Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Straight Story

Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009) - Ando
Haru (Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure), a college student is a bit of a pushover when it comes to relationship. Her boneheaded boyfriend hasn't even broken up with his ex and is constantly demanding sex. One day, she meets Riko (Eriko Nakamura), a prosthetics artist at a coffeeshop. She wipes off Haru's cocoa mustache, saying she finds her very attractive. Riko is that straightforward. So begins this girl-on-girl love story based on the popular manga, Love Vibes. Would make a good double feature with Happy Together.

Kakera is not set in Buenos Aires nor features spectacular cinematography. With the muted, soft color palette and James Iha's hazy strumming, Kakera has a nostalgia inducing 70's drama feel to it. I don't know much about Japanese manga culture that's geared toward girl audiences. But I didn't expect this subtle yet penetrating observation on relationship from a manga adaptation. Mitsushima and Nakamura draw sympathy as they portray these well drawn characters who go in and out of love with all the trimmings- jealousy, confusion, loneliness... With its open ended-ness and emotional honesty, Kakera reminds me of a good French drama more than anything else.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I step on Andy Warhol's face!

I got a call from my lady. "Come down quick," she said. "There are cheap shoes sales going on, and I got a pair saved for you." So I met her outside a shoe store on Broadway. It's one of the stores I pass by on the way to work everyday but never thought about dropping in. For those of you who know me, I'm the biggest slob there is. I wear whatever's there. But the fact that I've been wearing same black sneakers my sister sent me a while ago (she works for Columbia Sportswear which is great. Thank you Yoonmee!) had been bothering my lady. She was determined to get a pair of Summer shoes for me for a while.
At a first glance, this pair was not very unusual.
"Aren't they cool?" my lady said. Fragile: Handle with Care? Then I realized there are people's faces inside the shoes.
There were pictures, of Andy Warhol for the right foot and Candy Darling for the left. The pair was on sale for twenty dollars. I tried them on. Squishy! The idea of Warhol and Darling under my heels made me giddy. My lady eagerly paid twenty dollars for them.
I don't care if you accuse me of being hipster-ish at an old age. I'm happy to report that their faces are finally in their rightful place.

Hollow Dance

Mother (2009) - Bong
How far will you go to prove your child's innocence? Kim Hye-ja, the reigning queen of Korean tv drama plays the title character in Bong Joon-ho's Mother. He uses Kim's presence to the fullest here. Those big fawny eyes, raven's nest hair, wiry frame. She has been the mother of Korean collective consciousness for the last 40 some years. And she is a force to be reckoned with.

As he demonstrated over the years, Bong's a very talented director, churning out well polished dramedies (Memories of Murder, The Host) with everyman's touch. As we go through the moral muck of the small town ghetto, filled with poverty stricken swindlers, retards, incompetent police, glue sniffing high schoolers, we recognize right away that we are in Bong's world. Mom yells at her idiot son at a visitation after he gets arrested for murder, "Why did you sign the confession? You don't do that even if you are guilty!"

Like in Memories of Murder, Bong's not in a hurry to reveal the murderer. That's not really what he's after. There are plenty of small details and characters he wants to present first. It's not about child prostitution, not about broken family and not even about ineffective judicial system. Bong's very good at his own brand of storytelling. But I feel that he shortchanges those important elements to do so. Ultimately, it's about celebration of motherhood. But it feels hollow somehow.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Beghrir (Moroccan Pancakes) Recipe:

My first Beghrir (semolina pancakes) experience was at an Isreali joint in my neighborhood called Mimi's Hummus and it was fantastic. The fluffy, chewy stack with slightly sour taste was a nice alternative to chalkiness I usually associate with pancakes. So I had to duplicate this at home. I found that it is also honey butter that makes a big difference.

For 14-16 pancakes, you will need:

3 cups warm water
2 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cups semolina flour
1/3 regular flour
2 tsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
vegetable oil
1/3 cup warm honey
6 tbsp melted butter
half dozen strawberries, cut in small cubes

In 1/4 cup of warm water add the baking powder and mix. In large bowl, mix semolina, flour, yeast and sugar and add 2 3/4 cups water. Add salt and baking powder. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let rise for 40 minutes to an hour.

Coat the frying pan with small amount of vegetable oil in medium heat. Pour in the batter one scoop at a time. Cook the pancake until bubbles appear all over the surface and the bottom pale golden, about 2 minutes on both sides. I like mine a little more golden than that of the picture above.

