Archive for the 'Film' Category

Figures in the Earth

A little girl watches her grandmother walk off into the distance, returning home to die in the town where she grew up. As the silhouette of the old woman disappears behind the crown of a road, it’s as if the sky has swallowed her up.

Maborosi is filled with such images. Still haunted by dreams of her grandmother’s departure, Yumiko (played by Makiko Esumi) moves to a small seaside community where she tries to rebuild her life, filled with doubt after the death of her husband. Close ups become less frequent, profiles form half moons of light in rooms steeped in darkness and figures become insignificant specks against the coastal landscape.
Wide angle shots define a new emotional space for Yumiko’s world. Gone is the intimacy of a cramped apartment, the neighbor’s radio blaring through thin walls. Children at play become lost in a snowy hillside’s spotted hide and race across an inverted sky. They emerge from a drainage tunnel into a blotch of light that looks abstract and unnatural.
The scenes tantalize at meaning inherent in the imposing nature of the coast that somehow reflects the inner anguish of Yumiko’s search for answers. “…The sea is awesome,” she observes at one point. “Perhaps too much so,” her companion replies.


Loop the Loop

In the spirit of the 4 Star, the best movie house on Earth, I thought I’d combine two reviews into one ass-kicking double feature. You’ll have to provide your own shrimp chips and popcorn yeast of course.

Let’s get this out of the way, right off: Yo-Yo Girl Cop has the best opening credit sequence ever made (Saul Bass fans clam up).
Out of the public eye, a select number of teens are tapped to go undercover to infiltrate schools where domestic terrorist threats are suspected to be hiding. Other than their wits, empathy for their peers, and whatever fighting skills they might have accrued in their past lives (the girls seem by nature or nurture to be a pretty brutal bunch), their weapon and sole identifier as a member of the elite group is their yo-yo.

It’s always fun to see what other countries can do with what is largely an American concept: super heroes. It was British writers who added much of the polish and depth that we expect nowadays from characters who for decades were content with looking colorful and engaging in what amounted to schoolyard brawls that tore up city blocks. The Philippines gave us Gagamboy, which while often funny, came off more as a parody than a serious contender. Cutie Honey from Japan cranked up the humor still more, which unfortunately made the outing seem to sag a bit when the character had to get down to the business of saving the world (yet, still a favorite all things considered).
Yo Yo Girl Cop plays it with a straight face. Sort of. If there is one thing in common I love about so many Japanese films, it’s the sincerity. Faced with the alarming number of suicides among teens or the disaffection of the hikikomori, for a country that often identifies restraint as part of the national character their cinema displays an outpouring of sympathy for adolescents and the trials they face. The film is honest enough to admit that adults for the most part don’t have a clue how their kids are feeling. So we get quite a bit of Aya Matsuura as Saki Asamiya simply dealing with the problems of both bullying and suicide chat rooms while investigating the school.

Where Gagamboy never missed a chance to wink at the audience, Yo Yo Girl Cop rarely does, but although Saki Asamiya’s initiation into the life of an undercover operative takes a page right out of La Femme Nikita, there is nothing nearly that sublime here. It skews closer to Spider-man where things are deathly serious, but there’s time out now and again for a few laughs from J. Jonah Jameson. Here we get Riki Ishikawa as her minder, pulling faces every chance he gets, and I like him more and more with every sneer. There are certainly plenty of over-the-top performances to go around, perhaps all the more endearing since everyone seems so earnest you can’t help but feel that they’re all quietly dancing around the silliness of the central conceit of the main character’s arsenal. It’s important to remember that super heroes as a concept are inherently pretty ridiculous to begin with. You’re going to have to wait ’til the very end for the yo-yo fight. It’s brief, but believe me it’s worth it.


Madam City Hunter, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother with a prolonged title sequence. Before you can say in media res the bullets are flying and our heroine is on the scene. This is the kind of lean and mean storytelling that Hong Kong brought to action films decades ago that made American films taste like weak tea by comparison. Alas, some of us had to play catch up, and it’s clear that by the Nineties when this film was released, the formula had been refined to perfection. Thankfully, Hong Kong directors, perhaps because of the huge numbers of films released each year and anticipating their audiences ever sharpening appetites were never willing to rest on their laurels. There was still a lot of experimentation going on, seeing just how much you could alter the ratio of comedy to drama for example, or just how you could do a shoot-out sequence a little differently.
In the case of Hunter, we get an increase to the humor quotient, which if graphed would look like a continual ascent with brief dips appearing for the occasional action set piece. Although martial arts films frequently mix comic elements during frantic fight sequences, Hunter is constantly deflating suspenseful set-ups with a humorous denouement. It’s as though the main characters just can’t take the situations they’ve been placed in seriously. So when an assassin slips into an apartment, turns on the gas and plants his bomb, the protagonists tweak to it pretty quickly, but spend most of the time bickering over who is going to deal with the problem. It’s almost as if they’ve disarmed the set-up rather than the bomb.

