In this gray, rainy, dispiriting present, who could blame us for seeking refuge in the past? Yes, the past, when the costumes were flamboyant, the color schemes rich and kaleidoscopic, and everyone was an aristocrat! As we make our way through March (when, statistically, Minnesota gets its heaviest snowfalls; look it up), here are six dazzling period pieces from around the world (and currently streaming online) to sustain you through the end of winter. Title: Princess Yang Kwei-fei (Japan, 1955)
Plot: At the height of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Xuanzong is enraptured by his consort Yang Kwei-fei (or Yohiki in Japanese; this movie is kind of weird in that it’s a Chinese costume drama with Japanese actors speaking Japanese; but bear with it). They live an idyllic life together, with the empire — as far as Xuanzong is concerned — running itself. But when Turkic General An Lushan, whom the emperor had appointed at Yang’s suggestion, stages a rebellion in a bid to seize power, both palace and empire are thrust into chaos.
This is no ordinary rebellion; the An Lushan rebellion was one of the deadliest things in human history. If you look at the last census taken before the rebellion and the first census taken thereafter, there is a discrepancy of some 36 million people. Now, the actual death toll is disputed (in the post-war chaos, a census was something hard to conduct) and it is likely that far fewer than 36 million died, but there’s no doubt that “a lot” of people were killed, and the empire was devastated. A scapegoat was needed, and the masses called for Yang Kwei-fei’s blood. At what price will Xuanzong purchase his own survival?
Background: In a career spanning three decades, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi — often grouped in a trinity of Japanese filmmakers alongside Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa — estimated that he had made about 75 films, most of them silent, and most of those silent films lost. In this sizable filmography, only two films were in color: Tales of the Taira Clan (1955) and Princess Yang Kwei-fei (1955).
Tales of the Taira Clan isn’t lost, but if you’re a cinephile in Minnesota, it might as well be; but Princess Yang Kwei-fei, a lustrous late-career gem produced in collaboration with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, is available on Hulu, and thank God for that. Featuring elements common to some of Mizoguchi’s best post-war works — painterly use of screen space, the long takes of which he was a pioneer and a master, rich period detail, and a strong-willed female protagonist destroyed by a misogynist society — Princess Yang Kwei-fei adds the element of color (not “glorious technicolor,” but an Eastmancolor that comes pretty damn close). Although a departure from his usual Japanese subject matter, the elements of Mizoguchi’s art all cohere in this Chinese tragedy to give us one of the most purely visually beautiful films in all of cinema.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The Music Room (India, 1958).
Plot: Few things say beauty quite like aristocratic decadence. Biswambhar Roy is a wealthy zamindar, or feudal lord, in an India that will soon have no place for them. But the refined Roy is blind to the changing times and his own shifting fortunes, preferring to immerse himself in aesthetic pleasures, chief among them the concerts he hosts in his opulent jalsagarh (the music room of the title), where he is serenaded by the best Bengali musicians (played by real-life Bengali virtuosi). But after a Job-like series of misfortunes, both financial and personal, descend upon the deluded zamindar, he’ll be faced with a terrible dilemma: Should he salvage what he can, or squander what’s left of his dwindling fortune on the music he’s come to live for?
Background: The Music Room was Bengali master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s fourth film, and is a landmark entry in the Indian parallel cinema of which Ray was one of the first practitioners: serious, socially engaged films, often drawing on Italian neo-realism, that provided an alternative to the flash and glamour of mainstream Bollywood-style cinema.
The Music Room was also the first of a number of Ray’s films, many of which had seriously deteriorated or fallen victim to film archive fires, to be restored to pristine condition by Janus Films and released by their collaborators at the Criterion Collection, thus allowing many of us for the first time to appreciate the pictorial beauty of Ray’s compositions. And what better place to start than with the The Music Room, which departs from the grim depictions of poverty that characterize Ray’s first films (the celebrated “Apu Trilogy,” restored by Janus Films and released by Criterion last year) and presents us with a shimmering world of doomed aestheticism and aristocratic privilege.
The Music Room also features some of Ray’s best movie music, which is saying something in a body of work that was launched with the inimitable sitar work of Ravi Shankar and would continue to draw on the greatest Bengali musicians throughout its progress.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: The Leopard (Italy, 1963).
Plot: The year is 1860 and the place is the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Conservative aristocrat Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) attends daily mass in his private chapel, presides at the head of the table like a tyrant, and is just as out-of-touch and anachronistic as any Indian zamindar. As Garibaldi’s dashing red shirts invade Sicily as part of their campaign to unify Italy, Don Fabrizio’s chief concern lies in maintaining the splendor and dignity of his lifestyle.
Against the magnificent backdrop of the Italian Risorgimento, the Old Leopard (as Don Fabrizio is known) has one last great role to play: as the facilitator of the marriage between his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) and Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a bourgeois arriviste whose class will soon supplant the old aristocracy. But, as Angelica’s beauty and charm touch the aging Leopard’s heart, will he be able to bear the pain of handing her off to Tancredi, a nationalist and representative of the new era?
Background: Based on the best-selling novel by Italian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (if the name “Lampedusa” makes you think of the Mediterranean island where so many refugees have been seeking asylum, it’s because the writer’s ancestors used to own it) and directed by Luchino Visconti, one of cinema’s great sensualists, The Leopard represents a key turning point in world cinema that parallels the vast changes in Sicilian society that it depicts. It is in many ways the last of the old, bombastic, Hollywood-style epics, where flawlessly coiffed Adonises and angelic beauties played out classical dramas without breaking a sweat (or creasing a pant lag, or disheveling a stocking).
