Monday, July 24, 2023

Japan Cuts 2023 Preview

Japan Society's Japan Cuts: The Festival of New Japanese Film is back in its 16th year. It marks the first all in-person festival since 2019! From July 26-Aug 6, this year’s festival features over 25 films from major blockbusters to indie darlings, spanning narratives, documentaries, experimental and short films, and anime! This year’s festival features five International Premieres, 10 North American Premieres, seven U.S. Premieres, three East Coast Premieres, and three New York Premieres! Japan Cuts will also welcome six special guests and host two parties!

Leading this year’s guests, JAPAN CUTS has the honor of presenting acclaimed actor Yuya Yagira with the 2023 CUT ABOVE Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film for his role in Under The Turquoise Sky by director KENTARO.

Here are some unique and outstanding films I was able to preview:

The First Slam Dunk - Inoue SLAM_Image2 The wildly popular manga-turned-TV anime series Slam Dunk creator Inoue Takehiko finally comes up with The First Slam Dunk, a feature length anime about a high stakes final game in high school basketball tournament and its players. Using both 3DCG and 2D animation, Inoue creates tense, poignant sports film that is thoroughly enjoyable. It starts with Miyagi Ryota, a short kid from Okinawa who loses his mentor brother and becoming a point guard for the Shohoku high school team against unbeatable reigning champs, the Sannoh. Inoue wastes no time and throws us into the final game as the ragtag underdogs beating against all odds and turning the apathetic spectators around their sides with their tenacity and sheer will power. Other than Miyagi, there is the team's power forward loose cannon Sakuragi (the red head main protagonist in Slam Dunk manga series), Hisashi, shooting guard, Rukawa, small forward, and Akagi, the long-suffering captain and center. Each gets his own limelight and backstory. But it's the game itself that is exciting to watch - at one point down 20 points, the Shohoku team seems helpless and in the midpoint of the film. Then it catches fire as it plays out with some crazy play by play as their scores seesaw back and forth - the time elongates as the tension builds to the final moment of the game. And what a beautiful game it is! The First Slam Dunk is much less juvenile than its origins. It's not about playing basketball to be cool or get girls. Girls are on the sidelines. It's all about the game and it's exciting.

Under the Turquoise Sky - Kentaro sky3 Amraa, a Mongolian horse thief is first seen stealing a horse from a stable and riding through Tokyo city scape. He is soon apprehended by authorities. It turns out the horse belongs to an aging business tycoon Saburo. In turn, Saburo makes a deal with the Mongolian: take his spoiled, womanizing grandson Takeshi (Yagira Yuya, the youngest recipient of top acting winner at Cannes for Kore-eda's Nobody Knows in 2004) to Mongolia and find his long-lost daughter that he sired with a Mongolian woman when he was stationed there in WW2. So begins an unlikely journey Under the Turquoise Sky, driving through the breathtaking steppe landscape of Mongolia. Without much dialog, director Kentaro paints the picture with broad strokes, peppered with magic realism and visual poetry. This leisurely paced, Jarmusch-ite road trip movie has its charm. Amraa, a Mongolian horse thief is first seen stealing a horse from a stable and riding through Tokyo city scape. He is soon apprehended by authorities. It turns out the horse belongs to an aging business tycoon Saburo. In turn, Saburo makes a deal with the Mongolian: take his spoiled, womanizing grandson Takeshi (Yagira Yuya, the youngest recipient of top acting winner at Cannes for Kore-eda's Nobody Knows in 2004) to Mongolia and find his long-lost daughter that he sired with a Mongolian woman when he was stationed there in WW2. So begins an unlikely journey Under the Turquoise Sky, driving through the breathtaking steppe landscape of Mongolia. Without much dialog, director Kentaro paints the picture with broad strokes, peppered with magic realism and visual poetry. This leisurely paced, Jarmusch-ite road trip movie has its charm.

