Thursday, December 18, 2014

DIRECTOR'S SERIES - Rian Johnson

It’s often said by respected and not-so respected writers that Generation-Y is the worst generation to come into maturity. Our never-ending need to document our lives on social platforms like Facebook, our apathy for anything that is not within our purview, and apparently the worst sin of all, the fact that we are devoid of originality and must mine the past for our much maligned hipster sub-culture. Add to that people from our parent’s generation describing Millenials in the workplace as “demanding too much and not pulling their own weight” all contribute to Generation-Y being labeled by many in the press as the Me-generation. Our only contribution to culture, if one were to pay attention to the critics, is a brand of irony leaden work that is painfully self aware, chock full of navel gazing protagonists, and endlessly referencing something far older and more obscure than the derivative final product that corporations market to us.
In the case of Rian Johnson’s film output one could superficially say that the man is merely copying and pasting familiar genre tropes onto carefully art-directed backgrounds. His debut Brick (2005) explored the harshness of high school life through the prism of film noir while his sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom (2008) utilized the much loved conman/hustler archetype to tell an idiosyncratic love story and sibling bromance. And his most current feature to date Looper (2012) melds elements of sci-fi dystopian literature with the cliché “protect the homestead” trope found in a lot of Crime dramas and Westerns.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rigodon (2012)

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Erik Matti is a very popular mainstream filmmaker in his home country of the Philippines. The man has worked in the movie industry since the mid-1990s as a writer, director, actor, and even producer. He has embraced the tenets of commercial filmmaking and though his belief that craftsmanship and storytelling trump highfalutin ideas and delivering well-worn humanist messages these beliefs have divided the director with many Filipino cinephiles and indie filmmakers who are struggling on a day-to-day basis to complete their own films. Whether or not one espouses Matti’s viewpoint about cinema and art it’s hard to ignore the man or his work. He has slowly gained quite a lot of attention these last few years and many people, foreign and domestic, have shown support for the man’s work.
Although I have not seen a majority of Matti’s oeuvre, I must say that the attention that his films have garnered is a positive move forward for the national cinema of the Philippines. The country’s film industry has had to endure a lot of over the decades and the shadow of Hollywood has always loomed large over the entire country. What few films that emerged for viewing to foreign audiences were often noirish melodramas usually directed by men like Lino Brocka or Brillante Mendoza that showcased the squalor and moral corruption prevalent in the Philippines. Now even though a majority of the population does live well below what many in the First World would consider the poverty line a cinema that only shows the bleak and dire is a dishonest cinema. The country, its people, and its art scene are multifaceted and sometimes splintered into various sub-groups due to the various dialects spoken in the country. In fact, due to its long history as a colony, be it Spain, Japan, the US, the Philippines is an amalgam of Old World and New World influences.
As for its cinema, with the invention of DV cameras there has been a renaissance within the indie film scene there. Fueled by pioneer masters like Kidlat Tahimik, Raymond Red, and Lav Diaz young filmmakers in the Philippines are going out onto the streets, imbued with a DIY aesthetic, and starting to craft their own personal films. Sadly though, for every art-house success like Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011) there are mountains upon mountains of high concept but low budget arthouse pictures, poorly scripted but interesting genre fare, and head scratching contemplative films. And as highly lauded as these films are they do not make a dent in the local box office. Now of course, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Filipino that would label Erik Matti as an arthouse director but whether you love or hate him he makes profitable well-made pictures. And as South Korea has proved a solid commercial industry is the bedrock of a strong national cinema.
Rigodon is an erotic melodrama that tells the story of three flawed and emotionally damaged characters. There is Riki (John James Uy) a manipulative narcissist whose sense of self-entitlement is rivaled only by his insatiable sexual appetite. Established at the start as a Z-grade celebrity, Riki though is not a one-dimensional despicable character, he may lie and cheat but he is not driven to be bad because he is a bad character. Instead as the film unfolds we see the desperation and hunger, akin to Tony Curtis’s Sydney Falco character in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Playing Riki’s put upon wife is Regine (Max Eigenmann), a housewife who must have had dreams of her own before meeting Riki but now is relegated to baking cupcakes for Riki’s mistresses. And finally there is Sarah (Yam Concepcion), the mistress figure in the movie and honestly the most sympathy of the three. She is young, beautiful, and worst of all desperate to give her love to whatever man is willing to take it.
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A lot of what raises the film above the level of titillation is the amount of screen time that Matti devotes to showing the inner lives of these characters, not just through expository dialogue but through quiet moments when they are just going about their day-to-day business. Though we only see one of Riki’s affairs the movie has scenes that give us clues that this man is a habitual adulterer and has plenty of secrets he’s been keeping. One of which involves a debt to a creepy spinster who commands a gang of muscle that do her bidding while she grooms her paraplegic father. As for Regine, her isolation and dependency on Riki’s erratic paychecks has forced her to consciously ignore all the signs that Riki is a total scumbag. Their marriage is broken but the thought of leaving him has never crossed her mind. In a telling scene where Regine attempts to talk to her family in Cebu, the strained expression on her face while attempting to make small talk says it all, there is no place for her other than the home she has built with Riki. She is shackled to him, emotionally and financially.
Similarly, Sarah also suffers from an overbearing male figure, but instead of it being a husband or lover it is her father, a man who cares for her but shows it by constantly questioning her judgment. Going from boyfriend to boyfriend she attempts to build something of a relationship with men but in the eyes of Sarah’s father no one is good enough for her. When she finally does break free from him she runs into the arms of Riki, hoping that this man is a far better protector and lover, but her emotional dependence on Riki eventually makes her unattractive to the man.
Aside form the love triangle Rigodon can be seen as a statement about the noive riche in the Philippines. Riki may not be a big star but he lives an upper class lifestyle. His clothes, his car, the food his family eats, and even the way he speaks is completely foreign to most Filipinos. In the Philippine language he would be described as a mestizo, a term used to describe a person who has White European ancestry. Trying to keep up with the Joneses Riki’s home life resembles an American middle class existence. He is a native foreigner, too white for Filipinos, and he is even made fun of due to the way he speaks Tagalog in an “American” accent. Regine, on the other hand, is the typical Filipina wife and mother. She keeps the house in order, takes care of her child and husband, and pretty much has no life outside of her home. She lives in a golden cage unlike Sarah whose innocence damns her at the end.
Whereas in previous years Filipinos had to leave the country to earn a decent wage and feed their family Matti’s film shows us that globalization has made the “American Dream” possible no matter what shore you land on. Rigodon is an erotic film that doesn’t just sexualize bodies writhing in ecstasy, but salaciously shows us the power that money has in masking lies as truth and sex as love.
(Originally published on January 20, 2014 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Blind Detective (2013)

Johnnie To’s Blind Detective (2013) is  by no means a perfect film. It lacks the trademark grit and noir atmosphere of To’s earlier crime pictures and reeks of bad plotting. Yet with that said, if you shift your expectations away from the procedural elements and revel in the pleasures of the film's screwball comedy, then Blind Detective can be considered as a funny enough addition to To’s romantic-comedy oeuvre.

