06/25/15 2:00pm


Two remarkable films from Hong Kong-based director Ringo Lam will screen on 35mm prints at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. In City on Fire (1987, screening this Saturday at 8:30pm), a charming undercover detective (played by a young Chow Yun-fat) surrenders to departmental and familial pressure to infiltrate a gang of jewel robbers, which leads both to his stranding his fiancé (Carrie Ng) and to growing perilously close to the group’s most intelligent thief (Danny Lee). In Full Alert (1997, screening this Sunday at 2 P.M.), an initially family-grounded police investigator (Lau Ching-wan) veers towards psychopathy as he leads an increasingly obsessed and isolated hunt for a prison-escaped gang member (Francis Ng) and the man’s girlfriend (Chung Lai-Hung).

In both films—which are ostensibly urban action movies—violence is seen as a social disease. It infects decent people living on both sides of the law, and spreads from them virally to engulf their loved ones. These grim films might be unbearable were it not for Lam’s warm and sensitive attentions to his characters and for his actors’ richly emotional performances. The men and women at the hearts of these films live dreaming of escape from present-day sufferings, and make their best efforts to survive through a fragile hope (sometimes a delusion) of rising above them.

Lam himself (who was born in Hong Kong in 1955) will attend this year’s NYAFF presentations of his films and receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award following City on Fire’s screening. In the interview below, he speaks about the making of both films as well as that of the forthcoming Wild City (2015), his first feature in eight years, and one that he has spoken about in other interviews as an informal close to a trilogy. Thanks go to Emma Griffiths, and particularly to NYAFF programmer and Lam assistant Dana Fukazawa, for facilitating the conversation.


04/06/15 2:00pm
Manoel de Oliveira directs Claudia Cardinale on the set of his final feature film, 'Gebo and the Shadow'.

There has never been a film career comparable to that of Manoel de Oliveira. The Portuguese filmmaker—who died this past Thursday of heart failure at age 106—completed his first film in 1931, a short silent documentary about workers in his home city of Porto called Labor on the Doro River. His first feature, 1942’s Aniki-Bóbó (starring Porto schoolchildren and named after one of their playtime songs), came over a decade later. A combination of family business obligations and restrictions imposed by Portugal’s then-ruling fascist government prevented him from realizing his second feature-length film until his self-reflexive recording of a Passion Play staged in a rural part of northern Portugal, Rite of Spring (1963), could be made twenty years afterwards. Oliveira had been raised a Catholic, and although he preferred not to identify himself as such, conversations between spiritual and material life consistently entered his films.

He was already in his sixties when he made his third feature, a dark satire of his nation’s bourgeois sector and its attachment to dead ideals called Past and Present (1971). That film marked the first entry in what has since come to be known as Oliveira’s “tetralogy of frustrated love,” all of whose films explore the self-destructive, and oft-rewarding, nature of unconsummated passions. The tetralogy’s subsequent installments—Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1975), Doomed Love (1979), and Francisca (1981)—were realized following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974, a joint military and civilian rebellion that led to democratic rule in Portugal as well as to the bankruptcy of factories that had belonged to Oliveira’s family, forcing him into a long period of paying off family debts.

He reached stability in his cinematic production with the help of ingenious producer Paulo Branco, a regular collaborator of his from Francisca up to their separation following The Fifth Empire (2004). Oliveira directed more features after turning seventy than he previously had in his entire lifetime. Between 1990 and 2012 in particular he completed at least one film per year, realizing works primarily in Portugal and in France, and possibly would have made more still towards the end had he not reached difficulty getting productions insured due to his age. He had made his final film long prior, a still-unreleased docudrama about his family history called Memories and Confessions (1982) that he wished to be left unscreened until after his death. Oliveira passed away as the world’s oldest active filmmaker on record, and the only one to have worked in both the silent and digital eras.

There has never been a career like Oliveira’s; there have also, to my mind, never been films quite like his.


