J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: Lost Eyes

Linh is like a Vietnamese Zatoichi, except she doesn’t even use a sword. She can make do with her cane or any staff-like object that comes to hand. She is looking for the man who stole her eyes, but she is already too enlightened for revenge. However, the ruthless One-Eyed Cuong is a different story. A showdown is therefore inevitable in Luu Huynh’s Lost Eyes (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Linh was born with supernaturally intense blue eyes. Unfortunately, Cuong, a low level thug and general underworld whipping boy, receives magical instructions from a crooked priest allowing him to steal their power to fuel his own ambitions. Even though he sort of botches the job, he still gets enough juice from the ritual to become the top kingpin. Tragically, he kills both of Linh’s parents in the process, but a convent takes in the young peasant girl, where she duly receives instruction in martial arts.

Through her own clairvoyant rituals, Linh’s teacher discovers her mother’s spirit now resides in Cuong’s heart, where she lays massive guilt trips on the savage gangster. If Linh successfully faces the man who stole her eyes, she will see her mother once again. So she does not blow into town for the sake of retribution. However, if she just so happens to get some payback as part of her loftier goal then so be it.

Lost Eyes is a throwback in the best way possible. It is mostly about gritty, grungy street-fighting, but it layers some spiritual seasoning on top, just the way we like it. Frankly, this is the sort of film that built Golden Harvest back in the day and it still works for contemporary audiences.

As Linh, Ngoc Thanh Tâm shows instant star power and profound action cred. Likewise, Binh Minh chews enough scenery to be a worthy nemesis as Cuong. Thúy Vinh (still striking looking, despite the film’s de-glamouring) nicely handles the mystical business as Linh’s priestess-guru. There are also plenty of talented stunt performers, who will get thoroughly smacked around by Linh and Cuong.

This is not a complicated narrative, but the fight scenes are pleasingly down-to-earth and super-charged, in an old school kind of way. Both Ngoc and her character wear well on viewers as the film progresses, making a potential franchise an appealing prospect. Frankly, it is just refreshing to see a new film that is so honest to the martial arts genre tradition, yet still manages to establish its own identity. Highly recommended for action fans, Lost Eyes screens this Tuesday (7/7), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema 2015 at the Honolulu Art Museum. Anyone planning a trip to Hawaii in the near future should make a point of checking out their film program, in addition to the beaches and volcanoes.

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Friday, July 03, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Violator

Benito “Super Cop” Alano is dying, but not quick enough. The terminally ill policeman will live long enough to see the apocalypse or something even worse in Dodo Dayao’s cryptic and elliptical horror film, Violator (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

It is the end of the world and everyone feels lousy, but they do not realize how bad things are yet. In a series of vignettes that initially appear unconnected, we see Alano resign himself to his impending mortality, watch several of his colleagues execute a drug dealer for sport, and witness a number of suicides. Perhaps most distressingly, a mucho pregnant school teacher finds her classroom is mysteriously empty, except for the corpse wearing a boar’s head. Perhaps it has something to do with the Jonestown like cult. They also committed mass suicide, but the grainy VHS footage Dayao presents leads us to wonder if another evil agency was also at work.

Just when we are most confused, Dayao finally reverts to a traditional narrative structure for the third act. The long teased super storm has finally made landfall in Manila, stranding Alano and his problematic officers on their leaky hilltop precinct station (#13, of course). However, the weather outside is the least of their concerns. In their cell, the cops are holding an incredibly disruptive teen, who gives every indication of demonic possession. Whenever he talks, it leads to trouble.

Considering how borderline experimental the initial two thirds of Violator arguably are, it is rather remarkable how effective his locked-in-with-the-evil-one story arc turns out to be. It is reminiscent of Stephen King’s Storm of the Century, but grungier, more intimate, and less annoying.

This is definitely the sort of film viewers have to hang in with, although you could almost come in cold for the third act. However, recognizing certain figures adds to the mounting unease. Frankly, it would not have killed anyone if Dayao had tightened up the early sequences, but the cumulative wtf-ness of them all is rather unsettling. It is not exactly a prime showcase for actors, but Andy Bais is quite memorably haunted as Vic, the station’s old custodian and gopher. Likewise, Reji Hidalgo makes a strong impression as the early roof-jumper. We really don’t want to see her do it, but we’re powerless to stop her.

Even when borrowing elements from the V/H/S franchise’s playbook, Dayao maintains a mood a profound dread. However, his cagey approach to story structure gets a little tiresome. In a genre film, there comes a time to come clean and confirm some basics regarding the stakes involved. Recommended expressly for fully informed patrons of unconventional cinema, Violator screens Wednesday (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Socialphobia

This is a better time to be a relative grown-up than a kid, because you will not look freakishly strange if you keep social networking at arm’s length and ought to be wise enough to understand why that might be a good idea. For those who still do not understand the risks of oversharing and flame-wars, Hong Seok-jae explains it once again in Socialphobia (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

In a Law & Order-ishly ripped-from-the-headlines story, a young soldier has committed suicide, but instead of sympathy, a troll using the handle of “Re-Na” has offered up a series of vile comments. This has generated considerable netrage, particularly with two with students preparing for the Police Academy exams. At the insistence of the more gung-ho Ha Yong-min, Kim Ji-woong agrees to join a small gang of rage-rootsers, who want to take their online outrage offline, by paying her a visit in the flesh, which of course they will broadcast online. However, they will wish they had a tape delay in place when they arrive at the woman’s apartment, finding the door wide open and Re-Na dangling from a noose.

There is no way they can deny their involvement, since tens of thousands of online gawkers witnessed them apparently hounding the woman to death. Her real name was Min Ha-young, but it turns out she had an even more notorious “flamer” identity online. They also soon learn her “Re-Na” twitter account was hacked. Ha soon suspects they were set up to cover for a murder, so if they can catch the killer, they just might salvage their hopes of becoming cops.

Something about the internet just brings out the stupid in people, so every mistake these knuckleheads make is wince-inducingly credible. Hong dexterously keeps increasing the temperature on Kim and Ha, like frogs in slowly boiling water, but he loses the handle on the hyperventilating climax.

Hong’s faux-vérité vibe gives the film you-are-there immediacy and the entire cast looks like it was plucked out of bargain basement internet café. While Byun Yo-han is a bit stolid as Kim, Lee Joo-seung is appropriately tightly wound and jangly as Ha. Basically, we can believe this young ensemble is capable of a wide range of morally problematic behavior, which is a disturbing commentary in itself.

