“Shoplifters” - Hirokazu Koreeda (2018)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film, Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018), has so far received  unanimous acclaim from film critics the world over [1,2,3 ], and it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Koreeda is a well-established Japanese film auteur who has written, directed, and edited many of his best works (Nobody Knows, 2004; Still Walking, 2008; Like Father, Like Son, 2013; and After the Storm, 2016).  His films often center around multiple generational aspects of Japanese families, and in fact they often involve a deeper exploration of what it means to be the member of a family.  This is particularly the case with Shoplifters

Because of this general focus on familial contexts, Koreeda has often been compared to Japanese film icon Yasujiro Ozu.  And this comparison is reinforced by the fact that Koreeda often employed, like Ozu, straight-on closeups, with the subject looking straight into and speaking directly to the camera.  However, despite these similarities in style and content, Koreeda’s earthy and dynamic presentation conveys, for me, quite a different feeling than Ozu’s more detached and contemplative approach.  Part of this overall mood difference could be attributed to differences in the social milieus considered – the social circumstance of Shoplifters are at the gritty and chaotic lowest economic level, while the social circumstances of most Ozu films are in the more customized middle classes.

The story of Shoplifters revolves around a bottom-class “family” in Tokyo, who somehow manage to get along congenially despite their constant shortage of money to live on.  At the outset of the film, two of the family members come across a little girl on the street who they suspect is the victim of child abuse.  So they decide to take the girl into their home and informally adopt her as a new member of their family.  As we follow the family members about their various mundane activities, we gradually learn, by slow disclosure, more about the makeup of this family.  As far as we can tell early on, the family consists of
  • Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky).  He is the father, and he works as a construction worker whenever he can find a contractor who will hire him for a short-term assignment.  But in general he seems to show more diligence in shoplifting than in construction working.
  • Nobuyo (Sakura Ando).  She is Osamu’s wife, and she works in an industrial laundry.  One gets the feeling that it is her warm and expansive personality that holds this family together.
  • Shota (Kairi Jo).  He is the early teenage son who participates in almost daily shoplifting excursions with his father, Osamu.
  • Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).   She is a pretty, twentyish young woman who appears at first to be a daughter of Osamu and Nobuyo, but later turns out to be Nobuyo’s half-sister.  At any rate she is definitely a core member of this family.  She works as a stripper at a porno gallery, where individual clients can view her lewd performance through a two-way mirror (differing levels of room illumination mean that the glass partition works as a window in one direction and as a mirror in the opposite direction).
  • Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  She is the five- or six-year-old girl who is discovered on the street  by Osamu and Shota coming home from a shoplifting operation, and she is ultimately adopted by the Shibata family.
  • Hatsue (Kirin Kiki).   She is the grandmother and a key member of the family, because  they all live together in her cramped home, and the government pension of her late ex-husband is a principal source of the family’s income. 
There is no single star or protagonist of this film; and there is focalization at times on all of these family members at various points.  The viewer may at times suspect that the film’s narrative focus is on Osamu or Nobuyo, but at other times and towards the end, the narrative focus seems to have shifted to Shota and Yuri.  Overall, we could say that the narrative focus is on the “family” as a whole, as seen through its individual members.

Perhaps what makes Shoplifters an interesting film are its various social themes, which it presents in a lighthearted fashion.  One of those themes concerns honesty and authenticity.  None of the family members is who he or she claims to be, and they all seem to have multiple identities.  Indeed, they are not truly connected by family relationships, as the word ‘family’ is normally understood.  This is all revealed at the end of the film, when one of Shota’s shoplifting acts (perhaps intentionally) goes awry.  At that point they are remanded by the authorities, and the “family” becomes unraveled when their original identities are revealed.

So they are all liars to the outside world, and yet to each other, they are warm and authentic.  They (and perhaps the viewer, too) feel that bad luck and dysfunctional social norms have forced them into lives of petty thievery.  But “reclaiming” basic commodities from big companies in order to have a basic life is, to them, just a matter of getting some basic things that should have been accorded to them anyway.  And to each other, the family members are honest and mutually supportive. 

Another theme concerns what it means to be a family.  Although our “family” in this film is a fraud, they have all chosen to be members of this family.  And it seems that Shota and Yuri get more parental love and concern in this false family than they did in their original families [4]. The film rhetorically asks the question why the government shouldn’t recognize the authenticity and the legality of this kind of family, too?

And a further question also comes to mind.  How is it morally acceptable in a relatively wealthy country that the governing authorities can allow such conditions to exist that even people with ordinary jobs feel compelled to engage in shoplifting?  This is a question that can be asked in many world societies.

This is not to suggest that thievery is actually the right thing to do.  The family members are not fighting off starvation. And indeed children Shota and Yuri seem to have been welcomed into the family by Osamu in part because the two kids can serve as innocent props in connection with his shoplifting capers.  But the family members are not truly bad people, either.  They are just ordinary people looking for ordinary happiness.  But they have slipped into mildly unlawful behavior, because this is what some ordinary people on the lower rungs of society do sometimes.  It is Shota who begins to have moral qualms about his and his family’s behavior.  He perhaps precipitates his family’s downfall in the end because of his burgeoning moral concerns.

In the end, we can perhaps empathize with, if not entirely condone, all the members of the Shibata family and their varying perspectives, which is a strength of Koreeda’s production.  All the acting performances are quite good and natural, particularly that of Sakura Ando as Nobuyo Shibata.  It is she who carries the vital spirit of Shoplifters and its underlying messages.

