Sansho the Bailiff
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Starring Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kinuyo Tanake, and Kyoko Kagwa
The kitsch ad campaign for 2 Days in the Valley features a bulldog in sunglasses and a dame in skintight clothing, a police outline of a corpse and a couple of menacing silencers. It got me excited until I remembered I'd seen the movie. It's a chic extravaganza about a weird execution-style killing in the San Fernando Valley -- a piece of packaged quirk with a dozen cartoonish caricatures. Chief among them are Danny Aiello as a down-on-his-luck hit man, James Spader as a sleek assassin who employs Aiello on a murder-for-hire deal, and Teri Hatcher as an Olympic skier who finished fourth three times and looks to lose even bigger when her hated ex-husband does the Big Sleep in her bed. Those drawn into their orbit include Paul Mazursky as an unemployable director and Marsha Mason as a nurse he befriends at a cemetery; Greg Cruttwell as a pretentious art dealer and Glenne Headly as his long-suffering assistant; and Jeff Daniels and Eric Stoltz as a couple of mismatched vice cops. Part of the fun of the movie should come from seeing how these disparate types fit together. But how much fun is a jigsaw puzzle when the choices are limited and several pieces are misshapen? (To name just one: Spader expresses surprise that a fellow professional wears a bulletproof vest.) The writer-director, John Herzfeld, wants to leaven his nouveau-slick storytelling with absurdist jolts, but in trick movies like this one, neatness counts.
A friend pushed 2 Days in the Valley on me by saying "It's half as long as Short Cuts, twice as violent, and it has an ending." Herzfeld has funneled the casual amorality of Angelenos into a jeopardy-filled black-comic plot. But the mock urgency of the emotional pitch, and the laugh-if-you-want, gasp-if-you-want tone, reminded me of nothing more than the season opener of Melrose Place. (The one episode I've ever watched. Honest.) The movie also contains a thick, old-fashioned strain of macho sentimentality. Aiello may be a failed wise guy, Mazursky may be a failed filmmaker, but in this film there's love and honor only among the tired and washed-up. (Mazursky has a little terrier called Bogie; Cruttwell has an admirable canine, too, but there's supposed to be something perverse about a pit bull that swims.) Herzfeld pins the Purple Heart on these weary guys and pushes them toward redemption; the soundtrack may feature Otis Redding ("Down in the Valley") and Wilson Pickett ("Hello Sunshine"), but the theme song should have been Frank Sinatra's rendition of "Here's to the Losers."
As a director, Herzfeld's too intent on being a winner. There are hints of art house aspirations here and there: Mazursky's dog pays homage to Umberto D's, and Cruttwell spins off the yuppie scum he played in Mike Leigh's Naked. But Herzfeld, a TV pro, swerves around any outcroppings of real emotion as if they were nettlesome speed bumps. The characters who don't have to make much sense, like Charlize Theron as Spader's partner and mistress, a sort of postmodern sex kitten, come off best. Mazursky can be an uproarious screen presence, and here he has one piquant interchange with a resentful actor (Austin Pendleton) who lowers the psychological boom on him. But it's unsettling to see him in the role of a skidding director of sometimes-inscrutable comedies after the successive failures of Scenes from a Mall, The Pickle (which starred Aiello), and Faithful. It's only seven years since Mazursky made the great Enemies: A Love Story, and he caught his own essence-of-L.A. in movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and especially Blume in Love (1973). Of course, if he tried to make Blume in Love today, it would have to be half as long, twice as violent, and have an ending.
Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (playing at the Pacific Film Archive on October 20) brings to mind the first line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." It has a penetrating mournfulness. Mizoguchi develops his medieval fable about moral freedom and slavery with intuition, cunning, and an overarching sense of tragedy; as it uncoils, this masterwork spirals and expands to encompass all the tricks of history and fate, all the failures of ethics and character that can defeat the best intentions of idealists. Despite the antiquity of Mizoguchi's epic folk tale, it speaks to a world scarred by fascism -- indeed, the movie may register with American audiences more strongly now than when it premiered four decades ago. The setting is an 11th-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The whole environment -- physical, emotional, and moral -- is close to that of Schindler's List. When the antihero, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he, like Oskar Schindler, loses everything except his self-respect.
It may seem odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie for its villain -- the ruthless taskmaster of a sprawling compound -- instead of for the late-blooming Zushio. But the choice reflects the director's tragic vision. The film is about virtue tortured and altered, emerging partially triumphant. Zushio's statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that "without mercy, a man is like a beast." When kidnappers separate Zushio and his sister Anju from their mother -- the children are sold into bondage, the mother into prostitution -- the boy can't hold onto his father's ideals. In Sansho's inferno, Zushio becomes a barbarian. Like the worst concentration-camp Kapo, he willingly follows Sansho's command to brand attempted escapees on the forehead -- even if the victim is a 70-year-old man who has labored for half a century and yearns only to die free.
The first half hour, which depicts the downfall of Zushio's father and the dispersal of his family, is a cascade of flashbacks and present-tense action. (Kinuyo Tanaka brings a tremulous eloquence to the role of the mother -- she's the movie's heart as much as the father is its conscience.) The most beautiful and ominous image is of the family walking through a field of long grass and reeds, the flora floating above their heads like an army's plumes; the most devastating sequence shows the mother and nurse being thrown into a boat while the children are seized onshore. Once Zushio and Anju arrive at Sansho's camp, this volatile lyricism gives way to a steady, cumulative power. It's as if Mizoguchi is saying, with melancholy, that this is how the world works.
Mizoguchi's packed compositions express the harrowing pull of the narrative line -- and the residual humanity that tugs against it. Every positive action in this movie has an opposite reaction, leaving an increment of glory in defeat. When Zushio regains his empathy and honor and flees Sansho's camp, Anju (the spiritually radiant Kyoko Kagawa) protects his flight with her life. There's never been a more rending and transcendent vision of reunion than the tearful clasping of Zushio to his hobbled, half-mad mother. Zushio finds her on a tidal wave-ravaged island: a Beckett-like landscape. He tells her that Anju and his father are dead, then begs her forgiveness for arriving without the wealth or power to help her; in order to follow his father's precepts, he had to relinquish the office of governor. His mother replies that if he weren't faithful to his father's memory, she and Sansho "couldn't meet here this way now." Irony and tragedy merge -- you cry for what they've lost and what they've saved.
The movie explores the strengths and the tenuousness of family ties in scenes that are freshets of feeling. In Mizoguchi, as in Faulkner, the past isn't dead -- as Faulkner said, "It's not even past." When Sansho sees the freed and elevated Zushio, he exclaims, "It's like a fairy tale! A slave becoming a governor!" But in this fairy tale no one lives happily ever after. Terrifying and cathartic, Sansho the Bailiff is a morality play without easy moralism.
2 Days in the Valley plays at area theaters. Sansho the Bailiff plays at the Pacific Film Archive Sunday, Oct. 20.