So who is Madam City Hunter? She’s Cynthia Khan, playing Yang Ching, the toughest cop on the force. Yes, like every cop in film since time immemorial she falls under scrutiny and is nearly pulled from the case, but in a refreshing HK twist, her superior begs her to cross the line and do things her way (it may have something to do with the fact that he’s developed something of a crush on his subordinate).
Joining her as partner is a private investigator played by Anthony Wong. If I’m not completely mistaken his character is actually named Charlie Chan. He provides a little approximation of a broken English stereotyped Chinese character at one point for laughs, which was so unexpected and daring that I think I yelped. I’m so used to seeing this guy in hard boiled roles like in Beast Cops and Infernal Affairs that it’s nice to see him making mince meat out of a comic role. He also sports a shaggy mane of scraggly hair in this one, which means some terrible looking wigs on the stunt men.

Shelia Chan plays Charlie’s love interest Blackie, who from the moment she appears pretty much steals the show. If IMDB is to be believed it’s unconscionable that she doesn’t have a filmography as extensive as Wong’s. Along with the police chief, they together form a kind of Love Quadrangle, everyone suspicious of the other’s affections. The brilliance behind it is that it’s all just Charlie jerking everyone else around to amuse himself. One scene in a restaurant finds all of the characters speaking in voice-over wondering about the others’ intentions while reading all kinds of meanings into every move of a chopstick. Blackie, worried that Charlie is falling for Yang Ching, gets progressively drunker, punctuating every exchange between him and the chief with yet another toast, with predictable results.
So what do you get for your rental price? You get a battle on bamboo scaffolding. A cool set piece fight on a dam. There is the dreaded “Wonder Strike,” mentioned more often than performed. There’s a car wash seduction scene, a dinner seduction scene, a haircut seduction scene, all of them played thankfully for laughs. There is the fun that only decades-old movies can provide of revealing what filmmakers thought would be a cool apartment (red brick wallpaper), a cool club (neon sign of a music stave with blinking notes), or a bad-ass gang hideout (lots of graffiti in day glo colors of big Rolling Stonesesque lips, skulls and peace signs). It’s unconscionable that this didn’t go into sequel mode á la the Mad Mission series. Some people aren’t fond of the admixture of comic, romance, drama and action but Hong Kong cinema does it oh so well, so if you’re game, here’s an antidote for those deathly serious action films that do none of the above well at all.

Reckless With Other People’s Hearts

I’ve been dreading writing up a review of a doc that I wasn’t really crazy about to begin with. Instead, I thought I’d point you to this work by David OReilly that I recently stumbled upon that’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.
Please Say Something has more interesting ideas and comments on life than films twelve times its length. I’m usually way behind the curve on stuff like this, which is why I rarely post them, but according to the creator’s blog, the short recently won a Special Distinction award at the Festival International du Film d’Animation d’Annecy. So if you’re already hip to this, consider a celebratory re-viewing.

Six Guns and Sinta

As this blog is rapidly approaching its terminal point, this will likely be the final update about films that I put on my must see list last year (the previous capsule reviews can be found here). Didn’t manage to see very many, but I place the blame squarely on distributors not knowing a good thing when they see it. Hopefully more will find their way to Region 1 DVD release soon.

Sukiyaki Western Django

sukiyakiIn the shadow of Mount Fuji, a drifter spins a tale about a hidden cache of gold left behind in a town that was once the battleground between two warring clans. That town just happens to be in Nevada, and the drifter is a sharp shooter played by none other than Quentin Tarrantino, so you know right off the bat that you’ve entered Takashi Miike territory.

With his usual daring, the director up and plunks down the American Old West squarely within Japan’s borders, working within the framework of the Spaghetti Western. Since the genre itself blossomed into glorious excess at the hands of Italian directors re-imagining Andalusia as the American Southwest, and many a Japanese chanbara inspired American knock offs set at High Noon in a dusty street, Miike is not so much completing the loop as giving the wheel another spin.

It’s as over-the-top as its forebears and everything you’ve come to expect from a Miike film (that is, you never know just what to expect). When one of the clan bosses begins instruction on catching a falling katana with your bare hands, you can tell something is up, and simply have to wait to see how Miike will spin it. Shakespeare, otaku references, critiques on the sweetness of sukiyaki (reminding me of another fav, Tampopo) and quick draw goddesses in human form: it’s always better to be disappointed by a director’s daring misfire than settling for reheated seconds, and for me anyway, Western Django didn’t disappoint.

