Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959)

Woops! This was supposed to run in Metro Times last week to alert readers of this rare screening on TCM but it didn't make the cut.

Crimson KimonoTurner Classic Movies “Asian Images in Film” series includes a rare screening of The Crimson Kimono (June 24 at 8PM). Still shamefully unavailable on home video, this Samuel Fuller flick examines race relations in the U.S. via a microcosm of Los Angeles. Made fourteen years after the end of World War II, Fuller portrays tensions between mainstream White America and its Asian population simmering at a low boil. Never one to duck difficult matters, Fuller considers immigrant insularity, cultural transplants, and interracial romance.

The film employs the detective milieu; beginning with the spectacular murder of Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) who’s shimmying her stuff at a burlesque club only minutes before she’s shot dead in the streets. Detectives Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) are on the case which leads them down into Little Tokyo (where City Hall looms large in the background while Japanese characters decorate storefronts in the fore) and introduces them to young Caucasian artist Christine “Chris” Downs (Victoria Shaw). While the case unwinds, Charlie and Joe find themselves drawn to Chris, driving a wedge into their friendship.

No normal love triangle, Joe feels torn between his self-perceptions (“Down deep, what am I? Japanese American, American Japanese, Nisei; what label do I live under?”) and the loyalty to his friend. Rather than racism against Joe as a Japanese American, the film shows Joe rejecting the Caucasian world as sign of reverse racism, as if to plea for more understanding and integration of racial groups. More than a treatise on race, The Crimson Kimono can be viewed as meditation sexual orientation.

Joe and Charlie appear to be more than just close friends. War buddies who joined the police force together, the two share an apartment in which the pair takes a lot of pride. All seems fine between the couple—Charlie acting the role of the supportive spouse when discussing Joe’s upcoming Detective exam—until Chris enters the picture. The other major female presence in the film, Mac (Anna Lee), is similar to Chris in her profession as artist and her masculine name. As she waxes philosophically about the pleasures of drinking hard and smoking stogies, it appears that this is a case where a cigar is not just a cigar.

Shot in crisp black & white, The Crimson Kimono bears the fluid camerawork, flawless framing, and fresh dialogue that elevated Fuller from a simple hack grinding out melodramas to a master craftsman and favorite of the Cahiers du Cinema gang. With any luck, this overlooked gem will find its way to DVD soon.

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