Remembering Masterful Director Tai Kato


The American Cinematheque’s “Song of the Wandering Gambler: The Films of Tai Kato” rediscovers a major Japanese director who’s unfamiliar even to many aficionados. This is not surprising, because back in the ‘60s when Kato (1916-1985) was hitting his stride as a samurai and yakuza (gangster film) director, his studio, Toei, was not interested in attracting an international audience.

Watching a Kato picture is a pure pleasure. He is so much a master of genre that he can play with the conventions with great ease and create films of superb craftsmanship and personal style. Kato prefers low angles and tight compositions, combined with a fluid camera that places us in the midst of the action. Kato has been mentioned in the same breath with Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller--and such comparisons are not inappropriate. If at one time you saw Japanese period pictures regularly, Kato reminds you of what you’ve been missing: a fatalistic yet evolving vision of life, which in effect is akin to the catharsis evoked by Greek tragedy.

The series opens today at Raleigh Studios at 7:15 p.m. with “Red Peony Gambler--Flower Cards Match,” which stars elegant Junko Fuji as a gambler who applies for membership in a yakuza clan in Nagoya a century ago. Fuji’s Red Peony is as deferential yet confident as Eve Harrington in “All About Eve,” but as it turns out, she’s Mary Worth in a kimono, a figure of kindness and nobility, who in this instance tries to stave off a Romeo and Juliet fate for young lovers from warring clans. “Flower Cards Match” is the third in a series, and this film’s guest star is none other than the definitive yakuza, Ken Takakura, who gives Red Peony a run for her money in the nobility department. Also featured is another major star, Tomisaburo Wakayama, as a judo expert down on his luck.


The man of noble character shines in “Blood of Revenge” (1965), one of Kato’s finest films, which screens today at 9:30 p.m. Set in Osaka in 1907, it centers on a yakuza, Asajiro (Koji Tsurata), a man of honor, who must deal with a conflict over a prostitute while struggling to compete with another clan; both are hoping to go legitimate as the city is poised to develop its port for international trade.

“Fightin’ Tatsu the Rickshaw Man” (Saturday at 7:15 p.m.) injects a lighter note into a yakuza tale as fiercely free-spirited Tatsu (Ryohei Uchida) arrives in Osaka in 1898 from Edo with the first rubber-wheeled rickshaw the city has ever seen. Far from happy about his arrival is the Nishikawa yakuza clan, which has a lock on the rickshaw business emanating from the busy main train station, a Victorian-style structure that is a centerpiece of an entire vintage urban setting, beautifully re-created and melded subtly with actual period locales.

So obstreperous is Tatsu that he tosses a customer, a young woman, off a bridge only to realize he’s been struck by love at first sight about the time she hits the river below. She’s a geisha about to be whisked off to a hot spring by the Nishikawa clan’s leader.

The knockabout romance between Tatsu and the geisha frames a series of incidents and characters in which Tatsu matures and proves his mettle without ever becoming a yakuza. There’s much in “Fightin’ Tatsu” that brings to mind Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” and at times its take on workings of romantic comedy seems positively Shakespearean in its robust complexity. This outstanding 1964 film glows in luminous wide-screen black and white.

It will be followed at 9:30 with another of Kato’s finest, “Tokijiro of Kustsukake--Lone Yakuza” (1966), which stars “Bushido’s” Kinnosuke Nakamura as a swordsman who finds himself responsible for the wife and son of the man he has killed and the late Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san, as his comical sidekick. (213) 466-FILM.


The Nuart’s Festival Hong Kong opens with a 25th anniversary presentation of “Enter the Dragon,” the film that put both kung fu and Bruce Lee on the map. As an actor, Lee could scarcely muster more than a sneer at villains, but he was great-looking, and so graceful, the Astaire of martial arts. “Enter the Dragon” is an efficient action-thriller in which Lee attempts to break into a mysterious island fortress where a secret martial-arts tournament is being held. Look for Chuck Norris in a brief appearance. The opening-night screening of “Enter the Dragon,” which runs through Sunday, will be introduced by Lee’s co-star, John Saxon.

