Tag Archives: Japanese cinema

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, A zombie-experimental mash-up.

Still from The Guardian

Just when you couldn’t get another zombie-movie, and with Zombieland: Double Tap still in its last throes in theaters (as of late November), here we get a surprise import from Japan that is sure to satisfy those who like their horror with a healthy dose of the chuckles and a meta slant. Shin’ichirô Ueda’s movie One Cut of the Dead, now available to stream on Shudder, doesn’t invent new grounds, but it offers quite a bit in terms of the fictional suddenly becoming real. A director of art films goes into a closed-off military base where “horrible experiments were made on people” — itself perhaps a nod to Japan’s own checkered past going back to World War II — to film a zombie film, and before you know it, his stage becomes itself invaded by zombies hungry for the entire cast.

It’s all done in a rather impressive shot lasting 40 minutes in length and ends in the Final Girl having disposed of her beau. What the movie then becomes — we then realize — is its own movie within a movie, with the director yelling “Cut!” which then throws us out of the horror narrative proper, and back into the making of the movie per se, from conversations with producers to get it done to finding the cast to then settling down to the actual location in order to start filming proper, which leads us then to the final third of the movie, which is where it delivers on its premise on showing us how it somehow became a meta-horror picture in the first place.

One Cut of the Dead is, honestly, nothing new in the zombie genre. But for a picture to take such a tired, overdone theme and subvert it unto itself to create a rollicking comedy filled with moments of choreography and improvisation, now, that’s something I can bite into. Give it a look see. You’ll be glad you did.

RAMEN SHOP, a sentimental travelogue about forgiveness through food.

RAMEN SHOP, Singapore/Japan. Director: Eric Khoo. Cast: Takumi Saito, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Beatrice Chien. Screenwriters: Tan Fong Cheng, Wong Kim Hoh. Language: Japanese, English, Mandarin, Cantonese. Runtime 90 minutes. US Release date: March 22, 2019. Venue: Gene Siskel Theater, Cbicago, IL. Rating B.

Eric Khoo may be SIngapore’s most celebrated director, but in America he is almost unknown, baving released only a scant number of his own films in the last ten years. His latest, Ramen Shop, played only one week at the IFC Center in New York, and I was able to catch it when it premiered at the Gene Siskel during the week of May 24 – May 30. As usual with these tiny films, what attracted me was the premise of family forgiveness through the art of food, so I decided, before it disappeared from its limited showing, to go see it.

Dear reader, I was not disappointed. Ramen Shop opens with a scenario of a father and son — Masato and Kazuo (Takumi Saito and Tsuyoshi Ihara) — who live in the city of Takahashi, Japan and work as cooks in the family owned ramen shop. The relation is somewhat distant, but not so much that it borders on chilly. Even so, Kazuo dies suddenly, leaving behind a book containing the memories of Masato’s Singaporean mother Mei Lan (Jeannette Aw). These, however, aren’t just memories . . . they describe a love affair between both parents that was terminated too quickly when both parents were separated.

Almost on impulse, Masato decides to travel to Singapore to meet the side of the family he was deprived of and hopefully find through his family’s history, some much needed closure about his own identity. Having followed a Japanese food blogger named Miki (the luminous Seiko Matsuda), she becomes his guide throughout the city, introducing Masato to all kinds of dishes while also assisting Masato in tracking down his uncle Ah Wee (Mark Lee) who owns and operate a bak tuh teh shop. The meeting goes over rather well, with tinges of underlying drama and much needed comedy, and Ah Wee teaches Masato to cook the famed dish.

It is when Masato asks to be introduced to his maternal grandmother, Madam Lee, that the story truly takes foot. Madam Lee, upon one glance at the now grown Masato, wants nothing to do with him. Masato could walk away from his quest to know his maternal relative, but because of the secrets of his mother’s memoirs, the need to reconcile becomes the driving force of the latter part of the movie.

For the most part, Ramen Shop plays its story arc well without incurring into so much sentimentality that it risks drowning. I mean, it is a very sentimental movie without a doubt, but it didn’t seem to be manipulating you at all costs to react when a scene demanded it. Also, there are enough comedic scenes peppered throughout the film that elevate it from what could have been a very treacly, heavy handed story. My one complaint is that in wanting to be a movie about reconciliation through comfort food, Ramen Shop somehow dismisses its one harrowing sequence inside the Singapore Museum where Masato comes face to face with the horrors of the Japanese occupation. Other than that, Ramen Shop is a straightforward delight, warm and humane and utterly feelgood, as any lighthearted film about family should be.

Ramen Shop will be released at the end of the month on DVD and VOD streaming platforms.

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.