Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Final Two at the Viz?

Warned by Brian Darr's tweets that Viz Cinema was closing at the end of January, I took an afternoon off from work to catch a double feature.

Ping Pong starring Yosuke Kubozuka and Arata; Japanese with subtitles; (2002) - Official Website
The Lower Depths starring Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada; directed by Akira Kurosawa; (1957)


I saw Ping Pong on the Viz program guide for December but it didn't really interest me. It's hard to take a film about table tennis seriously. At the 2008 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I saw Ping Pong Playa which I enjoyed. I didn't really feel like taking time off from work (the only screening of Ping Pong was at 1:30 PM on a Wednesday) to see a film about table tennis.

The Viz is closing, I have admission passes that may not be worth anything soon, work was slow and I wanted to see The Lower Depths which screened after Ping Pong. All that combined was enough to get me over there and I'm glad I did.

Ping Pong exceeded my expectations. There were certainly silly scenes but in general, the film played it straight. At the heart of the film are four, high school, table tennis players whose demeanors and motivations are very. Peco is a braggart and plays for personal glory. His friend Smile is introverted and initially doesn't give his full effort to ping pong for fear of demoralizing the opponent he could otherwise beat. Kong is a Chinese ringer who is brought to Japan because he did not make the Chinese National Team. Dragon is intense, shaved head (and eyebrows) competitor who lives for the competition.

The four of them have their own triumphs and failures but the main focus is on the relationship between Peco & Smile. As Peco's fortunes fall, he quits ping pong and that gives Smile the freedom to be the best player he can be. This must sound terriby silly when applied to ping pong but the film is able to pull it off with aplomb.

The film was engaging and achieved more than it probably should have. It was based on a popular manga so there was lots of source material to draw from. Shidô Nakamura as the intense Dragon stood out. Arata (Smile) recently appeared in Hirokazu Koreeda's Air Doll.


The Lower Depths is one of the few Kurosawa films I had not seen. Based on a Maxim Gorky play, The Lower Depths is a bleak examination of the humanity at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The film starts with two women dumping garbage into a pit. Their garbage pit is actually a shanty town for whores, thieves, drunks and gamblers with a slumlord and his shrewish wife (Isuzu Yamada). Toshirô Mifune plays the de facto leader of the group - a thief who is cuckolding his landlord. However, he has eyes for his lover's younger sister and this sets about the tragedy which ensues.

Another key character in the plot is Kahie (Bokuzen Hidari) an old drifter who spends the winter with the group. His stories and genial manner may be masking something more because at the end, he disappears at a key juncture.

Like many Russian works, The Lower Depths meanders with several subplots. Most of the film takes place in the hovel where the tennants live which amounts to bunks with a curtain for privacy. All the characters are self-deluded and claim to be or used to be more than they are now. The grinding poverty and self-deceit is difficult for me to stomach. One woman dies of tuberculosis but not after complaining to Kahie about her selfish husband. Her quiet complaints reminded me a little my own mother and struck an emotional chord with me.

Eventually, the relentlessly bleak nature of the character's lives becomes numbing and grotesque. The film is powerful but in an accretive way that left me exhausted when I left. I thought the film was one of Kurosawa's middling efforts. It seemed to be a bit of a vanity project for Kurosawa coming during the peak period of his commercial success. The Lower Depth did not seem like a Kurosawa film which is strange for one of the preeminent auteurs in cinema history.


By my count, I have now seen all the films directed by Kurosawa except Dreams (1990) and the little seen Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946) which Kurosawa disowned and is nearly always excluded from his canon. All the Kurosawa films I've seen have been on the movie screen except Dersu Uzala (1975).

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