Starring To veterans Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as buddy cop partners, Blind Detective begins with a kinetic chase scene as Sammi Cheng’s Goldie is tasked by her commanding officer to tail Lau’s Holmesian private investigator, Johnston. Through media coverage, we find out that an anti-social citizen has been dumping sulfuric acid from the roofs of Hong Kong’s high-rises. Johnston is on the trail of the culprit but the local cops have all eyes on Johnston and within minutes a showdown between cops, criminal, and Johnston ends with the bad guy captured and Goldie and Johnston having their meet-cute.

With this initial meeting we get a good handle of exactly who these two are: Johnston, a prodigy in solving crimes but completely lost in the weeds when interacting with people, and Goldie, an against the grain female detective who’s athletic prowess is tempered by her inability to solve cases like a “real” detective. The two come together when Goldie asks Johnston to help find her friend who disappeared, without a trace, 20 years ago. Johnston agrees to the case and then begins using Goldie as his assistant; having her run after criminals, doing surveillance work, and, most importantly, reenacting the last moments of murder victims whose cases have been left unsolved.

The scenes between Johnston and Goldie as they piece together the how and why of several brutal crimes are the real reason to see this movie. The chemistry between Lau and Cheng has always been strong. After working together on so many Johnnie To romantic comedies, both actors seem to be sufficiently comfortable with one another that, even when Lau and Cheng are bashing each other’s heads in with a hammer, slashing wrists, or getting into slap fights, one can’t help smirking as both are clearly relishing their Grand Guignol reenactments.

Though Blind Detective has a threadbare main narrative, the film is also is riddled with episodic sub-plots that are either introduced and then forgotten, or just left hanging in the air. If the central concept was executed as a television series, thereby enabling Lau and Cheng to stretch their comedy muscles the while giving the viewer a new murder that Johnston and Goldie have to solve, it could work wonders. Its popularity would inevitably make Andy Lau’s Johnston character one of the top television sleuths with a disability, right up there with Gregory House and Adrian Monk. However, what we have here is a half-formed work from an established master. There are better Andy Lau-Sammi Cheng collaborations out there, many of them directed by To himself, and Blind Detective, through no fault of the two leads, falls short of being anything but a curiosity item.
(Originally published on January 13, 2014 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Sana Dati (2013)

vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h09m28s104Romance, like any well-established genre, has several well-known tropes that must always be followed. Clichés usually involve a man and woman accidentally bumping into each other, the man pursuing the woman even if she happens to be engaged to someone else, and a third act climax where the male protagonist musters up all his strength and professes his love to the pretty female lead and drags her away to live a supposedly happy life together. Reality never lives up to fantasy, though. The unknown variables of life and the simple fact that those in relationships don’t have the luxury of a fade-out right before life gets too hard make “happy endings” a rare commodity.
In Jerrold Tarog’s Sana Dati (2013), which premiered at this year's Cinemalaya Festival, the film isn’t hampered by the need to have the “happy ending”, though the tropes of the romance genre are respected. Instead, Sana Dati is a naturalistic story about what happens after a relationship has ended, and the emotional struggle that goes with re-committing one’s heart to another person again. Unlike many forgettable and downright insulting romantic dramas and comedies, Sana Dati isn’t a tearjerker, even as Tarog imbues the entire film with a bittersweet air.vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h21m43s29
Opening on a quote by Voltaire, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”, the film begins in an empty store, devoid of furniture, merchandise, or people. A man enters followed by a woman. From the dialogue, we learn that the two are a couple and that they’ve bought the place. They are happy and the young woman discovers a pleasant surprise left by her boyfriend, a rose in a vase and an engagement ring. The scene ends with the woman looking at the camera toward her boyfriend and giving us a big smile. After that opening, we get a series of short scenes of a videographer going to a hotel to film a couple getting married. Our expectations are that the couple at the start is tying the knot, but as the story unfolds, we learn that the young man, Andrew (Benjamin Alves), is dead and that Andrea (Lovi Poe), his ex-girlfriend, is now with a different man.  Tarog’s film, just as much of a detective story as it is a romance, presents the beginning and end of that opening couple's relationship through a series of unedited video clips and flashbacks. The videographer Dennis (Paulo Avelino), the audience surrogate, who has a connection to Andrew, acts like a detective investigating the films requisite femme fatale.
The crux of the story is the familiar trope of the woman, Andrea, having to choose which man she will be with. Of course, the twist is that she must either choose to be with her dead ex or tie the knot with a man that is still very much a stranger to her. The contrast between Andrew and Andrea’s relationship and Andrea’s impending marriage to her fiancé played by TJ Trinidad can’t easily be boiled down to who is the “better” man. All these people are damaged, physically and emotionally, yet Andrea can’t escape the responsibility of having to choose between her joyful past and unknown future. Whereas Hollywood love stories cling onto antiquated notions of the “one true love” Tarog eschews such juvenile notions. Lovi Poe portrays Andrea as a woman who is painfully alone yet is apprehensive about betraying Andrew for another man. The conflict going on in her heart and mind is so eloquently portrayed by her, it’s impossible to imagine what the right choice is in her situation.vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h22m13s51
Sana Dati might, from my description, appear oppressively dark or bleak, but it is nothing of the sort. Whereas typical melodramas milk the sad moments for all the tears they can, Sana Dati’s voyeuristic visual style never lingers too long on a scene. We get impressions of these characters and their pain, but Tarog never exploits the moment and the cinematographer Mackie Galvez gives the film a gauzy romantic look even as the story turns tragic.
It seems that since the start of the new millennium the romance genre, at least the not-so mainstream entries, have evolved to be more contemplative and have striven to portray situations that are more emotionally realistic. Sana Dati deserves a place in that canon alongside Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and the talky dramas of Eric Rohmer. Foregoing big emotional scenes, a requisite villain, or even a conclusive ending it’s not so hard to imagine the story continuing on, the characters going about their lives in a constant cycle of pain and happiness.
(Originally published on September 7, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Animals (2012) [NYAFF 2013]

