The Woman in Red

Light posting this week, since my friend Kiyo from Japan is visiting. Happily, his trip also coincides with a visit from our chum Stephen Murphy, special effects makeup artist extraordinary, so a get-together in grungy local pub The Phoenix was swiftly organised.

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Woman in Red 1.

From left, Stephen Murphy, who transmogrified Jude Law in SLEUTH and decorated the goblins of HARRY POTTER: Kiyoyuki Murakami, who translates STAR WARS literature for Japan (and who was delighted to find that Darth Floyd/Pink Vader T-shirt); lady in red Fiona Watson, screenwriter and muse (“I look like the dwarf in DON’T LOOK NOW!”); Brian Robinson, screenwriter, rodent-frightener and excellent blogger.

When Kiyo’s around, I see the world through fresh eyes: things that seem normal enough, like the information centre for Polish immigrants, of whom there are many hereabouts, suddenly pops out of the landscape because it’s called Planet Poland. And Kiyo’s use of language also makes me hear things differently. He arrived Wednesday evening, having been traveling “for fourteen years”, so he was quite tired. The job was to keep him conscious until nightfall in order to get his body onto British time. I remembered when I first went to New York, and my friend Comrade K blew my frazzled mind by screening Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE (I hadn’t seen any KK at that point), so I whipped out a disc of KKurosawa’s RETRIBUTION which Comrade K had sent me, figuring a tired Kiyo could better follow something in his native language.

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Woman in Red 2.

But as devotees of the mysterious KK know, “following” is perhaps the wrong word for what you do when you join his audience. Or maybe it’s the right word, more right than it usually is: you enter the labyrinth and sift through the traces of the departed auteur, trying to make sense of the spoor and property damage left in his wake, pursuing a filmmaker who often seems far ahead of you. Those who like their films simple, unambiguous and tonally consistent are likely to find KK talented but undisciplined. The truth is, his particular discipline leads him to depart from the traditional templates which allow us to watch without thinking.

RETRIBUTION begins with its title, which is probably the last straightforward thing that happens, but even that straightforwardness is deceptive. “It’s not really called RETRIBUTION,” observed Kiyo, reading the kanji above the English subtitle. “It means MORNING, or THE SHOUT,” he went on. Japanese is an interesting language. “No, not THE SHOUT… THE SCREAM,” he concluded. 

Now, in this Wes Craven-smeared age, I can see why the distributors might shy away from using the S-word, but it’s definitely a shame, since that original title would have provided a clue to one of the film’s visual motifs —

This woman in red is the film’s avenging ghost, who pops up when least expected and causes numerous citizens to meet watery graves. Salt watery graves, to be specific. (“Frolic in brine / Goblins be thine,” as the subtitles of RINGU sought to assure us, in perhaps the most benighted couplet in subtitling history). Her dress, so brilliantly coloured and so flat in its colour, reminded this former art student of something, and the Japanese title was enough to clinch it —

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This is the closest match I could find, but there are other less obvious visual cues in Edvard Munch’s prints and paintings, in the way he uses a brilliant slab of colour to puncture and destroy any sense of perspective. As Riona Hazuki drifts through the frame in her searing red dress, floating as if mounted on a camera dolly, the brightness of her costume cutting her off from the surrounding reality, the creator of that other celebrated Scream is irresistibly brought to mind.

Incidentally, where does that floating on a dolly idea come from? I’ve used it myself, in my short film CLARIMONDE. The earliest dollying ghost I can name is in William Castle’s THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but in Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE he does mount Josette Day on some kind of trolley so he can trundle her through the Beast’s mansion. In this case, the purpose behind the effect is to make the environment strange, rather than the character.

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We all enjoyed RETRIBUTION quite a bit, it’s spooky and disconcertingly funny and very creative. It’s almost a straightforward genre piece  compared to something like CHARISMA, but there are plenty of moments when you feel you might be losing track.  Which is good. And Kurosawa produces humorous effects and almost-humorous effects in surprising ways. My favourite was probably when depressed cop Kôji Yakusho interrogates a female suspect on a patch of waste ground — yanking a dusty, discarded office chair from a heap of rubbish, he sits on it and faces her, transforming the vacant lot into an impromptu interview room.

9 Responses to “The Woman in Red”

  1. I recall the dolly-mounting device in Cocteau’s Orpheus as well, where one figure in the underworld was gliding along with a breeze blowing against him/her while the figure alongside was struggling against an oncoming wind while it was apparent that no wind was blowing against him/her at all. You have to realize, it’s been maybe thirty years since I’ve seen the film, which is why I’m not sure who the figures were, or their gender. But the aforementioned visual effect left quite an impression on me, obviously. That and the messages from the underworld being received from a car radio. I think.

  2. The stuff you describe is all in Orpheus alright, only the method used for the walk through the underworld is different. The foreground guy is in fact standing perfectly still in front of a rear projection screen, while behind him Jean Marais is part of the back-projected footage, struggling against a high wind. So the guy in front seems to glide along effortlessly.

  3. The two dolly-mounted characters that spring to my mind are Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and some of the gossipy old ladies in an episode of Father Ted. Different ends of the seriousness spectrum…

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Is CLARIMONDE based on the Theophile Gautier story about a gorgeous lady vampire? (Also known as THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD or A CORPSE IN LOVE.) I’ve always felt that would make a fantastic film!

  5. I’ll revisit Rebecca in a month or two, but does Mrs D literally glide about like that? I know she has a way of popping up in scenes without Joan Fontaine or the audience having seen her come in.

    Clarimonde is actually based on a story by Hanns Heinz Ewers, author of Alraune, but I discovered the Gautier story, in a beautiful translation by Lafcadio Hearn, while I was researching the film, so I incorporated Clarimonde’s speech from that. It’s up on YouTube, but I should give you a DVD-R of it. One of my favourites of my own films.

  6. Cocteau set the pace with Dolly-mounting in La Belle et la Bete. He had a genius for taking simple ideas and producing complex results. More recent Dolly-mountings inlcude The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Deneuve and Castelnuovo float down the street singing The Bug Number) and Chirstophe Honore’s Les Chansons d’amour (Ludivine Saignier’s ghost floats away from her lost love Louis Garrel — also while singing.)

  7. Oh, another comedy gliding lady is the Penguin (a nun) in The Blues Brothers. Maybe the first one to do it for laughs.

  8. Great post. I think ‘Sakebi’ may be my favorite KK — it’s epic in a way that’s different from ‘Kairo’-epic (another Kurosawa film where the kanji and the English title don’t match — “Kairo” doesn’t translate to “Pulse,” but to “Circuits”). It twins, in a way I can’t easily articulate, with ‘Doppelgänger’. Another must-see.

    craig-not-Mr.-Craig.

  9. Doppelganger’s very nice, and I need to see it again.

    The sudden big effects like the woman flying are totally surprising when they turn up in Sakebi.

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