Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Charming Klutz

A New Leaf (1971) - May
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It comes as a big surprise to Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) that he is broke. It seems that his trust fund has run out and his contemptuous uncle isn't helping. What about his ferrari, what about his tailored suits, what about all the exclusive restaurants and clubs he frequents, what about his butler?

With the help of his butler whose job is at stake, Henry gets a brilliant idea of marrying some rich society girl for money in order to secure a loan from his uncle. He finds his intended victim in Henrietta (director Elaine May), a extremely klutzy botanist with big round glasses that don't seem to stay on her face ever. And she seems to gobble up all of Henry's sweet talk into marriage after three days of courtship.

Henry's scheme of marrying someone/anyone for money and killing her off takes a different direction as he becomes in charge of her estate which is in total disarray. He gets to like his position being a protector of a hot mess of a woman.

A New Leaf highlights May's comic talents - the toga scene where Henry and Henrietta is spending honeymoon and Henry cutting off price tag hanging from Henrietta's oversized clothes while she is wearing them are some of the many uproariously funny bits in the movie. Matthau's smarmy, nonchalance matches perfectly with May's discombobulated eclecticism. The movie is a blast. I can't wait to check out May's other films.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Impermanence

Drift (2017) - Wittmann
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Helena Wittmann build a feature around the hypnotic 30 minute sequence at the sea in the middle while lightly sketching out a portrait of a traveling German woman (Theresa George). She travels from the coast of North Sea to a Caribbean then across the Atlantic ocean in a sailing boat. Drift is not Antonioni level existential drama with nature reflecting internal life. It's much gentler, quieter contemplation on us facing something bigger than ourselves and learning from it.

In that mesmerizing sequence, the ocean takes many shapes - at times it's like a marble stretching unbroken miles, other times it's gigantic swelling monstrocity, threatening everything we hold dear, then it's a large silk cloth with delicate rippling patterns, all still hiding what's underneath the surface. Time stand still, no earthly matters concern us. Forever undulating, moving things to and fro, being in the ocean remind you of impermanence of human existience. Nika Breithaupt's sound design and score helps here tremendously with the images of the surface of the changing ocean, lulling us in a hypnotic state. The woman goes back to the land. Has she learned from her experience and has a different view on life? I sure have.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Bad Metaphor

Parasite (2019) - Bong
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It's a pity that Bong Joonho's Parasite comes out after Lee Changdong's masterful Burning since both films deal with economic disparity, because the comparison would be inevitable. It is also ironic that after Cannes awarded good natured people living in the economical margins in another Asian movie, Shoplifters, just a year before (and Burning competed the same year), they did a one hundred eighty degree turn and award something called Parasite, a deeply cynical film which the title is meant for the very people living in the economical margins.

People of lesser means have been Bong's bread and butter. He's been sketching these poor funny people trying to eke out a living and constantly going in and out of moral muck with sympathetic eyes. In his view, in this world, no one comes out clean. That everyone is guilty one way or another. Also in Bong's world, the rich and powerful have always been rich and powerful and the poor have always been poor. There's never been cause and effect shown. Granted that in a rigid society like Korea, the upward mobility is almost impossible. Except for his big monied, international productions - Snow Piercer and Okja and his native Korean creature feature hit, The Host, where villians are cartoonish and literal monsters, his other films, villians are usually themselves, the everyman.

Now Bong tackles head on the economic disparities with Parasite. It tells a story of a swindler family who lives in a tiny basement apartment. There is a bumbling unemployed dad (Song Kangho), a former track and field athlete mom- also unemployed (Jang Hyejin), a forever jaesusang (a High School graduate who's failed college entrance exams multiple times) son (Choi Woosik) and an artistically inclined daughter (Park Sodam) who is also a jaesusang. The opportunity comes for the son, Kiwoo, to take over the tutoring duties from a childhood friend who is now a college student. He is to tutor a High School Sophomore girl whose family is uber-rich while his friend is studying abroad. With a fake resume (provided by his sister Kijung), Kiwoo gets a foothold in Mr. Park's household and earns the trust of naive Mrs. Park. One by one, with some devious, ingenious planning, the poor family gets hired in various positions - tutors for children (Son and daughter), a driver (Dad) & a live-in maid (mom) without revealing that they are family.

Things get nutty when they discover the hidden basement and find a person who's been secretly living there for years. Upper class/under class metaphor physically manifests.

Here is the thing. Bong is masterful at technical filmmaking and has an amazing eye for mise-en-scene and great imagination to boot. Also love human comedy he brings with his everyman characters. But he fails when things get serious. The major problem in Parasite is that there are no real villains. Uber-rich Park's family is neither monster nor cartoonish. They are just nice people who might be a little clueless. There is no context to the upper/under class struggle here other than material things to compare each other with.

I shouldn't compare Bong's dramedy to serious drama like Haneke's Caché or Code Unknown or anything. But in Burning, without making Steven Yeun's uber-rich character too over the top, Lee created a subtley menacing villian who really got under your skin. However fantastical Emir Kusturica's Underground (another Palme d'Or winner), at least there was a heavy context for history and war of the former Yugoslavia to force people living underground. What I'm saying is Bong's populist shtick alone doesn't quite work when there is no clear enemy and no context. Calling his everyman Parasite doesn't help the matters too much either. With Kiwoo's epilogue, Bong, who didn't have to give us the definite ending in Memories of Murder, is forced to give answer here, just because he handles economic disparity head on. And he seems to say unconvincingly (even to himself) that the enemy is not the wealth but instead, lack of money. And without providing context, that's a terrible answer.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Amour fou

The Souvenir (2019) - Hogg
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Joanna Hogg's new film, The Souvenir, drawing from her own experience from her 20s, tells a delicate story of amour fou. On the onset it looks like another one of those involving a charismatic older man taking advantage of a younger, more fragile woman story, or some fluff about a rich white girl being manipulated, but Hogg is such a strong director/writer who has an ability to deeply empathize with her characters, you can't help but be moved by it in the end.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a film school student from an affluent family. She is still figuring things out. She wants to make a film about working class people in Sunderland: a story of a boy and his strong attachment to his mother. Her advisors try to steer her toward making something that she knows and perhaps comfortable with. But just like anyone around that age, she is quietly rebellious and want to go through it in her own way. She is afraid that she won't grow as a person if she doesn't get out of her comfort zones.

Julie meets Anthony (Tom Burke). With his slurring words, arrogant but confident attitude and bitter outlooks on life, he is extremely magnetic to her. He is apparently working for the Foreign Affairs agency or something mysterious like that (we never get to see him working really). It's the Thatcher's England in the 80s. There are bombs going off on the street and news of kidnappings on the radio.

The romantic notion of being in a relationship with a mysterious, intelligent, charismatic person, Julie neglects to see his imperfections - he is always broke and constantly asking for money and has needle marks on his arms. She is so green that it takes her a while to realize that Anthony is a heroin addict. It is infuriating for the viewer as she forgives him and lets him get away with taking full advantages of her financially time and time again as he lies and even steals from her to satiate his habit. Against good judgment, she keeps asking for money from her parents, especially from her stern but caring mother (Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton byrne's real life mother).

Their intense relationship is eating Julie up and she falls behind in her studies and gets isolated from her circle of friends. But the film makes unexpected turns: after catching him red handed with a needle, she finally kicks him out. She puts her life back on track - studies, new lovers etc. Anthony appears in her life again. He is still broke, charming but broken. He cries and suffers greatly while kicking the habit.

