Monday, June 30, 2008

2008 Japan Cuts Festival Review: Naomi Kawase's "The Mourning Forest"

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori). 2007. Produced, written and directed by Naomi Kawase. Cinematography by Hideyo Nakano. Edited by Yuji Oshige and Tina Baz. Music by Masamichi Shigeno. Art direction by Toshihiro Isomi. Sound by Shigetake Ao and David Vranken.

Cast: Machiko Ono (Machiko), Shigeki Uda (Shigeki), Makiko Watanabe (Wakako), Kanako Masuda (Mako), Yoichiro Saito (Machiko's husband).

Naomi Kawase’s latest film, The Mourning Forest, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is such an ineffable, all-encompassing experience that mere words seem inadequate to describe it. But I’ll give it a try anyway. The film expresses a very animist sensibility, in that the natural world, and the sounds and space associated with this environment, are given great priority. Many of the visual compositions in Kawase’s film consist of extreme long shots that depict human characters as tiny figures in vast fields and forests. Connected with this is the notion of the very porous boundary between life and death, which is given concrete form in a couple of scenes. The film’s concluding titles explain the concept of mogari, which Kawase describes as “the period devoted to mourning, thinking back on the dearly beloved. It is also the place of mourning.” This may be her attempt to provide a bit of an anchor to viewers baffled by what has come before. Much more than non-narrative, Kawase has a distinctive style that is actively anti-narrative. Like other Japanese filmmakers such as Hirokazu Kore-eda and Nobuhiro Suwa, Kawase comes to her fiction features from documentaries, and her films retain a very strong documentary quality, with scenes that feel as if they were caught as they appear before the camera rather than being planned beforehand. In a key scene early in the film, a Buddhist priest gives a lecture to an audience at the retirement home where much of the film is set, illustrating what it means to be alive. The rest of the film is a quest to explore that question, through very tactile and sensual means tied to the natural surroundings of the film’s setting.

The plot, or to be more accurate, the situation of the film is a deceptively simple and spare one. Machiko (Machiko Ono), a young woman grieving over her lost son, works at a retirement home in rural Nara, which is also Kawase’s childhood home, and the setting of all her films. One of the people living at the home is Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), a man seemingly suffering from Alzheimer’s and still grieving for Mako, his deceased wife, who passed on 33 years before. This is a significant anniversary; as the Buddhist priest explains, in the 33rd year, a deceased person makes their final transformation into a Buddha. Shigeki is drawn to Machiko, mostly because of the similarity, in his mind, with his wife’s name; during a calligraphy class, Shigeki blots out the middle character of Machiko’s name to spell out his deceased wife’s name, “Mako.” Shigeki still sees Mako, who appears to him in two scenes in the film. The beginning of the relationship between Machiko and Shigeki is rather rocky. He violently throws her out of his room when, while cleaning, she attempts to throw away a rucksack that contains objects valuable to him. Afterward, however, things improve between them, and they are soon playing together like children, chasing each other through fields and climbing trees. One day, they set out together on a road trip. Machiko’s car breaks down, and while she leaves him alone to search for help, Shigeki wanders off into the thick forest nearby. After a frantic search, she soon finds him, and they venture deep into the forest, where it turns out that Shigeki is searching for the place his wife is buried. Machiko’s job is to be Shigeki’s caretaker, but at some point these roles become reversed, and this journey into the forest becomes a way for both of them to heal the pains of their respective losses.

The Mourning Forest, in its close attention to the beauty, mysticism, and subtle menace of its forest setting, brings to mind the films of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady). But while Weerasethakul’s avant-garde training employs his films’ settings as a site for formalist experimentation, Kawase is much more organic and mysterious in her methods. Her gifts for vividly rendering natural landscapes have invited comparisons to the films of Terrence Malick, and her minimalist aesthetics also connect her films stylistically to recent works by such directors as Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven, Silent Light), Paz Encina (Paraguayan Hammock), and Vimukthi Jayasundra (The Forsaken Land). But Kawase has an inimitable style and sensibility that is all her own. “There are no formal rules,” Machiko’s co-worker Wakako (Makiko Watanabe) is fond of saying, a statement that could also serve as Kawase’s credo. Her cinema represents, as much as anything else, a method of meditation, and the result is suffused with sadness, beauty, pain, and joy, all of which are inextricably intertwined in this film’s flawlessly poetic vision.