  1. Maggie Lee, “Cannes Film Review: ‘Shoplifters’ (Manbiki Kazoku)”, Variety, (14 May 2018).   
  2. Mark Schilling, “‘Shoplifters’: Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner is an eloquent look at the human condition”, The Japan Times, (13 June 2018).   
  3. Jessica Kiang, “Cannes first look: Shoplifters – a wonky family lament that weaponises Koreeda’s compassion”, Sight & Sound, (19 May 2018).   
  4. Although at one point it seems that the self-indulgent Osamu was ready to betray his “son”, Shota.

“Tokyo Story” - Yasujiro Ozu (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu, the much-admired and revered Japanese filmmaker who flourished from the end of World War II until his death in 1963, was renowned both for his characteristic focus on Japanese middle-class family culture and his distinctive mise-en-scene.  Accordingly, he is often ranked, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, at the top of the list of great Japanese filmmakers. However, it took some time before Ozu’s greatness was generally recognized in the West.  His work was thought to be too “Japanese” for export overseas.  It was not until 1972, when what is often considered to be his masterwork, Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953), was reopened in New York and Paul Schrader’s influential treatise Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer [1] was published, that Ozu’s work began to receive the attention in the West that it deserved.

Since then Ozu’s reputation among cineastes has only increased, and Tokyo Story has played a major role in this advancement [2,3,4].  In support of this assessment, we note that every ten years the British Film Institute conducts two separate polls – one of international film directors and one of international film critics – to rank the greatest film’s of all time.  And in the most recent BFI polling (2012), Tokyo Story was ranked as the greatest film of all time on the director’s poll [5] and as the third greatest film of all time on the critic’s poll [6]. 

As mentioned, what immediately distinguishes Ozu’s filmmaking is his unique style of presentation.  I discussed his distinctive cinematic style in my review of his film Early Spring (1956) [7]:
Ozu’s Cinematography
Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of cutting on action, which evokes the idea of the camera representing the “invisible” witness whose focus of attention changes naturally with an action cut.  Sometimes, at dramatically significant moments in the story, there is a straight-on camera shot, with the principal character speaking directly to the camera, which places the invisible witness directly in the middle of the interaction, empathetically assuming the role of the recipient of the speaker’s words.

For scene transitions, Ozu often shows static cityscape images that are empty of human content.  Sometimes these scene transitions elliptically pass over a significant piece of action that must be inferred by the viewer.  Altogether these effects create their own special cinematic atmosphere  that seems to place the viewer in an intimate position to witness the scene, and yet not always privy to everything that is going on.
Thus we often see shot transitions that “cross the axis” and also jump cuts in Ozu’s work that violate customary filmmaking standards, but this can partly be accounted for by Ozu’s different take on focalization.  Rather than focalize on a particular character in a scene, whereby the viewer sees things from that character’s perspective, Ozu often focalizes on a static setting, which orients things around the external contexts of what is happening.  These static settings are returned to again and again, and they become “familiar images” with respect to the narrative evolution of the story.  (Further, more detailed, discussion of Ozu’s distinctive mise-en-scene has been given by David Bordwell [8]).

Tokyo Story offers a good example of Ozu’s often said to be “Zen-like” stylistics, even though the film’s story was inspired by an older American film.  Co-screenwriter (along with Ozu) Kogo Noda had seen Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and suggested to Ozu that they fashion a film together based on its plot elements, which concern an older couple making a journey in order to deal with family issues concerning their grownup children.  The film Ozu and Noda constructed does feature a journey (several, actually), and that always interesting narrative metaphor may partly account for Tokyo Story’s special appeal. But the journey aspect is not emphasized in Ozu’s film, and Tokyo Story’s attractiveness comes from other quarters – its themes concerning mainly life’s bittersweet nature and the unstoppable passage of time.

In fact we can identify a number of overlapping themes in Tokyo Story.  Many of these themes are universal and apply across all social stripes worldwide:
  • Resignation concerning the inescapable effects of the passage of time.  There is nothing we can do to ward off the inevitability of ultimate decline and death, and we must face our fates with resignation.
  • Social protocols.  The various social protocols in family life and social life, in general, are intended to regulate social interactions smoothly, but they can be seen as burdensome and insincere, especially if they are rigidly imposed.  In this context the oriental custom of always smiling during conversations may play a special role.
  • Men vs. women.  The different roles that men and women have in family life, and the different expectations to which they are held was always a fascination of Ozu’s, and they are an important consideration in this film.  Japan was undergoing rapid social change at this time, in the wake of catastrophic wars and forced westernization, and the roles of women, in particular, were in a state of flux.
  • Parents separation from children.  It is inevitable that as children grow up, they change and become engrossed in their own affairs.  Gradually they (usually) lose touch with and interest in their parents, whom they have left behind. How both parents and their children deal with this inevitable progression is a focus in this film.
Tokyo Story’s narrative concerns an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, who have raised five children and who make the long, several hundred mile, train trip from their home in Onomichi in southwest Japan to visit some of them in Tokyo.  The role of the old father, Shukichi, is played by Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu, who played in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films, including all of his postwar films.  Ryu usually plays the role of a thoughtful, contemplative person, and as such, he is a person with whom the audience can empathize, even when he is not saying  much.  In this film Ryu, who was 49-years-old at the time, very effectively plays the role of a man  who is 72-years-old.