Even the power dynamic has changed, Julie can't help but loving him.

Every writer or film director encounters the criticism at some point or another when they try to create something not related to your life or your background. The Souvenir examines this aspect in the film. But every film Hogg has done so far, there are elements from her life in it. And she is not apologetic about it. Calling The Souvenir an autobiographical filmmaking would be selling the film short. It's a delicate film that doesn't seem to have a special agenda other than humanizing the aspect of the people she encountered earlier in her life. With her baby face and pale complexion and her gaping mouth, Swinton Byrne is terrific in the role of Julie. But it's Tom Burke who steals the show here. His charming yet slightly dangerous demeanor - a cross between Oliver Reed and Hugh Grant is magnetic.

We meet people in our lives who changes and shapes you when you are on the verge of adulthood for better or worse. The Souvenir succeeds in eulogizing that period of your life lovingly and poignantly. One of the year's best.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Unsane

The Rovolutionary Road (2008) - Mendes
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Despite excellent acting by two leads, The Revolutionary Road can't escape its original source material trapped in its time, the 50s America where things were regressive to say the least. Frank Wheeler (Leo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet at some Manhattan party and becomes a couple. She's an aspiring actress, he works for some soul crushing boring company that his father worked for. They buy a house, move to the suburbs, have two kids. From the outside perspective, the Wheelers are the American Dream personified. But April is not happy with the way things are. Her life feels like a trap. They are still young and idealistic. Frank just turned thirty. So April one day suggests that they sell the house and with the savings, they move to Paris: the city Frank once been and always enthusiastically talked about. She almost convinces frank, "We gotta go for what we want in life. You hate your job. You don't know what you want in life but you will figure it out while I get a job there and you can have time to figure yourself out." So they convince themselves that they are moving in the fall. The summer seems magical with dreams. All the people around them are happy for them but not happy. They tell themselves that they are making a childish mistake even though moving to Paris and getting out of the life called trap sounds courageous and wonderful.

The point of the revolutionary road is that people think getting in (to life) instead of living an ordinary life you hate seems crazy. This notion is exemplified by Michael Shannon, a former mathematician who has mental problems and no social grace. He steals the show whenever he goes on tangents: when they first met, he goes on and on about the stupid rat-race called life. And the young couple tell them that they are moving to paris to pursue their dreams. he is awestruck. They are talking the same language! The second time they meet him after they decided not to go (because Frank is tempted by big promotion), shannon character lays down on them. It's brutal. Honesty hurts and Frank can't take it.

I really liked the film up until the end. I understand being truthful to the source material - a book written in 1961. And I understand it's a period piece. But the theme is not confined to the 50s. It's very much universal and that's why I was disappointed by its tiresome ending.

Acting is superb. Casting is impeccable. Youngish Dicaprio is perfect. With his still boyish face, he looks like he is still playing dress up. Compared to him, Winslet could play his mother- which is also perfect. I wished they updated this to make it more contemporary, at least the ending.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Lobotomizer

The Mountain (2018) - Alverson
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Director Rick Alverson's The Mountain is a fresh breath of air among Summer sensory overlord movies season. From its measured framing in Academy ratio, muted color palette, minimalist period production design, old timey big band jazz ballads to most actors mumbling their lines, there is something inexplicably comforting about the film, like a foggy Saturday morning in November.

Shy and reserved Andy (Tye Sheridan) lives with his old figure skating coach dad (Udo Kier) and drives a zamboni in the skating link where his father coaches. His mother is in a mental institution. His scope of the world is limited to his small town surroundings. All he can do really is to daydream about girls in skates. After his father's sudden death on the link, Andy is approached by Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) who specializes in lobotomy. Wallace was his mom's physician and possibly responsible for her lobotomy as well. Traveling from asylum to asylum, performing shock treatment and lobotomy, Dr. Wally is in need of portrait photographer and asks Andy to Join him.

The Mountain is a peculiar film about self discovery and the price of freedom. Its somber tone is only broken by the presence of Denis Lavant, a veteran French actor, known for his acrobatic physicality and manic energy in films by Leos Carax and Claire Denis. Here he is Jack, a father of Susan (Hanna Gross), a girl with an unstable mental state which her father deems in need of lobotomy, who becomes a love interest for Andy. Lavant's over the top screeching, unintelligible, animalistic, (at least it sounds like) largely improvised monologue (in French and English and otherwise) steals the latter part of the film. Alverson has a singular sense of humor and tone, rarely seen in American indie cinema. And I welcome it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

An Ode to Kiarostami: Abbas Kiarostami Retrospective at IFC 7/26 - 8/15

In celebration of Abbas Kiarostami Retro at IFC Center starting this weekend, I present you something I wrote about the master a while ago. Please visit IFC website for schedule

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        Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian master filmmaker, painter, photographer, and poet, passed away from gastrointestinal cancer in Paris in 2016. As an avid fan of his humanistic, genre transcending films, I can say with a certain conviction that we've lost one of the greatest artists in the world of cinema.

        My introduction to Iranian cinema came when a good friend of mine introduced me to Mohsen Makhmalbaf's films (on bootlegged VHS). Soon I was enamored by anything Iranian. It was a spur of the moment decision that led me to check out The Wind Will Carry Us in theaters in 2000, not knowing anything about the film other than it being from Iran. And what an experience it was! Its elegant simplicity and great eye for landscapes impressed me greatly. Seeing Wind Will Carry Us (1990) was also a watershed moment in my cinematic education. I’ve never seen such a truthful observation of human life before and it made me a life long devotee of his work. What's most striking about Kiarostami’s artistry is his effortless, seamless quest for truthful representation of human conditions on film. Whether they are shot on 35mm or with a consumer grade handy-cam, the inquisitive interactions of non-actors with their natural dialogue often imply that there is no real distinction between cinema and reality.

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        It was Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1997 that introduced his poetic, meta-fictional cinema to the world and put many of his contemporaries on the world cinema map. And yet, when the director first burst onto the world cinema stage, critics didn't know what to make of his films: Roger Ebert gave Taste Of Cherry one star, calling it “excruciatingly boring” (Ebert, Taste of Cherry Review, RogerEbert.com,1998), while Jonathan Rosenbaum desperately tried to find some sort of reference in Western cinema tradition in his films by comparing Godard’s early work to Kiarostami’s in terms of reflecting society in certain periods or suggesting the similarities between Close-Up and John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation which later was adapted into a film. (Rosenbaum, 2001, 2) But as Kiarostami himself says in 10 on Ten (2004), a documentary on his reflection on the techniques he used on his 2001 film, Ten, he believes that simply showing austere reality with an open ending can entice audiences to reflect on their own lives. I can't think of a higher compliment to the audience than what Kiarostami bestows upon us with his films.

