Friday, July 31, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Park Chan-wook, "Thirst" (2009)

Thirst (Bakjwi). 2009. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, based on the novel "Thérèse Raquin" by Émile Zola. Produced by Park Chan-wook and Ahn Soo-hyun. Cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon. Edited by Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum. Music by Cho Young-uk. Production design by Ryu Seong-hie. Costume design by Cho Sang-kyung. Sound design by Kim Suk-won and Kim Chang-sub.

Cast: Song Kang-ho (Sang-hyun), Kim Ok-vin (Tae-ju), Kim Hae-sook (Madame Ra), Shin Ha-kyun (Kang-woo), Park In-hwan (Father Noh), Oh Dal-soo (Young-du), Song Young-chang (Seung-dae), Mercedes Cabral (Evelyn).

Park Chan-wook’s latest film, the vampire movie Thirst (opening in U.S. theaters today), claims as its literary pedigree Émile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin. The combination of this lofty source material with a lurid tale of a priest turned vampire who eagerly, though not without pangs of conscience, succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh, is an irresistible (to some) confluence of highbrow art and lowbrow exploitation. This perhaps made it inevitable that it would win a prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – it won the Jury Prize (third place), shared with Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. The film’s protagonist, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a devout priest who regularly gives last rites to terminal patients at a hospital. His daily exposure to the dying makes him long to do more to alleviate the suffering he sees daily. To that end, he travels to an unnamed African country to subject himself to an experiment that is meant to develop a vaccine for a mysterious disease called the “Emmanuel Virus.” He comes down with this virus, the main symptoms of which are coughing up blood and breaking out in large pustules on the skin. He dies as a result, but is miraculously brought back to life by a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire. Sang-hyun still carries the virus, but when he drinks blood, his lesions and boils disappear. Upon his return to Korea, he becomes a legend as the sole survivor of the experiment, and people believe he has great healing powers and implore him to cure them. At the hospital, Sang-hyun has a chance meeting with Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun), an old childhood friend. Kang-woo, who has an unspecified mental disability, lives at home with his mother (Kim Hae-sook) and his wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), who was taken in by his mother as an orphaned child, and has since become a slave to the family. Tae-ju longs for escape from her circumstances, forced to be both wife and mother to Kang-woo and having to listen to the sentimental old Korean tunes her mother-in-law plays incessantly. Tae-ju tempts the priest into breaking his vows of chastity, in sex scenes that have become a major selling point of the film. Later, she finds out he is a vampire – initially repulsed by this, she becomes drawn in, and latches onto this as her means of liberation from her domestic prison.

In Thirst, Park supplies all the elements of his previous films that have pleased audiences and divided critics: the copious gushing blood, the rending of flesh, and the baroque style that were hallmarks of his so-called “revenge trilogy” – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. After a brief thematic departure with the oddball and very charming mental hospital romantic comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, he returns to his previous mode with this new film. In a way, Thirst combines elements of both the revenge trilogy and I’m a Cyborg. Comic elements combine with the bloody vampire tale to very unsettling and disorienting effect – it becomes a different film from scene to scene, and sometimes minute to minute. At one point it’s a somber religious parable; at another it is a blackly absurdist domestic comedy; at yet another it is a Double Indemnity-style film noir; at still another it is a distinctly Korean melodrama (although heightened to parodic effect). Unfortunately, on the evidence of this new film, Park’s style is beginning to yield diminishing returns. The film is all over the place tonally, and the wildly disparate elements on display – reflected in the film’s production design, a chaotic East-meets-West mélange of brightly-colored hanbok (Korean traditional clothing), designs inspired by French artist Odilon Redon, and colonial-era Japanese architecture – never jell into anything substantial.

We’ve seen the vampire tale many times before in the cinema, and in the past this has resulted in some very haunting and beautiful films, for example Dreyer’s Vampyr and Nosferatu (both the Murnau and Herzog versions). All the familiar vampire folklore, such as aversion to sunlight, sleeping in a coffin, the search for human blood, is replicated in Thirst, albeit with significant modifications. The vampire’s repulsion by garlic would presumably not have made sense in a Korean context, garlic being such an essential component to Korean food. Park adds a twist by having his protagonist be a priest, whose transformation into a vampire through a blood transfusion is the beginning of his passage from faithful servant of God to animalistic hell-bound vampire. (The Korean title of the film is “Bat.”) Of course, since the vampire in this story is a priest, fear of the cross doesn’t come into play. This idea has great potential – the struggle between dedication to his faith and the urges that are a result of his transformation promises to be very compelling. However, Park never takes this scenario anywhere beyond this high concept idea; there is such an arch air to the proceedings that it all ultimately becomes incredibly hollow and superficial. This is certainly not the fault of any of its performances – the film boasts some very strong supporting actors, and while Song Kang-ho is always compelling to watch (although he is restrained by Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung’s muddled script), the true revelation here is Kim Ok-vin (Dasepo Naughty Girls, Voice), transforming herself into a sexy and lithe live-wire who embodies her sexually awakened character with gusto and energetic brio. A word to the wise: those expecting extended torrid sex scenes between Park and Kim will be sorely disappointed; as is usually the case in film publicity, this aspect of the film was ridiculously over-hyped, both during and after production.

