Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Final Master (2015/2017)

Director: Xu Haofeng
Notable Cast: Liao Fan, Song Jia, Song Yang, Jiang Wen-Li, Chin Shih-Chieh, Maidina, Huang Jue
Also known as: The Master

Xu Haofeng is the next big name in Chinese cinema as an artistic force to be reckoned with. In many ways, he already is as his most recent film, The Final Master, is an award-winning piece of cinema that is finally getting its US debut from our friends at Well Go USA. Yet he’s proven throughout his three films as a director, The Sword Identity and Judge Archer prior to this one, that he has an innate knack of being able to take classic Chinese cinematic traditions and inject them with a modern artistic merit that brings them to a new level. The Final Master is Xu Haofeng’s finest cinematic work to date. It’s not only a highly entertaining martial arts film that utilizes many of the wuxia foundations as a base to build itself on, but it’s a film that strikes out as remarkably diverse in its tone without ever sacrificing the fluidity or depth of its narrative for the sake of making something entertaining for the masses. It’s a film that rides the line between the two worlds of cinema as art and entertainment while capitalizing on the successes of both. The Final Master is a brilliant display of inventive navigation of the genre and remains a film poignant and enjoyable in the best ways.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

Director: Sunao Katabuchi

Notable Cast: Non, 
Yoshimasa Hosoya, Natsuki Inaba, Minori Omi, Daisuke Ono, Megumi Han, Shigeru Ushiyama, Mayumi Shintani, Nanase Iwai, Tengai Shibuya III

Residing in the seaside town of Eba, a young girl named Suzu, who loves to draw and paint, works with her mother making nori (seaweed in an edible form). Some years pass, and she finds herself in in Kube, a quite large city that sports a Naval port base. There she meets a young man named Shusaku, whom she agrees to marry in an arrangement prepared by his family. Once the two are wed, she moves to Kube and starts to live her life and finds happiness in her new location, but the threat of the Pacific war looms over the city as her and the surrounding citizens find themselves dreading the days the inevitable attacks will come. An absolutely beautiful and poignant tale, In this Corner of the World is easily the finest animated film of the year, and deserves to be seen by as many people as humanly possible.

One thing that I love right from the get go about this movie is that it really draws you into the world and lives of these people that inhabit the few towns and cities set throughout. Even the smallest of characters are very well fleshed out and you get to know them all in and out. It truly feels as if you are a local citizen living in this world with them. It has a true sense of family and humanism that is represented with romance, drama, and just day to day life that goes by, through the ups and downs, naturally and with great ease. It feels as if an entire anime series is condensed down in to a two hour film, and while it may feel a bit long at times, the weight of what is to come is made all the more heavier by the beautifully written characters that you've come to love. More so, knowing the history and the tragedy that unfolded only adds to the drama and heartbreak. Without spoiling, there is a scene that is very bold and would've been cut from a film of this nature typically, at least going for a lighter rating for release, if the film were made elsewhere or perhaps by a different studio. It's haunting and will be ingrained in my mind for years to come.

Visually speaking, the film is absolutely breathtaking. There is a water-painted aesthetic to the film as a whole, but as we see through the eyes of Suzu and her artistic mind, the world unfolds around her like a painting. There are small scenes of her creating these paintings and drawings, and seeing her character paint these out feels surreal but realistic simultaneously. It is awesome to see stroke by stroke these paintings being created in real time as the scenes carry out. Animation within animation, truly a thing of beauty and something to behold. Certain key moments of the war itself coupled with her vivid imagination make for a unique cinematic experience filled with memorable sequences.

My one complaint, is that the film seemed to drag on a bit at times. I get that it was trying to make the world feel lived in and showcase the lives of Suzu and the people and family that surrounded her, and it mostly succeeds. Certain scenes felt bloated and dragged out to the point of exhaustion to the pacing and rhythm, like a missed note in a song, but it never entirely disengages the viewer. It is all worth it in the end though as it truly adds emotional depth to everything that plays out. That isn't to write off the scenes prior to the war unfolding, as there are a lot of truly wonderful moments, but certain scenes felt unnecessary to the plot or character developments.