02/13/15 10:27am

The Connection

Documentary Fortnight
February 13-27 at MoMA

There are more strong films screening in Documentary Fortnight 2015 than can be done justice here, so I’ll plug my favorites first: on February 15th and 21st, the distributor Milestone Films will present three programs’ worth of recently restored films by the late American director Shirley Clarke. The programs include Clarke’s remarkable feature-length The Connection (1962) and several of her lesser-known lovely shorts, throughout which she and her human subjects developed a style of direct address in which they would open up their lives to her as well as to future viewers.

The bulk of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of nonfiction filmmaking will offer new films, many of which are also excellent. Its diverse selection traverses several genres, from politicized portraiture (Of Men and War and The Domino Effect) to self-reflective ethnography (Episode of the Sea and Cochihza) to novelistic, ensemble-based storytelling in which individuals’ actions impact their communities’ futures (Coffee: Chants of Smoke and Storm Children, Book One). These films and other series highlights share a great sensitivity to character, with emotional riches resulting from simple records of peoples’ struggles.

Several of the directors represented in Documentary Fortnight spoke with me about their works in the series.  Save for Jean-François Caissy, these filmmakers will also all appear at MoMA for post-screening public discussions.


08/15/14 8:41am


“I entered the Cantonese movie business as an actor in the 1950s and became a director the following decade,” the filmmaker Patrick Lung Kong writes by e-mail. “At the time, the industry was mostly making Cantonese opera and cheap Kung Fu pictures, mass production without quality control, to the point of facing extinction. The first film I directed was a low-budget love story in Cantonese called The Broadcast Prince (1966), and everyone liked it, it was a success! My teacher asked if this meant that our Cantonese pictures wouldn’t be eliminated now. I said that they would never be—only the bad pictures would be eliminated!”

The seventy-nine year-old filmmaker is reminiscing on the occasion of “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” a nine-film series that will unfold August 15-24 at the Museum of the Moving Image. (All films will screen in their best current possible presentations—either 35mm archival prints or Digibeta copies, depending upon what exists of the original elements.) The Hong Kong artist will appear in person at several screenings, including an opening night ceremony with him and the younger filmmaker Tsui Hark. The lineup of Lung Kong’s first North American retrospective features one film he produced (Patrick Tam’s 1981 Gothic thriller Love Massacre) plus seven of the thirteen diverse films that he directed between 1966 and 1979.


Lung Kong’s filmography looks miniscule compared to those of his more prolific Hong Kong peers, but his slower rate of directorial production came largely by choice. He forewent the then-standard factory nature of Hong Kong studio filmmaking in favor of artisanal work, often researching films for up to nine months before writing, directing, and acting in them. They were frequently shot on location throughout then-colonial Hong Kong, with characters speaking in their native Cantonese, a shunned language onscreen during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Their words expressed Lung Kong’s refusal to make films in the dominant Mandarin tongue, despite its greater possibilities for export.

The films include his most famous work, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967, screening August 15, and shown above), later remade by John Woo into the epic action ballet A Better Tomorrow (1986, screening August 16). In contrast to Woo’s extravagant gunplay, Lung Kong’s original social drama unfolds mainly through tight, dialogue-driven scenes. Story explores a subject that, Lung Kong writes, “nobody in Hong Kong had dared to touch” with the tale of a recently freed convict (played by Patrick Tse) striving to go straight despite opposition from many sides. His old gangster cohorts urge him to rejoin them; a cruel police official demands he inform; employers fire him upon learning about his past; and family members reject him until he proves willing to harm himself for their sakes. The reflective man recognizes his hard situation, saying at one point that “It is not a problem with me. It is a problem with society.”

Though Story contains dynamic fight scenes, Lung Kong states that “it was simply because the film needed them. I wouldn’t create a fight scene for entertainment only.” This also proved true for his subsequent films The Window (1968, screening August 23) and Teddy Girls (1969, screening August 16), both of which present and dispense with action movie traditions in order to focus on human dramas.

