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Harmonium (2016)
Slow out of the gate, razor sharp after that
1 September 2017
This is the second film Kôji Fukada has made about a stranger insinuating himself into a seemingly calm family. The stranger first starts working for the family in their home business, then he moves in to their home, and then ties between the stranger and the family are revealed and exploited. Kanji Furutachi played the stranger in the first one, *Hospitalité*. He plays the family man in this one. I like this one better.

Any time one of a character's introductory scenes consists of bad eating-acting you have the most simplistic of character definitions: the character is an idiot, with a bad moon rising. Both the family man and the stranger are introduced this way. They both turn out bad. No surprise. The first act of this film is full of bad indie nonsense, but after the lame setup material is out of the way, including Asano's snorefest of a background story speech that sets things in motion, the film finds it rhythm. And it's frighteningly good. And only then does it become unpredictable. There's a character swap about halfway through, and trying to figure out the relationship and motivations really put me on edge. The second half of the film is walking on razor blades.

Asano has pretty much jumped the shark, imo. He's played this character a hundred times. I don't think he does anything special here, but he's not bad. Kanji Furutachi is a good creep. In the first act he tries to act like a creep and fails. In the second half he becomes a creep and is awesome. But the star of this film is Mariko Tsutsui as the wife. Her face is hard-coded for WTF sadness. She does the Japanese thing of remaining calm in the face of super-WTF-ness, wonderfully. There are several big moments, impact moments, in the film where if I were her my head would have exploded. I had no idea how she would react. She's fantastic. The opposite of acting. She looks like she's processing the information given to her for the first time--not like she's acting the part of processing information. Bravo! When you see what happens to the kid it's funny, sad, super weird and then some. It remains understated which doubles the funny, sad, super weird and then some of it.

I have no idea what the ending says. It felt abstract and lame but didn't spoil things for me. I highly recommend the film to those who aren't bothered by bad eating-acting, or may not notice bad indie cliché scenes, and to those who are forgiving of bad script writing and acting during a film's setup phase.
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Drowning Love (2016)
One strange brew
30 August 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Basically a story we've seen from Japan a thousand times: Pretty girl transfer student from Tokyo to Hicksville falls for the brooding bad boy in class. It treats this middle school romance as if it were a little more mature than it is. What sets it apart are some of the directorial choices in editing and sound.

There are some over-the-top drama moments that would kill the film if they weren't normalized by the weirdness of the overall. Almost every scene in the film is accompanied by a different piece of music. Some good, some not so good, but they all act strongly, not in the background, in shaping the emotion of the scene. And the director uses the emotion, or intensity, of the music to shape her film editing. It's not subtle, and I don't think I've seen anything like it before--at least to the extent that the whole film follows this pattern, scene after scene.

*Drowning Love* doesn't seem to care much about being a film as much as being a Live Action adaptation of a manga (which I haven't read). The director (I learned after the fact and it made perfect sense) is a 20-something young woman. It's like "Hey! One of us actually did this instead of some pervy old man!" and may explain some of the music video/video game aspects of the presentation.

There's one big problem with it. Well, two. The first is: it doesn't really make sense. The second is: it starts off as a typical teen romance (shojo, I think they're called), then an attempted/aborted rape happens which kicks up the intensity--until it gets lost. And that's the problem. This middle school girl almost gets raped, and two minutes later in the film it's forgotten or downplayed by everyone until the end where it's brought back up for the finale. There's also a "sensitive boy" friend who gets tossed off the film after doing his little duty, and the adults in the film are just place holders who look out of place in the film--basically the way they must look to most middle school kids. Kudos for that.

Nana Komatsu of *World of Kanako* fame stars. She's got a certain set of chops. Some fancy boy idol, who dyed his hair blond for the role, plays broody boy. They have chemistry, and I enjoyed Nana's complexity in dealing with broody boy. He treats her like a dog and she's determined to get to a place where he will be a whimpering puppy. And tells him as much. I enjoy the way the Japanese use middle school students to act out a Doomed Lovers play. You look at the players--they're young, there's no sex. They seem innocent, but are given dialog that betrays a wisdom and experience beyond their years.

