One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.
Gate of Hell (Criterion), aka Jigokumen, was one of the very first color films made in Japan, and the first color Japanese film to be seen in the west. The 1953 samurai tragedy won the Grand Prix at Cannes (the first Japanese film to receive the award) and a special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa is not exactly a household name in the west but he was a Japanese pioneer whose legacy reaches back to the silent days and the remarkable avant-garde drama A Page of Madness, one of the great expressionist films of the silent movie era. Gate of Hell is a far more dramatically subdued film but it too turns on love and madness, though of a different sort.
Kazuo Hasegawa stars as the loyal Morito, a samurai warrior who refuses to abandon his emperor when rebels storm the imperial residence and appear poised for victory, and he falls for the beautiful Kesa (Machiko Kyô, also star of Rashomon and Ugetsu), lady in waiting to the empress who risks her own life to give cover to the royal couple. It seems a perfect match, but Lady Kesa is already married and happily so, and the tensions between the imperial lords and the warrior class increase as Morito pushes his demands for her hand against all standards of decorum and respect. He becomes obsessed and mad with passion to the point that he abandons all of his virtues and honor.
Kinugasa opens the film in a riot of color as the emperor’s staff runs in panic under attack from the rival clan and the warriors furiously try to defend the palace. It’s not a battle scene so much as an expression of chaos, like a painting in motion, and Kinugasa sets the scene by unfurling a long scroll of an action painting of the battle. But the battle is soon over and the rest of the film is more intimate, with handsome, formal shots strained by Morito’s coiled emotions and defiant behavior, contrasted with the gentle, thoughtful nature of Kesa’s honorable husband (Isao Yamagata). Kinugasa’s direction is far more muted than Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Seven Samurai, but his use of color is striking and dramatic, creating tensions within the shots, modulating the mood, and punctuating the action.
The film was shot in Eastmancolor, a much less stable color process than Technicolor, and over the years the film faded, losing the dynamism of Kinugasa’s design. It was only recently restored, using original separation masters and other archival materials, to return the film to its bright, vibrant original look. Criterion’s digital master was created from this 2011 2K restoration. The DVD and Blu-ray editions have no supplements beyond a fold-out insert with an essay by film historian Stephen Prince.
Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country (Kino), starring Isabelle Huppert in three different stories about a French tourist in South Korea, is one of the funniest films to come for the low-key director. Huppert plays three different characters (each named Anne) who visit the same seaside vacation town and flirt with the same local lifeguard in stories that play as variations on a theme. Much like his films do in general. What’s different here is that the central figure is a woman and a foreigner, and yet it’s still pure Hong. The men are just as unreliable and the drinks flow too easily. Anne has just as many foibles and failings as the men and Huppert plays delightfully around the edges of Hong’s deadpan filmmaking. Korean and English with English subtitles. DVD.