Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.
LATITUDE ZERO, directed by Ishiro Honda, is an unusual film in Toho Pictures’ filmography of sci-fi monster films. It features four Hollywood stars among the main cast members and one American newcomer in a significant role. It has a Jules Verne-style science fiction setting located underwater far from Japan. There is no central monster to be fought, just a series of smaller, lesser monsters, all rather unformidable and all in the employ of a mad scientist who can’t quite make the best use of them. Production-wise, the film’s most unique feature is the decision to shoot the entire film in English with synchronized sound, which meant all the Japanese actors with speaking parts had to be competent enough in English to make themselves understood. There may have been some post-dubbing to correct a rough patch here and there, but what you’re hearing on the English soundtrack are the actors’ actual voices, mostly recorded live on the set.
Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.
The Lunar New Year has begun and it’s the Year of the Rooster, but since I don’t know many films featuring roosters (other than Warner Bros. cartoons starring Foghorn Leghorn), I took my inspiration from a New York Times piece on a Lion Dance troupe preparing for this weekend’s New Year Parade in Chinatown and decided to look at films featuring Lion Dance sequences. There have been quite a few over the decades, but I decided to focus on kung fu films that are easily accessible in my collection. Lion dances are usually performed by two people in a lion costume, one to operate the head and the lion’s forelegs, the other to carry the rear and be the lion’s hind legs. The head has moveable parts, including a mouth and eyes. It’s a form of puppetry with humans inside the puppets. In kung fu films, the Lion Dance sequence is often used to act out an ongoing rivalry between martial arts schools without resorting to bone-crunching blows, although they can be just as challenging as a kung fu battle. Some of these sequences are more elaborate than others; some are shot on location, some on studio soundstages or backlots.
Actress Lisa Lu turns 90 today, January 19, 2017, and, according to IMDB, remains active. I’ve written about her here on four occasions and have seen everything in my collection in which she appears. The last unseen item was the 1962 feature film, RIDER ON A DEAD HORSE, a low-budget western about four characters battling each other over a buried gold stash, in which she plays one of the four. I purchased it from Warner Archive and watched it yesterday before starting this piece. I’ll discuss it further down.
One of the great things about watching old TV shows is to see future stars at the start of their careers, like these shots from “The Naked City”:
The four future stars pictured are all, happily, still with us and three of them, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, and Dustin Hoffman, are all still active, while the fourth, Gene Hackman, is retired. (Hackman is seen with “Naked City” star Paul Burke, who died in 2009.)
2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.
I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.