Shukichi and Tomi (played by Chieko Higashiyama) are very much interested in catching up with their children, whom they haven’t seen for a number of years.  They also want to visit the widow of their deceased son on their trip.  Their five children, four of whom are still living, are
  • Koichi (So Yamamura), a doctor running a pediatric clinic out of his own home in a Tokyo suburb, is married and has two children.  He is sober, unemotional, and dedicated to his professional work.  He, somewhat guiltily, sees his parents’ visit as an unwanted intrusion into his busy life.
  • Shige Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura) is married and runs a beauty parlor connected with her home in Tokyo.  Although she wears traditional (non-Western) dress, Shige is not a traditional graciously self-deprecating lady; she is an aggressive and assertive woman.  And in fact she is shown to be bossy, manipulative, and selfish.  She, too, finds her parents’ visit to be an imposition.  Her husband Kurazo is more mild and takes a back seat in their social interactions.
  • Shoji, the second son, was a Japanese soldier who went missing in 1945 and is presumed dead.  His widow, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), is a gracious and caring woman who goes out of her way to accommodate her parents-in-law.  Setsuko Hara, who played the role of Noriko, was, like Chishu Ryu, a favorite of Ozu’s, and she appeared in six of Ozu’s best films.  In the first three of her Ozu films (Late Spring, 1949; Early Summer, 1951; and Tokyo Story1953), Setsuko Hara played a significant character named Noriko.  Even though the plots of these three films have no connection with each other, the three films are sometimes referred to as Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy”, thanks to the glowing presence of   Setsuko Hara.
  • Keizo (Shiro Osaka) is the unmarried third son who works for a trading company in Osaka.  He is well-meaning but preoccupied with his own affairs.
  • Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest child, is their unmarried daughter.  She still lives with her parents in Onomichi and works as a schoolteacher.
The story of Tokyo Story passes through four approximate stages.

1.  Visiting Koichi and Shige
The elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, first visit the home of their eldest child, Koichi, for a few  days.  But Koichi is so occupied with his own pediatrics affairs (he doesn’t even appear to have much time to discipline his own obstreperous son) that he has no time to entertain his guests.  So Shukichi and Tomi shift over to their daughter Shige’s residence. 

But Shige is even more too selfishly preoccupied to have the time to entertain her parents.  So she asks her sister-in-law Noriko to take up the task.  Though of much more modest means than her siblings-in-law, Noriko graciously takes a day off from her job to take Shukichi and Tomi  out on the town and show them the wonders of Tokyo.

2.  Atami Hot Springs
After a week or so, Shige and Dr. Koichi finally hit on a plan to relieve them of their social obligations to their parents: send the neglected couple off alone for awhile to the Atami Hot Springs resort on the coast.  However, when  Shukichi and Tomi arrive at the resort, they find little of interest for them to do, and the noisy atmosphere of the pleasure-seeking vacationers in attendance there merely keeps the elderly couple up at night.  So they decide to return early to their kids in Tokyo.  Before they depart from Atami, though, Tomi experience a dizzy spell that reveals that her health is frail.

3.  Return to Tokyo
Upon returning to Tokyo, Shukichi and Tomi discover that because they had come back earlier than expected, their room in Shige’s apartment was already “booked” by Shige for a social event for her beautician colleagues.  So Shukichi and Tomi obligingly decide to find their own sleeping quarters for the night.  Tomi decides to spend the night with Noriko in her cramped apartment, while Shukichi choose to spend the night with an old friend from Onomichi who now lives in Tokyo.

That evening Shukichi goes out drinking with old friends from Onomichi, and he and his friends get thoroughly plastered, in one of the more interesting sequences of the film.  With the effects   of alcohol lowering the veil of customary Japanese courteousness, the men lament to each other how disappointed they are with how their children have turned out.  In particular, they are sad that they cannot take more pride in what their children have become.  We later learn that Shukichi had once been a heavy drinker, which put a severe strain on his relationship with his wife; but he had sworn off alcohol when his daughter Kyoko had been born.

At the same time Tomi is with Noriko, and the old woman urges her daughter-in-law not to abide by old-fashioned social protocols and to find another man so that she can remarry and start a family.

Now with nothing more to do and not wishing to wear out their dubious welcome, Shukichi and Tomi decide to return to Onomichi.  On the way home, though, during a stopover in Osaka to see Keizo, Tomi suffers a stroke and is taken back to Onomichi critically ill and in a coma.

4.  Onomichi Nightfall
More mindful than ever of social protocols, the children and Noriko rush to Onomichi to be at Tomi’s side.  And always attending to her practical concerns, Shige reminds the others to bring their funeral garments.  But when Shige hears the ever-analytical Dr. Koichi’s grim assessment that Tomi will not survive the night, she bursts into tears.  Thus we see that underneath Shige’s personal traits of selfish social manipulation, there is a substratum of genuine feminine feeling that is usually covered up.  Later, though, we see Shige returning to her usual intemperance when she complains about Keizo’s late arrival just after Tomi’s death.  Although Tomi was unconscious and unaware of any of the children when they arrived, Keizo’s late arrival was an unforgivable violation of protocol in Shige’s eyes.

After the funeral when the family has lunch together, Shige again makes self-centered remarks, for example eagerly asking Kyoko to give her some of Tomi’s old dresses. Then Shige, Koichi, and Keizo immediately head back to Tokyo, while Noriko chooses to stay another day with Shukichi. 

The next morning Noriko and Kyoko talk, and the young daughter tearfully criticizes her older siblings for their relentless selfishness.  But the ever-compassionate Noriko defends the others to Noriko.  She says that all children inevitably get involved in their own narratives and can’t help from drifting away from their parents.  Kyoko responds to this wisdom by saying, “Isn’t life disappointing!”  And Noriko can only smile and say, “Yes, it is.”

