Saturday, July 25, 2015

Guilty Conscience

An Artist of the Floating World - Ishiguro
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From Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, comes a subtle condemnation of the Japan's War generation. The narrator is a once famous artist Masuji Ono who helped the war propaganda machine with his mastery skills. Now (1948-49) the war is over and his home country defeated and demoralized, Ono sees the new generation wants to erase the shameful past and move on. Triggered by his daughter's in-depth marriage negotiation, Ono slowly examines if leaving the floating world of pleasure and trivial matters of the art world in order to pursue something more important- the country's war effort with patriotic zeal, was indeed the right path to take as an artist.

I thought it was about time that I take a swipe at the Floating World for the namesake of my blog and gmail account. Nothing much really happens in The Floating World. Ishiguro is a great writer with immense talent. His writing is as subtle as ever - both Japan and England are seen as extremely polite society where hardly anyone says what's in his/her mind directly. Ono, with his deep seeded guilty conscience, everything he hears from his two daughters and their husbands, his colleagues and acquaintances has some sort of accusatory insinuations in his mind. Being an artist is a complex subject in time of war for Ishiguro: Ono is easily forgiven by society just because he is a mere artist, but not forgiven by himself who thought he was doing something right at the time which caused the nation irreparable damage. An Artist of the Floating World is a quiet but spikey examination of the aftermath of WWII Japan.

Masterful, Lean Film Noir

*Originally published on 3/2/15 for this year's Film Comment Selects Series. Phoenix is currently in theaters in NYC. For tickets and showtimes, please visit IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Phoenix (2014) - Petzold
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Christian Petzold, (Gespenster, Barbara) perhaps one of the most gifted storyteller working in cinema today, strikes gold again with a Hitchcockian postwar noir revenge flick, Phoenix. Clocking at very lean 98 minutes, the film tells about a concentration camp survivor Nelly (beautifully played by Petzold's muse Nina Hoss in her 6th collaboration with the director), coming back to now American GIs occupied Berlin with the aid of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), a case worker for the newly established Jewish State, who keeps urging Nelly to leave Germany and go to Palestine and start a new, as soon as her bandages come off. Badly disfigured by a gunshot wound in the camp, Nelly is told by doctors to choose any face for reconstruction or 'recreation' - perhaps a face of a movie siren or to be a different person altogether. Despite the urging of others, Nelly insists to have her old face back if at all possible. Even though she was told that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Barbara) gave her up in order to save his own skin, Nelly can't stop searching for him, for she still loves him. They were a famous musical duo before the war (Nelly a chanteuse, Johnny a piano player).

Her search for him leads to Phoenix, a cabaret where Johnny now works as a busboy. She is shattered when he doesn't recognize her. But there is enough of a passing resemblance that triggers Johnny to his scheme: he wants Nelly, now Esther, to pretend to be his wife who miraculously survived the camp and back, to get money from her estate (he secretly divorced her right before her arrest). Still deeply in love with Johnny, she goes along, keeping her emotions in check, pretending to learn old Nelly's behaviors, speech and writing (or just being herself), in order to see if he recognizes her in time. This might need a total suspension of disbelief from the audience. But we do it with Vertigo anyway in order to go along for the ride. In Petzold's assured hands, melodrama is kept to a minimum in this rather hokey premise.

Hoss is superb as a conflicted woman, hiding a terrible secret in front of unusually unsuspecting husband. You can detect her bottled up emotions in her expressions without losing her composure. It's just a marvelous acting. Unlike his kindly doctor in Barbara, Zehrfeld's Johnny is a cold-hearted man whose priority is surviving. Kunzerdorf has a real presence, as a woman deeply scarred by the atrocity. Her Lene is the real tragic figure in the film. Stefan Will's jazzy bass score adds to the era it's portraying and helps setting the mood of the film. Cole Porter and Kurt Weill's music dominate its soundtrack and Hoss's rendition of Speak Low at the end is at its most haunting.

Petzold plays around with the idea of forced forgetfulness. After the atrocious war, many Germans wanted to erase its shameful history from their minds. It's Nelly and Lene who can't let go. She asks Johnny how to answer when the others ask how the camp was, once she reemerges. Johnny simply tells her, "They won't." But it's as if Johnny doesn't want to recognize her even though she is right in front of him - buried and gone. At first, it's very hard to buy that a woman as striking as Hoss, with her penetrating blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, would be unrecognizable to anyone despite the disfigurement. Petzold's regular theme of identity also plays a big role here. Nelly never had to be conscious of being Jewish before, but the Nazi Germany made her to, in a drastic way. She literally loses her face, but she longs for her old self even though she learns along the way that nothing is the same anymore. With these heady ideas in the background, the film moves along in its stunningly economical pace, without sacrificing beautiful period details or complexities of characters. In preparation for Nelly's comeback from the dead (to legitimize the inheritance), Johnny divulges about how his neighbors and friends turned away from them once Nelly was being hunted by the Nazis.

The film perfectly builds up to its emotionally cathartic ending. And what an ending! Phoenix is a deeply moving, deeply satisfying film by an incredibly talented director at the top of his game.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Impressionistic Ghost Story

*Originally Posted on 10/6/14 from New York Film Festival coverage

Horse Money (2014) - Costa
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Horse Money is astonishingly beautiful in its visual poetry!

