22 January 2007

Penny Serenade (愛のアルバム, 1941)


Penny Serenade (George Stevens, 1941) is a classic example of a weepie: a drama, usually romantic in nature, designed to make its audience weep buckets by the time it’s through. Favourites of mine in the genre are the Bette Davis vehicles Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939) and All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940). Although the term ‘weepies’ isn’t used as much these days, they are still being made. A very good recent example is The Notebook: Nick Cassavetes’s sleeper hit of 2004 starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling.

Penny Serenade is also an example of a film that is hard to talk about without giving away plot points designed to take you by surprise and pull at your heartstrings. So if you plan on seeing this film and want the full shock value of all the obstacles thrown Irene Dunne and Cary Grant’s way, don’t read past this paragraph but skip to the final paragraph for my recommendation. Although I plan to tread judiciously in order to avoid too many spoilers, I wouldn’t be able to write about the film at all without mentioning a couple key plot points that were quite a shock to me right at the beginning.

The film opens in a melancholy mood with Julie (Irene Dunne) and Roger (Cary Grant) on the verge of divorce because, as Julie sadly tells their devastated friend Applejack (Edgar Buchanan), they just don’t seem to need each other anymore. Applejack tries to convince Julie otherwise and leaves her alone with a scrapbook of records and other mementos the couple has collected over the years. Julie then begins playing the records one-by-one and relives the memories of her relationship with Roger.


The transitions to the flashbacks are done in a very clever way. Instead of the usual dissolve to the past, they have gone for an iris in and out over an image of the record of the tune that evokes each memory. The tagline for the film is “Remember the tune they were singing. . . the night we fell in love?” For Julie and Roger that song was Freed & Brown’s “You Were Meant for Me”, a song from the late 1920s that would no doubt evoke nostalgia on the part of the original 1941 audience watching the film. As would the collection of other nostalgic songs of the 20s and 30s referenced during the course of the film: “Just a Memory”, “The Missouri Waltz”, “I’m Tickled Pink with a Blue-Eyed Baby”, and “The Moon was Yellow.”

The couple meet when Roger spots Julie working in a record shop and after a whirlwind romance, they marry hastily on New Year’s Eve just hours before Roger ships off to Japan on assignment for the newspaper that he works for as a journalist. They have a romantic tryst on the train (shot in a very titillating way for 1941!) which results in Julie being pregnant when she joins him in Japan three months later.

The segment of the film set in Japan really took me by surprise for two reasons: there was no suggestion of it on the DVD cover and it was a remarkably positive portrayal of Japan given that the precarious international situation at the time. Penny Serenade was released in April 1941, just 9 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it portrays Japan as a quaint, exotic local with cute children, lovely clothes, fancy gardens, and elegant homes. Par for the course for this time period everything has clearly been shot in a Hollywood studio. Also, all the “Japanese” look and sound like the actors may be of Chinese or other Asian backgrounds, and great liberties have been taken with the costume and set design, but I would imagine the audience would leave with a very positive impression of Japan as a travel destination.

Until of course, the earthquake hits and begins a series of tragedies for the young couple. Julie loses their baby when the house collapses on her and is rushed to California for treatment. There the couple discover that Julie’s injuries mean that she will not be able to have children and Julie is devastated. Roger is more difficult to read than Julie (during the first half of the film he often puts on a false front designed to show Julie what she wants to see), but we later learn that he too loves children.

They move to the countryside, where Roger has begun his own small newspaper and they decide, with prodding from Applejack, to adopt a child. Little Trina brings a lot of love and magic into Julie and Roger’s lives, but I’m afraid that there are many more tears in store before this movie draws to its conclusion, but I will allow you to discover how this movie turns out for yourself.
Cary Grant was nominated for an Oscar for playing Roger, but lost out to Donald Crisp in Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (the biggest film at the Oscars in 1942). Grant’s nomination was no doubt due to the memorable scene in which he heart-rendingly begs the judge not to take Trina away from them just because they are having financial difficulties. Up until that moment, his character had been more of a charmer than a man with hidden depths.

Irene Dunne looks as stunningly beautiful as ever and plays Julie with a great deal of delicacy. Rather then turn on the waterworks all the time, which would have grown dull rather fast, Dunne has mastered the art of looking like she could cry at any given moment but that she’s holding them in with her pride. My strongest memory of this film is of her sorrowful, doe-like eyes welled up with tears.

