Friday, April 09, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Impasse

A sweet-tempered little boy, Takashi will hopefully never know the trouble he caused. He is the product of the then (1967) unheard of process of artificial insemination, and his mother will not let his ostensive father forget it. Indeed, stereotypes of the nobly suffering mother are turned on their head in Kiju Yoshida’s Impasse, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties, their continuing retrospective of three Japanese actresses whose work pointedly challenged traditional cinematic roles for Japanese women.

Originally, it was Ibuki’s idea to try artificial insemination. With the arrival of Takashi, everything initially seemed to work out just fine. However, his mother Ritsuko is haunted by the notion that she knows the donor-father and was in some sense intimate with him (either physically or metaphorically. The tension between her and Ibuki only gets worse when their supposed friends the Sakaguchis visit.

In many ways, Impasse (a.k.a. Flame and Woman) suggests Godard at his more restrained. Through the lens of cinematographer Yuji Okumura, their house resembles a weird collaboration between Frank Lloyd Wright and M.C. Esher, with its constant play of light and shadows cast at striking angles. For long stretches, Yoshida eschews dialogues, lovingly capturing the ambient outside noises. At other times, the background noise drops out in favor of dialogue rendered through eerie voice-overs. Yet despite the bold stylistic elements, it is the couple’s increasingly bitter drama that really leaves a mark.

Even in translation, the gist of what Ritsuko says is scaldingly clear. Her contempt and resentment is palpable. Like Ayako Wakao and Yasuzo Masumura, Mariko Okada and Yoshida had a long and fruitful collaborator as leaders of the so-called Japanese “New Wave” movement. Projecting inner turmoil while maintaining an icy, severe demeanor, she is a withering presence in Impasse. Yet, Mayumi Ogawa’s Shina Sakaguchi might be even madder, badder, and more dangerous to know. Capricious and maybe a bit insane, she is a viscerally disconcerting presence throughout the film.

While at times visually gorgeous, Impasse cuts like a knife. These are people who know exactly what to say to hurt each other. Fascinating and engrossing, it is a surprisingly frank film even by contemporary standards. Genuine art-cinema featuring a searing lead performance from Okada, Impasse is highly recommended. The first of three Okada-Yoshida collaborations programmed during Mad, Bad, it screens at the Japan Society this coming Wednesday (4/14).