Tag Archives: Japan

SUMMER CINEMA: JUNE

Because, sometimes you see a flood of movies, both new theatrical and DVD releases as well as classics. Unfortunately, time constraints and life don’t always comply with allowing you to be on time with all of them and you wind up falling behind. Part one of two.

WONDER WOMAN
USA / China / Hong Kong / UK / Italy / Canada / New Zealand
Director: Patty Jenkins
Runtime: 141 minutes
Language: English, German, Dutch

I generally stay away from almost 99% of superhero movies that come out at the rate of one per week. I just don’t feel that I’m the target audience they wish to cater to and for me, unless it’s something directed by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton (who to me, directed two of the most memorable Batman movies) then I’m just not interested in watching hyper-kinetic action from the word go, cartoon villains, two dimensional acting, and the requisite confrontation scenes in large cities that offer only a mock-up of urban destruction, the kind Roland Emmerich would positively fall in love with.

So, with that in mind, it took me close to two weeks and voice of  mouth before I found myself sitting at the back of theater 10 in an AMC allowing me to, naked of bias, experience Wonder Woman. Reader, I was totally taken in by her origin story in an invisible island off the coast of Greece, living in perfect paradise, away from the world of men and its complications. The intro section is one of of the best in the film even when it compresses time and shows Diana growing up before our eyes, unaware of the role she will have to play against the god of war, Ares, who has turned his powers to place the world in complete turmoil. Chance has it where Diana, now grown up, meets a downed pilot who turns out to be Steve Trevor who somehow has penetrated the bubble of invisibility that hides Diana’s island home.

While many of the women, Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) included, feel uneasy with a man in the midst, Diana learns through Trevor there’s a war raging outside her kingdom and sensing Ares must be behind it, they both set out to London; he to stop the Germans, she, to find Ares. Does this seem unbelievable? Of course — every story involving superheroes are, but at least this one has some roots in reality with the Germans attempting to use and release lethal gas as a war weapon. Also, Gal Gadot as the titular Wonder Woman is a hell of a performer and will erase most memories anyone has of Lynda Carter. Her Diana is completely ahead of her time, a feminist, and a conscientious warrior focused on the higher good. Chris Pine has the less meatier of the starring roles — all the action goes to Gadot — but his is still, much more solid than the TV version played by Lyle Waggoner, and provides enough comic elements when the story threatens to become too serious for its own good.

To me, the real surprise and sole reason to go see this film is Patty Jenkins, a director I only knew from her 2004 movie Monster, a film that garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress. Monster was essentially a chilling portrait of Aileen Wuornos, and after that, Jenkins did very little. It seems she has had time to prepare for a movie like this that is action-driven and female-centric. She does not disappoint, establishing Diana’s world from the onset, introducing strong women like her aunt and teacher Antiope (Robin Wright), and then fast-forwarding her isolation to catch-up to 1918, and from there moving towards action sequences filled with Gadot’s balletic movements until the emotionally satisfying finale. It is a tour de force part for Jenkins who announces herself as a director to pay attention to.  [A+]

THE WORLD OF KANAKO
Japan
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Runtime: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese

Viewing The World of Kanako is akin to looking into the abyss for a second too long. There is so much carnage, so much nihilism involved and not a branch, nothing to hold on to, that once the film was done there was a sense of something truly ugly hovering, as if somehow, the story I’d seen was penned by a lucid madman who wanted to plaster on paper all the ugliness in society into one vertiginous tale of deceit and murder. Anchored by Koji Yokushio as former detective Akikazu Fujushima, a broken man separated from his wife who finds himself investigating his daughter Kanako’s disappearance. It seems as though she’s been swallowed up by the underbelly of society and, hell-bent to save her, Fujushima dives head first into it, running into all sorts of undesirables. If there is a sense that Kanako may make an appearance in the style of Orson Welles in The Third Man, it’s due to how much of an impression she’s left on people. It is as though she herself was a ghost living in the narrative of the movie, invisible but omniscient, and instead of bringing a sense of solace that her eventual discovery may allay the anguish of her absence, it does the contrary.

What denies Kanako the points it would need to become great in the eyes of movie lovers is that it’s frankly, so frenetic, so ferocious in its editing — a scene not lasting more than a second, placed against others that fly by so quickly it’s not far-fetched to say one could get a headache — that the notion of suspense is gone and all that remains is shock and buckets of gore. On top of this, the women in the film — and there are several — are never seen as sympathetic. Ranging from simply alienating to downright monstrous, Kanako is a film that serves as a cry of misogyny that only stops once the film itself is over. [Although, to be honest, I may be over-analyzing; extreme cinema doesn’t abide by the rules of having nice characters. On the contrary, the more transgressive the better to express how black the human heart can be, and how far its tentacles can go. This is one ugly, ugly film that mysteriously manages to come off as strangely compelling.  [B]

A DOG’S PURPOSE
USA
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Runtime: 100 minutes
Language: English

When did Lasse Hallstrom lose his shit? Can someone please inform me? While I recall that Hallstrom rose from being a fluke Oscar winner for My Life as a Dog to direct Oscar winning performances in thoughtful movies starting with Once Around and ending in the Oscar-pleaser Chocolat, I also recall that somewhere in the mid-aughties he began directing films that either went nowhere (An Unflinished Life, anyone?) or became parodies of feel-good romance and general goodness. Perhaps it’s me, but it seems like by the time he came up with Hachi, he’d somehow just checked out and chosen to go to the path of making a quick return on a movie that was based on a real dog who waited for his owner, even when the owner himself was dead. Hallmark had suddenly hijacked the building.

