Monday, October 29, 2007

Watched September 24 - 30, 2007: Ratanaruang, Seong, Zhang and Yau

Ruang rak noi nid mahasan / Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek RATANARUANG, 2003)

This is only the second film from Thailand I've seen -- and, it just so happens, the second film I've seen that was made by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. Unlike Monrak Transistor, which seemed to be aimed mostly at a domestic Thai audience, Last Life is clearly an international film, featuring a romance between a Japanese library aide (Kenji, played by Tadanobu Asano), and a young Thai woman (Noi, played by Sinitta Boonyasak), who converse in a mixture of Thai, Japanese and English, in an awkwardly realistic seeming manner. Kenji is a neat freak with suicidal tendencies -- and an older brother who is on the lam from Japan, having aggravated his yakuza boss. Noi also has a problematic sibling, a sister who works as a bar girl (and has been messing around with Noi's sleazy ex-boyfriend). The two are brought together by the (unrelated) death of their siblings.

Most of the film is spent at Noi's beachside home, which she clearly inherited from prematurely deceased parents -- and seemingly hasn't ever bothered to clean. For good and sufficient reasons, Kenji chooses to avoid his own meticulously kept apartment -- and asks to stay with Noi. Much of his time there is spent cleaning. Noi, as it turns out, has arranged to go work in Japan soon -- and has been studying Japanese (on language tapes that provide an occasional sonic background). Ultimately it almost pointless to try to describe the plot of this film. The feeling here is somewhat like that of a fever dream -- and one is never quite certain of the boundaries between reality and imagination. The lead performances are absolutely wonderful -- as is the cinematography of Christopher Doyle.

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Oseam (SEONG Baek-yeob, 2003)

A beautifully animated Buddhist legend about two orphans and a community of monks. A young girl and her younger brother have been homeless since a fire that took the life of their mother and left the girl blind. The girl has never been able to bring herself to tell her little brother that their mother is actually dead, so he continues to hope for a reunion. In their wanderings as beggars, they encounter two monks, who take pity on them and give them a home near their monastery. The boy is a bit of a live-wire, yet he is moved by the monk's rituals. The boy and one of the younger monks go to a more remote mountain monastery for a sort of retreat. The boy is left alone when the monk goes on a shopping expedition but can't return due to a sudden heavy snowstorm. In his loneliness, the boy turns to a painted image of the goddess Kwan-eum as protector and companion.

The landscapes and other background drawings for this film are absolutely gorgeous. The character designs and animation are decent, if not quite Disney or Ghibli-level. The story is well-presented. I suppose this could be viewed as a sad film from a Western perspective, but it is obviously intended to ultimately be a joyous one, from a Buddhist viewpoint. The monastery where the events in the film took place is now a pilgrimage site.

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Ye. Shanghai / Yoru no Shanhai / Longest Night in Shanghai (ZHANG Yibai, 2007)

One of the most consistently interesting of younger mainland Chinese directors, Zhang has turned his hand to a tri-lingual romantic comedy. His 30 minute-long Shanghai segment of the anthology film About Love, made a couple of years ago, was a bittersweet (but lovely) romance (of sorts) between a Chinese high school girl and a Japanese college student renting a room above the girl's mother's store. The present film has no lack of pathos, but does have a higher quotient of comedy. The central couple -- who take a while to actually come into contact with each other -- are a famed Japanese hairdresser (Masahiro Motoki) who has come to Shanghai for a big musical extravaganza of some sort (complete with retinue) and a young female taxi driver (Vicki ZHAO Wei). After the show is over, Motoki goes for a walk and gets lost -- eventually encountering Zhao (in one of the film's few over-the-top bits of slapstick comedy). Unlike About Love: Shanghai and Last Life in the Universe (see above), neither member of this chance couple can realy speak to the other. Motoki's attempt to rely on English as a fall-back is frustrated by the fact that Zhao's familiarity with English doesn't go much beyond "okay".

As Zhao struggles with the dilemma of how to get Motoki back to a hotel whose name he doesn't even recollect, and with a personal "catastrophe" (she discovers that the hunky young mechanic who is her colleague -- and who she has a crush on -- is getting married) , the two manage to learn a lot about each other despite their inability to rely on "speech" (they do figure out eventually that they can communicate a bit in writing). While this main action is taking place, other members of the retinue engage in their own romantic discoveries -- as they try to find their lost employer. It feels rather like an updated Midsummer's Night Dream, transported from the forests of Shakespeare's imaginary Greece to the urban wilds of neon-lit night-time Shanghai. Others in the cast of nightime wanderers include Naomi Nishida, Takashi Tsukamoto, Sam LEE Chan, Naoto Takenaka, Shinobu Otsuka and Dylan Kuo.

Unfortunately, there is no English-subbed DVD of this film available yet. On the other hand, being linguistically adrift in this particular film might be particularly appropriate -- as it strives to show that there is more to communication than mere language. The DVD (letterboxed, but no anamorphic) was generally passable (and very cheap). It is to be hoped that there will soon be a superior (and subbed) Hong Kong release, so that this delightful romantic comedy audience can find a larger audience.