From the End of the World - Kiriya From the End of the World Kiriya Kazuaki (Casshern, The Last Knights) directs a low budget time traveling tale where a high school girl's recurring dreams of marauding samurais in medieval Japan may hold a key to survival of mankind from apocalypse. After her grandmother's death, 17-year-old lonely high school girl Hana (Ito Aoi), is giving up on her dream of being cosmetologist, to support herself by working at a bar. She is soon visited by a secret government official who seem to be very interested in what she's dreaming. It turns out the world is ending in two weeks and only her dreams can alter the outcome of the book which contains the humanity's fate. Navigating between reality and dreams, Hana must save Yuki, a little girl in her dream, from a menacing, time traveling samurai (Kitamura Kazuki, letting his eyebrow to do the talking as usual). The convoluted script resembles typical 'end of the world' manga premises, From the End of the World depends too much on lengthy explanation, but Kiriya's energetic DIY style (DP, Kanbe Chigi) camera movement and digitized color palette make an enjoyable two-hour ride.

Amiko - Morii Amiko A remarkable directorial debut of Morii Yusuke, based on a book Kochira Amiko (Look Here Amiko) by Imamura Natsuko, Amiko tells an oddball grade schooler (Osawa Kana) living in a small seaside town. She lives with her parents and her older brother. She has tendency to obsess over small things around her life - a big mole on her mom's chin, a neighborhood boy named Nori who's in the same class, various animals and insects that share her immediate, rural environment. She is an enthusiastic, high-energy child with wild imaginations. But she is sometimes too much for everyone around her. Unbeknownst to Amiko, life takes a darker turn as her mom's miscarriage reverberates throughout her family - mom's postpartum depression takes a toll on her mental health, her father is more absent-minded, and her brother becomes a raging juvenile delinquent.

Young Kana's wide-eyed wild child is a revelation, embodying Amiko who doesn't understand the consequence of her actions and tragedies that befall in life, obviously, because she is just a child. Morii captures all this in constant close-up of Kana's round, adorable face. It's a remarkable, heartbreaking unusual film about growing up.

Hand - Matsui te Hand - Matsui Sawako (Fukunaga Akari), a twenty-something office worker has a fetish for old men. She collects photos of old men taken on the street in a series of scrap books named "Happy Old Men," like schoolgirls collects pictures of cute animals. She thinks the snapshots of their content-with-life expressions and their bald spots and portly figures adorable. She gets a lot of attention from older men as well, but she observes that they tend to treat her like a little girl when they are alone. At home, her father prefers to interact with mom and her younger sister who's still in high school. It seems that her father doesn't quite know how to behave around his grown up daughter. Sawako starts an intense physical relationship with a former co-worker Koichi whom she confesses her love. But it turns out that he is in another relationship. Unwanted at home, and heartbroken with her lover, Sawako reassesses her adulthood. Conceived as a Roman Porno revival project by Nikkatsu Studio, Matsui Daigo (Japanese Girls Never Die) directs Hand. Yes, it abides by the Roman Porno rules (low budget, shot in a week with sex scene every 10 minutes). But the film is an exceptionally well written poignant, intimate relationship drama that gently approaches father-daughter relationship. Hand is a great little film which shows you that the spirit of Japanese indie film scene is alive and well.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

People Who Remain

Streetwise (2021) - Na Streetwise 1 Streetwise 6 Streetwise 7 Streetwise 8 Streetwise 10 Streetwise 12 Streetwise 13 Streetwise 15 Streetwise 17 Na Jiazuo's rain soaked neonoir, Streetwise, gets a much-deserved theatrical run stateside. I say this because it's just gorgeous to look at in its grimy, urban decay glory. Set in anytown China in 2000s, where economic growth has considerably cooled, and once bustling streets are now deserted and shops shuttered. There's sense of hopelessness in the air.