The Animals
The teenagers in Gino M. Santos’ The Animals belong to the 1% of the Philippine social stratosphere, living an American dream that most Americans would envy. They drink, smoke, pop pills, erupt into violent rages, and like all teenagers are driven by their raging hormones. Chauffeured from place to place and coddled by their rich parents, these kids embody the very definition of “spoiled brat”.  However, nothing about their behavior would startle a normal First World audience. The cinema is filled to capacity with rich jerks and stuck-up snobs, but Santos’s film takes place in the Philippines, a third world country where government corruption is public knowledge and free speech is oftentimes curbed.
With a national cinema that has often been labeled and accused of perpetuating poverty porn to film festivalgoers it’s rare that those living outside the Philippines get to see another reality. Luckily, as far more adventurous cinephiles dive into the country’s film scene, both past and present, we get a chance to see how "the other half" live.  Instead of a cliché focus on slackers, geeky nerds that are beautiful on the inside, or hipsters with an encyclopedic knowledge of every obscure band that ever existed, Santos depicts teenagers who are just dead to anything that is outside their own purview. Whereas many teenage dramas and comedies spend a great deal of energy charting their pubescent characters loss of innocence, The Animals shows kids corrupted long before we ever met them. Instead, what Santos does is have us, the audience, witness one day in their lives. Of course, as the rules of drama dictate, this is no ordinary day for any of the characters involved.
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Jake (Albie Casino) is the epitome of the upper class male. His parents cater to his whims, doling out cash even before he gets a chance to ask, and supporting his extracurricular activities that include drinking, smoking, and popping pills. When we first meet Jake, he seems to embody everything middle class audiences hate about the rich, though Casino does allow for Jake to have some sympathetic qualities. He seems to love his girlfriend, has a very amiable personality, and one can’t help but notice that, aside from a breakfast scene at the start of the film, Jake is devoid of any sort of parental figure in his life. In fact, when Jake’s father brings up the party that his son is putting together, he thinks it’s a school event and even jokes about the entrance fee Jake is charging to his guests. You feel sympathetic for this young man who may just be bored and in need of a little parental guidance.
Of course, Jake’s issues pale in comparison to those of Alex (Patrick Sugui), who’s a sheep lost in the woods. Toking up before school and having hooked up with a gang of older high school kids who dangle membership to their fraternity in front of wayward teens, Alex is painful to watch as a scared boy who struggles to fit in as he is viciously hazed by his upper classmen. In Santos’ film friendships are, at best, superficial connections that are based on supply and demand; meaning loyalties shift when one can’t get what they want.
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The third character we follow, Trina (Dawn Balagot), is not only Alex’s older sister, but also Jake’s girlfriend. Of these three, her fate is the most tragic. Though she suffers from kleptomania, a character trait introduced in the beginning and left to wither on the dramatic vine, she is the most levelheaded character out of the three.
When the action moves to Jake’s party the strobe lights, loud music, and jump cut action can get very tiring. It’s all very rote. These kids may talk the talk, but they are still kids and Santos makes sure to linger on shots of puke, be it staining bathroom floors, dribbling onto chic dresses, or erupting from pubescent mouths. It’s also interesting to note that it’s mainly women who were blowing chunks while the men are silent observers laughing or enjoying the feeling of female flesh rubbing up against them.
Although The Animals has gotten a lot of attention as being critical and damning of the rich, the film is actually far from that. Yes, the film does portray these privileged teenagers in a very negative light, but in the end Jake and Alex aren’t really admonished for their “bad behavior”. In fact, both characters in the end are allowed to return to the comforts of their warm beds, a far cry to the fates of the film's female characters. The Animals in the film's title are not the idle rich but men, young and old who rule through aggression.
(Originally published on July 1, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Grandmaster (2013)

The GrandmasterThere is a lot of critical weight attached to a Wong Kar-Wai picture. Like all auteurs, Wong has, over the last three decades, crafted a public persona that has put the man front and center whenever one of his films is released. For fans, his films are visually stunning and introspective, about two people suffering from a terminal case of unrequited love. For detractors, his films are slow, pretentious, but visually stunning pictures about pretty people with conflated problems. His latest picture, after his underwhelming American film My Blueberry Nights six years ago, continues his longstanding obsession with amour fou, but with over a decade since his last major masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), the man’s visual style and penchant for non-linear storytelling has matured and been incorporated into several mainstream critical hits since then.The Grandmasters
With his latest picture, The Grandmaster (2013), Wong delves back into the wuxia genre and tackles a very popular real life figure, the Chinese martial artist Yip Kai-man, or as he is known by many Ip Man. For those with a passing interest in Hong Kong cinema, the story of Ip Man has become rote due to the seemingly never-ending run of biopics about the man in recent years, the most famous being the eponymously titled Ip Man and Ip Man 2 released in 2008 and 2010 respectively and starring Hong Kong megastar Donnie Yen. With the man’s trials, tribulations, and achievements already well known to the public-at-large, Wong forgoes textbook historical accuracy and focuses his film on trying to illustrate exactly what it is to be a grandmaster.
In basic linguistic terms, a grandmaster is a teacher who has honed their craft for several decades and amassed not only a technical mastery of their art but also a particular philosophical viewpoint. Thus, the title of grandmaster takes on both a religious as well educational meaning.  In Wong’s film, unlike previous adaptations of the Ip Man story, we are inundated with an ensemble cast of grandmasters, each with their own unique specialties, back stories, and personalities. They oftentimes overtake the frame and engulf Ip Man, though not in a threatening way. They operate more like a Greek Chorus, interacting with Ip Man, guiding him along on his journey, but never interfering with his fate. As is true of most Wong Kar-Wai pictures, the conflict is not centered on a protagonist having to defeat a flesh and blood character or a nefarious organization. Instead, the major conflict between Ip Man and all the other grandmasters in the picture is their own mortality.The Grandmasters
Though The Grandmaster is set in a more fantastic universe with balletic fight choreography and pseudo-mysticism, it is still grounded in reality, specifically the early 19th century in China at the cusp of revolution as it is invaded first by the Japanese and then by the Communists. Wong’s Ip Man, played by his muse Tony Leung, must contend with wartime rationing, protecting his family, contending with gung-ho fighters, and also his own emotions. Ironically, although the earlier Ip Man films are rooted in realism and go out of their way to follow history to the letter, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man is far more one dimensional, more of a symbol than flesh and blood character, compared to Tony Leung’s laconic interpretation of the man. Though Leung is pushed to the background for a large chunk of the film’s runtime, the scenes with Leung do allow us some idea of who this man might be, a credit which must be given to Wong’s skills penning the poetic monologues which Leung beautifully reads in voiceover.
During these readings, in-between the pregnant pauses and spoken lines, is a very real man trying to make sense of everything around him and the feelings he has for a mysterious woman played by Zhang Ziyi. Seemingly replaying their relationship from 2046 (2004), Zhang and Leung dance around their feelings for one another. Like the couples in Wong’s earlier films, Leung and Zhang are from the start fated to be apart but that does not stop either of them from playing the role of tragic lovers. While watching The Grandmaster, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe all the couples in Wong’s films aren’t perhaps the same lovers reincarnated in different bodies and time periods but still forced to reenact their doomed romance.The Grandmasters
The closest thing there is to a traditional wuxia conflict in the film is between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Zhang Jin). Set up as a battle between a vengeful daughter and her father’s wayward disciple, Wong takes a page out of the Sergio Leone and John Woo playbook by presenting the fight as a series of close ups on body parts in languid slow motion. Of course, because of Wong’s interest in non-linear storytelling, we already know who wins, but the stakes are far higher than life or death. With this match, as in every match fought in this film, what is at stake are the martial arts themselves.
A grandmaster’s defeat irrevocably means his style of fighting has run its course. This “there can be only one” mentality means that there is only a finite number of true grandmasters and as the old ways are paved over to make way for the modern world of trains and bombs the martial arts themselves have become a pale shadow of themselves. Whereas the grandmasters of an earlier time smoke, drank, and conversed in posh brothels the postwar era has reduced many to drinking cheap booze and smoking filthy cigarettes in makeshift shacks. In a decade, their skills will be used to train actors and entertainers, not warriors or philosophers.
The Grandmaster continues Wong’s obsession with mythologizing and eulogizing China during the postwar era. Neither a bold new step in the man’s oeuvre or an unimaginative retread of past projects, the film will absolutely polarize action film fans looking for kinetic brawls. However, Wong has never been about pleasing his audience and for disciples of his work, The Grandmaster will be a film watched, quoted, and pored over for decades to come.
(Originally published on June 12, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

