Japan Cuts 2012

NYAFF and Japan Cuts 2012 Flixist Awards and roundup

Aug 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Starry Starry Night is bound to draw comparisons to Moonrise Kingdom since both movies are about young love -- or, really, to riff on Harold Brodkey, first love and other sorrows. But Starry Starry Night delves deeper into those emotions of adolescent longing and connection, and it also takes a lot of visual risks in the process. Fantasy gets blended with reality to help show the interior life of Mei, which is all turmoil, fine art, fragility, and hope. Even simple gestures and the mere presence of someone you care about becomes the stuff that gives her the sense of flight. The result is a beautifully put together coming-of-age story that delves into what love means at an early age and how it clashes with the first taste of adult disenchantment. -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) I almost didn't see You Are the Apple of My Eye. It didn't sound appealing to me, so I didn't put it on my already-too-large list of things to watch. But then I read this blog post by the brilliant and wonderful Grady Hendrix, who is the reason we were able to cover last year's NYAFF (and thus bring you this post). Grady said that he was iffy about You Are the Apple of My Eye for the same reason I was, but he gave it a try and it was brilliant. So I gave it a try, and I am incredibly glad that I did. Giddens Ko's semi-autobiographical directorial debut is one hell of a film, and one of the best examples of why someone should never judge a book by it's cover. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) I don't know that I ever could have predicted this one. I knew that there was a chance that Ace Attorney could be good (or perhaps even great), but I was not prepared for how absolutely brilliant Takashi Miike's adaptation of the absolutely brilliant videogames series Phoenix Wright. If you have played the first game, there won't be too much new for you (although I'll think you'll like what new there is), but it's handled in such a way that it doesn't feel unnecessary. Those who haven't played the game(s) are unlikely to enjoy it quite as much, but put them in with a crowd and they're still have a blast. And then buy them a DS (they're quite cheap nowadays) and the rest of the games in the series. They will thank you. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) It certainly makes sense that a film called Rent-a-Cat would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but that's not all Rent-a-Cat has going for it. Aside from the rampant cuteness, it has some enjoyable characters spouting even more enjoyable dialogue. The film runs a bit too long, which is why it's the runner-up (although Ace Attorney could have done with some trimming as well), but it ended before I got too angry about its length. And I'm really glad about that, because it's just so wonderful. I wish my cat didn't hate me. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) Zombie Ass is about as good as a movie called Zombie Ass can be. Noboru Iguchi slathers on a heaping helping of filth, but at least has the decency to not show someone pinching a loaf on camera. There's still a fair amount of crap on screen, though it's not the worst thing to come out of people's butts in Zombie Ass. It's cheap junk, it's dirty junk, and it revels in gross-out humor and special effects. The finale is the stuff of a crazed 13-year-old's fever dream -- the kind of joke you'd tell in middle school brought to life in all its smelly glory. Whatever I say about the film is pretty much moot because if you want to see Zombie Ass you will see it regardless, and may the gods of good taste have mercy on our souls. -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) In Gyo, smelly fish get robotic legs and overrun dry land, attacking anything in their path. But somehow, that's not weird enough. The fish are also rank and farty, filling the screen with stink lines like some sort of flatulent Van Gogh. But that's still not weird enough. In fact, Gyo goes to some very strange places, answering the rarely-asked question "What if H.P. Lovecraft was afraid of seafood and bad gas?" The film probably plays differently to those who've read the Junji Ito manga it's based on, but having not read it myself, I got a kick out of the unpredictable trip that story goes on. It'd make a nice double-feature with Zombie Ass, and by "nice" I mean "what the fuck-y." -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) Like many great cult movies, Boxer's Omen is the sort of movie that renders criticism moot. Sure, it's not that well put together and the story is a mess, but it's full of enough crazy magic battles and bonkers imagery that traditional concerns of plot and storytelling don't matter. It's noteworthy for being a Shaw Brothers Studios sideshow from the 1980s. See a man eat entrails and puke them out! See an army of alligator skulls! See people eat other people's food they just spat out! Witness gallons of odd bodily secretions! And stay for the finale which is a weirdo exclamation point to a weirdo sentence! -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is basically a message film rife with Cold War paranoia and fears of the nuclear age. It has a lot in common with films like Matango and Children of the Damned in that sense. But even with its dire conclusion, preachiness never becomes an issue in Goke (a la Children of the Damned). I think that's because it's a brisk and stylish yarn full of odd imagery and equally odd characters -- bombers, assassins, weasely politicians, and dumb American blondes. This is the sort of cult film that's slightly campy yet legitimately good rather than so-bad-its-good. The cult designation is all about its under-the-radar status and the evangelical devotees. Count me among the converted. -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) Love Strikes! is a different kind of disappointment. Instead of falling short of any preconceived ideas of how the film might be, Love Strikes! fell short of how it made me think the film might be. The opening 30 minutes of Love Strikes! are fantastic, and they really pumped me up and had me excited. Then the rest of the film happened, and I was so angry with everybody involved in the production. There was so much promise in that 30 minutes, but the film does everything it can to undo the goodwill it gained from that, and it successfully undoes all of that goodwill. I still think those thirty minutes are worth watching, but I honestly don't know how nobody involved in the production didn't stop and say, "Hey wait a second... maybe we should make this terrible stuff more like that not-terrible stuff that we did before." But apparently that happened, and the world is worse off because of it. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) Sometimes a documentary filmmaker needs to know when to get out of the way. In Golden Slumbers, director Davy Chou is always in the way. The subject matter is incredible: the 400 native films of Cambodia were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, and the movie theaters of the country destroyed. Rather than showing us what survives of the country's lost cinema culture, Chou lingers on the idea of what this absence means. There's so much information that could have been shared, so many images that could have been shown, but instead we have a film all about the idea of Cambodian cinema rather than actual Cambodian cinema. It's well made but the aim is way off; like No Man's Zone, it's a cautionary tale of intellectual pursuits obscuring the subject matter. -- Hubert Vigilla (Read his full review here!) Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club's biggest crime is that it's boring. The basic premise, a group of young girls try to give their teacher a miscarriage, should be enough to give the filmmakers some kind of creative spark, but there's nothing there. Almost nothing happens, and the few things that do happen are laughable or completely nonsensical. Nobody is interesting, nobody is worth caring for, nothing matters. If a filmmaker can't feel bad for a legitimately blameless character who has a group of young girls trying to give her a miscarriage, then that person needs to find a different job. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) Hard Romanticker is just bad. Some parts are terrible (its treatment of women is particularly unpleasant) and some parts are halfway decent (a lot of the violence is well-done), but as a whole there isn't a lot to redeem the film or make it worth watching. It's a throwback to an old style of film that needn't be thrown back to. I know that a lot of people enjoyed it, and I honestly have no idea how. As bad as it is, though, it's not dull, which is why it rests firmly as our runner-up. -- Alec Kubas-Meyer (Read his full review here!) ALL REVIEWS: LISTED IN REVERSE CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER JAPAN CUTS Ushijima the Loan Shark - 73 (Good) Rent-a-Cat - 87 (Exceptional) - Lonely Swallows - 65 (Decent) No Man's Zone - 40 (Sub-Par) Toad's Oil - 77 (Good) 9 Souls - 83 (Great) - Chronicle of My Mother - 79 (Good) Zombie Ass - 70 (Good) JAPAN CUTS/NYAFF CROSSOVER Tormented - 45 (Sub-par) Tokyo Playboy Club - 70 (Good) Hard Romanticker - 38 (Bad) The Big Gun/Henge - 69 (Decent) Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club - 35 (Bad) Smuggler - 50 (Average) Gyo - 80 (Great) Potechi (Chips) - 82 - Ace Attorney - 89 (Exceptional) - Monsters Club - 74 (Good) Love Strikes! - 67 (Decent) Asura - 60 (Decent) Scabbard Samurai - 82 (Great) - NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL Make Up - 70 (Good) Golden Slumbers - 50 (Average) Bloody Fight in Iron Rock Valley - 64 (Decent) Dragon (Wu Xia) - 85 (Exceptional) - The Lost Bladesman - 79 (Good) Doomsday Book - 79 (Good) All About My Wife - 84 (Great) - Secret Love - 63 (Decent) Sacrifice - 65 (Decent) Nasi Lemak 2.0 - 68 (Decent) Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang) - 82 (Great) - Starry Starry Night - 90 (Spectacular) - The King of Pigs - 50 (Average) Guns N' Roses - 81 (Great) - Honey Pupu - 40 (Sub-Par) The Swift Knight - 74 (Good) Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale - 78 (Good) Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell - 80 (Great) - Boxer's Omen - 70 (Good) - Couples - 86 (Exceptional) - Failan - 73 (Good) You Are the Apple of My Eye - 89 (Exceptional) - The Sword Identity - 61 (Decent) Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time - 85 (Exceptional) - Vulgaria - 86 (Exceptional) - War of the Arrows - 78 INTERVIEWS Flixclusive Interview: Director Grandmaster Y.K. Kim Flixclusive Interview: Yeun Sang-ho, The King of Pigs Interview: Donnie Yen Flixclusive Interview: Director Chung Chang-Wha Flixclusive interview: Choi Min-sik VIDEOS Actress Michelle Chen's reception speech Director Giddens Ko's reception speech Actor Choi Min-sik's reception speech Director Chung Chang-Wha's reception speech NEWS Flixclusive details on King of Pigs director's next film Donnie Yen on Monkey King, action in 3D, and Ip Man 3D Choi Min-sik wants to work with, challenge Park Chan-wook Choi Min-sik's next film is like The Departed, he's a cop Choi Min-sik not seeing Spike Lee's Oldboy, would cameo NYAFF Midnight Movie: Miami Connection NYAFF Midnight Movie: Dead Bite NYAFF Special Screening: Iron Monkey NYAFF Midnight Movie: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell NYAFF Midnight Movie: Boxer's Omen Hark again, for Japan Cuts 2012 likewise cometh Hark, the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival is upon us
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We came. We saw. We conquered.
[For the month of July, we covered the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our specifically N...

Japan Cuts Review: Rent-a-Cat

Aug 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211605:38628[/embed] Rent-a-Cat (Rentaneko | レンタネコ)Director: Naoko OgigamiRating: NRCountry: Japan  Sayoko (Mikako Ichikawa) is a (rather young) crazy cat lady. It's not entirely her fault; cats just like her and congregate around her. But she also loves them, keeps them, and takes care of them. Her house is full of cats, all of which are absolutely adorable in every way. She also rents them out to people, because some people just need a cat sometimes. She takes her pull cart, fills it with cats, and walks down a path with a megaphone announcing her presence and intentions: "Rent aaaaaaaaaaaa neko!" If she finds a suitably lonely person, she gives them an inspection and either accepts or rejects them as the new, temporary owner based on that.  And that's basically the movie. If you're looking for some kind of compelling plot about a young woman who rents out a cat to some terrible person and then has to go save it from the clutches of evil, you won't find it here. In fact, you won't find any real plot here. I would say that approximately eight things happen in the entire film, and all of them are related to the renting of cats. Thing number one happens when Sayoko rents out the first cat, number two happens when she gets the cat back, etc. It's not clear what else she does or how she makes any money, because she doesn't rent out very many cats and she rents them at unsustainable prices. There are the occasional references (and flashbacks) to Sayoko's life beyond the cat-renting business, but they're vague and don't do much to give any kind of depth to her character. Her only real goal in the film (and it's one that is never realized) is to find a husband. Her weird neighbor periodically pops up to tell her about how weird she is and how nobody would ever marry her. It makes her feel sad, and she puts up on her wall the goal to get married. As I said, though, nothing ever comes of it. In fact, she doesn't even try. Maybe that's a spoiler, but I don't want you to get your hopes up. In fact, the goal is almost a MacGuffin. There are moments where it seems like some kind of connection could take place (and by connection I mean she actually comes in contact with a male of similar age), and then... nothing. More than anything, it's just kind of weird. But I'm doing the film a disservice by talking about it that way. Those paragraphs make it seem like I didn't absolutely adore the film and its characters, which is so very wrong. But I wanted to tell you exactly what you're getting into, so you have no false expectations. You should be able to sit back and take in the loveliness of the whole thing. And it is so, so lovely. In fact, Rent-a-Cat is probably the loveliest film I've seen all year.  Obviously, a large part of that loveliness comes from the cats. Cats are cute, period. Anyone who says otherwise is a heathen of some sort. Because everything in Sayoko's life involves cats, cats are everywhere in the film. In the early scenes, they are just there in the background of her life, being cute. And maybe that's why the plot was never made to be important, because no one would have paid attention to it anyway. Right at the beginning, the cats are at their cutest. Sayoko goes about her daily life, bringing pineapples to her deceased grandmother or whatever, and cats are just there, doing cat things. No one in the audience was paying too much attention to Sayoko while two cats were play-fighting (or real-fighting, I have no idea) in the background. I know that, because everyone in the audience was laughing and "awww"ing at the cats' antics. This held true for much of the film, although there were times when the film's conversations were able to overpower the cuteness. Which is good, because a lot of the dialogue is very funny. Beyond the wonderfulness of cats doing whatever, Sayoko's interactions with lonely people in need of cats (LPiNoCs) are all very cute and very funny. They're a pretty varied bunch, but they all have pretty similar needs, and when one scene began to play out identically to an earlier scene, I thought that something had gone wrong with the editing process. Instead, it was almost like the Joker's scars: you never really knew what was real. I liked that, though, and it allowed for some gags which almost worked like Family Guy cutaways. They were bizarre, funny, and I'm not entirely sure where they actually fit into Sayoko's daily schedule.  Nonetheless, there can become a point where even the adorableness wears thin, and Rent-a-Cat almost reaches that point. The film is 110 minutes long, which is at least 20 minutes too long for a movie without a plot. I didn't realize how long it was and was thinking that it felt incredibly long for a 90-minute movie. Finding out that it was actually longer than I thought it was helped a little bit, but the film needed some more editing. The flashbacks could have been cut entirely, and I think some of the longer shots could have been shortened, even if I did enjoy them quite a bit. It's a shame, because if it were shorter, I think that Rent-a-Cat would have been my favorite film of the festival (and NYAFF as well). As it currently stands, it's just in my Top 5. Given how amazing some of the films have been, that's still damn high praise, but I can't get over the feeling that this could have been so much more. Everything that is in Rent-a-Cat is fantastic. I laughed, I "awww"ed, and I just generally loved what I was watching. But there were missed opportunities. There were things that could have (and should have) been done to tighten it up a little bit. But don't take that to think for a moment that I don't wholeheartedly recommend Rent-a-Cat. I do. It's one of a very small number of truly original ideas at Japan Cuts, and it blows almost all of the adaptations out of the water. And it's got cats. So many cats. Cats cats cats cats cats cats cats cats cats.
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Rent aaaaaa Neko. Renta aaaaaa Neko. Neko neko.
[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Ushijima the Loan Shark

