Saturday, November 14, 2009

Aleksandr Sokurov's THE SUN rises -- at last -- thanks to Lorber Films


Made in 2004 and first seen at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2005 (where it was nominated for a Golden Bear) and that fall at the New York Film Festival, Aleksandr Sokurov's one-of-a-kind movie THE SUN (Solntse) has remained since that time securely beyond the reach of U.S. audiences. According to the press release from Film Forum, where the movie is about to make its theatrical debut, "complications with the producers" made the acquisition of U.S. rights difficult -- until this year when Lorber Films picked it up.

Thanks are due to both organizations, not to mention Mr. Sokurov (shown at right), because any film from this director and sometimes writer (Russian Ark, Father and Son, Aleksandra, among others) should have the chance to be seen. The Sun, written by Yuri Arabov & Jeremy Noble, is no exception and is among Sokurov's best that I have seen. The film-
maker does not appear to want to repeat himself -- not in theme nor genre, nor in style (stylistic changes, one assumes, accompany a change of genre). The four films mentioned above have little in common except their high quality, commitment to a particular vision, and the director's ability to execute that vision. Even the usual constant of the Russian language is missing in The Sun.

This unusual film deals with the last days of Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese leader prior to and during WWII, and the events leading up to his country's surrender to the U.S., specifically to General Douglas MacArthur, and to the Emperor's abdication and, most important, his repudiation to his people of his supposed "divinity." That's right: Japan worshiped its Emperor as divine, descended from God. The citizens of other countries may pray to a God some-
where off in the clouds but in Japan, he was right there with them.

The presence of a supposed God-on-earth is apparent from The Sun's first moments in the reactions of the Emperor's Chamberlain (and literally every other Japanese who interacts with the "Deity"). It's what gives the film its utterly bizarre quality. Beyond any pomp and ceremony found in the service of other nation's "royalty," the "help" here is freighted with something more. Queen Elizabeth might frown on you, Saddam might have had you executed, but in Japan of the 1940s, you could actually displease the son of God by offering him a lukewarm breakfast or falling asleep during tutoring.

Much of this occurs below the surface of things, mind you, but it's definitely there. Notice the sweat on the forehead of the Chamberlain as his dresses his Emperor. The Emperor cer-
tainly notices this and, thanks to the minutely detailed and deeply felt performance by Issei Ogata (at right) as Hirohito, we begin to understand the special burden of Emperor/Godship. As he and his staff and advisers wait for the inevitable coming of the U.S. forces, Hirohito meets with his own military leaders (the navy has capitulated but the army says "Never!"), studies marine biology (his comparison of the crab to U.S. immigration laws is interesting) and looks through photos albums of his own family and of various movie stars (photos of Ann Southern and Marlene Dietrich seem to provoke something special: Did this gentleman prefer blonds?)

A frightening collection of images/symbols -- fish, birds, planes, bombs and fire -- fills the Emperor's unsettling dreams during his nap, filling the screen with portent, while putting to shame much of the typical "special effects" we see these days. If you need one, here's a fine example of the difference between CGI art and schlock. (The cinematography, too, is by Sokurov, and the art direction by Yelena Zhukova.) Once the Americans arrive, we're treated to an unforgettable scene involving the Emperor's garden, U.S. soldiers and a crane (of the bird variety rather than machine). Then come the scenes between Hirohito and General MacArthur, played with a smart and very believable combination of self-importance and genuine inquisitiveness by Robert Dawson (above, left). These are marvels of subtlety and tact (and sometimes the lack of them) and for once shows us how inscrutable the west must appear to the east instead of the usual vice versa.

The Sun is a slow film, yet its very stateliness and unhurried pace allows us to better under-
stand and ap-
preciate the momentous nature of what is going on in the life and mind of the Emperor and his underlings. The change from before to after will be so extraordinary that most westerners would have no idea of its impact. So Sokurov chooses the tiniest examples to open our eyes: In one of these, the Emperor fumbles for what seems like an eternity trying to open the door in front of him, and we realize with a shock that he has probably never in his life had to perform this action for himself. Later, he struggles anew, trying to help his wife remove her hat. These people are clueless about life's most fundamental tasks. Yet the expression on their faces, as they realize the change that lies in store for them mirrors not only fear but hope and perhaps a little excitement. That Sokurov enables us to see and feel this, too, is one of the many precious achievements of The Sun.

The film opens Wednesday, November 18, for a two-week run at NYC's Film Forum.

4 comments:

GHJ - said...

I've had this on Thai DVD for a few years but haven't gotten around to it. I guess from the sound of your review I need to hop to it. Great piece Jim.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks. But what's this Thai DVD thing? Is there something we don't know that we should? Do you happen to have a catalog of Thai "finds" that you could share with us? I guess those producers really did intend to keep the film from U.S. shores. In any case, yes: Get around to it!

GHJ - said...

Yes, I do actually. One of my good friends lives over there with his wife and has purchased some rare finds for me. Also on deck. Godard's Historie du Cinema and the opus Les Vampires. But I digress.

James van Maanen, said...

So keep us posted on the Godard and Les Vampires...