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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Football + Puppies = Political Satire

Diamantino (2018) - Abrantes, Schmidt
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Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, a duo behind satirical shorts A History of Mutual Respect and Palace of Pity, comes up with another absurdist political satire Diamantino. It's one of those one joke comedies that you usually wouldn't think is sustainable as a feature in the beginning. But it succeeds in providing enough enjoyment whole throughout with the duo's usual lush film cinematography and visual effects and by following through with the silliness of the premise until the end.

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, seen in Miguel Gomes' Tabu), is one of those impossibly good looking football superstar, a Portuguese national hero. But he turns out to be a sexless, brainless imbecile who lives in an opulent bubble and thinks of fluffy puppies when he is on the field. One day on his yacht with his beloved manager father and his two scheming evil twin sisters, he encounters a boat full of refugees from Africa. Our good hearted Diamantino has an epiphany: he will adopt an African boy and love him forever.

In the meantime, zealous government agents surveilling Diamantino for possible money laundering, sends agent Aisha (Cleo Tavares) to go undercover as the African boy to be adopted into Diamantino's estate despite objections from her fellow agent/lesbian lover Lucia. Diamantino spoils his newly adapted son (Aisha in cornrows and wrapped up boobies) with nutella desserts, sweet fruit soda called Bongo and all the toys any boys would want in an ornately decorated room in his castle. After killing their old father, the evil sisters who's been embezzling all his money to offshore accounts, makes a deal with Dr. Lamborgini and the nationalists to put Diamantino through gene experiments where the mad doctor wants to clone him and make the best football team in the world that will ultimately rile up enough Portuguese national pride in people to exit European Union. Still follow?

As one can expect, things go wrong. Diamantino grows pair of boobs, Aisha falls in love with him, the sisters finds out Aisha's identity...

Visually intoxicating and politically sharp, Diamantino is a fun movie to watch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

'Tis a Pity, No Elephant

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) - Hu
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Its a day in a grey and cold border town in China. With always moving camera with long takes, the film closely trails the lives 4 of its citizen's ultra depressing lives. There is a bullied high school boy (Peng Yuchang) with unsympathetic parents, a local gang leader (Zhang Yu) who is out to get the boy after his younger bully brother gets pushed down the stairs and dies, a classmate/love interest (Wang Uvin) of the boy, whose afraid of her affair with vice principal ever being discovered and an old man whose family is passive=aggressively pushing him to go to a retirement home. Suicide of a jilted lover, death of a pet dog, uploaded scandalous video and social media stigma, betrayed friendship, their lives never lets up.

Director/writer Hu Bo portrays these down in luck, relentlessly bleak lives with much empathy and tenderness. Honestly I didn't think I would like An Elephant Sitting Still. But after an hour and a half in, I was drawn to their flight, their impossible, inescapable situations. With very intimate, highly subjective camera and lens work, An Elephant achieves a rare familiarization with the audiences. Its one day in the life of... premise really works to the benefit of its 4 hour running time. There is even Nolan style (but not used as a stupid plot device) time bending with character story lines crossing, overlapping timelines.

It's a substantial human drama with deeply felt characters with their crushed, burdened souls. The idea of using an immobile circus elephant (which never materializes on screen) as a wised out Buddha who silently observes human follies play out around him as some sort of metaphor for happiness/salvation has a direct lineage from that of a whale in Werkmeister Harmonies. It's better off that we don't get to see it. Only hear its roar during its end credit, just like that that donkey's cry in the beginning of Au Hasard Balthazar. The beast of hopes and dreams. The beast of burden. An Elephant Sitting Still is beautifully tragic. And it a major film that came out in recent years that I can recall.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Art of Seeing

Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976) - Wenders
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A man drives his volkswagon bug into a lake while another man, preparing his morning shave in his van, looks on. The man in the volkswagon emergies from the water with a dripping suitcase, strikes up the conversation with the man with a van who happens to be a traveling film reel deliveryman/projectionist. They take off together in the van. So starts Wenders' ultimate road movie KIngs of the Road.

