A Fugitive from the Past, aka Hunger Straits (Japan, 1965, Arrow Video, Blu-ray, NR, 182 min.). The film is considered by many to be director Tomu Uchida’s masterpiece of his five-decade career. It was voted third in the prestigious Kinema Junpo magazine’s 1999 poll of the Top Japanese Films of the 20th century. It is the first of two films this week that feature a female sex worker trying to improve her situation.

The film starts in 1947, juxtaposing two incidents. One is the sinking of a ferry in the Straits of Hunger with 532 deaths during a freak typhoon. The other is a trio of thieves robbing a pawnbroker, killing his family, and setting fire to his house, causing 80 percent of the town to burn as well. The three thieves then use the confused rescue efforts for the sunken ferry to steal a boat and escape. However, one of the three (Rentaro Mikuni as Takichi Inukai) kills the other two while crossing the strait.

When Inukai reaches the next island, he burns the boat and heads for town. Taking a train, he is given two rice balls by Yae Sugito (Sachiko Hidari). Impressed by her kindness, he follows her to the hospitality house where she works as a courtesan. Learning of her family’s debt and her plans to move to Tokyo, Inukai gives her 34,000 yen as he leaves.

The film then follows Sugito for the next 10 years. Here, one of the film’s subtexts of the harshness of life in post-war Japan is documented, with food shortages, protests, ration books and black-market rice. Despite her efforts to find different work, such as in a mini-restaurant, Sugito eventually falls back into the role of a courtesan, but a much more successful one. Then one day, she sees a picture of Inukai in the newspaper. He is now a successful businessman, known as Kyoichiro Tarumi, who has just donated 30 million yen to an ex-convict reform program.

Throughout the film, a suspicious policeman (Junzaburo Ban as Yumisaka) is trying to track down the thieves that robbed and killed the pawnbroker’s family. His path leads him to Sugito, but she does not give up her benefactor. Later, she does decide to pay Inukai a visit, despite his claims of being someone else, which leads to ripples from the past revealing secrets and causing resolutions. The last hour is very much a detective film.

Extras include an introduction by Jasper Sharp that focuses on Uchida’s career (26:52) and scholarly looks at the film by Professors Aaron Gerow (17:47), Earl Jackson (22:31), Daisuki Miyao on the cinematography (8:15), Irene Gonzalez-Lopez on actress Hidari (15:44) and Alexander Zahiten on the film’s final 12 minutes (13:54). Also, Erik Homenick discusses Isao Tomita’s music (32:11) and there is an Uchida filmography, an image gallery, and a booklet with writing by David Baldwin and Inuhiko Yomota. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Joan Crawford in “Rain.” Courtesy VCI/MVD Visual

Rain: 90th Anniversary (1932, VCI/MVD Visual, Blu-ray, NR, 94 min.). In this first talkie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s short story about prostitute Sadie Thompson, the wayward lass is played by Joan Crawford (“Mildred Pierce”). Thompson and others are stuck on Pago Pago and its near-constant rain because cholera has struck one of the sailors on their ship. Crawford, who has said the film is her least favorite, plays Thompson as a vamp, one that gets a great introduction as parts of her body first appear on screen, before the wise-cracking whole.

While Thompson is up for entertaining some soldiers, particularly Sgt. Tim O’Hara (William Gargan), whom she calls “Handsome,” her record playing and partying annoys married religious missionaries, with Alfred Davidson played by Walter Huston (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) deciding to force her to mend her ways and agree to go back to San Francisco, where a three-year prison term awaits her. Both parties are staying at an inn run by Jo Horn (Guy Kibbee, “Captain January”).