While SoPho shares some thematic similarities with Solomon’s Perjury, it lacks the Japanese film sequence’s depth and scope. It is sort of like comparing a line of shots with a multi-course banquet. One is instantly effective, while the other is much more nourishing. Still, SoPho definitely succeeds as a cautionary tale. After watching it, you will want to run multiple virus scans on your computer and then dunk it in industrial strength disinfectant. Recommended for fans of Unfriended, Socialphobia screens tomorrow (7/4) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

New Vietnamese Cinema ’15: Jackpot

State lotteries are often called a tax on stupidity. Evidently they are quite a hard sell in Vietnam, but peddling them is the only work a naïve single mother can find. However, it seems like Thom’s tickets have an unusually high chance of winning. Naturally, that only leads to trouble in Dustin Nguyen’s Jackpot (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Thom is sweet as she can be, but she has a hard time providing for her young daughter. Her ex-husband is not totally out of the picture, but his new wife is definitely the jealous type. Fortunately, Tu Nghia will always buy a set of tickets when she most needs help (even though his sensible wife usually protests), while Ba Muoi provides day care on credit. The older woman’s conman husband Tu Phi has just been released from prison, but she is hardly thrilled to see him. Yet, Thom will broker a rapprochement between them. Soon, they settle in rather peacefully together. In fact, when she discovers she has purchased a big winner from Thom, she allows the old fast-talker to claim it as his own.

In retrospect, this will be a mistake. True to form, as soon as Tu Phi feels some money in his pockets, he starts making bad decisions and falling in with the wrong crowd. Frankly, a sudden windfall might make matters worse rather than better for all involved (not so subtle take-away warning). Yet, just as things look desperate for Thom and her extended family, providence might just provide again.

Vietnamese-American expat Nguyen will be recognizable to some for his TV work as a cast-member on 21 Jump Street and V.I.P., but he has since reinvented his career as Vietnam’s top box-office draw. Rather logically, in addition to directing, he also appears in Jackpot, as the rugged, salt-of-the-earth farmer, Tu Nghia. However, there is no question Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc outshines everyone and everything as the earnest Thom. There is something refreshing about her guilelessness and indomitably sunny disposition. However, as Tu Phi, the old reprobate, a little of Chi Tai’s shtick goes a long way. Similarly, the less said about Thom’s man-stealing rival, the better.

Jackpot definitely extolls the value of provincial village life and discourages capital accumulation, which surely pleased the current regime. Still, there is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating community and compassion. Despite his more action-oriented resume, Nguyen displays a light, skillful touch for comedic fare. As a result, American audiences will probably relate to it more easily than the broad, slapsticky Lost in Thailand franchise. Rather enjoyable in an old fashioned way, thanks in large measure to the radiant Ninh Duong, Jackpot is recommended for fans of light comedy when it screens this coming Sunday (7/5) and Tuesday (7/7), as part of New Vietnamese Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art, one of the country’s leading venues for Asian cinema.

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NYAFF ’15: Solomon’s Perjury Parts 1 & 2

Even in middle school, the cover-up is almost as bad as the crime. One fateful morning, Ryoko Fujino discovered a classmate’s body lying dead in the snow. The police and the school declared it a suicide and that was that, until someone started sending anonymous letters accusing the school bully of murder. The grown-ups in authority will try to paper over it again, but Fujino and her classmates will have none of it. They are determined to reveal the truth, even though they have no lofty hopes that it will set them free in Izuru Narushima’s gripping two-part, four-and-a-half-hour-plus film sequence, Solomon’s Perjury Part 1: Suspicion and Solomon’s Perjury Part 2: Judgement (trailer here), which both screen as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

On the Christmas morning in question, Fujino and a classmate trudge to Joto No. 3 Junior High School, to feed the rabbits. They are filling in for the recently absent Takuya Kashiwagi, whose body they are about to discover Fargo style. After a perfunctory investigation, the juvy division detective Reiko Sasaki concludes it was suicide and closes the case. However, a few weeks later, Fujino gets a mysterious missive claiming the thuggish Shunji Oide murdered Kashiwagi and imploring her to have her police detective father reopen the case.

Fujino is not the only person to receive such a J’accuse. Copies were also sent to the principal and Kashiwagi’s home room teacher, but the fate of the latter will become a source of great contention too complicated to explain here. Much to the frustration of the two bullied letter-writers, the police seem more concerned with ferreting out the accusers than investigating the accusations.

Of course, no matter how hard the authorities try to keep a lid on the affair, word still leaks out to the student body—and the effect is poisonous. When the ensuing paranoia leads to the death of one of the not so anonymous letter-writing girls, student outrage reaches critical mass. Resolved to discover the truth, Fujino and her friends will stage their own trial of Oide, complete with a student jury, in a deliberate departure from Japanese jurisprudence. To fairly represent the defendant, they enlist Kazuhiko Kanbara, a former primary school acquaintance of Kashiwagi, who clearly has his own murky agenda.

Without question, Solomon’s Perjury is the event of this year’s NYAFF. It starts out as a twisty turny mystery and mushrooms into a moral treatise on the nature of guilt and responsibility. In many ways, it delivers an emotional walloping similar to the original first season Broadchurch, but in contrast, it leaves the audience with a feeling of empowerment. In film terms, think of it as something like one part Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions and two parts Edward Yang’s Brighter Summer Day, but it has its own distinct tone.

Wisely, screenwriter Manabe Katsuiko retains the tail-end of the 1990 bubble economy setting of Miyabe Miyuki’s source novel, which is a blessing in several ways. While the perceptive kids’ jaded opinions of their ethically compromised parents retains all its bite, the lack of semi-literate text messages cluttering up the screen is a welcome relief. In fact, the existence of phone booths, now practically extinct, plays a critical role in V. 2.

The writing is smart and scrupulously realistic throughout both installments, but the way the young ensemble breathes life into the narrative is truly remarkable. If you want to see youthful actors putting on a clinic, this is your ticket. Up and down the line, they put the Harry Potter franchise to shame, led by the extraordinary Ryoko Fujino, who adopted her character’s name as her professional nom-de-guerre. Words like poise, nuance, and vulnerability do not do her justice.

Still, she does not do it alone. In particular, Mizuki Itagaki, Miu Tomita, and Haru Kuroki have moments of quiet devastation as the mysterious friend, the ill-fated accuser, and the harassed home room teacher. For the sake of our souls, Yutaka Matsushige also nicely lays down some crusty comic relief as the cooler-than-he-looks gym teacher, Kitao.