Jul 30 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211608:38627[/embed] Ushijima the Loan Shark (Yamikin Ushijima-kun | 闇金ウシジマくん)Director: Masatoshi YamaguchiRating: NRCountry: Japan  Ushijima the Loan Shark does not actually center around Ushijima the Loan Shark (Takayuki Yamada). It's really an ensemble piece, but the character through which most of the events take place is a guy named Jun Ogawa (Kento Hayashi). Jun is the manager of a teen dance group sensation called "BUMPS." He has literally thousands of contacts in the three phones he always carries around with him, and he's trying to become the best manager/event-coordinator in the entire world. But his entire future hinges on his selling out his next big show. That show will make or break him, so it has to go off without a hitch. But there are two problems: 1) Jun needs a lot of money, and 2) Jun is stupid. Jun is stupid because he doesn't understand just how powerful the people he messes with are. By the time things really get going, Jun has four people who are really dangerous who want a lot of money from him. He brings it upon himself, honestly, and it's difficult to sympathize with his plight. In fact, it's difficult to sympathize with the majority of people in Ushijima the Loan Shark. Few of the characters are particularly multifaceted, and the sides that we do see are almost exclusively bad. Nobody is completely good, which is rare enough in stories that the film should be commended on that, but the number of people who are any good at all could be counted on one hand.  What that leads to, though, is quite a lot of conflict. As I said, Ushijima the Loan Shark is an ensemble piece, so there are a lot of people with different conflicts. Ushijima, for example, has to deal with all of the people who have taken out loans from him, but he also has to deal with the cops, who are trying to nab him for making illegal loans; Jun has to deal with everything and everybody; Mirai (Yuko Oshima), who is another, slightly lesser plot centerpiece, has to deal with her gambling-addicted prostitute mother (Asuka Kurosawa) as well as Jun and Ushijima (who handled her mother's loans). The film gives each of them their due, even if they're not necessary worth rooting for. But their individual conflicts are interesting enough to keep things moving. As could be expected, the moments featuring Ushijima are the best of the film. He's a commanding presence, and his circular spectacles and neckbeard make him seem surprisingly threatening. His business practices (50% interest every ten days, or "ten-fifty") are designed to be as punishing as possible to anyone who would ask for a loan from him, but he somehow has a business nonetheless. It seems that much of his money comes from purchasing the debts of others. Perhaps the TV show delves a bit more into his business, but the movie doesn't spend too much time focusing on it. Ushijima's actions are really what matter. Ushijima the Loan Shark is a very dark film, dealing with rape, murder, torture, prostitution, and other things of that sort (which made it a very strange follow-up to Rent-a-Cat). Sometimes that tone works in the film's favor, but sometimes it seems like it's there just to be there. The most obvious example involves the head of a gang burning a man with cigarettes and stapling his face. That man has nothing to do with the plot, and the scene is just there to be dark and disturbing. It gives a sense of how awful the gangleader is, but honestly that character doesn't have much place in the film either. His only real purpose seems to be demonstrating how powerful Ushijima is. And Ushijima is powerful. When he gets to unleash his might, it's awesome. The best scene of the film involves him finally getting to show everyone that he's not all talk. Even when you see him do terrible things, it's not him going toe-to-toe with a psychotic mass-murderer named Fleshviper. Only when he's put in that situation does it really hammer home just how awesome that guy is. The Fleshviper plotline, too, is kind of weird and unnecessary (Jun has enough problems without Fleshviper there to screw things up further), but since it allows Ushijima to let loose, I'm completely okay with that. I'm actually going to just go and say that most of the plotlines are kind of irrelevant. It may be an ensemble film, but it's really Ushijima's movie. Even though things are seen mostly through the lens of what Jun needs to do, everything really leads back to Ushijima and his lending business (Cow Cow Finance). Maybe that's why those two aforementioned things bothered me so much, because they had nothing at all to do with Ushijima. They both had to do with Jun. Even Mirai's issues with her mother, although mostly kept between the two of them (and the third person that Mirai's mother is trying to get her to have sex with), are in part due to Ushijima and his loans to her. So even though he's not there, and thus I didn't care as much as I could have, there was some level of connection. There are other major arcs that could also have been done away with, although they were more integral to the overall plot. Nonetheless, I quite liked Ushijima the Loan Shark. Even though I didn't really like most of the characters and felt that they totally deserved the bad things that were coming to them, it was interesting to see them dig themselves into a hole (and in some cases pull themselves out of it). I wish it had centered more around Ushijima, because he was really what kept everything together, but that really just means I need to seek out other Ushijima-themed media. If the manga and TV show are as enjoyable (if that is the word) as the film was, then I have some good times ahead of me.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Tormented

Jul 27 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211375:38588[/embed] Tormented (Rabito Hora 3D /  ラビット・ホラー 3D)Director: Takashi ShimizuRating: NRCountry: Japan  Kiriko (Hikari Mitsushima) is a mute young woman who works as the librarian at the school her younger brother, Daigo (Takeru Shibuya), attends. After an incident in which Daigo mercy-kills a young rabbit, he is ostracized from his classmates and stops going to school. He soon starts being haunted in the night by a person in a rabbit costume, who brings him to carnivals and shows him all sorts of weird things. Kiriko, meanwhile, is constantly woken up by her brother's screams as he finds himself in the clutches of the rabbit-person. Their father (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a picture book artist who appears to be too busy to pay attention to the plight of his young son. All of that sounds fine, right? Kinda weird, but it's a Japanese horror film, so whatever. But not all is as it seems, and when I say that, I mean to say that none of that actually makes any sense. Now, I'm going to have to spoil the biggest (although not only) reveal of the film, because I need to talk about why the movie doesn't work. The twist, which is revealed between half about two-thirds of the way through, doesn't just change everything that has come before it, the way a good twist would, it completely negates everything that came before it. What do I mean? Well... spoilers for the paragraphs in between the next two images. Daigo does not exist. He is the figment of Kiriko's psychotic imagination. After (unintentionally) doing something terrible in her youth, Kiriko's mind split from reality. She imagined the birth of a younger brother as well as his childhood and schooling up through the mercy-killing of the rabbit and whatnot. It's all one big crazy hallucination. As a plot point, there's nothing wrong with that. It can definitely be used effectively, and act as some mindblowing moment of revelation. In fact, I wasn't actually surprised by the revelation, because of a few things that happened earlier that didn't quite add up. So for the moment I was just being proud of myself, because I never pick up on things like that. But then, as I thought about it, I realized how completely bullshit that twist was. You see, the problem is that the majority of the time leading up to the reveal, Daigo is the main character. The film follows him through his night terrors, and we see the rabbit and the creepy things it does through his eyes. Now remember that Daigo is not real, and you will quickly realize what that means: none of it happened. It's not even it was a dream that the character woke up from. Those are irritating enough on their own. No, these were the actions and dreams of a hallucination, a character that does not exist outside of the realm of Kiriko's head. Even though Kiriko has the occasional VO, her lack of presence during Daigo's antics means that there is no justifiable way any of that could have happened. It was impossible, and the audience was watching something impossible. Even if the sequences themselves are interesting, they absolutely destroy the narrative of the film. You don't follow Tyler Durden in Fight Club, because you can't follow him. He's not real. (Spoilers for a movie you should have seen 13 years ago, by the way). You certainly couldn't go into his dreams. Whatever they were, no matter how cool they were to watch, they would have destroyed the integrity of Fight Club's story. And that's what happens here. A story that is already kind of strange completely and utterly ruins itself. (Spoilers are over). Outside of that major issue, though, things just don't make a lot of sense. In an attempt to keep things interesting, the film throws out more and more twists, and they make less and less sense. When the credits rolled, the man beside me said, "What?", a fitting reference to the audience reaction to Gyo. And then the credits finished rolling, and another few moments of footage played. And then it was my turn, but with a bit of added color: What the fuck? If you expect to come out of Tormented with even the vaguest sense of what just happened, prepare to be very unhappy. Everything that seems true is questioned, questioned again, and then questioned a third time. Then another thing comes and make it all even more confusing. Horror films can get away with making less sense than other types of films, because frequently their aim is not to tell an incredibly compelling story, but they can't get away with something this completely ridiculous. They really can't.  As far as something scary, I think that I found Tormented more effective than most people will. I'm kind of a wimp, and loud noises made me jump pretty badly (I actually left my seat when that first gunshot in Drive happened). There are a lot of loud noises here. As far as sound goes, though, Tormented has a really good soundtrack. Seriously good. It's the soundtrack of a far better horror film, and it ups the tension in a way that the rest of the film never could. Not even the woman with the long, black hair with the life of its own (this was done by the guy who made Ju-On/The Grudge after all) really does all that much. I wish I'd seen the movie in 3D. Not because I think it would have been good, but because it would have made things more interesting. It would have given me something to pay attention to other than the ridiculous narrative. Visually, the film is completely fine, perhaps even good (although the color is a bit much), but it was clearly designed for 3D. In fact, there is a scene within the movie of a 3D movie, and I wanted to watch it that way too. I don't actually like 3D, but it would have been a cool effect to put on my 3D glasses with the people in the movie. It would have gotten me involved in a meaningful way. Sure, it would have been a gimmick, but so what? It would have been a cool gimmick. A lot of the other people in the theater hated Tormented. I didn't. In fact, I kind of liked it. There were aspects of it I thought were interesting, and I mostly enjoyed everything leading up to that big twist. As it went crazy, I still found some things to like (the soundtrack), but the narrative missteps were too great. I don't think anybody could pull off a movie with such a stupid plot. And if it is possible, Takashi Shimizu certainly isn't the one to prove it.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...


Japan Cuts Review: Tokyo Playboy Club

Jul 27 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211359:38587[/embed] Tokyo Playboy Club (Tokyo Pureiboi Kurabu | 東京プレイボーイクラブ)Director: Yosuke OkudaRating: NRCountry: Japan  Seikichi (Ken Mitsuishi) is the head honcho of the Tokyo Playboy Club, a rather pathetic dance club with a seemingly nonexistent client base. Everything is pretty quiet until his old friend/something Katsutoshi (Nao Omori) comes to town seeking refuge in Tokyo. He did something bad at the place he used to be at, and he looks to Seikichi for help. Seikichi, who owes Katsutoshi for some reason or another, accepts the responsibility. Unfortunately for him, Katsutoshi quite the hothead, and he soon gets both himself and Seikichi in trouble by performing acts of violence on some pretty powerful people. It seemed to me like not a lot happened in Tokyo Playboy Club. I honestly don't know why I felt that way, because it's not like the events were so paltry that they could have been considered nothing. Some pretty major things happened. People got stolen from, sexed, beaten up, and all sorts of other things, and it all happened very overtly. Nothing was hidden from view. Even so, the whole thing seemed kind of irrelevant. I think a part of that could be that so much of it took place in confined spaces, specifically all of the intense things (with the opening being an exception). The film has a very closed off feel (much like the club itself), and the lighting is not very good on most of the sets. By compartmentalizing everything, it loses any sort of grand importance.   It's also because the film is very slow-moving. There are a lot of longer takes (something which has been true about many of the films I've seen at Japan Cuts), and most of them are pretty static. Time in real time is only interesting for so long, and it makes everything seem like it's going more slowly than it is. Because film time is usually compressed, watching things play out more closely to how they actually would seems kind of boring. Even though I can't say I was every really "bored" with Tokyo Playboy Club, there were definitely some moments that went on a bit too long, even if they were enjoyable for the most part.  According to the programmer who introduced Tokyo Playboy Club, people have been comparing Yosuke Okuda to Takashi Miike, but he made a point that it was an unfavorable comparison. I think he's right, because Okuda is definitely not Takashi Miike, but I could see how a better version of the film could fit into Miike's repertoire. That being said, Miike's rather eclectic catalog means most things could probably be shoehorned under his name, but regardless. That being said, maybe part of that comes from the fact that star Nao Omori played the eponymous Ichi in Miike's Ichi the Killer. I don't know. Regardless, I think it's unfair for people to compare Okuda to Miike, given that Okuda only has a couple of films under his belt. Maybe someday the comparison will be justified, but for the moment people should just let Okuda be Okuda. It'll be for the best. On the note of Nao Omori, as much as I love him as an actor (his face was one of the best things about Potechi (Chips)), I had a lot of problems with his character. Katsutoshi's first appearance is as a calm, collected man who is intensely violent. That was cool. I liked it. He walked up to a dude and smashed his head in. There was no fanfare or anything of the sort. It was creepy. Then he started yelling at everybody. The outbursts matched his violence, but that's not particularly interesting to watch. Now that I think about it, I wanted something more like his character from Ichi the Killer (although perhaps a bit more confident). My opinion of the movie changed drastically with Katsutoshi's mood. When he was angry, it didn't ruin things by any means. It was really a matter of disappointment. But once I got over that and the fact that there were not going to be any bizarrely disorienting Playboy bunnies, I definitely enjoyed Tokyo Playboy Club. There's a lot to like, and really there aren't too many things to dislike. It's quite funny (I'm not sure why I haven't mentioned that yet), and it gets pretty crazy at times. Sure, it may not blow you away, but I think you'll have some fun with this one. As something of an addendum, I feel like I should mention that I saw Tokyo Playboy Club immediately before watching the complete and total mind-fuck that is Gyo. Upon leaving Gyo, I had forgotten everything about Tokyo Playboy Club. Seriously. I had actually forgotten I had seen another movie that day. Only when I was discussing it with some other people after the fact did it hit me that I had been there for two films, but then it took someone actually naming the film before my memory came back properly. Obviously that says something about the brain-melting nature of Gyo, but I think it also reflects negatively on the lasting impact of Tokyo Playboy Club. I don't know how different this review would be if it had been the only movie I had watched that day, but everything that was weird about it (and there were definitely weird things about it) just seemed kind of normal afterwards.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Lonely Swallows

