Cinema Epoch // 1977 // 93 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // September 17th, 2009
"From now on, you can earn billions for the company at the expense of
The movie that marked a master filmmaker's return to theatrical features, after being blackballed by the industry for ten years, arrives on DVD.
The executives of a sports magazine concoct a plan to create the country's next sports star so she can sell a new line of clothing. Marketing guru Mr. Miyake (Yoshio Harada) is hired to transform Reiko (Yoko Shiraki), a young model, into a professional golf marvel. After winning a televised golf tournament, Reiko becomes a huge celebrity. She even gets to host her own talk show where she spends much of the time modeling bikinis. As if the stress of constantly being in the spotlight isn't enough, Reiko must also deal with anonymous admirers and an envious stalker who has a serious hate-on for her.
During his 12 years employed at Nikkatsu, director Seijun Suzuki cranked out 40 films including Youth of the Beast and The Story of a Prostitute. Perhaps the prolific veteran of the yakuza genre is best known for the off-kilter gangster drama Branded to Kill that resulted in his termination from the film studio. In 1977, after a decade of unremarkable television work, Suzuki returned to movies with A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness. Cinema Epoch brings this forgotten work to DVD under the truncated title A Tale of Sorrow.
It is tempting to try reading Sorrow as Suzuki's rebuke of the film industry as the movie certainly takes shots at the manufacturing of celebrity, the backroom corporate machinations and the banality of television. However, I don't pretend to know enough of Suzuki's work or his biography to make those connections so allow me to simply offer my gut reaction to the movie: It's often funny and mostly weird.
The story begins with corporate suits brainstorming about how they can manufacture the next big sports personality, so it's obvious that this will be a satirical take on the industry. Yet, it takes a few ridiculous turns rather quickly: the magazine's fashion coordinator masterminds the scheme, the sloppy-looking Mr. Miyake exudes a strong sexual power over women, including his protégé, and he stinks at golf but he's going to make Reiko into a champ. All of that comes before the training montage that sees Reiko running through the woods dragging tires behind her and the bikini photo shoot on the green.
There are still other characters adding to the weirdness though. Reiko's younger brother Jun lives in a room accessible only by rope ladder and he has an imaginary girlfriend. There's a male fan that is frequently on the periphery of the action holding a big bouquet of flowers. The most significant supporting character is Senboh (Kyoko Enami), a sinister neighbor who gets to live the good life by blackmailing Reiko. Senboh is a really devilish character that practically steals the show in the movie's second half.
Suzuki's style can be jarring to viewers unfamiliar with his work. For example, the passage of time isn't precisely delineated so two sequential moments of Reiko's training may appear to happen within minutes or they may take place days apart. The movie also has many moments that feel deliberately theatrical due to the striking silhouette lighting and certain slow-motion effects. The surreal conclusion seems to strive for symbolic meaning rather than sensible narrative closure. To avoid frustration, it's best to just go along for the ride and put it together in your head afterwards.
This is the first time Sorrow is available in its original aspect ratio on North American home video, but Cinema Epoch's DVD release falls slightly short of expectations. Their case isn't helped by the fact that many of Suzuki's films have received stellar treatment from the Criterion label. The picture is merely acceptable as the image is generally clean aside from the occasional minor pops from dust and age. The sharpness is inconsistent, varying from reasonably detailed to noticeably soft. The colors of the exterior scenes look washed out but there is a slightly improved richness during interior moments. I don't know if this was the intent of the cinematography but the high contrast lighting makes darker scenes impenetrable as almost nothing can be seen in the shadows.
The audio is adequate accompaniment to the visuals but it's somewhat unsatisfying. There are many scenes shot in wide angle with two male characters in frame and whether they are facing the camera or not, it's hard to determine who is talking. Actually, it is quite the shortcoming that the video and audio presentation on this DVD are not able to communicate which character is talking. Optional English subtitles are provided but it looked to me like a few lines of dialogue are skipped every so often. There is also one important exchange, when Miyake confronts Senboh about her blackmailing, that isn't subtitled at all.
In the extras department, there is a theatrical trailer (without subtitles), a stills gallery that plays as a one-minute slideshow and an essay by Michael Den Boer that occupies several text screens. The essay works fine as an introduction to the movie and to Suzuki but the text doesn't seem to have been given the courtesy of a proofread. Readers of those screens may be annoyed by the numerous misspellings and the indecision between referring to the movie as "Sorrow and Sadness" or "Sadness and Sorrow."
The weakest character in the story is the woman at the center of it all. Reiko exists as a puppet to be manipulated by those around her and she doesn't develop to the level afforded the other characters. It's difficult to feel any attachment to a character that doesn't seem to have any control over her story. As her situation becomes more nightmarish, the tension comes from waiting to see what will happen to her rather than what she will do about it.
I suspect that the worlds of professional golf and sports magazines don't really operate like they're depicted in this movie. Still, this slightly absurd tale about the trappings of celebrity and the price of fame is enjoyable, if you don't expect the details to connect in a straightforward fashion. A Tale of Sorrow is not an essential entry in Seijun Suzuki's filmography but fans of his work should at least give it a rental.
The court appreciates the availability of the movie on DVD even if we're not thrilled about the effort from Cinema Epoch. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Epoch
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Stills Gallery