Monday, January 13, 2014

Vengeance is Shohei Imamura: Endless Desire

Dig that slinky crime jazz.  Check out those five strangers sidling up to each other in a train station. Even viewers who are inexplicably resistant to subtitled foreign films will appreciate the post-war noir coolness of Shohei Imamura’s Endless Desire (trailer here), which screens for free this Friday as the opening film of the Asia Society’s mini-retrospective, Vengeance is Shohei Imamura.

In the waning hours of the war, Major Hashimoto and three co-conspirators buried a barrel of morphine below a field hospital, vowing to reunite ten years later to claim their illicit goods.  It was dark and circumstances were chaotic, so nobody really knows what their criminal collaborators look like.  They just know to look for Hashimoto and two other men wearing discrete Imperial military pins.  Things get tricky right from the start when Shima Hashimoto arrives in the place of her late brother, greeting four prospective accomplices rather than three.

Obviously, plenty of suspicion falls on all five sketchy characters, but nobody wants to walk away from their share of the morphine stash.  Shima Hashimoto’s destabilizing sultriness further guarantees future violence.  Yet, everybody temporarily buys into the plan to tunnel below the working class neighborhood butcher’s shop unknowingly built over the buried cache.  To make matters worse, unforeseen circumstances impose an accelerated deadline on the desperate rogues.

While it is pretty clear this is all heading for a justly disastrous end, Imamura and Suzuki Toshiro’s adaptation of Shinji Fujiwara’s source novel still delivers several nifty twists and turns along the way.  However, the subplot involving the rather incompetent assistant forced on the five by their temporary landlord (his disappointed father) mostly just muddies the waters with confusing comic relief.  The extent and nature of his slow-wittedness almost seems to vary from scene to scene, but no matter.  Shima Hashimoto is a killer femme fatale from start to finish, which is far more important.

Released in 1958, Desire oozes enough hostile sexual tension to still feel edgy by contemporary standards.  Working with a cast of consummate professionals, Imamura crafts a massively sweaty hothouse atmosphere, perfectly accentuated by Shinsaku Himeda’s classically noir black-and-white cinematography.  This is a nocturnal world, where there is always an eighty-five percent chance of rain.

There is no denying the sizzle Misako Watanabe adds, out vamping Mae West as Ms. Hashimoto.  We can tell she will be trouble right from the first seemingly innocent shot (and she is still making great films, like Japan’s recent foreign language Oscar submission, The Great Passage). Likewise, Taiji Tonoyama serves as a perfect foil to everyone as the bristling, blustering , bull-headed Onuma, while Imamura regular Kô Nishimura provides a nice counterpoint as the more cerebral and calculating Nakada.

Endless Desire is dark, but it is great fun, especially for film noir lovers.  It is an excellent way to start wading into the work of Imamura, which includes many serious documentaries and two Cannes Palme D’Or winners.  Highly recommended, it screens (for free) this Friday (1/17), kicking off the Vengeance is Shohei Imamura series at the Asia Society on Park Avenue.