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Director/Screenwriter: Lois Weber
The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.
Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:
When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’
Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.
Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing are far out of reach, even though they cost only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”
Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.
Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.
The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.
Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.
Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.
Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.
The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.
Shoes will screen Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, April 3 at 6 p.m. as part of the “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director: Kim Longinotto
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, I had a discussion about prostitution with some of my regular commenters. Among the ideas put forth were that prostitution is a victimless crime and that sex workers are free to choose other lines of work if they don’t like what they’re doing. My reply to these ideas was that sometimes a choice is not really a choice and that prostitution victimizes many people, from the prostitute to the family she or he is supporting through this work. I continue to hold these beliefs, and now I have evidence to back them up in the form of director Kim Longinotto’s new documentary Dreamcatcher.
Longinotto is a respected British documentarian who has used her camera primarily to focus attention on women’s issues, such as female genital mutilation and divorce in Iran, as well as such feminist leaders as a group of women who protect and care for the abused and neglected children of Durban, South Africa (Rough Aunties, 2008) and Indian poet, politician, and activist Salma (Salma, 2013). Dreamcatcher looks at prostitution through the eyes and work of Brenda Myers-Powell, former prostitute and cofounder and executive director of The Dreamcatcher Foundation, a Chicago-based organization working to end human trafficking, prevent the sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, and help current prostitutes find a way out of their current lifestyle. Longinotto and her sound recordist, Nina Rice, follow Myers-Powell as she makes her rounds of the streets, prisons, and schools where she connects with at-risk girls and those already in the life, as well as to the home where she lives with her husband and her adopted son, the natural son of her drug-addicted sister-in-law. Longinotto also accompanies her on a trip to Las Vegas where she and an ex-pimp who works with her, Homer, lecture at a conference on human trafficking.
During the opening scene, Myers-Powell is looking for streetwalkers whom she hopes will accept the free condoms she has on hand, as well as some words of help and encouragement. One older prostitute accepts the condoms and climbs into the van emblazoned with The Dreamcatcher Foundation along its side to talk with Myers-Powell. Her story is beyond harrowing, as she talks about being stabbed 19 times by one man and trying to help her friend, another prostitute who was stabbed on another occasion and died in her arms. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that she survived 19 stab wounds, while her friend died from one, and says repeatedly that she doesn’t want to live anymore but is too afraid to kill herself. She leaves the van grateful for having someone to talk to, but it’s hard not to feel that one day soon she’ll get her wish.
That same evening, Myers-Powell finds Marie, a prostitute working in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a wooded, isolated park. Marie is from Portland, Oregon, and has been on the streets most of her life, starting as a child collecting money for a pimp and graduating to hooking. Myers-Powell listens to her story of abusive pimp boyfriends, guesses that she’s pregnant, and offers her judgment-free help. Marie will turn up throughout the film.
We see Myers-Powell at a women’s prison talking to inmates about the choices they made because they had to survive and celebrating that her record has been wiped clean. Her attorney, Rachel Pontikes, speaks before the group, telling them that Myers-Powell actually made law as a result of her petition to have her prostitution convictions erased; in 2011, Illinois passed the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, under which survivors can petition a judge to vacate prostitution convictions that resulted from sex trafficking. The celebratory mood breaks something open in the group, as one woman talks of being repeatedly molested as a child, and then tells the shocking story of being beaten severely, having her jaw dislocated, and then being forced to perform oral sex on the man who beat her.
Throughout the film, we meet women who were molested as children, some as young as four years old. In fact, in one of her weekly meetings with at-risk teenage girls, Myers-Powell listens as one girl after another tell about being molested by relatives and the boyfriends of their mothers. Often, these stories are told in an unemotional way, but some of the girls break down in tears or become angry when telling about how they tried to prevent the abuse, but were not believed by the adults around them. Homer comes to talk with them one week, and reveals that he was molested, too, and found a way to feel powerful and wanted as a pimp.
