Monday, June 21, 2010

Ozu's I WAS BORN, BUT... gets restoration (new subtitles & score) and theatrical play

As someone who only knows some of Yasujiro Ozu's post-WWII work, sitting down to watch I WAS BORN, BUT..., a film of his from 1932, came as something of a surprise. America had already been making "talkies" for five years when this Ozu film appeared, and not bothering to read the press release (I usually save these for after the screening so that more of the element of  surprise enters the viewing experience), I simply sat down and watched. How charming, I thought, early on: He's beginning with a nod to the old silent films!  Uh... yeah.  This is a silent film.  According to the IMDB, it turns out that the Japanese master (shown below) made around 30 silents (which outnumber his "talking pictures" by a long shot), both short and full-length, over his 35-year film-making career.  (The writer/director was born in 1903 and died in 1963 on the same date, December 12.)

Once I got over my surprise, no matter. To begin with I Was Born, But... is remarkably well acted for a silent film, featuring much less "indication" on the part of its actors.  Usually, in silent movies, the players appear to have felt that they must make up for the lack of soundtrack by hitting us over the head with their intentions.  Not here. These performances are subtle and rich. As usual with the Ozu that I have seen, the conception is also rich.  While the film appears to be about the adjustment of the two young boys, below, in a family that moves, due to the father's employment, to a new town where the boys must attend a new school and make new friends (including a couple of bullies), Ozu is actually dealing with the inevitable event that often -- quietly or not -- rocks a family somewhere along the way: the point at which children come to terms with the fact that their parents are not saints or heroes but simply flawed people, and further, what happens to the parents when they realize that this has occurred.

When you think about it, many American films never show us anything like this event.  Father (and Mother) knows best, and when they finally go to their reward, well, gee, weren't they just wonderful, sublime folk?  Ozu helps us all grow up.  If  this description makes the movie sounds heavy, it's not.  There's plenty of delightful comedy along the way; laughs occur even in the heat of the big event.  And the film's look at prewar Japanese society proves fascinating -- something quite different from what I might have expected.

The restored print is lovely, and the subtitles, new with this restoration, are fine.  Only the recorded score -- that usual, silent-movie piano music -- finally begins to grate.  Maybe this won't bother you, but it's a problem I have always encountered while watching a full-length silent film: There's too little variation along the way in that tinkling Joplin-esque score.  (Why can't they, during the quieter moments, play Debussy or Satie?)  A minor grumble: This Ozu restoration is worth a hurrah.

I Was Born, But... opens in New York for a two-week run at the IFC Center on Friday, June 25, and will kick off IFC's Ozu retrospective, presented in the theater's ongoing Weekend Classics programs, staring this summer. (More information, the Center promises, will be forthcoming....)

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