Monday, July 23, 2007

Farce of Fury

Finishing the Game. 2007. Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Josh Diamond and Justin Lin. Produced by Julie Asato, Salvador Gatdula, and Justin Lin. Cinematography by Tom Clancey. Edited by Greg Louie. Music by Brian Tyler. Production design by Candi Guterres. Costume design by Annie Yun.

Cast: Roger Fan (Breeze Loo), Sung Kang (Cole Kim), Jake Sandvig (Ronney Kurtainbaum), Sam Bottoms (Martey Kurtainbaum), Meredith Scott Lynn (Eloise Gazdag), Monique Gabriela Curnen (Saraghina Rivas), Dustin Nguyen (Troy Poon), Mousa Kraish (Raja Moore), McCaleb Burnett (Tarrick Tyler), James Franco (Rob Force), M.C. Hammer (Roy Thunder), Josh Diamond (Interviewer).

The famous final scene of Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon features the martial-arts master battling his foe in a house of mirrors, as the shattering glass reveals his presence to be illusory each time. Obliquely recalling a similarly staged sequence in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, this is a potent metaphor for cinematic representation in general, and in particular the aims of Justin Lin’s irreverent Bruce Lee homage Finishing the Game. Lin’s film, which opened the 2007 New York Asian-American International Film Festival, is a faux documentary on the making of Game of Death, in which Bruce Lee’s death early in shooting necessitated a search for body doubles to replace him in order to complete the film. Lin and his co-screenwriter Josh Diamond offer a speculative re-imagining of this chaotic film shoot, using this scenario as a jumping off point to explore Bruce Lee’s iconic qualities as action hero and Asian-American male role model. The film also intends to connect this situation of the 70’s with the present, saying in effect that in terms of Asian male representation in cinema, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Also, it means to have fun with 70’s kitsch, fashion, and pop culture: badly dubbed kung-fu flicks, cop shows, extreme zoom shots, leisure suits, etc.

Lofty ambitions, yes? And yet this vehicle never arrives at its destination. It takes so many detours into cheesiness, joke casting (MC Hammer, Ron Jeremy), and all-around goofiness and silly behavior that satire, social commentary, and even true comedy, all but gets lost. Finishing the Game has been hailed as a “return to roots” project for Lin after his forays into the big-budget studio films Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, following his indie breakthrough Better Luck Tomorrow. This perception is also reinforced by the presence of Better Luck Tomorrow stars Roger Fan (as Bruce Lee imitator Breeze Loo) and Sung Kang (as aspiring actor and Breeze Loo fan Cole Kim). But I wonder if the audiences that have seen it (at Sundance and a slew of Asian-American film festivals) and are praising it effusively are celebrating the film that actually appears on screen, or its intentions and the fact of its existence. This to me is an interesting question, since a film such as this can often represent more than simply a film, but a hope for greater opportunities and more varied representation, in this case for Asian-American filmmakers and actors. Roger Fan and Sung Kang spoke eloquently to this at the opening night screening. (More details in a later blog post). It still remains difficult for such actors to secure interesting, non-stereotypical roles. And I would never be so churlish as to downplay the importance of diverse representations in American cinema, which all too often is sorely lacking. But to me, it is also important to judge a film on its intrinsic merits, and unfortunately Finishing the Game fails in many respects, including its ostensible intention to satirize Asian male cinematic stereotypes, which this film I believe gets undeserved credit for. It seems to be making sharp statements on this subject, but it actually pulls its punches constantly, always going for the easy gag and low-level goof instead of the fearless, balls-to-the-wall satire this film screams out for.

Case in point: the character of Breeze Loo, the faux Bruce Lee with an ego as big as the outdoors. Clips from his films, such as Fists of Fuhrer and Exit the Serpent, are played for cheap laughs, with the bad dubbing, obvious wirework, and an Afro’d Jim Kelly-type opponent. But this chopsocky stuff is a rather hackneyed source of humor at this point, and I think it cheapens Bruce Lee’s legacy while claiming to pay tribute to it. Bruce Lee became the icon he is not because of his kitsch value, but because he represented a model of strength and resolve that transcended borders and ethnicities, while at the same time providing a source of pride for Asian-Americans. That this model subsequently became a new stereotype is the irony and tragedy of Bruce Lee’s legacy. Unfortunately, there is precious little attempt to explore this in Lin’s film. It is content to merely pander to its intended audience, encouraging them to fill in what is missing onscreen.

In the midst all this silliness, the character of Troy Poon, as portrayed of Dustin Nguyen (of 21 Jump Street), seems to offer a slightly more serious portrait of the Asian-American actor trapped in stereotype hell. But again, it only goes so far, and falls back on repetitious gags, such as the montage of his endless array of delivery-boy roles. This also points to another big problem with the film: Lin’s tin ear for comedy. The film is simply not nearly as hilarious as it thinks it is. Gags are repeated a few times too often, beats are held slightly too long, making the film slackly paced, even at a mere 88 minutes. It all descends into a nearly desperate silliness, culminating in a gag reel that is no funnier than the film that precedes it.

