Is Ozu Slow?

The following is a lecture delivered at a symposium, “Yasujiro Ozu in the World,” organized by Shigehiko Hasumi in Tokyo on December 11, 1998. The other participants, apart from Hasumi himself, were Jean Douchet (the keynote speaker), Hou Hsiao-hsien, his screenwriter Tien-wen Chu, and Thierry Jousse. I’m proud to say that Hasumi, my favorite Japanese film critic, has included a link to this text on his own web site, — J.R.

I’d like to preface these remarks by citing a moment from Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (1932) and the particular significance it has for me. During the home movie projection which marks the critical turning point in the film from comedy to tragedy, and shortly before the clowning of the father in front of his boss appears in one of the home movies, the father’s two little boys start having a debate about the zebra they see on the screen — does it have black stripes on white, or white stripes on black? — creating a disturbance that momentarily halts the screening. In comparable fashion, a spurious, distracting, and no less innocent debate has been persisting about Ozu for years: is he a realist or a formalist? What seems lamentable about this debate is that it fails to perceive that cinematic forms and social forms are not alternatives in the world of Ozu but opposite sides of the same coin, so that it should be impossible to speak about one without speaking about the other.Read more »

Bright Spots in the Darkness [My 1998 Top Ten List]

In retrospect, it’s amazing to me how many good films I saw in 1998 — as evidenced by my ten-best piece for the Chicago Reader, published January 8, 1999. (P.S. The still at the very end of this article is from Masumura’s Red Angel, which I’m happy to say is now available on DVD, along with most of the films on this ten-best list.) 

On September 24, 2010, “The Stunner” [sic] sent me the following message on MUBI: “I found this entry on your blog, about Manoel de Oliveira’s ‘Inquietude’ on your top 10 movies of 1998:’I prefer the French and Portuguese title of this three-part feature — which my dictionary defines as ‘disturbed state’— to its English title, Anxiety.’ A better translation for ‘inquietude’, in my opinion, would be something like ‘intranquility,’ ‘agitation’, or “inquietness’ — these are all good and quite literal translations and I, being Portuguese, think they are accurate synonyms.” — J.R.

What do we mean when we declare something or someone “the best”? Last month, during my first visit to Tokyo, I served on a panel about the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu along with director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hou’s principal screenwriter, the president of Tokyo University, and two French critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema.… Read more »

We Are All the Same in the Dark

From The Guardian (15 June 2002). — J.R.

I recently found myself arguing with an Australian friend about Tsai Ming-liang’s film What Time Is It There? – a disagreement pointing to contradictory notions about how the world seems to be changing. According to Adrian Martin, with whom I am editing a book on global cinephilia, the film “is all about ‘uncommunicating vessels’: Paris and Taipei, a man and a woman, the living and the dead, unsynchronised time zones, incompatible languages, unreciprocal desires”.

“There is a moment,” he said, “when we need cruel reminders of the realities that disturb any premature fantasies of oneness.”

For me, the film is a triumph of communication and even a kind of togetherness. “It is a Taiwanese-French co-production,” I pointed out, “and Tsai does reveal a certain connectedness, congruence, unity, even hope — not so much on the screen but inside each viewer’s consciousness, where it really counts. There’s even what I’d call a happy ending.”

Actually, we’re both right. From one point of view — mine in this exchange — nationality is already on its way to becoming irrelevant, except as a way for multinational companies to define parts of the global market. For me a major part of the significance of September 11 was its suggestion that the US could be as unsafe as anywhere else — and that even New Yorkers could get a taste of what it has been like to live in Baghdad.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1990). Thanks to the interview with Casper Tybjerg on Criterion’s new dual-format release, I’m no longer sure if this was Dreyer’s “first substantial commercial release outside Scandinavia,” because Michael, made just before in Germany, also reportedly made a considerable splash. — J.R.


Formally and politically decades ahead of its time, Carl Dreyer’s wonderful silent Danish comedy (1925), his first substantial commercial success outside Scandinavia, recounts what happens when a working-class wife and mother, prompted by an elderly nurse, walks out on her tyrannical and demanding husband, who then has to fend for himself. Restricted mainly to interiors, Dreyer’s masterful mise en scene works wonders with the domestic space, and his script and dialogue make the most of his feminist theme. 110 min. (JR)



It’s all a matter of exquisite balance — between one shot and the next, between the first half of the film and the second half, between screen left and screen right.