Place them on plates, shower them with strawberries. Mix honey and butter and drizzle it generously. Serve right away.

*My experience with Beghrir is that they don't age well. You might have to eat them all once you made them. Share with everyone!

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Valhalla Rising (2009) - Refn
I gotta admit, Nicolas Winding Refn(The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson)'s macho posing looks and works much better in this period piece. Hell, any film looks much better if it took place in a desolate, stark, unforgiving nature background. Valhalla Rising almost rises above its thin premise by its beauty- a.k.a.; New World. Not even Mads Mikkelsen's one eyed mute warrior from Sutherland can save this hallucinogenic black metal music video. Granted, Refn's use of wide screen format is impressive and often breathtakingly gorgeous. But like his first and last American film, Fear X, it's muddled in Lynchian (but nowhere as intriguing) trippy-ness. Then again, it's not set in American Midwest and not about a small time security guard.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Moon & Cherry (2004) - Tanada
A nice twist on a typical pinku film premise: it's girl on top, using boy as a sextoy to further her career as a eros writer. A college freshman Tadokoro joins an erotic writing club called "Electric Button(a petname variation for female genitalia)". There he meets the only female member of the group, Mayama who is actually published unlike all the knick-knack of horny losers in a nudie magazine strewn clubhouse. Tomboyish and sleepy eyed, straightforward Mayama blows Tadokoro's cover as a pro at their first meeting- "you are a virgin, aren't you?" and lures him into series of sexcapade to help her writing. There are no strings attached and no feeling on Mayama's end. He soon is at her beck and call.

Tadokoro meets a sweet and cute co-worker Akane at the bookstore and starts having a relationship. Akane is everything Mayama is not and she gets jealous as Tadokoro tries to gain Mayama's approval on his writing.

It's a typical no budget teen roman-porno stuff. But Director Yuki Tanada has a nice, gentle touch to the whole genre. It's nicely shot too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


The Garden (2008) - Kennedy
It's South Central, LA. Shortly after the LA Rodney King riot, about 350 mostly hispanic families took 16 acres of garbage heaped land and started cultivating vegetables for their own consumption. For the next 12 years or so, South Central Farm had been oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle. documentarian Scott Hamilton Kennedy chronicles their struggles to keep the farm from getting bulldozed over. The Garden has plenty of drama- community organizations bickering with each other, corrupt politicians, pc celebrities (then prez hopeful Dennis Kucinich, Daryl Hannah, Willie Nelson, Ed Bagley Jr, Zach de la Locha, Danny Glover, Joan Baez and many others), Kunstler style civil rights lawyers, machetes and other farm equipment, injunctions and several reversals of fortune,etc, etc.

In the end, it's a heartbreaker. They lose the farm to a stereotypical villain- Jewish developer who bought back the land for 5 million from the city in some shady backroom deal and two years later, tries to sell it for 16.5 million. When the farmers raise the money, he refuses to sell it to them because he doesn't like their conduct,sees them as anti-semites and as ungrateful immigrants with entitlement mentality.

I remember this being nominated for the best doc along with the Betrayal, Encounters at the End of the World, Man on Wire and Trouble the Water in 2009. It was a good year for docs for sure. Finally saw it and gotta say this is a doc that is up there with Harlan County USA as one doc that packs the strongest punches for me. See this.

Visit South Central Farmers Website

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

JAPAN CUTS 2010: Zero Focus

Zero Focus (1961) - Nomura
Zero Focus (2009) - Inudo
I remember watching the 1961 black and white version of Zero Focus a long time ago thinking, 'this needs an update.' The Hitchcockian premise was very intriguing: a man disappears during his business trip leaving his young wife distressed and confused. She travels to the snow country up north to find the missing husband and digs up someugly past while dead bodies turning up around her. But it was visually bland and lacked any kind of suspense. So it was a nice surprise to see the remake on this year's Japan Cuts line-up.

The film is an epic. It begins with stock footage of the destroyed post-war Japan, then seamlessly moves into the economic-boom era of the 50s with impeccable periodic detail. Director Isshin Inudo here crafted a sumptuous picture of the bygone era Japan seldom seen in contemporary films.

The year is 1957. A naïve, young wife Teiko (Ryoko Hirosue)'s search for her missing husband Kenichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima) takes her to Kanazawa, a snow swept beautiful town spared by bombing in WWII (with its dramatic sea cliffs, the town is a ripe setting for the Hitchcock inspired murder mystery). With the help of her husband's colleague from the advertising firm he worked for, she tracks down a client of his, Murota (Takeshi Kaga), a ruthless local businessman and Murota's elegant and sharp-edged wife Sachiko (Miki Nakatani) who is an ardent supporter of a local woman mayoral candidate. If she is elected, she will be the first woman mayor in Japan. But their meetings leave Teiko more questions than answers to her husband's whereabouts.

