Monday, 22 September 2008

Yôkihi (Mizoguchi, 1955)

Mizoguchi's first of only two colour films is also one of the most obviously misread works in his oeuvre. The film's title, Yôkihi, can often be sighted masquerading under the guise of Princess Yang Kwei-fei or even The Empress Yang Kwei Fei. Alas, these monikers have little relation to the text at hand: the titular Kwei-fei is neither princess nor empress, but merely a servant girl who's pushed into the Emperor's court and, subsequently, his affections. (The UK Masters of Cinema DVD release reinterprets the title as the more appropriate Imperial Concubine Yang.)

Such pedantry may seem foolish: after all, what bearing can a poorly-translated title have on the content of the film? The answer is probably very little, but the failure of Western distributors to comprehend the relevance of Kwei-fei's role alludes to a more significant problem within the text itself. To return to the opening sentence, an informed viewer might expect Yôkihi to be misunderstood as a result of the camouflaged intricacies typically locked up inside Mizoguchi's visual style. This is not the case. Yôkihi's problems arise because it is perhaps the most misconceived and ill-judged effort from a director otherwise renowned for the precision of his craftsmanship.

The Chinese legend that birthed the film's premise seems ideally suited to Mizoguchi's favoured concerns. A tale of love and sacrifice that's centred upon female oppression at the hands of male political manoeuvring should, in theory, provide a home run for someone of his proto-feminist background. Consider also the privilege of witnessing a cinematic master direct in colour, not to mention the reteaming of Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori - two of the leads from Ugetsu, a film that resides amongst his most brilliant achievements. Surely with all this in mind, Yôkihi begins to scream "recipe for success".

Perhaps it is this misplaced faith in the sum of its exemplary parts that allows for the film's pitiful storytelling. Despite the acclaim of the source material and a screenplay penned by the director's regular collaborators, Yôkihi's narrative is riddled with flaws that sabotage the final product. The most glaring problem lies with the dialogue, which insists on vocalizing the subtext normally created by Mizoguchi's editing, framing and mise-en-scène - thus depriving his imagery of its trademark nuances. Thematic subtlety is surprisingly abandoned as the incessant talk of moral bankruptcy, political corruptness and, of course, oppression, browbeat the issues over the viewer's head.

Meanwhile, the three-act structure to which the narrative adheres causes further headaches with its careless execution. A detailed introduction does both too much and too little for the film as a whole, establishing characters and conflicts that the hurried later sections fail to address. Take the powerful Mother Abbess for example (deliciously played by Haruko Sugimura, Japan's answer to Thelma Ritter), who offers a tantalizing counterpoint to female abnegation in an early scene only to then be completely discarded as the film "progresses". Yôkihi simultaneously ignores characters that do merit further consideration - note how the Emperor's son, whose relevance to both prologue and epilogue cannot be underestimated, is absent for the entire duration of the film. Having spent so much time verbally articulating its themes, the director and his writers end up compromising on both the story's momentum and its character development to abysmal effect.

Moreover, the concept of plot has never been so visibly mechanical in a Mizoguchi effort, and the contrived transitions that propel it toward its conclusion are imbued with the exasperation of authors who, frankly, don't give a damn. At one point during the final act, Yôkihi reverts to describing the events of a temporal ellipsis with subtitles. There is no precedent for such laziness within either the film or its director's filmography, meaning that the decision comes across less as a stylistic tactic and more as a bizarre reproach to both the audience as well as the talents of its creators. Needless to say, these few minutes provide horrifying viewing for the Mizoguchi enthusiast, offering a culmination of the film's numerous troubles that's nigh-on unwatchable.

And yet bafflingly, when all is said and done, it's not Yôkihi's many mistakes that linger in the memory - it's the flashes of its director's unparalleled genius. Despite the hackneyed mess of a script that he does little to visibly tame, Mizoguchi manages to locate an opening that allows him to experiment. The film is bookended by sequences featuring the aged, now-former Emperor mourning his past - suggesting that the bulk of the content could be viewed through the filter of his memorializing perspective, thereby explaining some of the textual incoherencies whilst raising numerous questions about the male gaze. Familiar Mizoguchi territory? Of course, there is little within the narrative itself to imply that the writers are aware of these quasi-modernist inclinations, but the otherworldly atmosphere that Mizoguchi creates with his blend of languid camera movements, exquisite colour photography and ethereal musical accompaniments at least creates the possibility of an alternative reading.

Although Mizoguchi's visual style may be stripped of its nuances, its capacity for inspiring awe is conversely stronger than ever. One recalls the Lotus Pool scene, which marries the sensuality of Ugetsu's hot springs episode with the erotic frankness advocated by Naruse's Floating Clouds. Or how about the eerie beauty of the plum blossom sequence, whose beguling lyricism melds with the delicately opaque performances to create an indelible portrait of loneliness, as in The Life of Oharu? And then there's the climactic [Spoiler]self-sacrifice scene, which acknowledges the poignant model of dignity pioneered by Sansho the Bailiff's Anju, and remoulds it into an economical apex of melodramatic potency.[/Spoiler] In short: Yôkihi finds Mizoguchi the cinematic artist reverting to his old palettes to enliven the messiest canvas of his career. It's a testament to the director's mastery that the new decorations manage to equal, and perhaps even surpass the aesthetic majesty of earlier efforts.

As the camera searches for high angles amidst the polychromatic artifice, it is not unjustified to claim that the Emperor and Kwei-fei bear resemblances to lifeless figures in a painting. Factor in Mizoguchi's rigorous observation of social rituals (and, on a more basic level, a prologue that divulges the conclusion!) and the metaphorical noose around these characters necks seems tightened from the get-go. Gender politics and social obligations imprint themselves into the awkward diction and body language of the two leads, whose filmic "activity" functions as an extended metaphor for their actual captivity.

For a film that's so consumed by its characters restrictions then, it is perhaps appropriate that the most brilliant sequence in Yôkihi should be entirely concerned with the idea of movement. During a particularly artificial starry night, the prospective lovers adopt disguises to escape the regulations of their palatial abode. They arrive at a Festival of Lanterns where, after a trivial process of self-discovery on the Emperor's part as well as the random assistance of strangers that insist upon getting the pair drunk, the duo enact what is surely one of the most moving expressions of mutual desire in screen history. Kwei-fei dances, the Emperor plays guitar, and as their respective performances coalesce somewhere within a stratosphere of ecstasy, so the viewer understands the real value of personal freedom. These few, hypnotic minutes tell the story of the film as a whole. Despite resting upon a series of misguided clichés and contrivances, the end result here is the same as in any other Mizoguchi film from this period: his artistry prevails. Yôkihi might well be the most flawed work in his later canon, but its missteps allow the viewer to cherish its moments of bliss that much more.

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