The main problem with Thirst, even beyond its overlong repetition and slack pace, is that there is never any real internal struggle evident in the character of Sang-hyun; he succumbs quite easily to sin – too easily. This superficiality extends to just about everything else we see – since there is very little at stake for anyone, it is very hard to care about any of the characters or what happens to them. This was certainly not the case with the revenge trilogy; despite Park being vilified from many corners for his depictions of extreme violence, this was in the service of a serious engagement with the moral issues explored in the films. In Thirst, Park seems content with having his characters be merely pieces on a chessboard, puppets to be moved around in ways that clearly amuses him, but precious little of that translates to us in the audience. Thirst, in the end, is all style and very little substance.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Shin Sang-ok, "Mother and a Guest" (1961)

Mother and a Guest (Sarangbang sonnimgwa omoni). 1961. Produced and directed by Shin Sang-ok. Written by Im Hee-jae, based on a novel by Joo Yo-seob. Cinematography by Choi Soo-young. Edited by Yang Seong-ran. Music by Jeong Yoon-ju. Art direction by Kang Seong-bum.

Cast: Choi Eun-hee (Mother), Jeon Young-seon (Ok-hee), Kim Jin-kyu (Mr. Han), Han Eun-jin (Grandmother), Do Geum-bong (Maid), Kim Hee-gab (Egg Vendor), Shin Young-kyun (Uncle), Heo Jang-kang (Fortune Teller).

One of four films Shin Sang-ok released in 1961 (the others were Seong Chun-hyang, Prince Yeonsan, and Evergreen Tree), Mother and a Guest remains one of his most celebrated and enduring films. Flush from the success of Seong Chun-hyang, Shin’s big-budget adaptation of the classic pansori tale that was a massive box-office hit, he decided to embark on a more intimate, small-scale project, and Mother and a Guest, an adaptation of a beloved short novel by Joo Yo-seob, scripted by Im Hee-jae (who also wrote the screenplay for Seong Chun-hyang), perfectly fit the bill. A potent melodrama revolving around the perennial conflict between traditionalist and modern values, the film centers on the titular mother, a young widow (portrayed by the luminous Choi Eun-hee, Shin’s wife and frequent star) whose largely self-imposed moral strictures are upended by the arrival of houseguest Mr. Han (Kim Jin-kyu, a popular actor of the time who also appeared in several of Shin’s films), a friend of her brother-in-law who awakens desires in the widow she thought were long dead, or perhaps never experienced. This slowly evolving love story is refracted through the perspective of the widow’s six year-old daughter Ok-hee (Jeong Young-seon), an adorable moppet who is one of the most endearing characters of her kind ever portrayed on film. She introduces herself and her family at the beginning of the film and provides a running voiceover throughout. This aspect of the story is a carryover from the original novel, which is also narrated by this character. In fact, the original cut of Mother and a Guest was adapted very faithfully from the source material. However, Shin ran into a problem when this version resulted in a running time barely longer than an hour, which was considered too short for release. As a solution, Shin and Im added a subplot involving a relationship between the widow’s domestic servant (Do Geum-bong, another frequent Shin star who passed away recently) and an egg vendor (Kim Hee-gab), which serves as a comic counterpoint to the melodramatic main plot. Other elements were added that broke with the young daughter’s point of view, such as a key scene between the widow and a fortuneteller (Heo Jang-kang), and a brief scene in which the widow poses in front of a mirror wearing a man’s hat.

Mother and a Guest, much like many of Shin’s other films, brilliantly combines a seemingly self-effacing and invisible style derived from classic Hollywood montage with complex and nuanced characterizations and visual parallels and contrasts that enhance this deceptively simple tale. The central heroine, as embodied by Choi Eun-hee, functions as the self-sacrificing, traditional woman common to Korean melodramas of the time, which was a particular specialty of Choi, who played this sort of woman in many films, for Shin and other directors. In this film, however, she goes far beyond this typical characterization to convey much deeper shades to this portrayal. One example is the scene in which she parades before the mirror wearing Mr. Han’s hat, after she chases her maid out of his room. She takes advantage of this brief private time to display a saucy, irreverent and sexy side to herself, free – however briefly – from society’s (and her own) constraints on behavior, expressed visually by wearing part of a man’s clothing. Even her own insistence on wearing the hairstyle and dress of a married woman even though she is a widow becomes less a capitulation to patriarchal, Confucian standards than an expression of her incredibly strong will – there is much evidence in the film that others see the mother, as well as the other inhabitants of the “widow’s house” (so called because all the women, including the maid and the mother-in-law, are all widows), as somewhat peculiar and behind the times. The rigidly moralistic beliefs of both the mother and her mother-in-law, which make it impossible for the mother to fully express the love she clearly feels for her boarder, are portrayed in the film as a function of class. While the widow and the houseguest are kept strictly separated through most of the film (one exception is a scene in which Mr. Han holds a sick Ok-hee in his arms while her mother sits beside him), the maid and the egg vendor are much freer to act on their attraction to one another, going all the way sexually (though of course, screen standards being what they were in Korea at the time, this happens off-screen) after a very funny scene in which the egg vendor cures the maid’s indigestion with his “medicine hands” and then proceeds to use those hands for more carnal purposes, leading to the maid’s pregnancy.