These stories have the important effect of putting to rest such ridiculous ideas as the “happy hooker” or prostitution as a free choice. Clearly, the abuse the vast majority of these sex workers and at-risk girls experienced in their formative years have had a strong effect, causing Myers-Powell to say repeatedly “it’s not your fault” and “you did what you had to do to survive.” This is the language used with rape victims, which, of course, most prostitutes were as children and are at various points during their lives as sex workers. It’s not that surprising that prostitutes have children: when Myers-Powell learns from a teenager who keeps moving out of her mother’s house that she is pregnant, she remarks, “She wanted someone to love her, so she made one. I know, I did.”
Longinotto makes a stab at providing some sort of uplift for the audience. Marie finally leaves her boyfriend and is shown moving into a shelter with Myers-Powell’s help; she says her spirit was touched and that things will only get better. Maybe, but the preponderant feeling Dreamcatcher elicits is despair. Myers-Powell is a dynamic, determined individual who has survived and thrived despite the dead weight of her background, but the repetition of the same stories by girl after girl, woman after woman, made me feel pretty hopeless about reducing human trafficking, never mind eliminating it. This is an important subject, and Brenda Myers-Powell is a lively central character who does more, I’m sure, than hug people and provide positive messages. Unfortunately, as a piece of filmmaking, Longinotto has produced a static bludgeon of what are, essentially, sloganeering talking heads.
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Director: George Loane Tucker
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon IV
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The United States is undergoing another of its periodic hissy fits over waves of immigration that are disrupting the social pecking order and mobilizing some people to hop up and down on the hands of time to reverse the course of history. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, what’s old is new again. In the first decade or so of the 20th century, immigration set off a wave of concern that the pimps who were luring off-the-boat female immigrants into prostitution would start preying on the flower of white American maidenhood. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that director James Gray took up this type of story just last year in his historical drama The Immigrant .) George Loane Tucker’s 1913 Traffic in Souls, one of the earliest feature-length films and from the same year as our blogathon project, Cupid in Quarantine, pretended a concern with so-called white slavery while offering audiences the titillation they craved in this era of the earliest film femme fatale—the vamp. Traffic in Souls was a huge hit, providing a solid foundation on which Universal Pictures was built, and earning its place on the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film.
Traffic in Souls is equal parts overwrought melodrama, social indictment, and documentary, which makes it a fascinating film as a crowd pleaser with actual relevance. The film stratifies the worlds of respectable American society, carpetbaggers in morning suits and silk, squalid criminals, and isolated and vulnerable immigrants. The Barton family comprises an invalid inventor father (William H. Turner), responsible eldest daughter Mary (Jane Gail), who is engaged to sincere Officer Burke (Matt Moore), and devil-may-care younger daughter Lorna (Ethel Grandin). Lorna is put in danger when she is spotted in the candy store where she and Mary work by the manager of a prostitution ring (Howard Crampton) run by the wealthy social climber William Trubus (William Welsh), who hides his activities by heading the International Purity and Reform League. Such reformist associations often were hissworthy villains in silent films, with meddlesome social workers tearing babies away from the bosoms of their destitute mothers with some frequency.
Before we get to the main event—Lorna’s kidnapping and rescue—Loane Tucker offers a look at how brothels operate. The film, shot in New York City, offers location shooting at Ellis Island, the Upper West Side, and in Penn Station, where newcomers to the big city from small towns and other countries are waylaid by “helpful” procurers, like the seemingly safe “Respectable” Smith (William Burbridge), who offer to help them find their lodgings or take them to an employment service. Two Swedish girls (Flora Nason and Vera Hansey) looking like low-rent Nestle milkmaids in long-braid wigs, are separated from the brother (William Powers) who meets them at the boat, and lured into the brothel by a homemade sign scribbled in English and Swedish that says “Swedish Employment Agency.” Inside the brothel, the film increases its veracity by showing the African-American madams and prostitutes who actually comprised the largest part of the working girls in New York.
