MIFF2010 Day 13: Amputee Soldiers, Sheep and Double Agents

What a full on film festival day!
From having an argument with someone using a phone in a session (no he didn't immediately realise the error of his ways but rather “I need to take notes and I don't have a pen and paper”. Of course a pen and paper magically appeared 20 minutes later after a second person had a go. Dick head of the highest order) to a watching a guy's brain break during the MIFF musical loop (“Turn that music off!! It's like an African Michael Nyman!), the day culminating with the excruciating TRASH HUMPERS, which I will speak about here. There will be curse words, be warned.
 Rough day all in all but also a classic festival experience
I guess I should give this film credit for not being the most interminable thing I have seen this festival. Considering its subject matter it had every chance to be so. Sweetgrass follows a group of Montana cowboys herding their sheep through mountains for the summer pastures. This has been a way of life for several generations but these guys are the last remaining herders doing it 'old-school'.
For the most part this film has no dialogue. Occasionally we observe a conversation between two cowboys or watch one man make a particularly distressful call home. But generally, the bleating of sheep is all you will hear. It does get a bit much after an hour or so.
Visually the film has some magnificent moments. Watching hundreds of sheep flock through thick mountain brush or over lush meadows is quite a sight. One amazing shot has the sheep running down the main street of a small town.
There is a lovely film in here somewhere. A poignant paean to the old cowboy lifestyle. An examination of man's connection and reliance on animals (be it sheep, horse or dog). But in the end, 100 minutes of this is just too much. Sure there may be a meditative function in elongating all those shots but the film is so quiet and reflective that if 30 minutes was cut from it I fully believe it would still have the same effect. A bit too thin and a bit too long in the end. There were walkouts.
What an entertaining documentary telling a fascinating story. This is the type of story that is absolutely rip-roaring if you don't know anything about it. I have strong feelings those familiar with the tale would not obtain a great deal out of the film though.
Garbo was Britain's most successful double agent. He initially began working for the Germans in Madrid, not out of allegiance but simply out of opportunism. His first choice was the English but they knocked him back. After gaining the Germans trust he went back to the Brits with a more enticing proposition. Garbo became a double-agent for many years supplying the Germans with false intelligence. He was so valued by the Germans that his fake operation received quite a large amount of Nazi funding which was immediately funnelled by Garbo into the coffers of British Intelligence.
The film uses extensive movie clips to place Garbo's story into a classic spy narrative and while this technique has annoyed me in the past it felt reasonably apt in this context. Structurally the film is interesting too, the final epilogue coming across as satisfying and necessary although not everyone has felt the same way. Some have felt the film to be slightly over-long and stretched (at 88 minutes). It is hard for me to have a perspective on this as I had just come from a 100 minute film on sheep-herding so Garbo was fast-paced in my eyes.
A good doco, a great story, definitely worth keeping an eye out for on TV or DVD.
Koji Wakumatsu is part of the old guard of Japanese cinema. Over 70 years old and best known for his 'pinku' films in the 60s and 70s he is always a filmmaker worth giving your time to. Having said that, Caterpillar left me with very mixed feelings. Wakumatsu has some strong things to say on war and nationalism and you do get the feeling this was a personal film that he needed to make but other than being an un-subtle attack on Japanese nationalism, the film isn't really that relevant.
Caterpillar follows Kurokawa, a celebrated war hero as he returns home to his wife and village. Kurokawa was badly maimed in the war, losing all his limbs and his hearing, he returns to his wife as an empty, uncommunicative shell. His wife Shigeku struggles to take care of his urges which are basically sex, eating and sleeping (oh yeh there is amputee sex galore here). Layers build up as we learn that Kurokawa was an incredibly nasty person who raped women while abroad and beat his wife before he left.
Wakumatsu plays with our sympathy for Kurokawa by revealing him to be as bad as they come and Shinobu Terajima who plays his wife Shigeku, gets the role of a lifetime. She won best actress in Berlin for the role and it truly is a remarkable performance. The dilemma between serving the empire by taking care of a “living war god” and knowing secretly that he is actually a domineering, undeserving piece of work is played brilliantly by Terajima.
Overall I felt the film was too blunt. It built up to a hysterical emotional crescendo that I found slightly overcooked and on top of that Wakumatsu adds a coda reminding us of the hundreds of thousands who died in the war. I think Wakumatsu blames the mindless nationalism of Japan at the time for those sizable causalities. Maybe, I'm not sure, as his point gets a little muddy by the end.
I can't wholly recommend Caterpillar. It was a worthwhile film to see, featuring some brilliant performances but this Japanese twist on Johnny Get Your Gun isn't substantial or fresh enough to warrant major recommendation.