Even though it was released as separate installments in Japan it would be preferable to see Solomon’s Perjury as a complete package. Be that as it may, NYAFF is showing it over two nights, but it is worth the inconvenience and extra admission. It grabs the audience right from the start and pulls them in deeper with each revelation. Yet, it might be even more exciting to witness the arrival of so much new talent. Very highly recommended, Solomon’s Perjury Part 1 screens this Sunday (7/5) at the Walter Reade and Part 2 screens on Friday the 10th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

NYAFF ’15: The Last Reel

Approximately 300 films were produced during the “Golden Age” of Cambodian cinema, but only thirty survived the barbarity of the Communist Khmer Rouge. That means one missing reel of an otherwise intact Cambodian feature is as maddeningly and tantalizingly significant as the legendary lost bits of The Magnificent Ambersons. One young Cambodian woman sets out to find or recreate such footage, but her search will bring her face-to-face with history both national and personal in Sotho Kulikar’s The Last Reel (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Sophoun is at a crossroads. Disinterested in school and disinclined to submit to her military father’s arranged marriage, she has been avoiding home life as much as possible. Unfortunately, that also means she has neglected her increasingly age-addled mother. Having fallen in with a delinquent crowd, she is forced to take refuge one night in a decrepit old movie theater. Much to her surprise, she finds a movie poster with her mother’s face prominently displayed.

As she learns from the standoffish proprietor, her mother was once a movie star, known as Sothea and he has the only print of her final film. In fact, he compulsively screens it every night, but alas, it is incomplete. Yet, that initially adds to its allure for Sophoun. Did her mother’s character chose the prince she was betrothed to, or the peasant who saved her from a jealous nobleman?

Even with the former filmmaker-projectionist’s help, Sophoun has no luck tracking down either the missing reel or the original screenplay. However, her bad boy boyfriend and the university film department will help recreate the conclusion. At this point, they head into the field, which turns out to be part of the Killing Fields. As her reluctant movie mentor’s memories come flooding back, things start getting interesting for all concerned.

The loss of Cambodia’s cinematic heritage is a true tragedy, especially since those Angkor costume epics look so amazing. The Long Way Home, the film-within-the-film, gives us an enticing hint of what they were like. However, Sotho and screenwriter Ian Masters incorporate Sothea’s film into the narrative in even deeper ways. Structurally, Reel is a very ambitious work—and they largely pull it off. There are a whole heck of a lot of third act revelations, but rather than feeling forced, they organically represent realities of post-Pol Pot Cambodian life.

Any film that brings Dy Saveth (considered the only living survivor of the Golden Age) back onto the silver screen earns its props right there. She is downright haunting as Sothea, especially given the meta-significance of her character. Nevertheless, it is Ma Rynet who must carry the film, being on-screen almost every second. Fortunately, she has more than the necessary energy and presence required. There is a certain unpolished naiveté to her performance that works quite well in the context of Masters’ narrative. Yet, it is prominent filmmaker Sok Sothun who really lowers the boom as the physically and spiritually scarred projectionist.

At times, Reel feels overstuffed with subplots and side-characters, but Sotho manages to tie them all up neatly enough to satisfy the demands of cinema. This film was necessarily a learning experience for many trying to rebuild the Cambodian film industry, so it is rather exciting to see it all come together down the stretch. The final product is sort of like a profoundly serious Cinema Paradiso. Highly recommended for those who care about the preservation and advancement of cinema as an art-form, The Last Reel screens this Sunday (7/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: River Road

It is hard to believe, but the current administration actually believes the Chinese government is onboard with their climate change protocols. Of course, these are the same people who believe the Iranian regime is a partner for peace. One look at the environmental degradation of China’s provinces and Tibet ought to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. Sadly, it is particularly apparent in northwest Gansu, the traditional home to Yugur (“Old Uyghur”) herders. Viewers will see how dry and desiccated the once fertile grassland has become in Li Ruijin’s River Road (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Their language is Turkic or Mongolic-based and their religion is Tibetan Buddhism. Their way of life is rapidly vanishing, but Adikeer and Bartel’s grandfather provides a link to the older, better days. Bartel, the older brother, lives with the old man, while his younger brother boards at their primary school. Their father promises to return for them at the end of the school term, as usual. However, each year he arrives later and later, because he has ventured further afield in search of grazable land for his herd. Unfortunately, after their ailing grandfather passes away, the boys find themselves waiting in vain for their father. With no other options, the lads set out, making their way home on camelback.

Essentially, Gansu has become desert, desert, desert everywhere, with not a blade of grass to graze. There is not a lot water either. It will be a harsh journey, but the older, entitled Bartel petulantly wastes much of his own in the early stages. In contrast, Adikeer was born to be his father’s son, instinctively understanding the desert’s challenges. However, he begrudges the hand-me-downs and perceived second class treatment he receives from their family.

There are some stunning shots of the boys walking through apparently abandoned cliff dwellings, cave paintings, and temples, almost resembling space travelers on an extinct alien planet. This is clearly a dire and deadly world. There are also very real stakes involved in their fraternal conflict. We come to understand in believably compelling terms how their resentments are rooted in misperceptions of necessities dictated by the family’s circumstances. Naturally, an arduous camel trek will only further fray their relationship.

Despite the intimacy of the story, Li still incorporates an awareness of the region’s once grand history, which only deepens the sense of tragedy. He and cinematographer Liu Yonghong convey a tactile sense of the region—it’s hot and dry. Yet, amidst the wasteland, a small contingent of Buddhist lamas represent hope (and sacrifice). As the film’s lynchpins, the co-leads, Tang Long and Guo Songtao are remarkably natural and unaffected, truly looking like rugged brothers.