Opera Jawa

operajawaIt was fortuitous that recently I was able to enjoy a taste of Balinese wayang kulit as performed by ShadowLight as well as finally getting around to watching Sita Sings the Blues online. You get a brief glimpse of the clashing puppets here, as well as the gender wayang instruments employed during the Yerba Buena Gardens show. In truth, Opera Jawa incorporates a bewildering number of artistic performance and presentation types, from wayang orang dance to contemporary styles, traditional tembang sunda song and sets dressed like a Matthew Barney exhibit. Nina Paley’s animated marvel proved a great primer for the myth of Sita (here referred to by her Indonesian name Sinta), the abducted wife of Rama who is accused by her husband of infidelity with the demon Rahwana (check out blogger Engineer’s Daughter’s impressions here).

Just like in Sita Sings the Blues, the mythological tale looms large over events in a contemporary story. Jealousy begins to stir in Setyo (Martinus Miroto), a potter, when faced with the attention that a local thug named Ludiro (Eko Spruyanto) is paying to his wife, a former dancer named Siti (Artika Sari Devi). The fact that Siti was famed for her portrayal of the role of Sinta gives the ensuing events the air of tragedy replaying itself.

While no doubt the production must have had a lavish budget, it is amazing to see the small improvisations that are made with relatively common materials. During a contentious scene in their bedroom, Setyo resisting the entreaties of Siti wraps his t-shirt around his head as he dances, making implicit in action his attempts to shut out his wife emotionally. After he spies her returning from an encounter with Ludiro, lump of clay resting in his hands, Setyo imagines Siti sitting atop his potting wheel as if he could mold her desires to his wishes. Woven cones for scooping and covering steamed rice are converted into any number of things from scene to scene: the head and tail of a caterpillar-like beast, a mask, the larger versions even becoming tent-like blinds from which Ludiro’s gang members spring out to startle Siti.

It’s shocking actually that the three elements of song, dance and set design work in concert so well considering how dream-like and memorable is the visual element. I was reminded of Gummo director Harmony Korine’s stated intention in the DVD extras of that film to create images he’d never seen before, but wanted to see. Ludiro dancing in a room of silver heads next to a suspended slaughtered carcass, a servant reverently laying flower petals on a sculpture of a television set next to an ancient temple, mannequins with candle heads that bleed wax down their length: in the hands of an individual artist any could be a work unto themselves, but here each is seamlessly interwoven into the whole.

Words are a Deceit

I generally hold with the Nabokovian school of thought when it comes to novels. The biography of the author is unimportant in interpreting their books, in fact it can be downright misleading. But Paul Schrader makes a pretty convincing case in his film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters that the seeds of the real life tragedy to come are there, implicit in the Japanese novelist’s work.
The film deftly cuts back and forth between scenes adapted from three of Mishima’s books, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, and dramatized scenes from the author’s life. Youth and beauty were two concepts that clearly troubled and enervated him. He muses, disgustedly, of how ugly heaven must look, peopled with those who have died in old age rather than cut down in their prime by the edge of a sword as in ages past. Over time, he clearly grew more and more dissatisfied with simply exploring such themes in his work: his well-known obsession with body-building in adulthood is but one example that such concerns were deep rooted in his character.

During one bravura scene in which Ken Ogata as Mishima practices swordplay garbed in the traditional dress of the samurai, the voice over makes it seem as if he is battling against his self doubt, sparring with the circumstances that obstruct the relationship of his ideas to his life. “Can art and action still be united?” he asks, noting that “…action is never deceitful.” The exaltation of youth and beauty metamorphose into a desire for purity and he becomes convinced that the reconciliation of art and action could only be achieved by death. Total purity could be found “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”

It is this cumulative effect of the carefully chosen scenes from the author’s works and the observations from the writer himself that makes Schrader’s film so interesting. The illusion is cast that you are following Mishima’s train of thought from his earliest days to its bitter end. Schrader of course, takes no chances that the audience might feel bogged down by all the alternating internal monologues and adapted scenes by offering tantalizing glimpses of what would prove the most dramatic and bewildering chapter in the author’s life. Bit by bit, he reveals the details of the fateful day in 1970 when Mishima and a group of young men from what was essentially his private army set out in uniform for the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. This aspect gives the film the air of a thriller, even if you are aware of what transpired next. Which is not to say that Schrader glamorizes the events. Despite their careful planning and rehearsals, Mishima and his men arrive fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, and so have to circle around the block. It’s the kind of detail that only happens in real life, or in the writings of the most observant and unromantic of novelists.