Later Shukichi and Noriko talk, and he repeats Tomi’s urgings that she should forget about his dead son and start a new life by remarrying.  Then he gives her as a departing gift Tomi’s old wristwatch that she had worn all her life.

The final shots show Noriko, on the train gazing at the keepsake watch she has been given, and Shukichi, sitting alone at home, both separately contemplating life’s lonely, existential mysteries.

Tokyo Story ends on a note of sadness and resignation concerning the inevitability of time passing and things coming to an end.  It also dwells on the limitations of social protocols if the participants don’t engage in them with sincerity.  This is not to suggest that social protocols don’t have their value.  They can encourage and provide the scaffolding for positive social interactions if one’s participation in them is genuine.  Thus Noriko’s habitually smiling demeanor was a customary posture that may well have assisted and triggered her perpetually compassionate nature. 

Overall, we could say that the principal characters of Tokyo Story offer somewhat different responses to the quizzical nature of time passing and the inevitability of decay.  Shukichi represents benign resignation to life’s mysteries, but he also embodies a generally positive posture of engagement.  Koichi, Shige, Keizo represent common character type responses that we can all recognize, both in the people we meet and in ourselves, too.  They are not really bad people.  They are basically well-meaning people who are distracted by their everyday narrative circumstances and lose sight of more important interpersonal considerations.

It is Noriko, though, who is the special one.  She at first seems simply reflexively ingratiating in an automatic sort of way, but gradually the depth of her character is revealed.  Eventually we discern that she is the real star of this tale.  She knows that she is not perfect and all-knowing, but she continually strives to be understanding and all-loving.

  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972). 
  2. David Bordwell, “Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment”, The Criterion Collection, (18 November 2013).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Tokyo Story”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (9 November 2003).    
  4. “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).    
  5. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  6. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Early Spring’ - Yasujiro Ozu (1956)”, The Film Sufi, (23 July 2014).   
  8. David Bordwell, “Ozu”, The St. James World Film Directors Encyclopedia, Andrew Sarris (ed.), Visible Ink, Detroit (1998), quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).    

“Nashville” - Robert Altman (1975)

Robert Altman’s masterful Nashville (1975) is generally considered to be his finest work, but the film’s diffuse narrative structure makes it hard to pinpoint just what the film is about.  It covers, over a period of five days, events in the lives of some two dozen disparate people who have come to the capital of American country and western music, Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue their various ambitions and dreams.  So there are many little overlapping and intersecting stories told, but there is no high-level, overriding narrative that guides the flow of action. Instead, we just have these crisscrossing narrative fragments, and it is up to the viewer to make some thematic sense to them. 

Indeed, the film’s crisscrossing narrative structure is fascinating, since there are many intersections of these individual narrative fragments along the way; and credit must be given to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (she was also the principal scriptwriter for Altman’s earlier Thieves Like Us).  However, there is a degree of spontaneity to these interactions, and it is known that much of the film’s detail was made up extemporaneously on the production set  (the film was shot in Nashville in order to derive inspiration from the setting) [1].  One might therefore think that the film’s diffuse, almost chaotic, mosaic structure might have been something of an obstacle for critical success, but Nashville was a big hit with the public, and it was nominated for five Oscars and a record eleven Golden Globes.

We could say that one overriding theme of Nashville is the American Dream, which was a thematic background element to some of Altman’s earlier films, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Thieves Like Us (1974), but here the American Dream takes center stage. And it turns out that the city of Nashville is the perfect setting for such a topic.  Actually, one might at first think that Hollywood, which is considered to be the American “dream factory”, would be the appropriate venue for such material; but the scope of Hollywood’s coverage is more global, while the scope of Nashville’s country themes is more personal and more specifically “American”, which makes that city more appropriate as a setting for a drama about the American Dream.  Anyone who can sing might be lured to Nashville (the city calls itself “Music City”) to try and fulfill their dream of making a name for themselves and seeing if they can take on some of the city’s romantic glamor.

One stream of American Dream expression is on the political level, where political candidates promise that there proposed government policies will directly lead to American Dream wish-fulfillment.  And such a stream is strongly present in Nashville, where two of the characters in the film, John Triplette (played by Michael Murphy) and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are shown to be working for a populist third-party Presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, whose anti-establishment policies, expressed in the form of terse homilies, are supposed to make America great again.  The intention of Triplette and Reese is to stage a political rally for Walker at the Nashville Parthenon that will feature music performed by leading country music singers.

Of course another thematic strain is that associated with romantic attitudes characterizing Nashville music, and a number of principal characters are singers. These include:
  • Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the leading and beloved, but fragile, Nashville singer.
  • Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime Nashville country favorite.
  • Connie White (Karen Black), a prominent country singer who competes with Barbara Jean.
  • Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), an African-American country singer who performs, like other leading figures, at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
  • Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), and Mary (Cristina Raines), a folk-singing group who have come to make a new start in Nashville. 
  • Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the wife of Delbert Reese and a caring mother of two deaf children, sings with a black gospel music group.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, (Barbara Harris), wannabe country singer who runs away from her ornery husband to pursue her career ambitions.
  • Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a tone-deaf wannabe singer whose body is the only item of interest to the local male audiences.
Interestingly, although Altman wanted to evoke the Nashville “sound” in the film and the performed songs do make up about an hour of the film’s running time, he did not incorporate many well-known songs from the Nashville community, itself, into the film.  Instead, almost all of the main songs performed were written by youthful composer Richard Baskin or by performers Keith Carradine and Ronee Blakley (actors Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, and David Peel also participated in some of the film music composition).