River Road is a vividly naturalistic depiction of environmental devastation and the extreme privation of the economically marginalized. Ironically, this means it is highly unlikely most movie-goers in the People’s Republic will have much chance to see it. The sympathetic portrayal of the lamas does not help much either. For those in less restrictively censored markets, it is an exhausting but rewarding viewing experience. Recommended for those who appreciate independent Chinese cinema and endangered cultures, River Road screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Tokyo Tribe

This is not your father’s dystopian rap musical. If you had ever wondered what The Warriors or Wild Style would have been like if Sion Sono had made them, well friend, wonder no longer. Control over the streets of a near future Tokyo is divided between a number of gangs or tribes. Kai’s Musashino Saru tribe is super-chill and peace-loving. Lord Buppa’s Bukuro Wu-Ronz is belligerent, Satanic, and cannibalistic. That pretty much guarantees conflict in Sono’s Tokyo Tribe (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Buckle up sports fans, MC Sho will be our rapping guide through this dystopian jungle. He quickly introduces us to the various gangs on what seems to be an average night. However, amongst this night’s batch of prospective sex slaves (or human furniture) picked up by the Bukuro lackeys is Sunmi. This woman can fight. So can the ten year-old Yon, her self-appointed break-dancing protector. She also happens to be the daughter of Lord Buppa’s ally, the malevolent High Priest, who had been saving her and her virginity for a human sacrifice. Therefore, it is imperative Bukuro Wu-Ronz recapture her when she inevitably escapes.

As it happens, Mera, Buppa’s favorite lieutenant is also launching a long planned sneak attack against the other gangs for control of the city. With Sunmi’s help, Kai must unify the rival tribes against Buppa’s secret shock troops, the Waru, all while maintaining a steady stream of rhyme.

Tokyo Tribes is technically based on Santa Inoue’s manga, but it is its own bizarre Sion Sono animal. There are elements of Why Don’t You Play in Hell and Bad Film, but Sono cranks up the lurid Pink exploitation elements right from the start. Frankly, he is just begging for a professionally outraged feminist’s apoplexy, so it would be foolish to fall into his trap. Transgressive violence simply cannot get anymore cartoonish, over-the-top, candy-colored, and defiantly silly.

Frankly, the best comparison for Tribe might actually be Bollywood at its trippiest, because it is a genuine spectacle. We are talking massive street fighting, with all sorts of crazy costumes and lethal hardware. Much of the cast hams it up relentlessly, just to avoid drowning in the madness. However, Nana Seino displays considerable poise and impressive action chops as the quiet but resourceful Sunmi. NYAFF special guest Shota Sometani is also quite an effective rapping Rod Serling as MC Sho. As Lord Buppa and the blond-and-bronzed Mera, Riki Takeuchi and Ryohei Suzuki absolutely gorge on the scenery, understanding a Sono film is not the place act all twee and mannered.

Even by Sono’s standards, Tokyo Tribe is pretty berserk, but it tries to warmly embrace the audience in its own lunatic way. It also proves once again Sono is the best in the business when it comes to staging a massive Kung Fu street war. Unmissable for his fans and a heck of a baptism-of-fire for newcomers, Tokyo Tribe screens on the Fourth of July at the Walter Reade and on Saturday the 11th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NYAFF ’15: La La La at Rock Bottom

Prepare yourself for an alt-punk Oliver Sachs kind of story. There have indeed been documented cases of musicians who retained their musical skills while suffering from amnesia. It is a bit of a stretch to call Shigeo a musician, but he sure can belt out a power grunge ballad. He has also lost his memory, but he is probably better off without. A clean slate could be the fresh start he needs in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s La La La at Rock Bottom (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Upon his release from prison, Shigeo is beaten senseless by his former criminal associates, who want him to take the hint and disappear. Instead, he wakes up sans memory in an industrial section of Osaka. Somehow he staggers into the park where the hybrid-band Akainu is playing. Much to everyone’s surprise, including his own, he storms the stage and proceeds with a full-throated rendition of what will become his signature tune. Akainu is managed by the teenaged Kasumi, who inherited the motley crew along with her father’s recording studio. She recognizes Shigeo can sing, even though he looks a frightful mess, so she takes him in, appropriately dubbing him “Pooch.”

With Kasumi’s help, Pooch will start piecing together his identity. Of course, we know they will not necessarily like what they find out. There is a good chance it will all come to a head right before the big gig.

Shigeo/Pooch is played by real life Japanese rocker Subaru Shibutani of the band Kanjani Eight, whose distinctive voice would be perfect for Rush if they ever need to replace Geddy Lee. He also turns out to be a pretty good actor, playing the lost puppy and the low life creep equally convincingly. Pairing him up with the young, poised superstar-in-the-making Fumi Nikaido was also a shrewd strategy. She has a smart, charismatic presence, as well as a sense of naivety befitting her youth. The age difference also precludes any kind of manipulative romantic hogwash. They are definitely driving the film, but Sarina Suzuki adds some spicy flair as Makiko, Kasumi’s hard-drinking doctor friend.

There are no huge, huge, huge surprises in store for viewers over the course of Rock Bottom. Lessons will be learned and secrets will be revealed. Nonetheless, Yamashita plays his trump cards as close to his vest as he can. Ultimately the film is rather touching and the music is bizarrely catchy. Recommended for fans of films like Can a Song Save Your Life (or Begin Again as the distributor insisted on calling it), La La La at Rock Bottom (which probably should have been called Begin Again instead) screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade and Saturday the 11th at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Jimmy’s Hall: How to Get Deported from Ireland

The Pearse-Connolly Hall was sort of like a cross between Hull House and Café Society in rural County Leitrim, but with way more ideology. It was founded by Irish Communist organizer James Gralton, who was not about to let a wee little thing like the Ukrainian Famine dampen his enthusiasm for an all-powerful state. He became the only Irishman deported from his homeland, but fortunately he still had his American citizenship from his previous stint in exile. Gralton’s final Irish residency gets hagiographic treatment in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Throughout his life, Gralton did a considerable amount of Atlantic-hopping, agitating and fighting in the 1920s uprising, only to periodically retreat to New York whenever things got too hot. In 1932, he thought he was returning for good, in order to help his mother run the family farm. Of course, it is only a matter of time before he reopens the torched Pearse-Connolly Hall, which he bills as a community center of sorts. Boxing lessons and art classes are indeed held there, as well as militant organizing sessions. It is enough to send Father Sheridan, the parish priest into full crisis management mode.

Frankly, instead of Jimmy’s Hall, Loach should have called the film The Passion of the Gralton. Like most heroes of propaganda films, Gralton is pretty darn dull, but it is not the fault of lead actor Barry Ward, who brings an earthy, unassuming charisma to the role. Unfortunately, Loach always makes him the calmest, most rational person in every conversation. “That’s an argument for another day” he says evasively, when Father Sheridan challenges him on the Soviet human rights record. Yes, isn’t that always the case? However, there is no time like the present to settle scores with those on Loach’s enemies list, starting with the Catholic Church and the British government.