In this Corner of the World is a film that will resonate and leave a deep impression in its viewers' hearts and minds. It's subtle and humanistic whilst also being rich and vibrant in its vivid imagery. It's a lighthearted film that dares to go into the darkest moments of tragedy and does so boldly with great success. This is one that should do quite well internationally and will surely get further award nods outside of Japan. It may be flawed at times, but is most certainly one of the standout cinematic pieces of 2017. Here's to hoping this makes to as many screens as it can. It needs to be scene and experienced by everyone. A lovely animated feature.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

City on Fire (1987)

Director: Ringo Lam
Notable Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sun Yueh, Roy Cheung, Lau Kong, Carrie Ng, Maria Cordero, Elis Tsui, Fong Yau, Chan Chi-Fai, Cheng Mang-Ha

For a majority of the world, the existence of City on Fire remains a footnote as a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Reservoir Dogs. For those who have sought it out, they may be horrified to find that it did receive a US release in an edited and terribly dubbed version which in no way or form ably showcases just how effectively brilliant this film is as an action thriller. Even for fans of Hong Kong actioners, City on Fire tends to be overlooked for the more widely available and high-octane films of John Woo. While this is not a knock on films like A Better Tomorrow or The Killer (each of which is a sure fire classic in its own right), City on Fire at least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those for being a peak of the artistic merit of Hong Kong action flicks. This long-winded intro serves to simply state what more people need to realize: City on Fire is brilliant and should be handedly ranked up there with the finest crime flicks ever made.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Shippu Rondo (2016)

Director: Teruyiki Yoshida

Notable Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Tadayoshi Okura, Yuko Oshima, Tsuyoshi Muro, Keiko Horiuchi, Akira Emoto

Hiroshi Abe is a senior researcher at a university lab named Kazuyuki Kuribayashi who is sent to a large ski resort in the mountains by his boss (Akira Emoto) after a fellow researcher discovers their successful, albeit accidental, harvesting of K-55, a strong and highly illegal biochemical weapon. With his job on the line and being a single father who is trying his hardest to provide his son with a bright future, Kuribayashi heads out to the icy mountains of Japan's largest ski resort ever constructed. Will he be able to find this chemical that has been buried deep in the snow, or will his race against the sun lead to the peoples' impending doom?

Stormy Monday (1988)

Director: Mike Figgis
Notable Cast: Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Tommy Lee Jones, Sting

In the idea of being perfectly frank, Stormy Monday was a film that never crossed my consciousness until Arrow Video announced that they were bringing it to Blu Ray a few months ago. Considering the stacked cast, it did come as a surprise that the film seemed to be truly a cult item. However, it was concerning. A film with this kind of cast from a well-received director (and featuring cinematography of Roger Deakins) should have some notoriety going for it in cinephile circles, but perhaps it was just one that fleeted away from me somehow. After watching Stormy Monday though, it’s kind of understandable why this seems to be a forgotten piece of film. For what its worth, it’s a decently confident debut for director Mike Figgis, but it’s also a film so rooted in being a neo noir and subtle in its building of characters and plot that it comes off as too slow for its own good. On the back of the box it’s referred to as a ‘romantic crime thriller’ but the romance, thrills, and crimes all seem pretty safe in comparison to many of the other modern noir thrillers that have come and gone. It’s a good film, but hardly one to capture the heart.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Resistance at Tule Lake (2017)

Director: Konrad Aderer

Resistance at Tule Lake tells the long-suppressed story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who dared to resist the U.S. government's program of mass incarceration during World War II. Branded as 'disloyals' and re-imprisoned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, they continued to protest in the face of militarized violence, and thousands renounced their U.S. citizenship. Giving voice to experiences that have been marginalized for over 70 years, this documentary challenges the nationalist, one-sided ideal of wartime 'loyalty.' - Subject summary commonly found online.

I typically wouldn't copy and paste a summary of a subject matter, but for a film of this nature, I wished to have it accurate as the weight of its story and nature in general is of great importance and I didn't wish to get a single fact wrong. Moving on, Resistance at Tule Lake is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that seems to have been practically hidden from the typical learning of history in America, but has since come out to the forefront, thanks to the filmmaker and this powerful documentary on the prisoners who rose against the oppression from the government during such a time of great friction between the nation and Japan. The survivors of this internment camp recount both their experiences and how this tragic time in American history shaped them into the people and more bravely, the continued patriots that they are to this very day.