Pedro Costa, who wanted to capture the life in Lisbon's ghetto area called Fontainhas in the late 90s, made a beautiful film called Bones (Ossos). During the shoot, he saw much beauty in the place and got to know its poor, working class, immigrant inhabitants. He decided to immerse himself in their lives, abandoning his huge 35mm film equipment, elaborate lighting setups and a big crew and started documenting their lives with small video camera. The experience bore him 2 more extraordinary films-- In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, starring the inhabitants of the slum, which are remarkably immersive fictional films bordering on documentary territory. The three films became later known as The Fontainhas Trilogy.

Fontainhas is since demolished and gone. But in Horse Money, Costa continues with that tradition. But it is much more impressionistic and dreamier than The Trilogy. It centers around Ventura, the star of his last fiction film, Colossal Youth, as he wanders around the corridors of underpopulated, haunted places. His hands shake uncontrollably because of nerve disease, he has aged more and is much more frail now. He is committed in a labyrinthine, underground mental hospital but keeps walking off and is brought back in again and again. Costa, like in Colossal Youth, lets Ventura's tales unfold in episodic storytelling.

He visits his former work place, now abandoned and forgotten-- the tall factory building is kept in its decrepitude. He talks to ghosts from his past-- a factory foreman, secretary, even the boss on the phone which stopped working long ago.

We get the glimpse of Ventura's past. A fellow Cape Verdean, Viralina, who finally made to Portugal only to attend her husband's funeral, visits Ventura in the hospital. They talk about the life they left behind. He keeps insisting that her husband is alive. He thinks he is 19 and the present year is 1975. The year holds special meaning for Portuguese people. It was a revolution against the dictatorship (known as the Carnation Revolution). It also meant Portugal giving up its colonies in various parts of the world. As a Cape Verdean working class immigrant, Ventura wasn't too keen on the presence of the soldiers with guns.

Poetic, deliberately slow pace of the first half gives in to a long, surreal, mesmerizing elevator ride with Ventura and a faceless, scary soldier with a rifle. The soldier taunts the old man relentlessly. The nightmarish scene can be interpreted as Costa's therapy session for Ventura, exorcising his past demons that he wants to do without.

The look of Horse Money, with long takes and painterly composition, is simply put, out of this world-- from old photos of workers in mines and shanty towns that starts the film to Ventura wandering in and out of an abandoned factory/office building to labyrinthine tunnels of the hospital to a series of singing sequences. They are even more beautiful and striking than in Colossal Youth if that's at all possible. Haven't seen anything as mesmerizing in a long time. It really needs to be seen on a big screen. I really hope it to have a theatrical distribution soon.

Costa was awarded Best Director at Locarno Film Festival 2014 for Horse Money. It is getting a week engagement at FSLC as part of LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN: THE FILMS OF PEDRO COSTA. Please visit their website for tickets and more info.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Gothic Urban Fantasy

Lost River (2014) - Gosling
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It must be a good thing that I don't follow Hollywood gossip. I know next to nothing about Ryan Gosling other than he was in some movies I've seen over the years. So for me it was a surprise to hear that he directed a film. A first film that is not another Blue Valentine but much more ambitious and grand scale. And it was a double surprise to hear that it was universally panned by critics last year at Cannes. I have to tell you that by no standard Lost River is a bad film. It's better than good. It's a damn near masterpiece. Surely, Lost River reeks of Nicolas Winding Refn's influence in tone and aesthetics. Then again no one can deny Kubrick's influence on Refn. I think it's unfair to dismiss the film because it was directed by a famous actor with more money than an average indie filmmaker. One unforgettable image after another, this dreamlike gothic urban fantasy has more staying power than any other recent films I've seen.

Lost River is a thinly disguised Detroit, equipped with a nearby village flooded by a dam. Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two young sons, Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and little Franky are some of the last inhabitants living in a dilapidated neighborhood. There are daily demolitions of condemned houses all around. Billy is told by a predatory bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) that unless she pays up, she needs to vacate the house that she and two boys grew up in. He suggests her to get a job at an exclusive horror burlesque club that he manages.

Bones contributes household earning by stealing copper wire from abandoned, decaying buildings. But merciless Bully (memorable Matt Smith with cropped hair and in a sequin jacket) owns the town and Bones now is on his shit list. He falls for beautiful neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele) who spends her day in full makeup and garb and in front of TV continually playing her wedding day video. Bones decides to break the spell that is set on his family and Rat's. He needs to resurface what's under the water.

At every turn, the settings of Lost River afford amazing visuals: a decaying grand theater, empty dance hall, underwater monster village, grand guignol theater acts, etc. Gosling keeps his childhood memories close and amps up the fantasy/nightmare aspects with the help of veteran cinematographer Benoît Debie (Gaspar Noé films, The Runaways, Innocence). Gosling also wisely peppers in non-actors from the neighborhood interacting with his actors to give the film's rather simple storyline resonance and subtext of a grand scale urban decay - the evidence of lost American Dream. It's pretty amazing. It's one of those beautiful films I'd love to own.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Delicious Pulp

Cold in July (2014) - Mickle
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The writer/director - writer/actor team Jim Mickle and Nick Damici adapts Joe R. Lansdale's pulp of the same name, and the result is marvelous. Cold in July is a slow burner which starts out like a run of the mill revenge flick then morphs into something much more delicious. It concerns a small town nebbish family man, Dane (Michael C. Hall) in East Texas. After shooting and killing a bugler in the middle of the night, his family is getting hounded by the dead bugler's recently paroled, supposedly dad, Russel (grizzled, pot bellied Sam Shepard). But Dane slowly gets the feeling that the local sheriff (Damici) is hiding something from him. It becomes clear that there is a deeper conspiracy when he witnesses Russel drugged and left to die on the railroad tracks by the cops. Dane decides to save Russel to get the bottom of the matter. And after digging up the dead man from the cemetery, they find out that it's not Russel's son Dane killed.

