22 May 2008 | Bunuel1976
FLAME OF MY LOVE (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949) ***1/2
Equally well-known by another metaphorical name – MY LOVE HAS BEEN BURNING – this may be a period piece but it’s set in an era that was relatively recent at the time of filming, the 1880s; though a good many of Mizoguchi’s works that I’ve watched touched upon the political climate of their particular time-frame, this one revolves entirely around the efforts of a party (the Liberals) to push their personal agenda (promoting Women’s Rights) – which, being so radical, would necessitate a change in the country’s Constitution!
Again, the leading role is played by Kinuyo Tanaka and based on a real person: she quarrels with her conservative parents over her support of the Liberals; however, she can’t bring herself to follow her partner to Tokyo…until a friend of the family is sold into slavery to pay off her father’s debts! However, when she arrives in the big city and searches for her former companion, he seems changed and clearly considers her presence there intrusive; it transpires that he’s sold out to the Government and is spying on the Liberals (the Election being just around the corner)! Having struck a relationship with the leader of the party, she stays on; arriving at an appointed meeting-place one day, she sees her old girlfriend being beaten up (this must surely have been quite a shockingly violent scene for its time!) and tries to intervene – the latter, in contempt and desperation, burns down the place; the Police then turn up and arrest several people – including the heroine, her new partner and the young girl.
The two women share the same cell: the young girl, however, has grown bitter with the passage of time and is abrasive even to her caring older friend; still, together they endure hardship in the prison quarry – until it’s discovered that the young girl is pregnant (from the man who had bought her); she loses the baby…but, then, a General Amnesty of political prisoners is called and the three protagonists are re-united. With this, though, Tanaka’s problems merely take a different turn: her partner is exposed as a libertine who shamelessly keeps the young girl as a concubine (a situation revealed to her by the latter’s former master/lover)! Nevertheless, he’s elected to Parliament; disillusioned yet undaunted in her hope of one day getting to see Japanese women attain Equality, Tanaka ultimately decides to return to her hometown (a sequence tinged with irony as the heroine overhears some people praising the humanitarian qualities of the Liberal candidate!)…but, on the train, she’s joined by the young girl (who, realizing she was being exploited even by those who should know better, is looking forward to a more dignified existence).
While on paper all of this might seem less than appetizing (being a mix of politics and melodrama), Mizoguchi’s assured handling makes all the difference – resulting in a compelling portrait of an era, highlighted by impressively-staged crowd scenes and any number of powerful individual moments depicting tension, cruelty, heartache and faith.