Criterion’s dual-format edition of Carl Dreyer’s 1925 Master of the House scores as a modern film because Dreyer always knows how to modulate all his characters, and his actors’ beautiful performances, even when they’re at their most archetypal, whether in domestic tableaux or in climactic close-ups.… Read more »

Recommended Viewing (Alabama Apotheoisis): DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN?

Travis W. & his great-grandfather

Travis Wilkerson with his great-grandfather

black woman


I gather that Travis Wilkerson’s amazing personal essay film about the murder of a black man by his great-grandfather in Dothan, Alabama in 1946 will be at New York’s Film Forum through March 13. I’m grateful to A.O. Scott for his enthusiastic review, which, by alerting me to this film’s existence, made me forgive Scott for what appeared to be his blindness to the subtler forms of racism and class bias practiced by Woody Allen in the reviewer’s latest “troubled” Times ruminations  about that profoundly overrated figure. Even if I’m not the only one who views Manhattan as a hipper version of Trump’s “Make America great [i.e., white] again” — it was the late Allan Sekula who first pointed out to me how the absence of people of color on the streets of New York was part of what made it all seem so dreamy and romantic — the habit of avoiding racism when it appears in your own backyard is hardly unique to Scott. It’s even part of what makes New Yorkers and Alabamans seem similar to me, after living for many years in both places.  (I grew up in Florence, to the northwest of Dothan — the other side of the state, and closer to the part of Tennessee where Wild River was filmed and is set.)

black man


the site of the murder:



In any case, it was thanks to Scott’s review that I asked Travis if I could see his film, and now that I have, I honestly can’t think of any other feature that captures my home state more accurately — and more beautifully, for that matter.… Read more »

CHUNHYANG: Im Kwon-taek’s Shotgun Marriage

Written for the Busan International Film Festival’s Korean Film retrospective catalogue, Fly High, Run Far: The Making of Korean Master IM Kwon-taek, Fall 2013. — J.R.



I can’t pretend to be familiar with Korean history in general and traditional Korean music in particular. But rather than attempt to disguise my ignorance with a handful of facts gleaned from superficial research, I prefer to approach Chunhyang (2000, 136 min.) in broader, more generalized, and less historical terms as a film confronting issues of representation relating to live performance as well as cinema, and the survival of relatively ancient forms of music and performance in the present.These are the issues that have drawn me to Chunhyang in the first place, despite an overall ignorance about Korean culture that extends to most of its cinema — including even most of the oeuvre of its most celebrated auteur, Im Kwon-taek.

I hope that this admission of my lack of knowledge and innocence can be regarded as a form of clarification and honesty rather than as an expression of arrogance. My theoretical assumption is that the most common form of journalistic bluff regarding such matters — conveying an unearned and unwarranted stance of authority, typically justified through a series of lazy intellectual shortcuts and/or appropriations (such as, for example, describing pansori as some Korean variant of the American blues) — is ultimately more imperialistic in effect than any honest admission of cultural ignorance.… Read more »

Chinese Displacements in 24 CITY

An essay written for the Cinema Guild’s DVD, released in 2009. – J.R.

24 City is a documentary about the transformation of Factory 420 in

Chengdu from the secret manufacture of military aircraft engines in 1958

to, after the Vietnam War, a downsized and remodeled facility producing

consumer products, and then, more recently, into a privately owned

real-estate development called “24 City”. This sounds pretty

straightforward, but because it’s a Jia Zhangke film, it qualifies as an

adequate description only in the most skeletal fashion. Factory 420

employed almost 30,000 workers, so a lot of life experience and

displacement is involved in this multifaceted story — a good half-

century of Chinese history. And Jia is so desperate to discover the

truth of his subject that he’s willing to employ anything and

everything, including artifice, if this will bring him any closer

to what urban renewal is the process of quickly obliterating.


The theme of his film — of all his features to date, in fact — is

the displacement coming from historical upheavals in China

and the various kinds of havoc they produce: physical, emotional,

intellectual, political, conceptual, cultural, economic, familial,

societal. And sometimes the style involves a certain amount of

displacement as well, such as when he cuts from a speech in late

2007 about recent changes in “24 City” before a full audience in

an auditorium to a shot of an almost empty stairway that plays

over the same speech, with one figure climbing the steps on two

successive floors.… Read more »

History Happens

This appeared in the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1994). –J.R.



Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Written by Xiao Mao

With Zhang Wenyao, Chen Xiaoman, Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang, Zhong Ping, and Chu Quanzhong.

Covering 15 years of modern Chinese history, from 1953 to 1968, The Blue Kite is powerful less for what it says about continuity in history than for what it implies about history disrupting people’s lives. The two things that matter most to Tietou, the fictional hero, apart from his mother, are the courtyard just off the Dry Well Lane apartment where his parents move in the opening scene and the title toy — actually a series of toys — he’s given to play with by his father. Each blue kite we see over the course of the film winds up getting stuck in one of the courtyard’s trees and needs to be replaced; more or less the same thing happens with the Tietou’s father (eventually supplanted by two stepfathers) and Tietou’s sense of home, not to mention his sense of identity. All that he retains, and only after a struggle, is a certain sense of morality bequeathed by his mother and a certain sense of place bequeathed by the courtyard.… Read more »

Feast From the East [Oshima's GOHATTO]

This originally appeared in the January 10, 2001 issue of the Chicago Reader. It seems worth reprinting as a kind of adjunct to my overview piece about Oshima, written for Artforum in 2008 and also available on this site. –J.R.



Directed and written by Nagisa Oshima

With Beat Takeshi (Takeshi Kitano), Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda, Tadanobu Asano, and Yoichi Sai.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Mark your calendars. Over the next six weeks, the Music Box is offering three eye-popping masterpieces from Asia. This is a welcome sign–-as is the popularity of the breezy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the multiplexes–-that American theaters and audiences are finally recognizing that a lot of the best movies come from the other side of the planet and that there’s as much diversity among them as there is among ours.

Yi Yi, which opens March 2, is a three-hour feature set in contemporary Taiwan. It was just voted best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, the first foreign-language picture to receive this honor since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran 15 years ago. Its writer-director, Edward Yang, is one of the two or three undisputed masters of Taiwanese cinema, and the Film Center gave us a full retrospective of his work in 1997.… Read more »

The Way We Weren’t [REBEL HIGHWAY]

From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 1994). — J.R.


You can figure out a lot about the differences between our culture and French culture by comparing two current series of low-budget TV features about teenagers. The French series, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age (“All the Boys and Girls of Their Age”), produced by the French “cultural” channel Arte, has yielded half a dozen features, most of them first-rate. The idea is for the filmmaker to make a fictionalized version of his or her own teenage years set in the appropriate period (different in each film) and to include at least one party scene in which pop songs of that era are used. (The series is financed in part by Polygram, which has furnished the appropriate recordings.) The first of these, Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta and Me, showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival; four others were programmed at the festival last month — Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, Cedric Kahn’s Too Much Happiness, and Chantal Akerman’s Portrait of a Young Girl From Brussels – but unfortunately the first and best of these was canceled at the last minute. One more, Claire Denis’ Boom Boom [later retitled U.S.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Awards and Extras

Written for the Fall 2016 issue of Cinema Scope. — J.R.


DVD Awards 2016, Il Cinema Ritrovato

Jurors: Lorenzo Codelli, Alexander Horwath, Lucien Logette, Mark McElhatten, Paolo Mereghetti, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. (Although Mark McElhatten wasn’t able to attend the festival this year, he has continued to function as a very active member of the jury.)


Coffret Nico Papatakis (France, 1963-92) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). A comprehensive and cogent presentation of a neglected filmmaker from Ethiopia and a singular cultural figure in postwar France who ran an existentialist cabaret, produced major films by Jean Genet and John Cassavetes, gave the German singer Nico her name, and made many striking films over four decades. (JR)


Coffret Collection 120 ans n.1 1885-1929 (France, 1885-1929) (Gaumont Vidéo, DVD). To celebrate its 120 years of activity in the film industry, Gaumont has published a series of nine beautiful box sets that summarize the whole history of cinema. Divided by decades, the box sets consist of 20 to 35 DVDs with the most representative films marked with a daisy symbol. The editions include films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Dreville, Duvivier, Gabin, Louis de Funès, Pialat, and Deville, but also masterpieces by Losey, Fellini or Bergman that the French company co-produced.… Read more »


From the Chicago Reader (May 28, 1993). — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Zhang Yimou

Written by Liu Heng

With Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Liu Pei Qi, Ge Zhi Jun, and Yang Liu Chun.