But the whole descent into sap didn’t end there: earlier this year we had a movie pounce upon us with paws made of concentrated sugar, licking us with a tongue made of syrup and eyes made to stare lovingly at us while we wondered first what had just happened, but taken in by the charm, decided to stop thinking and just submit/ It was all very Orwellian. A Dog’s Purpose took the sentiment of Hatchi and dialed the lachrymose aspects of its story to eleven and then some. Predictably, Hallstrom’s film was based on a written book — yes, someone came up with the idea to write a story of a dog who has to reincarnate over and over in order to Come Back Home. [And I wonder why I’m still working a nine-to-five in corporate America. . . . ] That the dog, a lovable thing voiced by Josh Gad, who starts out cute and devolves into plain creepy (you’ll see if you rent it) is bad  enough, but the plot developments are just plain implausible to a degree that I can’t. If Lasse Hallstrom wanted to do yer another film about a dog he could have remade the Hungarian film White God and eliminated some of the incursions into animal abuse, steroids, and violence and still come out a winner. As it stands, A Dog’s Purpose is a parody of shameless emotional manipulation that wants you to believe it’s got some cosmic understanding when in fact, all it understands, is dollar signs. [C-]

THE JOURNEY
Ireland
Director: Nick Hamm
Runtime: 94 minutes
Language: English

For all its good intentions, the events depicted in Nick Hamm’s The Journey didn’t exactly happen the way they are shown. While the two leaders of opposing forces — Martin McGuiness, allegedly the former leader of the extremist IRAs who now heads Sinn Fein, and Reverend Ian Paisley, an ultra-conservative anti-Catholic minister who heads the Unionists — did meet in 2006 to put an end to the Troubles, a conflict that has plagued Ireland for over hundreds of years, Hamm’s reimagining of it sounds and looks a bit contrived but winds up working. When both men find themselves sitting side by side in a limo driven by a covert MI6 operative (played by Freddie Highmore, who brings a little more than just a thankless, passive presence to his role as a driver), the feelings of tension could cut the air like a knife. However, a conversation and a truce must be reached, and it’s the driver’s job to ensure that this event transpires between the two political enemies.

The greatest asset that Hamm’s picture has going for itself is the dialog. For a movie to have lines such as “You can almost taste the hatred” delivered almost in a scenario of “same-shit-different-day” is an early sharply drawn observation of how violence had become so entrenched in Ireland as to have been matter-of-fact. Both McGuiness and Paisley use words like daggers but also with a sense of humor; these are seasoned pros who know, it seems, what buttons to push against the other, and at times (and for those of us who know the results of this meeting), it appears that as much as they might want to believe they are on opposite sides of the fence, the movie portrays them as actually much closer than that, barely divided by a thin wall of pride. If anything, reveals that despite what we may think of how different opposing forces are, once the veil of ego is removed, we can all see the other for whom they are and work together. [I know, it sounds a bit trite, but it’s true.] The presence of Spall and Meaney alone is worth the 90 minutes of your time; plus, you can spot John Hurt in one of his final roles, and Toby Stephens as Tony Blair.  [A]

POP AYE
Thaliand / Singapore
Director: Kirsten Tan
Runtime: 102 minutes
Language: Thai

Kirsten Tan’s debut film, still playing in cinemas at the time of this writing, will be only affected by one thing: its timed release with another film about the relation between a human and an animal, and that film is the more commercial-friendly, sentimental Okja . The difference between the two starts almost at the start: while Okja is a superficial examination on mass consumerism and exploitation of available resources, Pop Aye is a little more complex. An architect past his prime (if I can say that) finds himself questioning his marriage, his life, his eventual replacement by younger, hipper architects. Out of nowhere — and it does seem fantastical — a pet from our architect’s childhood appears. But it’s not just any pet that has made its reappearance. It’s a full-grown elephant.

For reasons unexplained Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroth) has a moment of epiphany and makes it a point to take custody of the elephant. It’s a completely off-the-wall moment, but made to look as if it were the most normal, natural decision, especially when it involves a man going through a mid-life crisis. He takes it home, much to the horror of his wife with whom he’s alienated with (and nothing could spell alienation more than the scene when Thana discovers a dildo in her belongings, brings it out, and places it nonchalantly on a coffee table waiting for her reaction).