In The Window, a thief and murderer (Tse) seeks a new perspective on life, abandoning crime in favor of aiding the blind daughter (Josephine Siao) of one of his victims. In Teddy Girls, an upper-class young female delinquent (Siao) chooses jail over staying with her mother and malicious stepfather, who soon drives the matriarch to suicide. She and a band of fellow prisoners then seek revenge, but discover that they can’t be satisfied.


Both films discuss how people turn criminal from lack of resources, whether material or spiritual. In doing so, they fall victim to a society that fails to provide for them. Sometimes, as with Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970, screening August 23), Lung Kong showed how society could punish any of its citizens, regardless of their social status. The loose adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague (1947) presents a nightmare Hong Kong overrun with a virus spread by rats. Though the film contains scenes of slum-dwellers succumbing to sickness, Hong Kong’s wealthy also live at risk of infection, especially as a negligent government fails to act fast enough for its people.

Lung Kong writes that, “I never allowed myself to make the same movie twice, even if it made a lot of money the first time. I tried to tell people in my business that every subject could be made into a film.” He did so while treating a wide range of issues, including both the doomed nature of love—rendered with melodramatic flashbacks as a romance ends in Pei Shih (1972, screening August 24)—and its enduring sustenance, as seen in his Iran-set love story Mitra (1977, screening August 24).

He further did so while braving risk of attack. Government censors removed forty minutes of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow without warning (leaving a shortened version as the film’s lone surviving cut), and journalists’ criticism of his works as overly preachy turned into outrage when he used his film Hiroshima 28 (1976) to defend victims of atomic bombing.

The film, made nearly three decades after World War II’s end, was released at a time when Chinese public sentiment still ran heavily against Japan for its role in the war. Lung Kong combines two Hiroshima-set stories. In one, a local family (whose members are played by Chinese actors) attempts to marry off one of its younger female members; in the other, a tour guide and a reporter wander Hiroshima twenty-eight years after the bombing, take stock of what has been lost there, and bear witness to what remains. Like many of Lung Kong’s films, Hiroshima 28 brings sympathy to people surviving hardships, encouraging viewers to think about who they should really label as villains.

11/06/13 10:00am

dangerous game madonna

  • Dangerous Game

The itinerant film series OVERDUE comes to BAM tonight with a 35mm double-feature of claustrophobic works of psychological terror from the mid-1990s: Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993) and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994). The series, cocurated by film critics (and contributors to The L) Nick Pinkerton and Nic Rapold, makes its Brooklyn premiere after previous presentations at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca and Anthology Film Archives. The OVERDUE curators, who will introduce the 7pm and 9:45pm screenings, discuss both the broader series and tonight’s edition.

How did OVERDUE begin? 
Nick: Nic and I both harbored a desire to dip a toe into the world of programming, though neither of us had the initiative, stamina, self-esteem, looks, or diligence to do so alone. Together, however, we form something like a single, complete programmer—something like Master Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or the linked-together crippled masters in that one Hong Kong kung-fu movie, the name of which escapes me… Nic?


Nic: It was a little like Ender’s Game in that we thought we were fighting off an intergalactic insect horde and then it turned out we were actually presenting movies we thought were good and wanted other people to see. And with this answer, we end this charade of being separate entities.
What is OVERDUE’s curatorial mission?  
In a very general way, I suppose you might say that it’s another means whereby we can proselytize for the things that we love or are at least fascinated or frustrated by, to draw attention to work that may not have received deserving attention, or to show these things in a new light. The name originally proposed for our roving cinematheque—which we still sort of prefer—was “Employee Picks.” Our good friend Cristina Cacioppo, the programmer at our previous home (the now-departed 92Y Tribeca) put the kibosh on this, as the organization was understandably nervous that someone might think that we were actually employed by it. Our curatorial idea was nothing more than that which was behind the classic Employee Picks section—this perhaps appealed to us, as one of us is a proud veteran of the Avenue A Kim’s Video, aka “The Mean Kim’s.” It was a way of singling out worthy titles and announcing that, as the late Franco-American rock critic Kickboy Face was said to have been fond of saying: “Thees ees zee reel shit.”
What would you like to say about Dangerous Game, In the Mouth of Madness, and the pairing of the two?
Pinkerton has actually written a cumulative 6,000-odd words on these films in the last couple of weeks that can be found here and here. In brief, both films are somewhat lesser-known/undervalued works by brand-name auteurs, Abel Ferrara and John Carpenter, released within about a year of one another. They’re also both concerned with the character of a creator whose work infringes on and consumes his life—a concept that both films interrogate. The subject of Dangerous Game is the director of a psychodrama who, as played by Harvey Keitel, bears a striking resemblance to the director of Dangerous Game, Abel Ferrara; the subject of Madness is an author of weird fiction who’s an amalgam of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, whose fertile imagination may not be imagination at all. We suppose we relate because we’ve both been gradually devoured by our own personas.

