Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Hen in the Wind (May 4th and 5th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[A HEN IN THE WIND screens Saturday May 4th at 5:15 pm and Sunday May 5th at 6:30 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

In post-World Warr II Japan, sometimes people have to make difficult choices to get by. Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is faced with just such a choice when her 4 year old son Hiroshi becomes sick. The boy gets better, but Tokiko is left with a sizable doctor's bill to pay. With her husband still not returned from the war, and all her valuable possessions already sold, Tokiko sees no alternative but to prostitute herself for the money.

When Tokiko tells her friend Akiko (Chieko Murata) what she did, she is somewhat surprised at how harshly she gets chastised. After all, earlier in the film Akiko had said that, “she would sell her soul” if she had a child who needed anything. When Tokiko's husband Shuichi (ShÅ«ji Sano) finally returns, things appear to be looking up for Tokiko. However, when Shuichi asks his wife how she managed to pay their son's medical bills, the woman cannot bring herself to lie to the man she has always been honest with. Again she is surprised by how harshly she is reproached for doing what she felt she had to do.

Director Yasujiro Ozu may not be surprised by the negative reactions his protagonist gets, but he is clearly in sympathy with her. This is obviously a film that deals with what would have been a real issue in Japan at the time, namely the ways that war widows and those still waiting for their husbands to be repatriated had to get by in the period immediately following the end of World War II. However, it could apply to any situation where someone has to make a difficult, perhaps personally humiliating choice out of necessity.

This was my first exposure to the films of Ozu, and while it is not one of the films generally trotted out as among his classics, it nonetheless displays his trademarks as a director: His camera is generally placed very low, barely off the ground. He has tendency to transition between shots by cutting to shots of locations and objects. There is a tendency not to show certain major events – in this case, we don't actually see Tokiko working at the brothel, but hear about it from her John afterwards. All these things were innovations at the time Ozu first did them, and his films still stand out as looking very different from even most arthouse films today.

What could easily have been an overly melodramatic plot is tempered by the believable characters and a couple of interesting subplots involving Tokiko's husband. In one, he goes to the brothel himself and meets another working girl. He finds it far easier to feel sympathy for this woman than he does for his own wife. He also discusses his problems with a friend who serves as sort of a voice of reason, albeit one that Shuichi doesn't necessarily listen to.

That HEN IN THE WIND isn't regarded as the masterpiece that many of Ozu's films are isn't surprising after seeing it. It's a good film, but ultimately feels like a lesser work from a great talent. It's also a film that can be difficult for modern viewers. Ozu may sympathize with his heroine and recognize her strength, but there's something that Shuichi does to Tokiko near the end of the film that makes it hard to root for this couple to get back together as the filmmaker seems to want us to. Different times, different cultures I suppose. But hey, who says a movie has to be perfectly in tune with modern western liberal sensibilities in order to be worth watching? Certainly not this critic. 3 out of 4 stars.

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