Saturday, August 18, 2007

Watched July 30 - August 5, 2007: -- Yaguchi, Lau, Kawase and Park

Himitsu no hanazono / My Secret Cache (Shinobu Yaguchi, 1997)

A young girl named Sakiko is fascinated with money (and counting money) -- and her obsession continues unabated throughout high school. On graduation, she decides that working as a bank clerk might be a perfect job -- but soon finds that counting other people's money is not a lot of fun. She wishes for more excitement and -- as if on demand -- her bank is robbed and she is carried off as a hostage (thrown in the trunk, along with a yellow suit case full of cash). To elude pursuit, the bank robbers go into the wilderness -- and crash the car. Only Sakiko and the suitcase survive -- as they are thrown out of the car (and into a sinkhole) before the car explodes. After a wild watery ride, using the suitcase as a flotation device -- the girl and her money are parted. She survives her ordeal (just barely), but now is obsessed with finding the suitcase full of yen notes.

Sakiko now finally has a purpose in life -- and she is going to do whatever it takes to track down the money (which the bank and police assume to have been burned up). This entails registering in a geological program (headed by Taketoshi Naito, with an assist from perennial grad student Go Riju) at a dumpy provincial college and taking classes in swimming, diving and mountain climbing. As it turns out, in her stinginess throughout her childhood and youth, Sakiko has amassed sufficient funds to (almost) pay for her exploits. Her family is bewildered by her new (unexplained) hyperactivity. Will she find the suitcase of her dreams -- and if she does, then what ...

Naomi Nishida (in her first starring role) is a hoot as Sakiko (from high school age on) -- and the rest of the cast is quite engaging. The script is amusing, albeit wildly improbable -- and the direction and cinematography are effective (if not unduly artful). No pretensions to "cinema" here, just a fun movie. The Korean DVD of this film is subtitled -- and technically passable.

Oi gwan yue mung / Dance of a Dream (Andrew LAU Wai-kung, 2001)

While Andrew Lau seems to have hit the jackpot with his Infernal Affairs trilogy, his other film work seems to be mostly in the "only so-so" range. In both this older film and in his recent Confessions of Pain, he has the benefit of a fine cast -- yet still comes up with a product that is erratic dramatically -- and not especially inspired visually. For all the ordinariness of writing and direction, the excellent cast occasionally makes the film work.

Sandra Ng plays a waitress who works in a hotel run by rich young woman (Anita Mui). Both are intrigued by a dance teacher (Andy Lau) who performs at an event at Mui's hotel. Both soon sign up for lessons at Lau's shabby dance studio (Ng for budget lessons, MUi for deluxe private instruction). Of course, Mui's demands (and the extra cash supplied by her brother, Edison Chen), preempt some of the attention Ng and the other students (including Cherrie Ying, as a young hooker with a passion for dancing) were hoping to get. Will Anita Mui learn to tango in time for her big holiday party, will Lau be able to go to the world ballroom dancing competiton (viz. Shall We Dance), who will snare Lau's heart (Ng or Mui).

The story is, as a whole, more than a little confused and confusing, but many individual scenes are engaging (and/or quite funny). The high point of the whole show is a lengthy production number set to the tune of "Never on a Sunday". The Korean DVD of this is subtitled -- and looks pretty good generally.

More pictures:

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Nunbyshin nare / Meet Mr. Daddy (PARK Kwang-su, 2007)

Park was the leader of the New Korean Cinema and made a number of important (and often very politically charged films) in the late 80s and 90s. For the past few years, however, he has been involved in administrative side of the film industry. Meet Mr. Daddy marks Park's return to feature film making after an absence of over five years. The film he made after this absence, however, was very unlike his prior work. This films turns out to have been a highly melodramatic family drama -- with no obvious political implications.

The protagonist (Park Shin-yang) here is a vain, blustering petty criminal -- who manages to get into trouble almost as soon as he gets out of prison on parole. He unexpectedly gets a chance to get back out of jail again -- but only if her agrees to take care of a seven year old girl he supposedly fathered and who has spent most of her life in an orphanage. The girl (Seo Shin-ae) has long idolized her father, based on a few bits of memorabilia that came along with her to the orphanage. As paternal devotion (and getting back out of jail) isn't enough of an inducement, the girls' social worker (Ye Ji-won) agrees to provide him with a stipend for caring for the girl. Even with this inducement, he proves to be an indifferent parent most of the time. And he is re-recruited by his gang colleagues into more nefarious schemes. He begins to come to his senses, but not until he runs into serious problems with his gang bosses -- and also discovers his child has severe medical problems (despite her cheery and optimistic disposition). The whole story takes place against the backdrop of the 2002 World Cup competition.

The premise for this film might be borderline credible, but the script makes sure that the story line repeatedly goes over the top -- in terms of both melodrama and improbability. Despite this, excellent performances (and very fine cinematography) almost persuade one to take the story seriously -- until the next big jar in plot. One hopes that Park's next project will involve a more plausible script. In any event, the subbed Kotrean DVD looks quite good.

More screen shots:

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Mogari no mori / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

Kawase's latest feature film picked up the Grand Prix (essentially second prize) at the Cannes film festival earlier this year. Although the film has a number of real merits, my initial sense (based on an unsubbed viewing) is that it is not as satisfying as the two earlier films I've seen by her (Suzaku and Shara). The film's primary focus is on an elderly man (clearly suffering some degree of dementia) in a nursing home out in the countryside and a young woman who is one of his caregivers. Although generally genial, the man is mischievous -- and also has some secrets he refuses to share. When a car mishap during a birthday treat car ride for the old man allows him to escape into a nearby forest, the young woman must follow him. In the forest, she learns of something of his secret sadness (and happiness) -- and he learns some of her secrets as well.

The pacing here is generally slow, and this works well -- insofar as the story remains within the realm of probability. But the film seems to strain a bit too hard, once it finally enters the forest. Symbolism and naturalism seem a bit at odds in the final portion of the film. Maybe I will warm to this more on re-watching. But I had no similar problem with her prior films on my first meeting with them.

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