Directed by Alexander Sokurov
Alexander Sokurov is hard to love because many of his movies are so unapologetically Russian: Unlike many festival-circuit darlings, he’s less concerned with making movies for the Cannes-noscenti than for his own countrymen. Of course, the director will always occupy a tender spot in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere for 2002’s Russian Ark, which was not only shot in one take (the first such feature film; Rope doesn’t count because poor Hitchcock had to change reels every 12 minutes), but in a single glorious, outrageous, complexly choreographed, epically DeMillian one. But that film, like Alexandra, which opened in New York six years later, proves somewhat esoteric, content-wise, for U.S. audiences not steeped in Kremlinology and Russo-social history. In contrast to a movie like Michael Haneke’s upcoming The White Ribbon, whose historically specific message and moral can be reapplied to other cultures and time periods, the aforementioned Sokurov movies are political films that address a particular time, place and people. Their themes don’t quite translate across regional boundaries.
But in his latest, The Sun (Solntse), the director turns his attention eastward to nearby Japan, ca. 1945, a promising development as investigations of Nihonese yesteryears don’t feel as culturally hermetic as a walk through the Hermitage; WWII history is more familiar than that of the Bolshevik and Chechen Revolutions. The depiction of a declared deity doubting his divinity in defeat involves an element of universal understanding—humans have narrated the fall of kings since at least Ancient Greece—that’s lacking from the chronicle of a tough and tender babushka’s peregrinations through the rubble of Nokhchiin.
For Sokurov, The Sun completes a trilogy, beginning with 1999’s Moloch and continuing with Taurus two years later, that greeted the new century by looking back at the decline and defeat of the last 100 years’ Great Monsters of victor-written History—Hitler and Lenin, respectively. In this film, completed by 2005 (when it played at the New York Film Festival) but held-up for American distribution ever since, it’s Emperor Hirohito’s turn. These films, though, don’t aim to sling mud at already sufficiently demonized tyrants; leave that to high-school textbooks. Instead, they examine the dictators’ humanities. The first scene here features servants bringing the emperor a meal; little is more mortal than supper, especially for a ruler whose subjects believe him to be the latest in a long line of descendants of the sun goddess. Over the course of the film, we see him engaged in myriad earthly pursuits: getting dressed, conducting biological research, analyzing history, composing epistolary poetry. What kind of celestial being gets sentimental over an old photo album?
Played with a distractingly trembling mushy-mouth by Issei Ogata (someone get his majesty a glass of water—he looks like a character from a poorly dubbed Godzilla movie!), Hirohito takes his food in his posh but cramped bunker—about the size of a Bensonhurst basement apartment, though furnished much more ornately—as the film is set post-Nagasaki, on the eve of Japanese surrender. The bulk of the film’s first half is set here, and Sokurov, doubling as his own cinematographer, demonstrates himself an elegant visualist on par with Kubrick: quick shots, blended with dignified dissolves, capture the claustrophobia of concrete corridors and windowless rooms; graceful tracking shots are imbued with an eerie measure of fatalism; and the hazily lighted interiors, the occasional foggy exteriors (a cloud literally and figuratively hangs over the country), the palette of browns and muted golds make it seem as though the film is set on a fizzling star, while the rest of Tokyo burns with magmatic fires roiling like plasma on the surface of, ahem, the sun. Combined with the ominous, subtle-but-persistent score by Andrey Sigle (also a producer here), The Sun plays out as more horror movie than war picture: more The Shining than Full Metal Jacket.
Unfortunately, Sokurov breaks this carefully constructed mood in the second half, which, taking place after the Americans arrive (an event that leads Hirohito to hide in a drawer the bust of Napoleon on his desk, har har), is mostly set in the light of above-ground day. This does offer Sokurov some advantages; for one, it allows him to provide a glimpse of the physical decimation of war: He apes the familiar aesthetic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi to construct a smoky, shelled Tokyo, whose destruction is even more severe than the crumbling Chechen facades seen in Alexandra. But the film loses most of its drive, too, as it’s dragged through rigorous rituals of politesse, its pace decelerated by the halting English the emperor uses during his Peter Morgan-esque meetings with Gen. MacArthur (in which the two men dully, if naturalistically, exchange mostly pleasantries and cryptic non-sequiturs in between long pauses.) A character study compelling in its moodiness devolves into a plodding portrait. Sokurov, it turns out, is still easy to admire and hard to love. But this time, it’s for new(ish) reasons.
Opens November 18 at Film Forum