Russel enlists his Korean War buddy, now a colorful PI Jim Bob (Don Johnson) to find whereabouts of his son. The plot turns again and we find out Russel's son turns out to be not who anyone expected. The three men, armed to the teeth go into the lion's den for the last gun fight!

Despite its pulpy premise, there is a lot to love in Cold in July. The cast is marvelous, especially Don Johnson as a stylish PI who still commands female attention everywhere he goes. Sam Shepard fits like a glove in the menacing, hammy conflicted daddy role. Hall in his mullet and spotty mustache, is probably the weakest main character in any movie, but does a great job playing ordinary man trying to prove himself that he's indeed a man. Love the 1989 setting so Mickle can amp up the Carpenter style soundtrack and play some White Lion in the soundtrack. SO COOL!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Secret Language and Broken American Dream

Poto and Cabengo (1980) - Gorin
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Young California twins, Grace and Virginia Kennedy who supposedly developed their own language, are an interesting choice as the subjects of the first film by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a former French radical leftist, student activist cum filmmaker, an expat living and teaching in Southern California. Gorin is most well known for his collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard in his 'radical period'. Reading Richard Brody's Everything is Cinema, it is quite clear that Gorin played a pivotal role in Godard's intellectual and physical introduction/education in to the radical students movement which led to May 68' and its aftermath. I knew about the film but never would have guessed that it was Gorin's until I noticed the Criterion (under Eclipse label) DVD, in which features Gorin's Southern California Trilogy (Poto and Cabengo, Routine Pleasures and My Crasy Life).

The documentary starts out with Gorin explaining the origin of the film- he saw TV news and read newspapers about the Kennedy twins. They fascinated him. So he set out to do a film about them. What he found down there in the suburb of San Diego was not only a gaggle of energetic 6 year old identical twins speaking in made-up language but the epitome of broken American Dream. Their ne'er do well father, Frank, a former GI stationed in Germany, met their mother, Chris, and brought her and her German speaking mother to the US. After being hounded by creditors, still chasing that elusive American Dream, the Kennedys moved to San Diego, living in a low-income housing formerly used by WWII Navy officers. Here Frank dabbles in real estate business and Chris, a stay home mom. After they were told that their twins might be retarded, they kept the girls isolated and the girls developed their own language - a heavily inflected English with German combined. Speech therapists and welfare workers leaked the story to the press and the Kennedys wanted to spin the story to their financial benefit.

Gorin comes in, inserting himself and his small crew into their lives and documents the fascinating case. Girls are adorable. Because they are isolated they might be a little slow to learn things, but they are quite normal hyperactive children. Gorin's approach to the parents is not that of condemnation or cynicism. He is successful at showing how the normal social construct can be harmful when it comes to the people of low-economic strata. And how people don't fit in to these neat constructs we take for granted that it could be wondrous like the short lived world of Grace and Ginny. I just wish that it turned out alright for the twins. Not according to short description on Wiki though. I'm eager to explore his other docus.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Confronting Evil

*Originally Posted 9/29/14 from New York Film Festival coverage.

The Look of Silence (2014) - Oppenheimer
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Joshua Oppenheimer finds one brave soul to be on camera and face the killers who killed his brother. He happens to be Adi, a traveling optometrist in a rural Indonesia. Just like in the eye-opening revelation that was The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer is not in a hurry to lay the groundwork for us. 'In 1965, more than a million 'communists' were exterminated by a military hired gangsters'. The first sentence of the preface is enough to go on. This time, he lets the victim's side to voice their opinions. It's not a dictatorship anymore in Indonesia, but the killers of those days are still largely in charge, living side by side with the victim's families. Teachers in schools are still teaching 'the communists were really bad people who gauged people's eyes out and therefore deserved to die.' Everyone, including the family members whose loved ones were hacked to death and their body thrown into the river, don't want to dig up old wounds. Let bygones be bygones. Even though Adi was born after 65', he can't let go without getting some kind of closure on what exactly happened to his brother, seeing his ailing, grieving parents everyday. Thankfully, Oppenheimer has recorded these killers since 2003 and shows him the footage of these killers boasting about their mass killings proudly and reenacting them, especially about his brother. One of the killers who passed on recently, actually wrote a book about his deeds with hand drawn pictures.

As they visit many of these killers, things get uncomfortable. "Josh, stop filming! I don't like you anymore!" "Why are you asking me all this? Your questions are too deep. I don't like to talk about politics too deep!" "Where do you live? What's your sub-district? You know what you are doing is a communist activity?"

Adi believes that these people on tape have guilty conscience. Otherwise, why would they openly say these things and reenact their own killings?

They drank their victims blood, in the belief that they won't go mad after their countless killings. Because some went mad, they say. It was salty and sweet.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the movie is when they visit one of such killers at home. A young daughter, about Adi's age apologizes for her father, who is sitting right next to her. In the beginning of the interview, she tells them that she regarded her father as a hero because what they taught her in school. Then her father says he drank the blood of the victims. Her face distorts, "How sadistic." Almost crying, she says "We are like family, you can visit me any time. Look at him, he is an old man. Please forgive him."