Not recommending it to anyone who isn't already interested in these kinds of movies. But this one is a little different and could offer something of interest because of the out-of-the-box way it's constructed. I think the ending is supposed to be big and meaningful but it didn't make any sense to me. It's not a film that meanders around and offers a emotional payoff at the end. It just spirals off.
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Himeanole (2016)
In a year of big important films I was supposed to like and didn't like, I needed this.
2 January 2017
Warning: 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* [2008] 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* [2013] is definitely the next film I'm going to watch.
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The Wailing (2016)
The good, the bad, and the awful
20 September 2016
Warning: 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.
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As much quality as a Movie Trailer
20 September 2016
Warning: 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 T-bomb.

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.
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Haru Kuroki is fabulous. Iwai should have found a couple actors to support her.
20 September 2016
Warning: 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 Japanese cinema.

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.
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An Adolescent (2001)
He demurs, but soon a relationship of sorts forms. lol
25 April 2016
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.
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M/Other (1999)
Suwa's follow up to the marvelous 2/Duo
7 April 2016
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.
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Exit (2014)
There's a lot to admire, but I didn't enjoy it.
27 March 2016
I was reminded while watching Exit of two films I love: Ming-liang Tsai's *What Time Is It There?* [2001] and Yoon-ki Lee's *This Charming Girl* [2004]. 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.
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Smart, good-looking, and well done
20 March 2016
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.
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Cafe Noir (2009)
An extended essay on unrequited love
19 March 2016
Warning: 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.
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Jinkusu!!! (2013)
I can't believe this hasn't been done before
7 March 2016
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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Blind Massage (2014)
A masterful, difficult, frustrating, beautiful film
6 June 2015
Where to begin with this one? I was tempted half-way through it to log on here and add it to the "100 greatest Chinese films" thread but thought 'Nah, it's too young'. I thought it was a film made by someone with a blind spouse who wanted to depict what it's like to be blind. You know, one of those kinda films. But the people in this film are not shiny happy people. And, btw, it has little to do with the fact that they are all professional massagers.

Here's how I judge this is a good film: I often throw something on around midnight, knowing I will fall asleep soon, just to get a feel for what it's like. I couldn't look away from this thing. In fact, I immediately started watching it a second time--a further test of how good I think a film is: how soon do I start wanting a re-watch? If I think about it before I've finished the first viewing, the film is kicking butt.

The film has a few "sighted" actors who do a good job of acting blind, but they kind of stand out because they are better looking than the blind non-actors. (The film goes meta on that point, too).

It starts off like it's going to be about some kid who loses his sight in a car accident and is told it's only temporary. He eventually learns he was being lied to and won't get his sight back. He tries, unsuccessfully, to kill himself. This part is narrated in voice-over by a (non-character) woman who also reads the opening credit roll and returns throughout. Usually films resort to voice-over as a last resort, but it works here. The guy takes a job at a massage establishment run by two blind men and staffed by all blind or partially blind people. The film then morphs into an ensemble piece about several of them: their loves and lusts, not so much their blindness. So it's a film about 'standard' things that go on in the lives of people who happen to be blind. A couple of the blind women steal the show.

The amazing (and perhaps frustrating to some) thing about the film is how it does give you an idea of what it's like to be blind. You really get a sense that things are just swirling around rather than being observed. The film's notion of focus is genius. There are lots of truly emotional moments in the film (only slightly off-center from what we're used to because the characters are blind) but they aren't maudlin or melodramatic at all. They are more darkish and almost creepy. This is no after-school special. There are scenes where the central dialog takes place off camera, or, right when a scene screams out for some resolve it's simply dropped. That happens a lot. Very weird. There's scenes where you feel the discomfort for the characters who, during a moment of drama, can't read body language or facial expressions. It punches. Whoever shot this film should win an award. The direction, editing, and cinematography are wildly inventive.