Rurouni KenshinKeishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin opens like many historical pictures, in pitch darkness with the year and conflict telegraphed to us through white on black intertitles. It is 1868, the closing moments of the Boshin War, a turning point in Japan’s history as the country took its first steps to Empiredom. Our hero, Battosai the Manslayer (Takeru Satoh), is an assassin for the Imperialists but he doesn’t share in their happiness as his side defeats the remnants of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Instead, with the war won, he abandons his sword on the battlefield and seemingly relinquishes his license to kill.
Ten years quickly pass in the blink of a well placed dissolve and Battosai the Manslayer has changed his name to Himura Kenshin, the sword with a heart. Japan is in the throes of the Meiji period, earth-tone kimonos being replaced with powder white naval uniforms, and our reluctant hero has joined the ever-growing mass of wandering directionless samurai. Though having vowed 10 years ago to never take another life a series of murders that were done under his old name push the former manslayer to uncover the culprits. Along the way he befriends a series of quirky allies and fights an army of theatrically dressed villains.Rurouni Kenshin
If this plot sounds rote and almost cartoonish then it most likely will not surprise you to learn that Rurouni Kenshin began it’s life as a popular manga, written by Nobuhiro Watsuki, then translated onto television as a 95-episode anime before finally transplanted onto the big screen. Straddling the tropes of the jidai-geki/chambara and the superhero genre, sadly Ohtomo’s picture leans far more heavily towards the strained seriousness of commercial blockbuster cinema.
Lacking the bleak atmosphere and complicated anti-heroes that were synonymous with chambara auteurs like Kenji Misumi or Hideo Gosha, Rurouni Kenshin only reminds fans just how far the genre has fallen. Whereas previous films of the sort never shied away from exposing the violence and brutality possible in all men, be they samurai or otherwise, what we get in Rurouni Kenshin are bloodless and antiseptic duels. Blood may stain the carefully art directed sets and scenery but we never completely believe that the actors katanas make contact with one another. No longer is there the excitement that comes from watching two morally compromised characters dueling to the death. Instead, sound effects of clashing swords and carefully edited cuts are what we are left with for excitement. And replacing moral ambiguity, there is a comic book simplicity to the plot. The bad guys, for the most part, all wear black and on the side of good are the good-looking ones who have only the best intentions at heart.Rurouni Kenshin
Takeru Sato, famous for his recurring role as the superhero Kamen Rider, does a decent enough job playing the reformed manslayer Kenshin. His soft somewhat androgynous features make it easy for the viewer and the cast of characters in the film to let down their guard when he appears. When blades are crossed though, it is quite a chore to believe that Sato is a menacing threat for anyone who dares cross his path.  Sato plays Kenshin as too much of a blank slate. His dreamy-eyed stare may make a few girls swoon, but he’s no match for a Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomisaburo Wakayama, or Raizo Ichikawa, all of whom made their mark in chambara cinema playing wounded masculine characters.
The only actor that stood out from the relatively humdrum cast is Teruyuki Kagawa, an actor that ironically made his bones in the Japanese film industry playing subtle oftentimes repressed characters. In Rurouni Kenshin though he hams it up as Kanryu Takeda, a Snidely Whiplash-esque archenemy that has far more in common with mid-Twentieth century Bond villains than he does Meiji era business tycoons. And, taking a cue from Tony Montana, Takeda makes basking in his own self-important glory a true art.Rurouni Kenshin
As underlings, Takeda has a posse of pseudo-supernatural thugs dressed in middle-eastern garb. However, their role as henchmen is relegated to being punching bags for the good guys. The only character under Takeda’s employ that had a shade of depth was Megumi (Yu Aoi), who vacillates between femme fatale, tragic heroine, and girl-next-door. The entire story pivots around the relationship between Megumi and Takeda, making their love-hate co-dependent relationship far more interesting than the white bread prim and proper romance between Kenshin and Kaoru (Emi Takei) that the film trots out as its sorry excuse for a subplot.
Those with a deep love and affection for exciting chambara pictures or introspective and artistically minded jidai-geki films will find a lot wanting with Rurouni Kenshin. Ohtomo’s movie caters more to the J-Pop/animation crowd, and though I find nothing wrong with either art forms after seeing Rurouni Kenshin you might want to cleanse your cinematic palette with something far more “substantial”.
(Originally published on April 9, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005)