Jul 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]210980:38619[/embed] Lonely Swallows (Kodoku na Tsubametachi Dekasegi no Kodomo ni Umarete | 孤独なツバメたち デカセギの子どもに生まれて)Director: Kimihiro Tsumura and Mayu NakamuraRating: NRCountry: Japan There are five lives covered in Lonely Swallows, though they essentially make four different perspectives. As a whole, it seems like a survey of the Japanese-Brazilian experience. There's a gangbanger named Yuri, so into Brazilian thug life in Japan that he's had "hustler" tattooed onto his hand. There's Eduardo, who's working hard but unable to make things work -- life as a blue-collar rock song. There's Paula, a teenage girl who was born and raised in Japan who must now return to Brazil. And then there's two members of Floor Monsters, a Brazilian-Japanese breakdance crew with rotating membership. For any immigrant population in a foreign country, developing some sense of community is essential. You'll at least have people with the same pool of experiences and some common cultural touchstones, and that means less chance of loneliness and alienation. There are different kinds of communities and different ways of establishing them. For Yuri, it's gang life that brings him the respect he wants, and he gets to roll with his Japanese-Brazilian friends; while for the Floor Monsters, it's as if breaking is their outlet for everything. Paula has her family, but because she's moving from Japan to Brazil, her own community is breaking apart. Eduardo's segments stood out for me the most. He seems isolated rather than part of a larger community of any kind -- he lives alone, his family is elsewhere, and he's trying to live on hard work alone. There's constant struggle for him to hold on to jobs due to the economic situation, which caused a lot of hardship for Brazilians all over Japan in 2008. When we're introduced to him, he's working 12 hours a day in a factory. Eduardo could have probably sustained the documentary on his own. He's reflective and candid, and his life becomes more compelling as times goes by. Eduardo's portions of the film give us a sense of the sociopolitical issues that affect the lives of these people. Part of me wonders if the filmmakers could have explored the larger social ramifications of the immigrant experience in Japan in greater detail. It would have become a different movie, obviously, and the strength of Lonely Swallows is in its intimate nature and its reliance on the stories of young people and their personal experiences. Yet I'm still curious about the Japanese perspective of the Brazilian population as a whole. Were there historical changes in views of Brazilians (or other immigrants) in the country over time? Did the Brazilian population experience any sort of racism, particularly when their population was at its height? Are there issues with cultural assimilation for the Brazilian population in Japan? Is there any Brazilian culture/Japanese culture cross-pollination? Does Hamamatsu have a hint of Brazilian culture, perhaps a vibrant Little Rio area? These are macro-issues for a micro-issue movie. Lonely Swallows is exploring something else regarding personal identity and a sense of home and place. And the movie may play differently to a Japanese audience who has a better understanding of the cultural matters concerning migrant populations in the country. We still get some doses of those macro matters. At one point the filmmakers mention that compulsory education isn't required for the children of migrant workers, which is why many of them drop out of junior high to start working. It's a fact told in passing but has major impact when it's mentioned in Eduardo's segments. My main gripe with Lonely Swallows isn't related to the subject matter or the approach. It's purely technical, which is unfortunate. The film seems very low-budget, with a single-camera set-up that's almost entirely handheld. Many of the shots are wobbly and not as well-framed as they could have been, which is especially bothersome during the breakdance scenes. There's one moment of gravity that's undermined by the mic on the HD camera they're using: while Eduardo is talking about his plight, we can hear an episode of The Simpsons playing somewhere in the background. (D'oh!) This might be an unfortunate bias of mine for a little more polish, even then asking for a little more polish might be asking too much. But moments like the breaking sequences or the little snippet of Simpsons audio did make me wonder if additional care could have been taken in the presentation of the material without dulling the intensity of the moment. It's a tough balancing act of maintaining a sense of spontaneity while also exercising control and composing the scene, and it's something a lot of people take for granted when watching documentaries. When the Lonely Swallows is at its most intimate, the handheld style is effective and, oddly, the most controlled. Eduardo and Paula both have some moving moments addressing the filmmakers. It feels more like a confession rather than something too sculpted and mannered. There's lots of talk about home and dreams, and I began to wonder whether a sense of home exists anymore for either of them. Towards the end, Paula says that the dreams she had in life are over. She's only 17. Part of this is the expert hyperbole of the teenage mind, but maybe there's a hint of truth to it as well. Life in Brazil isn't ideal for her and may not get any better. Eduardo, on the other hand, recounts a dream he had that moves him to tears, but it gives him a sense of purpose. His dream is a reason to live. For whatever Lonely Swallows lacks in technical proficiency, it makes up for with its honest explorations of these lives. It's a series of intimate portraits that makes me want to know more about the situation these people are facing. You don't necessarily feel like you know the people of Lonely Swallows, but you do know where they're coming from; you'll be left curious enough to want to know more. [Lonely Swallows will be screening at The Japan Society on Saturday, July 28th at 5:00 PM]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: No Man's Zone

Jul 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211123:38609[/embed] No Man's Zone (Mujin Chitai | 無人地帯)Director: Toshifumi FujiwaraRating: NRCountry: Japan If you were like me last year, you were probably glued to your television and the internet after the 3/11 quake. Any time I was at the computer, I had a window with an NHK live stream open so I could stay caught up. I was obsessed with learning any news about survivors and any stories about the immensity of the devastation. I would go on YouTube looking for new videos of the tsunami and its aftermath. And of course, I was seized by the Fukushima nuclear disaster for weeks. I still recall the shock of seeing reactor one blow up and that uncertain hour afterward, scrambling through channel after channel, news source after news source, just to figure out what that explosion meant and if all hope was lost. This form of image obsession is one of Fujiwara's hobby horses in No Man's Znne, and it's an idea that's constantly returned to. It makes sense since image saturation after a tragedy is the norm. The same footage gets played on televisions; the same clips of a tragedy go viral. Sometimes the image can supplant the event -- as if the Kent State shootings boiled down to just one black and white image of a prone body and a distressed woman; as if the assassination of JFK was only the Zapruder film. And to that, apart from the explosions and the terrifying husks of the nuclear reactors, the Fukushima disaster is essentially an invisible disaster. You can't really film the radiation as it saturates the water and the soil in the surrounding areas. You can only depict the effects of the radiation rather than show the radiation itself, and the effects of the radiation will be slow, playing out in life rather than on film. So all images of the radioactive disaster wind up being untrue in a way. That's a legitimately fascinating idea about images and truth, but after a while it wears thin. These ideas are conveyed through the narration of Arsinée Khanjian. Her voice is so smokily dire and French, with a tone that insists serious attention. Yet what she says isn't always that profound. In one scene, Fujiwara wanders structures ruined by the tsunami and encounters men in white radiation suits. The narration refers to the men as ghosts and lost souls, a flourish so stilted and straining that I cringed in seat. A friend of mine from college used to say, "Never trust someone that confuses the words 'conscious' and 'conscience,'" and I'm pretty sure that in a different scene of No Man's Zone, the narration does just that. I say pretty sure because at a certain point of the film I tuned out of the narration. Too much of it sounded like a bad sophomore essay on Derrida, and my mind can only take so much. It's those odd moments in the narration that brought me to attention, like the "conscious"/"conscience" thing, or a dash of venom in which the narration suggests that we engage in schadenfreude if we saturate ourselves with images of tragedy. There are also moments where the narration fades out and in, muffling words or cutting short some of the meandering ideas. I'm not sure why this was done (was it a short disquisition on the nature of silence and non-silence?), but it seems like an unnecessary distraction. Perhaps I would have reacted differently to No Man's Zone if there was a greater sense of a thesis-in-progress. By that I mean the images and narration were creating an even larger idea about images and our response to tragedy. But Fujiwara's images meander like the narration. We get shaky shots taken from car windows, and wobbly handheld shots of devastation, and jerky pans of seaside towns laid to waste. The opening shot of the film -- beginning with a gnarled and blackened tree, lingering over splintered houses, ending at a snapped power line -- is repeated in absolute silence later in the film. But to what end? These moments of pretentiousness and forced poetry aren't all necessary, because the most interesting parts of No Man's Zone are the ones that involve actual people. There's an interview with a elderly couple as they return to their house after the tsunami. The water has destroyed most of the homes nearby, but their home is left standing, though damaged. There's a woman who's lived in Iitate. The town is outside the exclusion zone but still near enough to Fukushima to experience high levels of radiation. She's now forced to uproot and leave the area because of what the radiation has done to the land. The sudden appearance of a dog in the wreckage has the evocative flair of life to it. The audience asks questions about the people and the place rather than the narrator asking questions about abstractions tangentially related to the people and the place. These interview subjects are the living records of the tsunami as well as the radioactive tragedy that's still unfolding. It's their words and their presence that have more meaning to me than the ideas about images and what they convey. Sometimes it's just interview audio over images of the tsunami's aftermath, but that's better than hearing Khanjian. And yet, there's even a meandering quality to these interviews. The exchanges between interviewees and Fujiwara unfold like awkward conversations, and every few seconds you hear Fujiwara do a hum of assent, as if constantly saying "Why yes, go on." This all could have used additional shaping or forming. Prior to No Man's Zone was a short episode from We Are All Radioactive. It's an episodic documentary series about various groups of people in Japan -- surfers, fishermen, townspeople -- dealing with life after the tsunami. A fisherman shared a story about how his family was saved from the tsunami by a funeral. There's something potent and alive to that anecdote, and it's free from any pseudo-intellectualism. It's true, and it's honest, and the thing about truth is that it can get obscured by imagery and language. In No Man's Zone, there are lots of questions about truth, but I'm not sure that the film ever achieves it.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Toad's Oil

