Sadly, director Koji Wakamatsu has died at the age of 76.
This was a year which had been particularly consecrated to him: "11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate", his film on the last days of Mishima, which was presented at the Festival of Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, "The Millennial Rapture" at the Venice Film Festival, and along with the two premiers, "Petrel Hotel Blue" at the Pusan Festival, where, less than two weeks ago, he received the prize for Best Asian Filmmaker of the Year. In Miyagi, his hometown, this autumn he also received a prestigious award honoring this Japanese artist, above and beyond the world of film.
And yet, until 2007, only a handful of particularly avid critics and cinephiles knew the films of Koji Wakamatsu, this prolific Japanese filmmaker, with his oeuvre of more than 130 films spanning 50 years since the 1960's.
So what explains this "oversight"?
It might be because Koji Wakamatsu, a self taught director, started his career in Tokyo on film sets as... a yakuza, overseeing the smooth running of shootings in the underworld neighborhood of Shinjuku! Young, feisty and (already) rebellious, he would soon be sent to jail after a brawl. From his time in jail, he would retain a taste for revolt against authority but also a desire to express himself by other means than through actual violence. Once released, he renewed his acquaintance with the producers who he had protected during filming and was able to work as an assistant on the sets of TV productions. Thus he learned the craft, by observing its environment and through doing odd jobs. One day, a TV producer gives him his big chance: he grabbed it and showed himself to be an excellent director. But from the 1960's, Wakamatsu, who had not lost anything of his thirst for rebellion, decided to create his own production company, Wakamatsu Production, in order to make movies like he wanted to: using the camera as a weapon and cinema as a means of touching the public. Thus was born the most rebellious of Japanese filmmakers.
Thanks to cinema, Wakamatsu could finally "kill" authority on the screen, making films which were ever more subversive than the last; where policemen, politicians and bosses were mere exploiters to be eliminated by any means necessary! Obviously, such a creative rage could only count on itself from many points of view: Wakamatsu never received public funding and therefore naturally he himself fulfilled all sorts of roles (artistic as well as technical) and began to involve his friends and collaborators in a guerrilla economy which would be the hallmark of the "Wakamatsu method": filming in 3 days, at night, with commissioned films he directed in parallel during the day, paying his actors in kind (meals, wine, alcohol...), the use or even destruction of his own personal property for the purposes of filming, editing in just a few hours (because each scene was shot in a single take), there are a great many examples. This makes it a little easier to understand why Wakamatsu was sometimes able to produce up to ten movies in a single year! Actually, thanks to his multiple skills, Wakamatsu will even later produce his friend Nagisa Oshima's "Realm of the Senses".
Eventually, always concerned that his political messages would reach the largest number of people (that was the whole point of cinema for him: not as an end in itself, but rather as a tool, a weapon), Wakamatsu appropriated the pink genre, a mixture of sex and violence, born in the mid-1960's at the initiative of Japanese studios in order to stem viewers' disaffection for cinema in the face of the advent of television. It was this type of cinema which then became known among the most cutting edge critics and cinephiles early on: political and subversive films, but which were also experimental (Wakamatsu had discovered "Breathless", by Godard, and learnt a great lesson in liberty and freedom from conventional cinematic vocabulary), which few would qualify as avant-garde. It started in 1965 at the Berlin Film Festival when the "Secrets Behind The Walls" provoked a diplomatic incident with Japan which considered Wakamatsu's film as a national disgrace. Then in 1971 "Violated Angels" and "Sex Jack" were shown at the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, a pretext for Koji Wakamatsu and his faithful writer, Masao Adachi - both monitored by the Japanese authorities because of their alleged links to the Japanese Red Army - to come to France ... before going on to Lebanon to film George Habash's PFLP camps.
His militant film activities led Wakamatsu to be banned from entering the United States, Russia, and, until recently, China. And yet Wakamatsu never belonged to the Japanese Red Army or to any other group. Therein lies the mystery and misunderstanding about his character: considered a left-wing activist, Wakamatsu disconcerted some, when he criticized the fanaticism of the United Red Army, or when he made a movie about the nationalist Mishima ("11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate"). And yet, by carefully examining his filmography, there are indications of revolt, obviously against authority, but also against collective action, often corrupted by the reproduction of power and authority within itself. Just like his films in which there is often a lone hero who eventually takes individual action, Wakamatsu essentially believed in the commitment of the individual man. But the premise of solitary commitment also runs the risk of isolation and misunderstanding: fiercely anti-system, the "Wakamatsu system" relies only on itself, as has already been said. That is why only a handful of critics and diehard cinephiles knew of (or disregarded) Wakamatsu's films.
