Empire of Passion Review
On a superficial level Empire of Passion offers a reversal on the familiar James M. Cain model. A married woman takes on a younger lover and the pair soon conspire to murder her husband. The difference here is that it is the male who proves the catalyst, though of course the consequences affect them both. Yet we’re also dealing with a companion piece to Nagisha Oshima’s earlier Ai No Corrida (aka In the Realm of the Senses, The Realm of the Senses, Empire of the Senses), a film still very much in the director’s mind owing to the fact that at the time of Empire of Passion’s production we was in court over the publication of its screenplay.
Much like Ai No Corrida, Empire of Passion focuses on a single couple, primarily documenting their sexual encounters (though without the hardcore elements which characterised the earlier film) as a means of truly getting close. Yet in this case the perspective is altered somewhat as Oshima opens out the drama a little more: it’s more immediately aesthetically pleasing; the use of voice-over and the setting of the film further in the past allow us a slight remove; and there’s a greater sense of interaction between the couple and the outside world. In other words, Empire of Passion is a far less unbearably suffocating experience than Ai No Corrida.
Indeed, by allowing us a little breathing room Oshima is able to translate the masochism of Ai No Corrida into brutality, especially from the woman’s perspective. Not only is her new lover much younger than her (we are told twenty years), but he’s also more aggressive and the more seductive proponent of the relationship; when he asks to shave her pubic hair it’s an assertion of ownership, that he has the upper-hand.
Of course, to complete the picture her husband, a rickshaw man, similarly allows her no comfort, yet it’s only after he has been killed that he begins to exert a hold. Indeed, what really traps her is the guilt – and it is this which proves Empire of Passion’s key element. Even three years after the murder, gossip continually revolves around the village with regards to her husband’s whereabouts and whether or not she is conducting an affair. And then, of course, we have his ghost returning, proclaiming the love he still feels and perfectly encapsulating the guilt she feels.
Yet Oshima isn’t interested in making a horror film, and Empire of Passion shouldn’t be considered as such. Certainly, the avant-garde scoring may create the requisite atmosphere, whilst the make-up and dry ice elicit a chill, but such elements are almost ephemeral. Indeed, though the simplicity of the horror no doubt aids its effectiveness, it also prevents Oshima from getting bogged down. He’s not overburdened himself in this respect and therefore not overpowered the narrative. What we leave Empire of Passion with is not a sense of the horrific, but a stark impression of a woman torn apart by the men who surround her.
Nouveaux have released Empire of Passion as a Region 0 disc. The film is presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.77:1 and for the most part taken from a clean print. The only disappointment is that the image is also somewhat suffers and doesn’t allow as full an appreciation of the cinematography as perhaps should be expected. Certainly, the disc is by no means unwatchable and during the closer shots, such flaws are barely noticeable. As for the soundtrack we are offered the original Japanese soundtrack with optional English subtitles and presents few problems. Indeed, it comes with a crispness and clarity that is superior to that of the picture quality.
As for extras, we are offered a stills gallery and a 15-minute minute featurette from France which focuses its attentions of Japanese pinku movies. A serious piece, with contributions from esteemed Asian cinema authority Tony Rayns (here credited as Tony Rains), it takes us through the key developments in the genre and touches on the key figures. Indeed, in discussing the likes of Koji Wakamatsu and, of course, Oshima it eschews the trashier end of the market. The only disappointments are the fact that the only clips come from Empire of Passion and its briefness. Surely the genre is rich enough to warrant a full length doc?