Empire of Passion (1978) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Empire of Passion (1978)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny LIKEIt's hard to resist the lure of sex. I probably don't need to tell you that, but it's one of those things it's nice to write out every so often to sweep a few cobwebs out of your mind.

Empire of Passion is one of those films drenched in such a thing, a film that tells the story of an affair that drives its pair of lovers into madness and their own demises. It's torrid and passionate when it should be, but also slow and deliberate the rest of the time, slowly ratcheting up how the rising and waning sex drives of our two main characters spell out their undoing.

But I'm probably simplifying those things.

The border between passion in its many forms are explored throughout the film.

The story concerns Seki, a babyfaced mother of two whose husband is the town's rickshaw driver. One daughter is apprenticed to be a nanny, and the other only old enough to cry. Seki keeps herself busy by helping out on a nearby estate of a wealthy landowner and coyly resisting the overtures of the young ex-soldier who has suddenly grown a fondness for her.

Her coy resistance is broken down as the soldier, Toyoji, realizes that her "no"s are actually quite loud and verbal "yes"es. As they become more and more brazen in their choice of locales for their wild sex parties, Toyoji is suddenly struck with the need to shave Seki. Yes, down there. Since he picked a rather opportune time to make this request (he was performing something rhyming with "moral hex"), she quickly acquiesces. Toyoji then points out, oh, hey, your husband might notice that, we should probably just kill him.

Seki is remarkably compliant with this request (even though there is no "moral hex" occurring at the time), and the two dispatch the husband in short order with a lot of booze and even more strangulation. They throw his body into an abandoned well nearby on the wealthy landowner's property.

The well itself is probably the most spectacular centerpiece of the film. It's a magnificent piece of foreboding, and the director, Nagisa Oshima (who also did the rather brazen In the Realm of the Senses) brilliantly shoots up from the bottom of the well, giving us a point of view shot from the corpse... or at least where the corpse should be.

Japanese ghosts are usually pretty unhappy about being ghosts. But then most ghosts are.

Empire of Passion soon turns into a ghost story, and Oshima wisely plays the formula a little differently than usual. While he maintains the Japanese tradition of the lost murdered doomed to wander, the way he contrasts the morbid ghost's revenge with the simultaneous cooling of the relationship underscores the transitive properties of passion, from lust to rage to madness.

The film is shot beautifully, with harsh colors revolving around the betrayal and dangerous dark hues as the unearthly ghost makes his presence known. It plays with the audience expectations, and reveals the harshness and beauty of two people who let their own desires destroy them.

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Empire of Passion (1978)

This film is currently available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Starring Tatsuya Fuji and Kazuko Yoshiyuki

Posted by Danny

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