denver and stay with Max’s sister. They get into a fight and get thrown into prison for a month. They get mad at each other, sure, but in the end they always reunite. They seem to realize that not only do they need each other; they complete each other on almost a kind of subconscious level. Lion attempts to crack away Max’s rough exterior. He asks him why they can’t set up the car wash in, say, Detroit. After all, there are dirty cars in Detroit, too. Max responds slowly and deliberately that he has made his plans and intends to keep them. Max is cold and angry at the world. He complains that while he was in prison, the world moved on without him. In a sense, he embodies the spirit of an older America; the America that survived the Great Depression and came home weary from World War Two desperate for some sense of normalcy. Max represents the old mentality that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you want. Lion, then, represents the new America: laid back and less serious. Just like how his generation protested against involuntary service during the Vietnam War, Lion would rather avoid fights then jump into them head-long like Max. Max and Lionel represent two Americas trapped at a crossroad, desperate for reconciliation, but clueless as to how to proceed. Even their actors reflect this conundrum. Max’s actor, Gene Hackman, represented the old Hollywood guard and their tried and true methods of screen acting. Lion was played by a young Al Pacino. A devout method actor, his performance style represented the future of screen acting that would eventually leave men like Hackman behind in the dust.

As could be expected, over time, they change as individuals. Lion grows up and becomes more mature and manages to get Max to loosen up. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Max takes a page from Lion’s book and defuses a bar fight by performing an impromptu strip-tease to the sound of “The Stripper” coming from a juke box. And finally, Lion mans up and calls his wife. His wife is horrified and offended to hear his voice after so long, as he had abandoned her while she was pregnant because he needed to get out and see the world. When Lion asks about their child, she performs one of the cruelest actions that I have ever witnessed one human being do to another: she lies and says that their child was dead. Even worse, she says that it was his fault that their child died at birth, claiming that she fell down on the front porch when it was icy and nobody was there to pick her up. As she stares at their young boy, she spits venom into the telephone. In one final blow, she reminds him that because their baby was unborn, it cannot go to heaven. That’s right, Lionel. Our baby is in purgatory and can never go to heaven. And it’s your fault.

Folks, I won’t cheat you out of Pacino’s reaction or the subsequent scenes. I may have done too much by describing the phone conversation. All I will tell you now is that Max comes to realize that Lion means more to him than a car wash in Pittsburgh. Max’s final sacrifice is one of the most tear-jerking moments that I have ever encountered in film, right up there with Bruno’s fate in Stroszek (1977), Selma’s death in Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Oscar’s final farewell to the Schindler Jews in Schindler’s List (1993). And trust me; I do not make these comparisons lightly.

Scarecrow is a staggering film of artistic genius. It is a slow moving film that is not afraid to take its time. It does more than just present you with great performances; it revels in them. The film examines Max and Lion with all the love, care, and compassion of a Cassavetes film. It is frequently called an actor’s film. But to say that is to miss much of what this film accomplishes. It is a metaphor for America’s transformation during the Sixties and the people caught in the middle. It is an essentially American film. It is, in a word, an American masterpiece.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan)

Directed by Vittorio De Sica

In the rural Italian countryside, an old spinster makes a most unusual discovery in her cabbage patch, a most unusual discovery indeed. For among the dirt and bugs and leaves she finds a treasure unlike any other: a newborn baby. Whisking him away from his earthen cradle, she raises him, naming him Totò. Is life, much like his birth, are the subject of laughter and whimsy. One day she comes home to find Totò standing over a boiling cauldron of milk that has spilled to the floor. Instead of chastising him, she arranges a series of miniatures and models around the white river to create a town which she gleefully jumps over. Truly, this is a house of love, joy, and boundless imagination. But like all things, it cannot last forever. She dies one day and Totò is deposited into an orphanage in Milan. Several years later, Totò emerges as a bright faced ingénue who finds himself in the presence of a community of beggars. Instead of being beaten down by poverty, Totò helps the beggars form a shantytown community. What happens next is the stuff of myth and legend in Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan.