The Mourning Forest screens on July 2 and July 7 at Japan Society as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film. Kawase will be present for a Q&A following the July 2 screening and will also attend the July 3 screenings of “The Origin of Naomi Kawase,” two programs of Kawase’s short films, intimate and confessional documentaries exploring her family history. These shorts screen again on July 12. You can read my interview with Naomi Kawase here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Defective Detective

Mad Detective (San tam). 2007. Produced and directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai. Written by Wai Ka-fai and Au Kin-yee. Cinematography by Cheng Siu-keung. Edited by Tina Baz. Art direction by Raymond Chan. Music by Xavier Jamaux. Sound design by Martin Chappell.

Cast: Lau Ching-wan (Inspector Chan Kwai-bun), Andy On (Inspector Ho Ka-on), Lam Ka-tung (Ko Chi-wai), Kelly Lin (May Cheung), Lee Kwok-lun (Wong Kwok-chu), Karen Lee (Gigi), Flora Chan (Business Woman), Lam Suet (Fatso).

Leave it to Johnnie To and his great collaborator Wai Ka-fai to breathe new life into that most shopworn and exhausted of genres: the police detective story. Mad Detective, their latest film, is a cast and crew reunion of sorts. This is To and Wai’s first co-directed feature since 2003’s Running on Karma, and this new film indulges in a similar cockeyed mysticism to that earlier one. Also, erstwhile To stalwart Lau Ching-wan returns to the Milkyway Image (To’s production company) family after several years’ absence, in the complex central role as the titular crazy cop. Bun (Lau) is a detective whose working methods are, shall we say, more than a bit unusual. In a pre-credits sequence, he solves a murder and mutilation case by having another cop stuff him in a suitcase and throw him down several flights of stairs to simulate how the victim met their demise. He emerges and correctly fingers the murderer. As strange as this is, Bun’s true madness is revealed in a jaw-dropping scene that occurs shortly afterward. At a superior’s retirement celebration, Bun proudly cuts off his own ear and offers it as a going away present. And this film’s patented weirdness continues from there.

Bun’s self-mutilation is disturbing enough to his superiors that he is forced to quit the force. Five years later, his erstwhile partner Ho Ka-on (Andy On), enlists his help in an internal investigation involving Ko Chi-wai (Lam Ka-tung), whose partner disappeared in the woods on a case, and who is suspected of his partner’s murder. The film’s central conceit, rendered in both narrative and visual terms, is that Bun supposedly sees beyond the surface of people to their “inner personalities,” which are shown on screen as alternate personages seen through Bun’s eyes. Bun believes Ko has seven multiple personalities, all of which appear in clusters where everyone else, including the increasingly skeptical Ho, only sees one. This device, used repeatedly throughout the film, serves to throw us off-balance, and we are never able to fully trust what we see. It takes a while for us to realize, for example, that Bun’s wife May (To regular Kelly Lin), whom we first see strenuously objecting to his resumption of police work, is in fact a figment of his imagination. We eventually become as disoriented as the film’s protagonist as we witness his ever more bizarre and puzzling actions. Throughout, the overarching question remains: is Bun crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy?

As usual with Johnnie To, there is style to burn all through the film, especially in the climactic hall-of-mirrors shootout sequence. And although there are some serious lapses in internal logic, and exactly how Bun is able to come to his amazingly intuitive deductions is left disappointingly unclear, To and Wai deliver a satisfyingly challenging metaphysical gumshoe thriller.

Mad Detective screened this past Sunday at the New York Asian Film Festival, and opens on July 17 at the IFC Center. It is the first of a Johnnie To two-fer at the festival; the other is the breezy, gorgeous Sparrow, screening June 26 and July 2 at the IFC Center. You can read my review of that film here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Truth in Advertising: Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Tokyo Gore Police"

Tokyo Gore Police (Tokyo zankoku keisatsu). 2008. Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura. Written by Yoshihiro Nishimura, Kengo Kaji, and Sayako Nakoshi. Cinematography by Shu G. Montrose. Makeup and special effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura.

Cast: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Jiji Bu, Keisuke Horibe, Tak Sakaguchi, Ikuko Sawada, Marie Machida, Maiko Asano.

