Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 40 Films of 2009 (10-1)

File this under "Better Late Than Never." Just in time for the end of 2010, here are my picks for the Top 10 films of 2009.

10. Adventureland (Greg Mottola, US, 2009)

9. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, US, 2009)

8. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, US, 2008)

7. Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK, 2008)

Read my review here.

6. Night and Day/Bam gua nat (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2008)

5. Desert Dream/Hyazgar (Zhang Lu, Mongolia/China/France/South Korea, 2007)

4. You, the Living/Du levande (Roy Andersson, Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark/Norway, 2007)

3. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Netherlands/Germany/Spain, 2008)

A man working on an industrial freighter asks for leave while his ship is docked at port to return home to see his sick mother and the daughter he has never met.  Having been away for a very long time and essentially abandoning his family, he receives a decidedly chilly reception, especially from his father.  He gives his daughter some money, and takes off again, this time perhaps for good.  This is pretty much the entire plot of Liverpool, the latest (and greatest, so far) film by Lisandro Alonso, a stalwart of a crop of immensely talented filmmakers coming out of Argentina in recent years.  Alonso, to my mind, is perhaps the most intellectually and aesthetically rigorous of them all, his framing and editing as precise and as perfect as any I’ve seen.  His films, the previous ones being La Libertad, Los muertos and Fantasma, are not exactly the most accessible, although Los muertos possesses a frightening and mesmerizing intensity.  They make great demands on audiences, requiring them to pay careful attention to subtle details, and to stick with seemingly monotonous, mundane details, and trust that they will lead somewhere.  Liverpool represents the apotheosis of this strategy, compelling us to stick with the journey of its initial protagonist, a silent, solitary figure who interacts very little with others, and whose most constant companion is a vodka bottle he frequently takes swigs from.  His face is an impassive, impenetrable mask – he undoubtedly lives a harsh, lonely existence, but his expression gives us nothing.  He is a man resigned to his fate, and seems unwilling or unable to do anything to change it.

The film has a binary structure, and the second part of the film begins when the man we have been following disappears again from his daughter’s life, and from the film itself, which now refuses to follow him.  Instead, we stay with the man’s family, and their life on the farm.  The daughter seems to be mentally slow, and has a slight stutter.  The only thing she says to her father is, “Are you going to give me money?”  No emotional reunion here – it’s not that kind of film.  But the film ends on an exquisitely beautiful moment of tenderness.  Without giving too much away, I’ll say that it’s Alonso’s version of “Rosebud.”

2. My Dear Enemy/Meotjin haru (Lee Yoon-ki, South Korea, 2008)

1. 35 Shots of Rum/35 rhums (Claire Denis, France, 2008)

Read my review here.

One of the film's major highlights -- the beautiful dance scene late in the film:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Review: David Kaplan's "Today's Special"

Today's Special. 2009. Directed by David Kaplan. Written by Aasif Mandvi and Jonathan Bines, based on the play "Sakina's Restaurant" by Aasif Mandvi. Produced by Nimitt V. Mankad and Lillian LaSalle. Cinematography by David Tumblety. Edited by Chris Houghton. Production designed by Darcy C. Scanlin. Music by Stephane Wrembel. Songs by Siddharta Khosla. Costumes by Theresa Squire.

Cast: Aasif Mandvi (Samir), Naseeruddin Shah (Akbar), Jess Weixler (Carrie), Madhur Jaffrey (Farrida), Harish Patel (Hakim), Dean Winters (Chef Steve), Kevin Corrigan (Stanton).

What can I say about Today’s Special, opening in theaters today?  Should I start with the good news or the bad news?  I guess I’ll start with the positives.  This film has in its favor a very good cast, starting with its star, Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Mandvi co-wrote the script with Jonathan Bines, based on Mandvi’s off-Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant.  In the film version, he plays Samir, an aspiring French haute cuisine chef who has to take over the family Indian restaurant after his father suffers a near-fatal heart attack.  Mandvi is not exactly a rival to Olivier, but he performs capably alongside the two veteran Indian actors who are his costars: Madhur Jaffrey as his mother; and Naseeruddin Shah as a cab driver/master chef who is best described as the “Masala Whisperer.”  Kevin Corrigan, the stalwart indie film go-to guy, is amusing as usual as Samir’s coworker.  Mandvi is a very funny and brilliant guy on the Daily Show, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how this would translate to film. 

