Category Archives: Film

Nudes! Guns! Ghosts! Shintoho Films at the Freer

Revenge of the Pearl Queen

Author and film critic Mark Schilling is the curator of our Shintoho retrospective, named “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” after the films’ sometimes-scandalous subject matter. Bento had a chance to interview Schilling in advance of his appearance and book signing at the Freer this Friday for the screening of Revenge of the Pearl Queen at 7 pm.

Bento: What first attracted you to chronicle Japanese culture, especially film? Was there an “aha!” moment?

Mark Schilling: I wanted to review films long before I became interested in Japanese culture. I was one of the many Woodstock-era wannabe critics under the spell of Pauline Kael. What made me first want to write about Japanese films in particular was the work of Juzo Itami, including The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1985). His social comedies weren’t about samurai and geisha, but rather contemporary Japanese citizens; that is, the sorts of people I saw around me every day. The films were saying something fresh and incisive about the Japan I had been living in for the past decade, and I thought reviewing them and other Japanese films like them would be more fun than being the one thousandth critic to opine on the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I still think so.

Bento: Tell me about movie-making in Japan after WWII, and the establishment of the Shintoho studio in 1947.

Mark Schilling: Shintoho began as a ploy by its corporate parent, the Toho studio, to keep production going during a prolonged period of labor unrest. Though it later became independent, Shintoho was the smallest of the six studios active in the 1950s—the Golden Era of Japanese cinema—and it was constantly struggling against bigger and better-financed rivals. It made quality films with name directors and stars in its early years, but box office hits were few.

When veteran showman Mitsugu Okura took over as president in 1955, he dumped the expensive auteurs and began to give more assignments to assistant directors on the studio payroll, while boosting unknown actors to stardom. He also began targeting young audiences with the same sort of exploitation fare that was filling drive-ins and grindhouses in the United States. His horror films and erotic thrillers didn’t win prizes, but they drew audiences—and enabled Shintoho to survive a few years longer than it probably would have otherwise.

Bento: I can’t remember a more memorable title for a film series than “Nudes! Guns! Ghosts!” What defines a film from Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: During the Okura era, which lasted from 1955 until the studio folded in 1961, Shintoho films were known for their racy, lurid titles and posters—all approved by Okura—that promised forbidden delights to their mostly young, male fans. Okura wasn’t particular about the films’ contents as long as they delivered on the promise of the title. This allowed talented directors such as Teruo Ishii and Nobuo Nakagawa to put their signature on their films and make them stand out over the competition. It’s hard to say that Shintoho had a distinct style, but its best films had a vitality that the staider products of other studios lacked and still makes them watchable today.

Bento: Since you’re coming to introduce Revenge of the Pearl Queen, can you tell us something about this film?

Mark Schilling: It was based on a true story about a Japanese woman who found herself on a small island in the Marianas with several dozen Japanese guys escaping the US invasion of Saipan. The men ended up fighting each other for her favors, while she played off one lover against another—and escaped the island unscathed in 1950. Her story inspired Anatahan (1953), the last film by Josef von Sternberg.

The Shintoho version resembles Sternberg’s in its focus on sex and violence, but the woman played by Michiko Maeda is no hapless victim or wily femme fatale. Instead she begins the story as a young woman who has it all, including a handsome, ambitious fiancé (Ken Usui), but loses it in a murderous corporate coup. She gets her revenge with her wits and by enlisting the aid of her male allies on the island, so she is really a strong figure, and one atypical for the era.
Maeda, however, became notorious for one brief, if striking, scene in the film, in which she was shot unclothed from behind. This was a first for an actress in a Japanese film, and paved the way for hundreds of nude scenes to follow in the 1960s and beyond.

Bento: If I’m not mistaken, you conducted Maeda’s most recent public interview. How did she remember her days at Shintoho?

Mark Schilling: She was very reluctant to speak with me and a Japanese journalist who helped arrange the interview. In fact she had given only one other on-the-record interview about her days at Shintoho. She had been burned badly by the Japanese media and was distrustful of journalists.

But when we finally met she was incredibly generous and forthcoming, even giving us little drink mats she had crocheted—a first for me as an interviewer! She resented the way she had been treated—she was fired from the studio and banned from the industry for a minor act of insubordination—but she was also proud of what she had achieved in her brief career. Even though she had had a hard life, working for years as a waitress in a noodle shop, she still had the aura of stardom and quality of steely resolve that come across so strongly in Pearl Queen.

Bento: Can we see any evidence of Shintoho’s influence in movie-making or popular culture in Japan today?

Mark Schilling: Shintoho’s strongest impact was in the horror and erotic genres. Every Japanese horror director today owes a debt to Nobuo Nakagawa, who pioneered the mix of modern and traditional kaidan (ghost story) elements that characterizes Japanese horror.