Patton Oswalt, one of my favorite comedians, and one of the best currently working, has a great routine about movie titles. According to Oswalt, the greatest movie title ever created is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because it is perfectly descriptive of the film it is attached to. You can practically see the film in your head as you hear the title. The same goes for Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Tokyo Gore Police, a delirious and (mostly) entertaining blast of J-horror excess. There’s no ambiguity, or any chance that you will be fooled when you sit in the theater. As the title promises, and which it delivers and then some, there is lots and lots of gore in this film, and there is no chance that you will instead be confronted with, say, a sensitive Merchant Ivory-type romance. The film stars Eihi Shiina, a model-turned-actress who is best known to Western moviegoers as the bride from hell in Takashi Miike’s Audition. In Tokyo Gore Police, she is one of the titular keepers of the peace, on the trail of mass murderers who specialize in mutilating their victims in gruesomely creative ways. In the near-future Tokyo of the film’s setting, the police force has been completely privatized, freeing the police to go after criminals with impunity, and outside the realms of judicial scrutiny. Ruka (Shiina), a cop specializing in catching “engineers,” criminal masterminds who compel others to kill, and use their own wounds as weapons. Ruka’s father (Keisuke Horibe) was killed when she was a young girl, as he was protesting the privatization of the police force.

But this film’s raison d’être is bloody excess, and lots of it. Chainsaws cutting through flesh and bone, viscera spilling out of stomachs, geysers of blood spraying from wounds, a turret of severed hands used as missiles, a woman whose legs are replaced by alligator-like serrated teeth, and the piece de resistance, a huge penis gun: all that and much more can be found here. The film’s main attraction, of course, is the exquisitely gorgeous Shiina herself. On the evidence of this film, however, to describe her as an “actress” may be a tad generous. To call her performance minimal would be wildly overstating it. The very few times that emotion is called for from her character, it doesn’t quite come off. But considering the outrageous nature of most of what happens in the film, this may be the best performance strategy. So much blood and guts, though, can be somewhat enervating after awhile. And this may be me becoming an old fogey, but I feel like I’ve reached a point where I’ve outgrown this type of thing, and seeing people sawed in half, and drawn and quartered, doesn’t thrill me as much as it used to. And I’ve especially become more and more sensitized to the depiction of violent acts directed towards women, and it has become ever more distasteful to me. In one scene, a very unlucky call girl is gored between the eyes, dismembered and stuffed in a box. At the screening I attended, there were a few enthusiastic whoops and hollers in the audience at this, which bothered me greatly. That this kind of thing is considered cool or fun disturbs me quite a bit. But to Nishimura’s credit, he counteracts this with his tough-as-nails female protagonist, and he proves himself to be an equal opportunity goremeister. In one of the film’s best scenes, Ruka gets her revenge against a molesting subway pervert by pulling him off the train, taking him outside, and cutting off his hands with a samurai sword. Ruka then walks away from him in slow motion, making full use of her fashion runway training, using an umbrella to shield herself from the geysers of blood emanating from the subway groper’s hands. This image is a brilliant perversion of clichéd Japanese iconography.

So with Tokyo Gore Police, you know going in what you’ll be getting. And if you’re into that sort of thing, you most certainly won’t be disappointed.

Tokyo Gore Police screens at IFC Center on June 27 and July 3 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. To purchase tickets, go to Subway Cinema’s website.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

King of Pain

The Butcher (Dosalja). 2007. Written, directed, photographed and edited by Kim Jin-won.

Cast: Yu Dong-hun, Kim Sung-il, Lee Mu-nyeong, Seo Myung-hun, Ha Yu-il, Kim Taek-su.

A Michael Haneke film on acid, Kim Jin-won’s The Butcher is a relentless 75-minute assault on the senses. The premise is as simple as it is brutal: a group of budding filmmakers have kidnapped a group of people, chaining them together in a dank human abattoir in order to make them the unwilling stars of their torture porn epic. The film is shot on digital video entirely from POV cameras that alternate from the perspectives of the perpetrators and their victims. It is an incendiary bomb lobbed at the heart of a Korean film industry that more than ever seems to be made up of little more than minor variations on genres and formulas that have made money in the past, slick and technically impeccable creations without an ounce of soul or wit. The grimy, lo-fi aesthetic of The Butcher literally rubs your face in the blood, vomit, and viscera to be found within.

In its implication of the consumers of violent entertainment into its thick (a)moral web, The Butcher seems to take its cue not only from Haneke’s Funny Games, but from such American latter-day gore fests as the Saw and Hostel films. The filmmakers/torturers in the film acknowledge as much: these snuff film auteurs discuss selling their wares to the American market, aware of how much the overseas public eats this stuff up. Also, the fact that the film is shot with camera rigs attached to the heads of the victims recalls two other recent films: George Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Brian De Palma’s Redacted, both of which critique the media-saturated, You Tube world we currently live in. The Butcher one-ups them both, however, in its strategy of erasing all the music cues and other distancing devices that would give the audience some measure of comfort. The raw nature of the film’s style, especially the use of off-screen sounds of screaming and chainsaws, is used in the service of maximum audience discomfort. And in this age of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Al-Qaeda beheadings staged for the internet, this film proves to be all too congruent with the global zeitgeist.

