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Berlinale 2008: "Secret Behind the Walls" (Wakamatsu, Japan)

A riotous, remarkable film.
Secret Behind the Walls

Every festival should follow the lead of Berlinale and make a habit out of screening retrospective works of long established directors who are there to show their new films. I, for example, was not familiar with the work of Wakamatsu Koji (such as the so memorably titled pink film, Go Go Second Time Virgin), and would have approached the Berlinale screening of his new film United Red Army in almost total ignorance if the festival had not so thoughtfully programmed a handful of Wakamatsu's earlier works as well.

While the other films in the short retrospective have been available on video for some time, Secrets Behind the Walls (1965) is being shown apparently for the first time ever with English subtitles. It is a riotous, remarkable film, and I hope it suggests the radicalism, satire, and pleasures to come in United Red Army. Imagining a cross between one of Jean-Luc Godard's more low-budget, intimate films of the 1960s (specifically the contemporaneous A Married Woman) and Japan's softcore pink films and you might have a picture of the strange mixture Wakamatsu has here cooked up.

Taking place in the cramped confines of a large, carbon-copied and numerically designated apartment complex, Wakamatsu's minute film focuses on the sense of imprisonment, impotency, and frustration of post-World War 2 Japanese. Indicative of the film’s combination of trashy skinflick and political indictment, these frustrations have as much to do with sex as the current sad stage of politics, peace, and the possibility for the future of the world. In fact, what Wakamatsu does here is intrinsically link sexuality with political livelihood, entwining the idealism, desires, and utopias of one with the other, likewise evoking the bitter disappointments and frantic desperation both can produce.

A stifled housewife makes up for the lame relationship with her union boss husband by having an increasingly unsatisfying affair with her old flame from student days. Scarred by Hiroshima and once an aggressively leftist activist (in fragmented shots most resembling the Godard film, the couple would make love under a giant poster of Stalin), her lover from the old days is involved in an irony so unlikely it would make JLG smile: he now makes his money in the stock market off the Vietnam War. He comes over to the cramped apartment of the housewife less for the past shared as rabid leftists or for their long extinguished love than for a series of almost abstract sex scenes, fragments of a variety of implied penetrations, orgasms, and tight close-ups of the actress’ tilted, cooing face. Above them lives a lonely woman constantly looking to score, even, apparently, with other stymied women like herself, and across the way the picture of total failure in the realms of sex and life is completed by a student who, frustrated, bored, and claustrophobic from studying, spends his time peeping at his neighbors, eying his increasingly sexually active sister, and masturbating to American porno magazines.

It all sounds a bit sordid, I admit, but Wakamatsu treats the sex with a vivid pretension that seems equal parts art-house aspirations and classy, suggestive light porno. Likewise, the over-heated drama is tempered by a sardonic, blunt, and oft-times purposefully silly sexuality, as well as a forceful, droll sense of everyone's pent-up frustrations. (“I want to get out of here" the housewife cries, only to be answered "And go where? It's the same small room and walls all over Japan.")

This indulgent sexuality is so exploited, yet it is so devoted to the film’s political sense that despite Secret Behind the Wall’s sometimes tactlessness, it nevertheless has a stagnant richness about it. The characters' dashed dreams past and present—love, success, peace—give the film a sharp political thrust, which is all the more compelling considering the film's general lack of story, its collage-in-miniature picture of the cramped apartments, and the deft mixture of eroticism and a bitter, almost satiric attitude towards the sordid material and these sad stereotypes. That violence erupts—self-destructive, of course—in a mixture of foiled politics and sex is no surprise in a movie that has the gall to lay archival footage of a peace protest over the orgasmic face of our once-idealist heroine. This is less a manifesto or even the multi-threaded collage the Godard reference implies, but rather a strange, explosive mixture of genres and extremes, producing a kinky, funny, uncomfortable, and most of all unique kind of erotic (or should we say political?) film.

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