I didn't get the ending of the film but the last shot is a truly beautiful smile.

I was all psyched up to find a new director I could look forward to seeing more from. Turns out Ye Lou (of Suzhou River and Summer Palace fame) directed this thing. Everything makes sense now-- and by that I mean this is a masterful, difficult, frustrating, beautiful film. It has a few big blunders, but ALL great films do.
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Torso (2009)
Don't let the odd idea of this keep you away. It's quality stuff.
18 October 2012
You can't make films like this unless you have good actors.

Makiko Watanabe is so good in roles like this, and Sakura Ando is always good. There are many scenes of watching characters do nothing more than the mundane (or the weird, as in frolicking naked in the sea with a blow-up torso) -- if the actor seems like they are going through a checklist of motions, it will fail.

I got the sense I was observing these characters free from any notion a film was being made. Beyond that, Torso transforms itself into a wonderful character study as the torso deflates. Do yourself a favor, forget the odd Torso bit (it symbolizes blah blah, etc.) and watch two of Japan's best actresses play sisters with baggage. There may be limited appeal but Koreeda's cinematographer does a great job in his directorial debut.
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More funny-strange than funny-haha
22 May 2012
Ryuichi Hiroki released this film and Tokyo Trash Baby on the same weekend!

Kurosaki (Ren Osugi) is an erotic novelist who uses his editor and a hired model to act out scenarios in his living room he will use for inspiration in his writing. His wife Shizuko (Yôko Hoshi) calls him a pervert but we soon learn that what bothers her is that she feels her husband has intellectualized his carnal desires and she feels physically neglected. Shizuko tries to make him jealous, or simply goes after what she desires with someone else. At first she brings home a Caucasian English teacher but soon zeros in on her husband's editor after witnessing his accomplished S&M rope tying technique. Kurosaki's first response is anger, then forgiveness, then he decides to use the affair as inspiration for his current work in progress. He demands that his editor continue the affair and recount all the sordid details to him. He slaps his editor upside the head, then forgives him and offers him a drink each time before they get to work.

I don't think this would be funny if it were an English language film. Part of its charm is feeling like a foreigner watching a Japanese film. Much of the humor is surely lost in translation but some of the translations take on a humor of their own. Often it feels like the words are too blunt and some subtlety of language is being missed, while other times it seems words are forced together into strange combinations to try and convey different shades of something not literally translatable. "Go anal". It's all played very sincerely, if somewhat surreal.

Speaking of surreal, one thing that puzzled me throughout this film was the house where most of the action takes place. The layout seems inscrutable, a labyrinth of hallways and doors. A character will walk down a hall, turn down another, and then open a sliding door to apparently go into a room. Then the camera is in the supposedly entered room but the door has hinges and no relation to a hallway. Kurosaki will serve his assistant a beer from one direction and then deliver a second one from a different location. There's one scene that appears to have no plot value where the maid exits a door, removes her shoes and plunges off the porch a couple feet to the ground, as if she expected a step of some kind to be present. I assume this scene is meant to convey that even the characters are a bit befuddled by the structure and layout of the house. Maybe I just missed something but this kind of scene does fit in with the overall strangeness of the film.