Technology plays a large role in this film. The manager writes the daily returns on a tablet that form magically on a similar tablet in Trubus’ office, the imagination of the film’s creators prefiguring email. Trubus is unmasked for what he is by Mary, discharged from the candy store because of the immorality attached to her sister’s situation—kidnapping is no excuse for low morals, apparently—and hired by Mrs. Trubus (Millie Liston) to replace the sexually loose secretary (Laura McVicker) she has discovered smooching with the manager. Mary learns the truth and brings a microphone her father has invented to eavesdrop on Trubus and his manager—an early phone bug. We also have an early example of product placement—Edison wax cylinders are used to record the conversation the bug picks up.
I quite liked the precision of the police assault on the brothel. Loane Tucker builds suspense as the police get their orders and man various positions on top of and surrounding the building. When the police storm the building, the camera work is kinetic and dizzying, and Burke’s pursuit of the manager to the roof ends in a quick, realistic way with the manager ending as a slick on the cement below, a scene with which moviegoers are now quite familiar.
The ruin of Trubus is the ruin of his family as well—his daughter’s (Irene Wallace) betrothel to the season’s most eligible bachelor unceremoniously ended, an outraged mob screaming for blood at his predatory hypocrisy, and his wife killed by the shock and shame of the double life he has been leading. The audience feels that Lorna has learned her lesson about straying into a willful life of her own, a redemption of their own for having thrilled to the madam’s whip hovering over her quivering, tearful form.
Traffic in Souls has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley, a great friend to precious film history from the silent age. Our blogathon is dedicated to restoring these priceless parts of our cultural heritage. Won’t you please make a donation to bring Cupid in Quarantine back into the world.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow into the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.
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Director: Seijun Suzuki
By Roderick Heath
Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.
A product of the time when he was still part of Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.
Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.
Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.
The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.
Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.
The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.
The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.
This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.
Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.
Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.
Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.
Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.
But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.
Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and the other Japanese commanders set out to pursue partisans: Narita’s superior muses worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.
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Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
By Roderick Heath
Women of the Night, a panoramic drama of the shattered society of Japan after decades of repressive government and the grim final months of World War II, perhaps represents a turning point for the later career of Kenji Mizoguchi. The director, as well as attempting like all of his industry colleagues to rebuild Japanese cinema as a commercial and artistic brand, began seeking new spiritual and emotional paradigms and aesthetic qualities distinct in some regards from his pre-war films. The casual brilliance of those earlier films, with their cosmopolitan themes, question-mark resolutions, and succinct, epigrammatic stories, gives way here to something at once more declarative and expansive in vision: presented amongst the Eclipse series “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” it points towards Mizoguchi’s great last film Street of Shame (1956). Whilst perhaps the least aesthetically coherent of the four films in that collection, it’s also the most overtly powerful in its simultaneous compassion and hard-earned transcendence, at odds with a devastated and inhumane landscape in which all pretence to community and mutual responsibility has been nullified and the relations of the powerful to the weak have achieved a quotidian extremity.
An irony of Mizoguchi’s life was that he was a rootless man who often took refuge amongst geishas, throwing into fascinating relief his constant refrain of worrying about the lot of women who took that line of work, or the less privileged one of prostitution nominally beneath it, because he was implicit in the power disparity he portrayed with such acid intensity. But he had also been deeply affected by he fact that his own sister had been sold as a geisha when he was a boy. The world of Women of the Night, an adaptation of a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, has lost the shape it had in pre-war works like Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). Everyone’s fair game now in a world in which vital loved ones have vanished, some to return, some forever. Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) deals with both, having waited years to learn of her husband’s fate, living in the slums and resisting the suggestions of the woman who buys and sells clothing that she take up prostitution to provide for her consumptive baby son. She learns of her husband’s death from Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata), the owner of the trading firm he used to work for. Some months later, she encounters her sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who had gone to live in Korea as a colonist, where she was raped during the evacuation, and now works as a taxi dancer at a nightclub. Natsuko moves in with Fusako, who’s since landed a secretarial job at Kuriyama’s company, but whose son has died.