Lush and pristine, The Leopard still has the power to awe, but even when it was released it already seemed a bit old-fashioned. The French New Wavers were making a new kind of cinema: sharp, unpolished, formally daring, and short (Godard routinely struggled to bring his early films up to the 80-minute mark). Like Burt Lancaster’s Leopard, these epics were becoming a thing of the past. But how lovely they looked in their decadence.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Marketa Lazarová (Czechoslovakia, 1967).
Plot: Often regarded as the greatest Czech film ever made, Marketa Lazarová is a violent, sprawling story about power, feudalism, and religion in medieval Bohemia. Within the convoluted politics of the Holy Roman Empire, two powerful men (it’s difficult to tell if they’re feudal lords or just strongmen), Lazar and Kozlík, fall out. Kozlík has run afoul of the king and, when Lazar rejects his request for an alliance, Kozlík’s men kidnap Lazar’s daughter (the Marketa Lazarová of the title), murder his mentally impaired son, and fucking nail Lazar’s hands to the gates of his village. What follows is atrocity upon atrocity, as Kozlík’s clan attempt to hold off the king’s army, while simultaneously destroying each other through the vicious sexual jealousy sparked by Marketa’s arrival in their midst.
Background: The apotheosis of Czech cinema before the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, Marketa Lazarová falls into a tradition of Eastern European filmmaking that I like to call “the hysterical epic.” Including films like Andrei Rublev (1966), On the Silver Globe (1988), and Hard to Be a God (2013), hysterical epics share several elements: religious fanaticism, insane and brutal violence, dialogue just as often screamed as spoken, baroque compositions, and frenzied, hypnotic camera work that serves as an engrossing counterpoint to the doings onscreen.
Marketa Lazarová delivers all of these in spades, its disturbing set pieces presented through crisp, beautiful black-and-white cinematography (just at the period when most film industries were making the transition to color as the default medium) and entrancing, fluid camerawork that would have made Stanley Kubrick proud. Marketa Lazarová is not for the squeamish (a trigger warning is in order, as the whole film is really one big trigger), but if you’re emotionally ready for it, this Czech nightmare (only released on DVD in the U.S. in 2013) may prove to be one of the most darkly beautiful films of recent times.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: A Room with a View (United Kingdom, 1985).
Plot: On a much lighter note, let’s check out this stately E. M. Forster adaptation! When wealthy Edwardian Lucy Church (Helena Bonham Carter, in one of her first roles and without a trace of corpse paint) travels to Italy, she meets the free-spirited George Emerson, who’s good fun but clearly not marriageable. Upon returning to Britain, she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), a stiff, respectable conservative of the sort Lucy’s mother would love her to marry.
When, wouldn’t you know it, George moves in virtually next door (Forster clearly in debt here to Dickens when it comes to implausible coincidences that serve as key plot engines), Lucy will have to make a (not really) difficult decision of the sort that has been confronting people in romantic comedies for over a century now: Will she marry the cold, reactionary dick that society tells her is the ideal husband? Or will she take a (small) risk and marry the vivacious and artistic man of her dreams?
Background: With a few glowing exceptions, there are basically two kinds of British movies: “kitchen sink dramas,” which depict working-class people living hopeless lives of squalor, with a little drug addiction and depraved sex thrown in for good measure, and period pieces. Modern Britain may be a dystopic nightmare (if its film output is any indication), but thank God for British history (the elegant part, not the colonialist and racist part).
A Room with a View was one of a series of luminous period films, often Forster adaptations, released by Merchant Ivory productions from the mid-'80s to the early '90s. Ironically enough, the Merchant Ivory team wasn’t particularly British: producer Ismail Merchant was Indian, director James Ivory is American, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jabhvala was German-Jewish-English-Indian. Perhaps it was their outsider perspective that gave them the objectivity to see what makes an English period film work. In A Room with a View, they have forged an ideal mix of history, psychological study, and an aesthetic refinement that would surely have pleased as exacting a craftsman as E. M. Forster.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: The Assassin (Taiwan, 2015).
Plot: The plot really isn’t that important (or coherent), but here it is: In Tang Dynasty China, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) is the military governor of the border province of Weibo, where he has amassed so much power that Weibo has become semi-independent. He is originally engaged to marry his cousin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), but when the Tang dynasts offer their daughter in marriage to Tian Ji’an, he sees it as the perfect opportunity to cement his position and breaks faith with Nie Yinniang, who goes into exile, and is promptly trained as an unstoppable assassin by her aunt, a Taoist nun who happens to be a master martial artist (and really, who hasn’t found themselves in this situation?).
When her mistress orders her to return to Weibo to kill her ex-fiancé, Nie Yinniang must determine if her training is stronger than whatever still binds her to Tian Ji’an.
Background: Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first feature in eight years, The Assassin is also his first venture into the wuxia genre, Chinese martial arts films (and especially swordplay films) where the action choreography is frequently more important than the (often Byzantine) plot. Hou has spent most of his career making thoughtful films about the vast and traumatic changes undergone by Taiwanese society in the 20th century.
As he’s progressed, his films have become increasingly meditative, more interested in creating a mood and a sense of time and place than telling elaborate stories. As the major centers of Chinese-language film production (Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) have become drawn together, Hou has found it harder to get funding for his quiet Taiwanese films, because producers (even Taiwanese producers) want films that they can market to the hundreds of millions of ticket-buyers on the Mainland. Hence this venture into the tradition of Chinese action filmmaking, where Hou’s quiet, analytical sensibility is married to lush baroque period design and some of the most elegant swordplay in recent cinema.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.