While this comes off as a small and amusing film, I think it was a big film for Ryuichi Hiroki, somewhat autobiographical, incorporating way more Japanese history and culture than I am privy to, and most importantly served as a great transition for him from a director of pinku films to more mainstream fare, albeit a little art-house-y.
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By-the-numbers indie film
4 August 2011
I didn't believe any of the actors made contact with the feelings the characters were supposed to be feeling because everything comes off as an impression, rather than being anything of substance. I don't believe the director had a story to tell, as much as simply having a desire to make a film in this style. The hand-held camera-work didn't bother me, but the framing and composition of shots did. They seemed forced and almost precious, and the actors merely vogued their way through scenes. The story is uninspired. Three young drifters meet a single mom who is still mourning the death of her only son, and they all have an angst competition. That ought to be indie grill. But it's not in this case. It's just shots of people pensively staring off into space, and scenes of people pensively walking around aimlessly while the fog rolls by and the music meanders. Indie film school 101. It was very hard to finish this film because I didn't care about any of the characters. Caring about characters may not be necessary, although the director clearly hoped for it, so I'm going to make up a word to describe my experience and to differentiate it from simply not caring. I discared for the characters.
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Wants to be more than it is but it's still worthwhile for the performances
8 March 2011
This film has three things going for it: Aoi Miyazaki, Kumiko Aso, and a great soundtrack. Miyazaki and Aso are two of Japan's most talented and popular young actresses, and I'm always happy when a director shows good taste in music and uses it well—although the hip and evocative soundtrack used here sometimes seems a bit at odds with the slow paced art-house stylings of the film.

A Blue Automobile is a good looking film, very bleak, all stark and concrete, and there are a number of creative and interesting directorial choices made by Okuhara but the overall vision of the film left me wanting. That isn't always a problem but this film plays like it wants to be a film with a vision to talk about, an exploration of a heavy theme: pain, as a game changer. Indie actor cool dude Arata does a fine job as a young man who doesn't think much of living because of an accident as a child that has left him scarred around the eyes. He plays an introverted danger-punk guy, and we all know that fetching, young, good-hearted women are attracted to the type, so that's what plays out.

I was intrigued, fascinated even, by the characters as discreet units but wasn't able to engage or be moved by the exposition of the characters' motivations toward one another. It's basically another story about a guy who gets two women. And this time they are sisters, which adds to the oh-so-intense nature of the angst. That there's a big theme of immense suffering lurking in the background all the time doesn't make it much more than that, except it does make it "alternative".

The film has many bright moments and solid acting. It's not mainstream fare by a long shot, but fans of any of the three leads should enjoy watching them do their stuff. The film wants to be more than it is but it really doesn't matter. I enjoyed the experience of the film. It's one of those where you give more points to journey than goal.
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Not sexy or smart enough
7 March 2011
I let myself get over-hyped about this one: Director Anh Hung Tran's The Vertical Ray of the Sun is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen; Cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, one of my favorite; Jonny Greenwood doing the soundtrack. Almost every publicity blurb about this movie starts off with "Upon hearing the song "Norwegian Wood," Toru remembers back to his life in the 1960s ..." Well ... that blurb may describe the book but it has nothing to do with this film. I'm not a Beatles fan but I do carry a bunch of love for that song and it does bring with it a great sense of nostalgia. Somebody paid somebody a bunch of money to play that song over the end credits, all for naught. There isn't any real sense of nostalgia in the film except for some of the fashion and the big telephones. I let myself be mislead.

Greenwood's soundtrack might be interesting to listen to by itself but in the film all the lilting strings manage to seem bombastic. I literally muted the film several times it annoyed me so much. I don't think this is Greenwood's issue, though. Tran has been known to over-saturate a film or two with torturing soundtracks (The Scent of Green Papaya). Ping Bin Lee did come through. There are many breathtakingly beautiful scenes in the film, a few of which played silently for me because of the aforementioned soundtrack's habit of stomping all over the film.

I do not like Rinko Kikuchi's acting. I've seen her in a handful of films and while she gets some moments right, she often brings too much of her blonding international star self to roles (even before she had it) and I struggle to see a character beyond her personality. She whispers a lot which is a phony way to be dramatic done by people, strangely, desirous of attention. If they have your attention a little bit they can force you to double it by whispering. Fortunately she is only half the focus of the film. Texas born Kiko Mizuhara is awesome as the main "other" girl, Midori, in Toru's life. She's cute, spunky, forward, sexually confident, and blunt, but comes off as merely an outline of a character. I wish the whole film were about her. Ken'ichi Matsuyama, as Toru, is serviceable as the supposedly nostalgic one but hardly awesome enough to be a guy that three different girls just have to sleep with. Gorgeous Eriko Hatsune has a nearly film-stealing scene but that's about all we see of her.

