August 9th, 2014

Strange Shame

Virtually World War II



It's hard to imagine why the world isn't at peace when everyone's so nice. Soviet spies are nice, Nazis are nice, Communist revolutionaries in China are nice. Everyone's just suffering from a big misunderstanding in 2003's Spy Sorge, a three hour film about the final years of Richard Sorge, a Russian spy who, masquerading as a Nazi journalist in Japan, successfully passed crucial information to Stalin, decisively altering the course of the war. It's a true story but don't expect a lot of authenticity from this well meaning, overambitious film which re-purposes Sorge's story as a cloyingly insubstantial plea for world peace.

It's the final film of Masashiro Shinoda and only the second film of Shinoda's I've seen. Its ineffectually optimistic point of view is perplexing in light of the fact that the other film of his I've seen, 1964's Pale Flower, is such an effectively brutal noir gangster film about deadly compulsions. But Shinoda made quite a few films between 1964 and 2003, enough time to undergo a drastic and unfortunate metamorphosis. A lot of the films he made in the interim were martial arts pictures, which may explain why he felt the shot of rioters air kicking over a Communist girl who was handing out pamphlets was an effective snapshot of brutality.



Over and over again, the film presented something that might have been effective but fell short because of the filmmakers' unwillingness or inability to meet the demands of their subject. The film is filled with cgi that's bad even for 2003, Shinoda perhaps having been convinced by someone cgi can be used liberally for anything. I might be able to turn a blind eye to an obviously difficult to obtain otherwise establishing shot of 1930s China but Shinoda gratuitously employs cgi for street scenes in Japan, too.



Despite the predominant language of the film being English the movie was clearly not meant to be seen outside of Japan. Why would a Russian spy pretending to be a German in 1930s Japan speak English all the time? Why do all the Nazis in the German embassy speak English? Why does everyone in China speak English? Aside from one scene in the office of a French newspaper and one song that's sung in German, the only languages heard in this film are English and Japanese. I strongly suspect this is because English was the European language with which everyone on the crew was most familiar. And the film stars Scottish actor Iain Glenn, whom you might recognise from Game of Thrones, as Sorge.



And he does a good job. His Japanese actually sounds a lot better than his Japanese co-lead's English--Masahiro Motoki as Sorge's collaborator in the Japanese press, Ozaki, is fine when he's speaking Japanese but delivers a completely flat performance when he speaks English, which is unfortunately most of the time.

All of these problems might have been things I could have looked past if it weren't for the movie's fundamental flaw, its idealism. Sorge, who was born to a Russian mother and a German father and who had sympathies in both cultures seems like a natural figure to explore the absurdity of human beings killing each other for patriotism or racism. Some of the film's most effective moments involve Sorge's subtle friendship with a Nazi officer named Eugen Ott played by Ulrich Mühe.



Mühe's performance has a natural warmth and vulnerability--Sorge quickly earns his trust and Eugen doesn't even seem to mind much when Sorge starts sleeping with his wife--it allows Eugen to carry on his own affairs without his wife complaining as much. When another Nazi officer is assigned to the embassy who is known for slaughtering Jews, Eugen expresses some vague disapproval of the man but mostly Eugen is portrayed as someone who prefers life's pleasures and doesn't much like to think about the business side of his business.

The film walks a narrow line between the oddness of genuine humanity and plain implausibility, unfortunately landing ultimately in the latter territory, but there is a nice scene at the end, probably the best scene in the film, where the two men confront each other.



Sorge has a wife back home in Moscow but he's carrying on two affairs in Tokyo, with Eugen's wife and with a waitress named Hanako (Riona Hazuki).



Along with the folly of national borders, the film seems to be arguing for the folly of marital ones as everyone in the movie seems to be married and having at least one affair with absolutely no negative consequences. Of course, when the movie features Nazis who prefer not to kill people, Japanese military police who express sympathy for a Russian spy, and only distant glimpses of the actual horrors of war, the film is already deep into the territory of paper thin argument.

John Lennon's "Imagine" plays over the closing credits and I can't remember ever feeling more uncomfortable hearing the song. It's like hearing "Stairway to Heaven" over the closing credits to Duck Tales.