And now, alas, is the part where, as they say in politics, I have to go negative.  In the hands of director David Kaplan, this potentially interesting material is flattened out into the blandest sort of predictability.  I could tell where this was all going to lead from the first frame, and the film does not deviate from this a single iota.  I suspect that this was probably better as a play; the live setting most likely lent some sparks that are utterly missing from the filmed version.  In this context, it is the height of irony that Samir’s main weakness as a cook is that he follows recipes to the letter, rather than allowing his intuitive feel for the ingredients guide how he puts them together.  So much a pity that the film he is in fails to heed this lesson, making it yet another example of a frustratingly underachieving American indie.  It is enough to make one wish that Mandvi had directed the film himself.  Not that this would have necessarily resulted in a significantly better film, but it may have at least have exhibited some sort of a human personality, instead of seeming like a computer program set to “Heart-warming Festival Indie Movie.”  The food looks nice, though; see this film on an empty stomach at your peril. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with Arvin Chen, Director of "Au Revoir Taipei"

Below is an interview I conducted by email with Arvin Chen, the writer/director of Au Revoir Taipei, which was published in CineVue, the annual magazine of the Asian American International Film Festival. It accompanied my article on the Taiwanese films that screened at this year's festival.

CineVue: Could you briefly describe your background, and how you came to Taiwan to make films?

Arvin Chen: Though my parents are from Taiwan, I was born and raised in the USA, never really thinking that I might one day end up living and working in Asia. Like a lot of American kids, I grew up loving action films, fantasy films, blockbuster stuff. But in my late teens, I began to watch a lot of foreign films, independent films, arthouse films, and though I didn't study film in college (I was an architecture major), by the time I graduated I had gotten really into contemporary Asian cinema: Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Edward Yang, whose film Yi Yi I saw shortly after finishing with school. Yi Yi was an especially inspiring film to me – it was so (deceptively) simple in terms of storytelling, yet was quite profound and moving and universal. Though I had never met him, I knew Edward Yang through a family friend, and flew to LA to meet with him just to get some advice. I was about to start film school at the time, but Edward immediately dissuaded me (he's not a big fan of film schools), and offered me a job working for him in Taipei. I took the offer and within a few weeks was living in Taipei. I didn't realize it at the time, but I guess Taipei had quite an effect on me – not only was it the first time I lived in another country, but it was also when I first started to think about making films. I eventually still went back to film school some years later, but my time in Taiwan continued to be something that stuck with me.

CV: You've said Au Revoir Taipei is a loose expansion of your earlier short, Mei. Could you describe that film and how you transitioned from that to your feature?

AC: Mei was my final thesis film for graduate school at USC, though it was shot entirely in Taipei. At the time, I had just gotten kind of sick of shooting in LA, and wanted to try something different, yet simple, in a new environment. Mei is really just a very small little love story that takes place in the nightmarkets - a slightly romanticized vision of nightmarkets. I made Mei really thinking of it only as a short, so I was actually surprised, when I began showing it in film festivals, that there were people interested in seeing it expanded as a feature. I had never completed a feature-length script before, so it also seemed natural to take Mei as a starting point (the idea of a romanticized Taipei and young people wanting to leave the city). Unfortunately, I quickly realized that something like Mei really existed best in a 10 minute short – there really wasn't enough story or theme or conflict to be able to last in a 90 minute film. So, the script slowly mutated from a straightforward romance into something a bit more comedic and absurd. I guess you can think of Au Revoir Taipei as Mei, but with gangsters and dancing.

CV: Au Revoir Taipei has been compared by many critics to Woody Allen, especially Manhattan. There are also affinities to the multi-character films of Edward Yang. Are there other less obvious influences or inspirations for your film, for example other Taiwanese/Asian or European films?

AC: As a first time feature filmmaker, it was actually tough not to just want to pay homage to/rip off all my favorite films and directors, so definitely there are many influences from all over the place (early Woody Allen being an especially big influence). French New Wave films were something that I always thought of when writing the film, but I think people may be more surprised to find that Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, or something like [Jacques Demy’s] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or even a more recent Korean New Wave film like [Bong Joon-ho’s] Memories of Murder, were all films that I watched and found inspiring elements I wanted to bring into this film and play with.

CV: What were your experiences apprenticing for Edward Yang? Was there any specific advice he gave you that was helpful to your own filmmaking?

AC: It was just amazing to be around someone who I consider to be – for lack of a better word – a genius, but it was also quite inspiring just to witness firsthand the dedication and hard work it takes to be Edward Yang and to make the quality films that he did. In terms of an experience, it was actually quite difficult since Edward demanded a lot of those around him, and definitely had what you would call an artistic temperament. Edward was a great teacher of everything, but I think that one thing that sticks with me is something he told me the first time we met, which is that "when you know what you want to say, how you say it is not that difficult.” 