I won't deny the relevance of this documentary in our current times of racial tension in the country, and the impact that it will surely leave on the many viewers who experience it, and the mere fact that this is a very much unheard of and important part of American that has seemingly went untold. The historical value is rich and the importance is of no doubt, but the powerful content embedded within this documentary is undermined by a run-of-the-mill format for a typical educational film of this style. For starters, the voiceover is entirely bland and carries no weight for the heavy subject matter. I get that it is trying to be informational and give a solid tone in its narration, but the voice carrying said narrative is bland and leaves the viewer uninspired and more tragically, given the powerful story being presented, uninterested. I had to force myself to stay focused, which is pathetic, as it only sits at about ninety minutes or so, typically a brisk and memorable experience with most documentaries.

Furthermore it does nothing to stand out from other educational docs. It feels so by the numbers that I see the sheer blandness of its execution only appealing to school systems that plan to play this in front of students. I assure you once again, that the story being told is powerful, and has me dying to dig deeper to further educate myself on this slice of history, but the typical movie goer isn't going to have their interest held by this. As full of life and passion that the interviewees were as they bravely recounted their stories, the overarching product feels bloated and uninspired, which is sad, as a bolder approach in execution could've propelled this to the realm of truly great documentaries, but will sadly be shelved and occasionally dusted off at libraries throughout the world.

I feel as if I am completely trashing the film, but if you can keep yourself focused and not fall asleep from the bland and uninspired narrator, you will be amazed and moved by this group of brave souls who dared to resist oppression during a dire time for the Japanese during this time in American history. These individuals deserve to have their voices heard after such long silence. Resistance at Tule Lake provides a rich and vibrant chunk of history that has practically went untold, but unfortunately this powerful story is padded in such a mediocre craft. The music alone is extremely manipulative and highly intrusive and will leave you pulled out of the experience for a majority of the runtime. Still, this is a story that absolutely needs to be heard and is incredibly relevant now more than ever, and to all of the incredible people that bravely fought for their freedom and the lovely people that chose to explore and reveal the true story of Tule Lake, I thank you.

Written by Josh Parmer

Over the Fence (2016)

Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita

Notable Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Shota Matsuda, Yukiya Kitamura, Shinnosuke Mitsushima

Officially dumped by his wife, Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) returns to the town he originally hails from, Hakodate. Out of work, he finds himself at a vocational school learning carpentry so that he may start receiving unemployment checks to start earning a living again. At his school, he meets and interesting array of characters and one man in particular, Daishima, takes a liking Shiraiwa, and takes him to a cabaret, where he meets one of the hostesses, Tamura (Yu Aoi). She is a very vibrant human being and in an instant, Shiraiwa finds himself allured to her and the two begin to connect with one another in more ways than they initially realize.

Over the Fence is a very interesting film. On one hand, it seems like a lighter drama about friendship and a man rediscovering himself in a time when he has no lower a point to go, and on the other, its a dark and interesting examination of broken people suffering from various struggles such as mental illness, divorce, addiction, being a social outcast, and so on. There is always something going on under the surface of a majority of these characters, and it brings a level of depth to the characters that could've otherwise been flat in the hands of a less experienced writer. The screenplay, written by Ryo Takada, who also penned the equally rich and effective look on broken individuals, The Light Shines Only There, truly understands how to flesh out and balance a large myriad of characters and give them all enough time and attention to make even the smaller players extrude a great deal of importance and gives the feelings and emotions behind all the drama, no matter how large or small, a keen sense of realism.

The performances by both Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi are are equally fantastic and fascinating. Joe gives his best turnout in a lead role in years as Shiraiwa. His suffering is deeply hidden under the surface and he tries so desperately to not let his emotional distraught bubble up to the surface. He surrounds himself in people, trying to move forward and form friendships with those who are a part of the next chapter in his life, but there always seems to be a disconnect, that is until Tamura walks into his life. This exuberant and vivid individual, played in a heartbreaking and bold manner by Yu Aoi, becomes the beating heart that Shiraiwa thought he had lost entirely in his life. At first, admittedly, her character comes off as obnoxious and an overburden to both the lead character and the viewer, but as the story begins to unfold, and the character's inner turmoils are revealed, we learn a great deal about why she is so loud and vivid, though it is never fully explained in great detail. It's a nice mix of subtlety in its revealing of what makes its characters who they are and leaving some of the background up to the viewer's imagination.