Gun chung / Eye in the Sky (YAU Nai-hoi, 2007)

Yau is a long-time Johnnie To colleague, having written scripts for films such as Running Out of Time, The Mission and Running on Karma. This film (featuring a prototypical To movie cast), however, is the first film Yau has directed. At the center of this film one finds Simon Yam. while often he plays the heavy these days, here he is a genial police sergeant in a top-secret unit. He has to tasks to juggle during the course of the film -- shepherding a new recruit (Kate Tsui) and catching a cagey gang of armed jewelry store robbers led by Tony LEUNG Ka Fai. Both Yam's police operation and Leung's criminal one depend on surveillance -- but the former is dependent on the latest in high-tech equipment while the latter depends largely on Leung's eyes (and brain) watching from rootops above the crime scenes. There seems little point to describing the plot in more detail. So more pictures, instead:

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Watched September 17 - 23, 2007: Ôtani, Tian and Hanawa

Rough (Kentarô Ôtani, 2006)

An amiable enough adaptation of a 1980s sports manga by Mitsuru Adachil, about high school swimmers (and divers) -- though not quite so successful as Isshin Inudo's adaptation of Adachi's baseball manga Touch from 2005. The story here seems a bit too sketchy and a bit rushed -- and supporting characters who seem like they should play important roles come across like vestiges of what they should have been. Despite these problems, this film is worth seeing -- assuming one is interested in Japanese commercial cinema (and not just art films).

The central pair here are a talented (but a bit careless and indolent) swimmer played by Mokomichi Hayami and a diver played by Masami Nagasawa. Their first encounter at the summer-time (residential) sports program mystifies Hayami -- as Nagasawa calls him "murderer" for no apparent reason. As it turns out, the explanation lies in the pair's family histories. Fate throws the two together -- but Nagasawa clearly also has a long-standing crush (at least) on an older swimmer (Tsuyoshi Abe) who has been her neighbor and mentor since childhood. Meanwhile, another diver (Yui Ichikawa) nurses a seemingly hopeless passion for Hayami. The strength of the film is that the two leads play relatively unstereotyped characters -- and play them quite well. The supporting cast is mostly quite good, insofar as they have (limited) parts to play. Cinematography here is mostly functional -- professional, but nothing out of the ordinary, certainly not as striking as that in Otani's prior Nana.

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Wu Qingyuan / The Go Master
(TIAN Zhuangzhuang, 2006)

Tian's film is absolutely gorgeous and it involves a potentially fascinating subject -- the life in Japan (of the late 20s through the early 60s) of one of the greatest Chinese go players, WU Qingyuan (called GO Seigen in Japanese). The cast here is also uniformly fine. Nonetheless the film did not quite work for either me or my go-playing children. The problem here, like that in the slighter Rough discussed above is one of over-compression. One simply cannot condense an almost 40 year career -- and give a sense of what the game of go is about -- in a movie clocking in at a mere 104 minutes. What one is left with is a set of very lovely (but largely disconnected) visual haiku. The film barely touches on Go's years as a child prodigy, then skips through his career in Japan, particularly depicting his distress as war between his homeland and his adopted country loomed (and then exploded). For all the brevity of the film as a whole, it perhaps spends a bit too much time on Go's post-war flirtation with a religious cult. In any event, CHANG Chen is excellent as Go (once one gets past the boyhood prologue). One wonders if Tian originally envisioned this film as a much longer work. It is conceivable that, in this case, more might have been more.

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Hatsukoi / First Love (Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

In 1968, daring thieves pulled off a violence-free theft of 300,000,000 yen. The police never solved this crime -- and even after the statute of limitation ran, not a single stolen yen ever showed up. Neither did anyone acknowledge involvement with the crime -- until around 30 years later, when Misuzu Nakahara published an "autobiography" claiming she was one of the key figures in the heist (when she was still a high school student). Hanawa's film dramatizes Nakahara's story -- with Aoi Miyazaki in the central role.

The film (primarily) covers the period of 1966 through 1969 -- beginning with Misuzu's reunion with her older brother Ryo (played by Aoi Miyazaki's real older brother, Masaru). As it turns out, her mother and brother had disappeared years previously -- and Misuzu had wound up in the care of an aunt and uncle. Feeling estranged from these relatives, she jumps at the chance to (secretly) associate with Ryo's bohemian, student-activist friends. As it happens, around this time, Japan's colleges became particularly turbulent around this same time, and Ryo and his band became swept up in the violence (though Misuzu manages to stay clear). One of Ryo's friends, Kishi (Keisuke Koide) comes up with his own plan for getting back at those in power, pulling off a huge robbery. The only person he shares this plan with is Misuzu, as she is the only one of the group who is not already known to the police. In furtherance of this plan, Misuzu needs to master motorcycle riding (something she knows nothing about) and driving cars (for which she has no license). After thorough rehearsals, and despite an array of unexpected problems, Misuzu manages to carry out Kishi's plan -- pretending to be a motorcycle police officer advising the occupants of the vehicle full of money to evacuate it because it had a bomb attached underneath -- and then jumping in herself and simply driving away. Unfortunately, success turns out not to have any real satisfaction for Misuzu and Kishi (who have developed strong feelings for each other, but never really acknowledged them).

The early part of this film does a wonderful job of evoking the feel of the 60s -- and is almost certainly indebted (at least in part) to French nouvelle vague cinema. Indeed, Misuzu seems to develop a taste for artsy foreign films. While we never see what Misuzu watches, we hear bits of both a French film (not yet identified by me) and a Swedish one (surely something by Bergman). The cinematography by veteran Junichi Fujisawa (Who's Camus Anyway?, The Cherry Orchard) is quite good (but tends to the darkish side). The pacing, though slow, is steady. The story is well-told until a bit of faltering right before the end. But what what really makes the film most worthy of seeing is the superb performance of Aoi Miyazaki. Like her fabled predecessor Setsuko Hara. Miyazaki's chief assets are her large and very expressive eyes -- and her ability to carry sustained scenes with little or no need to talk. As have directors in other recent outings by Miyazaki (viz. Su-ki-da), Hanawa found that he could entrust noticeably longer takes to scenes dominated by Miyazaki than to any of the other cast members. Miyazaki continues to show promse of becoming as fine an actress as an adult as she was as a child. And Hanawa's first directorial outing shows more than enough promise to keep an eye for his future projects.

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