Far and away, the best sequences in Jimmy’s Hall involve Gralton’s impossible love for his now married old flame Oonagh. Star-crossed romance is tough to beat. Unfortunately, the instructive drama is appallingly stilted. Yet, despite the lengths Loach goes to stack the deck against good Father Sheridan, he cannot overwhelm the twinkle in Jim Norton’s eye. By the second act, most of the audience will be rooting for wily Father and against the Socialist sob sisters. Even more strangely, the film completely wastes the compulsively watchable Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in Sherlock and the voice of Tom Hardy’s high strung assistant in Locke) as the younger and hipper Father Seamus.

Loach has made some wonderfully humanistic films, like Looking for Eric and The Angels’ Share that reflect his proletarian sympathies without didactically bashing the audience over the head. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s Hall is not one of them. Aside from Gralton’s stolen moments with Oonagh, it is a rather slow and lecturey experience. Deeply disappointing, Jimmy’s Hall opens this Friday (7/3) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center, just in time for Independence Day.

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NYAFF ’15: Cops vs. Thugs

In this Yakuza power struggle, Det. Tokumatsu Kuno is backing one faction, while the city politicians have aligned themselves with the opposing clan. Over the long run, the politicians hold the advantage, but Kuno can do plenty of damage in the short term. The ensuing war will produce no heroes. There are only survivors and corpses in Kinji Fukasaku ironically titled Cops vs. Thugs (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s sidebar tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

Arguably, it was something of a blessing for the Ohara clan when old man Ohara was sent up the river. The infinitely more competent Kenji Hirotani subsequently stepped up as acting boss. For reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, Kuno has taken an active interest in promoting his criminal career. However, the industrial city’s crooked assemblyman, the exceptionally slimy Masaichi Tomoyasu is rather openly affiliated with Boss Kawade.

For years, Kuno has made it his business to tip off Hirotani whenever the cops move against Ohara operations, whereas he takes great enjoyment in busting Kawade’s men. Now under the pretense of a general crackdown, Tomoyasu has unleashed a goody two-shoes prefecture cop to decisively close down the Ohara outfit. Not coincidentally, Kuno quickly discovers he has been frozen out of department investigations. However, he will still do his best to gum up the works.

To describe C vs. T as cynical would be an understatement. Corruption in this grimy town is deep as a river and wide as a mile. Frankly, it probably is not the greatest Yakuza movie ever. Character motivation is consistently a mysterious black box for Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, but it has an impressive sense of history and scope. In many ways, it could be considered a stylistic forerunner to Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection, whether or not it directly influenced the French filmmaker.

As we would hope, Bunta Sugawara glowers and snarls like a wary junkyard dog as the morally compromised, but not completely amoral Kuno. Likewise, Hiroki Matsukata is nearly equally hardnosed as Hirotani. However, Nobuo Kaneko truly makes the film as the utterly detestable Tomoyasu. He is the sort of villain that makes you want to purge and shower under the Silkwood power-faucets.

It is kind of mind-blowing to think Fukasaku had previously helmed the sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora! set in Japan and would be best remembered for the Hunger Games precursor, Battle Royale, but his real specialty was caustic Yakuza dramas, as exemplified by C vs. T. It truly has the gritty, grungy look of classic 1970s New York cops and gangster movies. The anti-heroic Yakuza drama is also another Sugawara film that features a massively groovy soundtrack (in this case composed by Toshiaki Tsushima). Recommended for genre fans (but not with as much enthusiasm as The Man Who Stole the Sun or Abashiri Prison), Cops vs. Thugs screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’15: Abashiri Prison

This fortress like turn-of-the-century prison is northern Hokkaido is so harsh, it inspires country-style ballads. You can hear one right over the opening credits. Of course, it is not too tough for a hardnosed Yakuza like Shin’ichi Tachibana. However, when it comes to his mother, he turns all soft. He would like to see her again before it is too late, but the brewing prison break might not be the best way of doing that. Regardless of Tachibana’s immediate fate, lead actor Ken Takakura would soon return to the remote Hokkaido setting when his 1965 hit spawned an immensely profitable franchise. Fittingly, Teruo Ishii’s Abashiri Prison (trailer here) screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s mini-tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara.

When Tachibana arrives in Abashiri, he represents the greatest challenge to the authority of Heizo Yoda, the boss of his nine-man cell. Tachibana is definitely a keeps-to-himself kind of guy, but he knows a phony blowhard when he sees one. Since he has more or less kept his nose clean, Tachibana might be eligible for parole, especially since his ailing mother is not expected to live much longer. Unfortunately, Yoda and his sociopathic running mate Gonda are plotting a cell-wide escape and they want Tachibana in on it. Naturally, they play the Yakuza loyalty card in a big way. Of course, this would irreparably cross up Tachibana’s situation. They also intend to sacrifice their elderly cellmate Torakichi Akuta in the process. Yes, you could definitely say Tachibana is facing a prisoner’s dilemma.

There is something very Cagney-esque about Tachibana, the sentimental Yakuza. Indeed, it is not hard to see why Abashiri launched Takakura’s career. You can see elements of plenty of previous prison genre films in it, especially when Tachibana finds himself chained to Gonda and reluctantly on the lam, as the result of some not so well thought out extemporizing. However, Ishii’s execution is lean and mean, while his cast is pitch-perfect, elevating each stock character to new tragic heights. Especially look out for Kunie Tanaka as old Akuta, because he nearly walks away with the picture in a key turning point scene.

Abashiri Prison is totally about manly men snarling at each other while freezing their manly business off. Despite a wild climax on the rail lines, it is grungy, intimate film that is relatively narrow in scope. Ishii makes it palpably clear just how small and chilly their world has become. It is a great prison movie that will give Yakuza genre fans all sorts of happy vibes. Highly recommended for mainstream audiences as well, Abashiri Prison screens this Friday (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Taksu

Bali is renowned for its Gamelan music and—at least in animal rights circles—notorious for its cockfights. Yuri will watch both sorts of performances on her trip. The former is much more fun, but the latter will resonate more with her, given her husband Chihiro’s terminal illness. Death will never be far from their thoughts in Kiki Sugino’s Taksu (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Already the darling of the Pan-Asian indie scene, Taksu was technically Kiki Sugino’s second film as a director, but it hit the international festival circuit just before her first premiered—with a third soon to follow. Fortunately, she also still performs as a screen thesp. After all, she is Kiki Sugino. Shrewdly, she cast herself in a major supporting role in Taksu, but it is former sex symbol Yoko Mitsuya who is asked to do the film’s heaviest lifting and rises to the occasion quite admirably.