The sisters’ momentary prosperity and harmony are broken when it becomes apparent that Kuriyama is romancing both of them. Fusako, enraged, walks away from sister and lover and determines to become a streetwalker. Meanwhile Fusako’s sister-in-law, the still-adolescent Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), decides to leave home but stays in the slum and is dominated by her self-pitying brother, a black marketeer. But Kumiko, excruciatingly naïve, is take in by Kiyoshi, a petty thief who’s posing as a caring student. He fools her into coming back to the restaurant he and other young refuse use as an HQ, where he pours liquor into her, rapes her, and lets the young tarts from his gang strip her of her clothes: they offer her the choice of joining their number or going back home half-naked. Meanwhile, Natsuko, upon learning that Fusako’s been spotted amongst streetwalkers, goes to search her out and gets netted in a police raid. Natsuko encounters the embittered Fusako in a combination prison and VD clinic; Fusako soon breaks out on her own, whilst Natsuko is freed when Kuriyama comes to collect her. But he takes no responsibility for the baby and is soon imprisoned for smuggling morphine, stripping Natusko of support.
Copies of this film available in the West had some 20 minutes cut out, and this accounts for some abrupt continuity leaps and emphasises a somewhat episodic quality in the story. Women of the Night is also melodramatic by Mizoguchi’s standards, and in many ways it anticipates works like On The Waterfront (1954)—particularly in the finale—that used melodrama in service of social portraiture. Mizoguchi handles his exciting moments with hypnotic, yet rigorously simple flare: Fusako smuggling an illegal stock of morphine away from Kuriyama’s warehouse under the nose of investigating police; her later escape from the VD centre, hastily utilising an old bed and her belt to scale the barbed wire; Kumiko’s increasingly dreadful encounter with Kiyoshi and his gang; the final Calvary-like struggle between camps of prostitutes. But it’s also a tough, expressive, and deeply paradoxical film, like his later Sanshô the Bailiff (1954), an odyssey through degradation and a drama of family ties that are strained and warped, but finally not broken. The sisters fight to hold onto what little self-direction they possess. After learning of her betrayal by Kuriyama, Fusako tries to give her prostitution the veneer of revenge against men, knowing full well she’ll soon be a carrier of disease. Kumiko’s decision to join the waifs who just assaulted her possesses the same illusion of empowerment. When Natusko finishes up in jail with Fusako, she’s confident she’ll be released as soon as she undergoes a medical test, but the doctors find that Kuriyama has made her pregnant and also infected her with syphilis.
Mizoguchi claimed William Wyler as an influence on his cinema, and the deep-focus framing in his film does evoke that, although Mizoguchi’s own particular aesthetic developed more or less concurrently with Wyler’s. Either way, the deep-focus work is particularly revealing in scenes that invert the dramatic focus, like that in which Kuriyama eyes Fusako with appraising interest from the background whilst she stands in fumbling grief in the foreground, and later when Fusako’s son has convulsions, Mizoguchi keeps his camera outside the house, Fusako’s desperate reaction within distant and hopeless as the men in the foreground go racing off to fetch aid. This technique gave him a way of easing up on his usual exhausting long takes whilst retaining a fluidic, integrated mise-en-scène, as well as giving his dramatic style an ironic distance. The overall structure also bears similarity to John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for Mizoguchi was also a Ford fan. The progress of the sisters towards finding temporary refuge and safety with a home for women run by conscientious men that offers shelter and food in exchange for labour echoes the way the Joads finally find the government farm in Ford’s film. Simultaneously, in its rigorous honesty, blasted imagery and vital humanism, Mizoguchi’s film certainly seems part of the post-War neorealist movement; indeed, his effortless fusion of the artistic and urgent sentiment is easily the equal of, and possibly superior to, what even the best of the neorealists were accomplishing at the time.