The Look of Silence is just as strong and chilling as The Act of Killing. The fact is that Adi's story is just one of the million makes the experience all the most devastating. It's in Adi's silent stares - a complete, utter condemnation that will haunt you for days.

The Look of Silence opens theatrically on July 17. Please visit Landmark Sunshine Cinema's website for tickets.


My review of The Act of Killing


My interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (for The Act of Killing)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea

All is Lost (2013) - Chandor
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All is Lost can be summed up in what it is not - it's not a gooey lost at sea Hollywood fantasy Cast Away, nor it is a Gravity style 'experience film', nor it is contemplative meditation of The Old Man and the Sea. The film avoids all that. Robert Redford doesn't hide his pruned face and spotty arms and gives the most matter of fact performance in this dialog-less film. And it's a tour de force. It starts with Redford's brief voice over, apologizing to everyone he knew that all is lost. Then the film follows 8 harrowing days of survival in the Indian Ocean after his sailboat rams into a floating container ship and taking in water.

There are some visceral scenes in the storm as Redford tries to stay afloat, as his boat capsizes time and time again. Chandor doesn't play to the CG inflicted disaster porn wide shot of the tiny boat under the incoming tidal waves. There is a glimpse of the waves rolling this way from the small cabin window but that's about it. He keeps his camera close to Redford most of the time. The music is minimal and it's great to hear frustrated Redford yelling, "FUCK!"

There are a lot of moments of beauty in the film, as thirsty and exhausted Redford welcomes the rain on his face, and some spectacular under water scenes shooting up to his boat and his raft. All is Lost is a remarkable cinematic achievement in this day and age for a fact that it doesn't patronize viewer's intelligence. A real gem.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sobering Look at India's Judicial System

*Originally posted on 3/25/15 for New Directors/New Films coverage

Court (2014) - Tamhane
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Winner of the two prizes at Venice Film Festival 2014, Chaitanya Tamhane's Court lends an earnest look at India's judicial system. The film is a sobering, eye opening experience.

It starts with an arrest of an old folk singer and tutor of children, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathida) at an outdoor stage in a Mumbai slum, as he sings an incendiary, but deliciously catchy song about government corruption and unjust system. In the court, he is accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker who died in a manhole. It was one of his songs that allegedly drove the worker to his death. He was working the same job for 5 years but he was found dead without any protective gear inside the manhole, so says the prosecution.

The charges are obviously absurd and unfounded, but as we soon learn, everything needs to go through the judicial proceedings. Narayan seems to be used to this: he's been a radical activist in the slums since the 70s. When he is asked if he wrote and performed a song, "Manhole workers should suffocate and die," he wryly responds, "I haven't written that one yet, but now I might." 

It's his human rights activist attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who also serves as a producer) who is more affected by the arrest because without bail, the possibly lengthy trial and being in the judicial custody will undoubtedly worsen the health of 65 year old defender. The presiding judge, following the procedure by the rules, just orders that.

John Grisham Courtroom thriller it's not, Court has no star witnesses or heart stopping twists and turns. The crowded courtroom is shown in static shots where other cases are waiting one after another. Narayan's case is one of many of that day in front of the same judge. With the rigid caste system, the film paints much more complicated picture of the society than a simple white-trash-been-done-wrong-by-the-big-corporation scenario. Tamhane avoids the film becoming a melodramatic hero/villain story. We don't see Narayan in jail at all. Instead, the film follows the inner lives of Vinay the defense attorney, the public prosecutor (wonderfully played by Geetanjali Kulkani) and the judge (Pradeep Joshi) in succession.

Vinay is the face of India's global elite society: from a wealthy household, he drives an expensive car, listens to jazz and hangs out with his suave friends in chic bars where a musician sings English and Portuguese songs on stage. Still living at home, he is seen throwing tantrums at his nagging parents. Yet he is a compassionate one, trying to do right by his defendant.

We see the prosecutor taking the public transportation, talking to her friends about the latest fashion, picking up her son from a daycare, going home and cooking food for her diabetic husband. Her family time is in front of the small TV set. For entertainment, her family goes to see a comedy play that is extremely jingoistic. For the judge, he goes to a water park with his large extended family for the summer vacation.

For our public prosecutor and judge from the middle class backgrounds, even though they are socially close to the defendants they are persecuting, they process the cases by the book, lacking any kind of sympathy or considerations. The film raises questions about the nature of our society where only wealthy can afford to be compassionate and the within-the box-mentality of the judicial system.

After finding out the prosecution's witness is likely bought by the police and wife of a dead worker testifies that the dead man never wore any protective gear while cleaning the sewer and drank heavily before the job to ease the smell (these facts are revelatory for everyone involved), the case against Narayan is dismissed and the bail's granted. Vinay ends up paying for the bail.

The most powerful and telling scene plays out in a car ride. After testifying, the dead man's wife and her family is chaperoned by Vinay in his white sedan. He instructs her to fasten her seat belt which she doesn't seem to know how to. It's her bewildered expression as the car passes through the streets of Mumbai that tells thousand words. She fled out of fear to her village when her husband died and doing so she lost her job in the city. She tells Vinay that she would take any kind of job so if he knew any, please send them her way. She doesn't want his monetary help, she just wants a job. He drops them off in a slum populated by a murder of crows.

