Friday, November 26, 2010

Bushido Sixteen (Tomoyuki Furumaya, 2010)

Furumay's last film, The Homeless Student, had a generally fine cast but didn't quite work -- mostly because the actor playing the central character was way too old for the part and wasn't a strong enough performer to overcome this handicap.  The twin heroines here, played by Riko Narumi (How To Become Myself) and Kii Kitano (BandAge), are closer to the right age and far more skilled. The film  focuses, almost entirely, on these two girls, who initially meet in passing during a junior high kendo competition (where Kitano beats Narumi by a fluke) and then later wind up in the same high school.

Kitano plays a (mostly) happy-go-lucky character, who participates in kendo because she finds it to be fun (and also, one suspects, because her friends also participate); Narumi's character is the daughter of a kendo master (who lives in the dojo run by her father). Narumi is mortified to learn that Kitano doesn't even recall their prior match -- and is more than a bit ferocious in their first practice match.  Despite their contrasting dispositions, the two form a (sometimes rocky) friendship during their first year of high school.  The two young stars here do a first-rate job in making the relationship credible.

While the film depicts plenty of kendo practice (and competition matches), these scenes mainly serve to establish the nature of each of the characters and the growth of the bond forming between them.  The overall pacing is relatively leisurely, but the film seems to flow about the right speed. The cinematography is not especially flashy but is effective.  I suspect this gentle little film  does not have much chance of getting Western distribution due largely to its own virtues -- its sweetness of tone and its low-key nature.

The Japanese DVD does not include English subtitles, as is now (unfortunately) becoming the norm for releases of this type. Indeed, this DVD lacks even Japanese subtitles.

(Postscript -- for the first time ever, the Amazon Japan shipment containing this DVD got hit by customs charges).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sweet Little Lies (Hitoshi Yazaki, 2010)

A picture-perfect couple (Nao Omori and Miki Nakatani) that is bored, bored, bored with their current life. Both drift into adulterous romances. He with an old college classmate (Chizuru Ikewaki), she with a customer (Juichi Kobayashi) who buys one of the cute stuffed bears she makes. Meanwhile, the couple goes on as if nothing has changed (as best they can). Can this marriage be saved?

Yazaki's last film was the excellent, rather edgy Strawberry Shortcakes (about four young woman who were all in a state of romantic disarray). In this film, Yazaki takes a more classical turn, evoking the 50s family dramas of Ozu and Naruse. One gets echoes of Early Spring, Repast, Sudden Rain, Husband and Wife and A Woman's Heart (among others) -- tinged with (perhaps) a dash of HONG Sang-soo. In a nice touch, Yazaki managed to find a surviving cast member from Repast (Akiko Kazami, who also appeared in Shinozaki's Not Forgotten several years ago) to play an elderly neighbor of the couple.

The Japanese DVD is afflicted with the current curse of no subtitles (not even Japanese ones). This is the kind of release that would have gotten English subtitles just a few years ago (Strawberry Shortcakes had them). But this convenience appears to be a thing of the past. In the event this film turns up anywhere in your neighborhood (sadly not all that likely), I recommend it highly.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Collected short takes, newer films

More collected capsule comments, scavenged mostly from IMDB postings earlier this year (pre-cellulitis). ;~}

Tonari no Totoro / Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
We finally got to watch (for the first time in at least 10 viewings) this animated treasure (involving two little sisters) along with two young girls (sisters aged 6 and 3½ years old). Their parents being adventurous, we watched this in Japanese (with subtitles). Even so, the girls were mesmerized -- and rarely wondered about what was being said -- mostly they understood this pretty intuitively. All had a wonderful time. (When it was over, the girls asked (nicely -- but in vain) for an immediate re-watch).
Chilsu wa Mansu / Chil-su and Man-su (PARK Kwang-su, 1988)
Pretty much the film that kicked off the Korean New Wave. 1988 was the year of the Seoul Olympics and of Korea's first democratic election (alas, the opponents of the former military dictatorship split the vote, allowing the election of the former dictator's hand-picked successor). Movies had been subject to extensive censorship -- and Park began testing how far Korea's nominal democracy would let him go.
The film starts like a romantic comedy, with Chil-su (an aspiring artist -- who quits his commercial art job) pestering a slightly older colleague Man-su (an artist now mainly employed painting walls and billboards) into giving him a job (and providing him a place to sleep). Meanwhile Chil-su has developed a crush on Ji-na, a college girl (and is trying to pretend he is also a college student). Chil-su, it becomes clear has an active fantasy life -- and trouble keeping it disentangled from reality. Man-su, on the other hand, feels trapped -- wanting to leave Korea but unable to get a passport (due to his father's political "crimes"). One day, taking a break from painting a huge (and racy) billboard on top of a building, the two take a break on top of the advertising superstructure. Knowing no one can hear them, they feel free to shout out their frustrations and criticisms -- but (even unheard) they attract attention -- with authorities deciding they are demonstrators of some sort (who might commit a spectacular suicide as a protest). The befuddled sign painters, on the other hand, can't hear anything said to them (too far up -- and too much urban noise) and become increasing distressed (and too intimidated to simply climb down)...
The stars here (AHN Sung-kee as Mansu, PARK Joong-hoon as Chilsu and BAE Jong-ok as Jina) became main-stays of Korean cinema and television over the following decade. Park's later films became even more explicitly critical -- and served as the training ground for a number of Korea's up and coming directors (particularly HUR Jin-ho and LEE Chang-dong, chief among them) as well as stars (such as Moon Sung-keun).