This sort of plot mirroring is reflected visually throughout the film – Shin in fact places characters in front of mirrors in key scenes:

One example of the film’s visual parallels is an early scene in which Mr. Han and Ok-hee go on a plein air painting outing, during which they stand on a hill, and Ok-hee calls out to her mother in the distance:

– a sequence echoed in the film’s last scene, when Ok-hee and her mother watch the train which will carry Mr. Han to Seoul, far from their rural village:

Mother and a Guest, which Shin did not consider to be his best film (many, including myself, would beg to differ; Evergreen Tree, which I have not yet seen, was Shin’s personal favorite) is a charming, lyrical work whose delicate beauty unfolds with each viewing. It is one of the great classic works of Korean cinema, as well as world cinema. It is available on DVD as part of the “Shin Sang-ok Collection” box set, which also includes A Romantic Papa (1960), Seong Chun-hyang (1961), Deaf Samryongi (1964), and One Thousand Years Old Fox (1969). This set can be purchased from HanBooks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New on DVD: Hitoshi Matsumoto's "Big Man Japan"

Big Man Japan (Dai-Nipponjin). 2007. Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto. Written by Mitsuyoshi Yakasu and Hitoshi Matsumoto. Produced by Akihiko Okamoto. Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto. Edited by Soichi Ueno. Music by Towa Tei. Production design by Yuji Hayashida and Etsuko Aiko. Visual effects direction by Hiroyuki Seshita. Sound by Mitsugi Shiratori.

Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto (Masaru Dai-Sato/Dai-Nipponjin), Riki Takeuchi (Haneru-no-ju), Ua (Manager Kobori), Ryunosuke Kamiki (Warabe-no-ju), Haruka Unabara (Shimeru-no-ju), Tomoji Hasegawa (Interviewer/Director), Itsuji Itao (Female Niou-no-ju), Takayuki Haranishi (Male Niou-no-ju), Hiroyuki Miyasako (Stay With Me), Daisuke Miyagawa (Super Justice), Takuya Hashimoto (Midon), Taichi Yazaki (Dai-Sato's Grandfather), Shion Machida (Dai-Sato's Ex-wife).

Hitoshi Matsumoto's wonderfully weird monster mockumentary Big Man Japan is out today on DVD. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at last year's New York Asian and Japan Cuts film festivals.

A hilarious and inventive kaiju eiga repurposed for the modern media landscape, Big Man Japan showcases the considerable talents of its writer-director-star Hitoshi Matsumoto. It begins as a rather odd mock-documentary about 40-ish loner misfit Dai-Sato (Matsumoto), whom a camera crew follows as he goes on ordinary, quotidian tasks. There are little hints of something stranger going on, such as the sign outside his door that reads “Office of Monster Prevention” and the obscene graffiti spray-painted on his wall directed toward Dai-Sato. A brick is thrown through his window as he is interviewed by the crew. Eventually these odd details are explained when he goes to an electrical plant, where he is juiced by massive amounts of electricity and blown up to literally monstrous proportions.

Now a towering figure dressed in purple shorts and sporting an Eraserhead-meets-Kid ‘n’ Play haircut and product-placement tattoos, he fights a series of monsters in epic televised battles, bashing them with a stick. Alas, his fights are quite unpopular; the late-night home-shopping show regularly trounces him in the ratings. His opponents are perhaps the strangest motley crew ever assembled in the annals of monster movies: the Leaping Monster (a head – that of popular actor Riki Takeuchi – and a single leg); the Stink Monster, which emits a stench equivalent to 10,000 piles of human feces; the Evil Stare Monster, with a single eye hurled as a weapon. “Dai-Nipponjin” (“Big Man Japan”), as he is known in his battles with the monsters, is victorious at first – until a mysterious unidentified foe with red skin kicks the crap out of him, causing him to run away and making him even more of an object of public ridicule. Dai-Sato’s problems don’t end there: he frequently clashes with his manager (pop star Ua) over her indifference to him as a person, and who seems to regard him as little more than a money machine to keep her in expensive cars and clothes. He is divorced and estranged from his daughter, and his grandfather (who was also a monster fighter) languishes in an assisted-living facility. In contrast to the love the public showered on his fighter forebears, Dai-Sato is treated with contempt and derision by his audience, who sees him as an irrelevant and outdated nuisance.

Big Man Japan has a remarkably controlled tone that treats its outlandish premise with a hilariously deadpan seriousness, creating a rounded character that has a level of poignancy. Matsumoto, a popular comedian in Japan, spent six years writing and directing his feature debut, and it is mostly a successful one. The film is marred only by the fact that the pace sags a bit in the midsection as the premise becomes repetitious and begins to wear a bit thin. However, it redeems itself with its deliriously absurd denouement, a last-minute rescue that is the cherry on top of the madness.

Big Man Japan can be purchased from Amazon.

Friday, July 10, 2009

2009 Japan Cuts Festival Review: Eriko Kitagawa's "Halfway"

Halfway (Harufuwei). 2009. Written and directed by Eriko Kitagawa. Produced by Shunji Iwai and Takeshi Kobayashi. Cinematography by Shinichi Tsunoda. Edited by Eriko Kitagawa and Shunji Iwai. Music by Takeshi Kobayashi.

Cast: Kie Kitano, Masaki Okada, Junpei Mizobata, Riisa Naka, Takao Osawa, Miho Shiraishi, Hiroki Narimiya.