Jul 24 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211122:38600[/embed] Toad's Oil (Gama no Abura | ガマの油)Director: Koji YakushoRating: NRCountry: Japan If you were to look past the strangeness, Toad's Oil shares some DNA with another Koji Yakusho film I watched recently, the non-strange drama Chronicle of My Mother. (Still good despite its lack of bears getting kicked in the crotch.) Both star Yakusho, obviously. Both deal with multi-generational family relationships -- it's straightforward in Chronicle, while in Toad's Oil there are occasional, invisible spirits of the past. Both have nods to the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. There's also a sense of fathers and sons becoming like each other. In Chronicle of My Mother, it's sons becoming their fathers, here in Toad's Oil, it's as if we're looking at a father becoming his son. Yakusho's character in Toad's Oil is Takuro Yazawa, a rich stay-at-home day trader prone to histrionic outbursts. He has an arsenal of plastic pellet guns on racks around the room, and rows of iMacs on long tables to help him make his deals. He dresses like Indiana Jones with a tie at one point; there's some sense that Takuro never quite grew up. Takuro's so loony that after his son falls in a coma from a car accident, he pretends to be his son and flirts with his son's girlfriend, Hikari, over the phone. (It's not quite as creepy as it sounds, but it's bizarre.) That's where lots of the trouble starts, particularly when his son's condition takes a turn for the worse. The set up is all about an innocent deception that snowballs into human drama. All that puppy love and between a middle-aged goofball and his son's cutesy girlfriend suddenly has this new moral and ethical dimension to it. The strangeness of the film helps enhance the more realistic elements -- that odd way that you can play opposites off each other to make both more resonant. It's almost like a kind of seasoning, or, since it is in a sense Takuro's film, the strangeness may even be a glimpse into the way the character views the world. Something central to film's worldview is a man in feudal garb selling toad's oil (the Japanese equivalent of snake oil) through theatrical grunts and mannerisms. He does so with the help of a silent assistant played by Satomi Kobayashi, who also plays Takuro's wife. At first these scenes are jarring. It appears unexpectedly, like a brief disconnect that rattles you out of the movie. Yet what at first feels like a non sequitur winds up being folded into the film's other bits of strangeness. Little beliefs about family and magic and spirits get implanted in the mind. There's a design to it all if you just let the story play out, and Yakusho keeps the interest going through this sense of unpredictability. Even though Toad's Oil is Yakusho's directorial debut, it doesn't feel like it. There's a certain confidence behind the camera, and there's always a sense of control to the material. This is especially important with a movie that deals with such major shifts in tone and reality. You need a certain amount of authority to guide an audience through such strange places, and Yakusho maintains it. I suppose this also has to do with your propensity (or tolerance) for the strange. Yet the strange can be beautiful, and Toad's Oil is a film full of beautiful moments. It's visually lush, which serves the elements of magical realism well. The stars in night sky seems brighter, with a shimmer like lightning bugs; the forests become much more lush, greens crackled with blooms of yellow and red; and even something as simple as a boxy, vintage Winnebago suddenly seems so interesting to look at. The performances, though varied, all have weight to them, like actual people have been plopped into the odd world of Toad's Oil. There are moments between Takuro his son's friend Akiba (Junichi Sawayashiki) that are tender. (Perhaps there's also a funny undercurrent to these exchanges given that Sawayashiki is a professional kickboxer. I'm not sure how it plays to Japanese audiences.) The same tenderness is there when you watch Hikari interact with her lonely grandmother. Thinking about tenderness and strangeness, I think the strangeness of Toad's Oil helps soften many moments that would be too sentimental in a more conventional movie. In a film full off eccentricity and wonderment, sentimentality feels more like a genuine expression of emotion rather than a forced one. It's as if by being broad, varied, and bizarre, you can purify sentimentality into its truer expression of feeling. It's doesn't always work, though. Toad's Oil is at times sentimental given what it tries to say about family and human interaction, and even strangeness can't prevent certain palpable tugs at the heartstrings. It's not something I have against the film, however. I was carried off by other elements, like bears getting kicked in the crotch and pellet guns and Takuro's quest to do something right for his son. It's just the way Takuro's world works, and it's a strange and beautiful place to live.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: 9 Souls

Jul 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211121:38592[/embed] 9 Souls (Nain Souruzu | ナイン・ソウルズ)Director: Toshiaki ToyodaRating: NRCountry: Japan Originally released in 2003, 9 Souls was Toyoda's follow-up to his acclaimed 2001 film Blue Spring (which I have yet to see). Watching the movie, it feels almost like an argument against strict genre boundaries. In the sequence before the title screen, we see an apocalyptic vision of Tokyo slowly being leveled into dirt accompanied by the impending churn of a post-rock song. There's a murder. Then there's time in prison with other inmates, a zany tantrum, and an exuberant escape capped with a rushing instrumental and an introduction to the film's characters. It's depression, it's violence, it's comedy, it's joy, and though it's not of one genre, it's all of a coherent piece. And then, up on the screen, finally: 9 Souls. It's that odd and sometimes breathless way that 9 Souls has of captivating its audience as these shifts in tone occur, and they occur quite often. It's a prison movie and a road movie full of slapstick and pathos. Tone shifts because that's the story of these lives. And in the end, who cares about strict genre boundaries? There are times when genre labels should be discounted entirely since the work in question is too complicated for simple confinement. 9 Souls busts out of this genre joint. The nine inmates who break out of jail have different reasons for being there. There's the gruff ring leader who killed his own son (the late Yoshio Harada), the brooding young man who killed his father (Ryuhei Matsuda), a bumbling oaf like a Japanese Curly (I believe it's Genta Dairaku), and a master midget escapist (Mame Yamada). They band together in a stolen RV -- repainted, decorated, christened after sainted lady parts -- in search of a hidden stash. It's money that may give them a ticket to living free while on the lam. What's maybe most remarkable about 9 Souls is the way that each character's hopes and dreams get a chance to be depicted on screen. Each of them has distinct personalities as well, so none of the inmates gets lost in the ensemble. Some are more memorable than others, obviously. The midget convict played by Yamada has a certain wizened feel about him. You understand there's more to him than just being a guy on the run. Harada's gruffness suggests something sternly paternal regarding his crew. There are squabbles between them all, which is to be expected when you cram a bunch of people in a smelly RV, but under all that pettiness is a mutual concern. The first half of the film is generally the funny half, where all those hopes of freedom seem certain. Befitting the tone, we get unexpected reunions which lead to lots of awkward situational comedy, and we also get lots of playful ribbing and pranking on each other. None of the cons are bad people per se. They may be better viewed as fuck-ups looking for a second chance from anyone and from anywhere. But that opening shot of the rotting Japan suggests the tone of the second half the film: hopelessness. Nothing goes quite as planned for the crew. Dreams rarely work out the way you want them, and perhaps one of the hard lessons learned in 9 Souls is defeatist: once a fuck-up, always a fuck-up. That's expressed in one gut-wrenching scene where Dairaku's character takes out his frustrations on himself. It's one of those moments that starts out funny because it's the stuff of slapstick, but as the scene continues, the comedy dwindles and we're left with a visceral expression of self-loathing. There's a line from Neil Gaiman's Sandman that said if you keep a story going long enough it will always end in death. In 9 Souls, if you tell a joke long enough, it'll wind up being sad. (Think the Bee Gees tune "I Started a Joke.") Both are about extending the story past the punchline or the happy ending, which just shows how grueling and unfortunate life can be. At times I wondered if fate was involved for our hapless inmates, or if they would always be in these unfortunate personal prisons they made themselves. They escaped, but maybe they're worse off for it. But to that idea of going beyond the happy ending or a punchline, if you linger on a silly image long enough, it becomes a thing of beauty. The joke becomes poetry. By that I don't mean the early bestiality gag or the goofy disguises our inmates start to wear, but the scene with Dairaku and his expression of rage. Or there's a scene with Yamada which is quietly funny at first, but because of Toyoda's lingering camera it becomes a potent image of frailty and intimacy -- if you make a quip and sustain it, maybe it becomes an expression of love. The whole film is based on this blend of high and low, hope and hopelessness, comedy and tragedy, and it winds up being this unpredictable and fascinating story of lost souls. I admit I sort of have issues with how 9 Souls ends -- a matter of personal taste regarding the literalization of a metaphor -- but that doesn't detract for what the end means to those involved. Maybe there's the possibility that if you keep telling a sad story long enough, you'll wind up at those happy endings and punchlines again. Sure, it's all bound to curve down again like a miserable sine wave, but you've got hold out hope for something, even if it's fleeting and impossible. We're all fuck-ups, but we're all in this together.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Hard Romanticker

Jul 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211354:38583[/embed] Hard Romanticker (Hadoromanchika | ハードロマンチッカー)Director: Su-Yeon GuRating: NRCountry: Japan  I couldn't really tell you what the story of Hard Romanticker is, because it's both irrelevant and uninteresting. Gu (Shota Matsuda) has done various things to make various people unhappy, so pretty much everyone wants his head on a pike. I know that one particular group hates him because he beat someone up, and I think another group hates him because he beat other people up, but I don't really know. Beyond that, there is a very nosy police officer who fits into the whole thing somewhere, and I have no idea why. There is probably something more there, but I never figured out what it was, nor did I really care enough to try. Normally I'm not one to criticize a film for its representation of a gender, but I have to make an exception for Hard Romanticker. It's kind of amazing, actually, how terribly women are treated in the film. None of them have anything close to a personality (with one exception I will talk about later), and basically all of them exist as nothing more than sexual objects. In fact, more than a few of the women spend their entire time onscreen naked and unconscious, being groped by some paint-thinner addicts. If you want to talk about the objectification of women in films, Hard Romanticker is an excellent place to start. But even though women are sexually brutalized, the men are still the victims of some pretty merciless violence. In fact, Hard Romanticker has some of the best violence I've seen in a while. It's not because it's particularly well choreographed or anything, but because it looks so real. If I had to guess, I'd say that 75% of the hits in the film were real. And I'm not talking about major, damage-causing strikes, I mean just smacks and slaps and small hits. There are a lot of them, and there's no way they didn't actually connect. Even if sound was used to amplify the effect, the amount of onscreen violence meant that what was put offscreen (or obscured the way movies usually do it) stood out. There are two moments of violence in particular that shocked/impressed me. The first was a kick to the stomach that pulled a collective groan from the audience. It was quick, intense, and right in the center of the screen. I imagine there was some speeding up involved, perhaps the victim was wearing some protective padding, and a few extra effects made the whole thing seem worse than it was, but I wasn't thinking about it then. I was thinking about the second one though, because it shocked me and by that point I had no interest in the events of the film. Gu hits somebody in the head with a pipe. Simple enough? Absolutely, fake pipe. No problem. Except for the fact that Gu spun around and hit the wall with it, taking out a chunk of the wood. Then he hit it two more times, each leaving a (completely different) kind of gash. Maybe there was a cut I missed, but it was pretty damn impressive from where I was sitting. Generally speaking, Hard Romanticker spends a lot of time with each moment. There are numerous long takes, and most of them are static shots. Static shots tend to be pretty boring, which is why I found it interesting that the filmmakers used them as a way to frame violence. Single-take static-shots do a lot to remove the intensity of action sequences, but Hard Romanticker still manages to pull some pretty harsh moments out of them. If there's one good thing that I cold pull out of the film, it's that, and I don't really know how good that is. The character themselves, when not being abused and beaten, range from boring to downright awful. Taking aside the fact that a lot of the characters (Gu included) are rapists, there's just nothing redeeming about any of the characters. I couldn't even feel sympathy for the majority of the girls because they weren't actual people. The were just things. The only person I really liked was Gu's grandmother, and that was because her generic identity was that of a bitter old grandmother, and bitter old grandmothers are funny. Even with her though, I never felt any kind of affinity to anybody, so I had nothing invested in the little story that was there. I understand that I'm missing the point. Hard Romanticker is about going back to the ultra-violent, ultra-sexual Japanese crime movies of old, but the film can't survive on nostalgia alone. I can see Hard Romanticker having a market in Japan, and I can also see it having a market over here as well, but I don't know why I can see it. Many of the other people at the theater I talked to did seem to enjoy the film (although the sentiment about misogyny was widely felt), although a lot of them had fond memories of the good old days. But it's not the good old days anymore. We've moved beyond films like Hard Romanticker, and we're better for it. The Japanese film industry is better for it. It's all well and good to look to the past, but if this is what the past was like, then good riddance.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Chronicle of My Mother

Jul 19 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]210978:38575[/embed] Chronicle of My Mother (Waga Haha no Ki | わが母の記)Director: Masato HaradaRating: NRCountry: Japan As I've grown older, movies about relationships with parents have a bit more weight, especially about older parents. It might have less to do with my own aging than my parents's aging. I wonder what they'll wind up doing once they retire (if that's even a possibility), how they'll act, and what my obligations will be to them. I wonder if any grudges will persist and if I'll learn little secrets about their lives. It's probably common for a lot of people around my age to start thinking about these things seriously. I also wonder, as they grow older, what they must think of me. Chronicle of My Mother opens with a middle-aged writer named Kosaku (Koji Yakusho) lingering on a memory of abandonment. It's a pivotal moment from his childhood and something for which he's never forgiven his mother. We follow Kosaku's family from 1959 to the early 1970s, beginning with the death of his father. In their last moments together, Kosaku's father does something that leaves his son somewhat confused. It's not necessarily a catalyst for the movie, but it does help trigger ideas of identity and belonging, both of which are central to the film's observations about family. We're told by those close to Kosaku that he takes after his father so much in mannerisms and appearance. Kosaku's mother (Kirin Kiki) is another story -- there's a noticeable distance. Yet that sense of distance is part of what drove him to be a writer. Maybe to help address this abandonment (or because of it), he surrounds himself with women as personal assistants and secretaries, and he mines the lives of his daughters for his books. The latter could be his way of showing his family that he cares even if he's overbearing. Kosaku seems to have a special affinity for Kotoko (Aoi Miyazaki), his youngest and most headstrong, even when she disobeys him. I'd mentioned that Chronicle of My Mother isn't a movie of deep psychological portraits, but it's not a bad thing necessarily. The depth of motivation and thought are often more easily conveyed in a novel rather than a film. What we get instead instead are sympathetic portraits, nostalgic portraits, and emotionally resonant portraits. Much of this is conveyed through the three leads, Yakusho, Kiki, and Miyazaki. Yakusho and Miyazaki have most of the heavy lifting in the film. What makes Yakusho especially good is his ability to communicate his mood through little shifts in expression. A nod can mean a lot, and the same can be said of a tightening at the corners of his mouth. Miyazaki does a keen trick of maturation, going from school girl to woman over the course of two hours. It's not just the pigtails, there's a change in her overall demeanor. Kiki's an interesting performance of senility and sympathy. She's losing touch with what's real and yet she always feels very deeply. Kiki rarely plays the histrionics for laughs and isn't too enfeebled when she's showing her fragile mental state. There's a sense of reality to both kinds of moments. To an extent, she's a bit one note, but I think there's something about characters who are broad but well rendered that's important, which I'll address at the end. A big help to these portraits are those Ozu visuals and Harada's play with his compositions. The film feels nostalgic, and not just because it takes place 50 years ago. Chronicle of My Mother is like a memory of a family, everything viewed with the same sort of fondness you'd give to a family photo album. Many times the shots are composed in these zones of cool colors and warm colors, or activity and stillness, shadow and light, so it's possible to read a lot into each shot. The negative spaces help draw attention to characters, and little camera moves try to offer the sort of depth of feeling that can't be conveyed through performance alone. One character says the grandmother's senility is half real and half an act. That may be a good way to sum up much of the feel of Chronicle of My Mother. Lots of it is composed in only the way that a movie can be -- it's an act, it's artifice. And with this artifice is this sense of real emotion. It's conveyed in those shots of light and dark and activity and inactivity, and even just interesting compositions that isolate figures. I think of one early shot where Kotoko and her sisters play a frantic card game and giggle all the while as, in a separate zone of the frame, the grandmother sits quietly and sadly, the first signs of senility beginning to take hold. This sort of brings me back to the idea of broad characters. When they're brought to life by capable actors as they are in Chronicle of My Mother, it allows for a certain amount of audience involvement. By that I mean the viewers can read some of their lives into these characters -- what it is to be a parent, a child, a grandparent, a grandchild, and so on. In the early part of the film where they discuss Kosaku's similarities to his dead father, I couldn't help but think of the time my dad had a major health scare and how I spent a worried night looking at a mirror trying to identify every facial feature of his that I'd inherited. These are both cliches, but they are both something true. And I think about my grandmothers, and the weird distances I've felt from my parents, and that strong love for my mom. In How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood wanted to rethink the idea of "roundness" and "flatness" when it comes to characterization. Sometimes so-called flat characters present greater dimension than so-called round characters. It's all about how characters give us a glimpse into something truthful. Sometimes those broad strokes contain subtleties of action, and that's where we find things that move us. In the case of Chronicle of My Mother, the images and the performances become spaces where it's possible to locate our own families. [Chronicle of My Mother will be screening at The Japan Society on Saturday, July 21st at 6:00 PM. This is part of Japan Cuts's focus on actor Koji Yakusho, which starts with The Woodsman and the Rain on Friday, July 20th at 7:00 PM. Yakusho will be in attendance at the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain and Saturday night's screening of 13 Assassins.]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Zombie Ass