CV: Did you face any challenges making films in Taiwan?

AC: The filmmaking itself I would say was no more difficult, or less difficult than filmmaking any where else in the world. It's always tough for similar reasons. The biggest challenge overall was probably trying to convince investors that we could make a film that could play not only to Taiwanese audiences, but also internationally (and vice versa).
CV: Do you consider yourself a Taiwanese filmmaker, or an American filmmaker who happens to make films in Taiwan? Or do you not think in those terms?

I've been trying less and less to think in those terms, only because I've realized it makes me over-analyze myself and the kind of films I want to make, and also creates preconceived notions of what Taiwanese cinema and American cinema are. It sounds simple, and perhaps a bit naive, but lately I've been thinking the most productive way to think of my filmmaking in general is just to this the kind of movie I'd like to see?

CV: What has been the reception to the film in Taiwan, and how different are audiences' reactions to the film in Taiwan as opposed to outside Taiwan, if they differ at all?

AC: One of the most encouraging things that have come out of the process of making Au Revoir Taipei is discovering that people all over the world pretty much see our film in the same way, and that what's considered amusing or romantic is the same for everyone. Of course people will always identify with certain characters or moments more, but just having been able to sit in different theatres with different audiences (Taiwanese or non-Taiwanese), I find that the reactions are almost identical. What's more interesting, though, is that in Taiwan Au Revoir Taipei is considered a commercial film, and in the rest of the world and at festivals, it's considered an arthouse film. That may be just how Asian films are viewed outside of Asia (perhaps with the exception of genre and martial arts films).

CV: What are your next projects? Do you envision returning to the US to make films, or do you plan to remain in Taiwan for the foreseeable future?

AC: I had never planned to make another film in Taiwan, but as I was editing Au Revoir Taipei, I kind of stumbled across another idea for a film that I started to really get into – which I basically describe as an homage to Billy Wilder's The Apartment, but set during the Asian economic boom of the 1980s. So, as long as I can find the money to make it, I think that will be my next project. I'd very much like to shoot in the States eventually, but it also seems like right now, there's a lot of exciting things happening in Asia, and it's not a bad place to be for someone just starting to make films.

Arvin Chen's short film Mei:

Clips from an interview with Arvin Chen for Taiwanese television:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taiwan Cinema Now

I had the great opportunity this summer to be chosen as this year's editor of CineVue, the annual magazine for the Asian American International Film Festival. Besides being editor, I also contributed two articles: one on the Taiwanese films at the festival, and one on the Filipino films. Below is an expanded version of the Taiwanese cinema article; the one on Filipino cinema will be posted here at a later date.

Taiwan’s Contemporary Global Films – Beyond Hou and Tsai

Ask any reasonably informed cinephile what comes to mind when the words “Taiwanese cinema” are mentioned, and chances are good that three names will pop up almost immediately: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and the late Edward Yang. However, despite the critical praise and awards showered upon these directors, the fate of their films in their home country is a far different story. Although Hou and Tsai have core followings in Taiwan, for the most part audiences there have stayed far away from their intellectually and aesthetically demanding films. Tellingly, the most recent features by Hou (Flight of the Red Balloon) and Tsai (Face) are not set in Taiwan at all, but rather in France, where both directors’ films have received their warmest commercial reception. Hou and Tsai’s latest films seem to have abandoned Taiwan, just as Taiwanese audiences have mostly abandoned them.

However, in the past two years, the Taiwanese cinema landscape has changed greatly for local films. A renewed push by the Taiwanese government, and especially the establishment of the Taipei Film Commission in 2008, has created the conditions for a commercial renaissance that may in time prove to be as significant to the history of Taiwanese cinema as the 1980’s new wave that brought us Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008), a music-themed film with a parallel historical plot, was a massive box-office success that is now the second-highest grossing film in Taiwanese history, behind Titanic. This year saw the recent release of Doze Niu’s gangster saga Monga (Taiwan's foreign language Oscar submission), which broke opening-week domestic-film records when it opened on Chinese New Year. These films proved once and for all that Taiwanese cinema has what it takes to compete with Hollywood at the box office.