Clocking at 2 hours 48 minutes, this leisurely paced, sort of midlife crises movie encompasses a lot of Wenders' preoccupation in his long illustrious filmography - desire to love, Germany's war past, rootlessness, American rock'n'roll, aversion to sex and violence in films, etc.

It would be a hard sell in this day and age to pitch the idea of where two complete strangers going on a long journey together without revealing their backgrounds or their innermost thoughts. But that's exactly what this film is - short on backstories, mutual unspoken understanding of heterosexual male anxiety in the material world Germany in the mid 70s.

It is revealed in the middle that Robert the Kamikaze (because he rammed his car directly into water, played by Hanns Zischler) who has left his wife and is afraid to call her, has also some unfinished business with his type-setter father, whom he visits. Then there is Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) the traveling projectionist and recurring character in many of Wenders' films. However rootless, traveling from small town to small town, floating through life, Winter has no worries in the world. He is also a walking contradiction - He wants to connect and love but he also wants to be left alone. He visits where he grew up, a dilapidated house on the river Rhine, and while kamikaze sleeps, he cries on the edge of the river.

Kings of the Road is a snapshot of Germany's post-war generation from a male perspective. They are silent, emasculated types who has trouble expressing their feelings. There is no conviction in Robert exclaiming "Yanks have colonized our subconscious!" while listening to rock'n'roll, either. It's that mutual silence and understanding that bond them together.

Oddly, for a film about projectionist, Kings isn't about cinema. It's more to do with changing times. Typesetter, projectionist, these dying professions are regarded fondly with much melancholy. It ends with Winter visiting a shuttered theater. The owner laments that her late father would not allow to show 'whatever passes as film nowadays'. 'Film used to mean art of seeing.' A lot of pregnant silences in Kings of the Road. Things left unspoken. Art of seeing it is. We see a lot of mundane stuff - casual male nudity, shitting, jerking off, vomiting, making coffee, driving, sleeping, etc. And it's us who needs to find meaning in everyday life.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Journey Not a Destination

Notes from a Journey (2019) - Fawcett, Pais
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Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais, a pair of experimental filmmakers who describe themselves as two halves of a one artist, present their latest work, Notes from a Journey: a travelogue of sorts filled with startling visual and aural landscapes. And it's a thing of beauty - an examination of internal psyche through nature and vice versa. It's a great companion piece to their Studio Diaries, a series of 100 visual essays documenting their creative processes for a period of time.

Notes from a Journey starts out like a typical travelogue. We see the horizon from the train window. It's various English pastoral of greens and yellows. It's comforting to follow the outlines of the gentle hills. The uninterrupted outline of the hills and lulls of the locomotive give the sense of calm and continuation. Then the thin red line appears, going across the frame. The background color slowly changes from sky blue to black then back to blue. The line's angle changes and it moves up and down. It tricks your vision as if the line is not straight. There are hues, there are textures, there are natural and artificial soundscapes.

There is a shift in the middle of the film. The double exposure of a thorny trees with scathing noise changes the perspective of the film from our passive pair observing to them on the forefront. We see them searching and listening with modern equipment in their tent at night. What are they looking for? Merely recording the sound of nature at night, a paranormal activity, a reenactment of what field zoologist do...? We are still at the infancy of the great visual & aural medium. Daniel & Clara makes a point that they are always searching.

It's not the destination but it's the journey. Daniel & Clara flip through the pictures of countless standing rocks of Avebury, lay them down on the bed. It's as if they are searching for something solid, something permanent, something that will ground them. Silbury Hill in Avebury, a landmark prominently featured many times in the film, shot in different methods and formats is a man-made monument from ancient times. It's physicality and presence is tremendous, yet it is artificial. Whatever we see and feel solid and permanent, they are not. We see the silhouette of Daniel & Clara's sharp features in the dark room, then there is smoldering smoke hanging above the bed. Notes from a Journey reminds you that the illusive el dorado of cinema is not the destination but the journey itself.