Jul 19 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211120:38576[/embed] Zombie Ass (Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead | Zonbiasu | ゾンビアス)Director: Noboru IguchiRating: NRCountry: Japan For a movie called Zombie Ass, there's not as much poop as you'd think. There's still plenty, but most of it is day-old rather than straight-from-the-oven, if you catch my meaning. As tasteless as the movie is, we're (thankfully, mercifully) never subjected to a scene of someone popping a squat on camera. Noboru Iguchi has some standards. Instead, we get something much worse coming out of people's asses and a lot of puke. There's also a zombie hurling shit from his pockets, like a dignified chimpanzee. Our set-up for mayhem involves five hapless characters going out to the country. There's fighting school girl Megumi, her good friend Aya, Aya's fratty and drugged-out boyfriend Take, Maki the slut, and the nerdy rube Naoi. They're out fishing, but not for fun or for food per se. Maki wants to be a model and is looking for parasites in fish that she can use to lose weight. (The idea was funny in the Hong Kong rom-com Love on a Diet, and it's still funny in a Japanese shit/zombie movie.) Intestinal discomfort, parasitic mayhem, shit, and zombies ensue. There's also a mad scientist involved in all this, and some powerful farts. And tentacles. ...what the fuck did I just watch? On that note, Zombie Ass would make a fitting double-feature with the flatulent-fish horror anime Gyo. Both are filled with strange images, through Gyo's tend to be more haunting and even bizarrely beautiful. I suppose Zombie Ass has moments like that, if you find mutant tapeworms and excrement beautiful. If Gyo is like a palate cleanse that wipes your memory of the movie you may have seen before it, Zombie Ass is like a palate obliterator. This is my first dive into Iguchi's work, so I can't really say where it fits with his aesthetic. It's goofy, it's got its tongue firmly in its cheek, and the film acknowledges the fact it's never meant to be more than no-frills, low-rent garbage with a bit of nudity for kicks. The curvy Asana Mamoru plays Maki, and Iguchi delights in filling the screen with her cleavage and her butt. But he then renders both completely unsexy with an outhouse scene, as if to say, "Oh, hey, here's that nudity you wanted, just don't mind the crap." The nudity involving our hero Megumi (Arisa Nakamura) was unnerving. Character-wise she's a little like Kung-fu from Nobuhiko Ohbayashi's Hausu (House), but she looks just barely pubertal. "Oh, hey, here's that nudity you wanted; I bet you don't want it anymore." The Zombie Ass special effects are pretty good when it comes to the creatures and make-up. It wouldn't be out of place in an old Peter Jackson movie or a no-budget splatter film. The CG stuff is all trash, however, and gloriously/unrepentantly so. The zombie headshots are predominantly CG, and they don't even look as good as the ones in Wild Zero. The finale is so artificial looking, but that's the point. What you can't do with technology, at least make up for it with ridiculous enthusiasm, and you can tell Iguchi's having fun at every turn. Just picture a 12-year-old telling a gross-out joke, and that's Zombie Ass. With all its mayhem, it reminds me a lot of the fun junk from classic Troma, or even the gross-out classic Street Trash. It's a pile, but it's an over-the-top, goofy, entertaining pile and it had no problems just being what it is -- happy as a pig in shit. Underlying the action, the violence, the tentacles, and the sheer celebration of bad taste is maybe the hint of something true and human: a fear of impropriety by farting. Sometimes people are so polite about it and even try to hide the sounds of Gabriel's trumpet while in a stall -- they time flushes, they pretend to talk on the phone, they sing songs. Take that, extrapolate it, and then turn it into a zombie movie with lots of crap. Zombie Ass achieved. Farting is Megumi's big hang-up in life -- her kryptonite is something from within -- which is what makes the finale so absurdly triumphant. I mentioned in my review for Boxer's Omen (a 1980s black magic movie from Shaw Brothers Studios) that it's hard to give scores to certain movies. They can be written about and you can gush about the weird bits all you want, but often times these movies exist in a place beyond math. Zombie Ass is such a movie. That may be why I laughed so much while watching it. Not only was I just revolted and dumbstruck by what I was seeing, but all the while I wondered "How am I going to write about this?" I don't know what to give this thing point-wise. I can recommend it to people who might get a kick out of disgusting gross-out trash, but man, there are only so many words to describe it and no numbers that would add up properly. Perhaps Zombie Ass is a movie that exists in a place beyond math and language -- that may or may not be an endorsement. I still don't know. For now, that gorehound is off to the porch again to rest. It'll sit in the sun and flop its tail back and forth a while. It's probably going to let one rip in honor of Zombie Ass.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: The Big Gun/Metamorphosis (Henge)

Jul 18 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211358:38574[/embed] The Atrocity Exhibition: The Big Gun / Metamorphosis (Dai Kenju | 大拳銃 / Henge | へんげ)Directors: Hajime OhataRating: NRCountry: Japan  The Big Gun revolves around two brothers who own a metal-shop are commissioned to make a number of handguns from scratch by a shady character who keeps postponing his payment. He continues to request larger orders, but let's think about this logically. Shady business is shady business, and asking people to make guns for you and then not paying them seems like a bad idea, doesn't it? Well, it is. And that's where the big gun comes into play. Henge tells the story of Yoshiaki Kadota (Kazunari Aizawa) and his wife, Keiko (Aki Morita). Yoshiaki has been having strange things happen to him for quite a while, night terrors and bizarre seizures/spasms which have forced him into the hospital at various points. It's not entirely clear what the timeline for the issues have been, but eventually it comes to a head when Yoshiaki begins to transform into a flesh-eating monster. Things escalate from there, and all kinds of crazy things start happening to the couple. People start dying, then more people die, and it goes completely insane by the end. Both of the films have a similar sort of progression. Things start off relatively slow (The Big Gun much moreso than Henge), then they start to ramp up and up, and then things start exploding. When things start exploding, everything becomes awesome, and then they end. They're short, sweet, and mostly to the point. Had either of them been any longer, I think everything would have completely fallen apart, but as it stands they can thrive due to their length. There is no question that things don't always make sense. Nobody really has any kind of backstory, and the motivations are simplistic at best, but it doesn't matter. Something interesting is never more than a few minutes away, so you don't have time to get bogged down with those kinds of thoughts. Technically speaking, the films are a mixed bag. The Big Gun looks like a student film, but as far as I can tell, it actually was. The only company named in the credits is the Film School of Tokyo, so that's my logical conclusion. But it's really ugly, and not even presented in widescreen. That being said, I am more willing to accept its ugliness than I was with Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club because it's older. The Big Gun is from 2008, which was before the low-budget digital revolution really took hold. I always find it interesting to see what filmmakers on a budget come up with when they try to do grand special effects like explosions and decapitated heads. The Big Gun certainly wouldn't win any awards for its effects, but they're enjoyable to watch nonetheless.  Henge is much higher quality. In fact, most of the time it looks pretty decent. Perhaps that is a function of watching it after two very poor looking bits, but I didn't really have a problem with the general look of Henge. What I did have a problem with was its use of CGI. For the most part, instead of using blood packets and the like, the blood splatters are made up from the most generic and terrible looking CG splatters I have ever seen. There was no attempt to make them actually fit inside the universe, and that's a real shame. I imagine most of the budget went to making Yoshiaki's monster suit, which is gloriously rubbery and got more than a couple of laughs from the audience, as well as the miniatures used in the final scene. If I had to choose between quality  blood and those miniatures, though, I would undoubtedly choose the miniatures. What sets Henge apart from other monster movies is the fact that it plays out, for the most part, like an exorcism film. The seizures that Yoshiaki has have him contorting his body in strange ways and speaking in dead languages, and there is even an attempt at excising the demon/monster/whatever from his body. I don't know if this was intended to throw people off track and make them think they were watching one kind of thing before bringing out the big rubber monster, but it definitely gives the whole thing a unique feel that I enjoyed. It's interesting to watch The Big Gun and Henge back to back, because it allows you to see the growth of Hajime Ohata as a director. Although The Big Gun has a really amazing ending, Henge is a better production (and has an even better one). Some better camera equipment does a lot to make something seem more professional, but it goes beyond that. The man clearly has some interesting ideas, and he is not afraid to make things that look a little silly in order to get them across. The fact that Henge turns a bit away from real effects for something that should be pretty simple (blood) makes me sad and has me worried for a time when his budget would allow him to go more heavily CG, but the ending gives me hope that there is still more he can and will do with practical effects. I definitely think that, despite their many flaws, both The Big Gun and Henge are worth watching if you can get your hands on them, if for no other reason than to see their crazy endings. They are awesome, and the ending of Henge made pulled me out of the funk that I was in thanks to Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club, which The Big Gun wasn't quite able to do (but it got me part of the way there). Even if you don't watch either of these films, though, you should keep an eye on Hajime Ohata. I don't know that he'll ever make a legitimately "great" movie, but I can definitely see him developing a devoted cult following, and if his filmmaking continues to improve (as it should), that following will be well deserved.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Review: Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club

Jul 18 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211355:38563[/embed] The Atrocity Exhibition: Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club (Sensei o Ryuzan saseru Ka | 先生を流産させる会)Directors: Eisuke NaitoRating: NRCountry: Japan  There's nothing misleading about the title of Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club. It is about a group of five schoolgirls who, upon finding out their teacher is pregnant, make a pact to give her a miscarriage by any means necessary. Given that they are young girls and not particularly clever, they don't make a cutesy name for themselves (like "The Abortionators" or "The Miscarriage Misfits"). Instead, they write on the wall of their abandoned hideout, "Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club." Cute. This club of five girls is led by a psychopath named Mizuki (Kaori Kobayashi), and when I say psychopath I mean it. The film opens with her grabbing a rabbit, climbing up some steps, and throwing the rabbit onto the ground below. While all of her friends laugh, she shouts at them, because she doesn't understand the joke. It's clear from the outset she has no emotions, no empathy, and no traits that make her even the slightest bit human. The other girls follow along with her, although it's not clear exactly what they think they're doing. They're all young, far too young to understand the ramifications of something like giving someone a miscarriage. They're just going along with what Mizuki wants, and whether that is out of fear or something else I don't really know. The reason why I don't know is because there is absolutely no characterization. The teacher in question (Aki Miyata) is is just a regular teacher, and basically everything about her comes from her (completely understandable) anger about the children who are trying to give her a miscarriage. The children don't have any personalities other than "Haha, Mizuki just did something that hurt somebody/something, how hilarious," which is to say they have no personalities whatsoever. Everybody is completely one-tone for the entire film, and the one sudden change by the teacher and also kind of Mizuki at the end makes absolutely no sense. What should have been some kind of disturbing catharsis ended up being a stupid, terrible moment. Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club's biggest problem is that it is boring. So incredibly boring. It's kind of amazing that a story about little girls trying to end their teacher's pregnancy can be so uninteresting. The premise alone should be enough to carry a story like this, but it isn't, because nothing happens. Because nobody is interesting, seeing them do things is never interesting. Watching the girls concoct their plans isn't enjoyable or anything of the sort, but it's also not reprehensible. Even with the knowledge that the film is inspired by true events, I just didn't care and I wanted something to happen. It could be her miscarriage or it could be the brats getting some comeuppance, but it needed to be something. And it never was, ever. Even when things happened, nothing really happened. The programmer who introduced The Atrocity Exhibition made a point of the cheapness of the films in question, and it is incredibly obvious that Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club was created using borrowed equipment from the 1930s. Honestly, in 2012 (or 2011 when the film was made), it's no longer acceptable to have movies that look that bad. If cheap(ish) DSLRs are good enough for major Hollywood productions, then nobody else really has an excuse to look bad anymore, especially since there are much cheaper DSLRs that still put out great video quality. If something is really pretty, it can distract from a lot of narrative flaws (just look at Avatar), but if something looks ugly, there's no crutch for a bad story to fall back on. Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club needed that crutch. Hell, it needed a wheelchair. And on that note, they should have used a wheelchair for all of the moving shots, because whatever they were using was incredibly unstable. In fact, those were the kinds of things that were the most interesting to see, because of how poor everything was. I like to believe that somebody really cared about this project and that director Eisuke Naito made himself a tripod with wheels or something like that. I imagine that there were a lot of blood, sweat, and tears poured into Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club. But I don't care, and I can't care. Because it's boring. The movie is bad, unquestionably, but a bad movie can at least be interesting (or maybe funny). But a bad movie that is boring? Ugh. The film's only saving grace is its 60-minute runtime. As much as I didn't like it, I can't bring myself to actually hate it in the way I hate something like Cut. And that's really the only good thing I can say about it.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Smuggler