Mizoguchi charts the steady downfall of the sisters with remorseless logic, whilst also confirming how (comparatively) easy options consistently give way to bottomless pits. The extended scene of Kumiko’s degradation is rare in its concise nastiness: the way Kiyoshi forces drink down her throat and then eyes her like a cat does a chicken when it comes time to deflower her, and her own utterly clueless state afterwards, unsure whether she’s been loved or murdered after a fashion. The relationship between the sisters is the linchpin of the film, blending love and resentment, fear, and anger. Particularly fascinating in the way they alternate attitudes, Fusako and Natsuko take turns as the bitter, vengeful, self-destructive party, rebelling by assaulting their own bodies, their only remaining vessels for expressing hate. They evoke the sibling protagonists in Sisters of the Gion, but that film’s clean divide between the cynic and the idealist has been rendered much more blurred, inevitably, by a calamity that’s absorbed everyone. Fusako’s initial retreat into prostitution as her repudiation of dominance gives way to her attempts to drag a drunken and suicidal Natusko to the women’s refuge from the apartment Kuriyama left her with, but which she can’t afford. I love the moment when Fusako, trying to get Natsuko to cease her drunken lolling, strips the cigarette from her sister’s mouth, jams it in her own, and then manhandles her off the floor. Mizoguchi’s actresses smoke like those in modern films use guns. Equally amusing and acerbic is the scene in the VD centre when a representative of a “purity society” lectures a doctor on the virtues the women are missing out on and the collected whores lend their choral disdain of a ludicrous voice of morality and responsibility that echoes more concertedly and urgently from the doctors at the women’s refuge, with true moral weight but still without understanding that some things are unavoidable.
That’s partly because the alternatives can be degrading: staying at the women’s refuge is harder work and because there’s a rigorous dog-eat-dog truth to the world of the prostitutes themselves. Whilst there may be honour amongst thieves, there’s precious little amongst these hookers, who are regimented by the toughest and most psychopathic into turf-controlling gangs. When she’s first brought to the VD centre, Natusko is immediately set upon by the toughest ladies, who demand respect. Mizoguchi’s contempt for men who use women as a playground and then spurn them, and, worse, judge them, is condensed into the figure of Kuruyama, who’s as crooked as a corkscrew and yet maintains the most upright of affectations. But he’s implicated with the failure of an entire social philosophy and form of government that’s led to ruination. And Mizoguchi also offers ironies. The devastating scene in which Natusko gives birth to a still-born baby on the floor at the refuge presages the statement of one of the managers in trying to make the hardened floozies understand what’s at stake, “Life in all its beauty struggles to be born.” The men here have been rendered more maternal than the women.
In the delirious final scene, Fusako is horrified to be reunited with Kumiko when she’s caught and roughed up by the gang Fusako works with. Fusako is so shocked and outraged to find the ludicrously young girl is also a prostitute that she unleashes a flurry of anger and pain on Kumiko, slapping her in rage whilst screaming implorements and threats, love and rage in a remarkable confluence. “Give birth to a monster!” Fusako screams, meaning babies malformed by syphilis, but also invoking the perversion of common humanity: “Feel yourself rot inside and out!” Fusako’s subsequent determination to take Kumiko home and to stay there with her sees her bundled up and furiously beaten by a queen bee who wields a whip with hysterical rage: life on the edge is driving everyone mad, and a kind of nadir is reached in this scene that purposefully evokes a crucifixion image—the scene takes place in a bombed-out lot next to a Christian church, a stained-glass Madonna above it all.