She also encounters Murota's receptionist Hisako (Tae Kimura), whose physical attributes and rough pan-pan girl English (pan-pan girls refer to prostitutes for the occupying GIs) don't really add up to how she landed her job. Kenichi knew these people? Teiko soon realizes she knows nothing about her husband's past. Then the bodies start turning up and she begins to understand that her investigation is a threat to someone.

Zero Focus is more than just a murder mystery. It's more to do with however Japan wants to forget the defeat, its shadows haunt the generation from starting anew. Their psyche is forever scarred- Kenichi forever emasculated, Sachiko and Hisako struggling against social, political strictures.

The film is also the stage for three-way acting battle by the best actresses in current Japanese cinema -Hirosue (Departures), Nakatani (Memories of Matsuko, Sweet Little Lies) and Kimura (All Around Us). As the film slowly reaches its lengthy climax, there are mental breakdowns, confessions, sacrifices, stabbings, broken glasses, tears and more tears. They act their hearts out in their respective hammy roles. An over-the-top Sirkian melodrama the film turns out to be. But undeniably well done melodrama for sure, as I witnessed many teary eyes at the end of the screening. The film looks back on Japan's painful rebirth from the ashes of WWII and shines a light on people's resilience.

Zero Focus is screening on July 15th (9PM) at Japan Society as part of 2010 Japan Cuts.

Review at Twitch

Japan Society: Japan Cuts 2010 Website

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

JAPAN CUTS 2010: One Million Yen Girl

One Million Yen Girl (2008) - Tanada
A 21-year old Suzuko (Yu Aoi of Hana and Alice and Shaking Tokyo segment from Tokyo!) has a criminal record from a minor incident. With this stigma in a strict society like Japan, it's quite difficult to lead a normal life: the neighbors' gossips and constant arguing at home gets too much for her. She decides to make a million yen and move out, go some place where no one knows her, find a job and work until make another million and repeat the process. The trouble started with her wanting to leave home and live independently anyway.

Suzuko first goes to a small seaside town and starts working at a concession stand. It turns out she is pretty good at making snow cones. When a local guy takes an interest in her, it is too close for comfort for our heroine. As soon as she reaches her goal, she takes off to a mountain village where she gets a job as seasonal peach harvester. With her fragile figure and girlish looks she attracts unwanted interests wherever she goes.

One Million Yen Girl is an interesting take on the road movie genre in the age of economic meltdown. Its first half plays out like a practical Japanese cousin of Into the Wild. But Suzuko is not snotty, nor proud. Rather, she is quite unsure of herself. With her bank book as her only friend, she travels, meets people and moves on before things get complicated socially.

The film takes a turn and becomes a standard romance when she gets a job at a gardening section of Home Depot style business in one city where she meets Nakajima (Mirai Moriyama), a serious college student. The attraction is mutual and she finally confides in him. To her surprise, he confesses his love for her. Should she stay or should she move on after accumulating another one million yen?

The strength of the film is in all too humanness of Suzuko. She thinks her journey is more to do with not standing up to her reality rather than about discovering herself. This makes her more endearing to watch (Thanks to writer/director Yuki Tanada's acute observation and maturity). With her fragility and "troubled smile', Aoi encompasses the young woman on the brink of adulthood. With its bittersweet ending, one can only hope for a sequel.

ONE MILLION YEN GIRL is screening on July 8th (8:30PM) at Japan Society as part of 2010 Japan Cuts.

Review at Twitch

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

JAPAN CUTS 2010: Bare Essence of Life

Bare Essence of Life: Ultra Miracle Love Story (2009) - Yokohama

Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama, best known as L in Death Note series and an upcoming Haruki Murakami book adaptation, and one of my all time favorite, Norwegian Wood) is a twenty five year old man-child living in a rural town in Aomori with his grandmother. He's not dumb. As he describes himself, his brain is wired differently. He is prone to outbursts and childish behavior. Yojin's daily routine begins with half a dozen alarm clocks and schedule written on the white boards in his room, as he forgets things frequently. He listens to his late grandfather's audiotape instructions on how to grow vegetables and follows through rather unsuccessfully and helps out his grandmother to sell her organic vegetables in town.