Note however, that in addition to those above-mentioned thematic elements, I think that one of the most important thematic undercurrents in the film is associated specifically with women and how their vulnerability and courageousness play out in modern American society.  In this respect there are a number of female principals with hopeful dreams who are part of this focus.
  • Barbara Jean, of course, is a major element of this concern.  Her romantic fragility is worsened by her insensitive and domineering husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), who seems mostly only concerned with her business success.
  • Mary, the member of the folk-singing trio, is the wife of Bill, but she is having an illicit affair with trio partner Tom, with whom she is madly in love.  However, Tom is amiably self-centered and eager to seduce any attractive lady.  In fact in this film we see him having intimate relations with four different women: Mary, Opal, L.A. Joan, and Linnea.
  • Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is an ambitious young outsider from the UK who claims to be working on a documentary for the BBC.  Seeing herself as a worthy intellectual observer, she is wrapped up in her own self-centered fantasies about Nashville and American culture.
  • L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) is a young California girl on the make.  Although she has ostensibly come to Nashville to visit her ill aunt in the hospital, her real aims are to hookup romantically with male Nashville musicians.
  • Linnea is the sensitive mother of two deaf children, but her marriage to Del Reese has gone stale, and she is susceptible to the romantic advances of Tom Frank.
  • Sueleen is a local waitress with dreams of becoming a Nashville singing star.  She tries to take advantage of her sensual physical assets, but she doesn’t realize that her inability to carry a tune means that her dreams of stardom are doomed to failure and that men will just look at her as a cheap prostitute.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, is another plucky young woman with dreams of stardom.  But she does have some talent, and at the tragic end of the film at the Nashville Parthenon, she gets her opportunity.
All these women harbor romantic and largely innocent dreams, but at various points in the film they are all exploited by obsessively self-interested males and their vulnerabilities are exposed.  The freedom of American culture has offered these women opportunities, but the fulfillment of their fantasies has not been forthcoming.

We could identify still another theme at the end of the film, and that concerns the tendency of American culture to trivialize matters of importance.  There are two significant songs in the film that explicitly express this trivialization – "Keep A-Goin'" (written by Richard Baskin and  performed by Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton) and "It Don't Worry Me" (written by Keith Carradine and performed by Barbara Harris as Albuquerque).  These two songs offer the counsel that you shouldn’t take anything very seriously and that you should just keep plugging along no matter what happens.  Perhaps Altman is suggesting to us that this is both a strength and a weakness of American culture.

Apart from any speculation on the film’s themes concerning American culture, though, we can still identify some beautiful moments in the film that stand out on their own special merit.  For me there were two such moments.  One was Keith Carradine’s performance in a nightclub singing his own composition, “I’m Easy”, while four of his mistresses in the audience innocently look on and assume his words only concern their own specific relationships.  This is a memorably filmed sequence of concurrent emotions, and it helped the song win both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Another special moment in the film was Ronee Blakley’s singing of her composition, “Dues” [2].  To me this is the film’s highlight, and her words resonate with feeling and resigned heartbreak:
"It's that careless disrespect
I can't take no more, baby
It's the way that you don't love me
When you say that you do, baby

It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down
I want to walk away from this battleground
This hurtin' life, it ain't no good
I'd give a lot to love you the way I used to do
Wish I could..."
Those sad words cast a melancholic shadow over my memories of this soulful film.

  1. Austin Trunick, “Ronee Blakley, star of Robert Altman’s Nashville, Nashville’s Barbara Jean Speaks About Her Famous Role and Current Projects”, Under The Radar, (13 December 2013).    
  2. Ronee Blakley, “Ronee Blakley – Dues”, YouTube, (24 October 2010).   

“Thieves Like Us” - Robert Altman (1974)

Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974) offered a continuation of the plaintive romantic theme that had underlain his earlier masterwork McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – that of innocent love struggling to find itself in an uncaring American social setting.  Again the evocation of an historic social milieu, on this occasion the Depression-era American South, provides an atmospheric backdrop for the melancholic romantic tale that is told. 

The film was made during a period when Altman’s creative genius was at it height and led to the production of, besides McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us, two other masterpieces  – The Long Good-bye (1973), and Nashville (1975).  These films were all emblematic of Altman’s distinctive group-oriented mise-en-scene, which featured several innovative techniques for embedding the viewer into the narrative, some of which I have described in my review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  For example in connection with Altman’s use of sound, I remarked that
“Altman’s innovations in connection with spoken dialogue, which were initiated here in this film [McCabe & Mrs. Miller], are even more well-known and have come to represent something of a stamp with respect to his filmmaking.  Using 8-track sound recording, he emphatically overlapped multiple conversations going on in a scene so that it was hard for the viewer to discern what was being said by the personages of presumed narrative focalization [5].  Indeed this made it sometimes difficult for the viewer to determine what actually was the intended narrative focalization for a scene, at least at its outset.  And this is what Altman wanted – he felt it was more true to life.”
And, of course, these production values held true for Thieves Like Us, as well.

The story of the film is based on Edward Anderson’s’ novel Thieves Like Us (1937), which had earlier formed the basis of Nicholas Ray’s film noir They Live by Night (1948).  It concerns what happens to three men serving life sentences in the Mississippi state penitentiary who break out of prison and immediately engage in a bank-robbing spree.  But a major focus of the story is on the romantic relationship of the youngest member of the gang with a girl that he meets along the way.  In that sense we could say that Thieves Like Us belongs to the special thematic category of love on the run from the law, a genre which includes such classics by well-known auteurs as the already mentioned They Live by Night (1949), as well as Gun Crazy (1950), Breathless (1960), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), and The Sugarland Express (1974).

