Monday, February 20, 2012

#474: Intentions of Murder

(Shohei Imamura, 1964)

Buried in a lesser-known boxset as the third entry in a stretch of female-centric work from Shohei Imamura is one of my favorite films in the Criterion Collection. Intentions of Murder is completely riveting, pitch-black intense, and - yes, I know this is a cliché but I was literally on the edge of my seat - edge-of-your-seat filmmaking. Two separate times during the movie I had to remember to breathe. Another time I thought to myself, "Is this the best movie I've ever seen?"

OK, I wouldn't go that far. Certainly Intentions of Murder is not for everyone, and I'm sure a lot of people will watch this movie and wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll try my best to convey my thoughts on why this movie deserves a bigger following than it currently has, but this is a richly complex film that doesn't settle into any easy answers. The plot and grammar Imamura constructs for the film are uniquely cinematic, allowing for an experience that loses a lot in translation; this is a movie that demands the medium, it needs to be seen to be fully understood.

There are a few basic truths about the movie I should get out of the way first. Undeniably the cinematography is not just gorgeous but nearly flawless. The motif of the train as both a literal and metaphoric giant in the protagonist's life is most obviously evocative of Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a TrainNorth by Northwest), but its use here surpasses its purpose in any of those films, serving as Sadako's potential tool of suicide, freedom, and - in one of the most suspenseful sequences where she wrestles with her attacker on the end of a train car - ultimate tragic fate. Imamura films the iron giants with both reverence and dread, and the shot in which Sadako nearly leaps in front of one in slow motion is both visually striking and deeply unsettling. The climactic sequence in an abandoned tunnel evokes Orson Welles's final chase sequence in another suspense masterpiece, Carol Reed's The Third Man, but again the move is not so much referential as it is parallel, a coincidence signaling another descent into the depths of society.

Then there's Masumi Harakawa's performance as Sadako. Although Harakawa had been in a number of films before (including Insect Woman), this was her first lead performance. She's in nearly every scene, with just a handful of moments with her attacker and a few scenes with her husband and his mistress serving as the narrative breaks from her character. Her performance appears effortless, and might go unnoticed without the proper reflection on just how much she has to do here as a wife, a mother, a victim, a desperate, lonely person, and simply a deeply troubled woman. Both of the central women in the other films in this set are complex characters portrayed memorably by the respective actresses, but Harakawa provides the humanity and grit her character desperately needs. It quietly sets her performance apart from the others.

Beyond these core technical accomplishments, however, Intentions of Murder confirms its director's assertion that he makes "messy films." The story strains credulity on more than one occasion. Would Sadako's husband's mistress really go to such extremes to gather evidence on her rival? How likely is it that she would wander into the street, regardless of how wrapped up in her mission she is? Most importantly, would Sadako really succumb to such an emotional torrent at the provocation of a rapist and a thief? It would be very easy for this last irrationality to sink the film in different hands. At the very least, the controversy of such a relationship threatens to overwhelm any semblance of reality in the characters' situations, and the movie would turn into an intellectual exercise designed to provoke the viewer (see: Irreversible).

I fully expected to dislike the film based on this central story of a woman who must plot her escape from/revenge on a man who breaks into her house and rapes her. This would seem like a particularly difficult story to tell in Japan, where the traditional attitude towards rape is essentially barbaric if not actively evil (i.e. the victim's shame transcends her attacker's horrible deed, and she must commit suicide in order to restore her family's name). Thankfully, Imamura's respect for his characters - particularly Sadako - prevents the film from being reduced to a tiresome and potentially grotesque commentary on rape like so many films about the topic are, whether they come from the East or the West. Because Imamura believes in the humanity of his characters and is fully committed to showing their truths, it's much more difficult to generalize about her rapist's actions, much less those of Sadako. It's not that Imamura gives her attacker equal redemption, or even sympathy, but that Sadako's reality is not shied away from and is instead given the honest, deeply emotional portrayal it deserves. It saves the movie from its excesses, but it also seems especially refreshing in modern America where the topic of rape has been reduced to the recurring subject matter of a weekly entertainment television series.

From an historical perspective, Intentions of Murder is a reminder that foreign films were not always the realm of cinema buffs and audiences who are often dismissed as pretentious or overly concerned with multi-culturalism. The winner of the Oscar for Best Picture the year Intentions of Murder was released was My Fair Lady - there just simply weren't intelligent, emotionally complex films that addressed adult themes being made in 1964 in America. (Yesyes, I know, there still aren't, but remember that's just Hollywood, we still have a huge independent film industry producing movies that aren't based on board games - something that came out of the loosening of censorship demanded by the American film industry when they realized they could no longer compete artistically with other countries if they couldn't address adult issues. Also, I realize Dr. Strangelove was made in 1964, but that was still essentially PG - if genius - work.) When viewers went to see a foreign film, they knew they would often be getting an exploration of a theme or subject matter that couldn't be depicted or often even discussed elsewhere.

This movie provides an outlet for adult themes, and it's an explicit and disturbing look at one woman's place in her society. But it couldn't be less interested in sensationalizing her or her experience. This isn't a movie about rape - the psychology of its victims, the impact of its violence - it's a movie about a person. Even if the structure of the story is ambitious, this simple focus keeps it grounded in a complex reality and emotional maturity. Its messiness only confirms its authenticity.

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