The film contains some rather bold, and funny at the same time, sexual dialog, although it's a little sore-thumbish because the film is only punctuated with it. I loved it, and laughed, when Midori calls up Toru and says "My dad died. Will you take me to a porno film? The most perverse one." She also has a few moments describing to Toru how she'd like to be bedded by him which are entertaining. Kikuchi's Naoko, after letting Toru know that she's too crazy with despair to sleep with him asks him if it's torture to have an unserviced erection: "I can help with that", she then offers. There is a good bit of sadness and mixed up desire in the film but the characters and the story aren't developed enough to see it as more than immature angst.

I think this film will appeal to teenagers and twenty-somethings who've read the Haruki Murakami novel it's based upon because most of the holes in the film will be filled in and the sense of nostalgia might be there. Not that teenagers have a lot of nostalgia for the sixties but the film is about loss, and it is fairly good at presenting that—except the adolescent level of it is pretty thin. The film is NOT about the way things were—the last few wonderful lines of the film and a Beatles tune can't save it. It's just a young-love story which lacks the depth to appeal to those not feeling the same way, i.e., older folks. Young people experiencing the whirlwind of sexual awakening, and or those who've had a friend commit suicide, might love it.

Norwegian Wood is a great looking film but not well written or acted, and since it is also quite slow moving I don't think it will engage general audiences who haven't read the book. It's not sexy enough nor smart enough.
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Dream Home (2010)
A very bloody drama
24 February 2011
Gore-hounds and violence enthusiasts should enjoy this one a lot, except that all the horror plot points are interrupted by a lot of story and social commentary about rising home prices in Hong Kong. Dream Home is a serious and thoughtful drama with a lot of blood.

The flashback narrative technique doesn't serve the film very well except for the fact that it lets the blood start flowing from the opening scene. It feels like a cop out to me when a director doesn't have the confidence to let a film build to its climax, and feels the need to begin with the climax and then retrace the steps that lead up to it.

A few of the kills in this film are fantastic, in a "Really?!?! Holy Sh*t!" sort of way, especially the coitus interruptus one. The fact that mild-mannered Josie Ho is performing them adds to the effect. The only problem I had is that many of them start off as failures, to build phony tension the wrong way, become successes, and then someone who should have been dead dead dead pops up for another go at it. This produces more bang for the buck by getting, say, a dozen kills out of only seven characters.

There's plenty of nudity and some graphic sex to round things out but the cognitive dissonance created by mixing deep dramatic story lines with over-the-top bloodletting is likely to leave most viewers sitting on the fence verdict-wise. I recommend the film more to gore hounds than to connoisseurs of fine Hong Kong cinema. The film looks great and the production values are top notch, so ....
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A beautiful and tragic love story with some distracting blemishes
24 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Zhang Yimou reportedly auditioned 10,000 girls in search of untarnished, innocent (old school Chinese) beauty when looking to cast the lead in this film.

"These young folks are looking worse and worse with each generation. Pretty girls obviously aren't marrying handsome guys these days. They're hooking up with this sugar daddy and that old lonely bachelor with money. No wonder the kids are lacking in the looks department.

When you look at any picture of young Chinese women from the 60s and 70s period, you'll almost always have an eager face that radiates innocent beauty looking back at you. This is now a thing of the past, young folks rarely have that innocence about them any more."

I read that before seeing this film and it put an awful lot of pressure on the young actress who passed the audition. She's cute, but she's no Gong Li. She's hardly a Zhang Ziyi either, but that may have more to do with the way the film is assembled than anything else.