This renaissance is not limited to commercial blockbusters; smaller films have also been gaining favor with local audiences. Four of these films are featured in “New Taiwanese Cinema,” a presentation of the 33rd Asian American International Film Festival, in association with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECO). These films are by talented new voices in Taiwanese cinema, all first or second features eligible for the AAIFF10 Emerging Director, Narrative Feature Award. They do not partake in the austere aesthetics of Taiwanese films familiar to Westerners, but neither would any of them be mistaken for Hollywood blockbusters. They occupy a fertile middle ground rife with creative possibilities, which all four directors impressively make full use of.

Arvin Chen’s debut feature Au Revoir Taipei (also the AAIFF10 Centerpiece Presentation) is a low-key, effervescent charmer that looks kindly on those true believers in love. Directed by a California Bay Area native who apprenticed for Edward Yang, Chen’s film is a love letter to his adopted city, shot with a loving glow that exists in a different universe than the loneliness of Tsai Ming-liang. At the outset, the film’s lovelorn protagonist, Kai (Jack Yao), watches his girlfriend Faye depart for Paris. Kai composes love letters to Faye in French, and haunts a bookstore each day to bone up on the language. Susie (Amber Kuo), a pixie-cute bookseller, notices him and eventually strikes up a conversation with him. While it’s not hard to predict where things will eventually go with these two, it is a testament to Arvin Chen’s subtle writing and direction, as well as the appealing performances of its actors, that none of it feels rote or clichéd. A romantic comedy wouldn’t be worthy of its name without complications, and Au Revoir Taipei offers plenty, involving cops, gangsters, orange-suited wannabe drug kingpins, and a mysterious package. Brother Bao (Frankie Gao), an aging small-time gangster, delivers the film’s key line: “It’s nice to be in love, isn’t it?” After seeing this film, only the most stone-hearted viewer would answer that question with anything but a resounding yes.

The search for love also drives the title character of Håkon Liu’s debut feature Miss Kicki, played by the wonderful veteran Swedish actress Pernilla August. One fascinating aspect of the Taiwanese films at AAIFF10 is that they present Taipei as a truly globalized city; the hybridity of identity and culture that results informs what happens both behind and in front of the camera. Miss Kicki, like Au Revoir Taipei, is made by a filmmaker not born in Taiwan; Liu was born in Norway to a Taiwanese father and a Norwegian mother, spending his childhood in Taiwan and going to film school in Sweden. Miss Kicki was written specifically for August, and she rises to the occasion tremendously, portraying an instantly memorable character. Kicki returns to Sweden after many years abroad to reconnect with her son Viktor (Ludvig Palmell), who has been raised by Kicki’s mother. Kicki takes him with her on a trip to Taiwan, not telling her son her ulterior motive for going there: searching for Mr. Chang (Eric Tsang), a long-distance lover. Largely improvised, Miss Kicki has a unique eye for Taiwan, presenting such places as the Taipei 101 building and Sun Moon Lake in ways we’ve never quite seen before, investing its fish-out-of-water scenario with a vivid electricity.

Cheng Yu-chieh’s second feature Yang Yang, like Miss Kicki named after its protagonist, puts issues of racial and cultural identity at its center, focusing with intimate intensity on its Taiwanese-French lead actress, Sandrine Pinna, who appeared in Cheng’s previous feature Do Over (which screened at the 2007 AAIFF). Pinna plays a track runner whose mother (Shelly Yu) has recently remarried her track coach (Chu Lu-Hao), now making her stepsisters with her friend Xiao-Ru (Her Sy-Huoy). This seems like a beneficial arrangement, but Yang Yang’s mixed-race identity soon causes major problems. Yang Yang is admired for her unusual, “exotic” looks, but this attention is a double-edged sword; it makes her feel like an outsider and objectified by others. Xiao-Ru’s boyfriend Shawn (Chang Ruei-Jia) becomes attracted to Yang Yang, a situation that eventually drives an irreconcilable wedge between the half-sisters. Yang Yang abandons her athletic career to pursue acting and modeling, where her looks are a major asset but are still a source of tremendous internal struggle. Yang Yang has elements in common with Taiwanese art films, especially the sustained long takes and unhurried pacing.  But it also shares some affinities with certain American independent films, most especially those termed (accurately or not) “mumblecore,” populated by young people who awkwardly feel their way through life, acting impulsively, their motivations as hazy to themselves as they are to others. Yang Yang’s racial/cultural identity adds a fascinating layer to this.

