'The Sun' and 'Tony Manero' Examine Two Unlikely Identities

The last living descendent of the sun goddess is mildly unappealing. He is slight and awkward and pallid and ridden with tics, most notably in his prominent lips, which flex almost constantly in a way reminiscent of both a fish's pucker and a horse's peeled-back smile. He appears depressive, though that could be, like his pallor, a side effect of living underground. And perhaps most unappealing of all, he carries an air of impenetrable obliviousness, although it's hard to blame him too much for that. After all, when he notes his own physical frailty or bemoans the future, his servants are quick to remind him that he is not like other men. He is Hirohito, the 124th emperor of Japan. He is a living god on earth.

These are but the rudiments of the exquisite portrait Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov provides in The Sun, a 2005 project only now seeing domestic release via Kino DVD. After all, Sokurov's account begins as World War II draws to a close, with U.S. forces ringing the island nation and reducing its cities to ash with daily bombing. Hirohito (the phenomenal Issei Ogata) has served as the living figurehead of the indomitable Japanese will to power as the country pushed out across the Pacific, but now defeat and ignominy are all but certain. How will he, and his country, face it?

Sokurov isn't interested in history per se; anyone expecting a stolid dramatic tick-tock of the path to the Japanese surrender will be disappointed here. Instead, his cameras focus on this nerdy little man and his unique passage through these titanic events. Ogata's emperor is half-controlled by his fawning servants, who schedule out his day to the last moment. His cabinet reassures him of the people's will to fight to the death, but they tell him so with sweating, teary faces. He is worshipped by millions, but gazes through albums of photographs of movie stars in quiet moments. And when the Americans arrive, he is lured out of his ad hoc redoubt to meet with these brusque invaders, most especially Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), who tries to convince the emperor to not only surrender his nation peaceably, but also to surrender his divinity.

This endlessly patient, gimlet-eyed film makes for a fascinating character study, and thanks in large part to Ogata, presents its central character as a fully rounded man—exasperating, intelligent, sheltered, noble, and flawed. Sokurov's film is not without its own flaws, though. The Sun appears to have been shot on digital video, and whether due to that medium or the DVD transfer or viewing it on a high-definition monitor or some measure of all three, it features some of the most noticeable motion blurring I've ever seen on a commercially available disc. Combine that with the murky look of the wartime milieu, perhaps further murked out by DV, and watching The Sun is a bit like watching dingy old shot-on-tape British TV. But people watch the best of vintage British TV on disc even now, and that one caveat shouldn't keep anyone but serious 1080p-heads from this fascinating release.

In Tony Manero, a 2008 film also new on DVD from Kino, the dinginess goes right down to the bone. Here it's 1978 in Chile. Dictator Augusto Pinochet is in power, Saturday Night Fever is in theaters, and 50-something Raul (Alfredo Castro) is obsessed. In his mind, he is Tony Manero, John Travolta's swivel-hipped disco ruler. As such, he lords over the resident dancers of a grimy little club as they prepare a sad little disco show. And carting around a white three-piece in a wrinkled garment bag like some magic talisman, he's preparing to go on a Chilean variety/game show and prove to the nation that he really is Tony Manero. But unlike Hirohito, Raul's unrealistic identity is self-assumed. What he really is is a violent sociopath.

The brutally repressive Pinochet government grinds away subtly in the background of director Pablo Larrain's film while Raul proves himself no less ruthless in pursuit of his goal, killing casually and betraying almost everyone around him. And though the political realities of the place and time aren't given a central role, other than Santiago's relentless period dismalness, perhaps it's enough to note that downtrodden, working-class Raul's escapist dream is to be a downtrodden, working-class kid with escapist dreams of his own somewhere else. Castro can't really make Raul sympathetic as he schemes and spills blood and other bodily substances, but he at least makes him fascinating to watch. A ferocious film.