The cast is rounded off by two of the greatest character actors of all time: Beulah Bondi (best known for playing George’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life) and Edgar Buchanan (from the 60s TV comedy series Petticoat Junction). Bondi plays Miss Oliver, the adoption agency representative who puts on a professional front but is really a soft-hearted soul underneath. Buchanan keeps the film light with his comedic turn as Applejack Carney, a friend to both Julie and Roger, who keeps them both in check and gives them each a little nudge in the right direction whenever it’s needed.

This is not a first date movie, so watch it with someone you’re in a committed relationship with or with a girlfriend. It would make uneasy viewing for someone with cold feet about committing to a long-term relationship because of all the difficult issues it raises. I highly recommend this film for a girls’ night in. It’s not an easy film to watch alone, so curl up on the sofa with a friend and a hot toddy and weep away together.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007




17 January 2007

Seagull Diner (かもめ食堂, 2006)


This low-budget, subtly evoked independent film was the sleeper success story of 2006 in Japan. Mainly through word-of-mouth and other grassroots advertising (I heard about it via a flyer I found at Moomin Café & Bakery in Korakuen) this film enjoyed a quite sizable audience during its limited run in theatres.

In December, Kamome shokudo (Seagull Diner) made its appearance in Japanese rental shops. As the DVD has English subtitles for both the Japanese and Finnish dialogue, I could no longer resist the allure of the quirky image of three pleasant-looking, smartly dressed, middle-aged ladies making onigiri (rice balls) in a sleek modern kitchen that looks straight out of a Muji catalogue.

We are first introduced to Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi/小林聡美), an independent-minded single woman on the young side of that murky category known as middle-aged. She has chosen to open a diner specializing in Japanese “soul food” in Helsinki. The centerpiece of her menu is onigiri (rice balls), which I personally consider to be more the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich rather than “soul food” (I would put my Japanese soul food vote with nabemono), but it works well in the film.

Unfortunately, the Finns do not seem to be of an adventurous nature when it comes to trying out new things, and for the first month Sachie and her spotless diner wait in vain for customers to enter the premises. Three elderly ladies come by every day to peek in the window, but scurry away as soon as Sachie spots them and tries to offer them a welcoming smile.

Finally, her first customer, Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) enters and orders a coffee. Tommi is a fledgling student of Japanese, which he tentatively tries out on Sachie. As he warms up to her, he asks her if she knows the words to the Gatchaman song – the theme tune from a popular 1970s anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (科学忍者隊ガッチャマン).

Sachie recalls the tune but not the lyrics and they continue to haunt her after their meeting. Fortunately, she spots fellow ex-pat Midori (Hairi Katagiri/ 片桐はいり) sitting alone in the café of a bookstore.

Midori has only just recently arrived in Finland on a whim (the old close your eyes and point at the map trick), and fortuitously knows the Gatchaman song by heart. In gratitude for her help with the lyrics, Sachie invites Midori to stay with her for the duration of her time in Finland. In return, Midori offers to lend a hand in the café and soon realizes that Sachie has only one customer, Tommi, who actually causes her to lose money as she insists on giving him coffee for free indefinitely in honour of his being her first customer.

Midori wants to help Sachie make the Ruokala Lokki (Kamome Shokudo in Finnish) café into a success, so she suggests that they try to use Finnish ingredients in the onigiri. Amusingly, in the film the Finns treat the onigiri with suspicion, as though it might be fugu sashimi (raw poisonous blowfish). Sachie is willing to give in a try and the two ladies sit down with Tommi to test out Midori’s theory.

The trio are not convinced by their results and are disheartened. Then one morning, Sachie decides to bake fresh cinnamon rolls. This bolt from the blue, combined with a mysterious visit from a man who teaches her a spell for making coffee delicious (pushing ones finger gently into the centre of the coffee grains and saying “Kopi Luak” before pouring the water), convinces the three Finnish ladies to finally overcome their shyness and enter the café.

Gradually other customers follow, including Masako (Masako Motai/ もたいまさこ), a woman who has spent her life caring for her elderly parents and now has the freedom to travel. She, like Sachie and Midori, has been lured to Finland by the impression that the country is restful and the people easy-going. Unfortunately, her luggage is missing and she comes to the café to seek advice from her compatriots about what she should do with herself. Thus our trio of Japanese ladies on very personal journeys in Finland is complete and we follow the women as they learn more about each other and the community about them.

