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Japanese racoons and a clamorous chinese new year in the midst of Rotterdam Fest

It so happens that Rotterdam's extensive Chinatown is located just around the corner from the film festival centre, and the Chinese New Year which is reckoned according to the lunar calendar, came out extra late this year on January 30th, smack-dab in the midst of the film festival. Consequently, all afternoon today, festival filmgoers navigating between film venues in the area, were treated to an extraordinary side-show -- fabulous colourful dragon mock-ups held aloft by teams of dragon dancers, twisting and churning through the streets to the accompaniment of insistent drums and clamorous cymbals -- with occasional stops for heavy-duty firecracker outbursts, lending a slightly battlefield aspect to the ongoing festivities as crowds of curious onlookers thronged around the slithering dragons while a significant number of cops maintained a semblance of order.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, an extravagant Japanese visual spectacle of another kind was taking place on the screen of the luxurious Luxor Bioscoop (that's Dutch for "cinema") -- to wit, Suzuki Seijun's new Japanese mad musical fairy tale, "Princess Raccoon", listed in the section "Maestros: Kings and Aces" (one of fourteen distinct festival programs). Suzuki Seijun, now over eighty and still going strong, is truly one of the old masters of Japanese cinema, but of a kind of totally personal cinema that has always been regarded in Japan as somewhat on the margin of acceptability. Seijun started out making cheapie gangster flicks at the old Nikkatsu studio but his style was so unusual that he soon developed his own cult following. Two 1966 films really put him on the map as a director to reckon with: "Tokyo Nagaremono" (Tokyo Drifters) and "Kenka Elegy". The first was a fantastically colorful ganfster flick that broke all the rules of the genre and had more in common with Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits" than with conventional gangster fare, whereas "Elegy for a Fight" was a very unusual, politically incorrect for its time, study of youth in Fascist Japan leading up to World War II.

Ever since Seijun has heeded only his own call and continued to do "his own thing", establishing himself as a unique voice in the cinema of Japan, a master filmmaker, but one having more in common with Godard than with Kurosawa or Ozu. A couple of remarks by Imdb commenters are right on the button in summing up his position in world cinema. "Seijun Suzuki is one of the most underrated directors of all time", and "... an extraordinarily interesting and gifted filmmaker who is much underappreciated in cinema history". Touché. "Princess Raccoon" is Suzuki's 56th film since 1956, and is arguably the "furthest out" of his half century career. The Japanese title, "Operetta Tanuki Goten" indicates that this is a musical, which in Japanese film is almost a contradiction in terms. The only other Japanese musical I know of is an earlier version of the "Tanuki" (badger, or raccoon -- take your pick) fairy tale called "Hatsuharu Tanuki Goten" released in 1959. That one featured two superstars of the time, Raizo Ichikawa, and Wakao Ayako, in totally uncharacteristic singing roles, and dressed up as badgers with whiskers. The tanuki legend is known to all Japanese and is an established piece of folklore. Basically, tanukis -- badgers or raccoons -- which are considered to be magical animals that can change their form at will, are not supposed to enter into love affairs with ordinary mortals, and, of course, in the "Goten Tales, they do just that, with amusing results. What Suzuki has done in his new picture is to take all the tanuki conventions to the wildest --psychedelic, if you will -- extremes, fashioning a way over the top musical extravaganza with everything from traditional Kabuki-like numbers (with dancing samurais in bright red hair) to contemporary jazzy brass-band numbers, the whole connected (or dis-connected) by all kinds of visual trickery, even some animation. The result is, in a way, overwhelming, something like a Broadway musical in Japanese drag with the entire cast tripping on LSD. Not for every taste perhaps, but a remarkable cinema experience for those ready to go with the flow. The Rotterdam audience I watched it with gave it a big warm hand.
In the "Cinema Regained" section, which is dedicated to the finding of old and future classics, an amazing film was the 196O Indian epic historical drama "Mughal-e-Azam" (The Great Mughal) dealing with intrigues in the court of the great Moghul Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar. Made on a gigantic budget for the time, 3 million dollars, this was one of the greatest hits ever in Indian cinema and occupies a position in Indian film history comparable to "Gone With The Wind" in America. The film featured three major stars; Prithviraj Kapoor -- the eldest of the Kapoor film dynasty --as the implacable emperor -- (he'll do anything to stop his son and heir to the throne from marrying a common courtesan), Dilip Kumar, as the heroic son who would give up his throne for the woman he loves, and the incredibly beautiful actress Madhubala, as the commoner who would gladly die to save the honour of the prince. Madhubala, who had a weak heart, dies soon after this film was made, at the age of thirty! Before her untimely death she and Dilip were a most popular romantic couple on screen and an item off-screen as well. The original film was shot in black and white, except for the dance numbers, but this newly restored version is in colour, and not a bad job of colorization it is. The one big battle scene was considered state of the art for its time, and is still tremendous. "Mughal" was shown, appropriately, in the LUXOR theatre, a monumental cinema built in the early twenties, as luxurious a venue in which to watch a film as only the name implies. The Luxor cinema itself has a little legend attached. It is located in an area (across from the Hilton) which was thoroughly bombed out by the Germans. So, how did the Luxor survive the bombing when everything else around was razed to the ground? The story goes that somebody painted a big swastika on the roof so the German bombers spared the building. Very likely apocryphal, but, so what -- it sounds good and the Luxor is still here -- although under threat of a new destruction by would be "developers".

The main problem with the Rotterdam fest is that the pickings are so rich that it becomes a chore trying to decide what to see -- and therefore, by default, what to pass up. Among the few big name films on the agenda are Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (is there a festival it hasn't been to?) and the closer will be George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck", or murrow versus McCarthey ... Expectations are high but speculatuion that Gorgeous George might fly in for the event were squelched when Mr. Clooney sent in a "Sorry -- too busy" disclaimer. Anyway, in Rotterdam the beat goes on. And happy Year of the Canine!
Alex Deleon

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