Jul 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211336:38572[/embed] Smuggler (Sumagura | スマグラー おまえの未来を運べ)Director: Katsuhito IshiiRating: RCountry: Japan  Ryosuke Kinuta (Satoshi Tsumabuki) owes some money to some people who you don't want to owe money to. It's an unfortunate circumstance to be in, and it means that Ryosuke has to start doing things that are less than legal to come up with the cash. He is put under the watchful eye of Jo (Masatoshi Nagase) and his assistant, Jijii (Tatsuya Gashuin). They are smugglers, and they're very good at their jobs. As far as the film is concerned, they seem to mostly smuggle corpses, but it's possible their repertoire extends beyond that. Either way, they're given the task of smuggling a live on, an assassin named Vertebrae, who killed a major crime boss. And, like you would expect, things don't go so well. Unfortunately, I don't know what kind of movie Smuggler is supposed to be, and I'm not sure it does either. It's based on a manga which the Anime News Network categorizes as "Drama," but it's really not that simple. Sometimes it seems like the film is some zany, verging-on-supernatural action comedy with ridiculous characters and events, but at other times it comes off as a barely humorous dark tale full of misery and woe. Usually whenThe reason I don't know is because it completely stops making sense around two-thirds of the way in, and a lot of that has to do with Vertebrae. It's clear from the beginning that Vertebrae is strong. The opening scene, which makes effective (if a bit excessive) use of slow-mo, definitively shows that he is a force to be reckoned with. That's fine. He's an assassin, and an assassin should be able to move faster than some bumbling bodyguards. That makes complete and perfect sense. And it made sense that the smugglers attempting to transport him would have him intensely bound up, because he's dangerous. But the bindings were no more intense than those given to Hannibal Lector, and he's not a superhuman. But then Vetebrae leaps from a truck and runs into the tall grass. In the blink of an eye, he is gone. That was weird and off-putting. Things stopped being quite so clear. But then it went completely insane. While being shot at with by a man weilding an Uzi, Vertebrae begins climbing walls and contorting his body in impossible ways (as evidenced by some terrible CG). I was completely incredulous. What the hell was going on? At the same time, I was bearing witness to some horrific torture and brutality. Put in the place of Vertebrae, Ryosuke silences and steels himself for some really messed up stuff. It's mostly the promise of violence rather than the violence itself, but the horrors of the imagination vs. the horrors of reality are well documented, so I don't feel the need to say anything more about that. In the place of visuals, Smuggler relies on its excellent sound design. I don't know for sure what a burning hot needle sounds like when it's being stuck through the space between someone's toes, but now I feel like I have a pretty good idea. The scene also has the dubious honor of featuring the single most unpleasant use of a hammer I have ever seen (or, in this case, heard). It's not big and grotesque, nor is it any kind of killing blow; it's a little "tink" sound that made the entire theater groan. What makes the whole thing worse is the demeanor of the man performing the torture. He is a "crazy person," no doubt about it. He leaves the torture room whistling and returns wearing a naval jacket and a diaper. I laughed because it was ridiculous, but nothing about it was actually funny. And that's part of the problem. The first part of the film is funny. The opening scene is really funny, including the crazy slow-mo violence. It's all played for comedic effect. In fact, there's an entire character who exists for comedic relief. But at some point it just stops being funny. Maybe it's when that first needle goes in, or maybe it's after the twelfth. I can't say for sure, but when things too that took for the dark, everything leading up to that seemed really inappropriate. The film got everyone in the mood to laugh, and then it dove headfirst into an empty pool.  But before things went full retard, as Robert Downey Jr. would say, I was finally starting to like Smuggler. Beyond the violence in the opening and the occasional good joke, the film was pretty boring for a while. I was waiting for the various storylines that had been opened up to start to come together. Then things picked up around the halfway mark, when everybody started meeting everybody else. At that point, I like what I was seeing. I was getting myself invested in the story and the characters. But as the film slowly left reality, it became harder and harder for me to enjoy the film. I began to question everything I had seen, and that's never a good sign. I was trying to find some kind of clue that would have allowed me to see the insanity coming, but I couldn't think of it. Instead, I was watching a trainwreck. If you can accept from the beginning that Smuggler does not take place in reality, you won't have as many issues with the film that I did. Even knowing that wouldn't really have justified the ridiculous turn it took, but at least I would have had some expectations of insanity. As it was, I was watching a movie that had no idea what it wanted to be, and I wasn't really sure I wanted to be watching it.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Gyo

Jul 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211119:38566[/embed] Gyo (ギョ)Director: Takayuki HiraoRating: NRCountry: Japan The story begins in Okinawa with three friends: Kaori, the pure-at-heart hero of the story; Erika, the slutty and self-absorbed; and Aki, the frumpy third wheel. It's the sort of set-up you'd expect for a slasher movie, and it initially plays out that way. Someone or something watches them in the dark through bushes and trees. All Erika can think of is getting laid, all Kaori can think of is her boyfriend, and all Aki can think of is being miserable. It's in this slasher-like moment that they first notice a foul stench. It's like rotting flesh, one of them says. The smell of death will only get worse as the movie progresses. When the smell is especially strong, it's rendered as caramel-colored stink lines, like thousands of paramecium filling the air -- the olfactory equivalent of Kirby krackle. Some scenes use this visual representation of stench to remarkable effect. As the movie gets permeated with bad gas, the film resembles a flatulent Van Gogh; even the night skies are overcome by an undulating, colorful stink. It would almost be beautiful, this rancid aurora borealis, if it weren't for the chaos on the ground. The source of the stench is millions of mutant fish that have invaded dry land. They're able to walk around on these robotic insect legs of unknown origin. It's the stuff of nightmares: it doesn't go together, but when joined together, it's hard to keep the image out of your head. The first encounter the friends have with these mutant fish is rabbit-sized and harmless. It's dispensed of easily, though maybe not in the most sanitary way. The second encounter: land shark. Much more harrowing. It makes Kaori want to return to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Tadashi. Erika though? You guessed it: she still just wants to get laid. Gyo is adapted from the manga of the same name by Junji Ito. I've only read one Ito story in full, and it happens to be "The Enigma of Amigara Fault," one of the bonus stories in Gyo; I also saw the film adaptation of Ito's Spiral (Uzumaki) years and years ago and remember enjoying it. In some ways I'm glad I haven't read the manga. Adaptations tend to pale in comparison to their source material. You expect certain moments to be recreated, or in this case a certain look. Ito's visual style in particular is scratchier and much eerier than the clean art of the anime, but that was bound to get lost in translation. So not knowing the story, Gyo wound up being a strange and unpredictable journey through absolute madness. Since the mutant fish infect their victims during an attack, you'd expect the story to become just another zombie film, but thankfully that's not where it goes. (It's depressing to write "just another zombie film" these days, by the way.) Why would a movie full of mutant sharks on robot legs go somewhere predictable? I mentioned bafflement at the beginning of the review, and sometimes the feeling of shock and confusion can unhook your brain. That might be the ultimate power of WTF-moments. You're forced to stop, reorient yourself and your way of thinking, and consider what just happened while you're catching up to what's happening. There's a sense of danger to it all since your mind can't find the pattern or complete the sentence, so your attention is held by that unpredictability. Watching Gyo, there were a couple of moments where I thought, "Is this happening?" And it happened, and I laughed because of the incredulity. Anything goes in this surreal and stinky movie, and that's where so much of the revolting pleasure comes from. The only thing you can predict with any certainty is that Kaori will wander Tokyo in search of Tadashi, and she does this with the help of a freelance photojournalist named Shirakawa. He's on the trail of the truth behind these mutant fish. He even expounds on truth and subjectivity during one scene in the film. It's plopped in there and then dropped as a thread, but maybe the idea of truth is all over Gyo, not overtly but lingering like that sour human odor in cheap hotel rooms. The truth behind all of this mutant fish business gets obscured -- covered up by stink lines, buried under the mass of bodies. No one's going to figure this one out, or at least not easily. The end of the film is irresolvable, so much so that someone in the audience yelled "What?!" at the screen. Part of it was angry -- "What the fuck did I just watch!?" -- and part of it was confused -- "What the fuck did I just watch?" -- but I think a lot of it was also in the surreal spirit of the movie -- "What the fuck did I just watch!?" The crowd burst out laughing and then applauded, as if to say, "I know, man. We're all in the same boat." What the fuck did I just watch? Alec Kubas-Meyer: Gyo is one hell of an experience. I found out the basic premise of the film about three minutes before it started, but that did nothing to prepare me for its absolutely insanity. It's basically the equivalent of being smashed in the head with a walking hammerhead shark, to the point where I had literally forgotten about the movie I had seen less than two hours prior. I didn't even remember that I had seen another movie. And that's because there is no room for anything in your head other than Gyo. It's like the flatulent gas that powers the walking machines, which fills up their hosts and then makes them explode. Yeah, Gyo is kind of like that. And it's one hell of a trip. 80 - Great
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

NYAFF Review: Potechi (Chips)

Jul 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Chips (Potechi | ポテチ)Director: Yoshihiro NakamuraRating: NRCountry: Japan  Although the story itself really has nothing to do with thievery, Chips is a story about thieves. Tadashi Imamura (Gaku Hamada) is a thief, but he's not a very good one. He breaks into houses and gets ready to steal things, but an important phone call of some kind always seems to stop him. Before too long, he seems to give up on the whole thing. Perhaps when the film is over, and this particular story sees itself to completion, he'll go back to a life of crime, but I don't really know. There are some pretty life-changing things that happen, and it's impossible to say what anyone would do in those circumstances, and it's far more difficult to predict Tadashi's actions.  I don't know what Tadashi's issues are, but it's clear he has some. It could just be that he's kind of dumb, but it seems like it goes beyond that. When he wakes up and finds he has extra time, he decides to get out a protractor and draw triangles. Did you know that no matter what kind of triangle you draw, all of the interior angles will add up to 180 degrees? Of course you do, unless you're a fan of non-Euclidean geometry, and if you are I don't want to start some kind of ridiculous mathematical debate. But Tadashi didn't know that, and he counted it as some kind of major revelation. He's definitely not the social failure that the autistic son from Ocean Heaven is, but he's definitely a bit off-kilter. Fortunately, it's not a bad thing. In fact, it's really kind of cute. The off-kilter disposition of Kurosawa (Nao Omori) is also cute, but in kind of a scary way. Kurosawa is also a thief, but he is one who is good at what he does. He seems to act as something of a mentor for Tadashi, although their relationship is never made entirely clear. He seems like a good guy, but there's no question that he's a psychopath. He is completely incapable of empathizing with human emotion, and this makes him a very dangerous person. That danger is used to great effect, and the scenes where he is put at the forefront are uniformly brilliant. And it's not just the scenes themselves, which are funny, dramatic, and excellently staged, but it's also Nao Omori's amazing malleable face. I tend to gloss over the acting in my reviews. I don't really know why, because obviously acting is really important to the film, but it would be very difficult for a movie to be good (and not so-bad-it's-good) with poor acting, so the quality of the acting is kind of implicit in my feelings about everything else. But I have to mention it here, because it's wonderful. It's not even really the acting, though, as much as it is the facial expressions that the actors make. I think that Nao Omori's expressions are the best, but the others are still fantastic. If I had watched Chips with the sound turned off, I think I would have been affected just as much by some of the film's more poignant moments, both the dramatic and the comedic ones. Everybody's face is brilliantly molded to suit every situation, and watching the movie three times (allowing a chance to see actually see how everybody reacted to a conversation) would actually give some kind of brilliant payoff each time. I very rarely complain that movies are too short, but I think Chips would fit the bill. The film clocks in at only 68 minutes, meaning it would be almost impossible to overstay its welcome. If segments of longer films and Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt are discounted, I believe it's the shortest film in the entire festival, and I think that's a shame. There is definitely room for expansion in a lot of the storylines, and I would simply wish I could have spent more time with the characters. I wanted to see more of Kurosawa's tricks and Tadashi's silly realizations. I wanted to witness more of the reactions that Tadashi's girlfriend, Wakaba Onishi (Fumino Kimura), makes. I wanted to see how what would happen with Tadashi's mother (Eri Ishida) after the film's final moments. Perhaps that final one wouldn't have worked in the context of the story, but I want to know. I would totally be okay with a sequel where they explored the ramifications of the ending. But short lengths can also be a blessing in disguise. I would rather yearn for more of a film than despair at its excess. There is no question in my mind that Chips could be longer and be made even better by taking advantage of extra length, but I couldn't say how much longer it could go before becoming too much. Maybe there was a 90 minute cut that director Yoshihiro Nakamura felt was too long. If that cut exists, I'd like to see it. But if it doesn't, I understand. Perhaps some things are best left secret. A lot of questions may have been raised without a lot of answers, but they didn't make me angry. I didn't expect the film to go where it did, nor did I expect it to end where it did. There's a lot about the movie that is entirely surprising. So I'm going to stop talking now, lest I ruin the surprise for you.  On a side note: stay after the credits. If the rest of the movie hasn't warmed your dead, cold heart, I think that may be the thing to push it over the edge. It's a nice moment, one that I was sad to see wasn't in the film when the credits rolled. If it hadn't been there at all, it absolutely would have hurt the film as a whole. [Potechi (Chips) will be playing at the Japan Society this Sunday, July 15th at 8:00 PM.]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Ace Attorney