Also, Shintoho films about ama, women pearl divers who worked in figure-revealing attire, may be mild by present standards, but they were considered bold provocations in their day. In their commercial success and pushing of borders, these films laid the groundwork for the huge pinku (erotic) film industry that was to arise in the 1960s and play such a major role in popular culture in the decades to follow.

Remixing the Museum: An Interview with DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky, Novara Jazz Festival 2007; credit: Giancarlo Minelli

In anticipation of Asia After Dark: Asian Soundscape, Bento caught up with acclaimed digital media artist and musician Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky. He will perform at F|S on Friday evening, playing music set against 1940s black-and-white films featuring Asian American pioneer actress Anna May Wong.

Bento: As the first DJ in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, can you tell me what it’s like to score for a museum, a place that’s known primarily for visual arts?

DJSpooky: Everybody likes to think of museums as places of “permanence”—but it couldn’t be further from reality. Shows change all the time; collections come and go. I like to think the performance I’m doing at the Sackler is essentially about the constantly changing landscape of digital media. It’s also a musical homage to how people perceived one of the principal figures of the beginning of the last century. It’s always cool to play with history. Anna May Wong is super cool!

B: As an artist and musician, what inspires your creativity?

DJS: Fun! Everything serious should be seriously fun!

B: Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming performance here and why you chose to rescore the Lady from Chungking, starring Anna May Wong?

DJS: If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, if you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, you get the vibe—mysterious, Oriental exotic; yeah! Gangnam style, from the 1920s! That’s why I thought Lady from Chungking would be a cool film to present as a dance party film. Mystery + history … keep it movin’!

Anna May Wong, photographed by Carl Van Vechten; via Wikimedia Commons

B: When did you first become interested in Asian cinema?

DJS: Everybody from Wu-Tang Clan on over to Hendrix’s incredible album covers based on Indian mythology, to even more pop-influenced material like David Bowie’s China Girl: That’s all stuff in my record collection. When I was growing up listening to mix tapes, everyone put clips from Chinese and Japanese films on their mixes. It just made everything sound cool. The dynamics of Kurosawa, the intensity of Bruce Lee, the surrealness of Beat Takeshi, and of course, the wildness of Takashi Miike … plus Lucy Liu … that’s the vibe. I guess I was like an American kid of the last 40 years, immersed in the subtle influences of both pop cinema and arthouse material.

B: As a native Washingtonian, was the Smithsonian an important part of your childhood?

DJS: The Smithsonian museum system was always a portal into a different world, where you could easily drift into the way that they reflected so much history, and so much of the way the world’s complexity is part of the American experience. As a kid, I could imagine them as worlds unto themselves. You could get lost and wander in them for hours, if not entire days. That was the beauty of growing up in DC—you had the entire world at your figertips. It’s experiences like going to Antarctica to write a string ensemble work that made me realize how much the museums of DC gave me the ability to think of the immense horizons DC kids have access to. It’s a great situation.

B: Can you tell us what’s next for DJ Spooky?

DJS: After I do my show at the Sackler, I have concerts in Korea and China mid-October. I’m also finishing my next book with MIT, about apps. It’s called The Imaginary App.

Get your Asia After Dark tickets here.

Tom Vick in Korea: Now it Gets Interesting…

Seoul’s brand-new City Hall

This is the second post from Tom Vick, our curator of film, about his recent trip to Korea.

I’m back from Korea, after one more night in Seoul and four days at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Seoul is a gargantuan, overwhelming metropolis in which every building seems to be vying for your attention. While trying to work in my hotel room I could be distracted by no less than three huge video screens beaming advertisements from nearby rooftops. Adding to the city’s already jumbled skyline are more and more avant-garde, deliberately incongruous buildings dubbed “aliens” in architectural circles. Across the street from my hotel sat one of the most notorious: Seoul’s brand-new City Hall, which looms like a giant wave about to crash over its soon-to-be dismantled, Japanese occupation-era predecessor, in a perhaps deliberate reference to the Korean Wave (hallyu) that has inundated Asia with Korean pop culture in recent years.

Puchon, a small satellite city near Seoul, is a different experience entirely: a jumble of lights and garish signs enticing the visitor to all sorts of temptations. Indeed, Puchon has a somewhat seedy reputation, making it the perfect setting for PiFan, a festival specializing in the extremes of genre cinema: comedy, action, horror, sex, and violence. The fact that festival guests (your correspondent included) are put up in the city’s notorious “love hotels” only adds to the atmosphere.

