Ogawa/Peng's Red Persimmons in NY

Mark Nornes amnornes
Mon Mar 1 10:52:09 EST 2004


Film Forum will be showing Ogawa Shinsuke's posthumous film, 
co-directed with Peng Xiaolian.

Here is the info:

Red Persimmons Wanderings
Directed by Ogawa Shinsuke & Peng Xiaolian
Japan 2001 90min. in Lapanese with English subtirles
March 31 - April 6
1 week
1:00, 2:45, 4:30, 6:15, 8:10, 10:10
(212)727-8110  www.filmforum.com
Admission:?10 non-members / $5 members

And here is a short section from my Ogawa manuscript on the film.


Piles of Persimmons

The other film that went into production at the end of the decade was 
Peng Xiao-liang?s Manzan Benigaki (which might be translated Piles of 
Persimmons; the initial title was Benigaki henreki, or Red Persimmon 
Wanderings, 2001). Shiraishi was the driving force behind this film, a 
project that began a few years after Ogawa?s passing. In essence, it 
completes a film where Ogawa left off, as it finishes one of the 
segments from Sundial of a Thousand Years which Ogawa dropped on the 
cutting room floor.
In 1984, Ogawa Productions collected stories about persimmons, one of 
the delicacies Yamagata is known for. Each fall around the time the 
leaves change, the persimmons ripen to a deep red-orange. They remain 
on the trees long after the leaves have been dropped, making for a 
spectacle of bare branches decorated with persimmons, fireworks of 
fruit covering the mountainsides. They shot most of the footage they 
needed, and Ogawa got as far as organizing the footage into a rough 
outline, first on paper and then in a rough cut of their footage. 
However, by this point they already knew they had a massive film on 
their hands and something had to be taken out. The first cut of Sundial 
of a Thousand Years was extremely rough, and members joke that would 
have taken days to screen; apparently, it was some 10 hours in length. 
The second, finer cut was about five and a half hours long, two hours 
away from the final running time. Twenty minutes of this was Ogawa?s 
initial version of the persimmons story. Something had to go and this 
was one of the sections they decided to drop, much as it hurt to do so. 
Ogawa shelved his four hours of rushes, but always considered it a pet 
project on the back burner. He wrote a detailed continuity and intended 
to return to it before his illness cut all plans short. Shiraishi 
revived the project in the mid-1990s--perhaps as a way of resurrecting 
her filmmaking collaboration with her husband--and called Peng 
Xiao-liang in from Shanghai to direct.
It was an appropriate choice, since this was one of the directors Ogawa 
stakes much hope on in his turn outward to Asia. Peng was one of the 
women directors that emerged in mainland China?s 5th generation, and is 
well-known for her films Three Women and ____. She first met Ogawa at 
the Hawai?i International Film Festival in 1988, which was, 
interestingly enough, the event where I met both directors. Later, she 
caught up with him once more at the Turim International Film Festival, 
where she was able to watch Sundial of a Thousand Years. Impressed, she 
began to consider attempting some kind of docu-drama herself. When 
Ogawa heard this, he encouraged her to attempt a full-fledged 
documentary in this mode and to shoot it in Japan.
Over the next couple years, they corresponded while Peng developed her 
idea as a graduate student at the New York University film school. She 
wanted to make a film on Chinese students who were studying at Japanese 
universities, and the title was to be My Dream Japan. Ogawa liked the 
idea, especially for the way it tied the contemporary flow of Chinese 
immigrants into Japan to the previous (forced) movement of Chinese 
during World War II. Ogawa started contacting critics and other people 
to create a working committee for the project, and Ogawa and producer 
Fuseya completed the complicated process of securing a long-term visa 
for a Chinese national. Despite their financial straits, they provided 
Peng an airplane ticket and allowed her to stay in the Ogikubo 
apartment while initiating the research for her film. Unfortunately, 
Ogawa became sick in the middle of this project and it was never 
However, the experience had an enormous impact on Peng. She eventually 
returned to mainland China, making films for the Shanghai film studio 
and writing books and essays. In 1996 she published a book about her 
encounter with Ogawa. Entitled Burning Attachment, it uses two intense 
relationships to discuss the her feelings toward Japan. Like many 
Chinese, Peng harbored a strong dislike for Japan, thanks to both the 
violence of Japan?s wartime invasion and also to the continual 
retelling of these stories of horror. Peng?s family was deeply affected 
by the wartime experience. Both her mother and father were arrested, 
and her mother was particularly mistreated while in Japanese hands. The 
first part of the book explores how this lead to Peng?s hatred of the 
Japanese. The second discusses the way she met Ogawa, lived in their 
apartment with the crew, and she learned to change her attitude about 
Japan. A French producer has actually inquired about the possibility of 
adapting the book into a feature film.
Peng?s deep admiration for Ogawa made it difficult to accept the 
assignment to finish the film on persimmons. The continuity that Ogawa 
produced was very much in the spirit of Furuyashiki Village and Sundial 
of a Thousand Years. On the surface it is a film describing the details 
of persimmon farming, punctuated by amusing storytelling from various 
villagers. For example, one old man ends a discourse on persimmon 
farming with a story about the first American soldiers to reach the 
village in the fall of 1945. Tempted by this good looking fruit, they 
stole some off the trees and took a bite. Much to the amusement of the 
farmers, the Americans immediately spit the fruit out, not knowing that 
persimmons are remarkably astringent before drying. The old man laughs 