The next scene is Narayan getting picked up by the police again from a printing press factory while supervising his book, A History of Humiliation, getting printed. This time, the charge is using his tutoring place as a breeding ground for terrorist elements who are obviously into seditious activities. The police's persecution of the untouchables continue, packing up the courtrooms, making the procedure an unending cycle.

When Vinay protests that summer recess will put the defendant in judicial custody for a long time, the same judge replies, "We are closed, but you can always take it up to High Court."

All the performances are stellar, considering many of them are non-actors. In the heart of it all is Vira Sathida. A real life activist, his rhythmic, infectious, biting songs come to life whenever he performs. I would love to see him perform for hours.

Tamhane's understated, layered script highlights the lack of understanding among different social strata in a complex society which is still deeply bound in tradition in the 21st century. As the film ends with the judge falling asleep on his chair on his vacation, the audience is left to grapple with the death of a sewer worker who's already forgotten by everyone. It is also chilling to think that there isn't going to be any kind of investigation on the condition of these lowly workers. Biting and devastating, Court is one the best films I've seen so far this year.

Court opens July 15 at Film Forum in NY. Please visit their website for tickets and times.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Japan Cuts 2015 Preview

Thanks to Japan Society's fabulous Shannon Jowett, I was able to see some of the best contemporary Japanese films making New York premiers at this year's Japan Cuts. In it's 9th outing, the series is not only North America's largest celebration of Japanese cinema, but also remains to be one the best film event in the city.

Japan Cuts 2015 runs July 9 through 19. Please visit Japan Society website.

Here are 4 outstanding quality films I got to see:


HIBI ROCK: PUKE AFRO AND THE POP STAR - Opening Night Film. July 9, 9pm [Introduction and Q&A with director Yu Irie, followed by OPENING NIGHT Party!]
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Returning to Japan Cuts this year with two films (Hibi Rock and Joker Game), Yu Irie is a familiar face around this part of the world with his crowd pleasing films depicting Japan's indie music scene- 8000 Miles Series, Ringing in their Ears. His new film Hibi Rock: Puke Afro and The Pop Star, once again, plunges us into that music world he knows intimately.

Based on the popular manga by Katsumasa Enokiya, Hibi Rock concerns the minimally talented rock band Rock 'n' Roll Brothers (Hibinuma- guitar/vocal, Yoda- drums and Kusakabe- bass). The film is, more than any other Irie films, at its most cartoonish, but also most fun: lead singer Hibinuma (Shuhei Nomura), with his afro, deer in the headlight expression and his mouth agape, is ripped straight out of a freeze frame of a manga page. There are a lot of kicking balls and instantaneous nose-bleedings at exposed boobies also.

Always an underdog, Rock 'n' Roll Brothers barely survive on cleaning toilets of the small venue they sometimes get to play at. But their luck changes when a super pop idol Saki Udagawa (Fumi Nikaido of Ringing in Their Ears and Why Don't You Play in Hell?) shows up and take an interest in their music. It's not really their skills she's thrilled with, but their infectious energy and freedom. Because what's the point of rocking out if you are not free? Saki reminisces about her humble beginning in a high school band playing guitar. She tells Hibi that she is empty inside even though she is a mega star. She is well aware that her fame and popularity will fade away. She wants him to write her a song.

After getting rejected by Saki's all powerful promoter, downtrodden Rock 'n' Roll brothers split up. Hibi ends up working at a fish cannery, gutting fishes, Yoda in construction and Kusakabe a lumberjack. Hibi learns the news that Saki is hospitalized and in serious condition and decides to deliver the song he wrote for her. So he runs to Tokyo, the note he wrote the song on in one hand and a dead fish in the other.

As usual, Irie's penchant for portraying lovable losers and youthful energy takes the center stage in Hibi Rock. Nomura's perfect as an all out cartoonish front man and a virgin. Even though she plays a sick girl, Nikaido's smile still kills. Hibi Rock is a loving tribute to the spirit of Rock 'n' Roll.


ASLEEP - Centerpiece Presentation. July 16, 6:30pm [Introduction and Q&A with star Sakura Ando]
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Based on one of the 3 stories from Banana Yoshimoto's novel of the same name, Asleep, tells a story of Terako (Sakura Ando of Love Exposure, 0.5mm, Penance), a young woman having an affair with an older, married man, Iwanaga, whose wife is in a coma. Terako spends most of her days in her bed under the fluffy covers in her underwear. She is kind of a kept woman in a sense, because Iwanaga wants her at his beck and call. She prods him about his wife in their rendez-vous in cheap hotel rooms, but he obviously doesn't want to talk about it much. Terako also struggles with the memories of Shiori, her roommate whose suicide impacted her life greatly. Shiori was sort of a 'sleep prostitute' - a person who keeps you company when you sleep.

The act of sleeping in Asleep is akin to a clinical depression. It's an exhausting affair. Terako finally realizes that Shiori's role to all those lonely people was to absorb their darkness like a sponge. Hence, she theorizes her roommate's death as sheer exhaustion from taking all that darkness. She needs to get out of her sleep-walking life. And the help comes from an unexpected source.

The film is far from being sad and gloomy. Always enigmatic Ando channels her soft, feminine side and gives our somnambulist heroine the subtlest, perfect emotional range. Photographer cum director Wakagi Shingo's uncluttered simple, airy look also betrays its potentially dark subject. In Wakagi's soft-edged world via quietly whimsical writings of Yoshimoto, waking moments are just as comforting and warm as your own bed.


