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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a small film, an unimportant one, but it's gonna duke it out
with *The Wailing* for 2016's Asian top spot.
***SPOILER ALERT*** Don't read anything about this film before seeing it ... that's already a spoiler. If this film is flirting around your Watchlist stop reading now and watch it.
This is one of those Japanese love triangle stories about three people so insecure they can barely talk. Been there, done that. Then it's more. The triangle continues, but it mingles in a world that goes to a dark place.
A lot will be written about the what/where this story goes. It's pretty cool, I guess, but I'd like to skip that discussion and just point out how well done it is. *Himeanole* is quite Korean in its "Oh no! Don't shoot ... Hey! Great Shot"-ness. There are several scenes where you think "Really? The director is going to do this? Come on! Oh wait ... Hey. Nicely done!" At least I felt that way.
I've seen Keisuke Yoshida's *Cafe Isobe*  and was very impressed. He mixes deep drama with comedy (from witty to goofy) with aplomb. I believe the secret sauce is his rhythm. He knows how to cut a film. The framing and edits actually add metadata to the scenes. Yoshida is physically in control of the visual rhythm. His storytelling is unconventional.
The casting of the film, and what Yoshida does with the typecasting, is genius. Again, a lot will be written about where boy band idol Gô Morita goes in the film. Kudos to him. Mad props. Cutesy powderpuff Aimi Satsukawa shares a little side-boob and side-butt, a hand bra (not her hands), and a pretty brutal rape scene with us. Oh my. Her "sex" scene (not graphic) stands out for what the director inter-cuts it with. It's one of those scenes where you initially think "Oh please, don't do this", but as it reaches climax, you will gulp. If you gulp in disdain or disgust I have no counter argument. But me: "Hey! Great shot!"
In a year of big important films I was supposed to like and didn't like, I needed this. For those who will say this is an important film, an impressive essay on guilt or bullying, I offer a raspberry. For me, the film is a directorial tour de force. It's not perfect. Mistakes are made (Yoshida introduces a "fat" character and has her indulge in bad eating-acting. When will that go away? (Her scene is still great, though) There are bumbling cops and some questionable character choices). But the film deftly succeeds in spite of it all.
Yoshida's *My Little Sweet Pea*  is definitely the next film I'm going to watch.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
First of all, Hong-jin Na is the man; this is an amazing film and may
be one of the best horrors of the last ten years--which may be saying
more about the genre than the film.
I think I can do this without spoiling.
If you don't know what style underpants Japanese and Korean men wear, or which side of the road they drive on, not to mention who gets to cast the first stone or how many times a rooster burps, you might not 'get' this film. Religion is a spongy thing, from Shamans to the resurrected, and from scamming palm readers to the truly omniscient, they all speak and act ambiguously. So there's that.
Kudos to start: The Shaman rituals are wonderful and intense, the music is so good. The zombie scene, just WOW, even though it teeters close to "okay, there's six of us and one of him, lets try to get him one at a time" dumbness. Kwak Do-Won, like so many of the blubbery Korean actors I enjoy, is great with only a few errors, probably the director's fault. The little girl really does "bring it". Jun Kunimura, though problematic overall as the 'Japanese' man, has a couple scenes of such commitment and beauty (the photographers, makeup people, and director get some credit) my jaw hit the floor.
One eyebrow raised: Films of subtle depth and substance should also be enjoyable on a superficial level to be great. This film is that, for the most part. BUT. There's a fine line between intentionally misdirecting your audience and being thoughtfully ambiguous. Hong-jin Na is a little wobbly on that line. I think this is the weakest of his three films.
The film is edited questionably. There are several scenes that all of a sudden aren't there any more and we're onto/into the next one leaving us to think: "How did they get out of that one"? This can be an effective technique or a sign that things haven't been thought through completely. This film isn't very fluid, imo.
Spankings: In the horror genre, or otherwise, it's disappointing when there's a scary scene that ends up being a dream--doubly so if someone later asks 'Was it a dream?' or says with authority: 'It wasn't a dream'. There's a big scary scene that happens in this flick that just doesn't make sense for it to convert to a dream, unless the guy woke up where he was in the dream. It invalidates what happened right before it and during it.