Cave of the Yellow DogAs technology makes the gulf between cultures even narrower, a very noticeable homogeneity has begun to creep in. With English taking hold as the lingua franca of business, politics, and education, the variety of languages that currently exist around the globe will shrink in number in the coming decades. Though this "one world, one language" mentality might narrow the cultural gap that people must make to understand one another, we may also be made poorer as more and more voices and modes of expression are silenced in the name of progress.
For the Mongolian filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa, the three films she has directed have taken audiences to alien landscapes, i.e. the Gobi desert and the mountains and valleys of the Mongolian steppes, and explored the lives and rituals of isolated pastoral herders. Her films explore a way of life very few in the West are privy to and which also are becoming an obsolete as the demands of the modern world force history’s most famous nomads to give up their wandering ways.Cave
Her sophomore feature The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) is ostensibly a children’s fable, though it is not just a kid’s movie. The film is more like a tone poem dedicated to the harsh and unforgiving Mongolian wilderness where Genghis Khan’s descendants once galloped on fierce warhorses.  First time viewers will quickly realize the main theme in the picture is the spiritual concept of reincarnation.  Davaa peppers the film with shots of characters praying to a Buddhist altar, enacting age old superstitious rituals, and retelling myths and legends about animals and men in a constant cycle of birth and rebirth.
Opening ominously on a mountainside right before dawn we catch sight of a man and a little girl, in silhouette, walking up the side of a mountain. It’s a mystery what they are doing, but soon we understand from their conversation that they have come there to bury a dog. We learn from the father that it is apparently a traditional custom to position a dog with its tail behind its head so that its spirit may have the chance to come back as a man and not another animal. Those with the impression that The Cave of the Yellow Dog is some sort of cutesy Disney-esque movie are sadly mistaken. From the first scene, Davaa doesn’t let up with the death imagery: sheep splayed on the grass and skinned for their fur, vultures circling around the family’s yurt, and storm clouds which appear out of nowhere and threaten danger abound in the movie and lend it a documentary feel.Cave of the Yellow Dog
Davaa doesn’t pander to her audience and shows the viewer the brutal and beautiful of nature. Many films that deal with the theme of man vs. nature usually establish early a delineation between civilization and the savage force of nature, but in The Cave of the Yellow Dog, there is nothing that separates the little girl Nansal and her family from that world. Though no great tragedies occur in The Cave of the Yellow Dog, even upon re-watching the movie, it is hard not to be a little worried at times as the threat of death looms heavy over the children in many scenes.
Cave4
Having seen The Cave of the Yellow Dog countless times now, I am in awe at how simple this film is. Clocking in at roughly 90 minutes, the story goes by quickly and Davaa has such command that there isn’t a wasted shot or cut in the film. In an interview she gave for the Tartan DVD release, the director mentioned that, although she had written a treatment for the film, when it came time to finally shoot, all her ideas went out the door. And like the nomadic herders in her film she had to depend on whatever the kids and scenery were willing to give her on that particular day. This organic development of the story makes it more than just a heartwarming tale but also a historical document of an endangered way of life.
(Originally published on February 23, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Desire to Kill (2010)

Desire to Kill-posterRevenge has become so ubiquitous with Korean cinema in the last decade that it often overshadows the very films in this subgenre. Lumped together, the Korean revenge thriller, like the American noir genre, is linked not merely by narrative structure, the genre’s affinity for a grungy visual aesthetic, or even geographic proximity. In fact, what primarily ties all of these seemingly analogous films together is the grandiose, bordering on mythical, conflicts between two opposing forces. I hesitate to use hyperbolic terms like hero vs. villain or good guys vs. bad guys because these terms go against the moral themes that many of these films perpetuate.  Revenge and, by extension, the violent acts committed by the players in these films are ultimately pointless and resolve nothing. In short, the trauma of the past cannot be undone and as such, there are no heroes in a Korean revenge thriller, merely victims.
Desire to Kill-DVD coverTerracotta Entertainment’s new DVD release of Desire to Kill (a.k.a. Enemy at the Dead End) (Joogigo Sipeun, 2010) has plastered on its front cover the quote, “Oldboy in a hospital room.” That five word quote does a fine job of encapsulating the overall mood, atmosphere, and even the film’s major plot twists, but it sadly shrinks the film down and attributes its success, be it as entertainment or art, to Park Chan-wook’s now emblematic work.  Though Kim Sang-hwa and his co-director Owen Cho are indebted to Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, this debt is a collective bill that all revenge films made post-Oldboy must pay, just as any film that has as its central premise a team of men gathered together to accomplish a specific task can be considered direct offspring of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).
Opening on a rocky cliffside, the film is intercut with scenes of a man lying in a hospital bed, his beady, bloodshot eyes staring at us. In voiceover, we learn that his wife died many years ago and that he, like all protagonists in a revenge film, was unable to catch the killer. Unable to save her and unwilling to move on, Min-ho (Cheon Ho-Jin) punishes himself through a series of suicide attempts, each one a failure and each taking a toll on the man’s health. Damned to continue living, the grey-haired, wheel chair bound, and half paralyzed Min-ho spends his time reading the Talmud, taking to heart the “eye for an eye” philosophy that that ancient book preaches a little too seriously. Of course with all those thoughts of vengeance on his brain, it might have served him well to dip into a few Buddhist texts to be reminded of the old Chinese proverb, “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself”.
One day, Min-ho’s Old Testament God bestows upon him a gift. Lying in the hospital bed across from him is a new patient, heavily bandaged and unconscious. Eavesdropping on the doctors, Min-ho learns that the man suffered major brain damage and has lost all memory of who he was. The man’s only link to his past is the ID card in his wallet and a name, Sang-Eop (Yu Hae-Jin). For Min-ho, his face is all too familiar.  That harmless lump of flesh sleeping across from him is the man who murdered his wife.
This premise, dripping in the inky black of the very best pulp stories circa the Black Mask magazine era, is raised to the level of Grand Guignol horror as every night, Min-ho devises ever more Rube Goldberg-esque ways to kill Sang-Eop, but every morning Sang-Eop just wakes up alive, chipper and far healthier than the day before. How is Sang-Eop able to survive? Why have these two men been forced into the same room as one another? And more importantly, what sort of experiment is Min-ho and Sang-Eop’s doctor conducting on them? Mysteries abound in this film, but luckily for us Desire to Kill doesn’t hinge on out-of-leftfield plot twists. In fact, a viewer well versed enough in Korean/Asian cinema or the thriller genre won’t be all that shocked by the film’s major narrative beats.Desire to Kill
I was surprised at how darkly comical Desire to Kill is. Though it doesn’t shudder away from the grotesque or infantilize the violence onscreen, Kim Sang-hwa and Owen Cho, doing double-duty as the film’s screenwriters, are well aware of the ludicrousness of two invalids lying across from one another, waging a violent bloody duel night after night.   However, what ultimately separates this film from being just another Oldboy clone is that it doesn’t revel in pain, torture, or violence like copycats have. In fact, Desire to Kill is more akin to Greek tragedy. This is especially the case midway through the film, when Min-ho, like Oedipus, is shocked to discover that the “truth” that he held so close to his heart was just a fabrication of his broken mind, woven together from bits of truth and a fiction that he could believe in. Desire to Kill does not end with a grand battle but rather with a few harsh truths being revealed. Truly, a tale worthy of the best Greek tragedies.
Terracotta Distribution has recently released Desire to Kill on Region 2 DVD which is available at most online retailers.
(Originally published on January 21, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