As I said before, while Yu Aoi gives a wonderful performance and giving it her all throughout, I couldn't help but be off-put by some of her character's brash and impulsive decisions. She bonds with animals and is fascinated by the mating dances and rituals of the various creatures at the zoo she works at, and while I get that the film is expressing her desire for true freedom similar to the way in which that animals boldly reveal themselves to one another, and that like these caged animals, she too is trapped inevitably, I couldn't get over how insanely absurd her many outburst were. I've known a couple people similar to her in certain regards, but to the level and more so the amount of times she lets out a barrage of bloodcurdling screams and flips out on Shiraiwa, I couldn't help but find myself being annoyed with her character at times. Perhaps it is intentional, and there is something I missed, but it takes the raw and believability that works to a great degree for its many characters, including her's the majority of the time, and shatters it in spots, ultimately taking you out of the experience.

In the end, Over the Fence is a fantastic examination of people who are struggling to rediscover themselves after some sort of loss or suffering that they are undergoing and how it effects their day to day lives. With a minimalist aesthetic, Nobuhiro Yamashita lets strong visuals take a back seat and instead allows the actors  to truly shine and take control, which works for a film of this nature, driven by its strong characters. There are moments of beautiful imagery, during key moments, though sometimes they tend to clash with the laid back visual motif the film is going for. As an absolute powerhouse of a drama, this film is quite powerful and bold in its realistic depictions of its complex characters and will long stick with the viewer after the credits have rolled. Highly recommended.

Written by Josh Parmer

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Breathless Lovers [Short Film] - 2017

Toshiyuki, the breathless lover.
Director: Shumpei Shimizu

Notable Cast: Kaito Yoshimura, Fusako Urabe, Daisuke Kuroda, Atsushi Shinohara

Toshiyuki is a young man who recently lost his boyfriend, Tatsuya, during a motorcycle the two were involved in. While Tatsuya left him behind, Toshiyuki becomes obsessed in trying to connect with his lover in the afterlife. He has developed a phobia of riding motorcycles or vehicles in general since the tragic crash, and instead treks on foot wherever he must venture. He shouldn't be traversing in this manner however, as he suffers from severe asthma. Furthermore, whilst trying to bond with Tatsuya pathologically, he sets out to do the training regimen that involves running for long periods and extensive boxing training at the gym in which he once trained. Struggling to catch his breath, Toshiyuki continues to struggle to connect with his long lost love.

Breathless Lovers is simply one of the finest short works I've ever seen. It's a quick watch, very impacting, and will leave you questioning its ambiguous ending and many themes that it manages to explore in such a short time, nineteen minutes and some change to be exact. I think choosing to do this work as a short film versus a feature length narrative really works to its advantage. It sticks in your mind and is surely one to haunt you for a while. It's dark and chilling in its effectively brooding atmosphere. The cinematography is in high-contrast and emphasizes the shadowy corners of Tokyo, from alleyways to bridges, every inch of the screen is filled with a sense of dread and is beneficial to the overall experience. The sound design, and in a sense acting as the score of the piece, consists of clinking of metal by the tools of workers in the construction surrounding our lead, and the sound of non-stop traffic passing by on the busy streets. It's extremely claustrophobic to the senses, and further adds to the thematic suffocation of Toshiyuki's mourning.

Absolutely stunning and atmospheric cinematography.
Kaito Yoshimura delivers a perfect performance, both physically and emotionally as the man in mourning. His character is only a mere 23 years of age, and while age doesn't entirely factor in to traumatic loss, for the most part, his youth is stripped away from him in an instant as his life spirals into to total bleakness and gives him a sense of misdirection. He has not a clue with what to do with himself, as one would, and I think he encapsulates the mind of a broken person who has just gone through such a horrible experience. Things go in a bold direction at a certain point, but Kaito Yoshimura handles it with ease and makes the scene believable no matter how odd or hard to watch the scene at hand is. With his wonderful and fun performance in Eiji Uchida's Love & Other Cults, coupled with this phenomenal and strong turnout, I believe he will be an actor to keep an eye on in Japan. As for the director, seeing this short film, and being completely taken aback by it has me immediately desiring to seek out his potential works in the future. I believe he made a film before this, but unfortunately I cannot find any information there, but regardless, with this much gravitas and perfection the execution of this short feature, I must keep an eye out on the filmmaker as I believe he will go on to do extraordinary things.

