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Nobuhiko Obayashi: The Strange, the Sweet, and the Childlike

Nov 20 // Hubert Vigilla
In Alec's Cult Club piece on Hausu, he hinged some of his observations on the childlike approach to the film. Originally intended as a remake of Jaws, Obayashi went entirely in his own direction, blending his background in experimental filmmaking with the imagery of soap operas, melodramas, youth pictures, and colorful horror films. (I'd still love to see a Jaws remake done in the style of Hausu.) Obayashi turned to his 10-year-old daughter for the film's story, and it feels like the sort of story a 10-year-old would tell. There's a haunted house that eats people, and a bunch of school girls are its prey. Spooky and surreal things happen. And then Noodle Bear. I mentioned last week that Hausu feels like the fever dream of an imaginative child who's really into Scooby-Doo and Mario Bava. The events unfold with the logic of the subconscious, as Obayashi fills the film with his young daughter's fears. It's an anarchic film, a story told without an expectation of adult rules since the film is mostly about young girls fending for themselves and using their own skills and ingenuity to do it. The finished movie is like the work of a child rooting through an upended box of art supplies and being asked to make a pretty picture. And what a pretty picture. What's striking about Hausu is how the movie seems stitched together by the childlike conjunction "and then"--they went to the house and then Mac's head flew around and then the piano ate a girl and then Kung Fu jumpkicked stuff and then the man turned into bananas and then there was a flood. It's a flow of strange ideas, and if a 10-year-old girl told it to you, the stream would only be interrupted for the occasional impish giggle and a brief fit of hyperventilation to catch a breath. I Are You, You Am Me (転校生, Tenkousei) is a much quieter and down-to-earth film adapted from a novel by Hisashi Yamanaka. Sure, almost any film is much quieter and down-to-earth than Hausu, but I get a sense that I Are You is less like a movie told by a 10-year-old and more like a movie made by an adult who's taking a thoughtful look back at what it was like to be 14. I Are You is something of an adolescent minor-masterpiece, a coming-of-age story built on one of the great comedy sub-genres of the 70s and 80s: the body-swap movie. Rather than swap roles of parent and child, I Are You switches the minds of a boy named Kazuo and a girl named Kazumi during the awkward early teen years. Seeing the two child leads "act male" (snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails) and "act female" (sugar and spice and everything nice) is pretty fascinating, particularly given how gender norms have become more fluid over time, but almost all ideas of maleness and femaleness are products of their time and culture, and so the gender norms in the film are no exception. (Tangent: Maybe there's an era-specific nature to the body-swap genre? Decades when the world started to become more interconnected and the earth a little flatter?) I Are You predominantly centers on Kazuo's mind in Kazumi's body, which might be a kind of stand-in for Obayashi himself as he tries to inhabit the world of adolescence again and what it's like to be a young girl. Young actress Satomi Kobayashi has solid body language playing a guy, sort of like Hausu's Kung Fu by way of Tom Sawyer. By contrast, Kazumi's mind in Kazuo's body is meek and out of sorts, with more than a hint of deep depression. Before the body swap happened, Kazumi was a happy transfer student who's new in town. Now she's been unmoored from her own body, and she may have to move away with Kazuo's family. That unanchored, life-in-flux state is part of growing up, but here its given more metaphorical heaviness. Much of I Are You is goofy, but it arrives at a beautiful, wistful tone by the final half hour. Many coming-of-age stories are defined by a lesson that equips a child for the adult world. In I Are You, it's all about the beauty of empathy. Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (野ゆき山ゆき海べゆき, No Yuki Yama Yuki Umibe Yuki) is also a great film, and also its own animal, which speaks to Obayashi's diverse range as a filmmaker and the concerns he has as a storyteller. It's a period piece set right before World War II, focused predominantly on the lives of the children of a town as a counterpoint to the poisonous nationalism, militarism, and conformity of the adults. It's a type of coming-of-age film about empathy, and yet it's done in a style reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu, with balanced compositions and characters looking right into the camera as they recite their lines. In terms of weirdness, Bound for the Fields splits the difference between Hausu and I Are You, like a break in the child world of experience and the adult world. Obayashi continually finds surreal, fantastical moments to play with and locates that beating human heart in the scene. When a young woman meets with a lover at night to discuss running away--she's going to be sold to a brothel, he's been conscripted into the Japanese military--there's a pair of extras above them at a dock playing with sparklers. As we come in for the two-shot of the couple, the foreground becomes filled with sparks. It's a beautiful bit of romantic dazzle. By focusing on children in Bound for the Fields, Obayashi is able to critique the absurdities and horrors of war and also the underlying creepiness of playing war as a child. As the kids simulate a battle, they chuck rocks at one another. It's fun and games, but as their bodies lay flat to play dead, it can't help but evoke thoughts of the real and forthcoming horrors of WWII; the same goes when watching the kids tied up playing prisoner and tortured enemy combatant. As the factions of children join together to save a boy's sister-in-law from life in a brothel, they come up with a type of game that doubles as a rescue mission. It reminded me of the weird solution that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have for getting Jim out of his jam. Mark Twain did that rescue as a farce because, as George Saunders mentioned in an essay, the ugly and logical reality of what would have happened to Jim had it not been a farce would be too dark to handle in a comic novel. Obayashi, on the other hand, takes the light and the dark of the situation, blending farce with painful social commentary. As a coming-of-age-story, Bound for the Fields deals with the way children confront the ugliness of the adult world, and also the realization that it's a world they'll eventually join.
Nobuhiko Obayashi photo
Youthful Anarchism vs. The Adult World
The largest retrospective of Nobuhiko Obayashi's work in the United States kicks off tonight at The Japan Society with a screening of House (Hausu). Hausu is Obayashi's best known work in the US, and probably the only one of ...

The Boy and The World photo
The Boy and The World

Watch the gorgeous trailer for The Boy and The World

Like an animated children's picture book
Nov 13
// Hubert Vigilla
The Boy and the World has been on my radar for a few months after seeing still from the film. This Brazilian animated feature won great acclaim at film festivals, and is currently on the shortlist for Best Animated Feature. T...
Ip Man 3 teaser trailer photo
Ip Man 3 teaser trailer

The first teaser trailer for Ip Man 3 just punched you repeatedly in the face

Donnie Yen vs. Mike Tyson
Nov 13
// Hubert Vigilla
Here it is: a US teaser trailer for Ip Man 3, the latest installment in the badass wing chun series starring Donnie Yen. Despite the presence of Sammo Hung in Ip Man 2, the sequel was a step down in general quality from ...

Review: Shrew's Nest

Nov 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220097:42685:0[/embed] Shrew's Nest (Musarañas)Directors: Juan Fernando Andrés and Esteban Roel Rating: NRCountry: Spain  The term "slow burn" gets thrown around a lot. I know I've used it more than once. Sometimes it's a useful term to describe how a film functions; other times it's a way to say something is boring without having to use that language. Sometimes people think things are a slow burn when they're really not. Shrew's Nest isn't a slow burn, though I know of others who say it is. Those people are either accidentally ignorant or willfully ignorant, but either way they're wrong. They're wrong, because the sequence of events that ultimately lead to the narrative boiling over aren't slow at all. They're very deliberate, placed perfectly in order to ratchet up the tension while also revealing the multiple facets of each character. At first, we see characters effectively through their own eyes, how they try to present themselves to the world. Then we see them through the eyes of others, where some of those seams start to show. Ultimately, we see them for who they truly are. And, not unexpectedly, what we find there isn't pretty. Montse is confined to the house. Not by some external force but an internal one. She can make it to the door, but she'll never go past it. Her sister, who she refers to as niña (translated as "the girl"), can go out. The girl goes to work during the day, and Montse stays home. She cooks and cleans and makes sure that her sister stays away from men. Because men are bad people who do bad things. (Note that it's clear almost immediately what happened to Montse, but that doesn't make the ultimate reveal any less painful, nor does it really prepare you for what follows.) One day, a man basically falls into her lap. As Carlos tries to leave his apartment (a floor above the girls'), he falls down the stairs, breaking his leg and hitting his head. After asking for her help, he faints. She brings him inside, binds his leg, and puts him in her bed. What follows, of course, is misery. Also, Misery. From the outset you know that Montse is unhinged, but the question is how far she'll go to keep Carlos there. The answer: Really Fucking Far. But in order to get to that point, we need context. Montse is viscous, something we learn early on, but seeing how her madness manifests itself is crucial to making the violence feel justified. Violence for the sake of violence can be fine, but there's something disquietingly realistic about characters in Shrew's Nest. Montse has had a rough time of it, and her psyche has been shaped accordingly. The girl is a little afraid of her sister, but the relationship is at the point where that's generally fine, until Carlos comes into the picture. Carlos isn't particularly concerned, particularly since Montse is so kind to him, but he doesn't understand the situation. He believes her when she says she had a doctor visit, but we know she's lying. Each time a character makes a decision, even if they make the wrong one, it felt fair. Characters do stupid things, but so do people. And characters don't do certain stupid things that they would be expected to do in a horror movie. Shrew's Nest is not particularly scary, but it is consistently unsettling. It's also claustrophobic, taking place entirely in a single apartment building (two apartments and the stairwell between them). That's good both for both budgetary and narrative reasons. The world never really feels larger than the one building, even as people other than the leads come in and out. That's important, because Shrew's Nest takes place in a place where other people live. Misery was in the middle of nowhere, but Montse doesn't have that sort of luxury, and neither do the filmmakers. This building – and really just the one apartment – needs to feel like the entire world, and it succeeds in that respect.  In fact, it succeeds in pretty much every respect. The minor issues I had ultimately don't matter, and as I think back on it, I barely even remember what they were. Only the good things stick in my brain, and there are a whole lot of good things. It's well crafted, well acted, well concepted, and well executed. There are some moments that are truly grotesque in the absolute best way, and there are images I'm not going to be able to scrub from my mind for quite some time. With a film like this, that's really all you can want. And Shrew's Nest delivers that and a whole lot more. 
Shrew's Nest Review photo
Shrew's Company
When I was in middle school, we'd periodically have a writer, Jon Land, come and talk to us. He'd talk about writing and life and whatever else. (Honestly, I don't really remember what most of those talks were about, but what...

Review: Summer Camp

Nov 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220098:42683:0[/embed] Summer CampDirector: Alberto MariniRating: NRCountry: Spain Summer Camp is sadly not a spiritual successor to the Sleepaway Camp films. Rather, it's a twist (sort of) on the zombie narrative. This is ultimately a zombie film, even if it would like you to think that it's not. After being subjected to some kind of substance, people (and animals) develop a nasty habit of bleeding from the mouth and attacking their fellow citizens (but not their fellow infected). The programmer who introduced the film said that it was a rather mean film, and it's hard to disagree. For a lot of reasons, what is ultimately a black comedy comes off as needlessly cruel to its main characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to be aware of. In the opening moments, we're told that four camp counselors have gone missing and are probably dead. We're then introduced to four camp counselors, and the film consists mostly of the audience waiting for them to die. And I don't mean "Waiting" as in "COME ON, JUST DIE ALREADY" (though I expect some people did feel that way) but the waiting that comes from knowing how something will turn out but not how it turns out that way. One dies almost immediately, which is fine because he's the worst. Then we follow three mildly more interesting characters as we watch them meet their ends. Watching that, though, is a fairly exhausting proposition, because Summer Camp's cinematography is brain-numbing at times. Shaky cam is everywhere, and during the action sequences, camera motion and rapid editing take the place of coherent choreography. What happened during those scenes? Heck if I know. I generally waited until after the scenes were over and then assessed the damages. "Oh, so she got hit with a rock but he was actually etc. etc." It's not awesome, but I can't say it doesn't make the scenes more tense, at least at first. The confusion inherent in that style fits with the confusion in the sequences, but it can only hold that attention so long. After 10-15 seconds, it just becomes tiresome. Eventually, you need to know who's doing what to whom, and Summer Camp doesn't really give that. It does, however, give a fair amount of blood. If that's what you're looking for, Summer Camp's got you covered. (That's a pun, because people get covered in blood. Get it? Hilarious.) There is some inconsistency in the actual damage caused by weaponry, and characters eventually seem to get over most non-fatal attacks, even if they should be crippling. Then they walk (or limp) around covered in blood but not bleeding out or really in danger of death from wounds. They're still in danger from the zombies and the inevitability of their fates, but it's hard to be truly concerned when some duct tape essentially fixes a drill through the foot. The one thing that really makes Summer Camp stand out is that thing I talked about in the introduction: The Resident Evil 4 thing, the Spanish thing. Even though it's a Spanish movie, most of the film takes place in English. It's set at an English-language immersion camp, and as such, the group is made of native English speakers. Even so, I assumed that any Spanish dialogue would be translated, because that just seemed like an appropriate thing to do. But no. The first time someone spoke it, for just a moment I thought it might have been a mistake. Maybe he was mumbling or another character was going to translate it and we were supposed to be in the dark in the meantime... but no. We just don't get to know. The characters' lack of knowledge is actually pretty fundamental to the plot, though. Like me, they recognize specific words or phrases but can't communicate in any meaningful way. And because of that, people die and signals for help get misunderstood. It's actually pretty awesome in a twisted sort of way. And I imagine knowing Spanish would completely undermine its effect. But if, like me, you only speak English, you'll get a harsh but interesting lesson in why multi-culturalism is so important in our increasingly globalized world. So ultimately I'm conflicted about Summer Camp. It does one thing really, really right (for a specific audience), but much of it is just kind of generic. It's got jump scares aplenty, some decent laughs, and plenty of groans, but not really moreso than any other horror black comedy out there. It's kind of generic but with one gimmick, and that gimmick serves to make it stand out just enough to be worthy of your consideration and perhaps even your time.
Summer Camp Review photo
More like bummer camp, am I right?
In Resident Evil 4, Leon S. Kennedy is dropped in a Spanish village. He's an all-American hero (by way of Japan), but his enemies don't speak his language. The characters talk, but they speak Spanish.  To a Spanish speak...