Following on Monday and Tuesday will be Ching Siu Ting’s 1996 “Dr. Wai in the Scripture With No Words,” starring Jet Li. While it certainly has style and considerable scope, it’s tedious when compared to such light, fanciful collaborations as Ching and Li’s “A Chinese Ghost Story.” Li stars as writer who’s trying to envision an Indiana Jones-type adventure fantasy just as his wife leaves him.

The ways in which the shape and direction of his story, set around the time of the outbreak of World War II, are affected by the writer’s tumultuous personal life is a fresh idea, but is not so clever as to offset the staleness of Indiana Jones takeoffs and a plot that has more talk than martial arts. Playing with it is “Forbidden City Cop,” unavailable for preview.

Corey Yuen’s 1997 “Hero” (Wednesday and Thursday) is energetic but primitive, more mechanical than inspired. Takeshi Kaneshiro stars as Ma Wing Jing, who with his brother (Yuen Biao) is driven from drought-ridden Shantung to seek their fortunes in pre-World War II Shanghai, where Ma’s martial arts skills and quick wits lead to a phenomenally fast rise in the underworld. But with success come a loss of perspective and inevitable betrayal.

Kaneshiro has a magnetic presence, there are lots of authentic vintage Shanghai locales, but Yuen comes up with nothing fresh or original to justify hauling out this old plot again. Playing with it is another Kaneshiro starrer, “Downtown Torpedoes,” unavailable for preview.

Friday and Saturday brings Jackie Chan’s 1980 “Young Master” and “Once Upon a Time in China and America,” the latest in the popular Jet Li series--and unavailable for preview. The festival may well be saving the best for last by closing Sunday with a terrific John Woo double feature, “Hard-Boiled” (1992) and “Once a Thief” (1991) and both starring charismatic Chow Yun-Fat. (310) 478-6379.


The mere mention of New York’s South Bronx conveys an instant image of blocks of burned-out buildings and vacant lots, a place of constant danger and chronic despair. Then along comes Charlie Ahearn’s “Wild Style” (Filmforum Saturday at 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd.), a joyous little 1983 picture as infectious as it is unexpected, to stand this impression on end.

To be sure, the setting still looks like Berlin at the end of World War II, but “Wild Style” celebrates a flowering of an indigenous youth culture amid the rubble. It’s composed of graffiti art, rap singing and break-dancing. To convey the breadth and vitality of this phenomenon (on the most slender of budgets), Ahearn combines documentary-like observation with a story line so slight it could be blown away.

Ahearn asks his actors to pretty much play themselves. His likable young hero, Raymond, is played by George “Lee” Quinones, who actually is a celebrated graffiti artist, as is Sandra “Pink” Fabara, who plays his girlfriend and rival muralist. Raymond has created an alter ego for himself, Zoro, an elusive figure who does terrific work in the darkness of night. In the course of “Wild Style,” Raymond-cum-Zoro becomes more involved with his community, culminating in his agreement to paint murals on a ravaged Art Deco amphitheater for a concert featuring local talent.

Against the innocence of this Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “let’s-put-on-a-show” plot, “Wild Style” deftly accomplishes a bit of consciousness-raising. First of all it suggests a new way of looking at graffiti. To be sure, much of what flourishes on the walls of Los Angeles and parts of New York can be described only as noxious defacement. But there, as here, graffiti can lead to vibrant murals, which in this film have a comic strip-Pop Art look. And when Zoro is finished with a subway train, it does look like a work of art.

“Wild Style” also pinpoints that moment when folk art and its artists are in danger of being co-opted by the establishment. Raymond looks askance at graffiti art painted on canvases and hung in galleries. Part of being a graffiti artist, he says, involves taking risks: “You gotta go out and paint and be called an outlaw at the same time.” Yet he and the rappers, those street poets with their rhymed chants and responses, and the break dancers with their acrobatic exuberance, wouldn’t mind some publicity--and money--for their uplifting efforts.

It’s fortunate that there’s so much gusto in the people of “Wild Style,” for the film rambles on like a home movie. Although Ahearn was wise to keep thespian demands on his nonprofessional actors to a bare minimum, “Wild Style” suggests that he’s got lots to learn about the filmmaking craft. Luckily, there’s a jagged spontaneity to “Wild Style” that goes with the scruffy street art and culture that it celebrates. (213) 526-2911.