Finishing the Game is a case study of the dangers in letting the meta-text overwhelm all. It may serve the purpose of opening a path for other Asian-American filmmakers, but this does not make up for its weak, and indeed, unfinished qualities. It solicits knowing awareness and heads nodded in recognition of the slowly improving, but still inadequate opportunities available to actors and filmmakers of Asian descent. However, it fails to create a work that is artistically defensible on its own terms.
Finishing the Game -- "Fist of Fuhrer" sequence:
Finishing the Game -- "Round 1: Cold Reading" sequence:

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

New DVDs, 7/17/07

From Dave Kehr's column in today's New York Times: two films released by Eclipse (the no-frills, cheaper spinoff of the Criterion Collection), which sound very intriguing: forgotten French director Raymond Bernard's early 30's films Wooden Crosses and Les Miserables ("very likely the best adaptation of Hugo's novel"). Kehr describes Bernard as "a wonderfully impure filmmaker who mixed and matched styles, broke through fourth walls and enjoyed a grand, stentorian performance as much as a crafty little character turn." Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, perhaps? Kehr also reviews five DVDs from Fox Home Video starring Joan Collins. Glenn Erickson also reviews the set for his "DVD Savant" column.

Also new this week:

Avenue Montaigne. Daniele Thompson's charming, and rather harmless, film is the sort of light comedy the French specialize in, with a frisson of class commentary, as its central character Jessica (Cecile de France), a waitress working in the titular theater district, becomes involves with the elite types who populate the area. A highlight of the film is director Sydney Pollack playing himself (sort of), auditioning actors for a film about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. This film had the alternate English title Orchestra Seats, the title I saw it under at last year's French cinema series at the Walter Reade. Very light, but enjoyable.

Yo-Yo Girl Cop. Kenta (son of Kinji) Fukasaku adapts the popular anime. Screened at this year's New York Asian Film Festival.

Dynamite Warrior. This deliriously unhinged Thai film also screened at the New York Asian Film Festival.

Ace in the Hole. Alternatively titled The Big Carnival, this classic Billy Wilder film is perhaps his bitterest, and most caustic commentary on media exploitation, featuring one of Kirk Douglas' most riveting performances. Criterion has finally made this film available on video.

Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin. This 1994 version of the oft-told tale was produced by Toho for its 100th anniversary. Available from Animeigo.

Factory Girl. George Hickenlooper's Edie Sedgwick biopic was a critical and commercial disaster upon its brief release earlier this year. This director's-cut DVD attempts to undo at least some of the damage.

Friday, July 13, 2007

"Japan Cuts" Review: Nobuhiro Yamashita's "Matsugane Potshot Affair"

Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane ransha jiken). 2006. Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita. Written by Kosuke Mukai, Kumiko Sato, and Nobuhiro Yamashita. Produced by Mitsuru Oshima, Hiroki Owada, Yuji Sadai, and Tetsujiro Yamagami. Cinematography by Takahiro Tsutai. Edited by Ryuji Miyajima. Music by Pascals. Art direction by Etsuko Aikou. Sound by Takeshi Ogawa.

Cast: Hirofumi Arai (Kotaro Suzuki), Takashi Yamanaki (Hikari Suzuki), Miwa Kawagoe (Miyuki), Yuichi Kimura (Nishioka), Tamae Ando (Haruko), Setsuko Karasuma (Izumi), Tomokazu Miura (Toyomichi).

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new film is a dark comedy following the decidedly odd events and inhabitants of the town of Matsugane ("town of the wild boar legend") and the happenings of a particular winter. Much like his previous film Linda Linda Linda, Yamashita excels in wickedly deadpan humor, beginning with the disclaimer at the beginning of the film. Describing dramatization as an “occupational hazard that cannot be avoided,” it assures us that what we are about to see is “based on events that we ourselves have witnessed.” That the “we” remains unidentified is par for the course in the world of this film.

The film wastes no time in establishing its vision of human nature. The first image is of a woman, Miyuki (Miwa Kawagoe), lying in the snow, the victim of a hit-and-run. A boy sees the body and approaches it, and takes the opportunity to feel her up underneath her clothes. In the next scene, the body lies naked in the morgue, about to undergo an autopsy when the doctors and the police discover she is actually alive. Miyuki recovers and exits the hospital in a daze, although it is unclear whether this is a result of the accident or is her normal condition. After refusing to cooperate with the police, she returns to Nishioka (Yuichi Kimura), her hulking, thuggish husband, at their squat in an abandoned building in town.