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

“Go Don’t.” In a late scene in Eriko Kitagawa’s lovely and bittersweet high school romance Halfway, love-struck senior Hiro (Kie Kitano) scrawls these two Japanese characters on a piece of paper, a gesture that perfectly expresses her confusion over whether to let her boyfriend Shu (Masaki Okada) go to college in Tokyo, far from her hometown of Hokkaido. Hiro, in the waning days of the school year, has finally landed the dreamy basketball star she has been pining after for a very long time. This happens by very serendipitous circumstances, when she feels faint while watching Shu at a game and has to see the school nurse. Hiro relates excitedly to her friend Meme (Riisa Naka) her intention to finally tell him how she feels, and soon after goes to sleep. When she awakens, she talks of her dream in which she finally gets the courage to express her love to Shu. Unbeknownst to her, Shu has been listening, also at the nurse’s office to fix a nosebleed. Later, Shu approaches Hiro and asks her out. Hiro plays coy at first, but finally cannot hide her excitement that her dream has come true. This euphoria comes to an abrupt end when one of Shu’s friends tells her that he has applied to Waseda College in Tokyo, while Hiro is set to attend a local university.

This scenario would at first seem to contain the hoariest of dippy romantic clichés that have infected a thousand teen films before this one. However, TV drama writer (Long Vacation, Beautiful Life, Orange Days) and first-time filmmaker Kitagawa has constructed from these unpromising materials an exquisite film that feels as if this story has been told for the first time. Halfway is uncannily attuned to the rhythms and subtle changes of this young couple’s relationship, with all the petty squabbling, mind games, self-conscious posturing, and unbridled emotionalism this entails. Suggesting a distinctly Japanese brand of mumblecore, Halfway uses improvisation and ad-libbed dialogue to make what we see on screen feel almost like a documentary. With its nearly entirely handheld camera, and very long exchanges of dialogue, the film beautifully captures the delicate nature of the brief moment of time the film depicts. Kitagawa is a protégé of Shunji Iwai, who served as producer, co-editor, and mentor on this project, and who has crafted some potent romances of his own (Love Letter, April Story, Hana and Alice). But while Iwai’s own films, as great as some of them are, sometimes feel aesthetically distanced, lending them a somewhat ersatz quality, Kitagawa tells her tale with an often painful directness. Her film at times seems to be a direct riposte to the way stories like this are often presented. She even includes that most shopworn scene of love stories, the train-platform farewell, transforming it with a wry understatement that serves to make the scene deeply moving. Kitagawa’s images, shot in digital HD (again like much of American mumblecore) possess a restless immediacy that perfectly mirrors the ever-shifting emotions of its characters, as we watch them literally grow up before our eyes.

Halfway, the closing night film of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, heralds a major new talent and is a must-see. It screens at Japan Society on July 12 at 7pm. Click here to purchase tickets.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A History of Violence

Breathless (Ddongpari). 2008. Produced, written and directed by Yang Ik-june. Cinematography by Yun Jong-ho. Edited by Lee Yeong-jeon. Music by The Invisible Fish. Production design by Hon Zi.

Cast: Yang Ik-june (Sang-hoon), Kim Kkot-bi (Yeon-hee), Jeong Man-shik (Man-shik), Lee Hwan (Yeong-jae), Park Jeong-soon (Seung-cheol), Lee Seung-yeon (Hyeon-seo), Kim Hee-soo (Hyeong-in), Choi Yong-min (Hyeong-seok), Yoon Seung-hoon (Hwan-gyu), Lee Jin-sook (Sang-hoon's mother), Kil Hae-yeon (Yeon-hee's mother).

Yang Ik-june’s astonishing debut film Breathless is an indelibly potent depiction of the daisy chain of domestic violence and how it swallows up everyone in its wake, told through the stories of two people whose lives and psyches have been scarred by the violence in their homes. The film’s worldview is neatly encapsulated in the pre-credits opener: a man punches and kicks a screaming woman out on the street in front of a handful of shocked observers, who nevertheless do not attempt to intervene. Another man stalks into the scene, breaking up the fight by beating up this aggressor. After he is done, he squats in front of the woman, and instead of comforting her or expressing his sympathies, spits in her face, and begins smacking her. “Why do you just take it?” he asks her repeatedly between slaps. He then stops to smoke a cigarette … and falls out of the frame as he is struck by a blow from someone off-screen. Cue title. This audacious start to an even more audacious film lets us know exactly what we are in for: an extremely violent and incredibly profane film (there are more verbal obscenities per minute than any routine Andrew Dice Clay ever dreamt up; Breathless is a virtual language manual of Korean cuss-words) that is as raw and uncompromising as art gets.

That first scene is our introduction to Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a petty gangster who works as the main muscle and debt enforcer for his partner, loan shark Man-shik (Jeong Man-shik). Sang-hoon is the dictionary definition of a short fuse, reveling in his job stomping down deadbeat borrowers, demolishing outdoor food stalls, and breaking up student demonstrations. Sang-hoon’s unrelenting rage against the world expresses itself in his endless lashing out against any and all of his perceived enemies, and being around him becomes an occupational hazard for the other gang members who work under him, as he often fails to differentiate between his own men and those who he has been sent to beat up. The reasons behind Sang-hoon’s anger are shown through brief flashback scenes from his childhood, in which we learn that his family existed under the thrall of their abusive father Seung-cheol (Park Jeong-soon), who beat their mother regularly in front of the children. One of his violent episodes led to the deaths of both Sang-hoon’s mother and sister, for which Seung-cheol spent fifteen years in jail. Sang-hoon’s father now lives alone in a small apartment, supported largely by Man-shik, who feels sorry for the old man, and being an orphan, wishes he had a father. Sang-hoon bitterly mocks Man-shik for his largesse, and continues to make his father pay for his crime by periodically storming into the apartment to beat his father whenever the rage inside him becomes too great to bear.