NYFF Review: Microbe & Gasoline

Oct 01 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219843:42635:0[/embed] Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil)Director: Michel GondryRated: n/aRelease Date: TBDCountry: France Daniel (Ange Dargent) is an introverted budding artist with an eye for portraits as well as the crude porno pics he hides under his bed. He's small and looks younger than 14, which is why everyone calls him "Microbe." Worse, most people mistake him for a girl. There's the new kid, Theo (Theophile Baquet), who has a penchant for swagger, Michael Jackson leather jackets, and tinkering with machines. He's poor and there's grease under his fingernails, so they call him "Gasoline." The outsiders bond over a sound board that Gasoline has attached to his bike handles. It's a movie, and they're loners who represent divergent social classes and upbringings. So of course they become friends. It's the logic of the misfit buddy movie, and I don't object to it. Misfits attract misfits, but like magnets, the bond between cinematic misfits is between opposite poles rather than like ones. That might be why so many misfit kid movies often feature groups comprised of individual specialists--the tough one, the scientific one, the artsy one, the charismatic one, the one who knows Spanish--rather than people who are identical. Besides, who wants to hang out with someone who's exactly the same? How boring. Microbe and Gasoline are both 14, which is that point when kids want to be (or seem) more adult but don't quite know how that works. They act like they think adults should act, which is mostly learned from movies and TV rather than life. At a costume party, the boys are dressed like old men, and they loaf on the couch, world weary and judgmental, though Microbe looks on longingly at a girl from class. As Microbe obsesses over his crush, Gasoline offers advice as if he's had a decades-long history of loves and losses. There are limits to maturity, no matter how precocious a teenager is, and most of the comedy is rooted in this teenage worldview. It pervades the whole film, but it really takes charge in the second half of Microbe and Gasoline. With school out for the summer, the boys build a mobile home and go out on the road together. Many of Michel Gondry's films have an adorably ramshackle, handmade look about them, like the sweded movies in Be Kind Rewind or the hand-drawn animation from his Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The boys' mobile home--part tiny house, part go-kart--is such a Gondry-looking contraption; wood, nuts, bolts, inventive gimmickry. You feel the splinters and rust, same goes for the gas fumes. From here the film embarks on an odyssey through Gondryland, and the teenage point of view takes over completely. The danger of being a runaway is relatively low. There's just freedom. Some might find the shift from a grounded world to Gondryland jarring. Picture riffs on fairy tales by way of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend and you get some inkling of what happens. But I felt this change was a charming way to invoke the youthful promise of summer. It also shows just how out of their element the boys are. The parents have no sway over the kids, so the kids have to find their own way. (Microbe's mom is played by Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame, though she's a bit of a non-presence in the film even before summer begins.) Plus, it's all pretty funny. Earlier I mentioned the idea of sameness and difference when it comes to the people we hang out with. This become an important component of Microbe and Gasoline's friendship, and maybe most friendships. Our teenage years are about trying to figure out what adulthood is like, sure, but they're really about trying to define ourselves. Microbe is worried he's too much of a blank slate, and he's anxious that other people are doing the work of defining him, including Gasoline. And we do wind up mimicking our friends to a certain degree just like, earlier in life, we mimicked our parents/guardians and siblings. It's the inescapable fact of interaction. This is all a roundabout way of saying that the friends we love--the ones that matter and that we think of even years later after losing touch--are people who changed us in some way. We take on some of their qualities, they take on some of ours, and in this synthesis of personalities there's something new that's brought out in ourselves and sometimes into the world. An inside joke, maybe, or an experience of some kind that wouldn't have existed without that other person. Gondry captures the way these kinds of friendships can change us, and why they're so important when we're young works-in-progress. Even when Microbe and Gasoline leaves grounded reality, it's all tethered to that genuine, warm feeling we get whenever we meet and befriend someone who really gets us. The boys made a sweet ride, but not a saccharine one.
Review: Microbe & Gasolin photo
Friendship is magic
When Michel Gondry writes his own films, I've noticed that his protagonists have a tendency to act like quirky, whimsical teenagers. The misfit oddballs of The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind probably found a Zoltar machi...

NYFF Review: The Lobster

Sep 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: TBD In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun. The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives--applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you're asked whether you're straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there's a bi-sexual option and is shot down--you can only choose one or the other, not both. Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it's blackly hilarious. The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman's hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they're reading a script or they're pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that's not necessarily satisfying. Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos' exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos' hotel. Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn't a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there's a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can't be forced or imposed from the outside. Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who's both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel--instead of relationships, it's all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It's no longer a case of "paper or plastic" among The Loners, but rather "with us or against us." Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it's another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They're probably better off. For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It's as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn't figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that's been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it's really one note that's played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic. During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it's true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there's still enough to love.
Review: The Lobster photo
Love is strange
I still haven't gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel ...


New Japanese Godzilla movie in the works from Toho Studios

Gojira vs. Godzilla
Sep 18
// Hubert Vigilla
Gareth Edwards' Godzilla got generally positive reviews and did good business at the box office, grossing $521.9 million worldwide. And yet the American Godzilla was full of boring humans (except for Bryan Cranston) who got i...

Review: The Beauty Inside

Sep 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219909:42609:0[/embed] The Beauty InsideDirector: Baek Jong-yeolRelease Date: September 11, 2015Country: South Korea  As a remake, The Beauty Inside is an interesting beast. It takes a 40 minute, episodic experiment and makes it two hours long. It keeps some many of the same moments, but there are some crucial changes that speak to broader cultural differences between America and Korea. Early on I had thought that The Beauty Inside 2015 might go exactly where the 2012 film did. It didn't, of course, and what it does is ultimately far more compelling and meaningful, but the fact that I had those expectations (and that the American version of the story met those expectations) says a lot of things. It seemed like a logical conclusion. But then again, I also thought it would have been a bit too neat, tying things off too nicely at the expense of a greater message. TBI2012 does that. The Beauty Inside does not. But while we're thinking about cultural differences, let's think about the title. I spend a lot of time thinking about movie titles. In the grand scheme of things, they're all sort of irrelevant (especially with translated titles, since they're often different (which is, in and of itself, kind of interesting), but there's something significant in the way a film is presented. Someone(s) thought that any given name was the best way to sell it. "The Beauty Inside" made me think of another Korean film: 200 Pounds Beauty. When I first saw that film, I expected it to have a message like The Beauty Inside, that looks are only skin deep and what really matters is who you are underneath. Cliches, etc. That's not what the film is about. It almost seems like it's going to be... but then it turns out the actual message is that you have to be both interesting and extremely attractive to get the guy. I had a big problem with that. Sure, it's better than just being pretty... but come on. I get it, superficial culture and all that, but that's bad. The Beauty Inside doesn't have that message, though its inspiration's parting note is closer to that than I think anyone involved would like to admit. [embed]219909:42608:0[/embed] Kim Woo-jin wakes up every day as a different person. His running internal monologue (always the same voice) is the only thing we really have to latch onto. One day, an old woman; the next day, a young boy. And on and on. Some days he's extremely attractive, goes out, and has a one night stand (which he runs from in the morning). Other times he just does his work. He's a furniture designer, half of the brains behind the customizable furniture company ALX. He has one friend – the other man behind ALX – and his mom, both of whom know his secret and accept him. But, as is wont to happen, something is changed by the power of love. Not the secret, but Woo-jin's reaction to it. He was cool with the whole isolation thing, but then he fell for Yi-soo, a furniture saleswoman. And eventually, she falls for Woo-jin too. But there are a lot of questions there, big ones, existential ones, for both sides of the relationship.  It's not easy. Obviously. There was a movie I saw at the Japan Cuts Film Festival this year called Forget Me Not. I liked it a whole bunch but I couldn't bring myself to write about it. It was a romance about a high school girl who is forgotten by everyone around her: her teachers, her classmates, even her parents. I didn't write about the film because the whole thing was just too damn bleak. I couldn't get up the energy to write something that did it justice. I bring Forget Me Not up because I was absolutely terrified for about two thirds of The Beauty Inside that it would turn out a similar way. When I figured out that it wasn't going to end the way the 2012 film did, I thought that maybe it would go there; eventually E-soo would forget about him or something to that effect. There's already a supernatural element, so why not add another one? Woo-jin is easy to forget. Everything about him changes from day to day. Some days he can't even speak Korean, but he can always understand it. (This is particularly interesting, since he doesn't actually learn this new language, as evidenced by a back-and-forth in Japanese and Korean where his conversation partner slips into Japanese and he can't translate.) And so some day, he could easily just disappear and no one would ever know.  What makes The Beauty Inside fundamentally more interesting than its source material is its focus on society. In the original experiment, it was just the two characters. But Yi-soo has a family and colleagues and friends. She's not isolated, and so dating becomes a Thing. Colleagues start rumors about her, saying she goes through a new man every day. And... they're right, sort of. But that starts to wear on her. How does she respond to that? How would she introduce him to her family? Where does all of this lead? These are those existential questions, and the way they motivate the characters is fascinating to watch.  This may be a bit too clinical, but I sort of think of it as its own kind of experiment. We take a guy who, every day since he turned 18, has become a new person. We take a woman who, it turns out, he gets on rather well with. Then they just go. It has a very naturalistic style (ripped straight from the social film), and so the whole thing feels oddly real. It looks like a movie, but it feels distinctly non-cinematic. It feels like a bizarrely good looking documentary. The whole thing played out in a way that felt right, and with a narrative like this that's crucial. When things are sad, any overtly manipulative move feels cheap, but so does any deus ex machina. Things don't just get better because they get better. If they get better, it has to feel natural and earned. It may leave plenty of questions open, but you don't need to have all the answers all the time. It's about the moment and making that moment feel as honest as possible. And that's where The Beauty Inside succeeds. It feels honest. And a film (a romance at that) that can feel honest when its protagonist is played by 123 different people is a special one indeed. 
The Beauty Inside Review photo
Thankfully more than skin deep
The Beauty Inside is a remake of sorts. It's taken from a 2012 social film of the same name. "Social film" is a term I learned while writing this introduction. Social films are episodic and feature integration with socia...

