BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Most films series are curated very systematically — movies from the same director or lead actor, etc. What makes the Rotunda’s long-running series Andrew’s Video Vault so consistently rewarding is the more intuitive pairings that are offered monthly. Although tonight’s pairing of two taboo-shattering Japanese films of the 1960s, there are both fascinating similarities and differences between these wild, wild films. Director Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses is one of the outlandish gems of world cinema, and one that has still never seen an U.S. home video release. It has nonetheless found fans in Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange is believed to carry its influence) and art rocker Jim O’ Rourke (who wrote an essay for its European release). The film immerses itself in the shadowy world of Japanese drag queens and Matsumoto’s experimental technique stretches boundaries much like these gorgeous queens stretch gender. In stunning black and white we see low-contrast, burned-out images of lovemaking, smoldering photographs, high-speed slapstick cat fights, documentary interviews, and smiling on-screen narrators, a dazzling display of technique that ultimately gels into a slowly reconstituted memory of the story of Oedipus. It’s almost a shame that the film reverts to tragedy in its finale; Matsumoto obviously loves filming these self-created exotic birds, but it is their naughty freedom that stays in your memory. Show-stopping sequences follow a trio of queens on a fashion spree ignoring on-lookers, and later a party of underwear-clad revelers dance, smoke pot, and neck wildly together, as a fuzztone cover of the Stones “Satisfaction” grinds on and on into the night. Lurid, amusing and outright dazzling; when one interviewee says “I was born this way,” the reply seems as shockingly timeless as the film’s sultry charms.
Where Funeral is all about freedom, The Embryo Hunts in Secret harbors both radicalism and conservatism in its heart. Director K?ji Wakamatsu is among the most acclaimed director to come out of Japan’s softcore “Pink film” genre, and it is easy to read the sadistic violence against women in these films as being a male backlash towards female’s increasingly modern lifestyles. In Embryo, an office manager (Hatsuo Yamatani) brings a female underling (Miharu Shima) home, where he drugs and enslaves her. While Wakamatsu lingers uncomfortably on the “purifying” lashes the woman withstands, he presents his man as a pathological basket case, his inner rants revealing a soul left bitter from his mother’s suicide and a wife who left him because she desired children. The claustrophobic premise wisely keeps the extreme behavior to a taut 72 minutes, giving Wakamatsu enough time to show off some ingenious little tricks, including a show-stopping sequence where the woman imagines her liberation simultaneously as her surrender. Wakamatsu has continued to work into his seventies (he’s currently working on a historical film about the writer Mishima) and this low-budget debut leaves no doubt that we’re witnessing the birth of most provocative talent.