And so in France it took until 2007 for the name of Wakamatsu to return to centre stage, with the release of "The Embryo Hunts in Secret" (1966), awarded an 18 certificate! A subversive and feminist film, this Wakamatsu work was said to be "degrading for the image of women"! Q.E.D.
Subsequently, "United Red Army" (2008) caused trouble among the politicized admirers of Wakamatsu who did not understand why the filmmaker dwelled on the darkest hours of the United Red Army, the ill-fated branch of the Japanese Red Army. An uncompromising 190-minute film, "United Red Army" was nevertheless the film which would reconcile Wakamatsu with the "general public" (in the sense of a wider audience of cinephiles) because it was the most worked film from the director: a thundering mixture of documentary archives, fiction, genre film and political film, set to the hypnotic music of Jim O'Rourke, "United Red Army" is a movie which will go down in cinematic history, the fruit of the wrath of a rebel, and not the propaganda film which everyone expected. Wakamatsu did not make movies to please the public, but rather because they were necessary, and only following instructions from his heart, as he said recently in Busan.
Other major events will follow: in 2010, "Caterpillar" earned Shinobu Terajima the Silver Bear for Best Actress, which Wakamatsu wanted for her, then a tribute to him by the Paris Cinema Festival in the same year, and finally an impressive retrospective of 40 films devoted to Wakamatsu's work by the Cinémathèque Française.
Nevertheless, nothing changed in the Wakamatsu method: he wrote, filmed, self-financed and distributed his films with the same frenzy, the same instinct for revolt, and the same generosity, without ever worrying about the rest. Upcoming projects included a film about Korean comfort women and a film about Japan's nuclear experiments-two hot topics, which were not so surprising, coming as they did from Wakamatsu. Indefatigable, indestructible, when it came to filming, we must trust he died without regrets, because the worst possible idea for him would have been to have gone out in the middle of filming. He has left us a precious legacy to discover and rediscover, through his impressive filmography of course, but also through the story of a man who forged his own life alone, and for whom cinema has never been anything other than a means and never an end in itself; to that effect, Koji Wakamatsu is definitely an extraordinary lesson both in life and in cinema.
127 rue Amelot
Middle of Nowhere
Film Review by Kam Williams
Wife Weighs Absentee Hubby's Worth in Introspective Tale of Female Empowerment
Middle of Nowhere is a cinematic masterpiece reminiscent of those rare treasures that have managed to capture an authentic slice of African-American life, ala such black classics as Love Jones (1997), The Best Man (1999), The Visit (2000) and Brown Sugar (2002). However, this introspective tale of female empowerment simultaneously touches on a number of universal themes apt to resonate with an audience of any demographic.
The picture was written and directed by rising star Ava DuVernay, this year's winner at the Sundance Film Festival in the Best Director category. The story revolves around Roberta "Ruby" Murray (Emayatzy Corinealdi), a med student who's on the brink of becoming a doctor when her husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), is sentenced to 8 years behind bars for a drug conviction.
Rather than abandon the love of her life, the loyal wife decides to drop out of med school to give her man the emotional and financial support he'll need while in prison. This means she'll have to endure long bus rides just to see him, and also have to pay his legal bills on a nurse's salary.
However, the shame and separation eventually take a toll on the relationship, especially when Derek has a jailhouse romance and sabotages his chances for an early parole with fresh criminal charges for fighting. Suddenly Ruby finds herself questioning the wisdom of her slavish devotion, and she begins entertaining the advances of a bus driver (David Oyewolo) she'd befriended.
To date or to wait, that is the question? Ruby has a couple of confidants to turn to for advice, but neither proves to be of much help. One is her sister, Ruth (Lorraine Toussaint), a single-mom with a bad track record of her own with men. The other is their embittered mother (Edwina Findley) who can only muster up ineffective, if well-meaning, suggestions like "Hold your head up, please."
So, in the end, it's up to Ruby to decide for herself, but only after lingering interludes of reflection and contemplation. A refreshing alternative to the superficial mainstream fare that tends to stereotype sisters as either sassy mammies or compliant sex objects.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for profanity.
Running time: 101 minutes
To see a trailer for Middle of Nowhere, visit
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
Film Review by Kam Williams
Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was lucky enough to enjoy not just a second, but a third act in the public eye. First, the legendary fashion icon had a profound impact on American culture as the fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar.