        Kiarostami’s main themes throughout his filmography are Children facing and overcoming harsh reality, Time Passing/Fleeting Nature of Human Existence, and the Perceived Notion of Truth and Reality. His observations of children, for example, date back to 1970s when he helped establish the filmmaking department at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran. There he made a series of documentaries and shorts concerning school children. Kiarostami's depiction of children, from his Kanun days (The Bread And The Alley, Break time, The Traveler) to later films (The Koker Trilogy, ABC Africa, Ten) is that of a nondisciplinarian in that he simply observes children being children. Often, these films are about children facing harsh reality (Soltani, The Child Heroes of Abbas Kiarostami’s Films, Movie Mezzanine, 2016). In his feature documentary, Homework (1989), for example, it is obvious that the educational system in Iran is too strict and puts a lot of pressure on children, both in school and at home. It's revealing that all the children interviewed for the film know what “punishment” means but don't know the meaning of the word “praise.” Parents, as well, say that the system is too harsh on the children; that it kills their creativity and ends up producing a generation of mindless drones. The director seems to be agreeing with this sentiment: “I tried to look at the world from a child’s point of view” (Jones, Children of the Revolution, Guardian, 2000).

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        Children facing harsh reality is the theme of his films, later known as the Koker Trilogy. Kiarostami made three films set in Koker village in Gilan Province, an area of Northern Iran lying along the Caspian Sea. Where is Friend’s Home? (1987) was the first of the three, and is about a boy trying to deliver a notebook that belongs to a friend who lives in the next village. The second one, Life and Nothing More… (1992), was made after the devastating earthquake in 1990. A middle aged man and his young son are on the road to Koker, a northern rural village leveled by the devastating earthquake. They spend most of the film's running time in their car. It is only revealed later on that the man is a film director (a Kiarostami stand-in) who is looking for a child actor who starred in his previous film, Where Is Your Friend's Home? Through The Olive Tree (1994), completes the trilogy. A fictional 'making-of' Life And Nothing More, the film is a beautiful film that shows resilience of children after a life altering disaster.

        From the bustling bottleneck traffic of Tehran in The Report (1977) to Ten (2002), Kiarostami’s films remind us that life with its ebbs and flows is never stopping and always changing. This is never as apparent than in his masterpiece, Taste of Cherry. Inquisitive dialog scenes, just like intimate questionnaires in documentaries, are staged usually in moving cars (and after Taste of Cherry, interior driving scenes became synonymous with Kiarostami’s films). The beauty of Taste of Cherry lies in its simplicity: a man drives around looking for someone to assist him in his suicide. They don't have to do the deed; he will take sleeping pills and lie down in an already dug up grave. In the morning, they can put some earth on him if he's dead and they will be rewarded handsomely for doing so. First, a young soldier runs away after finding out what the man is up to. Second, a seminary student from Afghanistan objects because of his religious beliefs and tries to dissuade him. And finally, an old taxidermist agrees to it, because he has a sick child. He tells the suicidal man that he too, contemplated committing suicide. Adding that he abandoned the idea after tasting cherries.
  
        Kiarostami reminds us that we are watching a film throughout Taste of Cherry; for example, he inserts the footage of himself shooting the film into the narrative. The nameless protagonist does not exist in real life, that his moral quandary is an invitation for us to mull over. It’s Kiarostami himself who is asking us these questions directly. What makes him contemplate such thoughts? What would you do if you were asked to help him kill himself? With Louis Armstrong's St. James’s Infirmary Blues, a song usually associated with funerals, playing at the end over the image, he tells us that death is inevitable for all of us, and it makes us contemplate our own mortality. If the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky tried to make us feel the 'passage of time' with his virtuosic creeping camera dolly movements, framing and lighting, Kiarostami succeeds in astounding simplicity, in one hour and forty minutes- Life is a moving car. Done. The impact is still immense. It all fits nicely with his theme of life, death, blurring boundaries of cinema and reality.

        Kiarostami draws from many aesthetic sources. His admiration for Japanese culture, for example, can be seen in his haiku style poems and in Like Someone in Love (2014), which was set in Japan with Japanese cast. In an interview he said:
I am certain that my fascination with Japan has been with me forever, even before I got to go to Japan. Even my very first attempt at any kind of artistic expression, which were poems that I wrote when I was 20 years old, resemble haiku. I had no idea at the time, but I wrote poems that are very like haikus. And in my photography work, there are some kind of common forms found in traditional Japanese paintings. There is some sort of resonance in my practice and Japanese art. So there has always been real interests before my first visit there which was confirmed whenever I went back thereafter. I've been visiting Japan periodically over 20 years now. (Chang, We Are All the Same: Abbas Kiarostami Interview,Screen Anarchy 2013)
The influence of Japanese cinema is evident in Five (2003), in which Kiarostami pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu. The film consists of five segments set in a coastal area in Iran without any characters or dialogue. With zen-like simplicity, we are presented with five static shots of various lengths. The camera remains static, but birds, dogs and people are heard and seen, in and out of the frame. With each long take we observe nature and human existence for what they are. In the final part of Five, Kiarostami traces the reflection of the moon on the surface of a pond. We don’t really understand what we are watching for a while. It’s dark, and the black and white image is grainy. We then realize that it’s the reflection of the moon on water as it ripples from time to time. We watch it with the chorus of insects in its nighttime surroundings to the breaking of dawn. This entrancing, collective cinematic experience –of us the audiences staring at the screen silently for 7 minutes, to witness the every day miracle of sun coming up, realizing the smallness of human existence has been one of the most thrilling experience in the cinema of all time for me.

        It's only been the last couple of years that I've been writing about films seriously, realizing that film medium can go much further than just mere entertainment and that freedom from the dominant narrative structure can be exhilarating. Attending Art of the Real series showcasing non-narrative films at Film at Lincoln Center was an eyeopener for me because it exposed me to a current crop of shape-shifting postmodern cinema, which subverts the medium’s traditional narrative structure and characterization and tests the audience’s suspension of disbelief (the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Miguel Gomes, José Luis-Guerrin, Lisandro Alonso and others), enticed me and pulled me into the very depth of the cinematic rabbit hole, and left me exhausted and confused and exhilarated at the same time. And this is where Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) serves as a precursor for these more contemporary filmmakers. In Close-Up, he returns to the idea of an imposter of a film director: a man swindles an upper middle class family by pretending he is a famous Iranian film director, Moshen Makhmalbaf. It’s a story of a movie fanatic who admired Makhmalbaf so much he wanted to be him, but without malicious intent. The film is based on a true court case, and everyone participating in the film are real life characters reenacting their ‘roles’ in Kiarostami’s film under his direction, including the imposter, who is questioned off frame in the courtroom scenes. The result is a touching, moving examination on 'life imitating art imitating life', rather than sensationalistic satire about fame and deception.

        There is no doubt Kiarostami’s success in the West has brought a spotlight to the Iranian cinema on the international stage and drawn attention to a second generation of Iranian New Wave with directors, such as Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Asghar Farhadi. Kiarostami’s influences are quite palpable in younger generation of Iranian directors. Panahi started out as his assistant director, and many of his films take place in a moving car. Majid Majidi’s films usually deal with children’s flight and they owe a lot to Kiarostami’s Kanun films, Where’s Friend’s Home and Life and Nothing More…. and Asghar Fahadi’s elusive narratives and unreliable heroes in About Elly and A Separation owe a lot to Kiarostami’s convention subverting cinema.

        Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers who actively make political statements with their work (his former assistant Jafar Panahi being the most vocal one), many of Kiarostami's films can be seen as Iranian sociopolitical fables rather than overt political statements. But the given complexity of his work, the Iranian government has banned the exhibition of his films, fearing that there might be hidden subliminal messages. And unlike many Iranian New Wave filmmakers of his generation who fled the country after the 1979 revolution, Kiarostami stayed and kept making films exclusively in Iran. He accepted that restrictions and censorship were a part of life in a rigid theocratic society, but always had found ways to express himself in changing environs both before and after the revolution. The prime example of this would be The Report (1977). Firouzkoui (Kurosh Afsharpanah), the tax investigator, is perhaps the least likable character in all of Kiarostami's protagonists- he cheats, lies and abuses his position as a government official. After being accused of corruption and short on rent money, he resorts to beating his wife and neglecting his baby daughter. Kiarostami observes all this from a distance. Considering The Report was made before the Iranian Revolution in which the Shah wasoverthrown and The Islamic Republic established, the film is a snapshot of the state of Tehran of that era —women wearing revealing Western clothes, men drinking and gambling, gridlocks in the city streets, etc. The film is a report on petite bourgeoisie, steeped in selfishness and materialism.

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Kiarostami made films exclusively in Iran until 2011. I reckon it was exactly that transcending subtle artistry that fooled the censorship for a long time. But during the conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure, he found practicing his craft in Iran increasingly difficult. Thankfully for us, it directly resulted in two international productions, Certified Copy (2011), set in Italy, and Like Someone in Love (2013), set in Japan. Even though the film’s settings are different and have international movie stars, his artistry hasn’t changed. His cinematic playfulness and his usual theme of perceived notion of truth and reality are there, even deepened and more sublime than before.

    
        Juliette Binoche, an internationally renowned French actress, stars in Certified Copy. It starts out with an Englishman James (William Shimel) giving a talk on his new book about the legitimacy of copies compared originals in art in picturesque Florence. As infatuated antique dealer (Binoche) picks James up and drives him around town as a guide, the film becomes something else: deconstruction of a relationship. Even though it's the first film set outside Iran, there are Kiarostami touches everywhere- long driving shots, actors talking while looking at you straight in the eyes, blurring the lines of what's real and what's not. As the couple discuss the legitimacy of a copy of a master painting, mirroring their relationship, as we witness the copy of the real married couple breaking apart. Is it any less humanistic because we are watching a film with big movie stars? Do our emotions feel false when we watch Binoche’s character suffering? Deceptively simple, yet as much complex as Close-Up and Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy doesn’t disappoint.
        
Like his other films about acting and being and perceived notion of truth and reality plays heavily on Like Someone in Love. The premise of the film is pretty simple: Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a pretty young Japanese college student doubling as a call girl meets an elderly professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) who takes a protective role in her life. But like Kiarostami’s other films, it ends in quite a different place than where it starts. Many scenes in the film are seen through the windows and the dialog spoken off frame or on the phone. Just like the technology being a hindrance to human connections in Wind Will Carry Us, the abundance of cell phones here sets people apart. The film’s three protagonists – Akiko, Takashi and Akiko’s overjealous boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) act and behave like they don’t know how to behave in each other’s company. Yet they are more frank about their secrets with total strangers than with their own families. And there are many clues that suggest the cyclical nature of love that we can chew over for a long time. It’s a harder puzzle than usual in Kiarostami’s oeuvre and more complex. Although the film is less optimistic than his previous films, one can tell that the master filmmaker is adventurously expanding uncharted territories both physically and culturally.
     
        Kiarostami's passing in 2016 was very unexpected. Among all the cultural luminaries who passed on recently, his death really saddened me in a very personal way. When I heard the news of 24 Frames, the film he's been working for three years and unfinished at the time of his death, was going to be released with the help of his son Ahmad, I was more than eager to see the late master's final work. The film is, in large part, a collaboration of Kiarostami and visual effects artist Ali Kamali. Based on Kiarostami's photographs and videos, Kamali was responsible for digitally creating multilayered images that (provide description here). Kiarostami's idea for 24 Frames is simple—try to bridge the gap between painting, photograph and moving pictures. That instant is frozen in time forever, but what about just before and after that moment? They are usually easily discarded from and forgotten in our memories. Cinema as we know it, can prolong that moment for a little longer, to help us in imagining the narrative, in contextualizing the content within the frame a little more. Comprised of 24 4-1/2 minute static shots, the film most resembles Five, where he held his camera to five static scenes in various length. And it's the same minimalistic approach without human presence(except for two scenes) he applies here.

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         In order to demonstrate the landscape frozen in time, 24 Frames’s opening frame is the famous winter landscape painting, The Hunters in the Snow, by Pieter Brueghel. Accompanied by the sound of hounds, wind, footsteps, and people playing on the frozen lake below, we see subtle animated movements - smoke billowing out of chimneys from down below, birds flying across the frame, one of the hounds coming alive and trots and pees on the tree, while certain elements stay frozen, like the hunters themselves and the pheasant flying across the sky. In this moment, Kiarostami offers us the chance to contemplate on various things—the power of our imagination, fleeting nature of time, immortality of art—.all in one frame. Kiarostami's love of nature and landscapes comes to the fore - deer, cows, various birds, dogs, horses, cats, snow, rain, wind, ocean, forests, and mountains.
        
        Windows figure heavily in the film as well, constantly framing the frame. If it's not windows, it is fences or columns. He wrote in 2009 about his photography:
I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us unless it's inside a frame. (Kiarostami, Interview with Abbas Kiarostami, Guardian, 2009)

As he championed shooting from the moving car throughout his films, he uses car windows to frame images. One scene, for example, is dedicated to the snowy landscape outside the car window—a couple of horses run parallel to the moving car, we lose the sight of the horse as it lags behind. The car stops, the automatic window rolls down, the horses reappear. Now we are presented with two horses playing around in the blizzard through the car window. After a while, the car moves on. Humans are not in the frame most of the time. Kiarostami doesn’t necessarily makes a nuisance out of humans nor does he present them as a threat to nature. He seems to say that this is the life as is, with us in it. But as always the case with Kiarostami's films, 24 Frames is only deceptively simple.
        
        One moment in the film exemplifies this complexity. It consists of a group of Iranian family looking at the Eiffel Tower from a distance, with their backs toward the audience. At first we don't know if this frame is a photograph or not. The voices from the crowd, then people working by in the foreground follow. It's another intoxicating concoction by the master: mixing the idea of 'the window to Paris' and current climate of immigration in the first world since it's hard to determine where this scene takes place.

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Accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Love Never Dies," the last 'frame' is strikingly beautiful. We are presented with a frame within a frame – of a window. A girl, back to us had fallen asleep with her headphones at her desk in her room. Her laptop is playing some unidentifiable Hollywood movie where a couple slowly kisses. We see tall trees blowing in the wind through the window. With Weber’s lyrics tell ‘love conquers all, even death”, it’s a fitting send off to the culmination of Kiarostami’s artistry. It's even more sublime than the last scene of his film Taste of Cherry that ends with Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary blues". His son Ahmad did an admirable job choosing these 24 out of 30 'frames' or so Kiarostami considered using in the film.

    Nothing is comparable to his artistry. As Asghar Fahadi told me last year about his death:
This was the bitterest occurrence that happened in the cinema past year, because he was one and only. There is no one like him. Many people tried to be like him or copy him but because their personalities are different from his, their films didn’t come out the way his films did. (Chang, Interview: Asghar Fahadi on His New Film Salesman, Screen Anarchy, 2017)
        Kiarostami was a true polymath. For those who are familiar with his artistry - his haiku inspired poetry, his minimalist landscape photography as well as his enigmatic films, 24 Frames represents the culmination of all his artistic practices. What make it so sad to me at least, is that there is no finality to the film. It's as if it can go on forever, completely consistent with what he had been doing all his artistic life. 24 Frames is a great testament to his being as an artist and as a person.
      
