Saturday, July 27, 2019


The Rovolutionary Road (2008) - Mendes
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


The Mountain (2018) - Alverson
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

        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.

        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,,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).


        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.

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.

         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.


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.”, 14 Feb. 2013,
Chang, Dustin. “Interview: Asghar Farhadi on His New Film, THE SALESMAN.”, 25, Jan.2017,
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: A Dialogue Between the Authors
(Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum).” Jonathan, 7
Nov. 2001,
Kiarostami, Abbas. “Interview Abbas Kiarostami’s best shot.”, 29 Jul.
Ebert, Roger. “Taste of Cherry.” 27, Feb.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
Wikipedia contributors. “Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Jan. 2019

Sunday, July 21, 2019


Midsommar (2019) - Aster
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
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
kamagasaki caldraun war
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

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.

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
Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 11.16.08 AM
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.