09/25/13 9:31am

Female Trouble Divine John Waters

Female Trouble was the only movie I wrote completely as a star vehicle for Divine,” John Waters tells us by phone about his Pink Flamingos follow-up, which screens at BAM this Saturday as part of its I Am Divine series. “His character, Dawn Davenport, was based on my memories of the girls I went to junior high with, especially one so-called ‘bad girl’ with Dawn’s hairdo named Carol: she lived across the street from Divine, and they used to play poker for pimple medicine, rather than for money.


“I like all of Divine’s performances in my movies, but to me Female Trouble gives him his meatiest role: he starts as a teenager, ages 15 years, commits crimes, performs a trampoline act, plays both a man and a woman at one point, and gets to have sex with himself. Divine always liked being the star of a movie, and I think that he loved looking so glamorous in this one. I never had a burning aim with my movies except to hopefully be delighted by the perverse; even when Dawn finally goes to the electric chair, to me, it’s a happy ending.”

07/31/13 4:00am

Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75

A young man explores 42nd Street at night, eyes and smile widening at the sights of porn theaters and dirty bookstores. “I don’t think that was ever in a movie before,” says film critic and programmer J. Hoberman of the early sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 comedy You’re a Big Boy Now, the opening entry in the Museum of the Moving Image’s 19-film series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75. Coppola’s film was the first approved by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, which Mayor John V. Lindsay (who called New York a “fun and exciting city even when it’s a struck city”) founded to facilitate location-based fiction filmmaking. (Norman Mailer vs. Fun City, a 1970 chronicle of the writer’s carnivalesque mayoral campaign, is the Moving Image series’ lone non-fiction film.) At the same time, says Hoberman, “they were documentaries of that period,” using actors and scripted narratives as a way to draw audiences into the city’s distinct, often skin-color-coded neighborhoods.

Several films provided viewers with vicarious journeys from innocence to experience, whether a Texas gigolo seeking his destiny amid a crowd of strangers in Midnight Cowboy (1969), an Arizona cop’s gruff impatience with hippie life as conveyed by Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff (1968), or genial group movement across a sunny, bustling street in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), soon afterward interrupted by gunshots. Such bursts of violence were often beats away in Fun City films, reflecting a crime-ridden time whose end lay nowhere in sight. Despair surrounded trapped-in-motion, haunted main characters, whether cops (The French Connection [1971], Across 110th Street [1972]), crime bosses-by-necessity (Superfly [1972]), or lowly junkies (The Panic in Needle Park [1971], Born to Win [1971]).

Fun City’s troubles were reflected through comic parable in addition to social realism. “While the everyday inconveniences of New York life were a badge of honor, they were also a source of gallows humor,” Hoberman says. A well-meaning WASP made life worse for his black tenants in The Landlord (1970), the same year that an elderly Jewish tailor struggled to believe in the dead black title character of The Angel Levine (1970). Rosemary’s Baby (1968) dwelled on the horror of urban solitude, which Little Murders (1971) showed could get you killed unless you were ready to kill first. Little Murders starred the Jewish Elliott Gould, part of a new wave of ethnic, urban Hollywood stars that Fun City helped create. Another was the Bronx-raised Italian Al Pacino, who teamed with New York filmmaker Sidney Lumet for Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Fun City’s first period piece. Dog Day recreated a real-life bank robbery and hostage crisis led by a Vietnam-trained, bisexual motormouth. As he struts and swaggers for the media’s attention, Pacino’s character draws passerby played by local extras. “It was like a show that the city put on for itself,” Hoberman says. 

