May 19, 2009
Empire of Passion
Reviewer: Alan Hogue
Rating (out of 5): ***
Empire of Passion does not want to be your friend. In fact, it hates you.
Nagisa Oshima is an interesting figure in postwar Japanese cinema. He was the sort of romantic provocateur who glorifies transgression for its own sake, and wants very much to shock you. He was also, unlike many of his contemporaries, very indebted to French cinema, both for inspiration as well as funding and support.
This is what you need to know to understand Empire of Passion. It is almost pathologically devoted to the glory of unbridled human passion, while at the same time it wants to show you just how barbarous and restrictive human society can be in punishing such passion. This is a kind of political thinking that sees human impulse as primary and necessarily good; it is the myriad restraints of society that make our passions problematic, if not criminal. Oshima is essentially a Freudian filmmaker. The Freudian sex-and-politics idea was common in Europe at the time. This is how, for instance, Bernardo Bertolucci could make a name for himself with The Conformist, in which fascism is facilely but very trendily conflated with homosexuality.
True to Oshima's influences, Empire of Passion oddly mixes European and Japanese aesthetics in an unnerving way. The setting is unequivocally rural Japanese, while the soundtrack (mostly screeching atonality) and the somewhat precious visual style and sometimes glaring symbolism both seem very European.
On its own terms, Empire of Passion looks like a revisionist ghost story. A peasant man and a married peasant woman fall in love, eventually deciding to kill the woman's husband. They carry this out in a very matter-of-fact way that is horrible for precisely that reason. Although they do this in order to be together, the insular life of a small village makes it impossible for them to be together without everyone suspecting that they killed the absent husband.
This would be bad enough, and certainly would of itself send home most of the political message Oshima was surely interested in sending. But along with this the unhappy (murderous) couple has her husband's ghost to deal with. Like any number of old ghost stories, the victims go crazy and things go badly, although not without a good amount of slightly kinky (and, of course, politically subversive!) sex along the way.
As usual, the quality of this Criterion digital transfer is excellent. The packaging included a rather snooty essay by English critic Tony Rayns who tells us in some detail how well he knows Oshima. Much more interesting are the interviews with the main actors and some of the crew, which offer a great deal of insight into the production of the film and Oshima's technique and intention. Also included is "Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima," a new video essay by film historian and critic Catherine Russell. If you like Oshima's work, or the film in particular, you will have nothing to complain about here.
To be fair, Empire of Passion is well shot and the acting is quite good (though Tatsuya Fuji is so intense and over-wrought that he probably comes off much more insane than he intended to). It does take a story that feels familiar from folklore around the world and makes it real to some degree. There are a few transcendent moments where the arbitrary cruelty of the class system of Meiji Japan is struck in pure, stunning visual symbolism, and this is absolutely to Oshima's credit -- something few filmmakers manage in a lifetime. But ultimately this movie only makes sense as a twisted political fable of a very naive sort. I found it thoroughly unconvincing in that regard.
Posted by cphillips at May 19, 2009 10:55 AM