Then, when she was passed over for a promotion after a quarter-century with the magazine, Vreeland resigned in 1962 to become editor-in-chief of Vogue, a position she held for close to a decade. And finally, in 1971, she began serving as costume consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Co-directed by granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel is a reverential retrospective which takes an intimate, intriguing and revealing look at a most-fascinating life. For, over the course of her career, the influential Empress of Fashion undeniably ignited innumerable popular trends while simultaneously celebrating the unconventional features of celebrities like Twiggy, Cher and Barbra Streisand.
Vreeland's unorthodox approach was to magnify, rather than hide a subject's supposed flaws, such as when she had photographer Richard Avedon shoot Streisand's proud nose in profile. This appreciation ostensibly emanated from her having been treated as the ugly duckling by a mother who was not above flirting with her boyfriends.
A socialite who hung out in Harlem, Diana did eventually land a loyal life mate in Thomas Vreeland, and the two went on to wed and enjoy an enduring union blessed by the births of two sons. Despite being an intimidating taskmaster at the office, Vreeland is nonetheless remembered just as much for her creativity by former employees like the aforementioned Avedon as well as actress Ali McGraw who landed her first job out of college with the demanding doyenne.
This enlightening documentary paints an indelible picture of a daring visionary who fervently felt that, "You're not supposed to give people what they want, but what they don't yet know they want." That helps explain how towards the end of her life Diana announced, "I shall die young, even at 90."
A poignant portrait of an inveterate iconoclast who couldn't help but push the envelope.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for nude images.
In English, French and Italian with subtitles
Running time: 86 minutes
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
To see a trailer for Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, visit
Janeane from Des Moines
Film Review by Kam Williams
Iowa Housewife Weighs Options in Presidential Race Docudrama
How do you get the Republicans vying for the presidential nomination to appear in a movie which might not show them in the most flattering light? You might have a nondescript, middle-aged actress pose as a Tea Party conservative during the lead up to the Iowa caucus, a time when the candidates generally make themselves available to valuable voters.
That was the inspired idea of filmmaker Grace Lee, who followed around Janeane Wilson (Jane Edith Wilson) with a camera at the State Fair where it was relatively easy to approach the likes of Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, New Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Pretending to be unemployed, uninsured, suffering from breast cancer and in danger of losing her home, the desperate protagonist sobbed while asking each of the Republican hopefuls how they planned to help someone like her.
The upshot is a gotcha docudrama that's a cross of Borat and Michael Moore which captures some of the candidates as plastic, some as somewhat sympathetic. The only problem with Janeane from Des Moines is that it feels a bit dated, as it is arriving in theaters a little late since, at this point, we really care more about Romney's responses than any of the also-rans.
Although his callous "Corporations are people" comment is included here, he proves to be about as patient as one might expect of a polished politician with bigger fish to catch. And even though he knows how to escape the clutches of a very clingy constituent, you come away feeling he's actually acting just as much as Janeane, who becomes disenchanted with the whole lot by film's end.
The futile search for a presidential candidate who cares about the average person's everyday concerns, a quest leading frustrated Janeane to conclude that her only option is to pull the lever for Obama in November.
Very Good (3 stars)
Running time: 78 minutes
Distributor: Wilsilu Pictures
To see a trailer for Janeane from Des Moines, visit
Film Review by Kam Williams
Raunchy Sex Comedy Fails to Live Up to Its Billing
This movie opens with a parental warning giving folks ten seconds to leave the theater because what you're about to watch is wild, raunchy, irreverent and politically-incorrect. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. So much for truth in advertising!
Yes, Vulgaria does revolve around a prurient plotline, but the way in which it is executed is totally tame. In 25 words or less, this picture is about a down-on-his-luck film producer (Chapman To) who decides to try to pay off his debts by shooting a remake of a classic skin flick. And the cash-strapped Wai Cheung even offers an aging porn star (Shaw Yin Yin) the lead role in the project by promising to use special effects to place her head on the body of an attractive, young body double.
Unfortunately, Vulgaria proves to be a dialogue-driven tease which drags on and on with tons of titillating talk without ever getting around to displaying any of the eroticism contemplated by its kinky producer (Ronald Cheng) with a vivid imagination. To make matters worse, unless something gets lost in the translation from Chinese, all of this supposed sex comedy's lame attempts at humor also fall flat.
A transparent, bait-and-switch disappointment strictly for suckers.
Fair (1 star)
In Cantonese with subtitles
Running time: 93 minutes
Distributor: China Lion Films
To see a trailer for Vulgaria, visit