June 8, 2012. Bodies. Movies Reviewed: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, Guilty of Romance

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Japan, Movies, Mystery, Sex Trade, Suicide, Toronto, Uncategorized, US, violence, Zatoichi, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 8, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Does art bore you? Do foreign movies with subtitles seem dull? Well, you’re in for a shock. Three shocks actually, that should rid you of that notion. This week I’m looking at three movies about people who use and abuse their bodies. One’s a Japanese drama about men who stick sharp objects into their stomachs in the name of honour; another is a Japanese dramatic thriller about two women who sell their bodies, but only for the thrill of it; and one is an American documentary about a woman who throws her naked body, full-force, at immobile naked men – but purely for artistic reasons.

To start with, here’s an art movie — well, a movie about art — that definitely won’t put you to sleep.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Dir: Matthew Akers

Marina Abramovic is a beautiful artist in her 60’s, born in Belgrade to parents who were hardcore Communists who fought in the resistance in WWII. They were cold, militaristic and authoritarian, so she chooses to go in the opposite direction with her art. She becomes a pioneer in radical performance art, beginning in the 1970’s. She’s famous for using her own body — usually naked — as the medium of her art.

She cuts herself, burns herself, starves herself, hurts herself, throws herself against immutable objects, and whips herself. But she brings the military discipline with which she was raised to sustain these extended and painful performances.

Then she meets another artist in the Netherlands who does similar things, and they fall madly in love. Now she has a performance partner — Ulay — and a life partner. They slap each others faces, over and over, throw themselves body first into one another… things like that. And always naked, of course.

But all things end, and when they break up, she is devastated, both emotionally and artistically. She had always handled the artistic side but not the “business” side of art…

Flash-forward to the present. She has transformed herself into a hugely successful art superstar – mow as much a theatrical performer as an ideological artist — and the Museum of Modern Art decides to do a retrospective. But she’s in her sixties, so she gathers a whole gang of young artists with nice bodies in a performance art bootcamp and meditation lodge! They’re going to re-perform her old pieces using their new bodies.

And Marina herself sets up a (now famous) performance at MoMA that consists of her sitting in a chair in a huge, empty white hall for long periods of time in a chair, facing another chair. The viewers sit across from her, one by one, and look deeply into her eyes — no speaking, no moving, no eating… just staring, completely still. It becomes more and more popular, until it reaches the point where people are camped out on the sidewalk overnight, coming into New York City from distant places. Marina as superstar.  The movie follows her past (using period footage and photos), her ascent to celebrity-hood, her amazing performance, and her behind-the- scenes look at constructing this work. It’s equal parts art, fame, emotion and philosophy… with just a bit of hucksterism.

If you’ve never seen a movie about art (or if fine art intimidates you), this is a good one to start with — it’s exciting, sexy, entertaining, funny, shocking and totally accessible. Great movie!

Harakiri: Death of a Samurai
Dir: Takashi Miike

Did you know that Samurai were basically bureaucrats and tax collectors not fighters? Around 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara unified the country under the Tokugawa military government, the samurai who had fought on the losing sides often found themselves as Ronin – samurai without a master. That left them penniless, aimless, and with a great loss in status.

So this movie’s about a poor ronin named Hanshiro who shows up at the House of Yii saying he wants to commit harakiri (ritual suicide). That’s where a samurai takes his smaller sword and slices up his belly until he dies… at which point, another samurai chops off his head… nice.

But what does the Daimyo’s rep say? “Oh no, not again…!” You see, a younger ronin named Motome had tried the same thing not long before. He was a scammer who just wanted a few coins as a payoff for not bloodying up their nice courtyard. But they called his bluff – go ahead and kill yourself. But he didn’t have the short sword – he pawned it and replaced it with a bamboo replica. But the cruel samurai says, doesn’t matter – and there’s a long painful scene where they force this young ronin to go through with this, to pierce his belly with a piece of broken wood! …ouch!

Anyway, back to the present, they tell this story and tell the older ronin he can go home, no problem. But here the plot turns…. Turns out he’s that younger ronin’s father in law, and he came to prove a point: that the samurai code, the vaunted code of warriors, that bastion of dignity and honour, is just a load of crap.

The movie culminates in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) pic!

My description can’t do justice to this movie (and I don’t want to give it all away), but it’s a dark, tense drama and a damning challenge to authority and corruption, showing how false and hollow the whole thing is. It’s directed by Takashi Miike, who is known for his violence and excess, but is amazingly restrained here, with an almost Shakespearean take on a 17th century Japanese samurai drama.

Guilty of Romance
Dir: Sion Sono
(Restricted to age 18+)

Tokyo police detectives find a bloody scene in a love hotel, and want to uncover this mystery. But what a mystery it is!

It starts with a new bride who has a dictatorial husband. She’s a sexually naïve, traditional Japanese housewife who wears a kimono, with her hair pulled back, bows to her lover, and when he leaves for work in the morning (he’s a novelist) she dutifully turns his slippers around so they’ll be ready for him when he comes home.

Then one day she decides to take a job in a grocery store dressed in a little hat and a uniform offering sausage samples on toothpicks to passing shoppers. Soon, a woman claiming to be a modelling agent convinces her to pose for photos. This soon turns to nude photos, then to hardcore porn on video.

She is shaken by the experience, but also sexually awakened. She starts picking up guys she meets in central Shibuya, and gradually drifts into the nearby love hotel district (Maruyama). There she meets a crazed streetwalker who takes her under her wing, and tells her about a mythical, Kafkaesque “castle” where all things will be made clear to her.

So she becomes almost a disciple to this mysterious fiery-eyed and raven haired woman who tells her never, ever to have sex for free… unless she is with the one who loves her. But she soon finds out, this scary streetwalker is, like her, living a double life! She’s actually a well-known university professor who lectures to packed halls by day, but trolls the alleys in disguise by night.

But there’s still further deceit in their secret lives. Guilty of Romance is a violent, sexual ly explicit exploitation drama, based on a true story.

The director, Sion Sono, is amazing in that he takes very recent pulp news stories, and turns them into way-over-the-top funny, gory, emotionally fraught, and semi-pornographic sexual movies. I’ve seen three of his recent movies, and they’re all amazing. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like female-centred shock movies, with terrific pot-boiler stories and super creepy characters (like the grandmother who speaks ultra politely but drips venom with every phrase), this is the movie for you.

Guilty of Romance plays tonight, and Harakiri on Sunday – with a live Taiko performance — both as part of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival (which runs until the 20th at the JCCC), and Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present opens next week – check your local listings. The CFC World Short Film Festival is on right now through Sunday, and NXNE, Toronto’s enormous music, film, and digital festival, begins on the 13th,, next Thursday.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, with podcasts and complete reviews available on my web site CulturalMining. com.

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Not Guaranteed, and the great art documentary I reviewed last week, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present both open today, check your local listings; Jobriath, My Father and the Man in Black, and KMS: […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: