Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 30, 2014 2:24 am 
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Guilt, murder, penance, revenge flow through four or five hours of elegant, restrained Japanese horror from Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his TV mini-series

Four little girls see a murderer who kills their wealthy classmate Emili. Emili's mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi, wife of the unemployed father in Tokyo Story) becomes the avenging angel-guilty conscience-evil presiding spirit of the piece, and she puts a spell in the girls, telling them they must do penance, whatever that means, for not identifying the killer. Asako reappears in the four stories -- 50-minute TV episodes -- that follow. I don't quite see why some think story number four, of the perky Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki), who opens a flower shop, scoffs at Asako's threats, and indulges a penchant for policemen and adultery, provides any kind of light relief. What you realize by the time her tale is told is that all four girls have grown up to be killers, only not for revenge; it just sort of happens in the course of their differently ill-starred lives. Is Yuka more "normal" than the fragile, doll-like Sae (Yu Aoi) who marries a corporate heir even stranger than she is (Mirai Moriyama), in the first story, "French Doll"? Or than the over-strict teacher Maki (Eiko Koike), who carried martial arts a bit too far in story two, "Emergency PTA Meeting"? Or than the somehow appealing reclusive longhaired "bear" Akiko (Sakura Ando), in jail for killing her brother (Ryo Kase) in story three, "Brother and Sister Bear"? No, Yin her story, "Ten Months, Ten Days," Yuka turns out to be just as weird as the others and more manipulative, a home wrecker as well as a killer. The important thing is that somehow the material and Kurosawa's handling of it makes each segment feel like a piece of the picture, and yet quite unique in its own way.

Kurosawa adopts the method of staging the early childhood events in full color and the stories of present time fifteen years later in pale grays with touches of color, heightening the coolness and artificiality of it all -- in view of which the brittle, airless first tale of Sae works particularly well, serving as a good introduction for how everything is going to go (badly). As the presiding high priestess of revenge, Koiko Koizumi, always dressed in impeccable elegance and not having aged a single minute in fifteen years, is always in control, so it's no surprise that she gets her own final episode.

Given how complicated this is, it's not so surprising that it provides no full sense of final resolution. It's a tremendously fun fun watch for Kiyoshi Kurosawa fans, not to mention fans of the wilder shores of Japanese culture. But the flaw remains that, as Deborah Young says in her Hollywood Reporter review, "For a film that requires nearly five hours of viewing investment, [Penance] feels terribly stingy on the emotional payoff." Penance lacks the narrative unity and drive and the intense humanity of Mika Niskanen's 1972 miniseries Eight Deadly Shots, (which I also watched as part of San Francisco 2013), or the suspense, charisma, and excitement of Assayas' Carlos, which seems more tolerable as a long theatrical viewing (I watched it that way).

Furthermore, though Penance is elegant and compulsively watchable, the whole setup works best if you don't think about it too much. Why should the girls do "penance" well into their twenties for not identifying a killer they didn't know? Why should each young woman seem to think her unrelated act of violence would appease the grieving mother, Asako? Well, both novelist Minae Minato and adaptor-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa understand that in the psychology of horror tidy logical connections aren't necessary -- may even work better when they're clearly askew. But the final "Atonement" section is the usual elaborate string of explanations (with more of a police procedural setup) with little real connection to all that came before. And the thus the overall structure remains factitious and dubious in ways that fall well short of what one gets in great art.

Time is wasted at the outset of each 50-minute TV segment by repeating the early moments of the killing and Asako's menacing speech to the four little girls later. If these repetitions, needed to introduce weekly episodes, were elided or cut, the whole would play faster and smoother in a theatrical presentation. This was planned by Music Box as a US theatrical release when they bought it at Venice in 2013, a prospect some reviewers justifiably then thought unpromising. Hollywood Reporter's overview (Deborah Young): "Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s made-for-TV serial drama Penance is a wild, uneven ride through the oddities of the Japanese psyche, as much as it is a psychological thriller examining the far-reaching aftereffects of a little girl’s murder. Complexly plotted, elegantly shot and orchestrated, this is the kind of long-winded, intermittently involving festival package that will earn the director of Tokyo Sonata more critical appreciation but will struggle to find a theatrical audience." She warned it "feels terribly stingy on the emotional payoff."

In its subtitled theatrical form the miniseries (AKA Shokuzai), 270 mins., debuted at Venice in August 2012, having shown on Japanese "Wowwow" TV in January. It has also shown at Rotterdam in 2013, and at San Francisco, where it was watched for this review on screener DVDs. (Home viewing is the way to go.) While Tokyo Sonata (NYFF 2008) had been Kurosawa's last feature release, in 2013 he already had a new one, Real, debuting in May 2013 at Cannes, based on a novel by Rokurô Inui. Penance got its promised US theatrical release by Music Box Films Friday, 14 November 2014. Now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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