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Criterion Corner: “An Angel At My Table,” “The Koker Trilogy,” ’50s Ozu
Jane Campion's Janet Frame biopic, a trilogy of fables from Abbas Kiarostami, and one of Ozu's lesser-known melodramas fill Criterion's August slate.
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Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

#301: An Angel at My Table (1990), dir. Jane Campion

An Angel At My Table Criterion

Both Jane Campion and star Kerry Fox burst out of the New Zealand scene and into international fame with this three-part biopic of the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame, initially made for TV but screened at Venice to great acclaim. While it’s not as subjectively formal and weird as Campion’s other works (Sweetie, etc.), An Angel At My Table benefits from the Bergman-esque straightforwardness by which it tells the story of Frame, a young girl struggling through poverty, isolation, and ostracization to become one of the greatest authors of her generation. Fox brings a sensitive, vulnerable Cate Blanchett energy to the adult Frame, while brilliant young actors chart young Frame’s evolution through childhood trauma. It’s bleak and grimy at times (see Frame’s brutal stay in a mental hospital, and the yellowing agony of her decaying teeth), but Campion’s deep empathy for the pain that comes from an artist’s life makes this an iconic work of women’s cinema.

Criterion’s remastering of the film (supervised by DP Stuart Dryburgh and approved by Campion) captures all the muted greens and fog-filled rooms of Frame’s life with remarkable clarity. The full-length commentary between Campion, Dryburgh and Fox is an insightful one as well, and the booklet (containing excerpts from Frame’s own autobiographical writing, upon which this film is based) offers a beautiful reference point for her talents, if you’ve never read her works before.

#989: The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), dir. Yasujiro Ozu

Even in his lesser works, Yasujiro Ozu had an inexplicable knack for breaking down the culturally specific melodrama inherent to postwar Japan — that delicate transition into Western-inspired modernity, the creature comforts that came with it, and the ways it fractured generations and couples alike. The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice may not be Tokyo Story, but there’s insight to be had in the dramedic tale of a bitter couple (Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kagure) learning to get past their differences as their urbane niece (Keiko Tsushima) refuses an arranged marriage.

Like a lot of Ozu, it takes a fair amount of cultural context to grok the meaning of many of its domestic moments — like the ubiquitousness of pachinko and baseball, and the social stigmas between the city-mouse wife and country-mouse husband. But no matter where you’re from, you can appreciate the intricate family dynamics at play, its subtle humor, and Ozu’s legendary pillow shots, doing more with a still frame than many directors do with the flashiest camera movements.

Luckily, Criterion does Ozu good as always with a lovely 4k restoration; the master isn’t as pristine or well-balanced as some of his more legendary works, but the ensuing results still feel crisp, with only a few distracting moments of blown-out lighting. But like a lot of older Criterion releases, especially with Ozu, this release comes courtesy of an earlier feature of his, 1937’s What Did the Lady Forget?, as well as a slick, stellar video essay by David Bordwell and a delightful doc on Ozu’s collaboration with screenwriter Kogo Noda.

#990-992: The Koker Trilogy (Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992), Through the Olive Trees (1994)), dir. Abbas Kiarostami

The late, great Abbas Kiarostami loved to mine the intricate cultural details of his homeland of Iran, and play with the lines between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. His Koker Trilogy, a set of three films from the late ’80s to the mid ’90s set in the small north-Iran town of Koker, flit between genre and tone to intriguing effect.

Each successive film is a commentary on itself: starting with the small, explicitly narrative auspices of Where Is the Friend’s House? a charming Truffaut-like tale of a young boy searching through Koker to return his friend’s notebook, And Life Goes On revisits the young actors from that film after the real-life 1990 earthquake that devastated the country to see if they’re still alive. Peeling the narrative layers back even further, 1994’s Through the Olive Trees crafts a tragic romance out of fictionalized behind-the-scenes events of the previous film. Close-Up is Kiarostami’s’ unabashed masterpiece of cinematic line-crossing, but the Koker Trilogy remains an incredible expansion of his flexible understanding of storytelling truth.

While most Criterion sets are pretty nice, The Koker Trilogy‘s artwork is especially neat, all three films nested one after the other in cardboard cases that slowly reveal each of the landscapes on the case’s cover. The restorations themselves are effective, albeit operating from 2k restorations as opposed to 4k. Still, the extras are robust as usual, including many an interview and conversation with film scholars, as well as the feature-length Kiarostami doc Homework (a short but sweet exploration of homework and how it ties into social ideas of class and culture).