Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film": Review Round-up

This film series currently screens at Japan Society through July 15. Below are some brief reviews.

Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima)

My personal favorite so far is this musical tragedy, an extravaganza of color and music graced by a spirited and moving performance by the stunning Miki Nakatani who commands the screen in nearly every scene. Based on a novel by Muneki Yamda, the film documents her passage from a respected schoolteacher, domestic goddess, prison inmate, prostitute, to an insane woman living in a decrepit, filthy apartment, who is eventually murdered. Matsuko’s life is seen through the eyes of her nephew Sho (Eita), a slacker wannabe musician who seems to do little more than watch porn tapes at home while his guitar gathers dust next to him. His father visits him, and informs him that this aunt he never knew was killed and asks him to clean out her apartment. As he does so, he begins to learn more about her life, and so do we. Nakashima’s film is a 21st century musical update of Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, since in a similar way to the titular heroine played by Kinuyo Tanaka, Matsuko is consistently dragged down into degradation, despair, and finally madness. Her loyalty to the men in her life is rewarded with betrayal and abuse at their hands. But this is where the comparison ends. Nakashima’s approach couldn’t be more dissimilar to Mizoguchi’s; his film’s rousing and catchy musical sequences are the polar opposite of Mizoguchi’s somber tone and long takes.

Faces of a Fig Tree (Kaori Momoi)

Another visual stunner of this year’s festival is this exceedingly eccentric film from actress and first-time director Momoi. While it takes awhile for one to become accustomed to the film’s quirky rhythms, it becomes a remarkable experience. Extremely stylized and shot in odd, cantilevered angles, Kaori’s visual strategies heighten the strangeness of her tale. Momoi is aided considerably by art director Takeo Kimura, largely responsible for the stunning cinema landscapes of Seijun Suzuki.

The film focuses in on the Kadowaki clan: construction worker Oto (Saburo Ishikura); his wife Maasa (Momoi) a scatterbrained woman whose domestic drives are taken to a highly neurotic extent; writer daughter Yume (Hanako Yamada), who is seen in some scenes in her younger days with her father; and son Oto Jr. (Hiroyuki), who registers little in this story. The father works nights on a construction site to fix potentially deadly flaws on their latest construction project in order to save his boss from a lawsuit. He eventually rents an apartment near the site so he can finish the project more quickly. Maasa is convinced he is having an affair, despite Oto’s protestations otherwise.

Momoi creates a bizarre universe where anything can and does happen. One particularly startling instance occurs early in the film when Yume drops a peanut out a window, where it nearly hits a group of CGI ants who argue over the use of the F-word. Momoi’s own performance, while it often overwhelms the other actors, is still quite something to watch, as she registers each peculiar reaction to events and mirrors the eccentricity of her own scenario.

Sway (Miwa Nishikawa)

This former assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda (Maborosi, After Life, Who Knows) is beautifully attuned in her own films to the conflicts and struggles of family life, subjecting this subject matter to compelling forensic analysis. Her writing is consistently sharp and her characterizations always feel natural and authentic. Her previous film Wild Berries featured a dysfunctional clan thrown into turmoil by the reappearance of an estranged prodigal son. Sway’s tragic events are set into motion by another prodigal character, Takeru (Joe Odagiri), a successful photographer in Tokyo who returns to his family home after the death of his mother. He is the self-described “black sheep” of the family who ran away from their small town and the family gas-station business to pursue his own dreams. What soon emerges is the central conflict between Takeru and his older brother Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa), the one who stayed behind and worked in the family business. His resentment doesn’t show itself until later in the film. Takeru comes across an old girlfriend Chieko (Yoko Maki) he had left behind. This sets into motion the tragic events that drive the bulk of the film. Minoru gets the idea to return to Hasumi Gorge, where they often went with their parents as children. The night before going there, Takeru and Chieko had slept together, and they both suspect Minoru knows about it. At the gorge, Chieko reveals to Takeru her fear that she will be stuck in her small town, and regrets not leaving with him for Tokyo years before. Takeru crosses an old bridge that sways easily (hence the film’s title), and Chieko does the same. Minoru goes after her, and Chieko ends up falling off the bridge. Minoru is arrested for her murder, and the film keeps us guessing until the end about exactly what happened.

The resulting trial brings the conflict between the brothers and other family members to the surface. Memory plays a large role, represented by Takeru’s conflicted memories of the incident and his own childhood, and home movies made by his mother. Nishikawa is remarkably attuned to family relationships and the ways people can hurt each other intentionally or unintentionally, due to the unbreakable ties of family. Sway is a low-key yet profound family drama that is one of the best films of the festival.

Nightmare Detective (Shinya Tsukamoto)

This represents yet another entry in Tsukamoto's technically impressive films, beginning from Tetsuo: The Iron Man to Haze, which use the horror/thriller mode to illuminate the Tokyo cityscape and what lies beneath the surface. This latest film contains many familiar elements. Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda), a man able to enter the dreams of others, is drafted by Keiko Kirishima (hitomi), a new detective to solve a number of suicides that may actually be murders. Tsukamoto himself appears as “0,” a suicidal man who controls these murder/suicides by cell phone. The premise is familiar from such films as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and many other similar films. Tsukamoto excels in visuals and sound design, and provides the requisite shocks. However, this genre to me seems to be approaching exhaustion and a mannerist phase, and as much as one admires Tsukamoto’s prodigious technical gifts, it seems a bit wasted in the service of something we’ve seen many times before.

Dear Pyongyang (Yonghi Yang)

One of two feature documentaries screening at the festival, this is a revealing and affecting portrait of Yang's father, a lifelong staunch pro-North Korean. Yang’s film illuminates the experiences of the zainichi, ethnic Koreans living and born in Japan. One of the largest zainichi communities exists in Yang’s hometown of Tsuruhashi, Ikuno-ku, Osaka, where a quarter of the population are Koreans. Besides facing discrimination from the larger Japanese society, they were divided amongst themselves, between supporters of North Korea and South Korea. Yang’s father was a founding member of the Chongryun organization, an activist group who fought for zainichi civil rights and who were fierce supporters of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. To this end, he participated in the “Great Return” program, a repatriation movement that started in the 1950’s to “return” Koreans in Japan to North Korea, which at that time had a robust economy, supported by the Soviet Union. Ironically, many of these “returnees” were going to North Korea for the first time, including Yang’s three brothers, who left when she was six years old, and who she was only able to see on very brief visits to Pyongyang. Dear Pyongyang, with great affection and humor, as well as considerable poignancy, documents Yang’s efforts to understand her father’s reasons for separating his family because of his unyielding political convictions. Yang builds up many telling details of her family life: the growing care packages her mother sends to her sons’ families in Pyongyang, as their lives become ever harsher over the years; her father’s reluctance to talk about himself; her parents’ refusal to ever speak ill of the “Great Leader”; Yang’s own video footage of her visits to Pyongyang. “Unveiled reality is painful,” Yang remarks upon a shot of a massive abandoned construction project looming just behind Kim Il-sung’s statue. The courageous mission of Yang’s film is to do just that: reveal the truths that are painful to face, both familial and political.

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