The film has a score by Alfred Newman and was directed by Lewis Milestone. The Blu-ray also includes the 76-minute cut version, released in 1936. Extras include audio commentaries: by Mick LaSalle and Richard Barrios, both writers and historians. There also are a Betty Boop cartoon, a newsreel and a poster and photo gallery. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.5 stars

The Chocolate War (1988, MVD Rewind Collection, Blu-ray, Blu-ray, R, 104 min.). Based on Robert Cormier’s controversial novel – once the most widely banned book in America – the film was the directorial debut of actor Keith Gordon (“A Midnight Clear,” TV’s “Fargo”) and features a standout young cast as students at a Catholic boy’s prep school, run by Brother Leon (an excellent John Glover). Brother Leon, who can be a bit cruel in class, is pushing the sale of 20,000 boxes of chocolates, double the previous year’s amount. Each student is to sell 50 boxes.

With sales lagging, Brother Leon enlists the aid of The Vigils, an underground student gang that controls the other boys through intimidation and violence. His link to the group is Archie (Wally Ward, aka Wallace Langham; TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”), who hands out assignments, usually humiliating, to fellow students. Archie is assisted by Obie (Doug Hutchison) and The Vigils are headed by Carter (Adam Baldwin, “Full Metal Jacket,” “My Bodyguard”).

One student (Ilan Mitchell Smith as freshman Jerry; “Weird Science”) refuses to sell the chocolates, starting a war over conformity and Jerry being bullied by some (including a crude anti-gay scene) and becoming a hero to others. The film, which Gordon also wrote, has a brutal, but satisfying ending that kind of flips things. Bud Cort (“Harold and Maude”) has a small role as Brother Jacques.

Gordon provides audio commentary and does a highly entertaining interview (51:21). Grade: film and extras 3.5 stars

Canadian Bacon (1995, MVD Visual, Blu-ray, PG, 95 min.). This is what you get when writer-director Michael Moore does a satire instead of a documentary, such as “Fahrenheit 11/9,” “Where to Invade Next”). Very reminiscent of “The Mouse That Roared,” a 1955 Cold War satire, in Moore’s film the Cold War has ended, America has won and a ratings-anemic president (Alan Alda) has no conflict to boost his appeal, especially when plants, such as a weapons factory in Niagara Falls, are forced to shut down, boosting unemployment. The president’s staff comes up with the idea of a Cold War with Canada.

A slew of media propaganda against Canada leads bumbling Niagara Falls Sheriff Boomer (John Candy), his hair-trigger Deputy Honey (Rhea Perlman) and Kabral (Bill Nunn) to launch a foray against Canada, mainly littering a park. The trio then knock out all of Canada’s electrical power, as the sole control plant is run by an elderly couple.

Earlier Boomer says Canadian beer sucks during a hockey game, leading to a riot. At one point, while driving to Toronto to rescue Honey, Boomer and Kabral are stopped by an OPP Officer (Dan Aykroyd) because the anti-Canada slogans they painted on their stolen truck are only in English and not in French as well. I only laughed out loud once, when a U.S. Commando gets shot by a teammate because he injured his toe – sick, but unexpectedly funny.

Helping the president are Kevin Pollack as aide Stu Smiley and Rip Torn as General Dick Panzer. Overall, the film is not as funny as it should be. Grade: film 3 stars

Preman: Silent Fury (Indonesia, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 81 min.). This violent film concerns a developer hiring thugs to force people out of their village homes so he can build high-rises. The Perkasa thugs are premen, gangsters who claim to be motivated by a sense of justice but are despised because of their bullying and violent behavior. One member is Sandi (Khiva Iskak), who is deaf and raising his young son Pandu (Muzakki Ramdhan) alone as his wife has deserted them. Sometimes, especially early, the sound is muffled when showing something from Sandi’s viewpoint.

Hajji refuses to move and when he is brutally murdered by Mr. Teacher (Kiki Narendra), which Pandu witnesses, Sandi needs to leave the Perkasa and hide his son. Further violence leads Sandi to go on the attack.

While some of the fighting sequences are well staged – at one point Sandi squares off against three dozen – and hairdresser/hired killer Ramon (Revaldo) is extremely creepy, the film, written and directed by Randolph Zaini, is undermined by bizarre sequences in which Sandi is apparently haunted by fake giant animals. These “beasts” even show up in the finale fight sequence. Grade: film 2.5 stars

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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