Many of the films in this love-on-the-run genre place an emphasis on the romantic thrill of recklessness, usually on the part of the existential loner who is fleeing the law.  But Thieves Like Us is a little different; its thematic undercurrent is that of innocence.  And we must remember that in this context, innocence does not imply moral virtue, but instead simply naiveté.  When innocence is not provided with socially-inspired directions or moral themes (which can even evoke heroism), it can wind up just devoting itself to escape from boredom.  And that is what we have in Thieves Like Us. In fact Altman doesn’t provide much coverage of the dramatic bank robberies that take place in  the film; they mostly take place offscreen. Instead there is more of a focus on the more humdrum and personal aspects of the thieves’ lives.

Underscoring this point is another aspect of Altman’s innovative mise-en-scene – his aural presentation of dramatic radio shows in the diegetic background and on the soundtrack.  Radio dramas of this period before television (1937) were generally overly histrionic presentations of simple-minded narratives intended to relieve the boredom of an apathetic public weighed down by Depression-era concerns. 

In this connection the three escaped convicts making up the newly formed bank-robbing gang embody different flavors of escape from boredom:
  • T. W. “T-Dub” Mason (played by Bert Remsen) is 44 and is the organizer and supposed “brains” of the gang of thieves.  He seems good-natured and appears only to have gotten into bank-robbing as a profession just by chance circumstances.  But he is not above killing people who block his way.
  • Elmo “Chicamaw” Mobley (John Schuck) is 38 and is the number-2 man of the group.  He is a hot-headed narcissist whose three interests in life are alcohol, women, and robbing banks.  He is much more ruthless than T-Dub, and his main concern in life is being recognized as somebody important.
  • Bowie Bowers (Keith Carradine), 23, is particularly callow and amiable, but he was convicted of murder at the age of 16.  Although he is basically well-meaning, he expresses, at one point in the film, no regrets about his having entered into a life of crime.  It is his innocence and that of his love, Keetchie, that is principally focalized in the film.
These men are always congratulating themselves that life is special, indeed, among “thieves like  us”.

The story of Thieves Like Us passes through four dramatic stages.

1.  Escape and Robberies
In the opening sequences T-Dub, Chicamaw, and Bowie escape from prison and make their way to hideout with Chicamaw’s cousin, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), who is an auto garage mechanic living with his daughter Keetchie (Shelley Duvall).  The three criminals then carry out some bank robberies, the details of which the viewer doesn’t see, because the focalization of this story is concentrated on Bowie, who is the gang’s getaway car driver waiting outside the bank. 

After one of the robberies, they hideout in the home of T-Dub’s sister-in-law, Mattie (Louise Fletcher).  In their leisure time they decide to play a make-believe game with Mattie’s three kids, and the make-believe game they come up with is the only thing that stokes their imaginations – robbing a make-believe bank.  During the game Chicamaw reveals his subconscious weaknesses by losing his temper and threatening to shoot the children with his real gun.

Afterwards they all decide to lay low for a month until their next appointed bank robbery to take place in Yazoo City.

2.  Bowie and Keetchie
On the road, with Bowie and Chicamaw driving separate cars and playfully trying to overtake each other, Bowie gets into an accident and is seriously injured.  The always hot-tempered and injudicious Chicamaw comes on the accident scene and shoots two investigating police officers before whisking the injured Bowie back to his cousin Dee’s home.

While recuperating in Dee’s home, Bowie gets more acquainted with Dee’s unsophisticated and artless daughter, Keetchie, and the two of them start tentatively falling in love.  Here is innocence in the flesh, and the sensitive performances of Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall make these sequences a highlight of the film.  After time passes, though, Bowie’s appointment date approaches, and despite Keetchie’s protests, Bowie heads off to Yazoo City.

3.  The Yazoo City Caper
This time, because Bowie is actively involved inside the bank, the robbery is shown in detail, mostly in overhead shots.  Again, the robbery is successful, although T-Dub and Chicamaw fire some lethal shots at bank employees.  Afterwards, they split up with a new meetup appointment set.  But Bowie soon hears on his car radio that the police have shot and killed T-Dub and that Chicamaw has been imprisoned.

4.  No Escape
Bowie returns to the still-pouting Keetchie, and they soon renew their avowals of true love.  Bowie now takes Keetchie to a motel that T-Dub had bought with his stolen money for Mattie. Mattie is reluctant to let them stay there, but Bowie insists.

Keetchie desperately wants Bowie to give up a life of crime and place their love above all such selfish considerations, but he still has at least one more secret caper to pull off.  Masquerading as a cop, Bowie goes to the prison where Chicamaw is being held and manages to spring him.  However, after the always hot-headed Chicamaw kills the prison captain and then abusively accuses Bowie of being a two-bit hick, Bowie abandons Chicamaw on the road, presumably condemning him to death.

But when Bowie returns to the motel to see Keetchie, the viewer sees that he has been betrayed by Mattie, who has arranged for a squadron of policemen to ambush him.  They fire a fusillade of bullets into him while the screaming Keetchie looks on helplessly in horror.

The final scene shows Keetchie waiting in a train station for a long trip to Fort Worth and a new start in  life.  She is pregnant with Bowie’s child (Bowie never knew about her pregnant condition), but she informs a fellow waiting passenger that if the unborn child is a boy, she will not name it after the father, because he betrayed her.