Jul 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]205525:37371[/embed] Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban | 逆転裁判)Director: Takashi MiikeRating: NRCountry: Japan In a lot of ways, this review is primarily for people who have played the Ace Attorney games. I will be talking about it within its context as an adaptation because it's important as an adaptation. Fortunately, Hubert has not played the games, so our second opinion (found at the bottom of the review) will not be looking at the film the same way I am. Hopefully the review will give you a sense of what the film is like even if you don't necessarily know what I'm talking about, but I can't really promise that will be the case. I will try though. Ace Attorney follows the exploits of Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya), a defense attorney who is immediately thrown in way over his head. He is put up against some of the best prosecutors in the business who use some of the dirtiest tactics. He also stands before a wonderfully ignorant judge, one who allows for all kinds of shenanigans to take place in his courtroom. Sometimes those shenanigans allow for justice to be served, and other times it means that corruption comes out on top. Either way, it's all open to the public, so there's definitely entertainment to be had. If you've played the first Ace Attorney recently, you will recognize all of the story beats, because they are exactly the same. For those of you who haven't, good! The story goes to some really crazy places, and you are lucky to get to experience it for the first time. I think that seeing the movie would diminish your enjoyment of the game afterwards, but having played the game will only make your experience of the movie better. At times, I felt like I was watching the game being played and waiting for it to relinquish control. Every time Phoenix made some kind of grand realization, I felt like the screen was going to pause so I could be the one to shout "HOLD IT!" or "OBJECTION!" But it went along without me. This time, I was just along for the ride. Honestly, though, that's not such a bad thing. Although there were times that I wanted to be the one to make the call, I was generally content to sit back and let Hiroki Narimiya do the shouting for me. In fact, the film reminded me about how frustrating the games could be at times, and when he was able to make the conclusions that took me 30 minutes in 15 seconds in order to progress the narrative, I was happy that I was watching a movie. Seeing Ace Attorney with a crowd was a surprisingly pleasant experience, and if you can, it's probably the best way to see it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the source material. When the film was introduced, the programmer asked who was there because of Takashi Miike. About 20 people raised their hands. When he asked who was there because of Phoenix Wright, at least 3/4 of the people in the fully packed theater raised their hands. I certainly wasn't surprised, though. The person sitting in front of me was wearing a Giant Bomb t-shirt, the theater was packed with young girls, and a general air of "OH MY GOD PHOENIX WRIGHT" hung in the air. I was right there with them, but I was worried that it would turn into a running commentary, as is wont to happen during horror movies. Fortunately, everyone seemed too gripped by the film to actually talk, and the numerous cheers were expected and not drawn out. Obviously people were going to scream when characters show up onscreen for the first time, or key phrases are first uttered, but it could very easily become too much. But I realized something forunate: with subtitles, I didn't need to actually hear what was being said. Because of this, I never felt like I was missing anything because of the audience. In fact, even I cheered a few times. How couldn't I? It was infectious, and so was the laughter. If you haven't played the games, you won't understand all of the cheers and the loves, but that doesn't mean you won't feel the urge to join in. Even though the film deals with some very serious topics (and they are handled seriously when they need to be), it's still set in a very silly universe. You need only look at Phoenix Wright's hair to know you're in for something ridiculous. And ridiculous is a great word to describe the film. In some ways, I think the film even tops the games at times, and that's saying quite a lot. If you have not played the games, you need to understand just how strange everything in the Ace Attorney world is. It's really strange. Things don't work like they do in real life. The court system makes absolutely no sense, even discounting the judge and his oddities. Trials are forced to three days at max, lawyers have ridiculous amounts of control over their clients and their speech (speaking for the clients is completely allowed). The evidence system is brilliant, with enormous laser screens that can be "thrown" around the room at will (usually accompanied by some iconic shout). The majority of the back and forth doesn't even involve the clients. It's mostly down to the lawyers arguing at each other. But it's all game logic and it all works. But if you do not understand how bizarre everything will be, you will come out the other side very unhappy. Part of what makes it so strange is simply due to its live action nature. It's a live action film with the sensibilities of an animated one (which is why the hair is the way it is), and seeing real people do the things that you expect cartoons to do is inherently laughable. There's not really any way to make this not sound offensive, but the fact that the film features Japanese actors was a bit off-putting, at least initially. I am used to Phoenix Wright being even whiter than I am, and the rest of the cast as well. The clothing styles and haircuts were designed around completely pale skin, but that's not what the actors have. Visually, the film stays so true to the games, that something like skin color really does a lot to stick out. That being said, I'm glad it's a Japanese movie. I can't imagine an American version of Ace Attorney could do the material justice in the way a Japanese one could. It's not that this movie couldn't be made in America (there's nothing offensive or anything like that), it just wouldn't. The kind of wackiness that defines Ace Attorney is far more present in Asian cinema (and Japanese cinema especially), and if I had to choose a Japanese director over white actors, I would absolutely go with the Japanese director. Putting Miike behind the camera was absolutely the right move. I don't know if I've made it clear or not, but I really loved Ace Attorney. I think pretty much everything about it is absolutely brilliant. In fact, my only real issue with the film is its length, and even that isn't too egregious. It clocks in at 135 minutes, and that's just a bit too long. It's possible that I was (and probably still am) suffering from a bit of festival fatigue, and that if I had seen it outside of NYAFF with no commitment to review it I wouldn't feel that way, but I wish that it had been shorter. Not by much, certainly, and I don't know what I'd want to have cut, but like All About My Wife, eventually I just wanted it to end. Nonetheless, Ace Attorney is a huge accomplishment. Takashi Miike has done the impossible and made a videogame movie that is worth everybody's time and money. Fans of the videogame will undoubtedly get more out of the film than those who have never heard the name Phoenix Wright, but everyone will have a real chance to enjoy themselves, as long as they give themselves room to do so. I no longer fear the existence of videogame adaptations. I will look to all future projects with hope, knowing for sure that they could be done well. Some franchises lend themselves to films better than others, and Ace Attorney definitely makes more sense as a movie than some, but the bad streak has officially been broken. In its place is a shining beacon of brilliance. And that beacon is called Ace Attorney. Dear videogame publishers: The bar has officially been set. And it's been set really goddamn high. Hubert Vigilla: As someone who hasn't played any of the Ace Attorney games (and is mostly familiar with the series as an internet meme), I went into the film Ace Attorney more as a fan of Takashi Miike than anything else. While Ace Attorney isn't Miike's best (for me, probably nothing will dethrone his demented musical comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris), it's an extremely fun excursion into absurdity, goofy hairdos, and litigious zaniness. Watching in a crowd of gamers helped clue me into the in-jokes from the videogame and the delight in seeing all of the characters realized in live-action; and even those in-jokes I found funny without knowing the context. (Maybe it's the persuasive, hypnotic effect of laughter in packed theaters.) This is just sheer madcap oddness, with a story that twists, turns, and goes to strange places, including a moody flashback that wouldn't feel out of place in one of Miike's horror films or dramas. At 135 minutes, Ace Attorney does overstay its welcome, however. You could shave 15 to 20 minutes, losing nothing and gaining lots of narrative momentum. Even when it does drag, it makes up for it with its anarchic sense of humor. 83 - Great [Ace Attorney will be screening at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 15th at 1:30 PM. If you have a chance to see it and don't, you are dead to me.]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

NYAFF Review: Monsters Club

Jul 13 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]211056:38556[/embed] Monsters Club (Monsutâzu Kurabu | モンスターズクラブ)Director: Toshiaki ToyodaRating: NRCountry: Japan In the first 10 or so minutes of Monsters Club we get a feel for its slow burn rhythms. Ryoichi Kakiuchi (Eita) is our Unabomber figure. He lives in his cabin out in woods and constructs a mail bomb as the snow falls outside. We watch the bomb travel to its destination, though from the bomb's point of view. It's followed by what can only be considered Ryoichi's Manifesto. It's been years since I read the Unabomber Manifesto, but I believe the tenor is the same: daily life turns us into mediocre drones unable to pursue what really matters to us. There's something meditative and poetic to the imagery of Monsters Club. Writer/director Toshiaki Toyoda supposedly shot the entire film in two weeks without a script, which I find rather fascinating. For all of its lingering and smoldering and silences, there's a certain tightness to Monsters Club. The dialogue and visuals seem well considered and graceful rather than slapdash, the latter often a sign of films done on the fly. This might have to do with its extremely short run time of 71 minutes. It feels packed, and becomes somewhat stunning once ghosts from Ryoichi's past come to visit. The most striking may be the ghost that looks like a meringue in clown make-up. I'm wondering if Monsters Club could have said more about the situation it presents. I don't mean that the the movie could have been longer, but that it would have drawn a deeper and more resonant conclusion about human endeavor and isolation. The movie expresses its righteous disdain for the erosive effects of the rat race, it shows how this alienation can be brought to an extreme, and it even shows how it's impossible to completely divorce yourself from the rest of the world. But then again, what distinguishes any broad social statement -- whether it's a terrorist manifesto or an essay like Henry David Thoreau's Walden -- is its extra, intangible, personal expression about the world at large, and maybe that's what doesn't quite come through in Monsters Club. Maybe it's that to live alone dissolves us into nothing just as living among others does, but maybe I'm missing what else it's trying to say, because I think that it's trying to say more. Central to the film is a poem or two by Kenji Miyazawa, and I wonder if that's where the additional statement is meant to come through. The other day I was talking with D.B. Burroughs of Unseen Films about Monsters Club, and he mentioned that one of his contributors really hooked into the movie because of the Miyazawa poetry. I'm not familiar with Miyazawa's work, but one poem gets recited in the movie at a crucial point, and it's one of those sublime moments where words and images join in an unexpected and remarkable way. There's some memorable music in Monsters Club as well, courtesy of Toshiyuki Terui, which reminds me a lot of the work of Dirty Three and its frontman Warren Ellis (no, not that Warren Ellis). It helps convey the underlying sadness of Ryoichi's past. Loneliness is a sad state, especially when it's self-imposed loneliness, and maybe the most audacious thing about Monsters Club is that it allows us to sympathize with a terrorist bomber. At its heart, his reasons for destruction are the same reasons regular people feel frustrated, but normal people usually find solace in their friends and loved ones. Ryoichi doesn't want to have anyone in his life or to participate in any part of the world, but he really has no choice. Could be that it's better to be a madman among the frustrated rather than a madman alone. It's such a brief movie, but I think Monsters Club may stick with me a while since it's so haunting. There's imagery that's potent and expresses frustration and isolation so well. While I probably don't have enough knowledge of Miyazawa to see how deep it digs its subtext, Monsters Club leaves an odd mark in my mind; my mind may be haunted. Maybe I'll rethink that thing about Maine. Alec Kubas-Meyer: I went into Monsters Club expecting to hate it. The film's description called it polarizing (and I usually fall on the negative side of the spectrum), but my curiosity got the better of me. I had to know what exactly a Japanese art film based on the story of the Unabomber would be. As I was watching it, I realized that I didn't hate it, but knew that I didn't like it either. It's a quintessential art film. Basically nothing happens, and most of the things that do are entirely in the protagonist's head. But in the last few minutes, something clicked. It was pretty clear early on that the story is not about the Unabomber at all; it's a ghost story. A ghost story where the ghost looks like it's covered in coconut cake. I don't know why or how, but when the film ended, I realized that I had liked it. Something about those last few minutes struck me and convinced me that the movie was worth seeing. 65 - Decent [Monsters Club will be screening at The Japan Society Sunday, July 15th at 6:00 PM. Writer/director Toshiaki Toyoda will be in attendance.]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Japan Cuts Review: Love Strikes!