One day, Sang-hoon meets his match in Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi), a high-school girl who confronts him with expletive-rich invective after he accidentally spits on her school uniform as he passes her by. Sang-hoon responds in his usual manner – punching her in the face and knocking her out. When Yeon-hee comes to, she continues her harangue, demanding that he make up for it. Thus begins a very combative friendship between the two. They don’t tell each other the truth about their lives, but they recognize each other as kindred spirits, and are eventually bound together by the violence that is a daily part of their lives. Yeon-hee claims to be a rich girl who hangs out with Sang-hoon out of boredom, but the truth is that she must endure a tortured home life, left after her mother’s death with a senile, violent father (Choi Yong-min) and an equally violent brother, Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan), who constantly threatens, insults, and demands money from her. Yeon-hee helps to bring out a more benevolent side to Sang-hoon, a side we also see as he becomes a father figure to his nephew Hyeong-in (Kim Hee-soo) and gives some of his earnings to Hyeong-in’s mother, Sang-hoon’s half-sister Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon). Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee are able to steal some moments of happiness while on a mall outing with Hyeong-in, or having a late-night drink. However, these brief respites are few and far between, and the violence in both of their lives escalate, especially after Yeong-jae joins Sang-hoon’s gang, Sang-hoon being unaware of who he is. Events are set into motion leading to tragic consequences.

Writer, director and star Yang Ik-june has created a nervy, brutal, yet tender and heartfelt film that crackles with invention, humor, restless – and yes, breathless, energy. It is also a deeply personal film for its creator, and while he declines in interviews to give specifics on the autobiographical elements, his total investment and symbiotic connection to this material is evident in every frame. Yang has said that he made this film as a form of therapy, to deal with the rage he has often felt in his life. To that end, he made great personal sacrifices to bring this project to fruition, borrowing from family and friends and even selling his house to raise the money to make the film. Yang aims in Breathless to give viewers as painfully visceral an experience of violence as possible. He refuses to depict this violence in the cool and stylized way it is often portrayed, especially in other Korean films dealing with gangsters. Yang shows us that violence indeed hurts, with every punch, every bat to the legs, every bottle broken over a skull, every hammer to the head. And it hurts not only the perpetrators and victims, but those forced to witness it, especially children. Yang presents it all with a mostly handheld camera, and such niceties as aesthetic framing and carefully composed mise-en-scène are clearly less important to Yang than in getting the experience of violence across in the most direct and unadorned way possible. This will prove to be too intense for some – festival screenings of this film are often met with audience walkouts. However, Breathless’ unflinching examination of this subject is the film’s most valuable asset. While the film’s domestic violence theme will resonate with audiences anywhere, it has special meaning in a Korean context, where domestic violence is as great a problem as it is rarely discussed in public. The continuing legacies of Confucianism and patriarchy all too often translate into men asserting the dictatorial control over families that they lack elsewhere. In one telling scene, Sang-hoon walks in on one of his deadbeat clients beating his wife in front of their children. As he pulls the man off his wife and begins beating the man, Sang-hoon rails against “fathers in this country” who are “all fucked up … They’re pathetic fucks, but when it comes to family, they’re Kim Il-sung.” This deeply affected audiences in Korea who saw the film at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival; Yang says many in the audience were moved to tears.

Not surprisingly for a film made by an actor, the performances in the film are uniformly impressive. Yang Ik-june embodies his character in a way that beautifully conveys both the brutality and poignancy of this “shit fly” (the literal translation of the film’s Korean title), this marginal and unsavory figure we end up at the film’s conclusion deeply caring for. Kim Kkot-bi, as Yeon-hee, is a revelation, as commanding a screen presence as Yang, and delivering a wonderfully nuanced and complex performance. Jeong Man-shik is also great, and very funny in the scenes in which he trades profane repartee with Yang. Much like the Godard classic that the English title of this film evokes, Breathless heralds the debut of a fully-formed major talent that shows the promise of greater things to come.

Breathless screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival, where it received the jury award for Best Debut Feature.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

2009 New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts Review: Koki Mitani's "The Magic Hour"

The Magic Hour. 2008. Written and directed by Koki Mitani. Produced by Chihiro Kameyama and Yoshishige Shimatani. Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto. Edited by Soichi Ueno. Music by Kiyoko Ogino. Production design by Yohei Taneda. Costume design by Ikuko Utsunomiya. Sound by Tetsuo Segawa.