It’s here that Women of the Night turns almost surreal in its cruel intensity, and anticipates the deeply fetishised, amoral turn that a lot of Japanese filmmakers would push at the end of the ’60s in portraying humanity’s capacity for baseness. But the spirituality offered by the religious imagery, couched in Christian terms possibly designed to please Occupation authorities also seems linked to both Mizoguchi’s love for such transcendental Christian writing as that of Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works he had adapted at the start of his career, and to his later Zen and Confucian themes in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô the Bailiff, strive to synthesise a new sense of the ideals that sustain people through loss and horror. The spectacle of Fusako’s beating has, like Christ’s suffering, a positive effect: the watching whores who tackle and suppress the tyrants rediscover a shared sense of humanity, and the exhausted women lie sprawled afterwards like the wounded survivors of the war their mostly dead menfolk just fought, giving Fusako and Kumiko the chance to get away. It’s a bizarrely breathtaking end to a deeply compelling film, and one that asks as many questions as it answers. Fusako and Kumiko will go back home, but the future that awaits them there is still one that’s deadly to the foolish and the weak. l
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Director: Richard Quine
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last night at a birthday party for a friend of mine, conversation turned to major events of the day. Here in Illinois, speculation is rampant about whether Jesse Jackson, Jr. offered to pay his way to a U.S. Senate seat. Some didn’t believe it; others said it would be just like the offspring of an opportunistic, anti-Semitic father who stuck his face in front of cameras early and often. The hubby said, “You should have seen those guys driving around in poor Atlanta neighborhoods in Cadillacs!” I countered that better the civil rights leaders than the drug dealers. The idea behind riding in a Cadillac is aspirational—this can be yours if you reach for it and stop settling for what The Man gives you.
Whether that argument sits well with you or not, there can be no doubt that poor people without the advantages of schooling, connections, or visibility still aspire to a better life. The World of Suzie Wong is a film that contrasts the haves with the have-nots in colonial Hong Kong and more subtly than insistently shows how difficult it can be to climb out of poverty. Surrounded by the candy wrapper of pretty costumes, happy hookers, little violence, and tidy environs, The World of Suzie Wong delivers a potent message to an audience that normally wouldn’t go anywhere near it. This is a Hollywood-style romance—it’s actually a British production—with some real heft.
Shot on location in Hong Kong, Suzie Wong opens with a breathtaking view of the colony from the water. Against a backdrop of steep, populated hills, Chinese junks, commercial vessels from other lands, and ferries mark the location as a lively hub of commerce. A 40ish American man named Robert Lomax (William Holden) is sitting on a ferry sketching its Chinese passengers. He catches sight of a pretty girl (Nancy Kwan) cooing happily at a baby in its grandmother’s arms. When the girl sees him, she becomes angered. He tries to explain what he is doing, but she insists over and over, “No talk.” She walks off, leaving her purse on her seat. The elderly woman asks Robert to return it to her; when he does, she accuses him of stealing it. The misunderstanding is straightened out to the policeman who intervenes, and Robert and the young woman strike up a less contentious conversation. She says she is Mai Ling, daughter of a rich hotelier. She is readying herself for a trip to America to marry her rich fiancé, a man she has never met. Robert is aghast, but Mai Ling shrugs; this is the Chinese way.
When the ferry docks, Mai Ling tells Robert to go away. Her father is sending a car to meet her, and he would be very upset to learn she had been speaking to a strange man. She disappears, and Robert gets into a cab. In response to his request for a cheap hotel, the cabbie takes him to the Nam Kok, a modest establishment next to a very loud tavern in a poor section of town. Encouraged by the fact that there is a great rooftop view of Hong Kong, Robert engages a room for a month. He learns quickly after a couple of sailors knock at his door that he has been given the regular room of a prostitute named Minnie Ho (Yvonne Shima). He also learns when he goes to the adjoining tavern that his extraordinary rental of the room for a whole month has made him the talk of the small community he has now become a part of.
Robert sees Mai Ling get into a ricksaw outside his hotel. He asks around about her, but nobody knows a Mai Ling. Soon, when he sees her in the tavern chatting up and dancing with a number of men, he learns her real name is Suzie Wong. She’s illiterate and was abandoned by her family at the age of 10, forced by lack of skills and opportunity to be a Wan Chai girl (prostitute).