Everything changes when Matsuko (beautiful Kumiko Aso) arrives in town from Tokyo. She is a sullen kindergarten teacher who lost her boyfriend in a horrible car accident where his head was decapitated and never recovered. She came to Aomori to consult a medium to see if she can still communicate with him. Yojin is smittened right away but Matsuko's frightened by his erratic behavior. After getting showered by pesticides while playing with a local boy, he finds that pesticides keep his brain calm. Since Matsuko prefers his 'new', less spastic self, Yojin keeps spraying himself with the harmful chemicals in the hopes of her liking him back. The effects actually make him sick and he dies. Then he's alive again, only until he dies the second time!

Okay, on paper, Bare Essence of Life is goofy as hell. Its plot is shoddy and the mix of realistic settings and surrealistic elements doesn't always work. But Satoko Yokohama's film is completely original and fresh. There are lovely scenes of Yojin walking Matsuko home at night. She talks about evolution being stopped as humanity makes its world safer and further controls unpredictable elements like Mother Nature. You have to live freely without fear in order to evolve. Without cutting back and forth, Yokohama lets dialog flow in these natural, intimate one-shot long takes. With its two hour running time, Bare Essence is a leisurely paced contemplation on many elements- new age spirituality, heart vs. brain, nature vs. technology, self-sacrifice, (possibly) autism and cyclical nature of life, all in sunlight drenched beautiful rural Japan. Maybe Yojin with his ability to talk to a dead man with no head is us humans' next evolutionary step? Messy but always engaging with great two lead actors and charming supporting cast largely comprised by the non-professional locals, Bare Essence of Life promises yet another great woman director with unique voice emerging from current Japanese cinema.

BARE ESSENCE OF LIFE: ULTRA MIRACLE LOVE STORY is screening on July 7th (8:30PM) at Japan Society as part of 2010 Japan Cuts.
Review at Twitch

Saturday, July 3, 2010

NYAFF 2010/JAPAN CUTS: Dear Doctor

Dear Doctor (2009) - Nishikawa
A man on a bicycle finds a discarded white lab coat on the road at night. Then he puts the coat on. Miwa Nishikawa's Dear Doctor makes clear from the get-go what this film is really about. It's not the looks or the credentials that makes one a doctor, it's one's heart.

Adapting from her own novel, Nishikawa, a pupil of Hirokazu Kore-eda (Maboroshi, Nobody Knows), skillfully plays out a story of an imposter. In Kamiwada, a small rural village, the sudden disappearance of their beloved doctor, Dr. Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei), who's been serving them for the last three years, leaves its mostly elderly residents in shock and disbelief. Detectives are soon frustrated with conflicting information given by the villagers with no clear picture of who Ino really is.

The film jumps back and forth between the police investigation in to the disappearance and the happier times with Dr. Ino. We backtrack a few months: a young city intern Soma (Eita) shows up in his convertible one day to assist Dr. Ino. The intern is not happy about being there but is soon impressed by how Dr. Ino conducts himself. He is everything the city doctors are not- personable, humble and caring if not a little unorthodox. It becomes apparent to the viewers though that Ino is a fraud. He's been getting by as a doctor with tremendous amount of luck and the help of his loyal and non-judgmental nurse (great Kimiko Yo).

Things get a little hairy when Dr. Ino makes a house call to an old widow Kazuko (Kaoru Yachigusa) who's suffering from ulcer. They both have inkling that it is something more serious. But Kazuko doesn't want her daughters to know, especially the one who is a doctor in the city. She doesn't want to burden her grown up children like her late husband did in his later years. But it is a matter of life and death, and it puts Dr. Ino in a precarious position when the city doctor daughter shows up and disputes his diagnosis. Though his life is a lie, Ino is torn. He wants the old widow to get proper treatment, even though the truth may come out.

For some, it might be a little hard to swallow that these villagers are that gullible even after the police exposes Ino as fraud, especially considering the distrustful state of modern medical care system. Dr. Ino in that sense is a metaphorical figure, not to the extent of Chance the Butler in Being There, but nonetheless an illusion, a wishful thinking that's a little more tangible in the society with its rapidly aging population.