The foot chase. This is a staple of many horrors and others. It's akin to the gun fight: stupid. When a hobbled old man, shown stumbling and falling down, can still outrun six capable, younger men, I'm gonna puke. I might even punt a film based on that, as this makes me lose lots of respect for the film maker and his/her choices.
Back to the underpants. I'm sure there are lots of 'tells' in the film I didn't get. Lots of them. But and So, even missing all of them, and even though I ask for an obvious 'tell' if/when the subtleties may be lost, the big obvious 'reveal' in this film is so clumsy I felt a big "Boo" well up from inside.
I'm on board with a film that might not make sense, might even frustrate while experiencing it in real time, and only reveals its true depth after it's over and you think about it and put all the puzzle pieces together. An example would be *Spider Forest*, a film I totally didn't 'get' while I was watching it, but felt enthused and excited about trying to make sense of it. When The Wailing ended I was glad it was over.
Don't get me started on the "Why is this happening?" question. You really have to make stuff up for the answer in the film to that question to make sense.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's the re-animating deer near the beginning; the first few
overflowing zombie pile-ups; several great contortion moves; a
fantastic fiery Locomotive crash; a hilariously great zombie herd
tailgate surf. What am I missing? That's about three minutes of quality
movie. A Movie Trailer's worth. And like a movie trailer it's a
terrible representation of the film overall--where the other 99% is a
The pacing of the film is defecating: Zombies run into a door that's being closed; everyone takes a dump. Lather rinse repeat. The pacing is bad because the writing and acting are awful. "But you're not supposed to have writing and acting in a zombie movie!" That's right. So why shove it in our faces? Jung Yu-Mi gets a pass, and I liked the little girl. Ma Dong-Seok doesn't embarrass himself too much because he's strong enough to overcome what he's given. Every line of dialog in the film is bad. Gong Yoo is a twerpy faux-stud who can't act his way out of a genre film. I hope to never watch another film with his over-moisturized face.
I had high hopes for this. The three minutes of quality film are fantastic. End of story. Well, actually I like the Korean thing of killing everyone, although I'm not saying if the kid dies or not (like the one in *The Host* did). Korea might be inching toward doing Hollywood better than Hollywood, but it's still crap. I, and I can't believe I'm saying this, enjoyed *The Happening* (2008) more than this. Heck, I enjoyed a Woody Harrelson movie more than this.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first scene brought rain to the edges of my eyes. I'm a sucker for
these depictions of Zenly enduring, kind and capable, ultra-feminine
baby-talking pillars of strength Japanese women. Haru Kuroki nails it
immediately and I know what I'm in for: *This Charming Girl* level
character painting, only Japanese, which is better. Kuroki is
humiliated from several angles and perseveres. Her world falls apart
big and fast, culminating in a slow motion walk along the river pushing
two suitcases accompanied by major melodramatic music to end the first
act, at about the one hour mark. I hadn't noticed the soundtrack up to
this point (which is a good thing, I think), but this scene is
gigantic. It blew me away in its stylish gutsiness, I had to pause the
film and catch my breath. I was fist pumping the air at how good this
was going, already looking to place the film in the pantheon of great
In retrospect, the film should have ended right there, crescendo'd to the heavens, leaving me frustrated in love, begging for more. My two highest rated Iwai films are Undo and April Story, at 47 and 67 minutes respectively. Just sayin'.
So I come back to the flick and Kuroki's on a phone call, and then she starts walking again to big music. This time it feels obnoxious, Kurosawa-esque, and the film starts falling apart quickly.
Bottom line: you know an actor is in trouble when he brings gimmick to every scene. Big complicated shoes, eating-acting, fashion mistakes above his pay grade, chewing gum. Gô Ayano is terrible here, looking for accents or spices to give his character some flavor, and becomes a constant distraction for the rest of the film.
Cocco isn't an actress. She a majorly intense personality. A couple big name directors highlighted her strengths in films about her. Iwai calls upon her to act, and drives the film off into the weeds making Acts II and III about her. She's Rip Van Winkle.
In Acts II and III, the slumber party style scenes go on way too long. The music is ridiculous in trying to add some whoopy-whoopy to nothingness. Go-go Man irritates in his attempt to be someone cool like Brad Pitt.