Robert is strongly attracted to her but wants to be free of distractions. He has made a promise to himself to spend the next year trying to be a serious painter. If he fails, he’ll go back to San Francisco and resume his career as an architect. He asks Suzie up to his room, but rather than pay for her body, he offers to pay her to model for him. She’s insulted and worried about losing face, but nonetheless, agrees. Over the months they work together, she and Robert let their walls down and come to know each other on a deeper level. She makes up stories about herself, about what she would like to be, to keep hope for a better future alive. She is aspirational, as are all the Wan Chai girls. Their best hope, as with so many movie hookers, is to get an exclusive boyfriend or possibly even a good husband. Naturally, it’s a long shot.
Unlike Suzie, Robert is an easy fit into the British overclass. Merely by visiting Mr. O’Neill (Laurence Naismith), a banker who will look after his nest egg, Robert gets letters of introduction to allow him to do business freely all over Hong Kong. He also meets O’Neill’s daughter Kay (Sylvia Syms), who takes a romantic shine to him and offers to help him show his paintings in a London gallery. At the same time, Ben (Michael Wilding), a recently separated British businessman who met Suzie the same night Robert finds out who she really is, comes back into her life with an offer to take care of her.
To its credit, this film lowers the volume on these love triangles and delivers on its promise to show us Suzie Wong’s world. The Wan Chai district is filled with British and Australian sailors and businessmen looking for a good time or an escape from their worries, and the marginal young women who provide them. Although the hotel, tavern, and streets are cleaned up for the comfort of the viewing audience, they still breathe with the lives of their people. Having a john beat one up out of jealousy is a mark of honor among these girls. Picking up a guy only to ditch him is a way a prostitute can avoid breaking the law against unaccompanied women going into bars.
Part of Suzie’s world is racist, and it gets an airing during a dinner party at the O’Neills. I thought a bit of Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), except that here we are seeing the British completely relaxed being themselves with their own kind. There is a bit of tweaking Mr. O’Neill engages in by inventing a sister married to a Chinese man, but fiction is about as close as he wants to get to equality. It is only in the honesty of the love that has grown between Suzie and Robert, beautifully realized by Kwan and an amazingly sexy William Holden, that we truly get beyond racism.
Most of all, Nancy Kwan gives a powerhouse debut performance. Suzie is an amazing creation. She has her catchphrase “For goodness sake” and “no talk,” which, had Robert been more worldly about Hong Kong when he met her, would have tipped him to her real profession (“No money, no talk.”). She reaches her emotions honestly while still showing them in an understated Asian way. For example, when a sailor beats her up, and probably rapes her, she shows up at Robert’s room with a bleeding lip. Contrasting with Robert’s horror, Suzie just says, “Sailor hit me,” as a commonplace.
But Kwan’s true genius in tackling the role of Suzie is her use of her extraordinary body awareness. Trained as a dancer, Kwan moves better than just about any actress I’ve ever seen. She is kinetic without being frantic, sexually suggestive without being tawdry. In one scene, Robert follows her into the hillside neighborhoods where she maintains a secret life; it is her walk rather than an astute camera that keeps her on our radar screen, an individual presence standing apart from the chaos of humanity through which she makes her way.
In a rather clichéd manner, the director uses wardrobe to cue a change in Suzie—going from satin, side-slit dresses of one bright color to demure white blouses and pedal pushers. This wasn’t necessary, as Kwan made that character transition without any help. Thankfully, the paintings Robert makes in this film actually are quite good, worth quitting a prosperous career to pursue; they are the work of Elizabeth Moore, who also contributed paintings and sculptures to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Certainly, this world is idealized—no drunken or drug-addicted whores in this bunch—and collapses a bit into flaming melodrama involving the rescue of a baby from a landslide. Nonetheless, The World of Suzie Wong escapes many of the pitfalls of “travelogue” motion pictures and delivers a solid drama and a new star in Nancy Kwan.