Thieves Like Us is a sad and fatalistic film, but it is a moving one and well worth reseeing. Although it was well-received when it was released [1,2], it is not generally ranked as a classic; but it is one of my all-time favorites. It reminds us that true love is natural and can appear anytime and anywhere.  Love can bring about deliverance and redemption, but we know that it doesn’t always conquer, as was the case in this film.  So we are reminded that we must not let go of those loving encounters and relationships that are so crucially important to our lives.  And that is why the film is so especially poignant. 

  1. Judith Christ, “Roadside Refreshment”, New York Magazine, (11 February 1974), pp. 74-75.     
  2. Roger Ebert, “Thieves Like Us”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1974).   

“Lust, Caution” - Ang Lee (2007)

Ang Lee’s” tense drama Lust, Caution (Sè, Jiè, 2007) has drawn a variety of critical responses.  Indeed the film encompasses a number of topics and styles – history, politics, romance, erotica, psychology, etc. – and these can generate different reactions on various levels.  This film about some Chinese resistance efforts during the devastating Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) is based on Eileen Chang’s moving novella Lust, Caution (1979) [1], which is equally multi-faceted.  Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing), who is one of my favorite authors, lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during this hectic war period that led to the deaths of millions [2], and her writing reflects on how those circumstances impinged on human consciousness.  And in this connection, I also recommend for your reading her famous story “Love in a Fallen City” (“Qing Cheng Zhi Lia”, 1943).

The story of Lust, Caution focuses on a young woman who is recruited to join a Chinese resistance plot to assassinate a high figure in the Chinese puppet government working for the occupying Japanese.  It is her job to seduce the assassination target and lure him to a place free from his security guards where he can be murdered.  Along the way, we get a glimpse into the complexity of her feelings as they evolve over the course of the plot.

Lee’s film follows the basic elements of Chang’s story closely, but in order to provide more background for the plot, it expands on the earlier conspiratorial elements of the plotters, and this occupies much of the first half of the film.  In general, Lee seems to be trying to evoke the psychological mood of Chang’s story, but he pursues his quest with different, more visual, means.  This led to some critics, particularly in the US, complaining that the film was too slow (it runs more than two-and-a-half hours) before it reaches its disturbing denouement.  In addition, Lee introduced some viscerally graphic violent sequences that were not part of Chang’s more internally focused tale.  These scenes include a horrifically bloody murder of a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese, as well as some very explicit and aggressive sexual scenes involving the two principal characters.  The explicit sex scenes attracted (or distracted) a lot of the public’s attention and led to the film being rated NC-17 (adults only) in the United States. In my view these graphic scenes were perhaps over-cooked, but they do contribute to the overall conflicting moods of the story.

Nevertheless, and despite the various critical misgivings about the film, Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion for best film at the 2007 Venice Film Festival and was a big hit worldwide, particularly in Asia.  This is because in my view the film moodily captures the evolving and conflicting feelings of its main characters. 

The success of this telling is heavily dependent on the film’s well-crafted production values. In particular the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto maintains intimacy by using extensive closeups of the main characters.  Besides showing the subtle emotive states of these characters, this evokes an almost claustrophobic feeling of confinement that seems to constrain the autonomy of these figures.  This effort of cinematic confinement is on several occasions carried to far, though, as Prieto’s camera, holding to closeup compositions, sometimes nervously pans around the room following random movements of various characters.  This agitated panning doesn’t work, because there is no narrative perspective for the shots, i.e. the narrative “unseen witness” of the camera is not appropriately motivated. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere of environmental confinement is effectively evoked. 

Another key production element is the musical score by multiple award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat. This unobtrusively creates just the right emotional tone for the film’s evolving mood.

A third key production component concerns the acting performances of the film’s two leads –  Wei Tang and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.  Much of the time they convey their feelings not through words but through expressive reaction shots that seem to convey rising sentiments and evolving, sometimes hesitantly, held affections.  And both of these performances are excellent.  Wei Tang was a relative newcomer, but Tony Leung’s expressive reticence has long highlighted the Hong Kong film scene, notably in Days of Being Wild (1990). Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), Hero (2002), and 2046 (2004).

There are several key thematic elements in the film, but one of the most important ones is that of role-playing.  We are all constantly being cast into multiple, parallel narratives in our lives involving multiple roles, and these multiple roles overlap in our inner selves and collectively affect who we are.  For example the character Wong Chia Chi (played by Wei Tang) plays the following distinct roles:
  • College Student.
    In the beginning she is just “herself”, a teenager who moves from Japanese-occupied Shanghai to Hong Kong and enters college there.
  • Member of Subversive Resistance Cell.
    Subsequently Wong Chia Chi becomes a member of a secret resistance group working to kill high-level figures who work for the Japanese occupiers.
  • Socialite Housewife
    As a subversive agent, she masquerades as Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Mak), the wife of an imaginary wealthy businessman Mr. Mak, so that she can join the social circle of Yee Tai Tai, the wife of her assassination target.
  • Secret Lover
    Once she meets her targeted victim, Mr. Yee, she commences a clandestine sexual affair with the man, which of course must be kept secret from everybody.
We see Wong Chia Chi move between the separate roles and the cumulative effect these various masks have on her.  Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) has his multiple roles, too – Chinese government official, agent for the Japanese invaders, husband, and secret extra-marital lover.

The story of Lust, Caution passes through four stages, the first of which is actually a foreshadowed segment of the last.

1.  Japanese-occupied Shanghai, 1942
The first stage shows scenes that will only become clear later.  Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang) is shown playing mahjong at the home of Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) and some other members of the hostess’s well-to-do social circle.  Yee Tai Tai’s husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), shows up, and he appears to exchange a momentary meaningful glance with Mak Tai Tai.  She then excuses herself from the game and goes outside into a restaurant in town, where she makes an obscure telephone call to some armed people who are evidently preparing themselves for a murderous mission.  What all this means will only become clear near the end of the film.