For a comedy that takes bureaucratic negotiation as one of its overriding themes, Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju has negotiated quite a bit for its director from the Chinese government, bureaucracy and all. This is only one of the film’s many ironies. Another is that in the course of showing us much more of China’s particularity than ever before Zhang has realized his most universal and accessible film to date, offering a virtual reproach to the artiness of its predecessors.

Until this feature was made, Zhang’s previous two films, Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), both huge international successes, were banned in China. Zhang was widely regarded as both a dissident and a scandalous figure, thanks to his adulterous relationship with his leading lady, Gong Li (who has played in all five of his features), which was given much publicity in abusive newspaper articles under the byline of his estranged wife. At least one semireliable commentator thinks it may have been this scandal more than the political meanings of Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern (dramas about the persistence of Chinese feudalism set in the early part of this century) that led to their suppression.… Read more »

To Live

From the Chicago Reader (December 9, 1994). — J.R.


With this epic account of a Chinese family from the 40s to the 70s, Zhang Yimou seems to have abandoned the high aestheticism of his Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and Raise the Red Lantern for a more popular and didactic kind of filmmaking (The Story of Qiu Ju can be seen as a transitional work). To Live (1994, 125 min.) is masterful in its own right, and filled with so many barbs at the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath that Zhang was forbidden to make any films in China with foreign financing for two years (though the stated charge against him was illegal distribution of this film). Adapted by Yu Hua and Lu Wei from Yu’s novel Lifetimes, the film focuses on a wealthy gambling addict (comic actor Ge You) with a pregnant wife (Gong Li) and young daughter who loses his family’s fortune and becomes a shadow puppeteer shortly before civil war erupts; ironically, it’s his recklessness as a gambler that eventually saves him from execution, the first of many sociopolitical paradoxes the movie has to offer. Some of the story’s details recall Farewell My Concubine and The Blue Kite, but Zhang has his own story to tell and his own points to make.… Read more »

Acts of Defiance [SAVAGE NIGHTS]

From the Chicago Reader (March 25, 1994).  — J.R.


Directed by Cyril Collard

Written by Collard and Jacques Fieschi

With Collard, Romane Bohringer, Carlos Lopez, Corine Blue, Claude Winter, Denis D’Archangelo, and Jean-Jacques Jauffret.


If memory serves, the first time I ever heard of Sylvia Plath was the first time a lot of other people heard of her — in the mid-60s, a few years after she committed suicide, when her posthumous collection Ariel was published. I recall a teacher of mine in graduate school remarking that Plath’s suicide validated her late poetry, implying that if she hadn’t actually taken her own life, poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” wouldn’t have meant as much as they did — indeed, may not even have been “as good.”

The remark offended me at the time, but in retrospect I wonder if in some awful, seldom-acknowledged way my teacher was right. Many of us prefer to believe that works of art should be self-justifying, and therefore demand to be taken on their own terms, without “outside” information, but the fact remains that the hyperactive media and life itself rarely offer us that luxury. Take, for instance, these two consecutive stanzas in “Lady Lazarus” — “Dying / Is an art, like everything else.… Read more »

A Notorious French Conspiracy Exposed


The following sentence is spoken in Variety writer Peter Debruge’s informative and interesting audiovisual essay “Abel & Gordon The Quest for Burlesque,” included on Arrow Academy’s Blu-Ray of Lost in Paris (to be released on December 4):

“There are all kinds of styles from within the burlesque tradition, from the blatantly silly likes of Jerry Lewis, for which the French notoriously have a far greater appreciation than Americans do, to the more refined French comedian Pierre Etaix, who did most of his pratfalls in a suit and hat.”

There are two rather strange assumptions lurking behind this commonplace sentence. Let me bypass the one that defines refinement strictly according to class and clothes and focus on the seemingly more innocuous one about Lewis, which in fact exposes the secret conspiracy accounting for the release of two to three Jerry Lewis features a year during the 1950s — namely, the fact that France was surreptitiously funneling millions of dollars in production costs to Paramount and Hal Wallis so that they could jointly service the French market, all unbeknownst to Americans, who were staying away from the Martin and Lewis pictures in droves. Consequently, one can only surmise that the estimated 80 million people who saw Sailor Beware, Martin and Lewis’s fourth feature, in 1952, consisted of the entire population of France and only 20 million or so Americans, and the fact that Living It Up a year later made more money than Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront, or The African Queen can only be explained by the hyperbolic activities of Lewis’s French fans.… Read more »