100 YEN LOVE - Centerpiece Presentation. July 16, 8:45pm [Introduction and Q&A with star Sakura Ando with CUT ABOVE award ceremony. Followed by the PUNCH LOVE Party!]
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I'm madly in love with Sakura Ando. The film tells a 32-year old no-do-gooder and a virgin slob Ichiko (Ando) still living with her parents, not helping her mom's small bento shop business and getting into a fist-fight with her just-divorced-single-mom sister. Her only outside contacts are a 24-hour 100 yen shop- American equivalent of a dollar store, where she gets her sustenance (junk food) from and a nearby boxing gym where she gets to glimpse of a boxer Yuji (Hirofumi Arai) exercising. He's not a good looking or anything, but she is entranced somehow.

After a big fight with her sister, Ichiko moves out and with the help of her softie mom, she gets a small flat and gets a night shift at the same 100 Yen store. Working there, she meets an assortment of weirdos who are just as much losers as she is. She even hooks up with Yuji, who always seem to forget his bananas he just bought at the store. "Why did I ask you out? Because I knew you wouldn't say no." He said coldly at their first date at the zoo. He invites her to his boxing match where he gets beaten badly. He says that he's 37 and that was his last match.

After being raped by a shady older co-worker, she decides to take up boxing herself. The coach mistakenly thinks that she's there to lose some weight but slowly but surely sees that she is determined to kick some ass, or maybe her own ass.

She finds Yuji inebriated in the corner of the street and takes him in and nurses him back to health. They become lovers of sorts. She still trains and works her night shift at the store.

It's a Jake LaMotta style transformation, only in reverse- Ichiko trains really hard and becomes a fit, ferocious girl. When asked by Yuji why box, she demurely answers, "I like how you hug each other and tap your shoulders after the match".

She bugs her coach, day and night, to give her a chance to get into the ring. The coach tells her that she is too old to be a professional boxer. The age limit for woman is 32. But she is determined to get that last chance to show the world that she is somebody. The coach tells her that it's no cakewalk.

We know she is 100 Yen kind of a gal. She says so herself. But would she stay a loser forever? The film is a total underdog story that largely relies on the shoulder of Ando and she gives, hands down, the best performance of the year here. Heart breaking and poignant, 100 Yen Love is easily one of the best films I've seen years.


VOICE OF WATER - July 17, 8:45pm
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Veteran indie filmmaker Masashi Yamamoto (Three Points) directs this intriguing story involving a beautiful Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) shaman.

What started out as a half-hearted, simple easy money making scheme- palm reading with the help of her best friend Mina (Shuri), Minjung (Hyunri), a granddaughter of shimbang (Korean Shaman) becomes a face of a religious cult, God's Water, backed by a suave ad executive Akao (Jun Murakami) who sees money in the venture. Her sincere attitude, exoticism and beauty are mainly the selling point, showing real compassion for troubled, but gullible souls who pour out their sob stories in front of her.

In the meantime, Minjung's no-good father Mikio, who owes a lot of money to a ruthless yakuza, shove himself again in to her life and in to God's Water organization as a janitor.

Minjung starts to feel the fang of conscience about what she's doing. Mina assures conflicted Minjung that even though she doesn't have special powers, she is indeed helping these lost souls. After Minjung's encounter with an old blind woman, she has a breakdown and announces that she is leaving God's Water. It's a shock to everyone and puts the organization in frenzy to find a replacement. She embarks on a journey to find her family roots and her purpose in life in the woods of Saitama.

Yamamoto's interest doesn't rely on sensational aspect of the religious cult as it is often portrayed in films. It's also not an all out satire on modern illness of gullible lost souls grabbing at the straws for salvation. It's mostly about a Zainichi woman's journey to find her family roots that she never knew before, through traditional elements from her ancestry. The ending is somewhat predictable with the gangster plot and you-can't-cure-damaged-goods storyline. But Voice of Water is deeply humanistic and thoughtful and a completely different take on typical prejudice, racism ridden minority story.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

More Than a Cautionary Tale

It Follows (2014) - Mitchell
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One could read It Follows as a throwback cautionary tale to discourage young people from being promiscuous, circa 1980. Yes the film's covered with a eerie synth score and moody, wide tracking shots, aka John Carpenter, but the similarity ends there. David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) has a real knack for realistic portrait of suburban life and its young inhabitants. He is really good at setting up mood with his creepy, wide, Greg Crewdson-ish lit night shots. His scares, most of them practical ones, are very effective.

Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman, with her group of close friends, leads a normal life of a suburbanite in Michigan. Things take a weird turn when she has sex with Hugh (Jake Weary). Right after sex, he tells her a crazy story - he sees people following him and in order to not to die, he has to give the curse to someone else by having sex. He gives her some of the pointers in avoiding these ghoul-like creatures. Who are these people? Former victims? There is no explanation. He tells her because she is a girl and will easily transmit that curse to someone else, or something. Soon, she is seeing these creepy ghouls, slowly coming toward her. No one can see them except for her. But she needs to convince her friends that she is in danger.