Cast: Koichi Sato (Taiki Murata), Satoshi Tsumabuki (Noburo Bingo), Eri Fukatsu (Mari Takachiho), Haruka Ayase (Natsuko Shikama), Toshiyuki Nishida (Teshio), Fumiyo Kohinata (Kenjuro Hasegawa), Susumu Terajima (Hiromi Kurokawa), Teriyuki Kagawa (Jun), Keiko Toda (Madame Ranko), Keisuke Horibe (Bambi), Kiichi Nakai (Toru Iwata), Yoshimasa Kondo (Konno), Kon Ichikawa (Film Director).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Koki Mitani’s latest film The Magic Hour is an entertaining and beautifully designed tribute to movies and movie-making that revels in its artificiality. Early in the film, Natsuko (Haruka Ayase), a nightclub waitress, remarks that the elements of the story – gangsters, guns, cement overshoes, a boss’ moll – all make the town seem like a movie set. At the film’s outset, nightclub manager Bingo (Satoshi Tsumbuki) has run afoul of yakuza boss Teshio (Toshiyuki Nishida) by having an affair with the boss’ girlfriend Mari (Eri Fukatsu). Bingo saves them both from being the proverbial feed for the fishes by claiming to be an acquaintance of Della Togashi, a famous hit man known as the “Phantom Assassin,” whom Teshio would like to meet. Not actually knowing the assassin at all, and unable to find the real deal, he comes up with the idea of asking Murata (Koichi Sato), a stuntman, bit part actor, and aspiring star player, to stand in for the assassin. Bingo must keep up a double ruse, convincing Teshio that the actor is the hit man, and also making Murata believe he is in a film. The film’s scenario echoes other films such as Bowfinger and, more recently, Tropic Thunder, in which much humor is mined from the idea of tossing actors unknowingly into dangerous real-life situations. All the complications that one would expect, and then some, ensue. All the visual elements of this film – its cinematography, production design, and canny recreations of old movies – are top notch, as are the spirited performances of its cast, especially Koichi Sato, Eri Fukatsu, and Haruka Ayase.

The Magic Hour is an immensely pleasing homage to 1930’s and 1940’s Hollywood screwball comedy, a mode familiar to this popular film and stage director, and a hallmark of his previous films, such as Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (1997) and The Wow-Choten Hotel (2006). The film’s spirit of movie love is quite infectious, and it ultimately becomes an endearing ode to cinema, reinforced by the presence of the late, legendary Japanese director Kon Ichikawa in a cameo. The film’s very title is a film term, referring to the time just before sunrise or sunset in which there is an especially aesthetically pleasing quality to the light that makes anything filmed at that time ethereally beautiful. (Perhaps the most celebrated film associated with this time of day is Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven.) As movie-obsessed as The Magic Hour is, there is also a very theatrical feel to the film, which makes sense given Mitani’s experience directing for the stage. Mitani is an unabashed acolyte of Billy Wilder, and this is very evident in the high farce the film indulges in, which reaches ever more absurd proportions as the film progresses. If there’s any fault to be found in this film, it’s in the overabundance of riches – its huge all-star cast, the multiple twists and complications of its scenario – that make The Magic Hour an overstuffed cornucopia that Mitani has a little trouble sustaining over its two hour-plus length. Nevertheless, the film was deservedly a massive hit upon its release in Japan last summer, solidifying Mitani’s status as a unique comic auteur.

The Magic Hour, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, screens at Japan Society on July 5 at 12pm. Click here to purchase tickets.

Friday, July 3, 2009

2009 New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts Review: Hajime Kadoi's "Vacation"

Vacation (Kyuka). 2008. Directed by Hajime Kadoi. Written by Dai Sako, based on a short story by Akira Yoshimura. Produced by Kazuhiro Koike. Cinematography by Hiroyuki Okimura. Edited by Naoki Kaneko. Music by Teruyuki Nobuchika. Production design by Chiharu Hashimoto. Sound by Kazuo Numata.

Cast: Kaoru Kobayashi (Toru), Hidetoshi Nishijima (Kaneda), Nene Otsuka (Mika), Shuji Kashiwabara (Otsuka), Ren Osugi (Mishima), Shun Sugata (Sakamoto), Shusei Uto (Tatsuya).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

Hajime Kadoi’s contemplative second feature Vacation explores the relationship between Toru (Kaoru Kobayashi), a prison guard at a high-security facility, and Kaneda (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a condemned prisoner soon to be executed for murder, who has spent most of his years in prison appealing to the authorities for clemency. The “vacation” of the title is granted to Toru for volunteering for the traumatic task of assisting in Kaneda’s execution by leading him to the death chamber and holding his legs as he is hanged. Making this much harder for Toru is the fact that he has developed an unexpressed fondness for this quiet prisoner, who spends his days in his immaculately furnished cell drawing in his sketchbook. For his efforts, Toru is given a week off to have a brief honeymoon with his new bride, divorced single mother Mika (Nene Otsuka), accompanied by her young son Tatsuya (Shusei Uto). The film is elliptically edited, jumbling its chronology in a way that is not obvious at first, but gradually becomes more apparent as the film progresses. This fractured-narrative strategy serves to throw the contrasts between the scenes of the couple on their vacation and the execution that has made this outing possible into much sharper relief than a strictly linear presentation of events would have. Much of the film focuses on the long-time employees of the institution, which are quite a motley bunch, most notably the cynical, wisecracking Mishima (Ren Osugi), the green rookie Otsuka (Shuji Kashiwabara), and the soon-to-be retired Sakamoto (Shun Sugata). Despite the brutal elements of their work, they all look upon this as a job like any other, and though what they see daily no doubt takes its toll on them, they remain stoic in the face of it. Also striving for stoicism is Kaneda, Prisoner #350, who concentrates on his drawing and collecting photographs ripped out of magazines for inspiration. However, he has gradually become beaten down by the futility of his appeals for clemency; his exhaustion is so complete that when his sister visits, he can no longer bring himself to even speak a word to her. When the word comes down that his execution will proceed, all his careful calm evaporates in an instant.