My 2012 in Review: Rex

2012 was a banner year for me having moved to South Korea in February and getting the opportunity to be able to go to several festivals and film events that I never would have been able to attend while I lived in New Jersey.
The first and best of these was PiFan a festival which has been going on for 15 years now in Bucheon city, near Seoul, and has garnered a lot of respect for being one of the premier hubs of genre cinema, be it Asian or otherwise. Aside from the eclectic collection of films that I had the pleasure to see, be it raunch, Pang Ho-cheung’s Vulgaria (Hong Kong, 2012), action, Soi Cheang’s Motorway (Hong Kong, 2012), or animation, Takayuki Hirao’s Gyo (Japan, 2012), what was wonderful about my entire PiFan experience was the opportunity to interact with a lot of the film critics and directors that I have admired for quite some time. And, though there were a lot of massive blockbuster films being showcased there, my pick for the best at the fest, as well as one of my favorite films of this year, would be Back Seung-kee’s Super Virgin (Japan, 2012), a DIY sci-fi love story that sadly may never get screened anywhere outside of Korea due to its no-budget status.
Aside from PiFan, I was also able to spend a weekend at Busan for BIFF in October and finally caught Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Phillipines, 2011), a faux-documentary style picture by first time director Antoinette Jadaone about the Philippines greatest background actress, the aforementioned Lilia Cuntapay.  Having heard so much about the film and must see status amongst cinephiles, it definitely did not disappoint. Although I was a bit apprehensive that the film may play up the comedy or inflate Lilia’s contribution to Philippine cinema, Jadaone strikes a good balance humanizing Lilia but also pointing out the ridiculousness of her entire situation.
Finally, the biggest discovery for me was the Seoul Art Cinematheque which is a non-profit repertory theatre in Insadong and during the months of September and October, they were screening Japanese director Seijun Suzuki’s entire filmography and I was lucky enough to catch a lot of films that I would never have gotten to see; movies like Carmen from Kawachi (1966) which still has not been released in the States. Alongside the Suzuki retrospective the Cinematheque were also screening a series of Japanese pictures the best of which I thought was Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (2001) one of the handful of films at the start of the naughts dealing with teenage alienation but I had no clue of its existence until it screened there.
(Originally published on December 30, 2012 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Iron Attorneys and Singing Sukeban Girls: Two Films by Takashi Miike