But good times run out of steam at the end though. It Follows shows the possibility of horror movies as to where it can go and how it can be effective even if it has stupid Final Destination-ish premise. It also shows Mitchell's talent doesn't rely on making an effective horror movie, that he has something else going for it. But in the end, I can't help feeling deflated, as if watching a M. Night Shymalan movie. Hoping Mitchell does something completely different in his next outing.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Art ain't Enough

For Ever Mozart (1997) - Godard
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An old director Vicky (Vicky Messica) is about to direct a film called Fatal Bolero, about a war and suffering. It is largely financed by a seedy old gambling mogul who makes his girlfriend transcribe anal porn, word by word for his pleasure. Vicky holds a large audition for roles and rejects every one of them before they even finish one word from the line they were given. He doesn't want acting, he wants reality. In the mean time, his idealistic daughter Camile (Madeleine Assas), a philosophy professor, decides to go to war torn Sarajevo and put up some romantic play. Her lovelorn cousin Jérome (Frédéric Pierrot) and her Arab maid Rose (Ghalia Lacroix) follow her to her journey. Before they even get to Sarajevo, they are captured by Serb forces and anally raped and forced to dig their own grave and die during heavy bombardment. Rose escapes with one of the fighters who takes a shine to.

After getting the exhausted "Oui" from the actress (Bérangère Allaux of whom Godard was infatuated at the time) the non-acting acting he wanted, Vicky finishes Fatal Bolero with a huge boxy ancient film camera. The words get around that the film is shot on black and white and it's about war and suffering, the movie goers who lined up outside the theater peters out saying, "Let's go see Terminator 4 instead!"

It ends with a Mozart concert by a young orchestra. The audience take their seat, softly debating the weightiness of Wagner and light-heartedness of Mozart, having too many notes, etc. They are all waiting for a pianist to arrive. And he happens to be an effete young man with a long hair, playing beautifully. One of Vicky's overwhelmed (by the pianist's beauty) crewmember unwittingly becomes a page turner for the pianist. Exhausted Vicky listens to the concert at the top of the stair case he just reached.

Godard's condemns the passivity of France and Europe in general about another genocide taking place in their backyard, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also plays with the theme of differences experiencing existence through body and spirit, representation of real events with a movie camera being nothing but a shadow, a generation (grand children of WWII generation) not purified but corrupted by suffering and guilt of their fathers weighing on them (Camile, a granddaughter of Camus). For Ever Mozart is not a heartless all out satire of Weekend. Camile & Co.'s action doesn't play out like a farce and characters drawn sympathetically. But Godard admits the limit to the power of art- that in the face of horror, even art is not enough to save the day. There is overwhelming sense of sadness and defeatism throughout the film.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Measure of Love is to Love Without Measure

Élogie de l'amour/In Praise of Love (2001) - Godard
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Termed as Godard's third-first film (after Breathless and Sauve qui peut (la vie)), Élogie de l'amour/Ode to Love is an unusually elegant film for his standard. The structure is pretty lean - first hour or so is shot on crisp monochrome 35mm film, the rest is shot on high contrast, saturated video. First part takes place two years after the second. But unlike some of his other films, he avoids his usual diptych sermons. It does concern the usual Godard themes - memories, representation of memories, American hegemony, the war and love. But the film is much more sophisticated and measured than that.

The first part follows a good looking young director Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) as he tries to get things moving on his film about childhood, adulthood and twilight years. He is talking to his art dealer financier M. Forlani and tirelessly pursuing a woman (Cécile Camp) whom he met two years earlier, to star in his film. She in turn refuses repeatedly.

The second part of Élogie concerns largely on Godard's preoccupation with Spielberg's Schindler's List and its representation of Holocaust. His disdain for American culture dominance worldwide hasn't really been a secret, but Schindler's List was such a clutch for him to expound on his hatred fully. There are a pair of arrogant American producers buying off the rights to two old former WWII resistance fighters' stories. The script will be written by a famous American writer (William Styron) and there will be scenes of their younger nude bodies rolling together. But in order to save the historic hotel they own, the old couple cash the check given by Americans in two days.

Love is an interesting subject for Godard since he never dealt with it realistically in his films. It's almost an uncharted territory for him. But I was taken aback by his presentation. It is done so naturally and tenderly without his usual cynicism. The glimpse of the woman's smile on the phone and tender exchanges are the extent of the love story Godard provides- there are no shot/reverse shot for this scene. We only hear one side of the conversation (hers). The woman in question, the grand daughter of the resistance fighters, who later commits suicide, is never fully shown.

Godard's video images are out of this world. It seems Élogie is the culmination of all his interests and obsessions over the years - video technology, Anne-Marie Mieville's influence, Kosovo, the notion of adulthood or lack there of, etc. It's heady, quotation heavy, and spectacularly beautiful.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Solace and Freedom

Tracks (2013) - Curran
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I'm a sucker for road movies. If it's about a young woman, even better. Tracks is a film adaptation of Robyn Davidson's travelogue of the same name where she traveled across the 1700 miles of Australian desert to Indian Ocean with her trusty dog Diggity and 3 camels she acquired for the journey. It's the Australia in the 70s. Many hippie ideas are flowing and women's independence growing. A young white woman Robyn (Mia Wasikowska), tired of city life and inspired by her dad's African travels, decides to find solace and freedom in the desert. In order to finance the project, she contacts National Geographic and they send her a talkative and friendly photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). At first, the presence of Smolan is a nuisance for fiercely independent Robyn, but he turns out to be understanding and supportive in her journey more than she gives credits for.