When the presence of Pop Aye clearly has an unnerving effect on his house hold, Thana sets out to deliver Pop Aye to an animal sanctuary where it won’t be forced to perform in circuses for the amusement of others. On his way across Thailand he experiences the kindness of strangers (a thing that seems to be requisite of these road movies). Among these strangers are a bum who seems to be at the end of his life, a transgender nightclub singer, and a hooker. Pop Aye presents each encounter with a sense of greater connectivity, that even the most loneliest person can find his own place in the world. If anything is absent it’s in the fact that Thana as a character is so alienated to everything that he seems to be on his own island and thus it’s a bit hard to relate to him, and that the elephant in question seems more a background prop than an actual presence — that is, right up until the final sequence, which is rather moving.

Pop Aye had its premiere at the Film Forum on June 28 and is still currently playing around the country. Look for it soon on DVD.  [B]

AFTER THE STORM

AFTER THE STORM
Japan
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Runtime: 117 minutes
Language: Japanese

4 Stars (4 / 5)

 

Failed fatherhood, careers, dreams . . . had this been an American movie it would have reduced the father to a punchline and thrown all else out the window. The father would have been played by a bumbling Robin Williams or Steve Martin, trying hopelessly to save his link to his family and potentially making amends with his own past and facing an optimistic future. Fortunately, Kore-eda has other sensibilities and plans, and judging from the way he delicately handled similarly difficult topics involving fractured families in both Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister, After the Storm might very well be his best so far.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) once published a novel that had great success — so much that to this day his mother Yashiko, lovingly played by veteran actress Kirin Kiki who single handedly walks away with the movie with her dry humor and insight, is more than happy to yammer away at how good a writer her son is. The problem is, since that novel, nothing else has happened. Ryota seems to have entered a funk of sorts, spilling his money away in gambling, which in turn has allowed himself to fall behind in his wife’s alimony. This in turn has led Ryota to moonlight as a private investigator for a surveillance company where he hopes to make the money he needs to give his ex-wife (and continue to be in his son’s life).

Meanwhile, an impending typhoon looms against the country. You would think that there is some physical importance to its presence but its part in the story is more metaphysical. Once the typhoon strikes, Ryota, his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki), and his son Shingo all converge in Yashiko’s apartment to spend the night there. The inability to leave the apartment — which takes up almost the entire second half of the movie — makes for some interesting family interaction, and while there are some unsettling revelations to be made, Kore-eda’s intention is more focused on how to weather this broken family’s current situation, force Ryota into accepting what is, and thus, being more present for his family. After the Storm is as delicate as the works of Ozu, albeit a slight more updated in sensibilities: it’s got an enormous sense of humor about itself, has completely realized characters who live and breathe, and presents its situations in a naturalistic style. But more importantly is the topic of becoming someone better: being in the present, and that, Kore-eda’s picture has in spades. Truly affecting.

OUR LITTLE SISTER

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

The theme of misplaced parents and its consequences upon the sons that was present in Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2013 film Like Father, Like Son gets taken a step further in his gorgeous film Our Little Sister, also known as Umimachi Diary from the manga which it’s based on. In his current film, three sisters, all with their own distinct personalities and careers — Sachi, the eldest and mother hen of the bunch is a nurse; Yoshino works in an investment agency, and Chika, the younger, works in a sports store — receive news that their father has died. The father, it gets mentioned, was a man who left their mother (who in turn abandoned them for reasons of her own) for another woman.

When they arrive at the funeral they are greeted by the 13 year old Suzu, who seems a tad out of place in the setting. When the sisters meet the mother, it becomes clear. The mother is completely unable to cope, and absolutely self-involved even in death (we learn that Suzu took care of her/their father in his dying days). Once the services are over, the sisters make an impulsive decision at the train station: they ask Suzu to come live with them since she really hasn’t much to go for where she’s at now. Suzu accepts.

Once at the sister’s house, life moves seamlessly, and virtually with next-to-no conflict amongst the sisters other than the bickering between Yoshino and Sachi (who continues to criticize her about her sex life, as Yoshino is a serial dater). What does happen, however, is a progressive unity between the older women, who become protectors if you will of Suzu, and Suzu’s own gradual adjustment to her new world. In fact, the only worries Suzu has is of her own existence. She believes that by being born she became that definitive thorn that divided a family.  A later visit from the sister’s mother who makes the careless comment of selling the house sparks a heated argument which has an intense feeling of reality (every line and emotion feels and looks like it we ourselves could have engaged in such an exchange).

It turns out, Sachi herself has secrets of her own, and these seem to forebode the story with the theme of repetition. A stern young woman, she’s been seeing a married man who can’t quite leave his wife. Her situation dovetails at the right moment with Suzu’s, and in a moment of absolute beauty both disclose their inner demons in relation to the parent they feel left them with the most hurt.

A lesser film would have introduced elements to heighten the drama within the women — tempers flaring, physical violence, the incursion into drugs. Things we seem to crave in a drama featuring so many characters, but in fact, other than the aforementioned scene with the tangential character of the absent mother who returns, Our Little Sister flows effortlessly, recalling at times the cinema of Ozu in sheer stillness, focusing on its actresses lovely faces, letting the setting and story tell itself in a natural flow rather than bring in unnatural monkey-wrenches to create unusual strife. This precisely is the kind of delicate storytelling that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.