Choke Hold

Jules Dassin’s Night and the City is the bleakest of film noirs. Usually the genre is marked by its claustrophobic relationships: domestic betrayals, love triangles, tight-knit criminal cells that eventually implode. But in Dassin’s film, the fallout from the grandiose schemes of a small time hustler threaten to make casualties out of everyone he comes into contact with. Misfortune radiates outward from him, taking friend and foe alike.

Harry Fabian, played to sleazy perfection by Richard Widmark, thinks he’s hit on a sure thing after winning the confidence of an aging professional wrestler. He is determined to set up his own gym and dreams of dominating the wrestling circuit in London. But his reputation has preceded him and soon past colleagues and new enemies alike are conspiring to put him out of the picture once and for all.
Things come to a head during a wrestling match near the end of the picture, usually the point where I begin to zone out. But this is no brawl for its own sake. The stakes are so high that I found myself grinding my teeth in expectation over the outcome. Even though Fabian has been revealed to be fairly cretinous, the agonized look on his face as he sees his world about to unravel can’t help but elicit sympathy. In fact the scene made me rethink everything that had happened up until that moment and I realized that in his way, Fabian reacted to every situation like a wrestler. He never thought too far ahead, and when finding himself in a tough spot he would merely maneuver himself enough to be free momentarily, only to be seized and squeezed again: every new assault threatening to be the one that proves his undoing.

The Body Electric

A boy climbing the steel lattice of a power transmission tower gets a jolt of 80,000 volts of electricity and plummets to the ground below. Rather than killing him, the juice continues to flow through his veins, feeding his aggression. Something primal within his brain unlocked, he attempts to channel the bellicosity into a career in boxing upon becoming an adult, before finally discovering the release of an electric guitar.
I have to admit I put off viewing Electric Dragon 80.000 V for a good long while based on its notorious reputation. Reading the reviews online you’d think your eyeballs would explode upon gazing on Sogo Ishii’s 50-minute labor of love. Comparisons with Shinya Tskukamoto’s Tetsuo, are inevitable and for the most part apt. It shares the “do-it-yourself on a budget but still show up the big money productions” ethos, a narrative subordinate to the exploration of the visual element and an impatience with conventions while still displaying an affinity for genre logic. In fact, both directors prove that a lot of quite early film techniques can still infuse a film with a vitality that makes it ground breaking. While we’ll be seeing the “Matrix effect” for years to come with ever diminishing returns, Electric Dragon’s director goes back to the montage to give the work a stylistic unity that draws the many thematic currents of the film together.

Cutting between images of reptiles (the main character’s accident is said to have stimulated a dormant part of our brain inherited from our cold-blooded forebears) and metal objects (conductors of electricity), Isii quickly piles up the tactile relationships until they come to seem one and the same. The scales on the neck of an iguana, the grooves in a tattooist’s electric needle, the patterns on a corrugated metal floor: the character of Dragon Eye Morrison (played by Tadabobu Asano) is built out of this visual procession. Just as in Woman in the Dunes, where the camera lens zooms in ever closer to the grains of sand, attention to the visual characteristics provide the substance for the story. Speed the film up in your mind’s eye, it seems to urge, compare and contrast their natures along with their coarseness or grain, and you’ll see the relationships are more than surface ones.

The most important element is of course electricity. Japanese filmmakers, live action and anime alike, have clearly paid particular attention to the fact that the modern world in all its particulars is an electric age, their chosen mediums unthinkable without it. The eyes of storyboard artists and background painters always drift upward, to the spirograph of cables tucked under the projecting roof, the cat’s cradle of wires stretching over the intersection of even the sleepiest village. In the anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character is an awareness evolved from the accumulated discharge and ever-expanding network of circuits. Morrison eventually manages to hold down a proper job as a reptile investigator, spending his days skulking through alleyways or ducking into a crouch to explore drainage tunnels, hunting for lost pets. But by night, he must shackle himself to a slab to ground himself due to the build-up of electricity within his body. When that’s not enough, he turns to his electric guitar which provides the pressure valve for both the voltage and the attendant aggression.
This anger management brings him some measure of stability, until the arrival of a nemesis, half his face covered in a metal Buddha mask whose body also seems a conduit for vast amounts of electricity. Like in Tetsuo, a confrontation is inevitable, but it remains to be seen what kind: both movies defy expectations in so many ways that the viewer is ready for anything. Even if the resulting scene borrows from the typical comic book playbook, the context couldn’t be more different: a super hero and super villain indifferent to those around them, demigods ignored by the general public, brought together to annihilate one another solely on the basis of recognition of a kindred soul.

On the Masthead

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