Cho Li was a producer on Miss Kicki, and her debut feature Zoom Hunting raises interesting ethical issues related to the creative process.  Cho’s film is a thriller in the Hitchcock Rear Window mode, with allusions to Antonioni’s Blow Up thrown in.  In contrast to the almost fairy-tale Taipei of Au Revoir Taipei, the Taipei of Zoom Hunting is more dangerous and menacing, full of secrets and illicit behavior.  Cho replaces the male gaze of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window with the female gazes of two sisters: Ruyi (Ning Chang), a fashion photographer; and Ruxing (Zhu Zhi-Ying), a mystery novelist.  Ruyi stumbles upon photographic evidence of an affair between a man (Wen Sheng-Hao) and a woman (Zhou Heng-Yin) married to other people, paralleling the novel her sister is trying to write.  With a deadline looming, Ruxing asks Ruyi to continue her surveillance so she can gain inspiration for her novel and get herself unblocked.  The film’s mystery deepens, and the line between what is real and what is fictional becomes increasingly blurred.  Cho is adept at both creating suspense and illuminating the emotional lives of her characters.  Zoom Hunting’s prodigious command of genre tropes adds yet another facet to the amazing diversity of contemporary Taiwanese cinema today.

So there you have it: in just the four films featured in AAIFF10’s “New Taiwanese Cinema” showcase, we have an incredibly dynamic and eclectic snapshot of some of the best new voices in Taiwanese film.  There is the quirky romanticism of Au Revoir Taipei, the mother-son conflict of Miss Kicki, the almost painful intimacy of Yang Yang, and the nail-biting suspense of Zoom Hunting.  These and other recent Taiwanese films are this national cinema’s best hope of breaking out of the arthouse ghetto and appearing in places where regular folks can enjoy them.  New Yorkers, this is your chance to get in on the ground floor; these films suggest that the names of Chen, Liu, Cheng, and Cho will, with time, promise to be worthy enough to be spoken by cinema fans with the same reverence as Hou, Tsai, and Yang.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Jeff Mizushima's "Etienne!"

Etienne! 2009. Written, directed and edited by Jeff Mizushima. Produced by Giacun Caduff, Joel David Moore, Jeremy Boreing, and Kurt Schemper. Cinematography by Tim van der Linden, Eric Kim, and Jeff Mizushima. Original score by Mark Bachle. Sound design by Katsuyuki Ueno.

Cast: Richard Vallejo (Richard), Megan Harvey (Elodie), Molly Livingston (Molly), Matt Garron (Matt), Caveh Zahedi (Man in Coat), Thibault Debaveye (Backpacker), Marisa Pedroso (Marion), Vittorio E. Razi (Vittorio), Rachel Stolte (Rachel), Solon Bixler (Solon).

The premise of Jeff Mizushima’s debut feature Etienne! at first blush seems almost toxically quirky: Richard (Richard Vallejos), a shy, pudgy introvert, finds out his beloved hamster companion, named Etienne, has cancer. He decides to take the hamster out on a road trip to show him the world (or at least San Francisco) in the week he supposedly has left to live. This scenario seems ripe for the sort of winking, supercilious irony that has infected far too many American independent productions. However, Mizushima refuses to take such an easy route, and instead has crafted a genuinely heartfelt and endearingly earnest film that is as generous to all its characters as Richard is to the beloved pet he dotes on. This, plus a canny evocation of 1970’s cinema in its credits design and visuals, makes Etienne! a uniquely delightful film.

At the outset, Richard has just gotten a job as a maintenance man at a hotel after a decidedly odd job interview and first-day orientation. Richard is a genial, soft-spoken man sporting a distinctive handlebar mustache who talks to and interacts with others, but who clearly is much more comfortable around his constant companion Etienne. In the grand tradition of Benji, Lassie, and Milo and Otis, Etienne (played by multiple hamsters, all named in the end credits) is as instantly memorable a character as the humans in the story, making Richard’s devotion to this creature immediately believable and ultimately very moving.