Review: Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh)

Sep 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219860:42583:0[/embed] Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh)Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin FialaRated: RRelease Date: September 11, 2015Country: Austria Your opinion of Goodnight Mommy may be contingent on your stomach for plot twists. I don't like them about 99% of the time since they usually feel like hollow gimmicks rather than essential parts of the storytelling machinery. Twists feel cheap, and while I won't spoil the twist of Goodnight Mommy, it certainly feels cheap when you know what it is. As a character uttered the line that reveals the twist, I thought, "Oh come on, Goodnight Mommy--I thought you were above this." In retrospect, the twist is there early in the film if I were to look for it, but I wasn't looking for it because I thought Goodnight Mommy would be a much more original and interesting film rather than one that relies on a bad cliche. The excellent craft displayed by co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is what makes Goodnight Mommy's reliance on a twist so disappointing and its unraveling sense of purpose in the last third (maybe, really, the last fifth) baffling. Consider the movie's visual style for the first two-thirds of its run time. Many of the shots divide the frame into vertical halves, thirds, and quarters to emphasize elements in the foreground and background, all the while playing with light, shadow, and negative space. Large photos of the mother (Susanne Wuest) adorn the walls, but her face is blurry in all of them. On the one hand, this is the kind of artsy, pretentious portraiture you'd expect in an upscale home, and on the other, we have two boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who question the identity of their mother. It's the sort of detail organic to the world of the film and a visual representation of its central concern (i.e., Who are you really?). And then there are details that seem like the cinematic attempt to recreate aspects of a dream. The boys keep Madagascar hissing cockroaches as pets. These are the massive sorts of roaches that are common in movies that feature cockroaches, and they look a lot more exotic than your foul, run-of-the-mill New York City waterbugs. The roaches hiss like they're shushing the boys, like there are secrets in the house that are being kept, or as if the children remind themselves they need to be quiet in order to spy on this person who may or may not be their mother. The wallpaper in the boys' room is covered in a googie-style wallpaper covered in ants. It reminded me of the popular design elements of the 1950s and the sort of playful decor you'd find in a day care or nursery, but also the crawly feeling one gets when something isn't quite right. That sense of contradiction--googie wallpaper that's both cute and off-putting, the comforts and terrors of a home--is carried through in the performances. Lukas and Elias Schwarz seem both playfully insular together and yet they also have a touch of something sinister, which may simply be a symptom of seeing twins together in a movie (thanks a lot, Stanley Kubrick). Wuest plays the mother with emotional highs and lows. She's tender, and she's also terrifying. She nurtures, she scolds, and hugs, and she slaps. The performances may be mannered, but like the visuals and the production design, the actors propel the film forward and help evoke the uncertainties of dark rooms and nightmares. So much ambiguity and promise to play with, and yet it comes back to the twist. The twist reduces all of the possibilities of this eerie, dreamlike world into a single possibility, and one that isn't that interesting. This may explain why that trailer for Goodnight Mommy so good and the film doesn't reach that level. I might have loved the movie if it wasn't for that pesky story.
Review: Goodnight Mommy photo
Are you my mommy?
The trailer for Goodnight Mommy is one of the best horror trailers in a while--evocative, menacing, unreal. The mother of twin boys returns home, her face bandaged after a major surgical procedure. The boys think there's some...

The Thirteen Best Korean Films Streaming on Netflix Instant (2015 Edition)

Sep 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance)Director: Park Chan-Wook  When you're trying to get into Korean cinema, The Vengeance Trilogy is both the best and worst place you could possibly start. Best because it's one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history and each film is fascinating in and of itself. Worst because it's one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history, which means that it's pretty much all downhill from there.  I'm frequently asked which film in the trilogy is my favorite, and it's hard to choose. I love them all for different reasons. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the most visceral, Oldboy is a narrative marvel, and Lady Vengeance (especially the fade-to-black-and-white version, sadly not available on Netflix) is simply gorgeous. Many people would just put Oldboy here and be done with it, possibly relegating the other two to separate entries, but that does a disservice to everyone involved. Absolutely watch Oldboy, but don't watch it in a vacuum. Watch Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance here, Oldboy here, and Lady Vengeance here! The Man From NowhereDirector: Lee Jeong-Beom  I like The Man From Nowhere quite of lot, and many people like it a whole lot more than me. It's definitely one of the more enjoyable Korean action/martial arts films, following a mysterious protagonist as he works his way through a criminal ring that takes children and forces them to drug-related labor. It's an intense film with some truly badass moments (the through-the-window shot is among my favorite in recent memory), and even if it sometimes feels a bit too... American (it often feels like the film pulls punches in a way that something like The Chaser does not), it's well worth a watch. Watch it here! Lee Jeong-Beom's follow, No Tears for the Dead, is also available, and it has some pretty awesome moments as well. There's a whole bunch of crazy shootouts, explosions, and a ridiculous amount of blood. I don't know if it's better than The Man From Nowhere, but it's definitely worth checking out. Watch it here! The HostDirector: Bong Joon-Ho  Snowpiercer (also on Netflix) may have done more to bring Bong Joon-Ho's films to a wider audience, but The Host is definitely the better film. (Memories of Murder, which cemented his status as an essential Korean director, is sadly no longer available for streaming.) I could go on and on about how great The Host is, but I think Scott Tobias said it best on Twitter a little while back: [embed]218531:41946:0[/embed] A monster movie set during the day? Freaking genius. And it works. Oh boy does it work. For people who are a fan of giant monsters wrecking things, this is an easy recommendation. But even people who aren't really into that sort of thing should see it, because it's a spectacular and unique take on a very familiar concept. Watch it here! The Good, the Bad, and the WeirdDirector: Kim Jee-Woon  Kim Jee-Woon is my favorite director. It's not just that The Good, The Bad, and The Weird is an amazing film (although it's certainly that); the way it fits into Kim's filmography is so appropriate and bizarre. Following up A Bittersweet Life (among my favorite gangster films of all time) and A Tale of Two Sisters (a fascinating horror film that goes on and off of Netflix with unfortunate regularity), a straight-up comedy Western seems like a hardcore turn away. But it goes back further, and it's more reminiscent of Kim's second film, The Foul King, which is a comedy about a wanna-be Luchador wrestler. While The Good, The Bad, and The Weird turns things up to 11, it serves as a reminder of just how versatile a director Kim is. Watch it here! I Saw the DevilDirector: Kim Jee-Woon  Remember that time when I said that Kim Jee-Woon is my favorite director? Yeah, this list could have turned into a Kim Jee-Woon-fest if there were any more of his films on Netflix. This is quite probably the most depressing Korean revenge thriller, which you may know is a particularly depressing subgenre. Sometimes it seems like the film is delighting in just how fucked up it is and just how soul-crushing it can be, but that does nothing to diminish the artistry of it all. You need to be in a particular frame of mind to watch I Saw the Devil, but if you go in prepared for serious emotional pain, you'll only have your night ruined and not your entire life. (And it's worth that much.) Watch it here! New WorldDirector: Park Hoon-Jung  When Choi Min-sik told me about New World at the New York Asian Film Festival in 2012 (damn, time flies), he compared it to The Departed. I found that fascinating and just a little bit offensive. Was he implying that, as a white person, I hadn't seen Infernal Affairs and had only seen Scorsese's American-ized version? Problem was: I hadn't seen Infernal Affairs yet. I'd had a copy waiting for me at home for at least a year by that point, but I never got around to seeing it. Now I've seen Infernal Affairs, and it's a great movie that I highly recommend to those of you who have also been putting it off for inexcusable reasons. You know what else is great? New World. Watch it here! A Company ManDirector: Lim Sang-Yoon I've said in the past that A Company Man is the kind of film I joke about when I joke about the ultra-violence of Korean cinema. Here is a film that goes all-freaking-out in service of a message that really doesn't justify the bloodshed. Yes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but even Jack Torrence didn't bring an M-16 to the office. So it's kind of problematic, and its message is hit-you-over-the-head-and-shoot-you-fifty-times blunt... but that didn't stop it from being enjoyable. It's certainly not on the level of Lesson of the Evil, which I still question my response to every so often, although it's also not quite as well-crafted as that film. Still, it's an interesting film and an enjoyable one. As long as you can handle bloodshed, you'll certainly be intrigued and most likely have a good time. Watch it here! PoetryDirector: Lee Chang-Dong  I knew that Poetry was going to be on this list from the moment I decided to write it. That moment was more than a year before I saw the film. For a long time, I simply neglected the works of Lee Chang-Dong. I don't have any good excuse for having done so, but he was the one big name in arthouse Korean cinema that I was aware of but seemed to be avoiding. I'm not avoiding him any longer. If you have neglected his works as well, I suggest fixing that immediately. But, like other films on this list, Poetry hits hard. It hits really, really hard. This is a film that will make you sad, and then it will just keep making you sad until the exceedingly sad ending. There is no catharsis, no hope, no redemption. There is simply life. Perhaps it's poetic, beautiful in some twisted way, but it goes straight for the heart, and once it latches onto you, it doesn't let go.  Watch it here! Hide and SeekDirector: Huh Jung  Hide and Seek is a movie that's terrifying in its plausibility. It's a creepy and tense thriller following a family that is being stalked by a helmeted murderer. They don't know why, and they don't seem to be able to stop it. The ultimate reveal is fascinating and also really freaking scary, and it gets at an interesting societal problem, one that may be Korea-focused but is certainly more broadly applicable. You can't sympathize with the murderer, but even understanding what might drive them to do this puts this a step above most films of its sort. I wish I could say more, but... it's best if you just see it for yourself. Watch it here! BreathlessDirector: Yang Ik-June  Breathless is like nothing else on this list, for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one you notice from the very first frame. Most films on this list are gorgeous. They've got high production value. They look and feel like cinema. Breathless... doesn't. It's ugly. It looks like a movie shot on tape in the late 1990s early 2000s. The audio isn't particularly well-mixed, high quality, or even apparently functional. There are weird bouts of silence throughout that seem like mistakes, though I don't think they were. It's also painfully slow... but none of that matters. This is a bleak and unrelenting look at a part of society that people try to ignore and/or forget, where bad people do bad things to innocents and everyone has to deal with the consequences. It takes a very long time to get into it, but commit and you'll be rewarded with something unique, fascinating, and depressing as hell. Watch it here!
Best Korean Netflix Films photo
This would be one hell of a marathon
For the past six or seven years, I've told people that my favorite type of international cinema is Korean. And even though I've been a little less in the loop recently than I was a few years ago, I still have a deep love for ...

Studio Ghibli photo
Studio Ghibli

Ghibli film Only Yesterday is getting a new English release on its 25th anniversary

What's old is new again
Aug 24
// John-Charles Holmes
You kids have it so easy with your anime these days-- if there's any show or movie you want to see, it's already up online in a few days with fully fleshed out fan-subs. Back in the day, we only got what the big licensing com...

Review: Assassination

Aug 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219742:42539:0[/embed] Assassination (Amsal | 암살)Director: Choi Dong-HoonRelease Date: August 7, 2015Country: South Korea  An American version of Assassination would be rated PG-13. On the whole, the amount of action in the film would be similar, but the effect of that action would be radically different. Why? Well, because there wouldn't be any blood. American action films are bloodless, often problematically so. A lot of people die in Mission Impossible - Rogue Agent, but oftentimes I straight up didn't realize it until I was told afterwards. Is someone dead or just unconscious? You never know, because it all looks the same. It's an important distinction to make. It's important to know if the characters we're rooting for/fighting against are cold-blooded killers or just really good at getting KOs. (I think about this College Humor sketch about Batman and death constantly.) Guns mitigate that to some degree, but a bloodless hail of bullets is always sort of off-putting.  One of the things I like about Korean films is that they rarely have guns. Gangsters use bats because they don't have guns. Getting a gun is a Big Deal that requires actual Effort, whereas in American films (and America in general), everyone and their newborn has access to a firearm. To put it plainly: Guns are boring. There are exceptions to that rule (Hong Kong films with guns are certainly more exciting than American ones), but given the choice between a gunfight and a fist/bat/knifefight, I'd always choose the latter.  There are a lot of guns in Assassination. It's a period piece set in the early 1900s, and I guess guns were more prevalent back then. Whether that's historical license or not, it definitely factors into the way the film's action plays out. There are a few close-quarters encounters, but they're the exception, not the rule. Still, the crucial thing to point out is that the film is anything but bloodless. You always know when someone's been hit, because it's always accompanied by a spray of the red stuff. And to my eye, they looked like they were actual squibs for the most part. If they weren't, that was some of the most effective blood CG I've seen. (Then again, the version of the film I saw was kinda fuzzy at times, so it's possible that the image smoothed out. Either way, the blood looked good.) Assassination follows a ragtag group of killers during the period in which Korea was under Japanese rule. The Korean government was forced underground, and they were being smoked out by the Japanese. So they pull together this group of three killers (and a few pointmen) to take down two figures in the Japanese military regime, one Japanese and one Korean, to hit them where it hurts. From there, things get complicated (as they often do), because one of the pointmen is a double agent (you learn this almost immediately, so… not a spoiler) and he hires an infamous Korean killer to take down the other Korean killers by claiming that they’re a bunch of Japanese spies. And then everyone fools everyone else into thinking that they’re all different people or on different sides or have different intentions. Trying to keep track of everyone’s particular goals at any given moment is difficult, but fortunately their motives remain consistent throughout. The closest thing anyone has to a change of heart seemed to follow that character’s overall desires pretty closely, so it didn’t even feel like a big moment. It was just the next thing that happened. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises (there are), just that the surprises aren’t left-field twists. The biggest “surprise” was more a reminder: Anyone can die. Not everyone does die, but there are no immortals in Assassination. Those guns I was talking about earlier, they are lethal (or at least crippling) to anyone and everyone who stands in their path. It’s a breath of fresh air, really, actually fearing for the lives of characters you’re rooting for. In Mission Impossible, you know who will and won’t survive. There’s no such guarantees here. And it results in some legitimately sad moments that fit surprisingly well with the often over-the-top action that surrounds them. You get the high of the ultra-bloody violence followed by the low of ultra-bloody violence against a character that you've been rooting for. It's emotional, but it's also not a bleak "there is no good in the world" sort of thing either. More often than not, the film can (and should) be described as "fun." That may come with a few caveats, but this is a film that's meant to be enjoyed. It undoubtedly succeeds.
Assassination Review photo
Asassinations, more like
Director Choi Dong-Hoon's last film, The Thieves, was a thoroughly enjoyable film. It wasn't the smartest or most unique thing, but it wasn't dumb or bland either. It was stylish and interesting and fun, so much so that ...