Iwai does Iwai very well. He has a mature mark, but doesn't unpack his stories well. I don't even know what I'm watching any more. Too many people giving too many long winded speeches, trying to find a poignancy even if it's not going to be quiet. All things lead to an embarrassing scene with Cocco's mother, after a confusingly scripted denouement (what did she know and when did she know it) spoils any chance of redemption. Quiet poignancy made a few appearances but never took over.
The guy who directed this film is Sakura Ando's father. He directed
Sakura's nude scene in her feature film debut, Out of the Wind (Kaze no
sotogawa (2007)). In show-biz families that may be a non-event, or even
a bold and smart thing to do. It's a little creepy to me. He directs
and stars in this film about a 40-something cop and a fifteen year old
girl who fall in love. It got "good press" when it ran the festival
circuit for the great lengths it went to in trying not to be creepy:
make the girl tough, smart, the aggressor. Yeah, poor cop, what's he
supposed to do?
I applaud the convoluted script which allows for this kind of synopsis (from here on IMDb):
"Tomokawa is a tough guy turned bored cop who spends much of his time sating lonely housewives and looking after retarded teen Sukemasa. One day while hanging out at a bar, he is approached by a 15-year-old enjo kosai named Yoko, offering a round of illicit sex in exchange for cash. Though he demurs, their paths cross again and soon a relationship of sorts forms. Yoko, it turns out, is Sukemasa's sister; and both are the children of his old flame Yukie, a grasping, self-centered woman. Moreover, Yoko's grandfather is responsible for the massive tattoo sprawling across Tomokawa's back. Tomokawa soon takes both teens under his wing, protecting them from their heartless mother, and their lecherous stepfather. Soon, Yoko gets a similarly massive tattoo illustrating her bond with her policeman savior."
It's all true. The savior cop demurred, and etc.... Tomokawa kidnaps runaway dogs and keeps them for a long time so that when he finally returns them to lonely housewives they are so grateful they have sex with him. That's in the script. But he's friends with a mentally-challenged teen. See how balanced he is? The cop and the girl are both so far out there misunderstood-with-baggage they were destined for one another.
Lolita films are nothing new and this might be a good one as far as they go. It's restrained, not too graphic; there's interesting photography and directorial choices made; May Ozawa (~20) is "daring" and "courageous" --festival-speak for 'does nude scenes'-- as the young girl; the script is well-contrived; there's spiritualism and character development. Great lengths.
Watching Eiji Okuda direct himself and show his butt as irresistible to a fifteen year old girl was never going to work for me. YMMV.
Another mostly improvised, watching-paint-dry indie flick. This one is a little more mature in content and character. Makiko Watanabe is wonderful as a young woman shacked up with an older guy who brings his eight year old son to live with them while his wife recuperates from a car accident. At first she resents the idea, mostly because she wasn't consulted about it and knows that she will be saddled with most of the chores involved in it, but comes to like the role and is conflicted when it's coming to an end. Competing, confused emotions and transformation of character are observed, and executed, at a very high level.
I was reminded while watching Exit of two films I love: Ming-liang
Tsai's *What Time Is It There?*  and Yoon-ki Lee's *This Charming
Girl* . The former because Shiang-chyi Chen stars in both of
them; the latter because Chen's award winning performance, as the
lonely 'protagonist' in Exit, is every bit as good as Ji-su Kim's
Charming Girl. One of the opening scenes has Chen packing a grocery bag
with food staples for her daughter who doesn't like her and who rarely
comes home. Chen ignores the contempt for her coming from her daughter
sitting at the table. It's a wonderfully understated gut punch of a
scene to start things off.
Exit almost goes beyond the "watching paint dry" velocity of Tsai's films and breaks into "watching paint weather and rot" tempo. The cinematography is smooth and creative, almost Doyle-y: like filming someone through a plant, down a hall, reflected off a mirror. There's free form surreal blurry creativity at an important point.