Ti dao bao / Lucky Encounter (Johnnie To, 1992)
A supremely silly tale of thieves who get involved with the ghost of a little boy murdered by his uncle -- and try to help him both get revenge and get re-incarnated successfully.

Hana-bi / Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, 1997)
The Japanese DVD was re-issued at a lower price -- and is probably the best looking version of this film (and it has English subtitles). I love many bits of this -- but find it to be a bit uneven. And I really really don't like that very last shot.

Yoshida Kiju ga kataru Ozu-san no eiga / The Cinema of Ozu According to Kiju Yoshida (Kiju Yoshida, 1994)

Mainly made up of film clips and some present day footage of locations of Ozu films as seen today (well, as of 1994 or so) -- with voice-over commentary by Yoshida. He sees Ozu as essentially an avant-garde artist. It's an interesting approach, but I'm not entirely convinced. This was a subtitled condensation of four on-hour shows screened on Japanese teelvision.

Kagami no onnatachi / Women in the Mirror (Kiju Yoshida, 2002)
I liked this film about three generations of women (and the lingering impact of Hiroshima) a lot more than I liked Yoshida's (undeniably gorgeous) earlier films (three seen previously). Very effective -- with good performances (Mariko Okada was, of course, excellent).

Sa-kwa (KANG Yi-kwan, 2005)
Sa-kwa means both apple and apology in Korean. A woman gets dumped by her long-term boy friend -- and decides (eventually) to marry a rather dorky admirer. The two develop some rapport, but gradually become estranged -- and the problems become worse when the heroine re-encounters her old boyfriend. This moves almost imperceptibly from romantic comedy territory to something very different. Slow-moving -- but this is what helps the film ultimately stick in one's mind.

Funuke domo, kanashimi no ai wo misero / Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers (Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)
A savagely black comic family drama. An orphaned school girl and her elder half-siblings (who are not related by blood) -- and the ditzy wife of the older brother. Not exactly one big happy family. the younger sister is a would-be manga writer -- who finds her elder sister's travails excellent subject matter. The whole cast is fine but Hiromi Nagasaku as the brother's wife is the real stand-out.
Zui yu fa / Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, 2007)
A fascinating documentary, both funny and more than a little scary, about a Chinese Border Police outpost near the Korean border. The bulk of these police are conscripts -- and very young seeming. They clearly received little training as to either crime investigation or the proper way to interact with the people they serve and protect.

Meotjin haru / Dear Enemy (LEE Yoon-ki, 2008)
Possibly my favorite film of the past year or so. Cannes winner JEON Do-yeon (now on indefinite maternity leave) starts out rigid and angry, trying to collect on a bad debt made a year or so before to a former boyfriend, played by HA Jung-woo. He seems to be utterly irresponsible (and way too willing to exploit women -- easy to do, given his charm). Our "hero" has no cash on hand, and when the "heroine" rejects his promise to wire what he owes to her account (soon), they go off together, as he tries to come up with money to re-pay her. Over the course of the day (and into the late evening), our heroine's assessment of her "enemy" and herself gradually shifts. The two leads are utterly phenomenal. An intelligent and immensely kind-hearted film.

Entre les murs / the Class (literally, "within the walls") (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
A very good, but often disconcerting look at a teacher at a middle school in Paris. In this case, the teacher who wrote the memoir on which the film is based plays himself (more or less). It would be interesting to know how much fictionalization has gone on here. In any event, this is going to require considerably more processing (hopefully a DVD will show up).