        I had an honor and pleasure to interview Abbas Kiarostami in 2013 when his film Like Someone in Love played at the New York Film Festival. As expected, he was the warmest, wisest, humblest, most thoughtful artist I've ever encountered in my short career as a film critic. This was his answer when asked about the universality of his films:
I think it's a lifetime practice, or habit or way of seeing things. I remember for a long time as a young man I wouldn't take what I see on TV for granted. I would never accept generalizing 'that's how Americans are,' or 'that's how Japanese are.' I was always much more interested in individuals rather than a culture or a country in general sense. This collective judgment or agreement on certain culture has always annoyed me. I deeply believe, excluding ideological positions, that we are the same. In details we can have our differences but in the main aspects of our lives -- our sufferings, joy and pain -- no matter if we are Japanese, American or Iranian, we are the same human beings. So if you have this as the principle of life and relationship, then it shows in your work.
        When I think about Kiarostami’s films, it’s not his style that strikes me the most. I think of his search for genuine human connections within the film medium, both among his characters and us the audiences and him the filmmaker. I think of his effortlessness in doing so. I think of his generosity and warmth when I got to meet him. As one critic said, postmodern need not mean post-human (Ebri, Post Modern Need Not Mean Post-Human: Abbas Kiarostami and the Paradox of Cinema, Village Voice, 2016). Everything he pursued in his paintings, poems, photographs, films, he found common ground in us as humans. Instead of spoon-feeding us in a didactic manner, the open-endedness of his work made us contemplate on our childhood, fleeting human life and the nature of reality. It’s that participatory aspect of his work I respond to the most and appreciate. He was really one of a kind. And I will miss him greatly.

….
Works Cited
Kiarostami, Abbas. Beard, Michael. (Translator)“Walking with the Wind” Harvard
University press, February 28, 2002
Chang, Dustin. “We Are All The Same: Abbas Kiarostami Interview.”
Screenanarchy.com, 14 Feb. 2013, https://screenanarchy.com/2013/02/abbaskiarostami-
interview.html
Chang, Dustin. “Interview: Asghar Farhadi on His New Film, THE SALESMAN.”
Screenanarchy.com, 25, Jan.2017,
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: A Dialogue Between the Authors
(Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum).” Jonathan Rosenbaum.net, 7
Nov. 2001, https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2001/11/40847/
Kiarostami, Abbas. “Interview Abbas Kiarostami’s best shot.” Theguardian.net, 29 Jul.
2009, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jul/29/photography-abbaskiarostami-
best-shot
Ebert, Roger. “Taste of Cherry.” 27, Feb.1998,
https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/taste-of-cherry-1998
Chang 15
Bilge Ebri, Post Modern Need Not Mean Post-Human: Abbas Kiarostami and the
Paradox of Cinema, Village Voice, 2016
Jones, Jonathan. Children of the Revolution, Guardian, 2000
Soltani, Amir. The Child Heroes of Abbas Kiarostami’s Films, Movie Mezzanine, 2016
References
Wikipedia contributors. “Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Jan. 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Crass

Midsommar (2019) - Aster
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Yet again, Ari Aster confuses that grief/guilt automatically equals psychological horror. Yet again, he confuses that visceral shock of seeing something so violent and grotesque equals good scare. Yet again, he thinks a hysterical woman equals great acting.

Midsommar, like Hereditary, is a crass, thrill free movie with extremely annoying characters (all of them) running around in a Wes Anderson-eque make-believe world that doesn't amount to anything. It's an empty shell of a movie with its surface flaking off in the wind to nothingness.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Japan Cuts 2019 Preview

Blue Hour
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Hakota Yuko's debut feature Blue Hour starts with a flashback of a little girl running carefree in the field in the early/late hours where you can't tell it's day or night- hence the title, Blue Hour. The little girl is Sunada. She is all grown up (Kaho of Our Little Sister) and just turned 30. She has a steady job as a CM director and married, so she should be content with her life. But her lifeless expression and awkwardness around people tell a different story. There is something missing in her life and her affair with one of her crew members doesn't seem to be filling that gap either.

In the spur of the moment, Sunada decides to take a trip to her rural home town in Ibaraki with her quirky best friend Kiyu (Shim Eun-kyung) to see her grandmother who is in an old folks facility. It's been forever since Sunada visited home. It is apparent that she is embarrassed about her dairy farmer parents' 'tacky' lives. It's the life Sunada grew up with but left behind for the city living long ago. But relentlessly cheerful Kiyu is having the best time with her parents and rural surroundings, often teasing her about her snobbish attitudes.

Director/writer Hakota's tale of a modern Japanese woman dealing with what the society expects of her vs her own happiness is beautifully and subtly drawn out. Kiyu tells Sunada that it's the 'tackiness' that makes her feel alive. Kaho and Shim has a great chemistry together. Like Bae Du-na in Kore-eda's Air Doll, using a Korean actress Shim in Blue Hour adds that extra other-worldliness to the character of Kiyu.

Kamagasaki Cauldron War
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Largely using actual Kamagasaki residents as his cast, Sato Leon, a documentary filmmaker, creates a humorous, satirical look at an Osaka's less desirable neighborhood of the title. It concerns a stolen iron cooking pot/cauldron, which symbolizes family and community in times of famine and difficult times. But this particular pot, however, belongs to the local yakuza family with their insignia at the bottom. There is Nikichi, a no good bum who hangs around the local whore house. There is Tamao, a reluctant heir to the local yakuza and a rival of Nikichi in childhood. And there is Mei, a free spirited prostitute whom the two men still carry the flame.

Everyone is stealing kamas (cauldrons) in the neighborhood in the hopes of getting rewards and Nikichi becomes an accidental hero while stealing a giant ceremonial kama, to the local radical homeless activists opposing the redevelopment and eviction of undesirables in the area.

Shot in beautiful 16mm with lots energetic moving camera shots, the film has a look and feel of a 70s Japanese New Wave film. The Kamagasaki Cauldron War showcases a part of society that rarely gets depicted on screen.

Orphan’s Blues

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We are introduced to Emma (Murakami Yukino) furiously scribbling notes on paper, then on her arms and legs in sweltering heat. She seems to have burn mark in her back from years ago. It is revealed that she owns a tiny roadside bookshop on the coast and she constantly forgets the customer's orders. So more scribbling down the name of the book...

Then Orphan's Blues, writer/director Kudo Riho's first feature, becomes a road movie. Emma, with her backpack and a letter that has her friend Yang's last known address, she starts out her journey to find her orphanage mate. On the road she runs into Van (Kamikawa Takuro), another friend from orphanage. He and his young girlfriend Yuri are on the run from some local gangsters. So he decides to tag along with Emma to help her find Yang. The address on the letter takes them to a roadside cafe owned by Luka (Kubose Tamaki), but no Yang. As they spend days together in Luka's tiny, electricity scarce house, the buried secrets and raw emotions come to the surface. With her memories quickly disintegrating, Emma becomes completely disoriented over time.

