A Japanese gangster in America and a sinister dystopian future: Two reviews from the Park Circus Collection

Park Circus are at the forefront of bringing classic and undiscovered cinema back into cinemas and we are thrilled to feature some 30+ Park Circus titles on the BFFS Booking Scheme. With a fantastic selection of films going back 100 years to Melies’ A Trip To The Moon and A Fantastic Voyage, and taking in Chaplin’s heyday, British social realism and modern European cinema along the way, the Park Circus collection is well worth exploring.

There’s plenty of films in the collection that I’ve (shamefully) never seen so I spent the last weekend catching up on a couple…

Brother | Takeshi Kitano | 2000 | Japan, UK, US | 112 mins | 18

Brother is the first film Kitano directed outside his native Japan, with the majority of the film taking place in Los Angeles. Kitano plays Aniki Yamamato, a Yakuza gangster who flees to the States when his gang’s leader is murdered and his associates defer to their rival’s organisation. Aniki is too loyal to commit such a betrayal and escapes to Los Angeles where his younger brother lives. There he finds that his brother has become a small-time drug dealer and Aniki very quickly and ruthlessly takes over the business and rapidly expands to build an empire – his Yakuza past making him far more successful than Los Angeles’ existing gangs.

While the film is certainly action-packed, and at times beautifully shot – a gunfight under a bridge is lit only by muzzle flashes and filmed from a high-angle and long-distance giving a remarkable perspective, and mid-film highlight – Kitano is as much, if not more, interested in the complicated structures of loyalty and ranking within criminal organisations. Numerous scenes highlight the almost unbelievable commitments gang members take to prove their loyalty and the impression of a brotherhood amongst gangsters is keenly felt.

Kitano is also notable for his somewhat existential outlook on life and the inevitability of death is always acknowledged – there are no grand heroics in a Kitano film, though his characters are sometimes so incredibly good at what they do (often murder) that the body count swiftly soars amongst their enemies – there is an understanding of boundaries and limits. This sets Brother apart from many of the Hollywood films it initially appears Kitano is trying to emulate by moving his film to America. When faced with overwhelming odds Aniki laughs and rather than try to escape or fight against it, he accepts his likely demise on his own terms. And Kitano (as director and actor) portrays this matter-of-factly, not as a great tragedy but as the necessary outcome of going too far.

Kitano also refuses to pace Brother as you would expect, and while it possesses many of the elements of a typical gangster thriller, it refuses to behave like one. There are moments of quiet throughout the film, and the action explodes unpredictably in bursts. Kitano’s direction is rarely flashy – sometimes exquisitely framed, but never over the top, which again underlines Kitano’s restrained approach to the genre.

Where the film suffers is in the transition to America, many of the English-speaking supporting cast are, to put it bluntly, wooden and it’s a shame that the film-makers didn’t put more effort into finding better actors. Fortunately the main characters are, generally, much better and Omar Epps in particular delivers a great performance that develops significantly over the course of the film.

While it may not be Kitano’s best film it is one of his most accessible (particularly if you’re unfortunate enough to have subtitle-phobic audiences as most of the film is in English) and as both an action thriller and a detailed, often startling, look at criminal allegiances it succeeds admirably.

Death Watch | Bertrand Tavernier | 1980 | France, W. Germany | 128 mins | 12

One of the delights of the BFFS Booking Scheme catalogue is discovering some over-looked and forgotten gems – Tavernier’s Death Watch is one such film. A sci-fi film that feels uncomfortably close to home, Death Watch is grounded in a social-realist palette and production design that delivers the most horrifying of dystopias – one recognisably derived from our own world. In the world of Death Watch almost all diseases have been cured and death is no longer a part of everyday life. Only old age seems to kill people and they die in secluded homes, pacified and sedated by drugs to ensure they die peacefully and painlessly.

As a result when Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy  Schneider) is diagnosed with an incurable, terminal illness; and her prognosis is leaked to the press, she becomes an unwitting celebrity and is hassled by journalists who want to portray her final moments. The most determined is TV executive Vincent, played by the always-excellent Harry Dean Stanton, who wants to turn her final weeks into a Big Brother style reality TV show (the Death Watch of the title), with cameras recording her every moment. Vincent is not put off by the problem of getting her permission and arranges for a camera to be implanted in the eye of Roddy (Harvey Keitel) who manages to befriend Katherine when she tries to flee attention to die in peace.

This is as un-glossy as sci-fi gets, the only technological advancement we see is the eye-camera and that is marred by a significant drawback – after a few minutes of darkness the camera will break and cause irreparable damage to Roddy’s eye. It is also a world in which scientific advancement is not reflected in social or economic terms – while disease has been largely overcome poverty and inequality have not. In this and the media’s obsession with documenting anything unusual, regardless of privacy, the film feel remarkable prescient.

It’s a film that forces the viewer to question the extent to which we allow and accept intrusion into our private lives, regardless of what reason it is for. Vincent attempts to convince Roddy’s wife, and indeed the viewer, about the importance of the programme:

Look how shy we’ve become about death. It’s the new pornography. Nudity is nothing anymore, now we put fig leaves on the dying. We’ve sold them away in homes outside of town. Who lives with the dying anymore? No one. No relatives. A few callous, trained guardians, those are the last people they see. I want to bring them back to us, bring them home.

Indeed, the film rather subversively implicates the viewer in the exploitation of Katherine’s death – the most direct hint is the film’s title – which signals to us our own culpability as viewers of the film. But this realisation only came after I had watched the film and it’s a testament to the subtlety of Tavernier’s social critique that this was the case.

Tavernier utilises Glasgow’s streets to portray the disparity between the different social classes, the decaying and run down docks contrast with the picturesque suburbs in which Katherine lives and it is here that the dystopian feel of Death Watch is most keenly felt. Glasgow’s run down areas are also where some of the film’s astonishing camerawork takes place, particularly in the use of handheld camera: a one-take chase sequence along the waterfront markets is truly astonishing, while later Roddy and the cameraman find themselves in the midst of a fight between protesters and the police.

Death Watch is one of those films that I’ve been thinking about almost constantly since I saw it, it really is that good, but also one that I’m amazed isn’t more well known. With its themes of social inequality, the intrusion of technology and the media into our private lives, and death itself, the film is as relevant and powerful as ever.

Or how about…
That’s just 2 of the dozens of Park Circus titles on the scheme – here’s a quick run down of some of the others:

  • La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s classic – ‘The most dangerous love game every played’. Read Jack Bell’s blog about it.
  • Invincible, Werner Herzog’s imaginative interpretation of Jewish folk-hero Zishe Breitbart taking place during Hitler’s rise to power, with Tim Roth having the time of his life as a Minister of the Occult and self-proclaimed Nazi prophet.
  • The best of Chaplin – with City Lights, The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush and more!
  • Scottish masterpiece Living Apart Together, which, like Death Watch, makes the most of Glasgow’s versatility as a filming location.

You can see the full list of Park Circus films on the BFFS Booking Scheme here.