The details are sketchy, but the words “failed transplant” says enough. Frankly, Chihiro looks done in when he and Yuri arrive in Bali. This will probably be the last time he sees his extremely pregnant sister Kumi and her Dutch husband Luke. That is a distressing fact, but they obviously have pressing issues of their own to deal with.

It is not exactly clear which stage of grief Chihiro and Yuri are on, but they are not in synch. They are both pretty freaked out, but he frequently lashes out at his naturally reserved wife, accusing her of complacency. In contrast, Yuri is profoundly exhausted and feels guilt about everything. After one of their dust-ups, she walks away, falling in with a group of Japanese expats and their beach gigolo pal, who represents the sort of commitment free indulgence she has not experienced in some time.

There is no question Taksu will lead to more directing gigs for Sugino. It is a gorgeous looking movie, rich with sunsets and Balinese ceremonial color. It positions her as the logical successor to Cannes-favorite Naomi Kawase. That is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about Kawase’s contemplative films (for the record, Still the Water is considerably better than you may have heard). Sugino also takes an unhurried approach, but she burrows deeply into the psyches of Yuri and Chihiro.

Frankly, she leaves us hanging at the end, expecting a final profundity that never comes. However, for connoisseurs of slow cinema, that is a minor quibble. On the other hand, this is obviously a tough go for crass mainstream movie audiences. Still, it does have Sugino. At the risk of sounding totally fannish, she is wonderfully expressive and aptly radiant as the super-prego Kumi. The sex scenes are all Mitsuya’s though. They are erotically charged but not exploitative. In fact, they are part-and-parcel of her inner emotional struggle. It is a powerful performance, reminiscent of some of the mature milestones of 1970s cinema that may well shock her fans.

There is indeed a good deal of sex in Taksu, but it often goes together with death. The entire cycle of life is represented in the film, as well as a nice armchair tour of Balinese cultural attractions. Sugino knew exactly what she wanted and executed the film accordingly. Nevertheless, it would not betray her aesthetic sensibilities to give her narratives more muscular definition in the future. Still, it is achingly beautiful visually and the drama is quite sensitively rendered. Recommended for slow cineastes and Sugino fans, Taksu screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Amy: The Winehouse Documentary

Amy Winehouse’s life was short but remarkably well documented. That would certainly help a filmmaker crafting a posthumous profile, but it was much less fortunate for her. Despite the somewhat dubious objections of her family, a sensitive yet cautionary portrait of gifted artist overwhelmed by fame emerges in Asif Kapadia’s Amy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Amy Winehouse loved jazz and had the chops to sing it. If she had made a career of interpreting standards in moderate sized jazz clubs for a small but devoted following, she probably would have lived a much longer and happier life. Unfortunately, her talent was so conspicuous, she became a world famous pop star, but she was profoundly uncomfortable with much of the attention that followed. It is Winehouse whom we see throughout the film, second by second, as her friends and associates speak over archival footage and still photos, including performances from the period before her tragic fame.

Much of the footage of the promising pre-celebrity Winehouse was supplied by her friend and original manager, Nick Shymansky. Despite original backing from the Winehouse family and estate, Kapadia’s film largely reflects the perspective of Shymansky and Winehouse’s lifelong friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. Winehouse’s father Mitchel has made no secret of his objections, but through his position at the Winehouse position, he can always tell his side of the story to a Guardian scribe whenever he wants. In contrast, the working class Ashby and Gilbert do not have the same access to media. Their only stake in this story was the loss of their dear friend. In fact, they had a deep distrust of the media, which Kapadia labored to overcome. Yet, that is precisely why their stories have such impact and credibility.

The general trajectory of Winehouse’s life is fairly well known: precocious talent gives rise to not-exactly overnight fame, which in turn leads to widely reported struggles with drugs and alcohol. By far, the most damning incident in the film involves Mitchel Winehouse undermining her friends’ early intervention, telling her she really had no need of rehab. While he has subsequently taken pains to argue his opinion eventually changed on that score, Shymansky points out this was a lost opportunity to get Winehouse treatment, before the entire world wanted a piece of her and the media hounded her every step. Mr. Winehouse can object all he likes, but the significance of the moment is inescapable.

As it happens, Mr. Winehouse is not the only member of her inner circle upset with their treatment in Kapadia’s film. Her second (and final) manager Raye Cosbert also takes issue with suggestions his was exploitative or at least insensitive to Amy Winehouse’s emotional turmoil. Whether that is fair or not, it seems clear from the film he could only relate to her as a pop act rather than the jazz artist she initially set out to be. Had he better understood her, he could have charted a career course that better appealed to her sensibilities.

Oddly, the sequence of Winehouse recording a duet of “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett has received disproportionate press attention. Its inclusion in Amy certainly makes sense, but it is actually old news, having previously appeared in Unjoo Moon’s The Zen of Bennett (maybe some of our colleagues do not screen as extensively as they should). Regardless, the overall effect of Kapadia’s Amy is utterly devastating. It is a heartbreakingly intimate film that makes viewers feel like they are peering into her damaged psyche.

Although it might be controversial in some quarters, Kapadia deserves credit for portraying some figures in villainous terms rather than playing it safe. Editor Chris King also does extraordinary work combining the voluminous images into a powerful narrative. As a result, Kapadia’s Amy is a moving document of a gifted performer whose life was far sadder and briefer that it should have been. Highly recommended, Amy opens this Friday (7/3) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square.

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Les Blank’s A Poem is a Naked Person

This is the film they did not get to see at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Les Blank’s Blankian documentary profile of Leon Russell had been accepted by the fest, but its subject refused to sanction its release. Inconveniently, it was a work-for-hire project for which Russell retained all rights, only allowing occasional screenings at Blank retrospectives, provided the filmmaker was in attendance. Finally, Harrod Blank has fulfilled the bucket-list item inherited from his late father, shepherding A Poem is a Naked Person (trailer here) to its long-awaited theatrical release, starting this Wednesday at Film Forum.

In the early 1970s, Russell was a highly regarded session musician poised to break out as a solo artist. He was touring regularly and had already released an album that went gold. Having shared in the critical heat generated by the Mad Dogs & Englishmen documentary when he was performing as Joe Cocker’s musical right-hand man, Russell and his producer Denny Cordell wanted their own doc to showcase the singer-songwriter-piano player as a leader. Blank was recommended and accepted the gig, setting up shop in the artist colony-like grounds surrounding Russell’s private studio.