With pitch perfect stellar performances from everyone involved, including Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata, Tokyo!) as a smarmy pharmaceutical rep and gorgeous cinematography by Katsumi Yanagijima (Dolls, Battle Royal), Dear Doctor is a great, if not a little old-fashioned dramedy with a big heart. Just like her mentor Kore-eda, Nishikawa doesn't have one cynical bone in her body. Layers of nuanced visuals, great acting and fitting laid back bluesy soundtrack by More Rhythm are all masterfully put together. But the film belongs to Shofukutei, a rakugoka performer and tv personality, resembling the late Takashi Shimura (Ikiru)- Akira Kurosawa regular, his good-natured pretender is a gleaming projection of our wishes in a cold, impersonal world.

Dear Doctor is screening on July 3rd (1:00PM) and July 4th (4:15PM) at Japan Society as part of 2010 New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts.

Review at Twitch

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Director Yu Irie Interview

Director Yu Irie has two films represented at this year's New York Asian Film Festival: 8000 Miles and 8000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers. In Japan, as in the US, rap music has become an outlet for young people facing an uncertain future. These films are not simply about hip-hop culture in Japan. They are more to do with the blank generation and suburban ennui. Irie, coming from the same background as his characters, understands well the frustrations of these lovable losers in suburbia and portray them with warmth and care. I had an opportunity to talk to him about independent films and hip-hop in Japan.

There are quite a few films at New York Asian Film Festival this year labeled as "indie" film by "indie" filmmakers. Do these labels apply to you in Japan?

Yes, absolutely. There are two criteria I fit in. First, in Japan, anything that's not a major production, it's considered independent. On top of that, when a film is entirely funded by the director himself and made with bunch of friends like mine, it's an indie indeed. So definitely yes.

How influential is hip-hop culture in Japan? Did it influence you growing up?

Hip-hop arrived in the late 80s and really took roots in the early 90's in Japan. I was a teenager then, and there were many great Japanese rap artists who had huge influence on me.

You did two films now about hip-hop groups, first and second one separated by gender (Boys and Girls). Was it a conscious decision?

Yes, that was something I was very conscious of. I knew they would obviously rap about different things.

I noticed the differences how the boys and girls approached hip-hop. The boys seemed more interested in the idea of being a hip-hop artist whereas girls were more enthusiastic about actual music.

Oh, sure. Me being a male, like the characters, I had motivations about being famous, being rich, how girls will like me and all that while making the first 8000 Miles. (Laughs) The second one, with the women with where they are (age-wise), they can really focus on the joy of music. That was something I was interested in showing.

How did you go about selecting actors for the both first and second one? Probably because of the first one's success, you must've gotten more money and more resources for the second. I noticed some known actors in Girl Rappers.

In reality the budget didn't change that much making Girl Rappers. I didn't have much interest in the first place to get well known actors. Even the second one, my focus was on using unknown actors. It just so happened that there were some actors who saw the first one and really loved it and approached me, so they really wanted to be part of the second film. Some of the known actors happened to be right for the parts.

Wow, that's great.

Sure I want people coming out to see the film in theaters but without any famous actor in the film, it would be understandably difficult. But these are people who are out in the countryside trying to be rappers, so the important thing to me was getting believable looking people as those characters. I don't think I could have achieved that with known faces.

Did you know Shingo, Ryusuke and Hakushu beforehand? And is DJ TKD really a musician?

Yes, we all went to same school and we were classmates later on. Yes he is a musician but he can't live off being a musician so he has a business on the side.

In the US, hip-hop comes out of specific conditions- poverty, racism and violence. What issues drive Japanese youth to get involved in hip-hop?

Japan in the 90's, that's when hip-hop became big, mimicking American artists and they were trying to figure out how to make it their own. It's different though. Like the first 8000 Miles film, they started to rap about where they are from. The lyrics were still mellow compared to poverty and things like that. 8000 Miles came out just before the Lehman Brothers scandal and global recession, which have been affecting Japan as well. I think there will soon be edgier, harsher lyrics to reflect that.

What are your expectations on audience reception for your films both here and Japan?

It's really hard to imagine how it will be received but it's not really about hip-hop culture but more about youth trying to achieve their dreams and so whatever hip-hop represents to the characters, they can replace it themselves with whatever their dreams are so they can relate to characters that way.

The other thing is female Japanese rappers haven't achieved any success in Japan. Hopefully it will change when they see Girl Rappers.

My French friend was very adamant about French language being most suited for rap, do you think about Japanese that way?

(Laughs) I think English is more suited for rap to be honest. English has harder sounding words than French or Japanese.

I think many Shogung fans will disagree with you.


So what's next for you?

I think I'll continue the series with a film about DJs.

Yu Irie talks about hip-hop at Twitch