Thursday, September 29, 2011

NYFF 2011: Mud and Soldiers (1939) (Nikkatsu Centennial)

For anyone I spoke with after the press screening, there was a feeling that a badge of honor for making it through to the end should have been awarded. By sticking it out to the bitter boring end we felt that we won the war and that the film didn't. By sticking to the end we could take the bullet so that you didn't have to.

This film is a grunts eye view of war. Its a RAH RAH look at a group of mostly nameless and faceless soldiers as they invade China and march through the countryside blowing things up and killing an unseen enemy. Onward and upward for the greater glory of Japan.

Mostly this film is marching. Its the soldiers walking and marching and its only broken up by two battle sequences and a few resting sequences. And when I say marching I mean its various shots of the soldiers walking through the country side while the same cadence of their feet is heard- no matter what the weather or the terrain they are crossing. I'm guess-timating that at least 75 to 80 of the films 120 minutes involves people marching.

Before I completely pick on the film let me say that the film was beautifully shot in China. Its a gorgeous film to look at at times with a sense of place that is rare in any film I've ever seen, and not just any particular type of film.The documentary approach the film works was what kept me in my seat instead of giving into my desire to run away into a sunny late summer afternoon.

On the other hand the documentary style of filmmaking works against the film in that we are often so far away from some events that we see little beyond where the static camera is placed.

I do mean static camera. It never moves, with much of the film's sequences being a single shot. The result is that even the rest sequences with the soldiers just sitting around look more like tableaus then then anything. Occasionally we get a pan or a tracking shot but mostly the camera picks a point of view or two and then stays there a while. Yes this gives us a feeling of being there much like a documentary filmmaker would be, but it also removes much of the drama since everyone and everything is reduced to figures in the landscape. (A positive aside I can see where Terrence Malick may have lifted bits for his Thin Red Line).

The story telling is minimal in the extreme. The men are heading for an unknown objective that seems to be always changing. Its marching marching marching marching marching resting marching marching marching.

There is an early battle sequence which results in the films one real dramatic sequence (and later a huge belly laugh) when one of the soldiers is killed. The death is oddly touching as the runner is felled by a snipers bullet. However because the men are moving so fast they will have to bury him. The men are horrified and have to figure out how to cremate him so his family can properly mourn him in Japan. (The belly laugh occurs when during the second battle scene a runner appears amidst the smoke and gunfire to announce that the dead soldier has been promoted. The runner then disappears and the soldier carrying the ashes pulls out the urn to inform his comrade of the good news.)

My problem with the battle sequences is that we never see their conclusion... correction most sequences are like that... but the battle scenes are worse. Men disappear into smoke and fire and next we are told the objective has been taken. A sequence where a wounded mother is singing to her baby before she is shot has a Japanese soldier crawl to the child and try to calm it. He succeeds before he crawls away and it starts crying again, so he crawls toward the child and the sequence ends.

The films sense of space is a mess within the battle sequences, particularly in the second one where the troops attack a barn or farm house where it seems gunfire is coming from. However as they approach the building you realize there are no doors or windows on the side they are attacking, so no one could be shooting at them from that direction. Equally weird is how the troops attack the buildings in whatever direction will make the shot look good with the result that objects in the background move around from shot to shot with in sequence.

It would be pointless to to go into how the soldiers are good and the faceless Chinese are bad (they chain their men to their posts-literally) since this is very much a film from another place and time.

Unless you have some need to see a film for a historical perspective or you MUST see every war film ever made I would take a pass on this film. Its dull and boring and the constant sound of feet marching on cement will lull you to sleep.

A sleeper in the true sense of the word (Zzzzzzzzzz).

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