Of course, Blank would not merely point the camera at Russell and ask some softball questions backstage. He became intrigued and inspired by Russell’s relationship with the neighboring Oklahoma community. When you watch Poem you understand all the influences that shaped Russell into a rocker, whose set lists were filled with songs by Hank Williams and Leadbelly. Blank also relished the eccentricities of the colorful locals, such as the old couple who attended building demolitions like rock groupies, as well as the other artists Russell had pulled into his orbit. Painter Jim Franklin is particularly notable. He had been recruited to paint murals on the studio walls, but his creative impulses found more stimulation at the bottom of Russell’s empty swimming pool. Decades later he would paint the film’s poster.

There is no shortage of Russell’s music in Poem. Blank also captures performances by George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Yet, it is the seemingly eccentric, but actually quite telling interludes that must have thrown Russell and Cordell. Frankly, in terms of tone, Poem is not so very different from Bert Stern’s enduring classic Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but they just didn’t get it, until now. Although this caused Blank much frustration, it probably did more long term harm to Russell’s career.

Had it released in 1974, Poem may very well have been Blank’s biggest box office hit, but it is hard to believe he would have gone Hollywood rather than making classics like Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe, Burden of Dreams, and Always for Pleasure. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine Poem getting revived year after year, to screen alongside perennials like Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Frankly, Poem was perfect for its time, reflecting the youth culture’s increasingly ironic relationship with media. Had it been readily accessible, Blank’s film would have maintained awareness of Russell, regularly introducing him to new fans. Instead, he has become a cult figure in need of periodic rediscovery.

There is indeed some great music in Poem. Whether your tastes run towards rock, country, or blues, Russell’s sound is swampy enough for all to relate to. It is also an excellent example of Blank’s keen eye for regional culture and his gently humanistic sense of humor. According to the legends that have swirled around the long unseen film, a parachutist seen performing a glass eating trick on-camera is thought by some to be D.B. Cooper. Unfortunately, Mr. Cooper has not been available to confirm or deny his participation. Regardless, it is a whole lot of funky fun. Highly recommended for fans of Southern blues-roots-rock and Blank’s slyly insightful style of documentary filmmaking, A Poem is a Naked Person finally opens this Wednesday (7/1) in New York, at Film Forum.

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NYAFF ’15: Ruined Heart

When you are a lowlife criminal type, you are likely to meet similar kinds of folk. That doesn’t mean love is impossible, but happily-ever-afters are highly unlikely. Filipino digital micro-cinema legend Khavn [de la Cruz] will graphically illustrate the perils of underworld romance in Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal & a Whore (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Neither “The Criminal” nor “The Whore” are what you might call Chatty Cathies, but when they get together they have better ways to spend time than with small talk. They met when he comes to whack one of her clients and they apparently just hit it off. Frankly, we never hear them exchange a single word, so we just have to infer from their actions. Of course, such employee fraternization is strongly discouraged by the “God Father,” a strange New Age evangelist who controls all the vice in the Metro Manila slums. Eventually, they will have to take their love on the lam, but not before they guide the audience through a tour of the back alleys and private sex clubs of their world.

If you know Khavn’s work you probably either love it or hate it. With Ruined Heart, he doubles down on his extreme aesthetic. It is a hard film to have mixed feelings about, unless you are taken with the soundtrack. Truly, it is like a monster party mix on MDMA. Many of the groove-friendly tracks are collaborations between Khavn and the Euro Electropop duo Stereo Total, but it also features steel guitarist Buddy Emmons’ rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon.

So yes, Ruined sounds awesome and it looks . . . distinctive. Frankly, Khavn is not shy about showing bodily fluids, in especially gross contexts. He also revels in the grunginess of the slum environment. Yet, he also has an eye for the beautifully surreal. Celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle (best known for his work with Wong Kar Wai) frames everything for maximum effect, whether it be grotesque or seductive.

Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano and Mexican actress Nathalia Acevedo do rather remarkable work, considering they must rely solely on body language rather than dialogue. They are undeniably electric together. Someone will surely say the Manila slum also serves as a character in the film, but Khavn is really going for the immersive sensation of life in such desperate close quarters rather than a particular sense of place, per se.

Obviously, we know the general arc Khavn’s narrative will take right from the opening credits. So do the sub-title characters, yet they still make their inevitably tragic choices anyway, which is quite compelling. Recommended for the elite few, who look where grubby exploitation movies overlap with experimental art cinema to find their sort of films, Ruined Heart screens this Thursday (7/2) at the Walter Reade and next Saturday (7/11) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

NYAFF ’15: The Man Who Stole the Sun

Makoto Kido is the sort of teacher who is popular with his students. He is lax about discipline and often late to his own classes. The only drawback is he often lectures on subjects that will not be on their university entrance exams, like the procedure for making nuclear bombs. Unfortunately, it is a subject he knows cold. When he launches his campaign of nuclear blackmail, it will be up to hardnosed Inspector Yamashita to stop him in Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s classic The Man Who Stole the Sun (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival’s tribute to Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara, two late, great, manly icons of Japanese Cinema.

Kido is kind of a hippy, but he is not very political. Frankly, he will have a hard time coming up with demands for the government to meet. Instead, he is more of your basic bored sociopath. Ironically, when Yamashita first meets Kido, he assumes the science teacher is decent enough for a long-hair, even though we know he has already started laying the groundwork for his evil scheme.

As fate will dictate, Kido’s class is hijacked while on a field trip, by a deranged man seeking redress from the emperor. Yamashita draws the case, impressing Kido with his gruff dedication to duty. After boosting some plutonium from the Tōkai nuclear plant, proceeds to make two bombs—one to prove his skills with the authorities and one for him to dangle over the prime minister’s head. As part of the ground rules he establishes, Kido (employing a home-made voice modulator) will only speak with the confused Yamashita.

In many ways, Sun is a blast-from-the-past time-capsule of a film. Among other things, it reminds us of the time when most television stations signed off around midnight by playing the national anthem. Evidently, during the late 1970s in Japan, TV stations also used to stop baseball games promptly at ten o’clock to accommodate the evening news. It seems Kido put a stop to that practice. Running out of ideas, Kido reaches out to Zero Sawai, a DJ catering to the youth culture. She is cute as a button, but she also serves as a scathing critique of a myopic media that cannot see the dirty bomb for the trees.

