September 30, 2009

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

(Sally Hawkins plays Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky.)

In Mike Leigh's 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, actress Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a 30-year-old primary school teacher living in London who is happy, all the time. The film is about nothing more, nothing less. Anyone reading this will undoubtedly wonder if they would be able to stomach such a film -- who can even begin to understand a character who is perpetually happy? But Hawkins brings Poppy to life in a way that is both believable and deeply human.

Poppy goofing around at school.

Films mining despair are a dime a dozen, yet happiness has never received the same kind of treatment. (Though no-one can be blamed for not trying.) Happiness in cinema is relegated to marking milestones, or emphasizing a character's high followed by a crushing low. Happy , sunny female characters in particular mostly inhabit romantic comedies, flashing goofy grins and giggling girlishly but rarely revealing any sort of emotional landscape.

Poppy cheerful in town.

Poppy definitely likes to smile, and she laughs frequently and raucously. She's quick with a joke, non-judgmental, and friendly to everyone. Hawkins is loose and natural, yet she has very carefully created a character whose happiness has no agenda, and is not a show. She's not some corny sap forever counting her blessings. She's not pretending to be happy while hiding a hideous past. She's not oblivious to the less-than-pleasant things in the world. She just is. So comfortable in her own skin is she, a younger sister who is married and pregnant is compelled to yell at her about pensions and babies and mortgages in an attempt to burst her bubble with reality. It doesn't really work.


It's a sink-or-swim performance, and Hawkins pulls it off with aplomb, bringing out all the different shadings of emotion manifest in happiness. Happy-Go-Lucky isn't the type of film that sprinkles fairy dust all over its viewers to leave them feeling warm and glowy. But its down-to-earth charms are perhaps more effective than old-fashioned movie magic: you walk away feeling that it's possible to try this at home.

September 27, 2009

Audrey Tautou in Coco avant Chanel

 Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in Coco avant Chanel.

Coco Before Chanel

One suspects that a role like Amelie, of the 2001 movie that turned Audrey Tautou into an international star, would make an actor easy to dismiss. But in Coco avant Chanel, Tautou channels a tough-as-nails determination as iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel that is worlds away from the impish, scheming gamine Amelie Poulain. For Tautou, it's all in the eyes: in Amelie, they were forever twinkling with delight, sharing a private wink with the audience. In Dirty Pretty Things (2002), she played a Turkish refugee in London seeking to sell her kidney on the black market. Throughout the film, her eyes were frightened but alert, betraying a victimized woman who could never let her guard down. Her transformation into Chanel is once again characterized by the way she uses those big dark eyes. There is nary a trace of a shrinking violet here, on the contrary, the directness and intensity of her gaze is almost startling.

Tautou dancing with Alessandro Nivola, who plays her lover Arthur Capel.

A rare biopic that doesn't let the narrative zig and zag by tracing its subject's highs and lows, much of the film finds pre-fame, pre-designer Chanel staying at the estate of her patron Etienne de Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who literally makes her sing for her supper. Slowly, she acquaints herself with high society life. With her keen eye, she studies the lifestyles and fashion of the privileged, observing their lavish gatherings and the various accouterments that materialize with each excuse to party. Intuiting that the fussy and constricting styles of the time needed to be shaken up, she gradually cuts a path for herself in the fashion world with her straw hats and stark, austere outfits. To see her dancing in a corset-free black dress amid a sea of white lace, feathers, and frou-frou flowers is to fully understand just how groundbreaking her style was. The act of observing and learning, then, becomes a gateway to her success, and modern style as we know it.

Nook and Cranny

Near the waterfall at Shosenkyo gorge in Yamanashi prefecture, where there appears to be an ongoing tradition of shoving 1 yen coins in every possible crevice (and of course throwing them into the river as well). The coins are probably holding all the rocks together.

September 25, 2009

I Asked

I asked the station master at Yoyogikoen station why there is a freezer at the end of the train platform. Apparently, the train conductors like to store disposable hand wipes in there so they can wipe their faces in between train stops. But this is done only in summer, when the heat is unbearable. When I looked today, the freezer was gone. That must mean it's autumn.

September 24, 2009

A Map of the Girls' Bathroom

The second floor of the girls' bathroom in Lumine shopping center in Shinjuku. A nice marriage of design and function.

September 22, 2009

Godzilla with Acquired Tastes

(Shosenkyo gorge near Kofu, Yamanashi.)

