Critics' Picks : New DVDS

November 06, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Japanese director's 1953 masterpiece overflows with emotion

UGETSU -- The Criterion Collection -- $39.95

The great Japanese directors are like the great 19th-century novelists. In comparison, other filmmakers come off as petty magicians or mere children.

Set during a civil war in the 16th century, Kenji Mizoguchi's masterly 1953 Ugetsu (out on DVD Tuesday) makes "sublime" seem too tame a word. It's a mysteriously erotic, emotionally overflowing, almost incomparably beautiful tale of two peasant friends who follow parallel roots to euphoria and disaster. A potter becomes an artist; his neighbor and help-mate becomes a samurai. The movie is about the eternal existential wrestling match between passion and household romance, and between duty and individual fulfillment. These men love their women and want to "make good" for their families. But their ambitions wreak havoc on the fate of their wives.

Ugetsu is the summa of stories for Mizoguchi, the rare director who lavishes equal sympathy and understanding on men and women, the home and the world. Even before Ugetsu becomes a spectacular ghost story, Mizoguchi treats war as a time when apocalyptic specters walk the earth. The artist-antihero risks everything to save his pottery when an enemy army ransacks his village. Of course he wants to profit from increased demand, but he has a craftsman's pride. When an elegant if spooky aristocrat surveys his goods and says he can deepen his work if he marries her, he's lost. In the middle of their lovemaking, the potter cries, "I never imagined such pleasures existed."

Mizoguchi's moviemaking is so dizzyingly expressive and empathic that the audience feels the same way. The movie never becomes arty or precious. For the combined glory and tragedy of the potter's tale, Mizoguchi supplies inspired counterpoint: the grotesque yet real terror of the samurai's progress, and his wife's, and the potter's wife's. The odyssey's climax is as extraordinary as anything in Hardy or Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Dickens. The potter has betrayed two loving mates. But he has become a greater artist and a better man; he's fulfilled each of their dreams for him. In a confoundingly moving and complex conclusion, Mizoguchi makes you believe in ghosts - and makes you feel the better for it.

Special features

The Criterion Collection has outdone itself with an additional disc containing a 150-minute documentary, Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, and an exquisite 72-page book containing a lucid critical essay by Philip Lopate and three short stories that fed into the script. LP liner notes were never this good.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

S.O.S. ICEBERG / / Kino / $29.95

Kino offers the debut on Tuesday of the harrowing 1933 Arctic adventure S.O.S. Iceberg. Consider it a prequel to Titanic, since it depicts the creation of icebergs in tingling visual detail.

The plot is simple. An intrepid if foolhardy explorer has trapped himself on an eroding iceberg. A rescue expedition then gets trapped on it, too. The melding of the actors with the nature footage is what makes the movie intermittently thrilling. Polar bears advance on water prey like Bruce the Shark; an iceberg forms in a thunderous glacial hiccup; sea-planes swerve amid ice-mountains, then slam into floes.

Kino has packaged together an 86-minute German edition and a 76-minute American edition. The German one is far superior rhythmically and makes more narrative sense. Actress/director Leni Riefenstahl appears as a daredevil pilot. Feisty but still standing by her man, you can see why she became an Aryan superstar. Luckily, her latter-day notoriety doesn't get in the way of the imagery.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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