Although the film’s focus is squarely on Richard, room is made for several other characters, as expertly drawn as the protagonist. One is Richard’s roommate Matt (Matt Garron), as gregarious as Richard is introverted, who spends his time laying down screeching vocals on thrash-rock tracks, and regales his girlfriend with stories about battling ninjas. Richard meets other people during his road trip with Etienne, most notably a French backpacker-scientist (Thibault Debaveye), a despondent man searching for his lost poodle (Vittorio E. Razi), and a traveling musician couple (indie-rock duo Great Northern, who contribute a lovely song dedicated to the hamster). The person Richard meets on his trip who gets the most screen time is Elodie (Megan Harvey), who embarks on a road trip of her own, taking a break from her college studies, and fleeing a failed relationship. Her sadness forms a corollary to Richard’s grief over his dying hamster; the film floats the possibility of the two of them having a more significant encounter beyond the narrative. Another significant character is a pinhole cameraman (Caveh Zahedi, writer/director/star of I Am a Sex Addict), who separately employs both Richard and Elodie to be in his photographs. The sequences with the photographer are the occasion for some strikingly beautiful passages of nature. The photographer opines on how randomness is part of the process in creating his photos; and Etienne! adopts this philosophy as its narrative strategy, showing us how random encounters with others often prove to be life-altering.

Etienne! will play a week-long engagement from September 3-9 at the reRun Gastropub Theater, a wonderful space in Brooklyn that forms the ideal setting for this immensely charming and intimately scaled film. To purchase tickets, visit the theater’s website

Friday, July 16, 2010

Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Hitoshi Yazaki's "Sweet Little Lies"

Sweet Little Lies. 2010. Directed by Hitoshi Yazaki. Written by Kyoko Inukai, based on the novel by Kaori Ekuni. Produced by Hiroshi Miyazaki and Junko Tanabe. Cinematography by Isao Ishii. Edited by Yoshiyuki Okuhara. Music by Takeshi Senoo. Art direction by Yasuyo Takahashi. Sound by Masayuki Iwakura.

Cast: Miki Nakatani (Ruriko Iwamoto), Nao Omori (Satoshi Iwamoto), Chizuru Ikewaki (Shiho Miura), Juichi Kobayashi (Haruo Tsugawa), Akiko Kazami (elderly neighbor), Sakura Ando (Miyako), Mei Kurokawa (Fujii Tomiko, Satoshi's sister).

“Whether you’re together or alone, it’s lonely.” This line delivered by an elderly woman (Akiko Kazami) could also have been spoken by any of the other characters of Hitoshi Yazaki’s Sweet Little Lies, as ruthless a dissection of marriage as Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film’s title expresses the deceptions necessary to keep up appearances for the outside world, especially when it comes to intimate relationships. The title also refers to the deceptions within these relationships, avoiding the painful truths that, if spoken aloud, can destroy cherished illusions. To all outside observers, Ruriko (Miki Nakatani), a teddy bear designer/gallery artist, and Satoshi (Nao Omori), an IT professional, is a happy, serenely blissful couple. But peer a little closer, and that illusion quickly shatters. They live basically separate lives, only meeting for breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening. When they are home, Satoshi locks himself in his room to play video games. Their emotional distance is such that they communicate by cell phone inside their own home, and for the last two of their three-year marriage, they have not even had sex. So while outwardly they smile and are courteous to each other, their marriage is a mere façade, like the large windows that illuminate their apartment. So it is all but inevitable that they each begin pursuing outside relationships, Ruriko with Haruo (Juichi Kobayashi), an admirer of her creations, and Satoshi with Shiho (Chizuru Ikewaki), an old college friend. Much of the film follows the couple’s parallel affairs, and the psychological games necessary to maintain their marriage. The couple finds it very easy, disturbingly so, to deceive each other, and their broken marriage wreaks collateral damage among the outsiders pulled into the orbit of this dying star.

Sweet Little Lies, based on a 2004 novel by Kaori Ekuni, is assiduously anti-melodramatic, its eerily sterile compositions examining this married couple’s mutual adultery with a clinical eye. The effects of the adultery are not what one would expect; there are no screaming matches, no violent displays of torrential emotion. This paradoxically makes the sadness of what has happened to this marriage even more acute than it would be otherwise. But even though the surface visuals are precise and rigidly geometric, the actors are far from automatons, and give beautifully expressive performances. Miki Nakatani delivers one of her greatest performances as the wife who awakens to her own capacity for passion. Nao Omori matches her note for note, eliciting great sympathy for his seemingly remote, emotionally distant character. The rest of the cast is great as well, including Kobayashi as Ruriko’s lover, and Sakura Ando, who makes a great impression in the very few scenes she has as Haruo’s betrayed girlfriend.

Sweet Little Lies, the closing night film of Japan Cuts, screens at Japan Society on July 16 at 8:30pm. Director Hitoshi Yazaki will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A following the screening. Click here to purchase tickets.

Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Yoji Yamada's "About Her Brother"

About Her Brother (Ototo). 2010. Directed by Yoji Yamada. Written by Yoji Yamada and Emiko Hiramatsu. Produced by Suketsugu Noda, Hiroshi Fukasawa, Kenichi Tamura, and Ichiro Yamamoto. Cinematography by Masashi Chikamori. Edited by Iwao Ishi. Music by Isao Tomita. Production design by Mitsuo Degawa. Sound by Kazumi Kishida.

Cast: Sayuri Yoshinaga, Tsurube Shofukutei, Yu Aoi, Ryo Kase, Yuriko Ishida, Takashi Sasano, Fumiyo Kohinata, Nenji Kobayashi, Haruko Kato.

Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother is his first contemporary drama in a decade, following his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) and his previous film, the WWII reminiscence Kabei: Our Mother. However, despite its modern setting, his latest film has the same feel as Kon Ichikawa’s 1960 classic Ototo (Her Brother); Yamada uses the same basic story for his film, which he dedicates to Ichikawa. As in the earlier version, About Her Brother focuses on the relationship between Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), a long-time widow and pharmacy owner who has never remarried, and her incorrigible younger brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), who causes much embarrassment with his casual approach to personal responsibility and his penchant for drinking and gambling. Ginko has put up with Tetsuro’s antics ever since they were children, but Tetsuro severely tests the limits of her patience when he drunkenly wrecks the wedding reception of Ginko’s daughter Koharu (Yu Aoi), and later on when she has to bail him out of a debt he owes to a woman he has been seeing. Ginko finally cuts ties with her brother, but their familial bond and her sense of emotional indebtedness to him makes it very difficult for her to remain separate from him.

Yoji Yamada is a consummate craftsman of cinema, and he gets everything right in About Her Brother, displaying the skill and comfort that comes from many years of making films, showing considerable care and attention to detail. Yamada has learned the tricks of his trade as thoroughly as the young carpenter (Ryo Kase) who befriends Koharu later in the film. This is essentially a tearjerker, but Yamada never allows the material to descend into cheap bathos, respecting the intelligence of both the audience and his actors, ensuring that every emotion elicited from the film is fully earned. Yamada, best known for his beloved, long-running film series featuring the traveling salesman Tora-san (who, charmingly, makes a brief appearance here), is as old-fashioned a filmmaker as they come, which is a major part of his charm. Even though About Her Brother is set in a modern age in which people use cell phones and such, its milieu is virtually unchanged from Ichikawa’s original, with young women’s marriages being an Ozu-like central concern, and arranged marriages still very much the way things are done. There is, however, one very significant change Yamada makes to Ichikawa’s original: the siblings in About Her Brother are considerably older than the ones played by Keiko Kishi and Hiroshi Kawagichi in the earlier film. Ginko and Tetsuro have experienced much more of the world than the siblings in Ototo, and this allows Yamada to explore the theme of the effects of time’s passage that gives the film’s final scenes their powerful poignancy.

Yamada strikes a seamless balance between the old and new in About Her Brother, such that elements of his tale that may seem outdated do not come across as anachronistic or create logical dissonance. Yamada’s films envelop the viewer in a warm and generous embrace, emotionally satisfying as well as beautifully constructed, achieving this with an invisible style recalling classic Hollywood cinema as well as many earlier Japanese films. This loving attention to detail and craftsmanship extends to the film’s performances, especially those of Yamada regular Yoshinaga and Shofukutei as the siblings. Yoshinaga is compelling as the sister who is torn between her efforts to shake some sense into her brother, and her willingness to allow him to remain who he is. Shofukutei, a popular rakugo (storyteller) comedian in Japan (and who also appears in the Japan Cuts selection Dear Doctor), brilliantly conveys the garrulous and irreverent nature of his character, and is equally adept at handling the more dramatic scenes late in the film.

About Her Brother screens at Japan Society on July 16, 6:15pm. Click here to purchase tickets.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Isao Yukisada's "Parade"

Parade. 2009. Written and directed by Isao Yukisada, based on the novel by Shuichi Yoshida. Produced by Mamoru Inoue, Testsu Kuchigouchi, Atsushi Sugai, and Ryuta Inoue. Cinematography by Jun Fukumoto. Edited by Tsuyoshi Imai. Music by Hirohumi Asamoto. Production design by Omatsu Yamaguchi. Sound by Hironori Ito.

Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara (Naoki), Karina (Mirai), Shihori Kanjiya (Kotomi), Kento Hayashi (Satoru), Keisuke Koide (Ryosuke).