I'm a BIG fan of Zhang Yimou's common people films. I love his nostalgic looks at the past and his thinly veiled commentaries on the Cultural Revolution and cultural change in general, in China. But Zhang seems to have tossed this one off before finishing a proper script. Title cards are used to fill in narrative gaps (red flag) and to allow for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip, pouting, and looking like the innocent beauty Zhang craves. I think the need for fade-to-black wistful shots of the girl biting her lower lip and pouting suggests he didn't find it.

The film is adapted from a popular mainland novel which was based on a true story set during the Cultural Revolution. There's lots of good stuff and great attention to detail concerning the period, and it satisfied my desire for that. There's a pretty standard love story, complete with terminal disease tugs at your heart strings, plopped on top of it all. And not just a love story, but a Japanese styled "pure love" love story. That part is fine as well. A little Korean style melodrama mixed with some Japanese pure love stylings works for me most of the time. So why didn't I love this movie?

Honestly, the title cards bothered me. Not just because the girl bit her lip and pouted going into many of them (which got on my nerves, as well), but because they gave the film an unfinished quality. It's difficult to remain completely faithful to a novel when adapting it for the big screen, and just as voice-over narration can be used successfully to fill in narrative gaps, or it can stick out like a sore thumb, so go the title cards.

"Sun told Jing that he would be waiting for her upon her return"

Sticks out like a sore thumb.

To be fair, dancer and senior high school girl, Zhou Dongyu, from Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, with "eyes that are clear like the mountain springs", is pretty fetching as the young girl who is sent to re-education camp and falls in love with an upwardly mobile land prospector. The film's theme of with whom and when one falls in love being up to the discretion of Communist Party leaders is far more tragic than the terminal disease. Shawn Dou Xiao is outrageously handsome and appealing as the young man who falls in love with her.

Under the Hawthorne Tree is delicately shot and filled with wonderful period detail. My final waffling verdict is: It's a beautiful and tragic love story with some distracting blemishes. If Zhang Yimou had spent as much time fleshing out a proper screenplay as he did finding a girl to play the lead character he might have produced another masterpiece. I recommend the film to those who like pure love stories.
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Bit off more than it could chew
22 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Frustrated with life in a rural village, she's slapped by her mom, groped by her boyfriend, raped by a truck driver, moves to Shenzhen. Fired from a factory job on her first day, she volunteers to work at a Love Salon. Her lover gets killed (good thing he had a pile of money underneath his mattress). She moves to London and gets a job but her first paycheck is taken back because she has no bank account. She goes to work in a massage parlor and marries a wrinkly old white guy with a bank account who reads the newspaper too often and his cat dies. She gets pregnant by an Indian whose cultural identity is calling him home rather than pushing him away, so he leaves her. The quantity of bummers in this film is so thick it skips along too rapidly and loses credibility.

Lu Huang as Mei (The 'She' of the title) does a fine job plowing her way through the endless misfortune (she did the same thing in Blind Mountain—a great film), so props to her. The story, however, which has a heart and good intentions, asks so much of its characters it stretches the limits of credulity creating distance instead of empathy. It begins to suggest that the circumstances "She" gets into are a result of personal selfishness, or stupidity, rather than exposing or exploring the difficult climb from rural Chinese village to downtown London.

I recommend this film because many of the realities and situations it points at are worth considering. I just wish it would have pointed at a few less and explored them more deeply, or with a whisper of hope. I've got nothing against bleak films, but She, A Chinese gives the impression that once the desire to break free of tradition and hopeless circumstances begins, a stream of unrelenting nausea is likely to follow. Which in turn begs the question of whether the scenarios depicted in the film are the result of the personal characteristics of this particular She, in a sense becoming a character study, or if they are some sort of warning siren or social commentary on what a bitch life is if you begin from a certain place, look a certain way, and have unrealistic expectations concerning what can be done about it.

