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“The Burmese Harp” and “Un Chant d’Amour”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “The Burmese Harp,” Criterion Collection]

It’s a cinephile’s burden — to observe the brouhaha about a contemporary film that does nothing at all that wasn’t already executed better in the medium-distant, but still forgotten, film culture past. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters to Iwo Jima” was a perfectly serviceable portrait of WWII warfare made remarkable, in many critics’ eyes and in the purview of the Academy, by the fact that it dared to focus sympathetically on the Japanese during the titular battle. For a Hollywood film, it was a first, and for Eastwood, a kind of antidote to the weepy Greatest Generation ballad that was “Flags of Our Fathers.”

But in a more general sense, it was a strange and largely unnecessary retread — manufactured by an all-American crew as if we hadn’t already seen, since the 1950s, the Japanese war films of Kon Ichikawa. Some of us even remember them. Most Japanese filmmakers — including Akira Kurosawa — were dedicated in the postwar years to avoiding any sort of direct address of the Pacific conflict, for which Japan bore a crushing amount of guilt and responsibility. (What the Emperor’s military machine did to China alone would qualify for a top-five war crimes honor in any century.) Not Ichikawa, whose films have dug unflinchingly into the then-recent history of genocidal massacre, cannibalism, mort-lust and kamikaze destruction — all seen as the pitiful dehumanization of Japanese citizens and Japan itself. (Yasuo Masumura did a good job this way, too, in the long-unseen 1966 combat-zone corker “Red Angel,” lately come to DVD from Fantoma.) Ichikawa’s masterpiece remains 1956’s “The Burmese Harp,” which, when it won the top prize at Cannes, awakened the world to the possibilities of a true Japanese New Wave, beyond the rock star Kurosawa and the aging mandarins Ozu and Mizoguchi.

“The Burmese Harp” harbors something of a mushy, sentimental heart — its portrait of a close-knit Japanese platoon, singing a mournful variation on “There’s No Place Like Home” while scrambling away from combat during the war’s last days and eventually awaiting repatriation as the British attack, borders on the idyllic. But the experience is convincing and genuinely felt, and subject to a dire trajectory: the unit’s beloved lute player Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) is sent into the mountains to persuade a stubborn group of soldiers to surrender, just as the bombs fall. Mizushima’s compatriots fear the guileless private is dead, but Mizushima survives, by masquerading as a Buddhist monk in his return journey through the massive WWII killing fields, changing in the process, surrendering his old life and eventually committing himself to burying the uncountable dead.

A decade after Hiroshima, a Japanese filmmaker makes the most heartbreaking anti-war film of all time. Little about “The Burmese Harp” seems groundbreaking today — it is simply a cudgel on your tear ducts, and arguably the first war film made anywhere that suggests that war finishes nothing, and indeed creates traumas and responsibilities without end. It’s a hard rock of a message to genuinely swallow, for the Japanese in the 50s, or Americans today, the vast majority of whom still claim to “support” illegal Third World carnage as long as it’s “handled” well and we are sure to win. Oh yeah: naturally the Criterion disc comes with a new Ichikawa interview and an essay by Nipponophile Tony Rayns, among other prizes.

Talk about hard to swallow: “Un Chant d’Amour,” the notorious semi-pornographic short made in 1950 by budding novelist/memoirist/playwright Jean Genet a mere year after dodging a ten-strikes-you’re-out life prison sentence thanks to the intervention of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, emerges onto DVD. And what a heated, potent, hot-and-bothered 25 minutes it is — Genet, who’d spent years in prison for everything from homosexual acts to thievery, had unique things to say about prisoners in love, and “Chant” is one of those films that occupies its own completely unique vision of the universe. Simply put, Genet converts the grim, deprivative lifestyle of the inmate into an achingly romantic passion (as in, a religious passion, or tribulation), in which the walls and bars that separate his lonesome, lovelorn muscle men become the fetishized definition of their desire. (The predatory guard outside the cons’ cells is pathetic because he’s outside.) Simple cock-in-hand lust becomes an almost spiritually rebellious quantity.

In fact, the film resembles Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” more than any prison film (or stag reel), despite the semi-erections. Genet made the film as gay porn for rich collectors (much as Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin wrote softcore smut for cash in the 30s), and it comes with a long history of censorship and bannings; if you saw the film at MoMA or wherever decades ago, you didn’t see the masturbatory nudity you can see today. Genet denounced the movie once he got famous, but it’s difficult to see why: it’s totally in keeping with his sensational literary voice, and, as far as movies are concerned, utterly singular. Cult Epics hasn’t just released a famous, controversial short film, but packed it into a two-disc box along with an intro by avant-garde granddad Jonas Mekas, an audio commentary by underground pioneer Kenneth Anger, and two lengthy interviews with an aging and happily self-congratulatory Genet.

“The Burmese Harp” (Criterion) will be released on DVD on March 13th; “Un Chant d’Amour” (Cult Epics) is now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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