This couple forms the fulcrum of a number of intertwined plotlines followed throughout the film. The hit-and-run driver is Hikari (Takashi Yamanaka), the dim-witted twin brother of local policeman Kotaro (Hirofumi Arai). He works on the family farm and hit the woman with the truck he uses to make the daily rounds. The woman and his brother soon spot Hikari at a local diner, and they soon blackmail him into helping them find a place to live and retrieve a bag of gold bouillon submerged in a frozen lake. A human head just happens to have been buried along with the gold. We never find out whose head it is, or how the gold got there, just as we are unsure who it was who impregnated Haruko (Tamae Ando), a mentally slow teenage girl who gives out sexual favors to seemingly every adult male in town. Yamashita is clearly more interested in presenting these events from a wryly anthropological distance, making the tone of this film reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s later films, such as The Eel.

What makes this film memorable are the peculiar incidents that occur, some hilarious, some dramatic, others surreal: the homeless couple’s attempts to cash in the gold at the bank; Kotaro’s obsession with rats living in the police station’s ceiling, which apparently only he can see; Hikari’s attempt to pass off the couple as friends from Tokyo, when Kotaro discovers them in their senile grandfather’s old farm shack. Yamashita’s detached, God’s-eye view of the proceedings precludes any emotional identification with these characters and gives one of the impression of looking at an ant farm. Nevertheless, Matsugane Potshot Affair confirms Yamashita’s talents as a unique and amused observer of human absurdities and foibles.
Matsugane Potshot Affair trailer:

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"Japan Cuts" Review: Kazuo Kuroki's "The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya"

The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya (Kamiya Etsuko no seishun). 2006. Directed by Kazuo Kuroki. Written by Kazuo Kuroki and Hideki Yamada, based on the stage play by Masataka Matsuda. Produced by Shuichi Isoda, Satoshi Kono, Kazuya Naito, Takashi Ohashi, and Noburu Sugiyama. Cinematography by Koichi Kawakami. Edited by Yoshiyuki Okuhara. Art direction by Takeo Kimura. Sound by Yukio Kubota.

Cast: Tomoyo Harada, Masatoshi Nagase, Shunsuke Matsuoka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Manami Honjou.

The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya, Kazuo Kuroki’s final film before his death last year, is a quiet, gently humorous, and poignant World War II-set story that evokes the home dramas that were a specialty of Ozu. Based on a stage play by Masataka Matsuda, the film makes little attempt to disguise its theatrical origins. Its structure consists of several lengthy scenes of dialogue between different combinations of its main characters in two locations: a hospital rooftop in the present day, and the family house during wartime. This is to the film’s strength, since the strictly limited settings bring the characters’ emotions and the subtle variations of tone into sharper relief, making the film’s emotional conclusion that much more powerful.

Like many of Ozu’s films, the plot revolves around a prospective marriage, that of Etsuko Kamiya (Tomoyo Harada), who lives with her brother and his wife, having recently lost both her parents in an air raid. They are very protective of her and are anxious for her to marry. They have found her a possible husband, Nagayo (Masatoshi Nagase), an army engineer. However, Etsuko is truly in love with Nagayo’s friend Akashi (Shunsuke Matsuoka). A relationship between them is impossible since Akashi has been conscripted to be a kamikaze pilot. Akashi, also in love with Etsuko, but choosing military duty over love, has arranged for Nagayo to take his place.

As tragic as the situation is, the scenario finds much room for comedy, for example in the scene in which the painfully shy Nagayo has his marriage meeting with Etsuko, with Akashi at his side. He struggles to find topics for conversation, and can only come up with half-remembered names from literature, and a recitation of his life and work resume. Akashi eventually slips away, leaving the two of them alone. The bickering between Etsuko’s brother and his wife is also another rich source of humor, such as an initial scene when he angers his wife by commenting on the sour potatoes.

The film’s use of mirroring and repetition of details also adds interesting dimensions to the story. There are bracketed scenes in which Etsuko and later her brother are late getting home, both for the same reason: being held up by the talkative stationmaster. Both Akashi and Nagoya’s actions of walking up and down the stairs to the family home punctuate the most emotional points of the story. The story is itself framed by Etsuko and Nagayo’s wartime reminiscences on the hospital rooftop.

The war itself happens far from the film’s action, but determines everything that occurs. The film refrains from explicitly condemning the war, except in Etsuko’s sister-in-law’s anguished cry about not caring if Japan wins, only wanting things to return to normal, without rations and fear of being bombed. The others admonish her for saying such a thing, and the war is treated as a situation that must be dealt with stoically. However, the film’s implicit regret over wartime sacrifices seeps in, especially when Etsuko finally releases her grief over the news of Akashi’s death.

The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya is a simply told tale, but no less enjoyable for that. The film’s style is as simple and unassuming as the wartime rations the family eats. Such a film is almost entirely dependent on the actors’ performances, and there isn’t a single false note here. Harada and Nagase are especially fine, excelling at registering the subtle emotional shifts that lie below their seemingly placid surfaces.

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.