In front of the many gift shops in Shosenkyo gorge, a Godzilla with an appetite for vanilla and Kyoho grape (a Yamanashi specialty) ice cream.

September 15, 2009

September 14, 2009

Ego Boost

This dog and owner routine: walk down a busy street in Ginza, "abandon" dog for 10-minute stretches, letting the crowd ooh and ahh over its cuteness. Make them wonder where the owner is. Then swoop in holding a tiny tote bag. Make sure your tiny dog neatly jumps into said tiny tote bag. Send the spectators squealing in delight; walk away. Walk 20 meters and repeat.

September 13, 2009


The façade of the new Lanvin store in Ginza, opening next month.

September 12, 2009

The Goya Life Cycle

My "life" project growing goya (bitter melon) has come to an end.
And then, it gets freaky.

Apparently, the red seeds are edible. They tasted like large cucumber seeds coated in faintly sweet gelatin.

The Shadow is Darker

A koto (the 13-stringed instrument in the above photo), shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese banjo), biwa (Japanese lute) repair shop in Kamiyama-cho. On any given day, there is a man kneeling at a low desk, tinkering with an ancient-looking instrument. Nice to know business is steady.

September 6, 2009

Grey Gardens (1975)

"The Libra husband is not an easy man to please." -- Edie Beale reads a book on horoscopes with a magnifying glass.

Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, focused on the bizarre lifestyles of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, Big Edie and Little Edie respectively. Born into money and privilege (Big Edie was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's aunt, Little Edie her first cousin), they lived together in a once-luxurious East Hampton house (the Grey Gardens of the title), two eccentrics virtually isolated from the world.

Big Edie in bed.

Had Grey Gardens been fiction, it would have been a pure romp. Picture 80-year-old Big Edie sitting up in a bed in a filthy room, her glasses askew and eyes oddly magnified. She sings along to old records, warbling "Tea for Two" in her high voice. 56-year-old Little Edie (who, for the record, looks at least a decade younger) walks around in swimsuits and headscarves pinned with a brooch on the top of her head. Cats freely roam the house, and the raccoons in the attic are generously supplied with an entire bag of Wonder Bread.

A portrait of a much-younger Big Edie.

But in the real world of the Beales, the viewer immediately grasps what little joy the two have in their lives. Not raised to lead a life where they would have to support themselves, let alone each other, they have let the house fall into utter disrepair, a glorified hell-hole with only their antiques, family heirlooms, and assorted critters for company. With nothing to do and little to look forward to, the Edies are reduced to reminiscing about their past. Portraits and photos reveal that both women were once beautiful. Maysles repeatedly comes back to these portraits, zooming into their pretty, placid faces. But the large portrait of Big Edie is now propped up against a wall, useful only as a cover for the cats to defecate behind. 

A black-and-white photo of a young Little Edie.

Meanwhile, Little Edie flips through a scrapbook, showing photos of her 24-year-old self in a fashion show. A failed singer and actress, she can only mourn the fate that brought her to East Hampton 20 years ago to take care of her mother. Anxious, frustrated, and perhaps a little delusional, she angrily recalls the life she left behind, and how close she was to becoming a star. Whispering a confessional to the camera about a marriage proposal she had decades ago, she's Norma Desmond in a printed headscarf.

With only a handful of scenes shot outside the house (but still within its perimeters), after a while, claustrophobia sets in. You want to escape the Edies, Little Edie with her neverending moaning about wanting to move back to New York, and the seemingly inexhaustible Big Edie yelling for her off-camera. Their
conversations are worn out, the same words exchanged many times over to the point where they hold parallel conversations, each venting their agonies to the unlistening other.

Grey Gardens: The Criterion Collection

Yet, over the years, Grey Gardens has achieved cult status, and interest in the Beales has only increased. A musical based on the documentary debuted in 2006, and an HBO film of the same title was released early this year, with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore playing Big and Little Edie. And through it all, Little Edie has quietly become an unlikely fashion icon, a poster girl of dressing however you damn well please. There is something bittersweet about being "inspired" by a woman who was clearly living in despair, though Little Edie, who died in 2002, would have been delighted. Do you want to dress like Little Edie? Then live a life of disappointments, desperation, and loneliness. See what you come up with.

September 5, 2009

Kinda Nasty S&M Dolls

(In Kamiyamacho.)

Bound and gagged dolls held in captivity behind a grate. Generally hidden behind a taco stand that materializes around lunchtime. But really only visible if walking with your eyes peeled. I almost have a problem with this.