Monday, July 25, 2011

THE SUN (Solntse, 2005)

After his global arthouse triumph with his one-take phantasmagoria in the Hermitage museum, Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov resumed a project described as a series of films about the dictators of the 20th century. After treating Hitler in Moloch (1999 and coming soon to this blog) and Lenin in Taurus (2001), Sokurov's next subject may seem an unlikely one: Hirohito, the Showa emperor of Japan, and his renunciation of godhood following the surrender to the Allies in 1945. However vilified he was during the war, Hirohito is now thought of as a figurehead, though historians continue to dispute the extent to which he encouraged Japanese aggression. He doesn't come to mind as a man of power comparable to Lenin or Hitler, but that clearly isn't what Sokurov had in mind, either. While I as yet don't know what the director did with Hitler, in Solntse he plants Hirohito in a Hitlerian setting -- a bunker -- to start a cinematic riff that turns the emperor into a bridge from Hitler to...Chaplin?

The plot of The Sun is pretty simple. Japan is defeated, and Hirohito (Issei Ogata) goes through his daily routine while pondering a speech in which he would explain Japan's entry into the war and its defeat while renouncing his divine status. As if anticipating The King's Speech, Sokurov presents the emperor as a man of halting speech. Hirohito has a strange habit of mouthing silent words while others are talking -- it's so strange that I was tempted to think some dubbing disaster had been perpetrated, even though the film is largely in Japanese. The idea of a speech renouncing divinity and absolute power is also reminiscent of the finale of The Great Dictator, but in The Sun the protagonist is never shown delivering his big address. We learn, however, that the emperor's sound technician subsequently killed himself. But I get ahead of myself. The first half of the picture is a day in the life of Hirohito. He's woken and dressed by his servants and steered toward a military briefing where army and navy representatives bicker over who screwed up worse. The emperor quotes poetry at them but also warns that the price of peace may be too great to bear.

Then it's off to his favorite time of the day, doing research in his personal marine biology lab, though his impending apologia still weighs on him even here. But his hobby bleeds into his dreams during his nap time in a surreal, Toho-on-acid CGI sequence in which Tokyo is bombed by giant fish, whales and other airborne marine life. Personal time follows, during which he struggles to compose poetry in the ancient aristocratic fashion. He ends up flipping through his photo albums, one of his family (he kisses a shot of his wife and child), one of movie stars. Sokurov pauses significantly over two shots of Chaplin.

The emperor is summoned to his first audience with the Supreme Commander of the Allied occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (a Metaluna-headed and utterly inadequate Robert Dawson). Hirohito attempts to converse in English despite the protests of a Japanese interpreter that it'd be ungodly of him to do so. A preoccupied if not bored MacArthur quickly dismisses him and then wonders aloud: the emperor reminds him of someone, but who? Later, Hirohito agrees to pose for photos by the American press. At first the shutterbugs don't recognize the unassuming figure who shuffles their way, but recognition follows recognition. "Charlie! That's who he is!" one photog yells, "Charlie Chaplin!" Afterward, the emperor asks an aide if he really does look like Chaplin. The aide demurs, explaining that he doesn't go to the movies. Hirohito says the same thing, though the photo album makes his response not perfectly honest, and the question does nag at him. Something gives the next time he visits MacArthur, in a setting more sumptuous than the emperor's own quarters. Left alone for a moment, Hirohito can't resist an impulse to get up and start dancing around the room in what's obviously a directorial nod to The Great Dictator's globe dance and may also be intended as the emperor's own invocation of Chaplin.

The age of the dictators was also the age of Chaplin, a fact memorialized by The Great Dictator, in which the comedian acknowledged some affinity between himself as autocratic auteur and the arch-despot of Europe. As if exorcising some demon he saw in himself, Chaplin split himself in two for that film, playing a Tramp-like innocent as well as Adenoid Hynkel and saving for the climax the moment when the little man mounts the platform to preach to the world. With Hirohito, Sokurov seems to be attempting a re-synthesis of the two Chaplinesque figures. The Russian director is clearly intrigued by a paradox Chaplin had not imagined: the "little man" who happens to hold absolute power -- or something like it -- by right of birth. The closest the comedian came to that was the gag he created to amuse Douglas Fairbanks on the set of Robin Hood, when he had a massive drawbridge lowered across a moat so he could shuffle out and fetch the morning paper on the other side. And A King in New York is not quite the same thing as Sokurov's idea. Yet Chaplin seems to be a key to the resolution of the plot. Arguably, in being compared to Chaplin, even in mockery, Hirohito is still partaking of a kind of divine essence, one he appears to claim for himself by dancing in MacArthur's quarters. A formal renunciation of divinity is just a technicality. While Sokurov doesn't stress this point too much, the emperor will only exchange the mythological divinity of a god-king for the modern divinity of celebrity that Chaplin did much to define.

Pictorially speaking, the stunt nature of Russian Ark apparently concealed that Sokurov, on this film's evidence, isn't much of a cinematic stylist. While Hirohito's dream is an inspired moment, most of the CGI employed here to establish exteriors is much less impressive. Sokurov doesn't seem very interested in the composition of a frame, though some stagings, like the emperor's discovery of GIs on his front lawn, are nicely done. Most of the time the direction is fairly stiff, and the fact that the director is working in two foreign languages probably doesn't help things. An American viewer expects MacArthur to be a stronger, more flamboyant personality even if that doesn't fit Sokurov's scheme of things, but Robert Dawson is hopeless in what proves a thankless role. It's hard to appraise Ogata because of the tics Sokurov imposes on him, but at a minimum the actor keeps you interested in the character and earns a little pathos even as Hirohito proves something of a dunderhead or a boor. Finally, what Sokurov does well is convey ideas through images and editing in the honorable Russian tradition -- that is, if I've gotten the actual point of the film. If I have, it's an interesting enough point and one illustrated subtly enough to make The Sun stimulating viewing and prove Sokurov more than a one-hit wonder.

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