NYAFF Review: Meeting Dr. Sun

Jul 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219608:42457:0[/embed] Meeting Dr. Sun (Xingdong daihao: Sun Zongshan)Director: Chih-yen Yee Rating: NRCountry: Taiwan  Everyone knows the rule of threes. You can do a joke three times before it becomes grating. If done well, that repetition can make it amazing, but going beyond that just becomes frustrating. I don't know who who it came from, but I've heard it said that the trick to Family Guy's humor is that things become funny again after you've done them for the 27th time. It's funny, funny, funny, not funny, not funny, infuriating... kinda funny, funny, amazing. And that's kind of accurate. I'm sure there's something in our brains, probably a fear response, that tells us that eventually this thing that is making us uncomfortable with its repetition is actually something to be laughed at (again), lest we drive ourselves actually crazy. Whatever it is, it works. Sometimes. Meeting Dr. Sun really wants that to be true. Or at least, its editor does. Because apparently he left the editing bay after he put together his rough cut and someone walked by and shouted, "It's perfect!" Every single scene is too long. Every. Damn. One. You could cut at least 10 seconds from the end of every sequence in the film and it would only benefit the film. Most shots go on too long, and every joke definitely goes on too long, but sometimes they become funny again. Meeting Dr. Sun is a heist movie, of sorts. Some kinds can't afford to pay their class fees, so they decide to steal a statue and sell it for scrap. But they have to steal it. But because they're children (end of middle school/beginning of high school (or the Taiwanese equivalent of that), if I had to guess), everything is inherently very silly. As it's presented, there are no great stakes, and there are no serious dangers. It's not even really clear what it would mean if the kids didn't pay their class fees. (Here my American ignorance is probably at issue, though the film's dialogue makes it seem like it's not a necessity to get through the year.) The whole thing feels appropriately childish, and on some level the humor actually works like that as well.  Some years ago, I was having dinner with a friend and his extended family. His very young cousin wanted to be the center of attention, and so he said to said to his dad, "Hi mommy!" and everyone laughed. And then he went to every single person around the table (nearly a dozen of us) and said, "Hi mommy!" to all the men and "Hi daddy!" to the women. The first couple of times, it was adorable. By the time he got to me? It was infuriating. But the kid thought he was the cat's pajamas, and he kept doing it until his dad (thankfully) stopped him. He would have done another round of the table, I'm sure, because he didn't understand what actually made it funny, just that other people were laughing. And that's what the humor in Meeting Mr. Sun is like. I laughed pretty hard on multiple occasions, and some of the people around me laughed so hard I literally (not figuratively) thought they were going to die, but then once I'd moved on, the young kids onscreen wanted to keep doing the joke. They keep pantomiming or dancing or talking or moving or doing any of those other things that kids do, because... they're kids. What else are they gonna do?  That said, there's a weird, dark undercurrent about issues of socioeconomic class structures throughout the film. And while it's always there, it doesn't come up explicitly until the end, when it hits in a fascinating, mood-wrecking kind of way. And thinking back on the film through that lens, it's actually pretty seriously depressing; a (very) long sequence involving two characters trying to prove that their family is worse off is played for humor, sort of, but it's really very sad. At the time, that was in the back of my mind, but it didn't snap into focus until that moment near the end. But this theme seems so at odds with the comedic intentions of the film. Director Yee wanted us to laugh. But here was this grand theme about poverty and what it forces people to do, even on a small scale. And... we were supposed to laugh at it? I mean, I definitely did. I'm just not sure how I feel about having done so.
Meeting Dr. Sun Review photo
Child's play
In the two hours leading up to the US premiere of Meeting Dr. Sun, I saw director Chih-yen Yee speak twice. First was at a reception hosted by New York Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The second was just minute...

Review: When Marnie Was There

Jun 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219314:42335:0[/embed] When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー)Director: Hiromasa YonebayashiRelease Date: May 22, 2015Country: Japan In the wake of Hayao Miyakazi's retirement, Studio Ghibli has "temporarily" shuttered its doors. There may never be another Studio Ghibli film. There are probably people who are mad at Miyazaki for leaving. When Marnie Was There is a response to those people. It's a response to people who hold grudges and hate themselves and take it out on others. It's a a response to the fundamental negativity that drives much of modern society. And it made me cry.  It's easy to forget that cartoons can make you feel real people emotions if you don't watch many of them. And obviously calling a serious animated film like any Ghibli production a "cartoon" is reductive at best and borderline offensive at worst, but the point is that it isn't just the ultra-artistic works like Ghibli films that can get to you. They're probably about the best example, but it's just another toolset for a would-be filmmaker to use. And one that doesn't get nearly enough credit for the things it can do to you. When Marnie Was There starts in a place where the air is bad. It's a city, and Anna is a girl with asthma. She hates herself and keeps herself isolated from everyone around her. She has an asthma attack and the doctor tells her foster mother that she should be sent to the countryside. A countryside where there is nothing but Anna, nature, and whatever creepy, spirit-related things are going on in the town's abandoned buildings. (So far so Ghibli.) Before too long, Anna runs into Marnie, a blonde-haired girl who lives in the Marsh House, an old abandoned mansion at the edge of town. But, of course, Marnie isn't real. You know that. Anna knows that. The film knows it. Marnie's scenes are hyper-stylized, often dream-like, but knowing that she's not real actually makes everything more intriguing. Because the question isn't, "Is Marnie real?" It's, "Who is she?" Or perhaps, "Who was she?"    But what's never a question is what her role in Anna's arc is going to be. From the outset, it's obvious that Marnie is here to bring Anna out of her shell, to allow her to talk to others and stand up for herself and be brave. She's a self-loathing pre-teen. The world has enough of those. Marnie is there to help her come to terms with everything she's gone through. To give her some perspective. And its ability to put things into perspective without being contrived or annoying is When Marnie Was Here's greatest strength. Even in particularly expository moments, everything comes from a place of honesty in a valiant attempt to get at the fundamental beliefs we all have. A conversation between Marnie and Anna about the role of the parent begins a bit stiff, and I was worried that we were heading down the wrong path, but it ultimately turned into something exceedingly compelling. Whether it was critiquing an aspect of society found in both Japan and America, celebrating it, or simply accepting it is probably up for interpretation, but nothing in the film is skin-deep. It's all in service of these moments of revelation that turn both Anna and Marnie into an extremely compelling pair, even if the latter is "imaginary." But imaginary or not, Marnie's impact on Anna is tangible. As the truths behind Marnie's past become clearer, Anna begins to build up the strength to keep her partner safe from the evils of the world. Because there are always evils, no matter who you are or how you live. And even if you can't always fight them yourself, being able to recognize the plights of others and connect with them will make you a stronger person. Perhaps someone who can help others face their own demons as well. And when it all comes down to it, we're all in this together. Films like When Marnie Was There serve as reminders of just how meaningful life can be.
When Marnie Was There photo
All the places you'll go
Every so often, I think about old articles I've written, for Flixist or elsewhere, and wonder how different they would be if I'd written them now. Not from a grammatical or structural perspective. I wonder how my fundamental ...

NYAFF 2015 photo
NYAFF 2015

The 2015 New York Asian Film Festival lineup and schedule are here

My favorite festival of the year returns
Jun 08
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
The New York Asian Film Festival is very near and dear to my heart. When I started at Flixist in 2011, I was a news writer. I wasn't supposed to be writing reviews or doing any of that high-minded stuff. But then my girlfrie...
Look of Silence Trailer photo
Look of Silence Trailer

The trailer for The Look of Silence offers a glimpse at one of the best films of 2015

A follow-up to The Act of Killing
May 08
// Hubert Vigilla
Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013. The film examined the Indonesian genocide from the point of view of the killers, and in the process provided a chilling look at the way hi...

Tribeca Review: The Birth of Sake

Apr 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219229:42341:0[/embed] The Birth of SakeDirector: Erik ShiraiRelease Date: TBD Rating: TBD A second family is essential for the brewers at Yoshida Shuzo. (The brewery has produced Tedorigawa label sake since 1870.) They spend an entire season at the brewery tending to the sake rice, waiting for the precise moment of fermentation, stirring vats or letting them sit still and bubble. They eat meals together, they sleep in on-site quarters, they party together, and they toil. All the while, the camera lovingly considers the winter outside and the activity indoors, making the rice and steam both a counterpoint and a complement to the falling snow. It's not food porn, it's food poetry. The general sentiment from the brewmasters and Shirai is that the brewing process is almost like raising a child. (Hence The Birth of Sake rather than The Making of Sake.) When they're away from their baby, we see the various men in isolation and get to understand the kind of necessary camaraderie that builds through this rearing of sake. At one point, some of the older brewmasters bathe together. In another context, these men ought to be retired, but at Yoshida Shuzo, they're like brothers playing in the tub. There's a generational divide in the sake brewing process, which reflects a change in Japanese drinking habits just as much as the way that most traditions fade generation by generation. The primary seller for Tedorigawa is much younger than the veteran brewers, and he spends his off-season traveling the world to promote the brand. Sake is his life, but he's had to feel his way around the changing market for it. He shares some wine with his fellow brewmasters, and the differences in their palettes are apparent with the first swirl and sniff. The other young brewmasters, when off work, hang out with the other young brewmasters, and they talk about dating women, though maybe "girls" given the teenage tenor of their conversation. The cycle of making sake would get in the way of those plans. It's the difference between a job and a calling, which leaves the future of the craft in question. Shirai captures both the beauty and the melancholy of the sake brewing process, and it's fascinating that The Birth of Sake never feels forced in its various observations. That's probably because the brewmasters have such fondness for what they create, and for the family that's created because of it.
Birth of Sake Review photo
The brotherhood of brewers
At a certain point in Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Sake, it becomes apparent that the film isn't just about the art of making of sake. This is common in movies that are about making something—food, art, ...

