Friday, June 25, 2010

REVIEW: Floating Clouds

浮雲 (Ukigumo)

Released: 1955

Mikio Naruse

Mariko Okada
Masayuki Mori

Hideko Takamine
Chieko Nakakita
Sadako Ka

Running time: 123 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

"The life of a flower is so brief, yet it must suffer much grief."

Hideko Takamine's lovely, heart-shaped face dominates just about every square inch of Mikio Naruse's 1955 film "Floating Clouds". Based upon the novel by Fumuki Hayashi (a frequent source of inspiration for Naruse), the film delicately paints a portrayal of a slightly timid woman who grows in strength as well as cynicism. Though her plight, amidst a post war landscape of selfish characters, does not necessarily deserve the greatest of sympathy (since some of it is self-inflicted), it is no less affecting and tragic.

Before diving headlong into the melodramatic life events of Yukiko (Takamine), Naruse sets up the story line by providing the background. Yukiko has escaped a family situation and goes to Indochina during the war to work for the forestry department. There she meets Kengo Tomioka, a fairly dour and rude older man who seems at best ambivalent about her arrival. The beginning of the film effectively cuts between these languid moments where their love affair starts in Indochina (specifically Vietnam in this case) to post-war Japan in the winter of 1946 where Yukiko discovers that when her lover returned to his country, he went back to his wife as well. Though it's not immediately apparent why Yukiko falls for Kengo, we gradually recognize that all the men in her life (without a single exception) are completely concerned about their own welfare and look to take advantage of her. Perhaps his indifference and backhanded compliments ("but you look older so you aren't stupid") are enough to have him stand out as someone special. Of course, he isn't - he's just another of the many men trying to cope with life after the war (desperately trying to start his own business after being in a position of power in Indochina) and not all that different than the fraudulent owner of the House Of The Sun God healing centre or the vengeful husband of a young barmaid. Only an American soldier shows any sort of kindness to her.

Whenever Yukiko and Kengo meet and converse throughout the film, their musical theme pulses in the background. It isn't sweeping or overly romantic, but reminds one a bit of a bolero written for the Indian subcontinent. It's appropriate since the two engage in what is almost a dance back and forth whenever they meet - not in a romantic or seductive sense, but in the way they move around their own feelings. Yukiko is obsessively in love with Kengo and desperately wants to recapture their days during the war, but knows she can't ("for us the past is our own reality"). When he rebukes her or is indifferent to the idea, she attacks him. Kengo, on the other hand, always dances around his own culpability - he had previously promised that they would be together after the war - and tries to raise sympathy for his own situation. While she is barely scraping by as a prostitute and living in drab and dirty quarters, he enters and claims that she is "doing well" and thinks that she looks happy. Meanwhile, he's still a philanderer and even takes up with a younger woman named Osei that he meets while he and Yukiko are away together.

Naruse's approach to the story is carefully considered as evidenced by the use of music (other musical themes help heighten the melodrama) and lighting (their time in Indochina is bright while much of their life in Tokyo is dark and dingy). There isn't much flashy technique in the style of the film, but there is a deliberate and very well thought out approach to staging scenes. One particular usage of technique early on is very impressive though - it's possibly one of the earliest occurrences I've seen of an edit to a different time period (a short flashback Yukiko has) while the audio from the current time period continues. It's a completely effective way for the filmmaker to show us how Yukiko is remembering the events as she relates them. The film does slow down somewhat after the halfway mark and bogs down a bit in Yukiko's despair at not having Kengo, but with its engaging central character, repeated themes and expertly constructed story, the film is obviously deserving of the many Japanese film awards it won 55 years ago.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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