August 10-September 1, Museum of the Moving Image

04/03/13 4:00am

Guelwaar (1992)
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
April 3 at Lincoln Center, opening night of the 20th New York African Film Festival

“Heroes do not interest me. It’s the group which acts,” says Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in the documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema (1994). “A man leads, but the group takes action.” Sembène’s films illustrated this thought. His first feature film, and the first-ever sub-Saharan feature, was Black Girl (1966), in which a modern young Senegalese woman withers from isolation as a bourgeois Parisian family’s maid; it paved the way for the WWII-set Emitaï (1971) (named after an angry god), in which a village of Diola tribe members literally sings out in unison against the French colonial soldiers that want to oppress them. The filmmaker took inspiration from his father, who once told Sembène and his brothers that he would never work for a white man. As far as they could remember, he never did.

While preferring to write literature, Sembène—who was born in 1923 and died in 2007—saw cinema as “a kind of shared myth for the public” that could accessibly teach the need for Africa’s freedom from European colonialism and its legacy in both tragic and comic ways. The destructive plot of Ceddo (1977) (the Wolof word for “commoners”), in which the 17th-century title-tribe futilely resists enslavement and forced religious conversion, complements the restorative storyline of Sembène’s last film, Mooladé (2004) (“magical protection”), in which a woman in a Burkina Faso village saves young girls from the religious rite of forced female circumcision. The films’ generously filled, oft-musical group shots, with camerawork dictated by human movement, spoke to Sembène’s belief that people could break any frame attempting to contain them.

This belief underlies Sembène’s film Guelwaar (“The Noble One”), which opens this year’s African Film Festival. (The AFF will also screen Christine Delorme’s documentary “Ousmane Sembène: All at Once” [2008] along with Sembène’s early short film “Borom Sarret” [1963], a Dakar city-symphony narrated by a cart driver over the course of a day.) The film is sparked by news of a body that hasn’t stayed put—the corpse of recently deceased Catholic freedom fighter Pierre Henri Thioune, probably murdered by police, has disappeared from the morgue. A brief investigation reveals that the dead man has actually been buried in the cemetery of a nearby Muslim village, whose elders cry sacrilege at the thought of his excavation.

Neo-colonial police, who arrogantly speak French in front of the Wolof-tongued villagers, stir up holy war between the two sides; meanwhile, flashbacks reveal how Thioune (played by Thierno Ndiaye and inspired by the French-resisting West African leader Samori Ture) believed that all Africans should stand united. He appears giving a public speech decrying reliance on foreign aid, which robs his “assisted people” not just of dignity but also of their free wills. “If you want to kill a proud man, give him what he needs to live every day,” he says, quoting the Senegalese philosopher Kocc Barma. “In the long run you’ve made him a serf.” Another flashback shows him arguing with his wife, Nogoy Marie Thioune (Mame Ndoumbe Diop), about their three grown children. While she feels ashamed that all three do work that makes them social outcasts, he swells with pride that they work and will never beg. The film’s present-day scenes show the children, along with other villagers from both sides, working to bring Catholics and Muslims together against their deceitful leaders rather than against each other; they all come to carry on their father’s legacy.

A joyful Guelwaar scene shows young villagers slicing European sacks of rice and flour open to spill their contents on the ground. The need for an Africa free of First World reliance has been espoused subsequently by many of the continent’s filmmakers, several of whose work will be showing at this year’s AFF. (A personal favorite is the tender Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, often working in Mali, whose October [1992] and Life on Earth [1998] will screen, and whose film Bamako [2006] stages a fictional trial to argue that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should remove Africa’s debt.) The commonly held view of Ousmane Sembène as Africa’s greatest filmmaker is limited. He should rather be seen as what he was: a starting point.