Review: The Dead Lands

Apr 17 // John-Charles Holmes
The Dead LandsDirector: Toa FraserRelease Date: April 1st, 2015 (Video On-Demand release)Rating: RNew Zealand The Dead Lands is a tale of revenge and redemption in the forests of New Zealand. The son of a tribal Maori chief, Hongi, goes on a quest to avenge his family when they are slaughtered in the night by a rival tribe, leaving him as the sole male survivor. He travels to meet an old legendary warrior who teaches him the skills to fight like a true warrior while they both confront their own personal demons and history with their ancestral spirits. Once the training is complete, it’s time for all-out war with the murderers of Hongi’s tribe. The movie is pretty ambitious in trying to make a gritty and realistic action film out of the conflicts of the tribes of New Zealand. Unfortunately, The Dead Lands runs into a lot of problems along the way that keeps it from being the exciting film that it wants to be. The film in general is incredibly hard to follow, from the story which rarely gives context for the Maori culture to the erratic nature of the cinematography. The Dead Lands is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but doesn’t seem to make good use of the increased frame space. Shots are often very close to characters faces and other obstructions making it very hard to often see what’s going on or even get a sense of space. Add on top of this that the camera is constantly cutting and changing focus which makes the action scenes peppered throughout the film just as hard to follow as the story. There seems to have been a focus on how intense and brutal these fights can get, with most conflicts ending after one or two hits with a sharp club. Though it can be hard to see the action, the film makes sure we can see the results. Every cut, stab, and laceration is given a languishing focus which certainly does help to drive home the risk of these fights, but admittedly feels kind of gross by the midpoint of the movie. If movie blood makes you squeamish, this might be one you’ll want to skip. It almost feels like these effects are what the filmmakers were most proud of in the production. I suppose it makes sense as this ended up being the memorable part of the movie for me. In general, The Dead Lands struggles to leave a lasting impression, but ends up proving difficult to watch and ultimately somewhat dull. There’s some merit to the idea of showing the journey of both new and old warriors along with their connection to the past and spirituality, but I never really got a good sense of the culture these characters were from, making it hard to understand much about these peoples outside of the tribal warfare. With a stronger story, some tighter editing, and camerawork that exhibits the strengths of both the tribal martial arts and the natural beauty of New Zealand, The Dead Lands could’ve been a strong outing for such a unique premise. As it stands, the end result feels more akin to actors running around in the woods with a camera and a bunch of blood packs.
The Dead Lands Review photo
Smells like warrior spirit
Films about indigenous groups have a strange and sordid history in film. Their appearances are far and few in-between and those that exist are a mixed bag of both quality and subject matter. The Dead Lands seeks to join this ...


The estate of Bruce Lee doesn't want him in Ip Man 3

The CG Bruce Lee is now unlikely
Apr 02
// Hubert Vigilla
Just last week we reported that production on Ip Man 3 is underway, featuring Mike Tyson and a CG Bruce Lee. While Iron Mike is a lock, it seems that the Donnie Yen sequel has hit a snag with CG Bruce Lee (aka Marshall Law fr...

Ip Man 3 will feature Mike Tyson and a CG Bruce Lee

So... will this Donnie Yen sequel be partial schlock or total schlock?
Mar 24
// Hubert Vigilla
Ip Man 3 (or Ip Man 3D) has been in the works for a while, but the Donnie Yen sequel started shooting today in Shanghai. With the start of production comes news of some really bizarre stunt casting. According to The Hollywood...

Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Feb 24 // John-Charles Holmes
[embed]219012:42246:0[/embed] The Tale of Princess KaguyaDirector: Isao TakahataRelease Date: February 17, 2015 (DVD/Blu-Ray)Rating: PGCountry: Japan The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on the classic Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which tells of a bamboo cutter and wife who find a small girl inside a stalk of bamboo.  The girl, who eventually comes to be named Princess Kaguya, grows very quickly into a beautiful young woman, which is only exacerbated by the bamboo cutter finding a trove of treasures in other stalks of bamboo in the forests.  The bamboo cutter buys his family’s way into the lap of luxury and refines Kaguya from her quaint mountain life into to the extremely restrictive lifestyle of a feudal princess. As Kaguya matures, word of her beauty spreads across the land and in due time, five overzealous suitors show up at the mansion doors.  What follows is a haunting tale of Kaguya’s struggles for independence and freedom as well as an idea of what the definition true happiness is and what it brings to us.  Is it wealth?  Security?  Beauty?  Or something else altogether? Princess Kaguya launches by wearing its folktale trappings on its sleeves.  Most of the characters act as the everyman for all the roles people play in our lives and logic is thrown to the wind in favor of mysticism and bewilderment.  However, once the stage for the story is set, emotion becomes the guiding force for most of the film.  Each moment of the film is driven by these strong moments of expression, ranging from extremes of happiness to absolute depression.  Even when it seems that the film is setting up an eclectic series of events, the narrative constantly takes a back seat to the emotional state of the film, Princess Kaguya, and the audience. The story itself is actually quite simple to digest, but the true star of the film is the unique and striking animation on display.  The film looks unlike any modern Ghibli film, trading in crisp and strong digital lines for very rough, very human brush strokes.  The visuals evoke the imagery of traditional Japanese ink and watercolor paintings.  You could take a still from any moment of the film and hang it up on a wall. It’s not quite clear through why you’d want to freeze-frame the film, though, as the animation is simply stunning in motion.  As lines are redrawn with every frame this motion implies a great sense of breath and life or quietness and weight when lines stand still.  As motion increases and action climbs, the lines get more and more out of control, as if a master artist loosened his grip on the brush.  Little details like moving accent lines to imply light or restrained palettes to direct attention add that extra polish that makes it a true masterwork. Words truly don’t do these visuals justice and honestly might be the most visually interesting film I’ve ever seen out of Studio Ghibli in years—which given their legendary pedigree, is saying a lot.  This is what makes somewhat upsetting when the film falls prey to the same pratfall of the last few Ghibli productions.  The mood and animation silently tells more of the story than the words ever do, but in the final moments of the film, an immediately pressing impetus emerges to give the film a climax that, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure was necessary.  The film seems to revolve around how Princess Kaguya feels at any given moment as well as asking the existential question of what exactly is the true nature of happiness.  Once we actually get some answers near the end of the film, it’s not exactly an answer for those questions the film sets up.  Honestly, I feel like the emotional impact of the film is so strong and so resonant that it managed to carry me through to the film’s eerie conclusion, but I would be quick to understand if audiences (particularly western audiences) found themselves very confused with final moments of the story.  As easy as it would’ve been to simply rely on the imagery of the animation through to the end, this choice probably stems more from the nature of the source material rather than a misstep of the direction of the film. Story issues aside, the film exudes a restrained and haunting air throughout its runtime.  Shots are framed like paintings in a gallery and music punctuates little moments of the film, only making itself heard with hard piano strikes at some of the more intense scenes.  Ghibli films have usually had an incredible eye for minutia, and Takahata exhibits the same mastery in his portrayal of an old, yet legendary Japan. So if you’re already a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, making a point to see Princess Kaguya is a no-brainer at this point, but for everyone else I’d still say this one is worth checking out.  The simple story keeps the film easy to follow, despite some missteps near the end, but even if the folktale isn’t enough to hold your attention, the animation and atmosphere will certainly keep you glued to your seat.  As one of the better Ghibli films of the past decade, Princess Kaguya will go down as a haunting, yet beautiful piece of work, much like the princess herself.
Princess Kaguya Review photo
Little Bamboo, big style
Isao Takahata is one of the directors out of Studio Ghibli that seems to be less discussed by fans in the west.  Takahata is responsible for directing some of the most riveting and eerie films to come from the Japanese a...


First Victoria trailer, a true one shot action movie

One crazy night. One crazy shot.
Feb 18
// Jackson Tyler
From Hitchcock's Rope in 1948 to Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu's movie up for Best Picture this Sunday, and everywhere in between, filmmakers have been consistently playing with the idea...

Review: R100

Jan 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218709:42046:0[/embed] R100 Director: Hitoshi MatsumotoRating: R100Release Date: January 23rd, 2015 (Theatrical and VOD)Country: Japan Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori) is your average Joe (or whatever the Japanese equivalent to that is). He's a reasonably competent salesman at a large furnishing store. There's exactly nothing remarkable about him. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn't think twice about it. Unless, of course, he was being abused by a woman in leather. And while for many that seems a bit unlikely, for Katayama it's a daily occurance. You see, Katayama likes pain. Sexually. And since his wife went into a coma, he has had a rather involved method of having this particular desire fulfilled. For one reason or another, he ends up at a club called “Bondage.” The literal merry-go-round that follows convinces him to hire a particularly comprehensive S&M care package. As he goes about his life, various leather-clad "Queens" will come to him and make him feel. And it's not always physical abuse; any sort of humiliation will do. Lovely dinner at a sushi bar? Here comes a Queen to smash the food to bits and make him eat it in front of the extremely uncomfortable guests. And he loves it. You can tell, because his face contorts like a baloon, his eyes turn black, and ripples emanate from his head. By now, you should know if R100 is your type of film. If that previous paragraph sounds either titillating or hilarious, you've already figured out the next screening within 50 miles of you and are planning your weekend around it. If you find that conceptually retched, literally nothing about it is going to change your mind. This is a film intended to appall. But it also wants to make you laugh. And in that objective it is overwhelmingly successful. Right from the outset, I was completely and totally hooked. And so was everyone else. When that first Queen roundhouse kicks Katayama's head into a glass window, it was a taste of things to come but it couldn't prepare us. Nothing could. From there it builds and builds into this amorphous, incomprehensible blob of violent sexual comedy. And it's absolutely brilliant. I'm loathe to say more. Not that I'm really worried about spoilers, because R100 truly has to be seen to be believed. A whole bunch of text on the internet won't tell you shit. I could describe the above trailer – which is really just a clip from Katayama's introduction to his new pastime – in excrutiating detail, but until you actually saw it for yourself, you couldn't comprehend what I'm saying. And that's a pretty basic scene, all things considered. Around the 45-minute mark, things get Meta. People begin to react to the film’s content and note its narrative inconsistencies. I laughed as hard as anyone, but it was also the moment that I began to think that perhaps R100 was trying just a bit too hard. Pulling off Meta humor is extremely difficult, and generally it only works when it's a fundamental part of the narrative. That isn't the case here; the film literally pauses for comment a few times and then resumes. That's an issue in part because, as funny as it is, R100 presents itself seriously. Omori and co. aren’t in on the joke, so when someone flat out states that there are massive contradictions and continuity problems, it doesn’t really jive with the narrative as presented. It seems more like an attempt to shield itself from criticism. “Hey, you can’t criticize this story for being ridiculous, because we did it first. Aren’t we zany?” Calling attention to a story’s flaws rarely works. Rather than being cutesy and playing it off, I'd rather they just fix the problem in the first place. It still bothered me in R100, but it’s less of a problem, because the film was going to have those inconsistencies anyway. The film called attention to them because it does whatever it damn well pleases. Without those moments, nothing would have changed. And so they aren’t really flaws in the way these things usually are. They were clear, albeit insane, directorial decisions to drive forward the little bit of narrative that R100 pretends to have. They didn’t have to draw attention to them. But in the grand scheme of things, none of that really matters. Because this is a film where a platinum-blonde giantess screams American profanities while jumping into a pool on a continuity-shattering loop. I mean, come on. That's fucking amazing. And if that couldn’t inspire someone to literally eat their shirt, I have no idea what could.
R100 Review photo
Viewer discretion advised
Thanks to R100, we know the proper recipe for a shirt: 24 hours in a slow-cooker, with red wine sauce, celery and carrots. Not because the film involves shirt eating (not directly at least), but because it forced Twitch found...