Broken into discreet elements—the film is broken into discreet parts with the use of title cards that offer sometimes whimsical commentary on various events—the execution is pretty good, but the overall impact is diluted. The performances are solid and the director does a good job making things appear realistic so it might just be a case of truth being harder to get on board with than fiction.
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Fun and entertaining because it's full of not what you'd expect.
2 February 2011
This one's very funny, one of those films in which the director and the actors do a dance of comic timing. Hye-jeong Kang is always good but Shin Hyeon-Jun turns out to be a real comic treat. This is an action flick with lots of humor.

Jin-young (Kang) is devastated after a breakup with her long time partner and wants to kill herself, but she wants to do it with flair so she hires a hit man to take her out. Hyun-jun (Shin) thinks he is hired to kill someone else and is surprised to discover Jin-young has slipped herself into the place of his intended target. Yeah, it's an "assassin falls in love with his target" story but the performances of the two leads makes this one a winner. The script is a little chaotic at times, lots of coincidences that challenge a suspension of disbelief, but if you just go with the flow it's a fun ride.

The film's ending unravels instead of tying things up but it's not a deal breaker. In a way, the whole film can be seen as a series of sketches that just parade by instead of building upon one another to form a cohesive whole, and that may be a valid criticism depending on the angle of entry the viewer chooses. Thriller? Romantic Comedy? Action flick? It's all of those, and it's one of the things I like about South Korean cinema. They do mashups, and they do them well, always playing with expectations and throwing in surprises.

If you are a fan of either of the two leads you will enjoy Kiss Me, Kill Me.
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Recommended for those who like films slightly off the beaten path.
26 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This one seems a bit of an art-house diversion for director Je-yong Lee. A mildly bizarre, slow moving film that's half Japanese and half Korean. It aims at just the right level and ends up as a nice compromise between indie indulgence and commercial fare.

On the Korean side, Lee Jung-Jae stars as, U-in, a bored, anti-social civil servant who passes time surfing porn on the Internet and silently stalking a young punkish girl with fiery red hair. While playing around on the Internet U-in clicks on a link that asks him to describe his ideal woman. He describes the punky girl.

On the Japanese side Misato Tachibana stars as Aya, a young woman who has decided to commit suicide with a twist: she wants to confuse the date of her impending death by holding her breath and suffocating as she crosses the International Date Line. She also desperately wants a pair of Ruby colored shoes. One thing leads to another and Aya is contracted by Internet porn purveyors to play the punkish girl, as described by their client U-in, on one of their webcam sites. Thus the persona of Asako is born.

The two disparate lives meet and wind the film up in a somewhat unbelievable fairy-tale style ending but it's been a strange ride getting there so no giant complaints. It's interesting to see a film that is half in Japanese and half in Korean. Much of the film deals with the theme of belonging and it allows for stretching that theme to something larger than just one culture.

The performances are all pretty solid. Fashionista superstar Kim Min-hee plays the punky girl. It's a small role, as she serves only as the inspiration for Asako, but it's catchy. Lee Jung-jae is spot on as the nerdball stalker. This is a better role for him than the studly type he played in Je-yong Lee's debut film An Affair. He's much better at nerdy innocence with a sense of creepy just below the surface than as a macho guy who is supposed to drive girls wild. Misato Tachibana brings just the right amount of cuteness and individual longing to Aya/Asako. She doesn't seem to have pursued her acting career ambitiously after this film but did well here.

The film has a slow pace and treats some of the edgier elements with a gentle touch. It never becomes darkly uncomfortable and that's it's charm. It's got quirky characters and a subtle, light sense of humor. Not completely art-house fair but certainly not mainstream.
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Beautiful and touching. Simple. Another good one from Hur.
22 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
It would be a spoiler if I were to state one of the main reasons I love this movie. I can say, however, that the film is very much about a Chinese experience, and the fact that it is directed by a Korean is what makes it interesting. There are other good things about the movie so I'll work with them and save the spoiler.

