Friday, January 13, 2006

Fugitive from the Past (Repertory Screening)

Fugitive from the Past (Tomu Uchida, 1965) had its sole screening at MoMA's Early Autumn series on Thursday, January 12th.

It's a remarkably vital film, shot to shot- even Uchida's composition of characters within the widescreen frame feels infused with the moment's moral and narrative stakes to a really heightened degree. (It's kind of hard to explain: it's not a rigorously geometric tension a la Kobayashi; more of a pulpy charge aided by Uchida's fondness for Fuller-esque close-ups and occasionally switching between developed image and negative.) Structurally, though, the movie's a mess. Going roughly off of real incidents (as they did for Tasaka's A House in the Quarter, another Early Spring screening) Novelist Tsutomu Minakami and scenarist Naoyuki Suzuki set up what ought to be a great plot: in Hokkaido in 1947, the night of a typhoon that sinks a ferryboat and kills hundreds, three men, including two ex-convicts, rob and kill a pawnbroker and his family. As the authorities are assessing the carnage caused by the storm, it's discovered that there were two more corpses recovered from the water than there were accounted-for deaths from the shipwreck. Eventually, it's discovered that these two unidentified corpses are the bodies of the two ex-cons; Inukai, their accomplice has made it away with the loot. Ten years and three hours of running time later, Inukai (now going by the name Tarumi) is found.

And so, working off of such a potent premise (and title, for that matter), the filmmakers do the unthinkable, following the third man's escape and its aftermath for the first part of the film, and then jumping ahead ten years for the events leading to his apprehension in the second half. It completely severs the movie (which, given this fatal lack of accumulative sweep, can't justify its epic length), as does the shift in narrative attention onto the prostitute Yae (Sachiko Hidari) who aids Inukai's escape, and is the focus of the film on either side of its temporal rupture. As Inukai/Tarumi, Rentaro Mikuni's forceful, varied performance almost provides the movie with the kind of shape it lacks, but he's absent too long. The detectives investigating him on either end of the narrative (Junzaburo Ban and Ken Takakura) are equally dogged, but the very fact that there's two of them (Ban returns toward the end, but his momentum is gone) is another scope-botching mistake. Nor does it help that the murder investigation that eventually nets Inukai/Tarumi (clinging precariously on, I shit you not, a ten-year old fingernail clipping) is sufficiently poorly thought-out to completely undermine the gravity of the resolution.

It's possible that I'm being too harsh (expectations were quite high going in), and the terrific final scene does restore some sense of consequence to the whole ordeal; in any case, Uchida salvages some fine, dynamic moments out of this missed opportunity. His legacy is apparently inching towards rediscovery, and there's enough of value in Fugitive from the Past that I still hope we get the chance to see more of him.


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