Review: Two Days, One Night

Jan 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218812:42122:0[/embed] Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)Directors: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne Release Date: January 6, 2015Rating: PG-13 Country: Belgium  I like Two Days, One Night's premise: While Sandra (Marion Cotillard) was on medical leave, her bosses put together a voting ballot. People could either vote for Sandra to stay on when she was feeling better, or they could keep their annual bonuses. The company can't (well, won't) afford to do both. Unsurprisingly, more went for the bonuses and suddenly Sandra was unemployed. But Sandra wasn't a part of the process, and she must go to each coworker one by one and ask (beg) them to reconsider. There are 16 people. She needs nine votes. On concept, that sounds like a really interesting way to develop a character. At the start of Two Days, One Night, we know almost nothing about Sandra other than that she's really sad. But a lot of people would be sad in that particular situation, so that barely even counts. We don't know why she left in the first place, what job it is that she's lost, or how she gets along with the others at her workplace. All we know is that Marion Cotillard is a good crier, and why wouldn't she be? She's a great actress. As it turns out, there's not really anything more to Sandra than that. Sandra is boring. It was depression that took her out of work, and while that's a totally valid reason to take some time off (she's medicated now), she is hampered at each and every moment of the film by her depression. She wants to keep her job, but she doesn't want to impose on others. She doesn't want to be told "No, I need my bonus more than I need you to have a job" by people she worked with. I get these things, but these issues manifest themselves as a constant game of Sandra refusing to do anything other than pop pills and her husband saying, "Come on!" until she eventually acquiesces. That's boring. And so is hearing Sandra explain why she has shown up unannounced on a colleague's doorstep over and over again. It's an issue of realism: Sure, most of them would not have heard of her new crusade to get her job back, but we (the audience) have heard her little introductory spiel way too many times, and it doesn't change. Nearly every single interaction starts the same way: - Sandra shows up at their house but the person is not there- She goes to wherever they are (usually pointed out by a spouse or child)- She explains the ballot- "But it's soooo much money!"- "But it's my job!" Over and over and over again. It's maddening, really.  So you'd think I didn't like Two Days, One Night, because it's boring and because its lead character is boring, but that's because what makes the film interesting (and ultimately worth watching) has almost nothing to do with its lead character. While Sandra as a character is never particularly interesting (even if the ultimate result shows something verging on character growth), the other people she interacts with are. There are only two possible responses – "I need the money, but okay" and "I need the money, so no" – but the situations that lead them to go from one answer to the other are occasionally fascinating to watch. The one-on-one interactions are by far the least interesting, because then it's just one person begging and the other person accepting or not. But when a third person (usually a spouse) becomes involved and it turns into a shouting match or some other intense moment, then you see what the money means to these people. Sandra needs a job, but these people have structured their lives around this 1,000 Euro annual bonus. It lets them pay their bills or get their children an education. Maybe it lets them do something cool and new for themselves where all of their other income had gone exclusively to the necessities. All of these are acceptable reasons to say no (even the latter, although it's a bit sketchy), and all of them get used. But seeing the way the co-worker (who usually has empathy) reacts versus the spouse (who has no love for Sandra) reveals a lot about who those people are and the fights that sometimes occur as a result are fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) glimpses into the lives of other characters. If Two Days, One Night succeeds at anything, it's at making these other characters feel like they're real people with actual lives. It feels like Sandra is intruding on them and they're just trying to keep on living. And because of that, I kept watching. Would they stick to their guns? Would they crack under pressure? Those questions propelled the narrative forward far more than the overarching "Would Sandra get to keep her job?" Because the film didn't make me care about Sandra, but it did make me care about everyone else.
Two Days One Night Review photo
Cotillard Cried
Sometimes you watch a movie and you immediately know how you're going to feel about it. There's something about the atmosphere that it creates that just strikes you. You know exactly what the film is trying to do, and you kno...

White God Trailer photo
White God Trailer

Trailer for White God features the dogpocalypse

Dec 10
// Nick Valdez
Remember those awesome Homeward Bound movies? White God is nothing like that. Imagine the worst possible outcome for that film (and throw in Lady and the Tramp for good measure) and you've got what looks and sounds like a gr...

SAIFF Review: Killa (The Fort)

Nov 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Killa (The Fort) Director: Avinash ArunRating: NRCountry: India Chinmay is a seventh grader who has recently left the big city of Pune and headed into a new rural-ish area with his mother. It's a culture shock, to be sure, but clearly this has happened before and will happen again. Moving is just part of their life, even though it's hard on them both. But it's particularly difficult on a growing kid, who has to leave all of his friends behind and start anew in seventh grade. And though I don't know if middle school children in India are as needlessly cruel as they are in the US (the constant attempts to put a gasoline-soaked rag into a dog's butt would suggest they are), being the outcast is never fun. And when the teacher introduces him as an intellectual prodigy, it just further makes him stand out. But despite that, he finds friendship (of sorts) in some troublemaker types who are more interested in picking up crabs and having bike races than studying. It's worth noting that the conflict here does not come from Chinmay's decision to forgo his studies, and whether he's hanging out with them or not he seems to be equally competent in the classroom. Instead, it's a conflict about the friends themselves as well as Chinmay's relationship to his mother. But Killa's fundamental problem is that Chinmay is not a likeable protagonist. He spends most of the film's 110 minute runtime looking slightly forlorn. Sometimes he's happy, other times he's just straight up emotionless, but usually it's just almost-melancholy as he goes through his life being a bland human being. The world around him is so full of intrigue and color and life and he's just got none of it. And considering he's supposed to have an emotional arc (I hate it here! to I hate it less! to I hate it again! etc.), it causes some serious disconnect. I never once cared about Chinmay. Literally never. And while Chinmay the character takes the blame for a lot of that, it's the performance that really kills it. I don't usually like harping on poor child performances, but the film hinges on his ability to emote, and he can't hold up his end of the bargain. That half-pout isn't sympathetic; it's just pathetic. On the other hand, I did care about his mother, which actually made me care about Chinmay even less. His mother, who is constantly shuttled from place to place for work, lost her husband (his father) a year ago. It's something that gets mentioned every so often, but it's not really a cloud hanging over the narrative. It's just a fact. But now Chinmay's mother has to deal with him and her job, and her new job in their new town runs by some different rules, and those rules get her into trouble. That made me sad, because this is a woman who is trying to do what's right but also gets screwed over by the system at large. And once she's done dealing with that, she has to go home and pay attention to her manner-less son? Not cool. Not cool at all. He makes her life harder and doesn't really offer much in return, other than lip. But even when Chinmay was being pouty and annoying, I couldn't deny just how beautiful his surroundings were. I'm convinced that the purpose of the narrative was less to tell a story than to show off scenery. I can't say I really understood the layout of the town, so it may have been that things that seemed very far away were right there, but it did seem like he would travel long distances not because he needed to but because it would result in a gorgeous shot. And to be honest, I'm okay with that. If it was all in service of the shot, I would've rather the film dispensed with some of the less interesting moments (particularly in the school) and been a bit shorter, but I can't deny that it was exciting to see each new location. I would love to go and visit those places. So despite my dislike of Chinmay and my disinterest in everything about him, I still enjoyed Killa on the whole. The other characters were interesting, and even if I wasn't a fan of most of the children, at least they were all different and brought unique perspectives to any given situation. Combined with the amazing backdrops, it makes for a film that by all appearances should really be much better than it is. It's unfortunate, then, that the protagonist is such dead weight.
Killa Review photo
Beautiful but bland
I never moved when I was growing up. I knew people who moved once or twice, and then I knew others in military families and the like who would come and go almost annually. In a small town with a small school, that made a diff...

SAIFF Review: Dukhtar

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218626:41996:0[/embed] Dukhtar (Daughter)Director: Afia NathanielRating: NRCountry: Pakistan I'm going to my best to not sound like an ignorant white guy here. I know that's a distinct possibility, and I apologize in advance if I sound that way. But at the same time, it's that otherness that makes the film so compelling for me. These people live lives that are so different from mine, to the point where it really doesn't feel like a film from 2014. I don't mean that with disrespect, nor am I implying that one way is even better than the other, but the inherent difference between my world and the one this film depicts is fascinating. From a narrative perspective, it means I was always playing catchup. The film doesn't stop to explain things to people who don't understand the culture, and while there aren't a lot of true cultural barriers, each new location just got me thinking about things, about life and the world we live in. Because Earth is so, so interesting. Last year, I gushed over The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for showing a unique (and beautiful) location, but that film was more concerned with the places than the people. Dukhtar is more concerned with the people, but I was oftentimes just looking at the backdrops. And certainly the film makes a point of showing some particularly gorgeous vistas, but just seeing a different part of the world excites me. And so I was excited to go from scene to scene regardless of what was taking place onscreen, just because I wanted to see more and know more. But when I wasn't playing tourist, I was still invested in what I was seeing. Zainab (Saleha Aref) is the daughter of a tribe chief whose sons have been murdered at the hands of another tribe. In order to bring peace to their tribes, he promises to give Zainab's hand to the other chief. It's worth noting here that Zainab is young, only 15 years old (and she looks young). And so right off the bat, I was terrified that this film was going to turn into something about child abuse. Fortunately, Zainab's mother, Allah Rakhi, is also terrifed by that thought and decides to run away with Zainab on the night of the "wedding." And from there, the film becomes a chase. And as such there's quite a bit of running through interesting places and then driving through more interesting places. But at the same time, the film does get bogged down a little bit by all of the waiting that's inherent in a chase over a long journey. Once the baddies are tricked into looking elsewhere, there's some room to breathe, but what happens then? And those moments, where the film sticks with them in between significant events, sometimes drag. Not by much, but just a little bit. And it's a shame, because much of the film is brilliantly paced. Even the slower second half, although even though the pacing is fine there it does bring with it some different problems. Because every once in a while, it seems like one of the many plot threads has just entirely disappeared. Allah Rakhi and Zainab find some solace, and suddenly everything else becomes irrelevant. There is some tension still, but no one seems particularly worried about safety. In fact, the only way they bring danger back in is by going to look for it. And as this happens, characters who seemed vital literally disappear without a trace. The word "MacGuffin" springs to mind, as many things that at first appeared important actually have very little impact on the story, but it doesn't feel like an intentional MacGuffin. Plot lines are brought up and closed, but it doesn't benefit the grander narrative so much as convolute it. I was wondering why certain things happened at the time and in retrospect I'm still not really sure. Whenever the film leaves Zainab, it gets caught up in unnecessary moments. But at 93 minutes, those flaws are forgivable. A lot of ground is covered in a short time, and it means that the weird moments are over quickly and you don't have time to dwell on where it fits into the narrative or why. You just go on and on, following the chase or the calm, and just take in the sights and the sounds. The camerawork is excellent and accentuates just how beautiful the world around them is. And the world around us. Because this is a world unlike my own (and probably unlike yours), but it's still a real part of the world we all share. Dukhtar is a chance to embrace a truly different culture and see it through its own eyes. Add in just how well-crafted and interesting the film is and you get something truly special.
Dukhtar Review photo
Fascinatingly foreign
Most of the modern foreign films that I watch are from countries that are reasonably similar to the United States. People live in apartments and drive sleek cars. They use smartphones and credit cards. They have the internet....

Review: A Hard Day

Nov 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218601:41982:0[/embed] A Hard Day (Kkeutkkaji Ganda |  끝까지 간다)Director: Seong-hoon KimRating: NRCountry: South Korea A Hard Day would be funny if it weren't so sad. I mean, it still is kind of funny, but it's not really "Ha ha" funny so much as "?!?!?!" funny. Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) is having a bit of a hard life, what with his mother dying and everything, but that's just the start of his issues. In fact, it's the least of his issues. And when the least of your issues is the tragic death of your mother? Well, that's just a hard day right there. It all starts when Go Geon-soo hits someone with his car on the way to his mom's funeral. And it's not really his fault, because it was nighttime and the guy did sorta just run out in front of him, but now the guy is dead and that's what matters. Then a series of unfortunate events befalls him before the big one strikes: Someone knows what he did, and begins harassing him at work. And here is where things really start to take off. There are a couple of moments in A Hard Day that shocked me not just because they were shocking moments in and of themselves but because of the way they played out onscreen. I have talked a lot about long takes in the past, but two moments in particular here are spectacular uses of long takes not because the camera does anything particularly unique but because I immediately followed the moment up with, "Could they have done that more than once?" And if it was CG in either case, it was some spectacular use of CG, because even though one of the two things looked a little bit off at first, it looked less like straight up CG and more like a very specifically crafted launching mechanism. (Honestly, it probably would have been easier to just blow the thing up.) When you watch a film about things getting worse, you start to guess what's going to happen next. "How will he get screwed over this time? What other horrible thing will he be subjected to and/or forced to do to get himself out of it?" And there are moments of setup, where you know something bad is about to happen and it almost dares you to guess what it could be. But your guess will be wrong, because what actually happens is even more ridiculous than you expect. One of those two aforementioned shots literally dropped my jaw, because I had been guessing and guessing and guessing what was about to happen, and then it turns out I was so wrong and the people behind that sequence are both creative geniuses and deeply disturbed individuals. Which is probably an accurate way of describing the entire series of events. Each moment is extremely well constructed, and even if bits and pieces of Geon-soo's plan don't technically make sense and the things he does go beyond what's really possible, it works in context and that's what matters. Importantly, it never veers into the realm of straight-up unbelievability, even at its craziest. This is crucial to its impact, because if suddenly aliens came and abducted Geon-soo or something, then it wouldn't have just been a matter of "WHAT?!" it would have been "Oh, bullshit!" And by avoiding that line, A Hard Day makes itself a consistently compelling and surprising thriller. Much of the film's success hinges on Lee Sun-kyun's performance, because the character of Geon-soo has to be sympathetic for the film to work. If the audience isn't invested in him or his hard day, then it's just a cat and mouse game without stakes. You have to want to see Geon-soo succeed. And you do, for two reasons: One: Lee Sun-kyun is lovable. He's a good looking guy, but he's not rugged. He's more cute than handsome, and it results in him appearing to be a fish out of water, which in and of itself makes him sympathetic. His performance bears that out, as he runs from scene to scene like a chicken with its head cut off.  Two: he's never scary. Even when he's doing things that are terrible, they aren't horrific. He's kind of a bad guy, but he's not evil. Even when he goes to a place that might seem like too far, it doesn't really feel that way. Geon-soo appears justified in his actions throughout. Plus, they're all motivated by fear, which is an emotion pretty much anybody can relate to. You can say that he should have done this or shouldn't have done that, but he's afraid (terrified, even), and when you're terrified you don't always make the best decisions. That's understandable. And because it's understandable, you want to see Geon-soo make it through. You root for him every step of the way, following him through thick and thin. And when it's all over and you pick up your jaw off the floor, you breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever you believe in that your life isn't as bad as his. [A Hard Day will be screening at 9:40 PM on Friday, November 21 at BAM.]
A Hard Day Review photo
A hard day indeed
Every so often, I see a film and think that the title is a perfect encapsulation of its very existence. If I were to name the film, those are exactly the words I would have chosen. A Hard Day is that exactly, in par...