Streetwise tells a group of the lonely, lost souls who occupy these wet, decaying dwellings and their sordid lives fatefully entwined like a tangled web which they can't escape from. Zidong (Li Jiuxiao), a gawky young man, is first seen tearing up a mahjong parlor where a debtor hangs out. He is a muscle man for a wry debt collector, Jun, who walks with a limp, probably from some shenanigans from his shady past. By the looks of it, Zidong is a rookie at whatever he does, with Jun constantly showing him the ropes.

Zidong keeps borrowing money from the local tattoo artist Jiu (Huang Miyi) to pay for his dad's mounting medical bills. Dad, once a leader of the street gang, due to his age and health, is forever committed to a hospital bed. Still spry, he still gets into fights and unsavory situations. Zidong and Jiu seem to have a special relationship where they keep each other company without wanting anything other than consoling their loneliness. Their relationship is a purely platonic one, like that of brother and sister. And they might as well be- Zidong's dad keeps insisting that she is a bad luck and they shouldn't ever sleep with each other, not only because she is the ex-wife of the boss, known as Four, the head of a local gang who oversees Jun and Zidong, but also was a protégé of Zidong's dad.

Zidong and Jiu contemplate skipping town and go live somewhere else countless times, even though they don't know where to go. Four, getting rejected repeatedly by Jiu for his pleas to get back together, is getting antsy about Zidong hanging around the tattoo parlor too much. In the meantime, Jun plots revenge after Four humiliates him in front of everyone.

Everyone in Streetwise is trying to runaway from something- the past, dire financial circumstances, love, misplaced loyalty, and themselves, but fails to do so. They can't get away from their own reflections in the putrid puddle strewn with trash in the street.

Jiu briefly leaves the cursed town, only to come back for Zidong and confront her fate.

Li in the role of Zidong bristles with youthful energy and puppy dog innocence. Huang, a graceful beauty, fits reminds me a lot of young Shu Qi.

Na creates a perfect neon colored urban purgatory where lost souls can't ever leave. Everything has a hazy, dreamy, not quite real feel to Streetwise. Even in crowded places like karaoke bars or hospital elevators has otherworldly quality to it. No one is purely evil or saintly. Everyone has baggage and weak spot for certain things or someone. It's that sinewy human connections that Na explores with exceptional visuals and everyday poetry.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Interview: Paula Beer talks Afire and working with Christian Petzold

Screen Shot 2023-07-08 at 3.22.36 PM Paula Beer, a German stage and film actress, first got her international recognition in François Ozon's Frantz (2016). Since then, she has been working with director Christian Petzold to a critical acclaim. Their fruitful collaborations resulted in Transit (2018), Undine (2020), and now Afire (2023). In Afire, Beer plays Nadja, a love interest of self-absorbed young writer with a huge writer's block in the summer at Baltic Sea. The movie seems like a departure from Petzold's normal, serious themed filmography at a glance. A German 'summer movie' if you will. But as it plays out, with Beer as his muse, it morphs into the usual Petzold territory and more: secrets, loneliness, and creative process and self-reflection even, and of course, an acute observation of the world facing crisis. It's a delicious Petzold stuff as usual.

Beer was in town for Tribeca Film Festival to promote Afire and I jumped at the chance to talk to the lovely, intelligent actress about her methods and working with Petzold.

Afire opens in theaters 7/14 in New York and Los Angeles. The national roll out will follow.

I saw AFIRE about a week before the smoke from the Canadian wildfire reached New York and turned the sky an eerie dark orange color. And I am flabbergasted by how prescient the film is! Everything Christian Petzold makes, it’s so prescient- whether it’s the reemergence of fascism, gentrification or climate catastrophe. I had to add an addendum to my review after experiencing that thick dangerous air first hand. So I had a chance to talk to Christian remotely after he did Undine and this was when Covid was still happening. He told me that after Covid hit, he abandoned a dystopian project he was working on, to get away from all the depressing things and decided to make a summer movie, about young people in love, with you in mind. How did it come about?

