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THOUGH IT'S a fusion of two well-known 18th-century stories, Kenji Mizoguchi's morality tale - set in 16th-century Japan - is possessed of flawless clarity. Two peasants, Genjuro and Tobei (Masayuki Mori and Sakae Ozawa) seek their fortunes in the civil war that grips the country - Genjuro the potter in the new markets for his wares, and Tobei the would-be samurai with the local warlords.
The pair's upwardly mobile ambitions don't impress their wives, though, and it's they, inevitably, who end up paying the highest price for their husbands' vanity.
The fluidity of Mizoguchi's directing won the film instant plaudits on its release in 1953 and more than 40 years later, its status as one of the greats of cinema remains untarnished.
As befits a painter, Mizoguchi composes the misadventures of the peasants as a series of progressive tableaux. If that sounds stilted, Mizoguchi's superb direction manages to sweep the audience from scene to scene, the poise of the camera-work only occasionally augmented by a virtuoso dissolve or pan.
Mizoguchi proves that he has a grasp of tone equal to his technical grace: scenes of naturalistic detail (such as the potter at his wheel) follow hypnotic visions of supernatural possession without the slightest incongruity.
Junk Mail (15)
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WHEN ROY, a postman (Robert Skjaestad) isn't dumping the mail he can't be bothered to deliver, he entertains himself by opening it. The rest of the Norwegian postal service don't exactly inspire confidence either. They booze, they lech, they gamble - anything but deliver letters.
The chance discovery of a set of house keys belonging to a young deaf woman offers Roy the chance of further sordid snooping. Unknown to the woman, Line (Andrine Saether), Roy frequently returns to the flat, even passing it off as his bachelor pad on one occasion.
Inevitably, their lives collide. Roy stumbles across a suicide attempt by Line and saves her life. Smitten, the hapless postman finds himself embroiled in a murderous intrigue involving Line and her violent boyfriend, Georg (Per Egil Aske).
The first-time writer-director, Pal Sletaune, casts this tale in a world of unrelenting municipal grubbiness. His comic touch is therefore all the more gratifying. The postal worker karaoke night out is a gem, as is Georg's assault by two of the densest thugs in Norway. Nevertheless, Sletaune keeps as tight a rein on the Scandinavian whimsy as he does on his black yarn, which is spun with deft economy.
Oscar & Lucinda (15)
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ON A steamer to Australia, an unworldly young Anglican cleric, Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes) agrees to hear the confession of a highly individual antipodean, Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett), the heir to a Sydney glass factory. Before long, they're united in their love of gambling.
We witness scenes from their childhoods and learn that Oscar, no matter how much money he gives to charity, feels that his compulsive gambling betrays his harsh Protestant upbringing.
Lucinda, on the other hand, has found no better expression for her disdain of polite Sydney society. A deep affection soon builds between the two of them, but Oscar believes that a final mad bet with Lucinda is required to prove that he, and not a wavering Australian priest (Ciaran Hinds), is the man for her.
Gillian Armstrong's adaptation understandably lacks the narrative complexity of Peter Carey's novel. It's a spirited and engaging transfer, nonetheless, with Armstrong having to hurry in the early stages of the film to ensure that all the correct psychological baggage is stowed away before Oscar and Lucinda embark on their final wager.
Up to that point, the alert performances of Fiennes and Blanchett provide the main focus. Once in the outback, though, the Herculean nature of Oscar's task supplies the last third of the film with its own engrossing impetus.