NYKFF Review: The Attorney

Nov 19 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218600:41976:0[/embed] The Attorney (Byeonhoin | 변호인)Director: Yang Woo-sukRating: NRCountry: South Korea The Attorney is a history lesson. Rather, it's a film with enough historical elements that it makes you realize you need a history lesson to truly understand it. Although lead actor Song Kang-ho's character is named Song Woo-suk, he is based off of Roh Moo-hyun, a tax lawyer who became increasingly political during the 1980s until he finally became the ninth president of South Korea. And though Woo-suk/Moo-hyun is the centerpiece of The Attorney, it's as much about torture and abuse perpetrated by police in the name of "national security." It is more specifically about the 1981 Burim Case, when 22 members of a book club were arrested under the suspicion of communism. In the film at least, Woo-suk becomes a part of this almost by accident. He was a very successful tax lawyer, an innovator in his field by going to the money before anyone realized money was there to be had. And he has a particular fondness for a woman who runs a soup shop. Her son was one of the students on trial, and she begs for Woo-suk to help. He brings her to see her son, who has been effectively missing for months, and that's when things get weird. The moment when her son walks into the visiting room is the moment The Attorney changes. It's the moment when the film stops being funny and starts being disturbing. It happens right at the halfway point. The boy comes in and instead of greeting his mother, he mutters about how well he is being treated and how wrong he has been. At first glance, he has been brainwashed, but it's really much simpler than that. Woo-suk sees the bruises literally covering his body before he is pulled back to his cell, and it's clear what's happened. The Attorney, then, is a film about torture. And in its second half, the audience is subjected to that torture. It's like National Security would be if we ever left prison. Under the guise of "national security," the police committed truly heinous acts of torture. And Woo-suk (and Moo-hyun) made it their mission to bring the people who committed these acts of torture to justice, despite the risk involved in doing so. It was a kangaroo court, where the verdict was guilty from the outset and everyone agreed. The rest of the defense was ready to let the prosecution win, because that's how it worked. Only Woo-suk's commitment to his country's constitution turned it into something meaningful. It seems overwrought, as Woo-suk is dragged out of court shouting about how justice is dead or whatever, but to condense what was likely a much more complicated legal battle into an hour makes it a bit more acceptable. There's not enough time for subtlety, so The Attorney hits you in the face with the difference between right and wrong. But then again, why isn't there enough time for subtlety? That gets at the heart of what The Attorney really is, and I'm conflicted about it. This is a movie about torture, but it's a movie about Woo-suk AKA Moo-hyun. And it's a film about a turning point in Moo-hyun's life, the thing that made him see the light, as it were, and fight against injustice. The torture is not just torture but is also the evil that changed Moo-hyun. And in order to tell the story of that change, there needs to be two different movies. There needs to be Part 1: The Comedy, about a high-school graduate who just follows the money. Otherwise Part 2: The Tragedy doesn't mean anything. It's the yin to the yang that makes the transition work. Or it should, but it doesn't. Not really. Because the moment of transition is so immediate that the inner turmoil is missing. He's blind and then he sees. He doesn't have a crisis of faith and there's never really a question of what he'll do. That vital moment to the story of The Attorney there simply isn't there, and without it the arc of the character suffers. As a viewer, I never questioned his actions, because what he's doing is capital-G Good. He is fighting for those that the system has not only abandoned but actively turned against. And in that second half, his mission matters more than his story. Even though he remains the protagonist and the film continues to follow him, it stops being about Woo-suk. It's about the people he's representing. And that matters in exactly the same way National Security matters. That is a film that forces you, the viewer, to think about torture. The Attorney makes you think about torture, but it also makes you think about the role of law. This question of what is and isn't legal and/or acceptable under the guise of "national security" is explicitly addressed during testimony, and it's actually kind of glossed over, and that's unfortunate, because that's really what makes The Attorney significant, especially to an international audience. Especially to an American audience. So it's unfortunate that so much of The Attorney is focused on something else. Roh Moo-hyun matters, and his life story matters. This isn't really a biopic, but it's not not that either. But the person is made less interesting by what he is up against. If the second hour of the film followed the first in a more direct way, continuing to tell the story of Woo-suk as he went to Seoul and opened a tax law firm and took over the world, that would have been a fine movie. But the second half cannibalizes the first half and makes it seem irrelevant by comparison. That's a fundamental problem with the narrative. But the second half is effective enough that I can't be too hard on it as a whole. I can wish that the trial had taken up more of the film and that more consideration was given to the question of what a government can and cannot do in a time of war, and I can see lost potential there. But this is still a story about a person first and foremost, and although it misses the mark in really capturing the radical shift of this historical figure, what surrounds it works well enough to make for a film that is undoubtedly worth watching. [The Attorney will be screening at BAM on Friday, November 21st at 7 PM.]
The Attorney Review photo
Not quite what I expected
If you look up stills from The Attorney, you're going to have a wildly inaccurate perception of what the film is supposed to be. Look at the poster. They're happy, right? Below you'll find another image of people being h...

SAIFF 2014 photo
SAIFF 2014

Here comes the South Asian International Film Festival

November 18-23 at the SVA theater
Nov 14
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
As is often the case, it's a festival of festivals here in New York. And if you're particularly fond of Indian and/or Pakistani films, this is probably the one you've been waiting for. The South Asian International Film Festi...
NYKFF Returns photo
NYKFF Returns

Here comes the 12th Annual New York Korean Film Festival

Runs from November 20-23 at BAM
Nov 11
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
When February came and went with no mention of the New York Korean Film Festival, I was disheartened. With all of the far-less-deserving festivals in this fine city, I couldn't accept that this one had gone away. Fortunately,...

Trailer for Force Majeure creates avalanche of family drama

Avalanche, get it? Eh? Eh?
Sep 18
// Liz Rugg
Force Majeure is a Swedish film that premiered at Cannes and it examines a seemingly perfect Swedish family (husband and businessman Tomas, refined wife Ebba and their two lovely children) as it unravels when their trip to t...

Review: The Pirates

Sep 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218334:41830:0[/embed] The Pirates (Haejuk: Badaro Gan Sanjuk | 해적: 바다로 간 산적)Director: Lee Suk-HoonRelease Date: September 12, 2014Country: South Korea  Here is a short list of things I thought of while I was watching The Pirates: Moby Dick 300 The Pirates of the Carribean The amusement park ride that The Pirates of the Carribean is based on The Matrix Cards Against Humanity Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon The Discovery Channel Batman Begins Kundo: Age of the Rampart It's not in any particular order, nor is it complete. But I think it says enough about just how many disparate elements The Pirates throws out in its 130 minute runtime. It's not a film content with resting on its laurels and telling a conventional narrative (or really much of a narrative at all), because it's too busy stringing together scenes that are so wildly different in style and tone that I honestly can't figure out how the whole project got the green light. There are essentially four factions in The Pirates: pirates (duh), bandits, soldiers, and whales. The whales don't know they're a faction, and the soldiers/some of the pirates don't know that the bandits are a faction either. And the bandits have never been on the sea before, so they just kind of don't know what they're doing when they decide to go after the whales. A mother whale, you see, has eaten the royal seal for the new country of Joseon. But rather than admit this to the king, the political leaders who lost it decide to pin the blame on pirates. They then hire a disgraced, imprisoned soldier to capture the whale, and he hires some pirates to do it. Some bandits hear about it, and eventually it becomes one big ocean extravaganza. Maybe you can tell by this point that The Pirates is ludicrously stupid, but maybe you can't. Here is the moment where the film totally lost me: a female pirate captain uses an Aqueduct like a water slide in order to catch the men who stole from her. That is not the stupidest thing that happens in that scene (by a long shot), but it serves as sort of a stupidity baseline. It's also kind of amazing. Because seriously. She jumps in a freaking Aqueduct, brings a crossbow with her, and fires arrows at some people running with a pull cart. Doesn't that sound like the best thing ever? And while The Pirates isn't the best thing ever, it really does throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It's like a bunch of Korean children were asked what the name The Pirates meant to them (that's not its Korean name, by the way, but if you can't roll with this hypothetical then you're not going to make it through the film) and then write out a five sentence summary. That summary was then given to a different, probably blind child who put the summaries in a totally random order before handing them off to a screenwriter who said, "Perfect!" and turned it into a screenplay. It's really quite bad on a fundamental level, but it's also really, really funny. It's extremely immature, but it's also amazingly honest.  In fact, I'm not convinced that the whole thing wasn't created entirely by children. Certainly director Lee Suk-Hoon must be a child at heart. But I don't say this to insult the film, because it actually makes for a film that's bizarrely refreshing. I don't know what I expected from a film called The Pirates, but this sure as hell wasn't it. At the start, I thought I was in for something derivative. After a badass intro sequence is a political intro followed by a sword fight in the dark and pouring rain featuring the most heinous use of slow mo since 300. I wasn't impressed, but I was willing to stick with it. Then it turned funny. Then it turned totally insane. It also completely stopped using slow-mo, which I was grateful for but also confused by. Was that first interaction directed by someone else? Did someone show a child some fight scenes from The Matrix and 300 and ask what to do next? That latter one seems both more and less likely, but it conjures up a more enjoyable image. The action in general isn't great, though The Pirates seems to think it's more impressive than it is. When a battle is won, it's like some big epic moment has finished, but it's really just the culmination of a bunch of slow movements (but not slow motion) and rapid cuts. I was often not really sure what was happening, but I knew it wasn't great. And then it's over too quickly and suddenly I'm bored.  But it's hard to be bored for long, because you really never know what's coming next. If I had to compare it to only one thing, I would choose an amusement park ride. This is not a Korean version of Pirates of the Carribean the movie; it is a Korean adaptation of the film's amusement park source material. And whereas Pirates of the Carribean succeeds on merits the of its lead performance, The Pirates succeeds on its commitment to a wild and crazy ride. Also, it has a CGI whale baby breastfeeding. So... that's something.
The Pirates Review photo
A thrilling amusement park ride, created by children
Every so often, a film comes along that completely shatters your expectations. You think you've got it figured out and then it throws a curveball. Then another. Then five more. Soon you realize you can't figure the film out a...