Old-hat adjectives like prolific, violent, and extreme seem to always be bandied about when discussing the work of Takashi Miike. These terms have become literary shorthand to describe the man and his oeuvre, but with almost one hundred films to his name pigeonholing Miike as some sort of gonzo mad auteur walking on the razor’s edge of good taste ignores a large portion of the man’s family-friendly commercial fare that he’s been churning out since 2005’s The Great Yokai War. In fact, Miike’s career eschews closer to that of Classic Hollywood journeymen directors like Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks, men who had prolific outputs, dabbled in a plethora of genres, but still retained an identifiable signature style in their work-for-hire assignments. Although Miike may not have to suffer the misfortune of being forced to work on projects against his will, the films he’s made, be they hit-or-miss with audiences, are products of the Japanese film industry, their money fueling Miike’s wildest dreams.
For 2012, Miike has taken a break from being a purveyor of extreme violence and embraced the bright colors and manic visual style of the musical and video games. The two films in question, Ace Attorney and For Love’s Sake, are not just straight adaptations or even rehashes of familiar genre conventions. With these two films, Miike assaults the audience with the inherent conventions that he is lampooning, 32-bit video games in Ace Attorney and the musical in For Love’s Sake, and though not completely successful in making something equal to his earlier masterpieces, they are nonetheless fascinating movies featuring some of the subversive qualities that Miike fans have loved about the his films. Whereas earlier films were designed to shock due to their subject matter and use of stomach churning imagery, this new batch plays more with audience expectations.
Be it for remakes (13 Assassins (2010) and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)), superhero films, (Yatterman (2009)), the Western (Sukiyaki Western: Django (2007)), kids film (Ninja Kids!!! (2011)), or the high school melodrama, the Crows Zero films, whatever genre Miike dabbled in he always, for better or worse, added his unique stamp: the grungy violent work made by an attention-hungry auteur making way for the elder film statesman who unabashedly embraces the visual excesses of a Joel Schumacher or Baz Luhrmann.
A perfect example of this is evident with the first film Miike released in 2012, Ace Attorney, a film based on a series of popular Capcom video games. Wasting very little time in establishing any context to setting or place, the film thrusts us media res into a retro-futuristic Japan where the judicial system has been transformed into an Iron Chef-style spectacle in which prosecutors and defense attorneys do oratorical battle with each other for a maddening three days until a verdict is reached. As per the game, we follow the exploits of Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya), an inexperienced defense attorney straight out of a Frank Capra film, gaining experience points with each case he solves. The somewhat episodic plot quickly gets going though with the death of Phoenix’s mentor, Mia Fey (Rei Dan), which prompts our titular ace attorney to defend the killer who coincidentally enough happens to be the victim’s own sister, Maya Fey, played by Mirei Kiritani.
If that sort of plot twist hasn’t gotten your goat, then top it all off with spirit mediums, an inflatable tokusatsu Steel Samurai, a Nessie-like monster, possible patricide, and an endless roster of killers and fall-guys, all making the film’s 135-minute runtime a daunting task to get through. In fact, the film had about 3 proper narrative climaxes before the actual finale. Of course, that’s not to say that you won’t laugh or enjoy certain parts of the film, but after the umpteenth revelation about so-and-so’s past you become numb to it all.
However, even with all that said, Miike’s ability to play with the nuts and bolts that make up the cinematic frame are in top form. Having shot the film on Super 35 and then augmenting it during post-production, Miike retains a very grainy look to Ace Attorney, mimicking the pixelated look of the original 32-bit game. Add to that a cast and sets that have a larger and louder than life feel plus a score by frequent Miike collaborator Koji Endo, who took the games original themes by Masakazu Sugimori and rearranged them to have more orchestral gravitas and what you get is not so much a film based on a video game, but rather something akin to that of a video game film.
Continuing on this thread of unabashed campiness, Miike’s next film in 2012 was the high school musical For Love’s Sake, a film which appropriates the gloss and polish of West Side Story (1961) to lampoon the overblown hormonally-charged romantic fantasies that are perpetuated ad nauseam by film, television, and literature. Adapted from a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu, the film appropriately opens with a hyper stylized anime sequence which begins with the blinding white light of freshly fallen snow followed by a rather kinetic chase sequence down a mountain slope. A woman’s voice informs us during this opening that what we are seeing is the innocent recollection of a little girl named Ai, played by Emi Takei, about to meet her first love, the scarred and truculent Makoto. He saves her that day from certain death on that mountain and like all knights in knitted armor he could care less about receiving any form of gratitude. In fact, he is positively repulsed by her “bourgeoisie” background and promptly leaves her in front of a house and then disappears into the cold white background.
Fast forward to 1972, the cute little girl at the beginning of the story has become a confident young woman and Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki), the angry little boy, has grown up to be an even angrier adult. Ai is drawn to Makoto and the symptoms of her love sickness have her continuously blathering on about her undying love for him and even going to Sisyphean lengths to be around him. Of course, try as she might, Ai is blind to the obvious rules of classic romantic stories: the rich girl can be beautiful, have a wonderful personality, the entire world may be her oyster, but God help her if she chooses to fall in love with someone below her station.
Not having read the original 70’s manga I can’t definitely state what was a directorial choice by Miike and which was part of the original work, but the atypical choice of having three distinct female archetypes who all upend the clichés of the rich brat, the girl next door, or sukeban tough girl help to elevate the film’s stature from merely being just pop-entertainment. Longstanding archetypically masculine and feminine labels are upended in this film. A perfect example of this is Ai herself who is a naïve, idealistic, rich girl, yet plays the aggressive suitor.  Meanwhile, Makoto, the hyper masculine male, has the distinction of being the object of desire, not just for Ai but for most of the young women in the film, an interesting reversal of the male gaze. Representing a Don Quixote-type character, Ai charges headlong at windmills in the form of Makoto.  And to make an even bolder leap, there is a very clear link between this film and Miike’s earlier 1999 film Audition (Odishon, 1999).
Though Miike’s earlier film is, in terms of style and atmosphere, miles apart from the bursts of color and un-ironic depictions of young love found in For Love’s Sake, both features have, at the center of the drama, a female protagonist that mimics helpless damsels, but in reality are far more malevolent in nature. Ai, whose intentions of rehabilitating Makoto, may make her actions far less “evil” compared to Asami (Eihi Shiina) in Miike’s Audition, but one can’t ignore the fact that, as a result of Ai’s actions,  Makoto must suffer.  As Ai states at the beginning of the film, “Love is not peace” and Mike carries this sentiment to its extreme.
(Originally published on December 15, 2012 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Motorway (2012)

Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of auto racing films. The fetishization of cold metal and hot rubber screeching through obviously staged street scenes has always baffled me. To me, a scene of cars racing through a dark urban environment is seemingly interchangeable with a plethora of car chase scenes in any number of films, be they foreign or domestic, classic or contemporary, live action or CGI-drenched. Add to that, the fact that the editing may be fast in these films, but rarely is any sense of excitement or suspense conveyed. No, these films have always seemed more concerned with making the cars look good and completely sidestepping the person behind the wheel. And as the Fast and Furious franchise goes into its fifth feature installment, I doubt the genre will trade in its obsessive need to dazzle for some much needed depth.  Of course, with all that said, I can’t help but obsessively re-watch a good cops-and-robbers movie. These films feature my favorite archetypical figure in film: the manic obsessive cop with a death wish, modern-day Ahabs steering their steel dinghies on pavement and spending every waking moment stalking their great white whales.
Soi Cheang’s new Hong Kong actioner Motorway bucks the worst trends of the racing genre and smartly embraces the tropes of the latter.  It tells a familiar story, with help from and the resources provided by Milkway Image, in a manner evoking the best crime films.
The film begins in media res with a car chase between Cheung (Shawn Yue) and Lo (Anthony Wong), members of the Hong Kong police department’s Invisible Squad, and a couple of wannabe racing college kids. Wasting no time at all, we quickly understand the dynamic between Cheung and Lo. The young hotshot rookie Cheung is more of a racer than a cop at the beginning of the film. His partner Lo even remarks that maybe the boy joined the force to “speed legally”. Cheung initially appears to be a hothead but he, like all characters in a crime film, has a code of honor: protect the innocent, catch the criminal, and loyalty to those who wear the badge. In contrast to the neophyte Cheung is Lo, an old-hat pro, who, like old-hat pros in crime films, is only a few days away from retirement. Their relationship more mentor-pupil than father and son.
The action quickly gets going with the entry of the calm and cool Jiang (Guo Xiaodong).  A getaway driver who seems far more comfortable moving on four wheels rather than two legs, Jiang has a strong connection to Lo’s past. Both men dueled on Hong Kong’s streets decades ago and, though Lo gave Jiang a run for his money with his driving skills, it cost Lo a stint in the hospital. With Jiang’s reappearance, Lo is looking for a rematch, but years away from being behind the wheel have dulled Lo’s driving skills. It is only with Cheung, his partner, that he can amend the blemish of letting Jiang get away so many years ago.
Although Motorway does have a heist at the center of its plot, the film is far more concerned with the chase and in all honesty that is what the film will be primarily remembered for. Unlike lesser driving films that are merely satisfied with trying to top one stunt after another, Cheang and editor Allen Leung take great pains to differentiate each chase scene. The initial confrontation between Cheung and Jiang is shot very traditionally with the camera shifting between Cheung and Jiang’s perspective, the suspense of whether Jiang will escape or Cheung will catch him steadily crescendoing until a brilliant alleyway standoff between Cheung and Jiang as both men use their cars as makeshift battering rams.
After that, Motorway then takes us up to the mountains where Cheang and his production crew smartly utilize sound, quick cuts, and a mix of tight camera shots and gliding camera movements which not only hug the curves of the cars it follows but also the perilous cliff sides.  It was with this scene that I fell in love with this film; the slow burn and the fact that you couldn’t be sure who would make it out of the mountain alive created a genuine feeling of suspense. Cheung, Lo, and Jiang may be genre archetypes but during these sequences, the characters aren’t merely pawns in the film’s story. You’ve gained some backstory to these characters. You know their weaknesses and most importantly you know what they stand to lose if they don’t make it down from there.
The final chase sequence, taking place in a dark and crowded parking garage is where it all comes together. Cheung and Jiang face off in the parking garage and, though they do engage in a bit of hide-and-seek, the real action begins as the men in their respective cars finally square off. Charging at one another, taking a few careful shots and then balletically spinning around to dodge their opponent it seemed more like a match between a bull and a toreador than a confrontation between two men at their breaking points.
Aside from the top class visuals, what also elevates the film to masterpiece status for me is the soundtrack by Xavier Jamaux and Alex Gopher, who produce a synth heavy score for the film. The driving rhythm [pun intended] effectively evokes an 80’s Miami Vice style of speed, flash, and danger. And like all perfect film scores, Jamaux and Gopher’s work is not just aural wallpaper, it is an integral ingredient that, when inserted, gets the heart pumping, as if we are also in the car, gripping the steering wheel, and feeling every curve and bump of the road.
As an example of the very best in crime and action cinema, Motorway delivers in ways that its American counterparts so often fail to do. In fact, the film should have the subtitle Zen and the Art of the High-Speed Chase, due not just to its reverence towards capturing the grace and power of an automobile, but also because Soi Cheang does the impossible in Motorway. He actually gives each car that Cheung and Jiang drive a personality, in effect breathing life into cold metal and hard rubber.  In the process, Cheang clearly shows that, with the three major chase set-pieces, the soul and personality of a driver is evident in the way they handle the wheel. Of course, if you’re not into all that poetic jibber-jabber then just enjoy the macho action scenes, which the film has plenty of.
(Originally published on October 24, 2012 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Cold Bloom (2012) [BIFF 2012]