Thanks to Violet Lucca for research help.

03/20/13 4:00am

Poetic Justice (1972)
Directed by Hollis Frampton
March 26 at Light Industry with Beatrice Gibson’s “The Tiger’s Mind”

“In the beginning it was just about trying to learn to speak, speak better or speak differently,” says the voiceover in British artist Beatrice Gibson’s short 2012 film “The Tiger’s Mind.” The film’s setting is a villa where some people may have been murdered. The female narrator tells, with ominous musical accompaniment (a 1967 narrative score composed by Cornelius Cardew that shares this film’s title), of developing relationships between six mysterious figures named Tiger, Mind, Tree, Wind, Circle, and Amy. Verbal language, she says, should be replaced with the language of things. The camera moves slowly through a living room in which a curtain blows. In the grounds outside echoes a woman’s scream, followed by malevolent laughter. A porcelain tiger statue looms somewhere indoors. The viewer imagines an unfolding film. Gibson told me by email that, for her, “The Tiger’s Mind” tries “to trigger a more active kind of spectator by leaving certain things unanswered.”

So does Poetic Justice, which Light Industry will screen on a double-bill with “The Tiger’s Mind.” The American Hollis Frampton’s second film in a seven-part series called Hapax Legomena (“things said once”) is about seeking the right language. Frampton even later turned the film into a book, in whose introduction he wrote that his goal had been “to recapitulate some of the history of film art as though it were my own life to recollect.” The setting is a table. On the left-hand side is a small potted cactus; on the right-hand side is a cup of coffee; in the middle sits a pile of white paper sheets. The sheets follow each other in numbered succession, each containing handwritten words that describe a tableau.

For instance, the members in one series each begin with “Bedroom. Lovemaking. Outside the window are” before individual sights: spruces and juniper under snow; peacocks strutting on a turf green; men and women in evening dress; hyenas disputing a carcass; strands and bladders of kelp; wrestlers in a tag match; an automatic turret lathe in operation; a calm inland sea; a squadron of pipers; rings of Saturn, looming; little girls skipping rope; tumbled stacks of cordwood; a display of ophthalmoscopes; a party of mountaineers; a park of bay trees; a sky full of wheeling pigeons; truck wheels splashing in muddy water; three red-haired women rolling dice; a beached whale, gasping; a double circle of monoliths; red and white corpuscles; a procession by torchlight; smoking ingots of refined cobalt; a field of daisies and mallows; two surgeons amputating a limb; walls and turrets of obsidian; silver dirigibles trailing advertisements; parrotfish schooling in dim light; a classroom festooned with crepe paper; a small crowd pointing at the sky; a spinning brass anemometer; a pearl necklace on green baize; six or seven zebras, grazing; two farmers scalding a hog; an inverted enamel saucepan; a heap of spoiled fruit; bolts of striped twill; a seated audience, applauding; fern shoots; a cracked jug leaking milk; a storm on the rim of the sun; a consort of trombonists; crystals of pure nicotine; the Statue of Liberty; lavender sea anemones; knives and bright axes; a child licking a spoon; a frigate advancing under sail; a clutter of nude plaster mannequins; feathers and bloody tracks; a blue arc struck between electrodes; stalagmites of tinted paraffin; grizzled drovers herding sheep; eggs hatching baby turtles; a great suspension bridge, foreshortened; an enormous hexagonal mirror; I am aiming a camera; a lilac in bloom.

Throughout Poetic Justice you can sense an offscreen person writing, both by hand and with a camera, then leaving the text for others to finish. But perhaps some things must remain incomplete.

Thanks to Beatrice Gibson and to Bruce Jenkins, editor of Frampton’s collected writings.

