Masks of the Far East

Many new insights have been revealed to viewers of Detroit Film Theatre films, especially in foreign language movies. The unfamiliar locations, languages and cultures of far off lands take the DFT patrons to places they’ve never been before.

Two recent DFT films from the Far East were particularly revealing, because masks—and what they hide—played integral roles in the plots of each movie. I had the chance to see both films on the same day, thanks to the creative scheduling of the DFT.

My October 15, 2006 visit to the DFT started with the latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou—Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. As I watched this beautifully crafted movie, I felt great admiration for this master filmmaker. Everything flowed together so skillfully that I was inspired to see the film again at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, so that I could further explore its many details.

In Riding Home, Zhang weaves an intricate fabric of themes and connections. The reaction of a Japanese man to the disciplined regimentation of Chinese society. The bustle of modern Tokyo and the humble unity of a Chinese village. The disorienting, isolated sounds of electronic devices like cell phones. A poignant human connection that is made in the desolate beauty of a remote canyon.

And then there were the propaganda messages of this film by a director from mainland China. The loud slogan chanting of marching prisoners. The documentary description of folk opera, with its significant masks. A prison guard rationalizing the publicity value of a Japanese man filming inside a Chinese prison. A village chief emphasizing how the community will take care of a young boy whose mother has died and whose father is in prison.

After this afternoon film, I enjoyed a delicious bowl of chili in the always inviting Crystal Gallery Cafe. As I read the DFT program notes for Riding Alone, I agreed with Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Willington’s assertion that “The ending of Riding Alone is one of the saddest and most beautiful I’ve seen in any recent film.”

The Face of Another

I then took an invigorating walk around the Detroit Institute of Arts, and then returned for the evening half of this movie twin bill. The 1964 Japanese film The Face of Another was the third in a four-film Sunday night series of films by director Hiroshi Teshigara.

The Face of Another was quite different from Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Its brightly toned black and white photography was nothing like the richly detailed colors of Riding Alone. The emotions of The Face of Another were more distant, and the viewer had to work harder to sympathize with the characters.

As I watched The Face of Another, I got glimpses of a modernizing Japan that was only two decades removed from the devastation of World War II. This mid-Sixties snapshot of urban Japan merged with my mental image of 21st century Japan in Riding Alone. I thought about how my visits to the DFT have given me different mental impressions of many countries, and how those views compare with the political images of those countries.

The masks in The Face of Another took many forms—emotional, physical, mental. They challenged the viewer’s understanding of the human soul, and how difficult it is to treat—much less heal—a deep wound. Interestingly, the DFT crowd connected well enough with this often abstract and chilly film to give it a strong round of applause after it ended.

The DFT program notes for The Face of Another helped deepen my experience of the movie. In an excerpt from the book Voices From the Japanese Cinema (by Joan Mellen), the film’s director Teshigara summed up his feelings about his own work, as well as many people’s DFT experiences:

“I am very satisfied with the varied reactions about my work. I do not look for a uniformity of response.”

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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