The film was shot in an actual café called Kahvila Suomi (Café Finland) – which explains why the colour scheme in the café is based on the colours of the Finnish flag – on location in Helsinki, as pictured on this Japanese blog: Dalahast and cinematography is beautiful in its simplicity. Tuomo Virtanen, a cinematographer with a wide range of experience in directing everything from commercials to documentaries, employs mainly still framing throughout the film and fills each scene with a lot of light (quite apt for a Finnish summer). The light is essential to keep the film from slipping towards a more melancholic mood.

Women play a vital role both on- and off-screen in this Japan-Finland co-production. Director Naoko Ogigami (荻上直子) adapted a story by popular novelist Yoko Mure (群ようこ). Yet, although Japanese women are at the heart of this film, the charm of the film stems from the rapport between Finnish and Japanese elements. Great character actors like Tarja Markus, who plays “the angry woman” Liisa turns out to be a force that brings the Japanese women closer to each other and also makes them a part of the community. Markku Peltola, who has starred in four of Aki Kaurismäki’s films, also has a memorable cameo as the broken man who used to run the café.

The popularity of the film most likely lies in its subtle humour and its appeal to women of a certain age in Japan, who find themselves in a similar situation to these ladies: unmarried career women or, as in the case of Masako, women who have stayed single in order to care for their elderly parents, who find themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Seeking answers about what to do with their future, they look outside Japan and follow childhood dreams to see places they read about or watched on TV.

In the case of Finland, the country is best known for Tove Janssen’s endearing little trolls the Moomins shot to fame in the 1970s when the books were animated. The real peak came in the 1990s when a Finnish-Japanese co-production made a new series. Not only do Moomins fall into the “kawaii” (cute) category in Japan, but their quirky, thoughtful ways and their closeness to nature make them very appealing characters. The idealized world of the Moomins can be felt in the scene when Masako goes off in search of forests.

I reveled in the quirkiness of the characters and dialogue in this film and in the delightful portrayal of independent women. The films greatest strength is in evoking what it is like to be an outsider in a community and the gradual way, through patience and small daily efforts, a person can become a part of their new environment. The film may frustrate people who are used simplistic Hollywood plots because the film does not give up its secrets easily.

The film has a sparing editing style and there is little or no mood music throughout much of the film. It will appeal to people who enjoy films like Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) or more sombre, reflective films of Krzyztof Kieslowski. Ogigami doesn’t give us all the background information about the characters that we may desire, but she allows us to fill those gaps with our own imaginations. I identified very strongly with these women searching for something in life that is very hard to define, but in the end may just be a feeling of contentment with oneself combined with a sense of belonging to a community.

[for an interesting paper by a Finn living in Japan on the film, check out the words of Juha Niemi.]

Kamome Shokudo (English Subtitles) / Japanese Movie




Movie - Kamome Shokudo - Original Soundtrack / Original Soundtrack

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

03 January 2007

Yuri Norstein & Francheska Yarbusova Exhibition


The Chihiro Museum is currently running a special exhibition on the renowned Russian animator Yuri Norstein and his wife Francheska Yarbusova until the end of January. This includes screenings of his films on January 8th and January 14th at 11am and 1pm. Highlights of the exhibit include wonderful photographs of Norstein and Yarbusova by Miya Kousei, original prints of their storybooks for children (including the classic Hedgehog in the Fog), and a room of artwork by Chihiro Iwasaki selected by Norstein himself when he visited the museum in early December. Aparently he and Isao Takahata discussed animation in a sold-out event -- sorry to have missed it! I bought a few prints of Norstein's work in their lovely gift shop and was told that Norsheyn himself had broght the prints in his luggage with him.

I will try to write a more complete review of the exhibition later, but I highly recommend it to anyone in the Tokyo area. It is the most child-friendly art gallery I have ever seen! In the meantime, check out the 1974 classic animation Hedgehog in the Fog here.

I am currently working on my review of Kamome Shokudo and hope to finish it up tomorrow night.

The complete works of Yuri Norstein are available on DVD in Japan:

Yuri Norstein Sakuhin shu (collection) / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

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