The Yokohama Museum of Art, the main venue for the Yokohama Triennale, which runs until November 3rd, is showing the 2013 film for the first time in Asia.
Winter, Beirut. On a beach littered with cans washed up from the sea, Lili and Michel meet. Or perhaps they know each other from before… As they struggle to piece together the fragments of an uncertain past, memories emerge: an act of terrorism, an explosion and the disappearance of a child, Elena.
Woven throughout these fragments is the deep voice of a Japanese narrator who recounts his own experience of a weeping Beirut, and his 27 clandestine years fighting alongside the Palestinians as a member of the Japanese Red Army. His voiceover shapes Michel and Lili’s story, their fate dictated by the enigma created for them by this narrator who turns out to be legendary Japanese New Wave filmmaker Masao Adachi.
Baudelaire is French but was born in America in 1973. It is not the first time he has worked with Adachi or turned to the Japanese Red Army for inspiration. His acclaimed The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images examined imagery and the representation of the three political figures.
Masao Adachi, screenwriter for Nagisa Oshima and Kôji Wakamatsu, and former member of the Japanese Red Army terrorist organisation, had not been commissioned to write an original screenplay since 1972. Pursuing a collaboration that began when I made a documentary about him in 2011, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, I asked Adachi to write a script for a feature film I planned to shoot during an exhibition at the Beirut Art Center in February 2013.
Commissioning this screenplay inverted the dynamics of my first film with Masao Adachi. The Anabasis… explored the itinerary of its protagonists between cinema and terrorism by opening fictional and subjective spaces within a documentary form. The Ugly One, a second chapter that mirrors the first, explores the biographical and documentary possibilities of a fiction film. At the onset of the project I wanted to formalise the complex relationship Adachi and I have developed — a playful and creative antagonism — with a particular protocol of filmmaking.
There is perhaps no greater representation of the complex of the leftist artist in modern times in Japan than Adachi, who went from being a fellow traveller film director to full-out activist and member of the JRA in the 1970s through to his arrest in Lebanon in the 1990s. He was ultimately extradited to Japan in 2000 and served a short sentence for passport violations.
The shoot for The Ugly One lasted 12 days. The film stars Rabih Mroué, the renowned Lebanese theatre artist, and Juliette Navis. It is narrated by Adachi.
Adachi is unable to travel; the government refuses to grant him a passport, curtailing his activities as a film-maker. “I’m under the imprisonment of the Japanese state,” Adachi has said.
However, this practical difficulty feeds into the themes of the work, with Baudelaire and Adachi in both collaboration and conflict. Adachi and the script are contained in Japan; the shoot and Baudelaire are in Beirut. These gaps between screenplay and shoot (and by extension, fiction and reality) become apparent as the director breaks away from Adachi’s instructions. Film is always a collaborative medium, like revolutionary politics, but where does working together end and working against each other begin? The question could equally be applied to much of Japan’s highly sectarian New Left activism.
The result is part documentary, part meta-film, part love story, part political fable.
The title apparently comes from an anecdote told by Adachi about how the Japanese police did not initially know who he was. Instead they used his Arab name — most Japanese activists in the Middle East took Arab nom de guerre — and wrote “the ugly one”.
Sadly for The Ugly One, it never ceases to amaze me why curators insist on programming feature-length films at large art festivals. When you have a full art museum’s worth of exhibits to get through, you won’t want to sit down for two hours to see a film, not least because the ticketing system at the Yokohama Triennale only allows you to visit each venue once on the same pass.
Even if you are lucky enough to catch the film at the start of its sporadic daily screening schedule (I wasn’t), I expect almost only the hardiest of visitors would be willing then to give 120 minutes to it knowing they still have the rest of the main venue to see, let alone the other venues and satellite events around Yokohama.
Much more sensible would have been to program the film at a separate venue for a certain number of screenings over the course of the Triennale, which could be seen either using the same pass or for a modest additional fee. Of course, that takes the film out of its place within the rest of the exhibits programmed in that section of the Triennale, but it is frustrating to see such impractical and unrealistic approaches at major exhibitions and festivals, wasting the value of including the film in Triennale in the first place.
Hopefully there will be other chances for Japanese audiences to see both The Ugly One and The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images in the near future.