Kim Jin-won paints a grim, circular world of brutality, engaged in by both victims and perpetrators, to the extent that, as the latter scenes of the film show, there is ultimately little difference between the two. The ugliness of human nature is the obvious theme of this film. There is also a critique here of both the movie industry and our seemingly limitless appetite for violent movies, although what that critique is seems diffuse and not fully formed. And I must stress that the cliché is definitely true: this is most certainly not for the faint of heart. It is a blessing that the film is as brief as it is; any longer and Kim could be said to be as guilty of sadistic torture as the characters in the film. And I must mention that this film has one of the scariest characters of any film I’ve seen, horror or otherwise: an unnamed, large man who wears a pig mask that never comes off. This character is the twisted progeny of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and is responsible for some of this film’s most disturbing scenes.

Viewers, consider yourselves warned.

The Butcher screens on June 21 (at midnight; and this is indeed a midnight movie if there ever was one) and June 28 at the IFC Center as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. To purchase tickets, if you dare, go to Subway Cinema’s website.

Friday, June 13, 2008

So They Wanna Be Rock 'n' Roll Stars

The Happy Life (Jeulgeowoon insaeng). 2007. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. Written by Choi Suk-hwan and Lee Joon-ik. Produced by Jeong Seung-hye and Jo Cheol-hyeon. Cinematography by Kim Yong-cheol. Edited by Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-beom. Music by Lee Byeong-hun and Bang Jun-seok. Costume design by Kim Jeong-wong.

Cast: Jung Jin-young (Ki-young), Kim Yoon-suk (Sung-wook), Kim Sang-ho (Hyuk-soo), Jang Geun-suk (Hyun-joon), Kim Ho-jeong (Seon-mi), Kim Ah-sung (Ju-hee).

The title of Lee Joon-ik’s latest film, The Happy Life, at first seems like a bitterly ironic jape, since the lives we see on display seem to be anything but. Ki-young (Jung Jin-young), recently unemployed, lives off his teacher wife Seon-mi (Kim Ho-jeong). Both his wife and his daughter Ju-hee (Kim Ah-sung, the daughter from The Host) have little respect for him. His other two friends live in similarly humbled circumstances: Hyuk-soo (Kim Sang-ho) sells used cars and Sung-wook (Kim Yoon-suk) makes deliveries by day and is a hired driver at night. They are high school friends who have fallen out of touch over the years. They are brought back together when Sang-woo, a mutual friend, dies suddenly, having suffered an accidental fall down the stairs during a bout of drinking. When Sang-woo’s embittered son Hyun-joon (Jang Geun-suk) tries to burn his father’s guitar, Ki-young stops him and takes it home with him. It turns out that all four friends were in a high school band called Active Volcano, who had a short-lived career due to losing in the preliminary rounds of a school competition that occasioned the birth of this band. Ki-young seizes on the idea of reforming the band and reliving their glory days. His friends at first mock him, but when they experience their own series of setbacks, they agree to reform the band. They rent out a recording studio to practice, and they begin to feel the old magic coming back. After a disastrous audition for a nightclub manager, their rock career is rescued by Hyun-joon, who takes over the lead singing duties originally performed by his father. They return to the club owner and pass their audition with flying colors. They are an instant hit at the club, garnering enthusiastic responses, and even a cadre of young female groupies. However, their new status as local rock heroes causes strife with each of the men’s spouses. Another fresh set of personal tragedies threaten to break up the band once again.

The Happy Life follows the formula of Lee’s previous film Radio Star almost to the letter. Both films deal with aging rockers attempting to recapture their youth in the face of the harsh realities of their present circumstances. Formula though this may be, it’s a winning one. The story, in terms of the film’s focus, takes a back seat to showing the way these old friends interact with each other and exhibit the easy camaraderie which results from knowing each other for many years. There are a couple of passages that bring tears to the eyes, where the men use their music to soldier their way through their pain. This music is a defiant cry of “No!” to the myriad forces conspiring to knock them down and thwart their dreams. Lee, as he does in both The King and the Clown and Radio Star, excels in dramatizing the vicissitudes of male friendship, and how these relationships can often eclipse those of wives, children, and other family, and sometimes be more intense and long-lasting. Lee’s film has a charming, genial flow that moves with a seeming effortlessness that is a beauty to behold.