Teahouse of the Rising Sun

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

6 Responses to “Teahouse of the Rising Sun”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

  3. I dunno, I’d say that LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI, DIVINE, and WERTHER are all pretty hotsy-totsy – especially the first.

  4. From Marcel Ophuls’ memoirs (he tells the story in his documentary UN VOYAGEUR as well): “One scene, set during a storm at sea, was shot on the Seine. I was ten and, since it was right by our house, I was allowed to watch the filming. As a storm was in question, Ralph Baum [Ophuls’ assistant] was tasked with throwing buckets of water in the face of Pierre Richard-Wilm, who was very handsome (much handsomer than he!), and, at one point, he turned to me and said, in German of course, ‘You see, Marcel, when you’re grown up, all this can be yours.”

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The French in 1915 considered “The Cheat to be an event in world cinema, transforming a novelty into an art. Marcel L’Herbier made a sound remake of “The Cheat” also starring Sessue Hayakawa

  6. La Signora is great, until the guy goes melodramatically insane with one eyebrow permanently raised (it seems to be glued on). A friend had a theory that in every early thirties film there’s someone who still thinks he’s in a silent film, but I disagree: it’s just this guy.

    Ha! I now like Richard-Willm even more.

    And I’ve been hoping to see L’Herbier’s The Cheat someday, though Hayakawa is at his very best when young and lovely.

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