A Good Rain Knows is nice to look at. It's photographed in crisp and bright colors and makes great use of it's locale, Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. It's got dancing in a downtown square, bamboo groves, even a scene with a panda bear. Gao Yuanyuan as Mei, a tourist guide in a Chengdu park, has never looked more radiant. Jung Woo-sung is a South Korean heartthrob but his acting ability is curious. He always seems nervous. He plays an architect, Dongha, who travels to Chengdu on assignment and runs into Mei, an old and dear friend. There is no plot to speak of, just the unfolding of their past and present relationship that gives the film its purpose.

Dongha, a Korean, and Mei, a Chinese, communicate almost exclusively in English. Since their relationship is presented as fragile and tentative, and since Jung is a nervous actor anyway, having them communicate in broken but understandable English is a stroke of genius from director Hur. If you're bothered or unmoved by the stilted verbiage the film won't work.

In typical Hur fashion, and this film sees him in perfect stride, not much happens. We're presented with a couple characters testing the water to see if, when, and how love will factor into their relationship. The lens slowly gets closer, revealing inner layers, until a small explosion occurs. And in typical Hur fashion this explosion takes place far beneath the surface. We know it's a big one but all we see are the rippling aftershocks (hint) on the surface.

Hur is a fascinating director. In some ways his films are just cheesy romances with questionable soundtracks, but he possesses an emotional intelligence and an eye for subtle soul-searching details that make his films powerful when he gets it right. He got it right this time. A good rain knows when to fall.
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Ex (2010)
A little flashy but not inviting. Kind of annoying, really.
18 January 2011
This film is just way too over-directed for my taste. Young director Heiward Mak seems to possess an intelligent and observant mind, can write insightful snippets of dialog and show us that she gets a certain segment of contemporary Hong Kong youth culture, but those skills and ingredients don't mean a good film is going to emerge. She co-scripted last year's wonderfully biting Love in a Puff but that film was assembled by an experienced director, Pang Ho-Cheung.

I don't want to rain on this young director's parade too much. She's obviously smart, and a major talent (more so in some areas than others), and she's going to be a major player in Hong Kong's film industry. I like what I took to be the main theme of this film, we are our histories, but the story is interrupted by an over zealous directorial hand. I wanted to settle into the hearts and minds of the characters but the MTV generation style camera-work and editing (and I don't mean that as insult or insinuation, necessarily) wouldn't let me.

Gillian Chung does a fine job as the film's protagonist, Zhou Yi, a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, or is about to break up with him as the film begins. An ex, Ping, is at the next table with his current girlfriend, Cee, and witnesses said breakup. A whole bunch of coincidental circumstances are packed together in the film's opening scenes so that we can get to the scenario where Zhou Yi moves in with Ping and Cee. Flashbacks and memories abound, infuse, and confuse, as a portrait of a young woman in the throes of a recent break-up collides with a portrait of a young man who happens to be an ex and whose life may or may not be anything more than his next break-up waiting to happen. It's got the makings of some juicy plot opportunities, some of which are realized, but it never relaxes enough into the story for an inviting overall picture to come to the surface and take over. Also, antagonism is too often demonstrated through volume in the film. I understand that this is a twenty-something reality but listening to a lot of fighting and whining in high decibel Cantonese isn't the most pleasant experience. I knew from the opening scene's musical soundtrack that my audible wavelength was not in tune with the director's. And things didn't change. The whole soundtrack sucks.

Honestly, if I had seen this film in a theater full of like-generational people to the film's players—in Hong Kong, no less—my watching energy might have ramped up to the director's style and I might have found myself swimming along joyously, but such was not the case. I'm going to keep an eye on Heiward Mak but Ex was not a fulfilling film experience. The director has brains and chops but maturity hasn't kicked in yet.
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