That's where the good stuff ends, for me. This is misery porn. Her daughter hates her; her out-of-town husband won't accept her calls; she loses her job; her sewing machine breaks; her water stops running; the deadbolt on her front door doesn't work. On and on. On top of that, the director gives her early onset menopause and declares that's what the film is about! I could be okay with all that. The misery is juxtaposed to her menopausal reawakening of desire. An odd juxtaposition, but there you have it. What spoiled the film for me was the sound of it. The reawakening is linked to and escorted by a Tango. But is it sexy or intimidating? I don't know if it's the particular piece that didn't work for me, or if it was the way it was used. Suggesting the latter, Chen's tango partner has a breathing problem. There's too many long scenes of listening to him whimper and breathe laboriously. The film feels assembled to annoy more than grown organically.
Exit isn't meant to be a pleasant film. There's a lot to admire, but I didn't enjoy it.
Three 30-something women who were co-workers a decade earlier reestablish their friendships and assess their present situations. Japan's answer to Chil-in Kwon's *Venus Talk* in the mature, intelligent chick-flick department. And it's cast even better. Three real good actresses anchor a half dozen other fine actors (including Arata and Shota Sometani as the only boys--in refreshingly substantive parts, not fodder for girl power). There's a surprising amount of inventive, artful cinematography employed. Everything about the film oozes a we-know-what-we're-doing vibe. I didn't like the song used to transition one of the women's ship to rightedness but other than that the film is pretty flawless. If you like these kind of films, you'll like this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
*Cafe Noir* is a linear quilt of set pieces and cinematic indulgences,
vignette style. There are more than a half dozen scenes you could call
music videos, gorgeous music videos with great music: Bach chorales,
Korean indie funky dub, opera, Chinese avant-garde. The whole film is
melancholy and these "music videos" barely raise its temperature.
Except maybe the dance number near the end to the middle eastern
grooves of Bill Laswell. Dance number?
The film is based on stories by Goethe and Dostoevsky. Most of the dialog is literary if not poetic. Beyond the inspirations and homages to great works of art, Cafe Noir is also steeped in gobs of Kim Ki-dukian religiosity, and the academic musings on love of Hong Sang-soo, with plenty of nods to contemporary Korean cinema thrown in. There's a scene by the Han river where the uncle of the little girl who was killed in *The Host* talks about his feelings of loss. So Meta. The forlorn star of the second half is Hong regular Jung Yu-Mi. A scene where she says "fork you, like you know it all!" will have Hong fans howling.
Viewers of the film familiar with Goethe, Dostoevsky and Classic Film auteurs will have a different (and probably richer) experience of the film than I did. All that was lost on me (except for some red balloons).
Cafe Noir is gorgeous.
Cafe Noir is pretentious. It's grandiose and overwhelming. It's punishingly thick and multi-layered. It's over three hours long and languidly paced. Characters in the film don't talk to one another the way normal people do, they deliver lines. Ten year old girls quote Goethe and pontificate about love with more wisdom than I'll ever possess.
Cafe Noir is the most amazing film experience I've had in years.
If you don't like Korean Rom-coms AND Japanese schoolgirl pure love
melodramas you can stop reading. If you do like them you should stop
reading and go watch this movie - Jinkusu!!! (2013).
A Korean college exchange student visiting Japan, (T-ara idol, Park Hyomin), spots a couple classmates who are hopelessly Japanese about their feelings for one another and gives them lessons on how to be K-romantic and confess their love. Principle #1 is the Korean concept 'mildang'. Roughly translated it means tug of war. From the young Japanese girl's perspective it means playing hard to get, which she doesn't like or understand. The Korean girl sees it as an opportunity for the guy to show his resolve in the face of defeat, like Rocky Balboa! That's right. The Rocky franchise plays a role in this film as does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
Nothing new or insightful here, but it's so cute and innocent and heartwarming you're gonna want to hug this movie from start to finish.
I've seen a few movies from this director, Naoto Kumazawa: Letters from Kanai Nirai Nirai kanai kara no tegami (2005) Rainbow Song Niji no megami (2006) Oto-na-ri (2009)
They had their moments but nothing like this film. It's remarkable how well the director nails the differences between Korean and Japanese. Hyomin isn't that cute but she's adorable as heck, like when she angrily tells the Japanese girl to smile, and then smiles. You gotta see it. The Japanese couple are overwhelmed by Hyomin's confidence and expertise. She has her heart secret which informs what she's doing, and when the film wraps up and the bubbles start flying .... wow!
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