Unless you are a foaming-at-the-mouth Oscar trivia buff, there is a good chance you never heard of Kei Kumai’s 1975 drama “Sandakan 8.” This film’s sole claim to American fame was earning an Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film. Yet despite its Oscar pedigree, “Sandakan 8″ was never theatrically released in the United States. This is rather curious, since the Academy’s blessing almost always ensures some sort of American distribution deal.
To understand why “Sandakan 8″ never turned up on American screens, one needs to see the film itself. However, trying to see this title is something of a challenge. It had a very brief American home video release in the late 1980s, but that version has been out of print for many years. It is never broadcast on the cable TV stations that play foreign films, and even New York’s endless offering of retro series and festivals has been absent of this title. A few Asian e-commerce sites offer the title on DVD, but I don’t believe they are region-free DVDs. I finally tracked down a copy via eBay after a fairly long search and I wondering what to expect.
What I found was a fairly strange movie. Actually, there are two movies going on. “Sandakan 8″ focuses on a young female journalist (Komaki Kurihara) seeking to research the untold-story of Japanese women who were exported to work in the brothels of British Borneo (today’s Malaysia) during the early part of the 20th century. She locates Osaki, an elderly woman living in an isolated village (Kinuyo Tanaka), and quickly wins her confidence. In fact, the journalist is invited to move into the elderly lady’s squalid shack, which she shares with scores of feral cats. The journalist keeps her ulterior motive secret as Osaki begins to share her tale of woe.
The film then flashbacks to Osaki’s youth. As a daughter in a poor family, she accepts the chance to work in British Borneo as a means to raise funds for her cash-strapped clan. Osaki is not the sharpest chopstick in the box, however, as she is assigned to work as a maid at a brothel known as Sandakan 8. After about two years of scrubbing the floors, the pimp who runs the brothel decides it is time for Osaki to trade in her bucket and soap for a new position — horizontal, to be precise. Osaki is indignant but is assaulted by the pimp and reluctantly takes her new job. The first customer is the ultimate insult to a once-proper Japanese girl: a horny and muscular Malay native covered in tattoos who makes love with the finesse and charm of a water buffalo in heat. Osaki works the silk sheets of Sandakan 8 for about 20 years, with only a brief interlude of genuine romance involving a poor young Japanese farmer who saves his money to marry her but later changes his mind once his fortune is made.
“Sandakan 8″ is unusual in its depiction of prostitution as a crime against women. This is clearly a reflection of the feminist political movement of the 1970s, which forced societies throughout the world to rethink the notion of women’s rights. Of course, some societies were less open-minded than others and the idea of the rigid (and, quite frankly, misogynist) Japanese world of 1970s allowing this kind of film to appear was nothing short of remarkable.
But viewed today, “Sandakan 8″ is a rickety film which works best in its generation-spanning relationship between the older Osaki and the younger journalists. Tanaka and Kurihara have a wonderful rapport and develop a subtle bond which shades their sequences with uncommon sincerity. Unfortunately, the flashback sequences at the brothel are capsized with a recklessly bad performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as the younger Osaki. This poor actress seems to have studied with Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian character from the old “Saturday Night Live” skits, as witnessed by her overkill of emotions (complete with clenched jaw and flashing eyes — imagine Kirk Douglas as a Japanese girl and you have this actress). Much of the younger Tanaka’s hamming is mirrored by a terrible Akira Ifukube score, which is literally subtle as a sledgehammer in echoing the more crimson elements of the film.
The fact “Sandakan 8″ received an Oscar nomination is somewhat surprising, given that Academy voters rarely favor Japanese productions. “Sandakan 8″ lost the Oscar to a superior film helmed by another Japanese director: Akira Kurosawa’s Soviet production of “Dersu Uzala” (ironically, Kei Kumai would late direct Kurosawa’s unproduced screenplay “The Sea is Watching”). Theatrical distributors passed on the title, and over the following years “Sandakan 8″ found its way into a limited non-theatrical release in the United States and can be located today at several college film archives (perhaps for use in Asian film and women’s studies classes). But to most filmgoers, it remained out of sight.
Not every film in the Bootleg Files is worthy of a chase. Lovers of Japanese cinema might enjoy chasing this title down, but for everyone else “Sandakan 8″ is not a bootleg treasure requiring a dogged pursuit.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on March 19, 2004 in Features by Phil Hall
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