Cub Trailer photo
Cub Trailer

First trailer for boy scout horror film Cub

Sep 09
// Nick Valdez
I really don't know what to expect from Cub. It premiered during the Toronto International Film Festival, and has a unique premise (cub scouts are attacked by a feral child) but the trailer doesn't look too appealing. Then again, we rarely get a chance to promote a Belgian horror film.  There's no domestic release date yet, but we'll keep an eye out for one. The poster's neat though.
Rurouni Kenshin photo
Rurouni Kenshin

Trailer for final Rurouni Kenshin film, The Legend Ends

Sep 05
// Nick Valdez
Although we'll never get a proper release here in the states, I can't stop covering the Rurouni Kenshin films. After seeing the first one, I read through the manga it's based off of and I can't wait to see it in action someh...
Dear V/s Bear photo

More please.  [via Lotus Movies] 

Review: Kundo: Age of the Rampant

Aug 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218270:41800:0[/embed] Kundo: Age of the RampantDirector: Yoon Jong-binRelease Date: August 29, 2014 (Limited theatrical)Country: South Korea It's not that I dislike long(er) movies; I just need to be in the right mood to see them. Much of watching a film, reading a book, playing a video game, or doing any sort of thing is being in the proper mindset for that thing. Blue is the Warmest Color requires a very different mindset than Detention, and the 135-minute pseudo-epic that is Kundo: Age of the Rampart requires a different mindset than the 100-minute Robin Hood-esque action film I expected. None of this is Kundo's fault, of course, and it actually speaks to how generally enjoyable the film is that I never really got bored despite the unexpected extra half hour. I did, however, get confused a few times by who was who. Certain characters looked enough like characters that I thought I was seeing flashbacks when I wasn't. For the most part, characters simply are who they are, no backstory needed. In essence, Kundo is ultra-violent Robin Hood. The merry band of thieves don't just steal from the rich and give to the poor; they sentence the rich to death for crimes against the poor. Also, no one is merry. The violence is Kundo's bread and butter. When the drama get hamfisted (which it does regularly), you can rest assured that it will soon be over and then people will be beating each other up. And by beating each other up, I mean killing each other. Essentially everyone in the film fights with weapons of some kind – whether it's a ball and chain, the aforementioned butcher knives, or swords – and that leads to large scale fights that often end rather quickly. One strong sword swipe means instant death, so the unfortunate masses caught in the middle perish in a spray of blood. Kundo follows Dolmuchi, a butcher who joins the Kundo after his mother and sister are killed in a fire. It's worth noting that while actor Ha Jung-Woo gives an excellent performance, he is also the least convincing 18-year old I have ever seen. Ha is 36 years old and looks at least his age in this film. But apparently he's 18. The first time a character said this they were saying that he was only a few years older than some children who they were trying to scam out of food. I assumed that this was just part of the scam. But it came up again, and again. When he shouted (after a time jump) "I'm 20 years old!" I actually laughed out loud, and I'm shocked he didn't do the same. (They must have done a lot of takes.) The age thing is sort of a problem throughout, because it's never really clear how old certain people should be or how they relate to others. The film's antagonist, Jo Yoon, is played by the 33 year old Gang Dong-Won, and he looks much younger. But I got the impression that they're supposed to be the same age. But then again, maybe not. Jo Yoon's sister is older(?) and gives birth, which is narratively important but the ages of everyone involved are just too confusing to make heads or tails of the family tree. And the film actually understands how confusing it is, because it frequently turns to extensive voiceover, for example a long explanation of Jo Yoon's past (what backstory there is is a bit excessive). Footage of him being good with swords is talked over by a woman who (as far as I could tell) has nothing to do with the film itself. She simply piped up every so often to explain things about the people or the time period. I don't know how much of Kundo was attempting to be historically accurate, but the filmmakers sure wanted it to feel authentic. People just keep talking and talking, explaining everything and making it actually feel more like people practicing for a historical reenactment than an actual moment in history. Still, there are some dramatic beats that strike the right tone, and the performances by Ha Jung-Woo and Gang Dong-Won do a good job of propelling the narrative forward. I was actually surprised at how deep both characters were. Although much of Jo Yoon's "development" takes the form of that voiceover, he still has room to grow and change. His final scenes are especially poignant, and reveal some fascinating things about the character. At one point, it threatens to become too reductive, but the moment is salvaged by the finale. But he is cruel, and much of Kundo centers on the cruelty of his class. Peasants are scammed, stolen from, and generally taken advantage of by the well-to-do. This is a film for the 99% if I ever saw one, but it's got the stereotypical brutality of Korean cinema. It makes the film hard to watch at times, and there are points where it feels like they may be going too far. And while Robin Hood was always going to succeed (spoiler), it's comes at an extremely depressing cost. No one comes out of the battle unscathed, which makes the eventual victory bittersweet. A feel-good family film this is not. But it's absolutely worth seeing- if you're in the right frame of mind.
Kundo Review photo
Robin Hood for adults
When I decide to watch a movie, it is usually based on two thing: Whether or not the press picture implies some kind of action. The runtime. While there's obviously some leeway on the first one, once a movie pushes past the...

NYAFF Review: Cold Eyes

Jul 11 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218018:41679:0[/embed] Cold Eyes (Stakeout / Gamshijadeul | 감시자들)Directors: Cho Ui-Seok and Kim Byung-SeoRating: NRCountry: South Korea  Well, it’s about a cops and robbers. On one side are the trackers (my word, not theirs), who scout out information. On the other are the thieves, pulling off elaborate, perfectly timed heists. It’s something. Enter Team Animal (not their real name), a group of special officers renowned for their ability to locate anybody and everybody. Rookie detective Ha Yoon-Joo (Han Hyo-Joo) is the newest entry to the force, and right from the get-go, she shows off her incredible memory skills during her final assessment, recalling details that were probably impossible for her to have noticed. It makes her perfect for the team, and she joins immediately. At first glance, their work doesn’t seem all that thrilling (and in reality, it’s probably not). In fact, the initially hot-headed Detective Ha can’t deal with just how simplistic their job is: They locate and identify criminals for others to confront. They track and trace but they don’t engage. It’s a fascinating job, and even though it would probably be boring the majority of the time, Cold Eyes makes it look awesome. The way the team works together as a unit to call out criminals is absolutely fascinating. And it’s what made me want to be a spy. They gather intel and bring it back to HQ, in and out in total secrecy. It’s badass. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I added just a little bit of generic “stealth” to my movements for the following couple of hours. Behind it all is Hwang (Sol Kyung-Gu). Just as the heists need a man watching from above and calling the shots, the trackers need a voice in their ear to get them from point to point. Working from a constantly circling van, Hwang runs the show in a decidedly low-fi manner: using an old fashioned map of the city and wooden figurines he has to manually place in location. But that’s not because he doesn’t have the technology at his disposal, just that he prefers a more classic approach. But then again, how “classic” could that be? I wonder how people were tracked before the advent of our interconnected world. The use of the city-wide surveillance cameras, phones, GPS trackers, and etc. all add up to a modern job for a modern world. And it seems like it would have been impossible to do what they’re doing even just 15 years ago. But despite its reliance on technology, nothing about Cold Eyes seems implausible. Films that go deep into that sort of thing often have to make leaps of logic just to push the narrative forward. Most frequently: blurry images need to magically resolve detail in a far-off reflection. Fortunately, Cold Eyes has none of that. Particularly notable is the lack of facial recognition software, because that’s just the reality. Here’s a true fact: the FBI’s new system produces a list of 50 potential matches with only an 85% chance that the correct person is named. It’s the kind of thing that could make the tracking jobs significantly easier (and potentially even unnecessary), but it’s not possible with today’s technology. When films use it, they do so as a crutch. Cold Eyes’s refusal to go down that path was something I greatly appreciated. Instead of a computer’s algorithms, the constant surveillance footage is manually combed through by a whole bunch of people sitting at computer monitors. The technology is a tool, but it only aids their work; it does nothing to replace it. That isn’t to say Cold Eyes is totally realistic; it isn’t. While pretty much everything the heroes do seem real enough (Detective Ha’s memory aside), the primary antagonist verges on being cartoonish. Part of this comes from his preferred location: high above the streets on a rooftop where he can survey his own operations. But when he gets into the heat of it, he’s even more dangerous than his goons. And when he pulls out his weapon to take on the good guys, it’s… a fountain pen. Seriously. I mean, as badass as it is to see him take someone down with a pen, it’s borderline stupid. And that goes back to his over-the-top villainy. He’s basically a perfect human, and while the only person who could get past the protagonists would have to be, it’s just a bit silly. That being said, Cold Eyes is at least part comedy, so it’s not as off-putting as it could have been. The majority of the comedy comes from Hwang’s running commentary. When they see a potential, overweight suspect on one camera, he instructs everyone to search for the “thirsty hippo,” and thus he is dubbed for the rest of the operation. And it’s a badass operation. Though  centers around the capture of a single character, it’s interesting throughout. New tactics on both sides keep the action feeling fresh, even when nothing is actually accomplished. The actual confrontations are awesome too, and the film has some of the best pen-based fight choreography I’ve ever seen. But while the bombastic moments are fun, Cold Eyes is at its best when its characters are in the streets, working as a well-oiled machine tracking down their subjects. Those are the scenes that made me want to be a spy, and those are the scenes that will stick with me long after the credits have rolled.
Cold Eyes Review photo
Track, mark, repeat
Some of my favorite movies are ones that make me want to go and do something after the lights come up. Some films make me want to travel the world or shave my head or something. Others take professions and make them seem so m...

NYAFF Review: Silent Witness

Jul 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218019:41674:0[/embed] Silent Witness (Quán Mín Mù Jī | 全民目擊)Director: Fei XingRating: NRCountry: China Courtroom dramas have always fascinated me. In any given crime, there is a single objective truth: the perpetrator committed the crime, or they didn't. It's a black and white reality that's mired by a whole lot of gray. Sometimes the crime was committed for legitimate reasons, ones that could allow the "criminal" to walk. Sometimes the real crime is hidden and some serious digging needs to be done. Most of the time, actual courtrooms are a whole lot less interesting than the ones you see in movies. But why would someone make a movie about a straightforward case? Silent Witness isn't a reflection of reality, straddling a line between the familiar and something ridiculous like the Phoenix Wright games (brilliantly adapted by Takashi Miike). In these stories, the police are basically useless, forcing the lawyers to go search out evidence in all manner of ways, going out on wild goose chases based on super-secret intel or even hunches. These aren't things an actual lawyer does, but they make for a far more interesting story. On trial is the daughter of the famous entrepreneur Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) for the murder of his girlfriend. Heading up the prosecution is Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok), a man who has been trying to convict Lin Tai for years. The defense is Zhou Li (Yu Nan), the most expensive lawyer in the country. It's a battle that plays out primarily on the public stage, and it's fascinating how it unfolds. Especially in the beginning, the film makes extensive use of a newsroom as a producer tries to create the most compelling TV drama he can. Choosing subjects and cameras from behind the scenes, he gives insight into how the media can manipulate a viewer's impressions of people and an event. It's a fitting metaphor, because everything in the trial is every bit as manipulated. Unclear motivations, misunderstands, and false evidence are about. Twists and turns come rapid-fire, and by the time everything becomes clear, it turns out that nobody is really who they seemed. The biases that everyone brought into the courtroom painted very specific pictures of the characters, but people are rarely so black-and-white. Fortunately, Silent Witness knows this, and everybody is given some nuance to clarify and even redeem them. And this gets to the part of the narrative that's uniquely Chinese. While much of the film could really take place anywhere in the world, the true reverence for family (and not just family values) is foreign. There is an extremely strong bond between Lin Tai and his daughter, and that bond drives everything in the film. It's kind of heartbreaking, really, but it all feels very natural and real. Bravo to the performances on all sides. As an interesting aside, actor Aaron Kwok is from Hong Kong, and his Mandarin is not particularly good. You'd never know it from watching Silent Witness, though, because he had someone read out the ~60,000 character script and put it onto a CD for him to listen to. He memorized the entire thing like a song, and then acted on top of that. It's a brilliant bit of theatre underlying the whole narrative. While I'm no expert on the intricacies of Chinese dialects, the shocked reactions from the crowd (which featured no small number of Chinese natives) when director Fei Xing mentioned it told me that Kwok pulled it off with aplomb. As I watched Silent Witness, I kept coming back to the idea of the mainstream. I wondered whether or not this sort of narrative could be popular in the US, and I still don't know the answer to that. Courtroom dramas make for good TV, but they rarely succeed on the big screen. If the film truly represents Chinese cinema, then that's a sign of a film market that has excellent potential to grow with all kinds of narratives. If Silent Witness can succeed in theaters side by side with juggernauts like the new Transformers film, then the industry is going to thrive. And that's a future I'm looking to.
Silent Witness Review photo
Ace Attorney
Before the screening of Silent Witness, it was introduced as an example of what mainstream Chinese filmmaking is like in the modern era. Many of the films that play at the New York Asian Film Festival fit into some sort of ni...

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