Jul 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211292:38546[/embed] Love Strikes! (Moteki | モテキ)Director: Hitoshi OneRating: NRCountry: Japan  Yukiyo Fujimoto (Mirai Moriyama) is a 31 year old virgin, which in the Japanese entertainment industry apparently means that he is useless and a loser. He writes for an entertainment magazine called Natalie, where he covers music festivals and other such things. However, because he is useless and a loser, his boss says that he needs to go have sex with somebody so he will stop being so pathetic. Then he meets Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa), and he falls head-over-heels in love. Only problem is, Miyuki is taken. Obviously, that does absolutely nothing to stop him from pursuing her, because why would it? Destroying relationships is what love is all about, and some unpleasant and creepy advice from his boss certainly eggs him on. At first the whole thing is kind of cute. A crazy dance number performed by Yukiyo, J-Pop group Perfume, and a bunch of random passersby is the highlight of the film, and it really brings some peppiness to the whole thing. It seems like Yukiyo's relationship with Miyuki might go somewhere, so everything is all great and whatever. It's an awesome scene, but it set my expectations too high. It comes in around the 30 minute mark, only a quarter of the way through the movie. No other scene even compared to the craziness. The first thirty minutes in general are all amazing. But of course, things go south, inside of the film and not. For a while, I thought that Love Strikes! was what Honey Pupu should have been. It's about young-ish people whose lives are defined by social media. As opposed to some bizarre twitter-esque social network, the characters in Love Strikes! just use Twitter. It's how Yukiyo and Miyuki met, it's how all sorts of interactions in the film happened. Whereas Honey Pupu goes off to be unnecessarily existential and meaningless, Love Strikes! finds takes the practicality of Twitter and injects it into all forms of interaction. It's still definitely better than Honey Pupu, and better at doing some of the things Honey Pupu tried to do (including overexposing shots), but it's got plenty of character flaws of its own. I hate it when movies clearly want me to feel sympathetic for a terrible character. Something happens to them, and in some kind of montage of sadness or a lonely walk down an empty street or whatever, I can almost hear the filmmaker whispering "Awww, look at how unfortunate he is! Don't you feel bad for him?" Sure, it's something used in damn near every sad movie, but usually I will let it go, because usually there is a reason to feel bad. Maybe there's some minor emotional manipulation, but that's not always a bad thing. I'm perfectly content to feel sad when a character feels sad. Unless that character is terrible. Usually, I will say to that filmmaker, "Yes, I do." But there are cases where I can't do that. I want to turn around and shout, "Are you kidding me? Seriously? You want me to feel bad for this piece of shit? Stop breathing on me and go away." And that's how I felt about Yukiyo. He sucks. He is beyond awful. He's like the terrible protagonists in Supporting Characters, except even less likable. I would be remiss not to mention just how stupid he is. Basically everything he does at any point in the film is dumb. Sometimes it's only kind of dumb; other times it's amazingly dumb. His way of mishandling nearly every single situation would be laughable if he wasn't such an awful person. The stupidity is just the tip of the iceberg though, because any time he is having any kind of interaction, it's clear that he doesn't care about anybody. Not even a little bit. Everything he does is selfish to the extreme, and there is one moment in particular where I wanted someone to walk up to him and smash his face in with a hammer. Then I remembered that I wasn't watching a Korean movie and despaired. I was actually swearing at the screen, so unbelievably angry that anyone could be this terrible. I wanted some kind of terribly violent retribution. Maybe put him at the end of a Human Centipede, for example. He would completely deserve it. There are moments where it seems like he might change, and the running voiceover that he has certainly makes it sound that way, but then he just gets worse. To give some sense of scale, the only character I've ever hated this much in a film was Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and Jake LaMotta was/is the reason I can't stand watching that movie. And at least Jake LaMotta got his face bashed in occasionally. There is nothing of the sort here. A rejection that gives him his sad montage did nothing but make me angrier. He deserved to die cold and alone. At that point, I wanted the film to leave him in his terrible state and go focus on another, better character. Instead, it continues on with Yukiyo's quest to ignore absolutely everything that anyone has said to him, and ends on one of the worst notes in recent memory. It wasn't a freeze frame (that would be adding insult to injury), but it was somehow even worse. There are so many things wrong with the ending that I don't know where to begin, and I can't say much lest I spoil it, because I don't want to do that if I don't have to. What I will say is that absolutely nothing gets resolved. Some of the more interesting characters are completely forgotten by the time the ending comes around, and then Yukiyo's final bid for Miyuki's heart puts him in a position to have his ass handed to him (although the film decided not to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing that).  Apparently Love Strikes! is the follow-up to a TV series called Moteki (which is the film's Japanese name), which is based on a manga of the same name. As far as I can tell, it followed Yukiyo doing things that are probably pretty similar to the movie. Maybe with more time, he could have been a more compelling character. Maybe the film decided to emphasize all of his bad traits rather than his good ones for reasons that I could never understand. If that's true, that was a huge mistake. If that isn't true, I have no idea why anyone thought that character deserved a movie.  When I wasn't busy fuming about Yukiyo, I actually enjoyed Love Strikes! quite a bit. The other characters are interesting and the movie is often really funny. There is a lot of music, some of which is quite good and some of which is not so much, but it's an integral part of the film and it works pretty well on the whole. Love Strikes! is a good (maybe even great) movie centered around an absolutely atrocious character. With every moment he is not physically brutalized for his terribleness, my opinion of the film dropped down just a bit. There's a lot more I have to say, but I think I've said more than enough. Despite all my qualms, I still think the film is still worth watching, if only for the first 30 minutes. [Love Strikes! will be playing at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 13th at 7:15 PM and Sunday, July 22nd at 1:00 PM. The July 13th screen will be followed by a fancy party.]
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I am mad at director Hitoshi One. Really, really mad. I was really tired when I started watching Love Strikes!. I wanted to watch it, but I didn't really want to watch it when I needed to. I needed something funny and lighthe...

Japan Cuts Review: Asura

Jul 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Asura (Ashura | アシュラ)Director: Keiichi SatoRating: NRCountry: Japan  Two things hurt the experience of Asura for me: my younger self's obsession with anime, and my more recent self's obsession with videogames. Aside from the fact that it's an animated film from Japan, it shares a lot of flaws with other, serialized anime like Dragonball Z. A lot of jokes are made about DBZ and the fact that the characters spend entire episodes powering up and over-explaining every single part of their backstory. Although Asura doesn't have much in the way of powering up, there is far too much explanation. Even though we see how Asura gets to be the way he is, two other characters feel compelled to explain it, except neither of them knows what happened as well as the audience does, because they weren't there and Asura certainly can't explain anything. This sort of unnecessary exposition is riddled throughout the film, and that makes the 75 minute runtime feel much longer. I'm say at least a quarter of the dialogue could have been cut with no impact on the story, and it would have much better pacing. When characters are explaining things, the action necessarily stops, but it's unnecessary explanation. And when the film slows down, its visual quirks become far more apparent. If you have played any anime-based videogame, you are familiar with cel-shading. Even if you haven't played anime-based games, if you're into Japanese games at all (and, if you're reading this, you probably are), you have probably played something cel-shaded. It's hard to explain (and unfortunately video footage seems to be scarce/nonexistence), but its used to emulate the style of a comic book in 3D space. I imagine that was the intent here, since Asura is based on a graphic novel, although I can't say for sure that Asura was animated in the same way cel-shaded games are, but it certainly looks that way. I spent the entire film trying to get over the way the film looked, and I never quite succeeded. Every time I thought I'd gotten a hold of it, something showed up that made me expect a button prompt to happen any moment. I felt like I was watching a videogame cutscene, especially in the second half, where the action really takes hold. I felt like I should have been holding a controller, or at the very least that I could have been, and that was enough to keep me from investing into what I was seeing. Which is too bad, because I was seeing some pretty cool things. Asura's journey is a strange one, and it leads through some very compelling moments. It's the kind of story that would have been heartbreaking if I had gotten into it. Certainly the people around me were moved by it. The film deals with a lot of serious topics, and it can get pretty intense at times. There's famine, murder, cannibalism, and despair. In fact, as I think about it, there's basically nothing happy about the movie. Every single moment of the film is bleak and depressing, right from the first frame until the last. But then that last frame happened, and I started to laugh. While everyone in the theater began talking about how beautiful the film was, I was in hysterics. To compliment the soul crushing finale, what was there? Some Japanese pop-rock playing over a montage of the film's events. Instead of contemplating the story's greater meaning, I thought back to my younger self, learning the lyrics to the song that played over the Rurouni Kenshin credits and singing along. Huh. I wish I knew what that song was called. But even though I laughed at the credits, was put off by the visuals, and found fault with the exposition, I have to say that I liked Asura. There is definitely a good movie in there somewhere, and I caught glimpses of it, but then it was buried again, beneath aggravating design decisions which grated right up against my personal biases. [You can see Asura at the Japan Society on Thursday, July 12 at 6:30 PM. The film is being copresented by the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Film Festival. You must be 18 or older to attend the screening.]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

NYAFF Review: Scabbard Samurai

Jul 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]210940:38509[/embed] Scabbard Samurai (Saya Zamurai | さや侍)Director: Hitoshi MatsumotoRating: NRCountry: Japan It's such a simple conceit. Captured by a local feudal lord, masterless samurai Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) has 30 days and 30 attempts to make a boy prince smile. It's known as "the 30-day feat." The young prince has been in a dour, catatonic state since the death of his mother. At least a dozen other prisoners have attempted the 30-day feat and failed; the penalty for failure is seppuku. Nomi's daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) goes into jail with him to coach him along from gag to gag. Hilarity ensues, multiple times. What's set up in Scabbard Samurai is a pattern story. There are a set number of tries, a set number of gags. This can be deadly if you simply stick to the pattern, so the interest in pattern stories comes from variations: the way the set pieces become more elaborate, the shotcuts and shorthands between jokes, the delivery and presentation of the joke, and then the the sudden curveball or knuckleball that undermines the pattern. Without this sense of a swerve, the pattern tends to get stale. So for variety in Scabbard Samurai, Nomi's jokes vary from simple to "flamboyant and refreshingly stupid." Each joke is hilarious in its own way; many of them are funnier in concept than in execution, though some become funny from the unfunniness of the gag. I don't want to give too much away since there are some great moments of visual comedy throughout this movie, but certain contraptions are involved, and it left me wondering, with a broad smile on my face, "Where the hell did that come from?" Flamboyant and refreshingly stupid is a good description for the film, and I mean that kindly. The characters are silly in an endearing kind of way. Nomi is so timid and yet determined, and maybe has seven good teeth left. He speaks apologetically to everyone, like he's troubling them too much no matter what -- a sad hobo clown in samurai garb. Yet you sense a certain underlying despair to his posture that explains who he is as a person. Tae is almost like a manager or an agent that's helping a comedian write good material. She wants her dad to succeed, and hopes he can exhibit some of his former samurai spirit in the form of a jester. Tae's helped by two of the lord's prison guards, who are a classic comic duo: a slack-jawed bumbler and a straight man. There are also three bounty hunters, like caricatures pulled out of past samurai films and made flamboyant, stupid, and refreshing. It's hard not to like the broad and strange characters of Scabbard Samurai. Even the eccentric lord who sets Nomi on this task has a sympathetic quality to him as the film continues through its pattern. Somehow the human traits peek out through the absurdity of the conceit, or, and I think this is more accurate, the absurdity of the conceit heightens the humanity of broad characters. In most good jokes there is a seed of truth, and in Scabbard Samurai, what underlies the slapstick is a tale of determination. Making this kid laugh may be impossible for anyone to do, but you can be sure that Nomi will try even if it means death. In the opening scenes, he survives shootings, stabbings, and bone snappings, but what may ultimately do him in is an inability to bring joy to others. One of Nomi's feats involves rushing through a series of walls in standing door frames. It's an act of idiotic persistence, and really, you could just walk around the door frames if you needed to. But that's not the point. Sometimes making people laugh takes extra effort, and there is a remarkable dignity in effort even if it reduces you to a buffoon. Nested in all this seems to be the idea that there's nothing worse than a comedian dying on stage. It was probably the initial idea that set Matsumoto writing this movie. Earlier I suggested that pattern stories work best when an unexpected swerve occurs. This swerve or break reveals a subtle, unseen, secondary pattern that was there all along. That's basically how Scabbard Samurai works. It becomes more than just a collection of gags and winds up being a rather touching story about the effort involved in creating joy. There are some lines from a William Carlos Williams poem that sort of apply: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there." You just need to substitute "jokes" for "poems." There is something noble about making people laugh, and for some it really is all about life and death. People make a living doing it professionally, others find a reason to live in laughing or making others laugh, and laughter can make the whole business of living and dying more tolerable. Matsumoto doesn't go where you expect with Scabbard Samurai, but many jokes are about the swerve and undermining a pattern or an expectation. I was surprised the film went where it did, and then I was unexpectedly moved. Like a lot of good comedians, you can't anticipate Matsumoto's punchline or how it's going to be delivered; like a lot of memorable jokes, Scabbard Samurai says a lot more when you think about it afterwards, just like poetry. [Scabbard Samurai will be screening at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater Friday, July 6th at 3:30 PM; the film will also be screening at The Japan Society Saturday, July 14th at 1:00 PM]
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

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Hark again, for Japan Cuts 2012 likewise cometh


Jun 25
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Last year we never got to cover the Japan Cuts film festival. We found out about it too late to really give it its due, so we let everyone know it was happening and left it at that. We won't be making that mistake this year. ...

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