The weird thing is that we were in Paris for the press for Undine. Everything turned out really good. Everyone was happy about the movie. It started playing in Berlin, and we were expecting to open in Paris as well. But our distributor said, “We have to wait for a speech from Macron (about the Covid situation) tomorrow morning.” So OK. But then the next day they told us that they were sorry that they couldn’t bring the movie to the cinemas in April (this was March 2020) that we had to cancel everything and try it again in September. So we knew the situation was getting very serious. When we got back to Berlin, we both got infected- maybe in Paris, who knows, but we got back home and were sick. So we stayed at home and waited. Then the first lockdown in Berlin came in the middle of March. And then Christian told me that he was working on the script for the other movie but he told me that the world is in crisis and that he couldn’t do a depressing movie right now.

He told me a story of Afire while eating falafel together. He told me about the summer and young people in love. “What do you think?” He asked me. During the pandemic we had so much time so we both watched a Rohmer box set that someone gave him as a gift. I understood his wish for taking all the drama of the world away and trying to introduce this light ambience to the world. But of course it’s Christian, so I knew it would dig into a deeper level, not some random light story.

Christian has a really steady career- there’s no movie that you’d think that it’s off or unlike him in his filmography. He has two kids who are a bit younger than me and finishing their school during Covid. He is such an open hearted and open minded person, and he sees what’s going on and what their concerns are and adapts that into a story. It really amazes me. From the very first time he told me about that story I knew that it was going to be something new. I can’t really say how, but the movie just felt different. I sensed his film language moving a little bit.

You’ve done three films with Christian now. How is his directing style different from any other directors you worked with?

It’s completely different. Before I started doing Transit with him, People told me that he has a very unique way of shooting. I was like, “ok, everyone says that. so there must be something true about it.” And as soon as I got to know the production and other people working as a crew for Transit, there was a different vibe. It didn’t have the pressure of a normal film set. There’s no big office with a lot of people. It’s always about the movie and the story: everyone is very engaged and very focused on that. And Cristian collects people around who are really good at what they do, but also calm and easy going. I go, “yeah this is a very good atmosphere to work in.” There’s none of these usual onset frenzy. It’s more like, “cool, we have a good script. Let’s make a good movie out of it.”

One thing we do as a crew and cast is to travel to the shooting locations together - without anything there. Just for us to have an impression of what the place is like.

That’s interesting.

For this movie, it helped a lot. It takes place in the Baltic sea. And we were shooting on a private island. There were no people at all. And it was just raw nature - peaks and forests as you’ve seen in the movie. It's what nature could be if people weren’t destroying everything. And being in the sea - yes the sea itself - the sand and the trees - what impact all of that has on a human being! This is what summer feels like - we have a lot of time. It's hot. no pressure, no stress, no nothing.

And then we have reading rehearsals. It's always important to see how everyone sees the character. For me it was very important to see Tomas (Schubert) who was reading Leon. It was amazing to see because Leon is such a hard character to like and to follow. When he read it. I thought, wow that’s enough. No worries, it’s going to be an amazing one…

You knew Tomas before this movie. You’ve worked together before?

Yes, when we were eighteen, a long time ago. (They were in Austrian director Andreas Prochaska's Dark Valley together). He played so well in that movie.

Then for the shooting, we would rehearse in the morning: it’s Christian and his assistant and all the actors in costume and no other people involved. We have coffee and tea, we look at the scene - we go to make up and they prepare the set, we come back, everything is ready, we shoot, one direction, usually one take, change set up, another shot from another angle, Then we have lunch. His set is very structured and very well organized. It helps you to focus and not—


Yeah and there’s nothing to distract you from focusing on what’s important.

Was AFIRE all shot on location?

The house was close to Berlin. And that’s why it was important that we went to shooting locations before. We saw the sea and then we came back to Berlin to start shooting. Everything else was shot near the Baltic ocean.

Among the roles you played, how was Nadja compare to others in terms of preparation?