Toru, meanwhile, is learning to get used to his new life as a married man, in an arranged marriage (set up by his sister) to a woman he barely knows, with a son who is aloof and initially resentful of the man who will be his new father. Mika, for her part, is still feeling Toru out but is cautiously optimistic that marrying him is the right decision, yet still worrying about how this will affect her son. The film alternates between the realms of Toru’s domestic situation and his work at the prison, connecting them in ways that sometimes unnecessarily drive home the parallels between them, for example making both Kaneda and the young Tatsuya have an artistic bent, and mirroring shots of an ant crawling across a tatami mat in both narrative strands. However, these details may also be in the film’s source material, a short story by Japanese novelist Akira Yoshimura, who also wrote the novel that was the basis of Shohei Imamura’s film The Eel. Vacation, however, is as far from the anarchic earthiness of Imamura as one can get, its visual compositions almost fastidious in their stark, antiseptic qualities. The performances are mostly restrained and often unnervingly calm, with Ren Osugi popping up every now and then to bring some needed comic relief. While Vacation admirably avoids the temptation to become a simplistic polemic against capital punishment, this strategy, along with the distancing effects of its jumbled timeline and cool austerity, unfortunately robs the film of the heat that would make it a much more emotionally resonant experience.

Vacation, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, screens at Japan Society on July 3 at 4pm. Click here to purchase tickets.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

2009 Japan Cuts Festival Review: Gen Takahashi's "Confessions of a Dog"

Confessions of a Dog (Pochi no kokuhaku). 2006. Written, directed and edited by Gen Takahashi. Produced by Seizou Tamura and Gen Takahashi. Cinematography by Ryu Ishikura and Masahide Iioka. Music by Urara Takai, Jun Murakami, and Naoto Ogura. Production design by Akira Ishige. Sound recording by Masami Nishioka.

Cast: Shun Sugata (Takeda), Hironobu Nomura (Ichi Yamazaki), Jun Kawamoto (Kusama), Harumi Inoue (Chiyoko Takeda), Kunihiko Ida (Kitamura), Gen Idemitsu (Mie), Honoka Asada (Nana), Hans van der Lugt (Foreign pressman).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

A very lengthy feature (three hours and fifteen minutes) which, like Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s film All Around Us (also screening as part of Japan Cuts), deals with the criminal justice system in Japan, and that is as deliciously engrossing as it is disturbing, Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog is perhaps the most devastating indictment of Japan’s police ever committed to film. Following in the great tradition of, and likely inspired by, Sidney Lumet’s stories of police corruption such as Serpico and Prince of the City (which this film is most analogous to), Confessions of a Dog maps out with surgical precision the anatomy of police crimes, and the system which supports and enables them. We are privy to these events through the eyes of Takeda (Shun Sugata), an initially diffident beat cop who is plucked from his duties at a koban (neighborhood mini-police stations common to Japan) by an assistant police inspector who takes a shine to this hulking, silent officer. At first, Takeda is puzzled and disturbed by the practices he sees and is encouraged to participate in, such as taking bribes and brutally beating suspects, but soon he becomes as adept at stomping criminals and taking kickbacks as the rest of them. The litany of outrages depicted on screen is numerous: besides the bribery and brutality, we see blackmail, sexual harassment, filing false expense reports, staged drug arrests, planting evidence, using underage prostitutes, and assaulting reporters who get too close. Most of the film’s action revolves around a massive drug operation run out of the police department, making the police in this film little more than yakuza wearing different outfits. Even more outrageous than the police corruption on display is how the other parts of the criminal system, including the judiciary, and also the mass media collude to keep this rotten system in place. Judges are easily cowed and manipulated to produce the results that the police want. The same goes for the media; investigative journalism is actively discouraged by editors, as we see in a parallel story in the film of Kitamura (Kunihiko Ida), a journalist who tries to uncover the police drug operation and is thwarted at every turn by his bosses. The police feed their press statements to pools of reporters, known in Japan as “kisha clubs,” who take them at face value with no questions or challenge, and uncritically parrot these statements to their respective outlets; one police official likens this to feeding their dogs.

Completed in 2005, but only released in Japan late last year, Confessions of a Dog has a fictional story, but the details come from actual incidents observed and reported on by freelance investigative journalist Yu Terasawa, who has publicly lobbied for major changes on how the police are covered in the press, and for greater freedom to fully investigate corruption. Very few have seen the film in Japan, due both to its controversial subject matter and lengthy running time. The film’s length, in this case, is a major asset, allowing us to become fully immersed in the vast conspiracy this film depicts, and becomes a great showcase for the towering lead performance given by Shun Sugata, whose progression from ethical cop, to dirty cop, and finally to a broken and betrayed man are rendered with compelling force and substance. In the film’s Japanese title, “Pochi no kokuhaku,” “pochi,” or “pooch,” is slang term for a cop, and ultimately Takeda is the “dog” of the title, giving his confession inside an empty jail cell, with no one to hear him or care.