Tohoku. Fukushima. 3/11. Before the earthquake and tsunami that occurred last year, these places and this date would have had no meaning to a majority of the people around the world. After the disaster that befell Japan though, there is a weight applied to these words whenever spoken or written, stark images of devastation and death that have no parallel except for images of Hiroshima after the bomb and Tokyo during the early part of the Postwar years. Although the wound is still fresh and not yet appropriately scabbed over, there has already been a deluge of media devoted to dealing with the tragedy in ways that bridge the traditions of fiction and documentary, in effect creating a sub-genre that New York Times film critic Dennis Lim has likened to that of “disaster tourism”.
For Osaka born filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi, the trauma of March 11 is fertile ground for discussion and debate. Less than a year after the tragedy, he released a documentary, Nuclear Nation, which attempts to address the radioactive fallout caused by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant through the 1,400 Futaba exiles that have been displaced by the nuclear catastrophe.  The documentary has played on three continents already and gained a considerable amount of critical cache. In the middle of all the festival brouhaha, Funahashi also wrote and directed Cold Bloom (2012), a film about a young woman living in the wake of two tragedies, 3/11 and the death of her husband.
Shot in a predominantly cinema-verite style with sprinklings of fantasy-dream elements, Funahashi’s film may never be categorized as “feel-good” but there isn’t any of the nihilism and overwhelming sense of despair that was apparent in Sion Sono’s post-Tohoku film Himizu (2011), shot only a couple of months after the tsunami and Fukushima controversy. It doesn’t attempt to tackle “big issues” by offering up politically charged messages about the current state of Japan. There are no big imposing groups, institutions, and political/criminal groups to contend with.  The film is an interior drama. Relying heavily on the lead actress Asami Usuda, playing the widow Shiori, to keep our attention as she tries to move on with her life after her husband Kenji’s (You Takahashi) terrible accident. All of the ephemera of her previous life with Kenji - the house they bought, the motorbike they rode to work, the friends and family who knew them as one unit instead of as individuals - all perfectly still existing as Shiori is stuck trying to build the “ordinary family” she had hoped to build with Kenji.  A key to understanding Shiori and Funahashi’s film rests early on in the picture during a particularly intimate moment between the young couple as Kenji looks at the buds of a cherry tree. Thinking for a moment, he then makes a disarmingly simple observation that will reverberate throughout the entire film. To Kenji, the cherry blossoms that dot the Japanese landscape do not symbolize purity and innocence but rather hesitation, the buds waiting an entire year for the perfect day to blossom and when that day finally arrives they give it everything they have, ironically living for only a few days before their white and pink petals turn brown and are cast away by an unfeeling gust of wind.
With her husband gone, Shiori, like the un-blossomed cherry bud that Kenji was inspecting, waits throughout the film for a sign, a signal to finally move on. Shiori begins to dive into an alternate dream universe, where she has the ordinary life that she always wanted, but the friction caused from her Kenji-less world knocks her back to reality. Her salvation out of this fantasy cycle comes in the form of Takumi (Takahiro Miura), the man who had an accidental hand in Kenji’s death. Although Shiori is disgusted with Takumi, she never allows her anger to betray her calm quiet demeanor. More of a victim of circumstances than a perpetrator of an unforgivable crime Takumi is chained to the company because of a promise he made to Kenji before he died. The expectations of Western dramaturgy make their eventual relationship an inevitability and their constant back and forth interactions do eventually have the two colliding in a unconventional romantic relationship.
Funahashi, like a true documentarian, doesn’t offer a simple resolution to Shiori’s story. She exists, just as many Japanese do, in a precarious time. However, instead of focusing on devastation and death, Atsushi Funahashi is more concerned with the path to recovery, exemplified towards the end of the film when Shiori whispers in Takumi’s ear that she finally forgives him. This intimate moment between the two whose relationship is an equal mix of love, self-loathing, and emotional dependence is as far as Shiori will go with the man who has fallen in love with her. She has begun to mend her heart and her life. Takumi may love her and going away with him may mean a better life, but Shiori is tired of running and makes her way back to her sleepy ghost town just in time to watch the cherry blossoms. The time for rebuilding has come and hopefully whatever new world built on top of the old heap can withstand whatever new disasters may occur.
(Originally published on October 17, 2012 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)