Orphan's Blues is an unexpectedly moving film about childhood traumas that have a lasting effects on a group of friends. Even though the film is narratively shaky, with natural camera work and young actors' committed, raw performances, Kudo shows great promises as a major voice in Japanese cinema.

Melancholic
Melancholic
Like many Japanese millennials, Kazuhiko (Minagawa Yoji) is floating through his post-college life- still living in his parents' house with no job prospects, even though he graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University. With lanky figure and crooked Jeffrey Dahmer glasses, he is the very definition of dweeb.

Kazuhiko runs into Yuki, a cute girl whom he went to High School with, at the local public bathhouse. And since the owner, Mr. Azuma, is hiring, Yuki suggests him to get a job there. It's a peaceful, easy job. And it also pleases his mild mannered parents that he is at least working, even though the job might be beneath him. But one night, Kazuhiko walks in on Azuma and a grunt co-worker killing and disposing a body in the bathhouse. He learns that they are indebted to Tanaka, a local yakuza and that he will need to be quiet about the body disposing business or else he will also get killed. So Kazuhiko becomes an accomplice, a cleaner after the deeds are done.

Even though director Tanaka Seiji borrows typical yakuza tropes, at heart, Melancholic is a laid back, quiet coming-of-age story that reflects Japan's economically depressed, directionless generation. The film sharply rejects the old, yet still finds comfort in the notion of 'family'. Its 'que sera sera', live-by-the-moment attitude is well suited for representing the 'melancholic' generation.

And Your Bird Can Sing
And Your Bird Can Sing
The Beatles song that film's title borrows from, is about people not really understanding who you are. It's an apt title for this poignant film about being young and living by the moment.

Emoto Tasuku is our nameless protagonist, sporadically narrating the film. He is a twenty something slacker working at a bookstore, part-time. He lives with an unemployed roommate Shizuo (Sometani Shota) whom he shares a one-room bunk bed apartment with. He hooks up with Sachiko (Isibashi Shizuka), a co-worker whose insistence in getting into his life he passively allows. The three of them spend their days out in bars, pool halls and clubs. The night is young for these young people.

Nothing fazes our protagonist. He insists and encourages Shizuo to take Sachiko out. He is indifferent about Sachiko's relationship with the boss at a bookstore. He just doesn't seem to care about anything. The good times won't last long, so why needlessly worry about the future?

And Your Bird Can Sing is much more interested in the embracing fleeting moments of youth than its character development. These three main characters don't have much of an arc nor have anything particularly interesting things to say. But director Miyake Sho captures the tone of this youthful melancholy right. It's that unspoken understanding that nothing is permanent that these characters are aware of and so do the audiences watching them. It's in his details - the fading bouquet of stolen flowers, the warm morning sun hitting Sachiko's pretty face and lovingly sketching out the lives of the film's secondary characters who seem to be contentedly living in their own bubble.

All three main actors Emoto, Sometani and Isibashi are outstanding for their roles in capturing the spirit of these young people. They could easily be seen as hedonistic, but their moments of sadness and silences tell a different story. The build up to the ending with the voice over that bookends the film seems a little tacked on but it worked for me.

The book the film is based on is Yasushi Sato's debut novel. The author killed himself in 1990. But many of his books have been adopted as of late including Sketches of Kaitan City, The Light Shines Only There. Even though the book came out in 1982, his wayward characters and sadness that hangs over like a cloud are still very much completely relatable in today's economically depressed nation.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Ambivalent but Diligent

Hotel by the River (2018) - Hong
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Didn't like it at all. Unusually sentimental for Hong standard, Hotel by the River is overlong and middling affair. It concerns an aging poet (Ki Joo-bong), recognizing his own mortality, summons his estranged two grown up sons to make amends. It's winter. He is staying at a hotel by Han River for free indefinitely, by the grace of its owner/admirer, whom he met at a bar by chance.

There is a side story about a woman (Kim Min-hee) recovering from a bad breakup with a married man, staying in the same hotel, visited by her older, kind friend (Song Seon-mi). They have run-ins with the poet and his sons.

As usual in Hong's movies, resentment and regret come to light when drinking- daddy abandonment issues, sibling rivalry, painful words are uttered, feelings are hurt and so on and so forth. On women's side, it's all "good men are hard to find."

There are a lot of nodding off in Hotel by the River: on the couches in the hotel coffee shop and hotel rooms. It's nice to see Kim and Song lying down in the same bed, face to face, sleeping in their cozy sweaters. The poet disappears for a length of time and reappears as if he is there but not there. Compare to Hong's other films, Hotel's volume is cranked down significantly. Wintry landscape helps with that too. It's pleasant.

The poet's younger son is a film director with a little bit of repute. Song's character explains his films to Kim, "a little bit ambivalent, but he is diligent." "Sounds boring", she replies. I can say the same thing about this film.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

NYAFF 2019 Preview

Film at Lincoln Center and the New York Asian Film Foundation present the 18th edition of the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), which runs from June 28 through July 14, 2019.

This year's program features another extensive survey of East Asian Films, including five international premieres, 23 North American premieres, four U.S. premieres, and eight New York premieres, showcasing the most exciting action, comedy, drama, thriller, romance, horror, and art-house films from East Asia, and bringing close to 30 directors and nine actors from Asia.

The Opening Night is the North American premiere of Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon, featuring a star-studded cast and a score by Philip Glass. Eguchi Kan's irreverant action pop comedy The Fable is the Centerpiece.

The Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award will go to Hong Kong action choreographer and director extraordinaire Yuen Woo-ping and the festival will honor him by screening three films featuring his work: Iron Monkey, The Miracle Fighters and Master Z: Ip Man Legacy.

Here are five films I got to sample:


Samurai Marathon *Opening Night Film*
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Samurai Marathon dramatizes a little known fact in Japanese history, where the arrival of Commodore Perry, samurais, and ninja spies all take part in a tale of love, loyalty and tradition at the end of an era. An all-star cast, compelling storytelling and technical craftmanship contribute to the film all the markings of a prestige jidaigeki (period film).

The Annaka clan's feudal lord Itakura (Hasegawa Hiroki) is concerned about the readiness of his men upon hearing about the inevitable prospect of foreign invasion because Japan's been enjoying relative peace for the last 300 years. The brash Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) lands on the Japanese shore and offers the shogunate Western trinkets -- daguerreotype, bourbon and guns -- in the hopes of opening up the isolated country. The year is 1855. So Itakura devises a plan.

He will hold a long distance running contest through the steep slopes and reward the winner with whatever they wish. Jinnai (Satoh Takeru), a ninja sent by the Shogunate to spy on the Annaka clan and currently living as an accountant, is alarmed by the sudden mobilization and mistakenly sends a message to Edo to dispatch the assassins armed with a Colt 45. The rest of the movie is a race against the clock as samurais and foot-soldiers alike make a dash at completing the marathon, then, halfway through, realize the assassins are after their town and the lord, so they have to hastily return to save their town.

Samurai Marathon has plenty of intrigue. For example, Itakura's rebelious daughter, Princess Yuki (Komatsu Nana) joins the race in disguise; and Uesugi (Sometani Shota), a lowly foot-soldier who's known for his speed, will need to compete with Tsujimura (Moriyama Mirai), a spoiled but loyal samurai, for the race. There is Kurita (Takenaka Naoto), a retired old guard who brings much needed humor to the film. And Jinnai's loyalty shifts as he realizes his mistake.

