Saturday, 6 December 2014

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)


Dir. Matsumoto Toshio

I like to write about unconventional films, but there are some cases where the film in question has so much I could talk about, and are truly unconventional, that I feel daunted in trying to type this review. Funeral Parade of Roses is such a film. But, as with this film, there is a reason for this that I can write about if I am unsure what to say - that you could never get a film like these today, which is disappointing because a film like this feels more advanced and progressive than some of today, but a film like this is forty or so years old. Funeral Parade of Roses is playful and provocative in everything it does differently from other films. Set within the political and artistic hotbed of late Sixties Japan, the film follows Eddie, played by real life transsexual Peter, a male cross dresser who is in conflict with a rival drag queen over the affections of a drug smuggling cabaret manager Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya). Eddie is a psychologically complex person, flashes of his childhood and adolescence seen throughout the film which show what is bubbling under the surface of his makeup and elegant appearance. Shot in stark monochrome, the film is a hybrid of multiple cinematic forms, a narrative feature which yet has documentary interviews with drag queens and Peter the actor himself spliced in-between, a tone varying from the serious to the cartoonish.

The film never becomes stale or procrastinates despite its tangent heavy tone, always on an interesting point. It not only has real documentary footage, but porn shoots within the narrative, and reflective the director's avant-garde and installation film making, experimental films within the film that we see by themselves and being created by the avant-garde filmmaker characters that make up the people that Eddie interacts with. The fiction is designed to pull along the reality with it, while the fiction itself is layered and filled with various and different sorts of material shown to the viewer. The result disrupts but also creates a narrative structure which places further importance on story points when they are returned to, that of Eddie's complicated life, as well as flesh the real content, set with Japanese gay subculture, out. It allows the director to be more flexible, to have humour against the serious, to the point of ridiculous, sped up handbags-at-dawn spats and literal dialogue balloons, and have a tone that can even lean on exploitation-like uses of sex and grit. At times the sexuality is pronounced and close to a pinku film. 

The open, matter-of-fact view of its gay subject matter is refreshing, having fun with subverting gender - three women at urinals for example - and is also unapologetically erotic and titillating. Peter, when made up in full make-up or when the camera lingers over his body in the shower like it does on actresses in other movies, is unbelievably beautiful, to the point as a heterosexual man I will add him, in this film, as one of the most gorgeous individuals filmed on a camera I've seen. That he is charismatic and a good actor makes this better, something to be proud of that he would later become the court fool, an important side character, in Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985). (It is odd I can say his filmography also contains a Guinea Pig film, but that's why Japanese cinema and its ease in blending different areas makes someone like Sean Penn look lazy). Funeral Parade of Roses enforces on me particularly, as a viewer interacting with cinema in direct communication, that my own personal sexuality is an attraction to femininity, all the things stereotypically attributed to it and when it is reconstructed by women and transgender people - curves, heightened facial features like eye lashes, clothing and textures, the more open ability to express thoughts and emotions than many males etc. The film is as much on the nature of gender by proving beauty is pansexual, seeing the drag queens and transgender women in this, their lovers and clients as well, and how gender and sexuality is fluid even if many of them prefer acting and dressing as stereotypical images of women, wearing the most stylish boots and dresses they can afford, and being immensely glamorous unless a female gang makes derogatory comments and a fight breaks out between them.

Structurally, the narrative is as playfully put together as the experimental sequences, chronology out of order for large portions of it, built up as more is revealed, a pastiche of Streets of Shame (1956) or A Woman Ascends The Stairs (1960) with a subversion of a famous tale I cannot actually name because it'll be a spoiler for the ending. Together they create an enticing character drama as it's build up with flashbacks in Eddie's life. The film throughout always feels bold, still daring today. It comes from an era that may have been terrible for many things, for things that feel quaint now - of pot smoking and equal opportunity nudity - but the film is as much a view of the melting pot of art, social interaction and sexuality that is vibrant. The direct references to real life art and subculture "happenings" in the film add a historical importance, documentary on the period in Japanese society, particularly footage of a protest/conceptual art piece in the middle of a street, the titular parade of the film's title involving men dressed in tinfoil gas masks and black clothes. It's also a film catching when the tide would roll back, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, the spot where this parade becoming empty, paper banners left scattered on the ground, or the isolated and wounded protestor stuck in an apartment complex corridor by himself with no one of his group to protect him from the police. As we take interest in Eddie's life, we have as much interest in the (real) world around him in digressions on various topics. This is something badly missed in most art cinema of the present, the layers of culture that would be embedded in the background of the main narrative. Viewing this film, and those in the same vein like Throw Your Books Away, Rally In The Streets (1971), feels like an adrenaline shot.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
It's subject matter is still unconventional, in the climate that we still occupy where the notion of transgender, though respected, is in the realm outside of conventional gender politics rather than fully embraced as many would desire. But that is not enough for an abstract rating, as it could mean a film as good as this or a patronising drama with less than good quality filmmaking depending on what was made. What does so here is a presentation which, on another viewing, is still unpredictable and throws new angles on the material. It's a film with a lot to take in. It has a consistent, fascinating, and most importantly, engaging drama in its centre, but Funeral Parade of Roses is also different still in what you'd presume cinema is in the modern day, a difference somewhat needed again. Suddenly there are repeats of a man sneezing, in the middle of a dramatic beat, the frame almost slipping, unexpectedly in one moment, not connected to the main story, what would be seen as redundant in modern cinema, but fills and expands the tone of the film here for greater impact. Snippets of interviews and footage from other sources are intercut into scenes, disrupting and effecting them, adding texture and character. The blend of fiction, reality and artificiality creates an unpredictable tone, such as a dramatic scene suddenly turning into a Japanese period drama through a character's preferred dress and a specific music cue chosen, without becoming ironic, always empathetic to all the characters. Whilst retaining a straight forward narrative, the film's structure is inherently unconventionally.

Personal Opinion:
What makes the Sixties in art in general enduring for me is, while a lot of it could be self indulgent and pretentious, it still possesses art that is still original and fresh today to see or listen to. The indulgence is enchanting, backing away from the predictable, and in cinema, even a wobble of a handheld camera feels like a flourish, accidents or things done on purpose bringing technical and aesthetic style rarely seen today. In the case of this film, it means a lot to take in on multiple viewings, a film that is easily accessible but also revealing new things on each viewing I have of it. Once it gets to the end, capping off with an unsettling yet poetic ending that reinterprets a legend in a pansexual light, it also succeeds as existing in its own type of cinema, the blurring of genre and tone you get in cult cinema, particularly art films like this, where it never becomes tedious even if one found it frustrating. Moments feel like they wouldn't be carried on into filmmaking of later decades but they stand out nonetheless as very distinct filmmaking which I wish was still frequently done. 

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