03/06/13 4:00am

A Hen in the Wind (1948)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
March 9 at 92YTribeca

Yasujiro Ozu’s films changed as his society did. His films, frequently dealing with the problems of poor and working-class people, often responded to specific Japanese social conditions. The rapid editing of the melodrama That Night’s Wife (1930) helps the viewer sympathize with a man who’s stolen medicine for his sick daughter and must escape police at a time when Japan was in an economic crisis. In his wonderful early comedies, such as I Was Born, But… (1932), the camera roams as freely and as openly as the mischievous pair of young brothers it follows, reflecting playful optimism for a country returning to prosperous times. The Only Son (1936) looks with conflicted eyes upon Japan’s increasing industrialization, however, as its gaze literally floats between that of an old woman who’s sentenced herself to a lifetime of factory labor for her son’s sake and that of the grown man himself, a poor doctor ashamed to show her that he hasn’t done better.

Ozu stopped making films between 1937 and 1939 in order to serve in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and then again between 1943 and 1946 as the result of a military deployment to Singapore. A Hen in the Wind was the second film (following 1947’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman) that he made after returning to a country devastated by WWII. Hen takes place in a US-occupied Tokyo filled with high metal towers and low ramshackle homes. The poor young woman Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) raises her four-year-old son alone while waiting for her husband Shuichi to return from the war. She’s helped by friends and neighbors to the extent that their rationed food can be shared. When her son suddenly grows sick, she must prostitute herself in order to pay for his doctor. A friend angrily asks Tokiko afterwards why she didn’t try to borrow money from her, to which Tokiko responds, “Because you’re poor, too.”

Shuichi (Shûji Sano) eventually comes home, and the husband and wife’s initial uncontainable pleasure at seeing each other is soon confronted with two moral choices. First, she must choose whether to tell him what she has done in order to save their child’s life; then, if she does, he must choose whether to forgive her for doing something that will bring them disgrace. As with both earlier and later Ozu films, the film balances different characters’ perspectives, earning sympathy for each—Tokiko, like many women, is doomed to suffer, while Shuichi’s mind struggles against rigid guidelines of how a man should behave.

Hen contains solitary people, whether isolated in close-up or walking alone, who want to break their solitude to help each other, but believe that they can only go so far. Throughout, it is suggested that Japanese society has repressed people so thoroughly that they have grown expert at punishing themselves. This sense remains in Ozu’s subsequent films, such as the celebrated Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), both domestic tragedies of aging parents sacrificing themselves for their children, and both made while Japan was still recovering from the war and on its way to the multi-sector boom that has since become known as “the Japanese post-war economic miracle.

Even the great prosperity reflected in a late film like Equinox Flower (1958)—screening on a double-bill with A Hen in the Wind, and the first of four color films Ozu made before dying on his 60th birthday—is complicated by an awareness of future, perhaps necessary, loss. The film orchestrates bright color, smooth movement, and light music in what seems to be cheerful unison as a family goes out to a park together for one of the last times. The patriarch Wataru (Shin Saburi) is a successful Tokyo businessman whose advice for a young married couple to find happiness contradicts his own goal of an arranged marriage for his adult daughter, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), who has already chosen her future husband. One day the man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), a junior executive soon to be transferred to Hiroshima, enters Hirayama’s office and asks for Setsuko’s hand. The old man must decide whether to maintain tradition or grant his daughter her wish, and Setsuko’s response to his initial resistance is simple: “Why can’t I find happiness on my own?”

Unlike in earlier Ozu films, the characters in Equinox Flower are not poor or working-class but upper middle-class, frequently placed among trees and flowers, suggesting how they are firmly established within a newly blooming culture. The presence of the responsible, ambitious Taniguchi, who will soon move his talents from Tokyo to another rebuilding city, suggests that in the future it can continue to bloom. The war is long gone, to be remembered only with fond sadness as a time when survival dictated that the family unit stay intact. “In the dark, we used to think we might all die together,” says Setsuko’s mother Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who longs for everyone to remain together while still supporting her daughter’s desire to leave. Things are different now, after all, and the old ways shouldn’t stay. Unlike A Hen in the Wind, the mood surrounding Equinox’s central conflicts is gently melancholic rather than desperate. A man must still decide how great an obstacle he will be to his family’s future peace and happiness, but in this film one senses that things will work out for the best.

Thanks to Chuck Stephens for research help.