Tokyo! (Michel Gondry/Leos Carax/BONG Joon-ho, 2008) (seen screened)
2 out of three isn't too bad. The consensus of our household was that Gondry's Interior Design and Bong's Shaking Tokyo were both pretty decent -- while Carax's Merde was pretty shitty. All three are pretty fanciful -- so not sure any of them gives much of a feel for the reality of Tokyo. The best performances were provided by Ayako Fujitani (Steven Seagal's daughter) as an under-appreciated young woman in Gondry's segment and by Teruyuki Kagawa as a ten-year-long (self-imposed) shut-in in Bong's film. Yuu Aoi's presence in the latter is a bit of a luxury, as she doesn't really get much chance to show off her acting ability.

Kimi no tomodachi / literally Your Friends (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2008)
Frustratingly the DVD of this recent film was not subbed. This story of the friendship between between two girls (in grade school and middle school -- and after) is both sweet and intelligent -- with plenty of emotion but without cheap sentimentality. The teen version of the characters are well-played by Ayu Kitaura (the older of the two sisters in Kore'eda's Nobody Knows) as Yuka (a girl with congenital kidney problems) and Anna Ishibashi as Emi (as a girl with a limp due to a childhood accident). If only this would show up in subtitled form I'd highly recommend it.

Sour Strawberries: Japan's Hidden Guest Workers (Tilman Konig & Daniel Kramers, 2008)
An interesting look at Japan's (mis-)handling of "guest" workers doing unskilled work, with a distraction (of sorts) relating to the Japanese-only policy of some businesses in Tokyo. More functional than "artful".

Akiresu to kame / Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano, 2008)
More apparent artistic self-flagellation by Kitano -- this time in his guise as visual artist. Set in childhood, early adulthood and mid-life crisis time. The first segment is absolutely wonderful (and the boy playing the young version of Kitano is marvelous -- really looking and acting much like a young Kitano). The actor playing the middle Kitano is too old -- and looks nothing like Kitano. The saving grace of this portion is Kumiko Aso -- who plays Sachiko, a young woman in love with our hapless hero (and who ultimately marries him). Kanako Higuchi, who takes over as the older Sachiko is equally fine -- and, of course, Kitano is excellent as (a distorted parody of) himself. Not fully successful throughout, but usually intriguing (and occasionally moving).

Yami no kodomotachi / Children of the Dark (Junji Sakamoto, 2008)
Aoi Miyazaki moves into new territory -- as a volunteer worker in Thailand -- who gets embroiled with criminal organ dealers and child prostitution (after encountering a rather jaded Japanese reporter). Sometimes quite harrowing (and extremely disturbing). Reminiscent in some ways of Ann Hui's (artistically superior) Boat People (set in Vietnam), but with a somewhat less convincing script. (Miyazaki is apparently one of the few genuinely socially conscious young stars in Japan -- and she and her actor-brother often invest quite a bit of effort in international do-gooding).

Hyakuman-en to nigamushi onna / The Million Yen Girl (Yuki Tanada, 2008)
Yuu Aoi winds up in trouble with the law (seemingly wrongfully accused) and, when released, causes trouble for her family (especially her little brother, who winds up getting bullied due to her notoriety). She decides to set off on her own -- and not return until she has earned one million yen. The film traces her travels (and work) at a beach resort, a peach farm and a garden supply store (in a suburb of her own town). Aoi is quite good in this (playing a character more punk-ish than her norm). A nice film by a young woman director. I wish this DVD had subs, however.

Nekonade / Petting the Cat (my translation) (Mika O'omori, 2008)
Another good film by a young woman director. This one is centered on a (forced to be) tough personnel director who adopts a stray cat -- but is too worried about injuring his fierce reputation to let anyone know he has done so. Meanwhile, he has to give bad news to some employees -- and train a group of young women "recruits". Kitano veteran Ren Osugi plays the central role. A film like this could be stupid -- but this one was done extremely well and was very entertaining (for the whole household) despite the lack of subs on the Japanese DVD.

Aruitemo aruitemo / Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore'eda, 2008)
One of the best films of 2008 -- and another master work from Kore'eda. Finally seen – at long last – thanks to the Japanese DVD (which has English subtitles). Around 24 hours of family life (during a reunion for death anniversary of the family's eldest child), plus a brief epilogue. A remarkably (and sometimes painfully) true to life depiction of the relationship between elderly parents and their adult children. The entire cast is spectacular.