Bunta Sugawara is stone cold awesome as Yamashita, an old school throwback, who would be perfectly at home in the films of Don Siegel and Sam Fuller. Yet, Takayuki Inoue’s massively groovy music might just be even cooler. It is strange the soundtrack album has not been more eagerly sought after by crate-diggers. Real life rock star Kenji Sawada is also frighteningly convincing as the coldly detached psychopath. Watching him play Kimiko Ikegami’s naïve Sawai is especially chilling.

Co-written by Hasegawa and Leonard Schrader (brother of Paul, who also co-wrote a Tora-san movie), Sun is an ambitious, large scale film, clocking in just shy of two and a half hours. Hasegawa stages some absolutely insane action sequences, yet he dedicates most of the first act to the quiet process of Kido’s bomb-building. Frankly, this is not a film ISIS needs to see, because it is darned instructive. However, if you enjoy potentially apocalyptic thrillers loaded with attitude and funky Me Decade period detail than this is your ticket. Highly recommended for fans of 1970s cinema and crew cut cops, The Man Who Stole the Sun screens this Wednesday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers

It has been a rough couple of years for cartoonists. Although young Kiyomi Wago does not have a fatwah hanging over her head, her family banned her from drawing horror manga, scapegoating her gory images for all their problems. Yet, they constantly provide fresh inspiration with their ghastly behavior. Frankly, they need another dose of manga humiliation as comeuppance for all their acting-out in Daihachi Yoshida’s Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Wago’s parents recently perished in a fatal car crash, involving an adorable kitten. Her spoiled older sister Sumika will not offer much consolation when she finally makes it home. The family had been supporting her dubious acting career, but she only has debts and burned bridges to show for her efforts. She expects to continue dominating their half-brother Shinji, because of the incestuous control she exerts over him, even though he is now married to his naïve internet bride, Machiko. Unfortunately, Sumika still blames Kiyomi for scandalizing the family when she won an amateur contest with the story of her irrational attempt to murder their now late father. Needless to say, Sumika is not ready to forgive and forget.

By the way, Funuke is a comedy, more or less. Yes, you could say it is a somewhat dark one in terms of tone. In fact, Yoshida maintains an almost unclassifiable vibe, like Ozu mixed with Sirk and a dash of John Waters and then launched on a grain alcohol bender.

You may not fully understand the term “hot mess” until you have seen Eriko Sato as Sumika Wago. She is a force, which makes it so rewarding to watch Aimi Satsukawa’s Kiyomi learn to assert her inner Daria. It is subtle, yet substantial arc of character development that she carries off quite well. However, Hiromi Nagasaku might actually be too good as earnest Machiko. She just makes you want to slap everyone around her. As a result, poor Masatoshi Nagase and his character Shinji never stand a chance. They just get buried by the stronger personas surrounding them.

In a way, Funuke is an ode to the cathartic power of artistic expression—specifically through manga in this case. Fortunately, it features a good deal of art by Noroi Michiru that is striking in its own right and absolutely perfect in the dramatic context of the film. At times, Yoshida’s adaptation of Yukiko Motoya’s novel feels excessively mean towards Machiko, but its edge is impressive. Recommended for manga fans who think the last good comedy to play at Sundance was The House of Yes, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! screens this coming Monday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of NYAFF’s mini-focus on Yoshida.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

NYAFF ’15: Pale Moon

Currently, the exchange rate is 120-some Yen to the Dollar. It was something similar in the mid-1990s. Although we know we should be adjusting in our heads, the sums Rika Umezawa embezzles from her private banking clients still look staggeringly high. It is hard to sustain such recklessness indefinitely, but Umezawa will have a heck of a run in Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

Umezawa looks a far cry from John Dillinger. The former housewife has only recently returned to the workforce, responding to the bank’s recruitment program. She is attractive, but extremely shy and reserved. Her first inherited client, a lecherous old tight-wad might have been troublesome for her to deal with, if not for the intercession of his college age grandson, Kota Hirabayashi. Still, she manages to sell him on a few starter investments.

In the early days, Umezawa’s performance is quite promising. Yet, her husband continues to patronize and underestimate her. Of course, he just assumes she will accompany him when he is transferred to China, but she rather scandalously opts to stay in Japan. After all, she has secret affair with Hirabayashi to enjoy. She also redirected some of his Scrooge-like grandfather’s money to pay for his tuition. That turns out to be the sort of thing that is hard to stop once you start. Soon, Umezawa is falsifying documents and intercepting bank statements to maintain her lifestyle. Meanwhile, her senior colleague Yoriko Sumi starts investigating her suspicions, hoping to find something that would forestall her forced retirement.

Moon has the obvious feminist angle and the zeitgeisty financial crisis theme, but it is rather more than either sort of issue-driven drama. Thanks to Rie Miyazawa’s absolutely extraordinary lead performance, it is utterly impossible to pigeon hole Umezawa as some sort of Thelma or Louise in a business suit. Although she has good reasons to feel put-out, she is not a victim, but more of an existential heroine. Eventually she will even question the soundness of fiat currency and the legitimacy of Platonic reality. At that point, the third act takes a rather strange turn, but Yoshida lays enough groundwork so that it seems almost logical rather than jarring.

Miyazawa owns this film lock, stock, and barrel, but her greatest competition for the spotlight fittingly comes from Yuna Taira, who appears as the fourteen year old Umezawa in flashbacks. The young screen performer has no shortage of presence, yet still projects a sense of earnest vulnerability she shares with Miyazawa. Admittedly, it is tough being a guy in Moon, but Renji Ishibashi knocks us off-balance from time to time as the curmudgeonly old Kozo Hirabayashi. There is also something compellingly sad about Satomi Kobayashi’s performance as Sumi, a somewhat kindred spirit to Umezawa, who has adopted the diametrically opposite survival strategy.

Special NYAFF Guest Yoshida helms with great sensitivity and a subtly dark sense of humor, which distilled produce a truly distinctive vibe. This is a film that defies labels (is it a crime drama or a work of social criticism?) and up-ends expectations. Moon absolutely does not leave the audience in a “safe place,” but it is strangely satisfying spot to end. Throughout it all, Miyazawa is superhumanly engaging as Umezawa. Highly recommended for sophisticated audiences, Pale Moon screens this coming Monday (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of NYAFF’s mini-focus on Yoshida.

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