It’s different with each character. Each character requires different preparation and sometimes it seems so clear but I don’t get anything, others it’s the other way around and just great and you have fun. So it is hard to say how I prepare for a certain role. Every new character I play I go back to the beginning - that I don’t know how or where to start because it feels like a new job with every character. I will need to understand what I need, to play this character. Because I don’t think there is no…formula, to say 'this is how to create a character.' It’s how I play this character. It helped me a lot working with Christian two times before because I got to see how things work on his set and now I kind of know how or where…oh I am blanking, it must be the jetlag, (laughs) … where I will be ending up with him.

I know how his process of filming goes. And this helps me a lot to free myself. I am always like, “I have to prepare this and I have to prepare that. I have to be super prepared,” but his process gives me a lot of freedom and with Nadja, I can go with what I feel at that moment. This is Nadja, this vibe, now I just experience and enter her realm and react to other actors and their energy, off of my costumes and places. It's like an energetic trip through a movie.

The reason I asked is in UNDINE, there is this long monologue scene where Undine leads the tour in a museum and I was wondering how you managed that. That must’ve taken a long long time to prepare.

Yeah. When I was reading the script. I called Christian and said, “well you are making jokes right? You just don’t want me for the part!” In a way it’s very helpful to…. First for an actress, it’s a job to do. But then, the story that she tells is her text. She wrote that story. So it tells you a lot about her. Like how she sees things, how she is telling about it. But when I see the room where we are shooting that scene, it’s like diving through history. And I just loved doing all the preparations. She is from water, to our city and lives with human beings, she is searching for love and she doesn’t find it, she has to kill and go back to water. For me, it was, "OK, she actually lives in two worlds." The other world, which we don't see in the movie, is where she is most of the time, so I want to get to know this world in water. Then how she sees you- she knows Berlin from when the first house was built there. Because Berlin was this watery…


Yeah yeah, exactly. So she was there before the city was built. So she is not doing a presentation but telling her whole story of what she experienced and I love the idea of her explaining things - “So this bridge was built in so and so and this guy was doing this…” She was telling what she saw.

In Petzold’s characters, especially female characters, there’s always some sort of secret in them. Whenever they are looking at you and talking to you, it’s as if they are looking above your shoulder. Do you feel that way about Nadja?

I felt the same way about the Petzold’s characters I play, that they live in a kind of their own world. That they look for their own truth. But for Nadja, when I was reading the script, she doesn’t have that interiority even though you don’t really know. It’s the view from Leon’s perspective. The camera is a bit attached to him emotionally and it’s his point of view.That’s why you don’t really know who she is or what she’s up to. Reading the script I got that feeling as well. That’s why it’s fun to play. I think Christian gives characters their own worlds. For Nadja, I think he protected her world. She can have her own world and not get destroyed by others. She is present among people but she is not throwing everything at them. She knows who she is and she is self confident but she doesn’t have to show it. I like that about Nadja. It’s like when Tomas tells her, " You didn’t tell me that you are not just an ice cream seller.” and she says, “You didn’t ask.” I’m not going to give you everything because you are the man. I like that about her.

Nadja always whistles a tune. I am dying to know what that tune is.

Oh I just made that up. It’s Nadja’s vibe I felt when we were shooting. OK, she is full of life and full of joy. She knows how to live. And that ended up in the movie. (laughs)

That’s awesome.

Is there a difference between how Nadja sees herself and Leon sees her as? The reason I am asking is that it turns out Leon, the writer, embellishes everyone but Nadja, who is strong and confident, stays the same.

Yeah there is always that surprising moment in Chrsitan’s films that you doubt yourself as how things are, then “Aha!” As you said, who is she? Is she just his view or is she really that person… I love these games that Christian plays.

It’s great.

I know you are busy with other projects. I hear you are doing STELLA (based on a controversial figure Stella Goldshlag), and THIRTY THREE with Niels Arden Oplev. Is the latter project in English?

I believe so. There might be some parts in German.