2.  Shanghai - Hong Kong, 1938
The film now moves to a flashback four years earlier.  The Japanese have taken over Shanghai, and the people there are suffering under the suddenly destitute conditions.  A young woman, Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) makes it to war-free Hong Kong and enrols in a university there as a drama student.  She quickly joins a theater group headed by a charismatic young director, Kuang Yu Min (Leehom Wang), who is a passionate Chinese patriot.  After staging a successful patriotic play starring Wong Chia Chi, Kuang reveals to his theater group his more ambitious and radical ambition – to recruit them into forming an underground resistance group that will assassinate high-level Chinese collaborators of the Japanese.  Their first target will be Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who works in Hong Kong as an agent for the Chinese puppet government that is overseen by the Japanese in occupied China. 

Because of Wong Chia Chi’s beauty and acting talents, she is setup to be the married seductress, Mak Tai Tai, who is to get to know Mrs. Yee and then ultimately lure Mr. Yee into a place where he will be unaccompanied by his bodyguards.  Wong Chia Chi’s commitment to her cause is tested when she learns that her lack of sexual experience will have to be corrected by having some training “practice” with one of her more experienced co-conspirators. 

In the event, their murder plan almost works, but it has to be called off at the last minute.  The resistance group then quickly learns that Yee has been transferred to Shanghai, and their assassination plans have to be abandoned.

At this point in the film, there is a bloody encounter with Tsao, a Chinese Japan-collaborationist who had earlier introduced Kuang Yu Min to Mr. Yee and who has now discovered that Kuang and his mates were not who they claimed to be.  This confrontation results in Tsao’s violent death at the hands of Kuang and his group, and afterwards they have to disband and go their separate ways.  It is a horrifically gory scene full of blood, and it was not part of Eileen Chang’s original story.  Although it does add additional gritty reality to the conspirators’ passionate commitment to their cause, I don’t believe Lee’s insertion of this material was necessary or effective.  Nevertheless, the film’s other virtues are enough to compensate for this defect. 

3.  Shanghai, 1942
The scene now shifts ahead several years to the Shanghai setting seen in the film’s opening stage.  Wong Chia Chi has returned from Hong Kong, and on the street she happens to run into Kuang Yu Min, who informs her that he has moved to Shanghai and is now a secret agent for the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) government still ruling the China that is unoccupied.  Kuang has always seemed to have an unspoken romantic interest in Wong, but circumstances have always gotten in the way of their taking things further.  When they connect again this time, Kuang tells her that he is still intent on assassinating Mr. Yee, who he tells her is now head of the puppet government’s secret police.  Kuang reassembles his assassination team, and again Wong Chia Chi is recruited as the seductress of Mr. Yee. 

In short order Wong Chia Chi resumes her former fake identity as Mak Tai Tai, and she is reintroduced to Mrs. Yee’s social circle.  She also resumes her clandestine relationship with Mr. Yee, and now it becomes more serious.  They are soon engaging in intense sexual trysts which seem only to serve the physical lusts of the two participants. 

For his part Yee seems almost to be a sadistic misogynist, but Wong, herself, also indulges in her role as a lustful prostitute to the hilt.  These explicit and extended scenes embellish Chang’s story, and they have attracted much attention.  But they do fit into the overall narrative themes of Lee’s film.  As Wong engages in what is initially just purely deceptive role-playing, her self-satisfying lustful pleasures seem to leak over into and overlap with her other personae. She starts developing real feelings for Yee.  On one occasion Wong soulfully sings and dances a love song for Yee, and this elicits tears from the usually poker-faced Yee.  What was initially just self-gratification is now turning to real attachment.

4.  Conclusion
The film now moves to scenes that encompass what was shown at the beginning of the film – the planned assassination attempt on Mr. Yee.  Yee and Wong are privately visiting a jeweler from whom Yee is purchasing a large diamond for Wong.  At the last moment, Wong, almost as if she is listening to a hidden voice inside her, quietly warns Yee to run away, and the ever-cautious Yee takes heed and flees the scene.  This leads to the tragic finale depicting the obliteration of Wong and her resistance colleagues.

One might say that there are two main themes that underlie Lust, Caution.  One concerns the provocative notion that physical lust can, thanks to the way our compartmentalized inner personae overlap with each other, lead to personal intimacy.  This is the opposite of the way things are conventionally supposed to evolve, where growing personal intimacy can gradually lead to physical (i.e. sexual) intimacy. In Lust, Caution this reverse direction of lust –> personal intimacy is what has been most conspicuous to the public and has attracted the most critical attention.

But it is another, more general, theme that I find even more compelling, and that one concerns the way we make efforts to compartmentalize our private personae so that they can operate freely within the scope of separate partitioned narratives.  Yee was obsessed with the need for secrecy – the need to protect his separate narratives from having any contact with each other.  Wong Chia Chi, for her part, also tried to keep her inner personae separate, but in the end her authentic self asserted itself and invoked a more unified sense of who she was.  For this she paid the highest price.  But if we think about our basic existential goals in life, isn’t this what we ultimately live for?

So although the lust theme attracted the most media attention, it is the caution theme that is the more fascinating. And it is under its spell that we are drawn into Ang Lee’s vision of Eileen Chang’s moody and fatalistic story of existential confinement and release. 

  1. Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution, (1979), Anchor Books, Random House (2007).
  2. “Second Sino-Japanese War”, New World Encyclopedia, (26 August 2015).