Confessions of a Dog screens as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at Japan Society on July 9 at 7pm and July 11 at 2:15. Gen Takahashi will appear in person for a Q&A at both screenings. Click here to purchase tickets.

Additional reading: an interview with Gen Takahashi on the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan website.

Scenes From a Marriage

All Around Us (Gururi no koto). 2008. Written, directed and edited by Ryosuke Hashiguchi. Produced by Hiroki Ohwada, Yuji Sadai, Takeo Hisamatsu, Masayuki Miyashita, and Yoshiro Yasunaga. Cinematography by Shogo Ueno. Music by Akeboshi. Production design by Toshihiro Isomi. Sound by Takeshi Ogawa. Costume design by Kumiko Ogawa.

Cast: Lily Franky (Kanao Sato), Tae Kimura (Shoko Sato), Mitsuko Baisho (Shoko's mother), Susumu Terajima (Shoko's brother), Tamae Ando (Shoko's sister-in-law), Yuichi Kimura (Natsume), Akira Emoto (Yasuda), Norito Yashima (Kanao's boss), Minori Terada (Yoshizume), Yosuke Sato (Hashimoto), Hirofumi Arai (Defendant -- Trial for the Murder of Elementary School Students), Ryo Kase (Defendant -- Trial for the Murder of a Preschool Girl), Megumi Yokoyama (Witness -- Trial for the Murder of a Kindergartener), Reiko Kataoka (Defendant -- Trial for the Murder of a Kindergartener), Noriko Eguchi (Neighbor).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)

One of the best selections this year of both the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival is Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s All Around Us, a beautifully observed film that examines the vicissitudes of the relationship between a married couple – Kanao (Lily Franky), a courtroom sketch artist, and Shoko (Tae Kimura), an editor at a publishing house – against the backdrop of the larger Japanese society from 1993 to 2001. At the film’s outset, the tone is lightly comic, as Shoko puts Kanao on a strict schedule of sex three times a week, and also a curfew, because of her suspicions that he is cheating on her – which are probably not unfounded, as evidenced by early scenes in which Kanao openly flirts with women at his shoe-repair shop. Kanao is a somewhat isolated person, estranged from his own family and saddled with in-laws who don’t show him much respect. During a family dinner, Shoko’s mother (Mitsuko Baisho) leans toward her daughter and whispers, “You can do better.” Shoko resists her family’s opposition, perhaps sensing that Kanao’s easygoing nature balances out her control-freak tendencies. Soon after, a friend of Kanao’s introduces him to a new line of work, as a courtroom artist for a local television station. At first, this promises to be the latest in a series of jobs Kanao casually drifts into, but he soon takes to the work, and he now spends his days in the courtroom observing trials for some of the most heinous crimes: serial killers, cannibals, and cult mass murderers, as well as their victims, fall under his artist’s gaze, as he picks up the telling details that he sketches and presents to the public to satisfy their insatiable curiosity. While Kanao becomes a more responsible, stable person due to his new calling, Shoko begins making an opposite trajectory, unable to cope with the death of their infant daughter and sinking into a deep depression. Kanao, as much as he wants to help her, is ultimately at a loss as to how to do so, and can only observe his wife getting worse, much as he observes the criminals in the courtroom.

Hashiguchi, one of the few openly gay filmmakers in Japan, returns after a seven-year hiatus from directing with his best film to date. While the subject matter of his latest film would seem to represent a break with his previous gay-themed features, such as A Touch of Fever (1993) and the film festival favorite Hush! (2001), All Around Us retains the qualities of humor and astute observation that run through all his films. At once sweepingly panoramic and microscopically intimate, Hashiguchi’s fourth feature parallels the pains and struggles of the married couple at its center with the changes in Japan itself, touching on such major events as the 1990’s economic collapse, the 1995 subway sarin gas attacks, and others. Also attesting to Hashiguchi’s care in accurately detailing the specific time period he covers is the fact that the courtroom trials we see in the film are based on actual cases of the time. Shoko’s trauma of the death of her child and the subsequent devastation to her psyche mirrors (perhaps a bit too neatly in the film’s scenario) Japan’s economic collapse and the violence and desperation that follows, at least as can be evidenced from the increasingly grisly criminal testimonies that Kanao observes in the courtroom. At almost two and a half hours, All Around Us is patient and subtle in its examination of the married couple it follows, leaving the major dramatic moments mostly off-screen, instead conveying them through synecdochic details: the altar for their dead child; the parenting manuals left in the trash; spilled rice in a sink representing Shoko’s mental unraveling. Shot with a burnished glow and a gorgeous palette (appropriately for a film in which art plays such a large role), All Around Us boasts great performances across the board, but especially by those of its two anchors – veteran character actress Tae Kimura, who compellingly registers Shoko’s changing mental state and eventual healing with astute precision, and Lily Franky, a real-life illustrator and author (his memoir Tokyo Tower became a popular television series, and later an equally celebrated film), whose appealingly deadpan performance paradoxically conveys an emotional depth that is a revelation and endlessly fascinating to watch.

All Around Us, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, screens at Japan Society on July 2 at 8:45 and July 5 at 2:45. Click here to purchase tickets.