Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 18, 2009 6:36 pm 
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Belated US release for Sokurov's 'The Sun' brings a Russian master into the light

Aleksandr Sokurov's 2005 The Sun/solnze, third in his despots trilogy (Hitler and Lenin precede it) is an eccentric, curiously moving portrait of the isolation and innocence of a deified ruler, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, in the last stages of the War when his aloofness and the thick walls of his bunker can finally no longer protect him from acknowledging the nation's defeat. In his perceptive review in The Guardian at the tine, Peter Bradshaw called the film "a mesmerisingly mad, brilliantly intuitive study" and notes the "scorched, radioactive daylight" into which Hirohito emerges from the "crepuscular twilight, a sepia gloom for interior shots" that the director filmed as his own cinematographer, the Russian shooting with Japanese dialogue that is enhanced with wondrous sound design whose "score murmurs and crackles like bad radio reception," with the effect of making the film "look like a remembered nightmare or like images from another planet" -- very typical of the director, and very much a part of the magical, alien mood created in this odd, haunting masterpiece.

In late 2009 Aleksandr Sokurov's 2005 film The Sun/Solntse is finally being released in the US. Lorber Films has secured the film and it begins Nov. 18-Dec. 1 at Film Forum in NYC a US theatrical release that will continue into 2010. Starring Japanese actor, comic, and writer Issey Ogata in a haunting (and for the Japanese, taboo-breaking) performance as Hirohito, The Sun depicts the last 24 hours before the strangely naive, detached Japanese emperor is forced to surrender to General Douglas MacArthur. He also decides to announce that he is not a god.

Sokurov's 2002 Russian Ark was an art house hit in the US, but the enthusiasm hasn't spilled over into further releases. I saw the director's 2003 Father and Son at Cinema Village in New York, but few saw it.

I saw The Sun at the 2005 NY Film Festival, in a year when the slate was a glittering roster including Garrel's Regular Lovers, Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck, Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Dardennes' L'Enfant (The Child), Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, Haneke's Caché/Hidden, Chéreau's Gabrielle, Hou's Three Times and Park's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Sokurov's The Sun stood out from all these as most remarkable of all, the work of a unique genius. Bradshaw is probably right that The Sun is the best of the despot trilogy, but I've as yet seen only Moloch (about Hitler); Tarus (about Lenin) is not available on a US DVD.

The Sun showed in 2005 at Berlin, Cannes, and other festivals including San Francisco. Manohla Dargis of the NYTimes gushed that "Sokurov has shot this wonderfully eccentric and fascinating film -- as if it were a science- fiction film. . . Mr. Ogata is mesmerizing." As a portrait of pathology-- that of Japan and of Hirohito both -- it's terrific." These remarks are true, but only hint at the immense and subtle psychological insight embodied in the film.

I saw the film again in the San Francisco International Film Festival and remained in awe. In my Filmleaf NYFF coverage I wrote:

"Sokurov's haunting recreation of how Emperor Hirohito spent the last hours before the Japanese surrender, this is a miraculous work, and it provided the most powerful aesthetic and emotional experience of the NYFF. The Sun depicts a man who knows very well what is going on but lives in a cocoon, in a state of detachment and ineffectuality that becomes strangely heart-rendiing. Issey Ogata's performance as the Emperor easily competes for hypnotic intensity with Bruno Ganz's in the German film Downfall -- but with a very different sort of bunker and a very different kind of man: a silent, immaculate country house with a few faithful servants in attendance; a small, frail but upright and dignified personage who can easily explain the causes of the Japanese defeat to his general staff but has never learned to dress himself or open a door. Even on this day he is more comfortable browsing through photos of his family and American movie stars, discussing marine biology, and writing poetry. Despite the disgrace, he is selflessly happy that peace has come. He inks a brush to write a statement to his absent son, but instead drafts a few verses about the weather. Later he is taken to see [General MacArthur], and then brought back again to dine with the general. He enjoys the wine and the meat and has his first taste of a Havana cigar. The Americans conclude that the Emperor is like a child. "What's it like being a living god?" [MacArthur] asks. And speaking, to the dismay of the Japanese interpreter, in perfect English, Hirohito says, "What can I tell you? You know, it is not easy being Emperor." These are just a few details in a film rich in telling ones. Simply enumerating them can't explain this film's slow, cululative emotional wallop -- or the lovely, fantastic, dreamlike landscape images toward the end." (I commented a little further on Cinescene (site now defunct).)

As Dennis Lim wrote in the NYTimes a few days ago (November 15, 2009) in a survey of the director, "Taking a Man, Then Removing His Myth," "The filmmaker Alexander Sokurov is best known to American audiences for Russian Ark (2002), a dizzying tour through the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg that sweeps up several centuries of Russian history and culture into a single 96-minute Steadicam shot." Manohla Dargis published a 2009 NYTimes review of The Sun on the occasion of the film's delayed US release. Lim's discussion however may be more useful both for its observations about this film and for its wider-ranging discussion of the director's whole oeuvre.

Despite Sokurov's lack of US fame or releases outside festivals, Netflix does now list 14 titles, including The Sun, which is coming.*

Elegy of the Land (1977)
Sonata for Viola (1981)-doc re Shostakovich
Moscow Elegy (1987)-doc re Tarkovsky
The Second Circle (1990)
Spiritual Voices (2-Disc Series) (1994) –doc
Oriental Elegy / Dolce / A Humble Life (1996)-Japan doc
Confession (2-Disc Series) (1998)-doc
Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (1999)-doc
Moloch (1999)-about Hitler
Mother & Son (2000)
Elegy of a Voyage (2002)-2 short films, doc
Russian Ark (2002)
The Sun (2005)-release coming
Alexandra (2007)

Of these I can still only report on The Sun, Moloch, Alexandra, Fathers and Sons, and The Second Circle. Though Russian Ark remains the Sokurov work American art house patrons know, that breathless single-take tour de force lacks both the warmth and the unique look of oher Sokurov films and gives little hint of the sympathetic psychological penetration and thought-provoking portraiture of The Sun. When I saw Father and Son in its miniscule American release I reveled in its astonishing beauty and sensuality (and surprising homoeroticism), but it seemed strange and largely difficult to decode. I would consider The Sun clearly the most accessible and the most significant of the Sokurov works that I've so far seen.

His unique style and high seriousness mark Sokurov clearly as one of the great filmmakers working today, and serious US film fans need to see more, at least on DVD. We also need to see Taurus, about Lenin, to complete his "dictator" trilogy (with Hirohito's inclusion reasonably being objected to as not really a dictator) with Moloch and The Sun. The Sun has met with wide acclaim and in fact has been a step toward more festival attention and more international recognition. Sokurov has been prolific; may have run into a dry spell lately. He has made many, some of which we can't see, both features and shorts. It's to be hoped that this US release of The Sun will bring the Russian master more admirers and lead to his future works being more available in theaters.
*The Sun now available in DVD and streaming via YouTube, AmazonPrime, or GooglePlay.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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