As something that can only accurately be labeled as a Neorealist fable, Miracle in Milan is a joyful departure from De Sica’s usual cinematic fare. De Sica, who along with directors Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini, helped establish the Italian Neorealist film movement. Characterized by stories about the poor and the working class surviving in the rubble of post-World War Two Italy, Italian Neorealism strove to make art out of everyday life. Filmed largely on location and with nonprofessional actors, Italian Neorealism helped revitalize European cinema with auteur-driven craftsmanship and overwhelmingly powerful stories. Of these films, few were as influential and devastating as those by De Sica. De Sica shocked the world with his Neorealist trifecta, Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Umberto D (1952). They told stories of the hopelessness of post-war poverty and the inescapable realities of life.

So imagine the world’s surprise when De Sica released Miracle in Milan, a film which not only abandons pretenses of reality, but embraces the impossible, mythical, and supernatural. Indeed, the world of Miracle in Milan is a fantastic one. Oil lamps burn all night long yet extinguish themselves at dawn, fountains of fresh water erupt wherever the ground is poked or prodded, and a geyser of gasoline explodes in the shantytown square. But despite all of these miraculous occurrences, Totò is by far the greatest miracle. He single-handedly helps the beggars construct their houses and communities. With an effortless charm and happiness he defuses arguments, brings solace to the suffering, and motivates the town to act and cooperate as one. It is a perfect, idealized society.

Unfortunately, it is discovered that the shantytown lies on top of a massive oil reserve. So a local wealthy baron buys up the land and hires the police to clear the beggars out. When they come storming into their town, Totò is helpless to stop them. But suddenly, the ghost of Totò’s foster mother appears and gives him a magical white dove that grants any wish that the holder asks. Totò is joyous at the prospect of helping his friends out. So he begins presenting them with lavish gifts: evening wear, food, cabinets, gowns, and money. He then uses it to trick and foil the police’s attempts at kicking them out. But while the police retreat and regroup, a mob forms, demanding more and more gifts from a beleaguered Totò. Unfortunately, two angels descend from Heaven and snatch the white dove back up. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that it is magical, both figuratively and literally.

Of course, there is some root in reality. The shantytown was populated with real-life beggars. De Sica’s son once recalled how the beggars would get drunk every night and had to be awakened every morning with buckets of cold water. There is a desperate pride in their faces when they are presented with overcoats and top hats by Totò’s white dove. Their faces are worn and rugged with age and weather. And the baron’s sinister manipulations aimed at driving the beggars from the shantytown reflect post-war corruption in Italy. Some might claim that the film is a metaphor for capitalism (the baron and police) and communism (the shantytown). But I would hesitate to make that comparison. The film is a fable. You shouldn’t read too far into it. De Sica didn’t.

“It is essentially a fairy story…peopled by strange creatures who believe in miracles and who work them themselves; it is a fairy tale for young and old,” writes De Sica, “To give life to this film of mine, I tried to find the meaning of a little word that likes to hide everywhere; it is goodness. I beg you to tell me if you find it here in these images, if you recognize it at least here and there.” And, indeed, there is much goodness to be found in this triumph of a film. Much of it can be found in Totò, who sacrifices everything in an attempt to make everyone happy.

But there is one scene that perfectly captures the spirit of the film. About halfway through the film, the inhabitants of the shantytown dig for water in the town square. They hit pay dirt as a massive volcano of water leaps from the ground. All of the beggars jump up and down in joy. Someone goes to have a drink, but spits it out, realizing that it’s gasoline. Silence hits the town. Then, the cheering erupts a second time. “Gasoline,” the beggars shout! No matter what their boon, they find joy. And that really is the heart of the film: that no matter what one’s station in life, there is room for joy, happiness, and contentment.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Editor's Note: Next Post

Sorry folks.

Due to circumstances outside of my control, my next review will be going up on Monday.

Until then, hang tight!

Nathanael Hood