Shot in glorious anamorphic, the film's often stunning and eerily beautiful. Wasikowska is fast becoming my favorite actress. Considering her young age, her choices of roles impress me. She wears the same clothes and doesn't get to bathe often. She is sunburned, her skins cracking, her armpit hair shows, her hair's matted. The movie is also a searing love story between Robyn and her dog. Beautiful.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

NYAFF 2015 Preview

It's that time of the year again. New York Asian Film Festival is upon us. The sprawling two-week event (June 26 - July 11) is, as usual, filled with craziness- impossible action sequences, absurd humor, beguiling romance and general nutty mayhem. It takes place in FSLC and SVA Theater this year.

From Subway Cinema website:
Welcome to the 14th edition of the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF). We’re back with 54 feature films, including 2 World Premieres, 3 International Premieres, 14 North American Premieres, 5 U.S. Premieres, and 12 New York City debuts. The festival will be attended by 18 international filmmakers and celebrity guests traveling from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S., headlined by this year’s NYAFF award recipients: Hong Kong’s legendary director Ringo Lam (Lifetime Achievement Award), Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok (Star Asia Award), and Japanese actor Shota Sometani (Screen International Rising Star Award).

NYAFF 2015 will feature five focus programs: Hong Kong Panorama; Myung Films: Pioneers and Women Behind the Camera in Korean Film; New Cinema from Japan; Taiwan Cinema Now!; and The Last Men in Japanese Film, a joint tribute to actors Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, both of whom passed away last November.NYAFF 2015 will feature five focus programs: Hong Kong Panorama; Myung Films: Pioneers and Women Behind the Camera in Korean Film; New Cinema from Japan; Taiwan Cinema Now!; and The Last Men in Japanese Film, a joint tribute to actors Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, both of whom passed away last November.

Please visit Subway Cinema website and FSLC website for more info and tickets.

Here are 4 films I could sample:

VENGEANCE OF AN ASSASSIN - July 10, 6pm
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Thai martial arts action choreographer cum director Punna Rittikai died of liver failure in 2014. Rittikai was a mentor for Tony Jaa and largely responsible for the rise of Muai Thai craze. So unsurprisingly, his last film Vengeance of an Assassin features some of the most delicious no-holds-barred choreographed action sequences to cover up some very schmaltzy storyline and bad acting.

It starts out strong with full contact soccer match in a rusty factory full of sharp objects. Then there is low angle, shooter's POV long take gunfight sequence. Runaway train fight sequence is also awe-inspiring. Rittikai tops it all off with John Woo style gun fight sequence in one continuous shot, which is so mindblowingly choreographed, all I couldn't help but admire the logistics team behind it all. You definitely need to get a tetanus shot after seeing the movie!


FULL ALERT - June 28, 2pm *Director Intro
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Full Alert is a great Policier from the director of City on Fire (which Tarantino ripped off for Reservoir Dogs) and arguably the last great HK film he directed. Lam announced retirement from film business after his unsuccessful Hollywood stint with string of movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

This kinetic film tells a cat and mouse game between inspector Pau (Johnny To regular Ching Wan Lao) and the educated master criminal Mak (Francis Ng). After Mak is captured and confessed for the murder of a chemist, his crew bows to get him out of police custody. This sets up the full scale street battle and heist sequence akin to Michael Mann's Heat. Full Alert also features great car chase sequence running through crowded downtown city scape and presents great street chase scene through bustling outdoor markets of Hong Kong. Lam doesn't neglect the human drama he is known for - loyalty, honor, family all play big parts amidst of mangled metals and flying bullets.

After a long hiatus, Lam is directing again. I am excited about his new film Wild City which he describes as the last of the City Trilogy (After City on Fire and Full Alert), starring Louis Koo and Shawn Yue.

*Director Ringo Lam will be honored with the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award at NYAFF


BANGLASIA - July 10, 8pm *Intro Q & A
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Censored upon release then subsequently banned by Malaysian censor board, Banglasia is a controversial Malaysian musician/filmmaker/internet personality, Namewee's all-out satire on racism and jingoism in Malaysian society. The irreverent comedy stars a lowly worker from Bangladesh trying to earn enough money to get back to his fianée back home before she gets married off to another by the Chinese New Year, which is January 31st. He is confronted and bullied by a jingoistic internet activist (Namewee) who regularly calls him Bangla, even though he himself is from a Chinese heritage.

Throw in a pretty nurse who is smitten by the handsome, good natured foreigner and a cute tattoo artist, Banglasia is a kitchen sink full of infantile humor, gunfights, crazy dream sequences and instantaneous singing (including a Bollywood style dance number). It also is damning indictment of a politicians who uses race as bait for their own political gain. Banglasia is an over-the-top satirical comedy with a style and resonance that makes you wonder about paranoia and humorlessness of those in power.


SECOND CHANCE - July 11, 1pm
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An orphaned high school girl Hsieh (Huang Peijia) has to keep up with both being a Miss Little Perfect (a sword wielding captain of the school's honor guards) and a billiard parlor owner (inherited from her father). But unless she finds her washed up billiard champ uncle Siang Shuan Fen (Monster of Taiwanese rock group Mayday, making his feature film debut here), she has to go to a foster home and will surely lose her beloved billiard parlor to loan sharks. Thanks to a youtube clip, Shuan Fen is located and forcibly brought back by Hsieh Hsieh's long time admirer/neighbor/best friend/minion Oden (Liu Yihao). Hsieh decides to get into playing pool to save the parlor but needs a lot of practice and coaching. Shuan Fen sees it as an opportunity to get back in the game and get a second chance to get it right. Filled with likable performances, featuring real life international pool players and redemption plot, Second Chance is a great sports film in the tradition of Color of Money and Rocky.