With Phillip Glass' rousing score, Bernard Rose, a British director who is known for his vividly visual films (Candy Man, Paper House) deftly plunges into jidaigeki without losing a beat. Many heads will roll, rice fields will be painted with blood, arrows and ninja stars will fly, and bullets will be fired. Samurai Marathon's got everything you need in a great, enjoyable martial arts film.


Dare to Stop Us
Dare to Stop Us
Choosing this title to watch was a no-brainer for me. As a huge fan of Japanese New Wave, Wakamatsu Koji, and his screenwriter and comrade Adachi Masao, I was eager to watch the film. It didn't disappoint. Not only is the film a great reflection of the bustling, energetic Japanese cinema scene of the past that is rarely depicted on screen, it is also an acute observation of a young woman struggling in a male-dominated field.

From the point of view of a 21-year old Shinjuku hippie girl, Shiraishi Kazuya depicts one of the Japanese New Wave greats, Wakamatsu Koji and his gang at the height of their most prolific period, 1969 - 71, which was a socially and politically tumultuous time in Japan.

Megumi (Kadowaki Mugi), a young woman who is still unsure about her place in the world, is a big fan of Wakamatsu's sex- and violence-filled, edgy, politically charged underground films. She wants to be his assistant director because her friend, Spook, happens to be working at the director's tiny production company. Before she gets introduced, Spook warns her that the gig will be tough.

As expected, the notorious director of Embryo Hunts in Secret, I-make-films-that-put-audiences-at-knifepoint Wakamatsu turns out to be a larger than life character. He's loud, egotistical, and always yelling at everyone on set that they are doing a terrible job. Forever donning sunglasses with a cigarette dangling on the side of his mouth, he keeps calling her by wrong names. But Megumi slogs through all the verbal abuses in the predominantly masculine film set culture.

First, her main duty is getting actresses who can pass for High School girls to be in pinku (softcore porn) movies. But over time, her diligence and hard work pay off and she becomes indispensable for Wakamatsu Productions.

In its two-hour running time, Shiraishi manages to make caricatures of these historical figures into well-rounded, likable individuals. He doesn't depict his mentor Wakamatsu as either good or bad, just a human with blemishes like any other. Kadowaki gives a sterling performance as a young woman swept up in exciting, yet dangerous times where certain things were still seen as taboo and frowned upon.

There are many juicy details both behind and on set scenes that will delight the students of that era, including the shooting of Go,Go, The Second Time Virgin on the rooftop from the script from 'that crazy guy Adachi'; Wakamatsu's penchant for making friends with everyone, even the critics and enemies at screenings, bars, and offices; Megumi getting her hands on directing part of Kama Sutra and her first 30 minute pinku film commissioned by love hotel industries; her making advances at the more stoic and gentle Adachi; appearances of studious Oshima Nagisa, Wakamatsu and Adachi's trip to Palestine; and the creation of a traveling screening on a red bus of The Japanese Red Army - PFLP: Declaration of World War, and so forth.

Dare to Stop Us is a sprawling, heady film full of historical and cultural details. It's also beautifully-acted.


Winter After Winter
Winter After Winter
Xing Jian's Winter After Winter starts with a 20-minute one-take sequence about the Lao family household, as the patriarch Lao Si (Gao Qiang), desperately tries to postpone the immediate forced recruitment of his three sons by the occupying Japanese army. He is determined to keep his family lineage alive by having Kun (Yan Bingyan), his daughter-in-law, impregnated by one of his younger sons before they get taken away (his eldest is impotent).

The second eldest son, Lao Er, runs away in disgust, joining the resistance in the woods; the youngest Lao San, tries but fails and gets taken away along with his older brother. It is 1944 in rural Manchuria.

So starts a formally rigorous, rural miserablist drama. Shot mostly in black and white, Xing has a keen eye for composition and mise-en-scene. The devastating and inhuman effect of the late stage of the Japanese occupation is deeply felt in every character as they try to survive, especially in Kun. Yan's muted performance as a woman quietly suffering from the follies of war and of men is most touching, without being too melodramatic.

The color comes into the picture only after the end of the occupation, but little has changed for these small folks. Their lives are still harsh under the falling snow, and the color remains muted.


Hard-Core
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Based on a cult manga Hardcore Heisei Jigoku Bros., this wacky film is a collaboration between director Yamashita Nobuhiro (Linda Linda Linda) and versatile actor Yamada Takayuki (13 Assassins, Milocrorze: A Love Story) who also wears a producer's hat. Its sci-fi tinged, overly complicated storyline doesn't quite capture the aloofness of the comic book nor justifies its two-hour running time, but it has its moments and charm.

It tells a story about Ukon (Yamada), an outcast with a bad temper. He works for an ultra-nationalist nutjob whose goal is to find a shogun's gold buried in a mine so he can re-educate today's youth with the money. Ukon meets hulking, homeless man-child Ushiyama (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi) and feels the fang of kinship.

Things slowly change when they find a robot in the basement of an abandoned chemical factory where Ushiyama sleeps. Ukon's salaryman brother Sakon (Satoh Takeru) wants to make money off of the robot, but Ukon threatens him with violence.

The Robot (Robo-o, Ukon calls him), may not speak, yet it's a sentient being and, when necessary, grabs his friends and flies out of danger. Unfortunately, Robo-o is not the main part of the film.

Not quite as crazy as one would hope from a film featuring a guy in a tin-man suit breakdancing, its multiple plotlines don't help the matter much either. Yamashita's distant approach has its charm, though, and Yamada's semi-serious face is a deadpan comedy delight.


Fatal Raid
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No amount of sport bras and flying neck scissor chokes can save this middling Hong Kong actioner fashioned off of Michael Bay-type shoot 'em up visual porn: all shaky cam, discarded shell casings and slow mo fight in the rain kind of stuff.

Fatal Raid involves a raid by an elite HK squad going horribly wrong, resulting in a major friendly fire incident and heavy collateral damage (witnesses are killed), and scarring core members psychologically for life. Twenty years later, the same surviving members are involved in another raid taking place in Macao, now with a new generation of a special force made up of barely distinguishable babe cops.

Things go wrong as they usually do in these movies. They take casualties. And the PTSD comes back on strong to haunt them.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

They Deserve Better

Shoplifters (2018) - Kore-eda
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When you talk about films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, they are typically self contained, uncomplicated, affecting little perfectly made films. There is usually a crisis in the family - death, disappearance, divorce, economic hardship etc. The emotional clutch always is the innate goodness in children that gets us teary eyed at the end. The grownups in his movies learn something from children. The world is good again. The end. But the children in turn are left with their own devices to deal with agony of time, of growing up. In lesser successful (if you could call them that because he never makes bad movies) Kore-eda films tend to end with unresolved issues, narratives, feelings. Adults are children themselves who were forced into adulthood. Those are usually the best of his films. After the Storm, with a less than perfect, slight and messy narrative (for Kore-eda standard), upon reflection, is one of his best.

He has always been a supporter for concept of choosing the family instead of family through blood- nurture over nature. So is the premise of Shoplifters - a widely uneven lecture about 'the family is what you make of it' in modern society. A couple with a dark past, played by Franky Lily and Ando Sakura, has been collecting neglected, abandoned children along with a not blood related grandma (Kiki Kirin), as a makeshift functioning family unit, working menial jobs in a squalor. They substitute their meager incomes with shoplifting. You know something is gonna go wrong. You know this won't end well.

