Sunday, 22 February 2015

Just watched: Kuroi Tobakushi

I would recommend this 1965 film only as a period piece rather than an example of exciting story-telling. Coming from an age where men were real men and women were real women, etc, part of the joy of this film is watching stuff that simply wouldn’t be allowed these days. Women are there to be slapped, kissed or saved. Men scowl menacingly or laugh loudly for no readily apparent reason. And everyone smokes, especially in bed.

The film is about a famous gambler (the film's English title is The Black Gambler), and how he finds himself caught up in games with increasingly high stakes as he tries to get a friend out of debt. He’s a cheat but so are his opponents. This, at least, solves one big problem with gambling dramas: you need to end on a big hand. Something like four aces against a full house. Except that almost never happens in real life. But if everyone’s a card shark, then it can happen whenever you want and it doesn’t seem absurd.

It starts very well as it moves quickly from one method of gambling to another (poker, horse-racing, bridge) and most scenes are fairly tense. The film has an international feel, too. French and English dialogue mingles with Japanese. But towards the end, the film relies more and more on flight scenes and it ends not with the turn of a card but with our heroes trapped on a roof surrounded by armed gangsters. It would’ve been nice if they’d stuck to the gambling, like a proto-version of Liar Game.

Also, there’s an interesting glimpse into the Japanese psyche of the time. Japan was just coming out of recession and starting to return to the world stage, where it felt it should belong. There’s a scene where the room shakes. All the westerners panic, but they are calmed down when it is explained to them that it is just construction work on a subway and he adds “It’s to make Japan a first class nation.” A neat example of the low-self esteem that seemed to run through Japanese society back in those times.

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