at the memory and finishes off the story with clever symmetry. The 
Americans left cans of ketchup with the villagers, who had no idea how 
to cook with it. They tried eating the ketchup with spoons, and then 
immediately spit it out and fed it all to the livestock. As in previous 
Ogawa Pro films, this storytelling breathes historical life into the 
present-day images of nondescript villages. Furthermore, the stories 
serve to underline larger issues without resorting to pedantic, 
expository modes of documentary. In these persimmon orchards, they 
discover the dawning of modernity in village Japan. The parade of 
elderly farmers narrate the mechanization of persimmon farming, and how 
a simple fascination with new machines underwrote a massive shift in 
daily life.
Ogawa begins by introducing the basic process of peeling and drying the 
persimmons, starting with the traditional way of peeling with a knife. 
An old woman demonstrates how easy it was to cut one?s thumb back in 
the 1920s, when her new mother-in-law taught her how to do it. Then she 
shows a notched knife that pivots around the persimmon?s stem for more 
control, an invention fabricated by her husband for the sake of her 
thumb. After this, much of the film is devoted to the elaboration of 
more efficient methods through mechanization. They interview an elderly 
man who invented a peeling machine back in 1931. Basically, he took 
bicycle parts to a local blacksmith. The end product looked like a 
small stand with a handle driving bicycle gears that rotate a persimmon 
impaled on a spindle. As the persimmon spins they simply draw a small 
blade across the surface of the fruit, enabling them to peel it with a 
couple turns of the handle. By the end of the film, other farmers have 
invented electric peelers elaborating the initial idea.
Just as Sundial of a Thousand Years was ultimately about finding the 
universe in a typical rice paddy, Manzan Benigaki strove to discover 
the dawn of modernity in Yamagata in its orchards. The inventor of the 
first peeler describes how he was ?machine mad.? And it was thanks to 
this thrill with modernization that persimmons could be produced in 
large enough quantities to become a major cash crop. One scene shows a 
broker in the present-day negotiating a price with a distant buyer over 
the phone, and then coming to an agreement with a local farmer over a 
space heater and sake. This is followed by an interview with an old 
woman who tells a story about how her mother became the first persimmon 
broker back in the 1910s. Through this process detailed in the film 
largely through storytelling, these small Yamagata villages come to 
engage in the national economy, a market that drives them to spend 
valuable labor on packaging and waste incredible amounts of food 
because the shape of the fruit by not be just right.
The film also has the self-reflexivity of Ogawa?s Sundial of a Thousand 
Years. One of the most memorable scenes is set during the photography 
of a time-lapse sequence at a huge drying rack. As Nosaka and Ogawa 
patiently stand around the camera, clicking frames off at regular 
intervals, an old farmer strolls up and they introduce themselves: ?Oh, 
you?re Ogawa from Magino?? asks the old man, ?You?re famous!? Their 
conversation swiftly turns into one of Ogawa?s interviews, showing the 
director?s knack for provoking fascinating conversation from villagers. 
When Ogawa says he heard this village was famous for its dried 
persimmons, the old man starts sharing his intricate knowledge about 
the reasons why--why the sun, wind, and soil are just right, why there 
are dry conditions and little mist, why all the factors that go into 
good persimmons happily converge on this particular spot. The sequence 
ends with the footage they were shooting in time lapse, showing the 
shadows of a thousand persimmons shifting with the arcing of the sun.
Peng builds Ogawa?s approach to reflexivity into her own film. The 
scenes bookending the film turn us to both Ogawa and the farmers. In 
the introduction, Peng and her crew set up a portable screen and watch 
the rushes they had to work with. At the film?s end, a flatbed editor 
shows freeze-frames of familiar faces from the film we just watched. 
Subtitles mark the year each person died. The last face is Ogawa?s.
Because so many of the people in this film had passed away between the 
initial filming and the film?s realization, the project took on a 
solemnity that appeared to paralyze Peng. Shiraishi had envisioned a 
50-50 mix of Ogawa?s and Peng?s footage, with the latter commenting 
somehow on the former. However, during the shooting the Chinese 
director was torn over her relationship to the earlier footage. It was 
intimidating to deal with the film of someone she respected so much. 
Thus, in the process of translating Ogawa?s continuity into Chinese, 
Peng converting it into her own rough script, and translating this back 
again into Japanese, the contours of a frame became distinct. Peng felt 
compelled to suppress her power as director and retain Ogawa?s vision 
as closely as possible. She and her cinematographer Jong Lin (Wedding 
Banquet, 1992; Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, 1994) studied Tamura?s work, 
imagining they were his disciples. Even though 60 to 65% of the footage 
was shot by Tamura, one cannot tell where Tamura?s footage stops and 
Lin?s begins. The only trace of Peng is relegated to the reflexive 
homages book ending the film. While Privilege has the ironic feeling of 
being Ogawa Pro?s last film, Manzan Benigaki actually leaves one with 
the impression that Ogawa channeled himself through Peng. Indeed, My 
Dream Japan was the closest Ogawa came to his dream of a pan-Asian 
documentary scene. With Manzan Benigaki, Peng accomplishes more than 
simply bringing Ogawa?s film to completion. She also stands in for the 
pan-Asian collective Ogawa hoped for--Ogawa?s Dream Japan.
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