Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 152
Wife of a Spy plays Friday/Saturday/Sunday at the Northwest Film Forum.
I’m Your Man opens Friday at the Landmark Crest.
Did I see the James Bond movie? I did. But officially it opens next week, and can’t we wait a tick? Besides, there are other movies in the world. Including these two.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses a recurring image in his new film Wife of a Spy: the back of the head of the central character, Satoko (Yû Aoi), as she looks at something striking or unusual in the background of the shot. This means that, being behind her, we are also looking at whatever the action is, and we’re doing what she’s doing: trying to figure something out. We have historical advantage, though, for Wife of a Spy begins in Kobe in 1940, and we know how dark and barbaric the Japanese regime will get during the Second World War; Satoko doesn’t see that yet.
With one notable exception, Wife of a Spy does not look like a film about darkness; indeed, everything in this movie seems drenched in light made of cream, a kind of glow that affects the production design and costuming so much it becomes heady. (Even the light that comes through the windows has Spielbergian intensity.) The movie’s a piece of history, but it’s also a movie, a kind of brave-woman melodrama that would not have been out of place in Hollywood in the 1940s. Cinema also plays a role in the storyline; Satoko’s husband Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), a successful and stylish businessman, dabbles in amateur 16 mm. moviemaking, casting his wife in his little silent dramas. (At one point he speculates that the new Mizoguchi picture must be good.)
Everything’s connected in this movie, so Yusaku’s film projector becomes important when it emerges that his trip to Japanese-occupied Manchuria has included his cinematic documentation of Japanese atrocities there. He intends to expose this. The sequence in which Satoko plays the footage—I assume authentic—is the one notable exception I mentioned earlier; this material stands out as a raw accusation, and Kurosawa renders his soundtrack entirely silent as it unfolds.
The plot itself has enough twists and double-twists to justify Wife of a Spy as a real spy picture, but inside this satisfying story is a touching portrait of a woman who just wants to be closer to her somewhat formal husband. “I finally feel I’m living with you,” she says, excited, after the truth comes out in an arresting single-shot sequence of Yusaku telling Satoko what is actually going on. Kurosawa, still best known for his superb horror films, has long since proven he can range across a variety of modes, as demonstrated by the level of confidence here—just look at how much work that back of the head does, and how in the end it seems to mean so much.
I may have underrated I’m Your Man a little when I saw it earlier this year; I was on the critics’ jury for the Berlin Film Festival, and it was one of 15 movies in the main competition. If it struck me that there were 13 or so films that were superior to I’m Your Man, that may be because the selection was just so goddamn great, and Maria Schrader’s German-made comedy looked slight by comparison.
Which I think it was. Still, let’s not underrate a smartly made, regularly amusing rom-com, especially one that uses artificial intelligence robots for its exploration of modern love. Dan Stevens—you know him from Downton Abbey or The Guest, depending on your proclivities—is the perfectly-made robot lover, tailored to make a very skeptical scientist (Maren Eggert) appreciate the new technologies. There are no giant eyebrow-raisers along the way, but the machine runs smoothly, with the added bonus of some marvelous faces on view—not just Eggert and Stevens, but also Toni Erdmann’s splendid Sandra Hüller, adding deadpan to a pleasant trifle.
October 1, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.