Bright Lights, Big City: Puchon at Night

In addition to the new releases, I was very intrigued by a special retrospective section devoted to Korean comedies of the 1970s. That decade is generally considered a low point in Korean cinema history, but PiFan’s program, along with Udine Far East Film’s 1970s series dubbed “The Darkest Decade,” indicate, if not a revival, then at least an attempt to understand the ways filmmakers reacted to the political censorship and public indifference of the time, ideas that were illuminated during an interesting panel discussion following one of the screenings.

A panel discusses Korean comedies from the 1970s at PiFan.

Having sampled these films at both Udine and PiFan, I can say that most of them may not be “good” by traditional standards, but watching a loud, silly comedy from the ’70s can be as much a cultural learning experience—in its own way—as gazing upon the Buddhas in the National Museum.

Curator of Film Tom Vick: Korea in Five Scenes

Historic streets of Bukchon

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

I am in Korea, currently as a guest of the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS) and next week as a guest of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Each year, KOCIS invites 18 people from around the world to participate in a cultural exchange program. For my visit, I chose to combine business meetings and visits to museums and cultural sites in the hopes of enhancing my understanding of Korean history and culture. I have spent the last week crisscrossing Seoul with my official guide and interpreter, who have enthusiastically embraced the Korean government’s recently imposed relaxed dress code.

My official government guide and interpreter in Seoul

Early in my trip I was treated to a personal docent tour of highlights from the National Museum of Korea. The tour included a room of Buddha sculptures that shows off not only the sophistication of ancient Korean sculptors, but also the influence of other cultures via the Silk Road nearly 2,000 years ago.

Buddha from the National Museum of Korea

That same day I was treated to lunch by filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, who visited the Freer a few years ago to show his films, and Hanna Lee, producer of Chang-dong’s masterpiece Secret Sunshine. He showed me around another site where cultures mix: the Bukchon section of the city (top photo), where picturesque old streets have become the settings for wildly popular Korean television dramas, which in turn attract tourists from all over Asia seeking to walk the same streets as their favorite Korean TV stars.

Hanna Lee, producer, and Lee Chang-dong, filmmaker

After a week of enriching cultural experiences, productive meetings, and reconnections with old Korean friends, I write today from Gyeongju, city of burial mounds of ancient kings. For everyone I’ve met who loves Gyeongju, I meet someone who complains about obligatory middle school field trips there to be force-fed ancient Korean history. I even saw an installation at Samsung Museum of Contemporary Art lampooning this tradition. But even though Gyeongju dresses up its burial mounds with piped-in mood music and a nighttime light show, it’s hard not to be awed by being in the presence of massive graves that have been left undisturbed for nearly two millenia.

Burial mound in the city of Gyeongju

Next week I will experience another kind of spectacle, the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, where far-out films from around the world meet an enthusiastic audience of movie geeks. Stay tuned!

Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie

Director Na Hong-jin in the Freer courtyard before a screening of his film “The Chaser”

Popcorn and a movie? I don’t think so. Following on the heels of the popular event Noodles and a Movie, Freer|Sackler presented “Kimchi, Drinks, and a Movie” last Friday night. Guests nibbled on savory jeon pancakes and sipped makgeolli rice wine in the Freer courtyard, mingled with director Na Hong-jin, and then watched his film The Chaser in the Meyer Auditorium. On Sunday, Na Hong-jin returned to the Freer to introduce another of his films, a thriller titled The Yellow Sea.

Enjoying kimchi before a screening of “The Chaser”

Stay tuned to the F|S online calendar for more fun, film, and food-filled events!

Animazing!

Still from Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

We’re just two days away from our tenth annual anime festival, this year titled “Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli.” It’s a celebration of Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese animation who, along with Isao Takahata, cofounded the  influential Studio Ghibli. His Oscar-winning feature Spirited Away remains the highest-grossing film in Japan.

The festivities begin in the Meyer Auditorium at 11 am on Sunday, April 15, with free tickets available beginning at 10:30 am. While you’re here, don’t forget to visit the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji in the Sackler, as well as displays of Hokusai’s paintings and drawings in the Freer. His works include a collection of manga, Japanese comics closely related to anime.

If you’re going all-out and dressing up as your favorite Miyazaki character, take a photo and post it to our Facebook wall!

They Came, They Saw, They Slurped: Noodles and a Movie at the Freer

Enjoying noodles in the Freer Gallery before a screening of Eat Drink Man Woman.

On Wednesday evening, more than three thousand people (yes, three thousand!) came to the Freer for Noodles and a Movie in honor of the Chinese Lunar New Year. They were treated to food prepared by one of Taiwan’s top culinary artists, chef Hou Chun-sheng, winner of the 2011 Taipei Beef Noodle Soup Competition. After, many patrons enjoyed a screening of Eat Drink Man Woman, by Taiwan-born director Ang Lee. The film, about an elderly chef and his family, made for a noodlecentric evening that was enjoyed by all.

Were you there? Let us know what you thought!