I didn't think a short film, with no disregard to the format in any manner, would effect me so greatly and leave a lasting impression on so many levels. As I said before, it is made with complete confidence in not only its style, but in its thematic exploration of subject matter and bravely goes into the direction which it does, which is to be commended. Breathless Lovers isn't a feelgood film by any means, but it strikes deep and gets you thinking when it's all said and done, and every praise for this little slice of cinema is more than well warranted. There's a lot to appreciate and take in here for a work of such short duration. Alas, it isn't the about the length of a film, but the value of the contents therein and with Shumpei Shimizu's haunting tale, it doesn't get much more valuable than this. Most certainly a cinematic highlight of 2017. If ever given the opportunity, seek this one out!

Written by Josh Parmer

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) - 2017

Director: Go Takamine

Notable Cast: Susumu Taira, Saburo Kitamura, Misako Oshiro, Ryuichi Ishikawa, Katsuhiro Kawamitsu

This film is as mesmerizing as it is confusing. I could follow the story, to a degree, and understood what was going on for the most part with the actual plot itself, but to say the hidden meanings and symbolism went over me more often than not is an understatement. What I do know though is that Hengyoro a.k.a Queer Fish Lane thoroughly impressed me through its masterful experimental craft done to perfection through great labor and love by Go Takamine, whom unfortunately until now, has went under my radar. Seeing this film, not only have I the desire to seek out more works by this madman (genius), but I have question the lack of creativity in cinema comparatively to this bonkers journey.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (2017)

Director: Shingo Matsumura

Notable Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda

Finding yourself in the process of breaking up with a loved one is hard to do, especially when feelings may still be lingering about from one or potentially both of the people involved. Rinko finds herself in this situation with her boyfriend of several years, Isamu. The two are comfortable around each other and enjoy the presence of one another still. There are no awkward moments or tension in the air and Rinko is allowed to stay until she can afford to move into an apartment of her own. The only thing of this whole situation that is unusual is that none of her friends are in the loop on this breakup. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii delivers are warm romantic comedy with just the right amount of subtle drama that delivers the best picture of this nature so far this year and in fact one of the finest films of 2017 period.

Yamato (California) [2016]

Director: Daisuke Miyazaki

Notable Cast: Hanae Kan, Nina Endô, Reiko Kataoka, Mayumi Katô, Shûya Nishiji

Set in the town that hold the largest U.S military base in Japan, which is owned by the States, Yamato is the place of focus for a hip-hop loving woman named Sakura, a local resident who struggles to find herself as she tries day to day to rap her way to stardom. She wishes desperately to leave her mark on the scene which she is such a huge part of, but seems to be failing to do so regularly. We see her sitting upon a pile of rubble at a large junkyard, which gives post-apocalyptic vibes as the camera pans around this particular place during the opening shot. She is spitting bars about her miserable existence, and the isolation that plagues her everyday in this place where nothing seems to make sense. Yamato explores this hybrid community filled with racial tension dealing with immigrants, the homeless, and all around a tense atmosphere that would put a strain on anyone, while examining art and its impact on human existence from the aspect of hip-hop.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Antiporno (2016)

Director: Sion Sono

Notable Cast: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui, Fujiko, Ami Fukada, Yuya Takayama, Dai Hasegawa

Just being entirely honest here, Sono has disappointed for the most part for the last several years since he decided to go on this whole spree of making movie after movie in rapid succession. Now he has always put out a lot of films, but they started to focus less on quality and depth and instead took a more popcorn entertainment route. Nothing is entirely wrong with that as some of his output such as Love and Peace and surely The Whispering Star (which I can't vouch for personally but most certainly seems to be a more artistic endeavor), but the director I've grown to adore has always seemed to have a lot to say, and well without a doubt that artistic and poetic side has come back, and in full force, with a vengeance. This is without out a doubt one of Sono's angriest films to date... Antiporno.