As always, child actors are spectacular in Shoplifters, especially Kairi Jyo who plays Shota. An abandoned young boy who got picked up by the couple, only knew them as family and shoplifting as only means of survival, Shota has a revelation that something is not right when the couple brings in Yuri, a neglected, recipient of domestic violence from the neighborhood. He feels it's wrong to be teaching Yuri how to shoplift. She needs something better than this. And oh god, Ando Sakura is a national treasure. She is amazing in this.

'Something better than this' is the theme in Shoplifters. Adults in the film are not angels. They consciously or unconsciously shoplifted children to make a family. But Kore-eda doesn't want to go psychoanalytic here. When it's all said and done, again, we adults learn things or two and children are left with their own devices to fend for themselves, like, for real. The film is unusually messy for Kore-eda. The ending is just as harrowing as Nobody Knows and not emotionally satisfying at all. But I'd take messy Kore-eda anytime over tidy Kore-eda.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Preview: Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2019 @ Film at Lincoln Center

Film at Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà present the 19th edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, which will unfold from June 6-12.

These new crop of films reflects diverse issues facing the country, embroiled in social and political upheaval (like in many other European countries are facing, but very Italian) - prevalence of the comorra (modern mafia), African immigration, satirical look at Bellusconi years and others.

Some of more notable film titles presenting this year are Loro starring Toni Servillo by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Piranhas, the opening night selection, about the rise and fall of Naples' youth gangs, actress Valeria Gollino takes another great directing effort with Euforia and the great Alba Rohrwacher stars in a religious dramedy, Lucia's Grace.

The series also pays tribute to the late Bernardo Bertolucci (passed away last November) by screening his debut film La Commare Secca which he made when he was 21.

So without further a do, here are my 4 films preview of this year's Open Roads:

Piranhas *Opening Night Film
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The camorra/gangs of Naples are the subject of Claudio Giovannesi's sprawling coming of age story, Piranhas. It tells the story of Nicola (Francesco di Napoli), a fresh faced 15-year old and his scooter riding friends' ascent in the local gangland. Seduced by the glamorous bling life of the legendary local gangs, Nicola slowly climbs up the ranks by smartly navigating through the sinuous web of different underworld factions. But he and his friends are still kids, even though they can afford chandeliers and the best seat in nightclubs, they still complain about running out of pop tarts to eat in the morning.

Fluid camera captures some excellent, natural ensemble acting, Piranhas is at times exhilarating, heartbreaking experience.

Lucia's Grace
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Lucia (Alba Rohrwacher) is a young single mom struggling with life - her relationship with unfaithful Arturo is on the rocks, her fencing teenage daughter is growing up too fast, and her meticulousness is getting in the way as a land surveyor for Paolo, a local developer who wants her to rubber-stamp a big, opulent project on the hill.

To make matters worse, Lucia starts to seeing the vision of Virgin Mary telling her to stop the project and instead build the church on the same spot. Freaked out and fearful, she relocates to a friend's house and seeks out the help of a psychiatrist. People around her start noticing her erratic behavior- talking and fighting with herself (Holy Mother is invisible to others). And with the help of social media, she starts having worshipers following her around. But this mother of god not only insistent, but is downright physical, pulling and knocking Lucia around into submission.

Lucia's Grace touches upon environmental issues and the nation's anxiety of influx of refugees, but it doesn't quite go deeper in either directions. Script could have been tighter. But Alba Rohrwacher continues to impress here with her physical comedic turn, compensating for the film's weaker points.

Twin Flower
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Laura Luchetti's lyrically lensed Twin Flower concerns a budding friendship between Basim (Kallil Kone), a teenage boy from Ivory Coast traveling by foot through Italy to find a better life in Nothern Europe and Anna (Anastasiya Bogach), a teen girl fleeing from Manfredi, a predatory man involved in human trafficking whom her father worked for.

After a harrowing experience, Anna loses her voice and becomes deeply mistrustful of any men. It takes some time for Anna to open up to good natured Basim who always seem to have positive spin on any situation even though things are dire and people can be unfriendly. With Manfredi still looking for Anna, the two young people find their shelter in the streets, fields and abandoned houses.

Anna gets a job working for an kind old florist in town who seem to understand her situation in silence while Basim sells his body to strangers to put the food on the table in their santuary - an abandoned house near the salt flats. But things are not going to stay as they are for long.

Luchetti's delicate direction with two young first time actors is the marvel of Twin Flower. She touches upon post-me too generation concerns and also immigration issues the country is facing. Kone and Bogach both give soulful and touching performances. But fragile as young people generally are regarded, I wished that Anna and Basim were not as helpless as they were portrayed here.

Normal
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Gender roles are social construct from early age, filmmaker Adele Tulli seems to say with her ironically titled documentary, Normal. In the beginning few shots, Tulli establishes the gender norms - a little girl getting her ears pierced. It's an old man who is doing the piercing. He says to her that now she is just like her mother. Then there are screaming dads at the tiny motor bike race for boys decked out on race gears from head to toe.

From the toy industry to wedding industry, from violent video games to faux combats in the woods, from baby carriage aerobics to the pole dancing on a beach stage, from a 'husband cheating is a fault of both him and wife' church sermon to a conventional gay wedding, Tulli paints a disturbing 'normal' snapshots around Italy that is all too familiar and universal. Normal shows us that there's still a long long way to go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fixed Gaze

Asako I & II (2018) - Hamaguchi
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Asako (Karata Erika), a passive young girl eyes a tall, good-looking boy, Baku (Higashide Masahiro) at a gallery. With the sound and smell of firecrackers set by rowdy school boys still ringering in the air, they kiss and hook up, just like that. They become a young couple very much in love. Asako's dependency on Baku is total. But always aloof, he disappears for days on end without explanation. Her friends warn her that he will break her heart one day. And one day, Baku goes out for errand and never comes back. At this point, I am expecting some existential, poetic drama along the lines of Maborosi or Before We Vanish. But I'm wrong.

It's been five years. Asako relocated from Osaka to Tokyo, has an stage actress roomate and works at a coffee shop. While delivering coffee at a coporate conference at the building across, she is shocked by a presence of Baku. But it's not him. His name is Ryohei (Higashide again in a double role) who works for a sake sales company. In turn, Ryohei is extremely intrigued by Asako who seem to have an extreme aversion to his presence. It's her shy but clear, direct stares that draws him in. After multiple attempts with the help of his Chekov quoting, English speaking colleague as a wingman, they hook up. It takes a long time for Asako to finally get over her first love and fall in love again to another man, a very different man who is down to earth and real.

Then Baku shows up in Asako's life again. Now a famous model, he turns Asako's life upside down.

Based on Shibasaki Tomoka's novel Netemo sametemo - Waking and Dreaming, the film tackles on letting go of the first love from a woman's point of view in a very unique way. Hamaguchi has a great sensitivity dealing with delicate subject and make his actors shine. Young Karata embodies depth and mystery of a young woman coming out of her shell without compromising her core self, while Higashide shines in dual roles with great empathy and maturity. All the supporting roles are also great and well drawn out. It is refreshing to see a Japanese film that is modern and direct and not trying to be overtly Ozu-y or arthouse poetic or genre-y, yet very Japanese. I very much appreciate Hamaguchi Rusuke's work.