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

Isao Yukisada’s unsettling new film Parade at first plays like a sitcom about a bunch of roommates crammed into a tiny apartment, but eventually takes a much darker turn. The action mostly revolves around that apartment, illegally shared by a group of people who represent a cross-section of Japanese youth. The owner of the apartment is Naoki (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a straight-laced teetotaler who works at a film distribution company, and who by all appearances is the most stable of the inhabitants. Less so is the unemployed Kotomi (Shihori Kanjiya), who spends most of her time waiting by the phone for a call from her distant actor lover, obsessively watching the soap opera he stars in. Aimless college student Ryosuke (Keisuke Koide) pursues a doomed relationship with his best friend’s girlfriend, while Mirai (Karina), an illustrator with a seemingly permanent chip on her shoulder, spends her nights hanging out in gay bars, drinking until she blacks out. It is unclear how long they have been living together, but it is long enough for them to have fallen into a routine that accommodates their radically varying schedules and diverse personalities. Other events happening outside the apartment occupy their attention. Their neighborhood is menaced by someone who has been killing women at night, but oddly this doesn’t worry them as much as their suspicions of what may be some nefarious goings-on in the apartment next door. Their easy routine is upended when a mysterious blonde-haired stranger, Satoru (Kento Hayashi), suddenly turns up on their couch one morning. Hilariously, it takes them awhile to figure out that he is indeed a stranger, and not really connected to any of them. Satoru nevertheless is allowed to stay there, despite the other roommates’ suspicions about him and what he does when he is out of their sight.

More than simply a cheap and convenient living arrangement for this motley bunch, the apartment and its inhabitants form a universe in which all who live in it are symbiotically connected to and dependent on one another. One of the great strengths of Parade is how slowly, subtly, and carefully Yukisada builds up the world in which its characters live. Naoki at one point mentions a “multiverse,” a set of multiple universes, and the form of the film itself reflects this idea. By continually shifting the focus to give us each principal character’s perspective on events, Yukisada vividly details how each character’s personal universe converges to form the cosmos represented by their apartment, in which many secrets dwell. And in the conclusion, which demonstrates how thoroughly appearances can deceive, what seems at first to be mere friendship or economic dependence proves to be something much more disturbing: a conspiracy of silence that nurtures, shelters, and absorbs any sort of behavior, however destructive or violent.

Parade, based on a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, is a film that very gradually gives up its secrets, initially coming across as so loose and episodic as to be nearly formless. But Yukisada insinuates us into its world and keeps us intrigued with the sense that however light and airily comic this material may seem on the surface, things are just ever so slightly off kilter. The cast is uniformly excellent, and Yukisada’s visual style makes great use of its main setting, subtly varying angles and perspectives so that it seems to be a far bigger space than the tiny apartment it is supposed to be. Parade’s final scene, in which the camera slowly zooms out of the apartment window with all the characters seemingly frozen in place, leaves one with a chill from all that it implies about how the serenely “normal” surface of modern Japanese life covers something much more sinister.

Parade trailer:

Click here to see the Q&A with director Isao Yukisada at the screening of Parade at Japan Society on July 9, 2010.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Hideo Sakaki's "Accidental Kidnapper"

Accidental Kidnapper (Yukai Rhapsody). 2010. Directed by Hideo Sakaki. Written by Hisako Kurosawa, based on the novel by Hiroshi Ogiwara. Produced by Takayuki Sugisaki, Haruo Umehara, and Kazufumi Asami. Cinematography by Masayuki Fujii. Edited by Hideki Seino. Music by Izumi Sakaki. Art direction by Shimpei Inoue. Sound by Hisashi Iwamaru.

Cast: Katsunori Takahashi (Hideyoshi Date), Sho Aikawa (Shinomiya), Roi Hayashi (Densuke Shinomiya), Eiichiro Funakoshi (Kurosaki, the cop), Koji Yamamoto (Kurosaki's assistant), Shun Sugata (Sakurada), Hideo Sakaki (Endo), Houka Kinoshita (Older yakuza), Takashi Sasano (Old prisoner), YOU (Shinomiya's wife), Tetsu Shinagawa (Old photographer), Susumu Terajima (Sushi chef).

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

Hideyoshi Date (Katsunori Takahashi) is at his wits’ end when we first meet him in Hideo Sakaki’s Accidental Kidnapper. Deep in debt, with no job, no prospects, and no family, he’s ready to end it all, and tries to do so, but he doesn’t even have the nerve to commit suicide. Wacky events are set in motion when Densuke (Roi Hayashi), a grade school boy, gets into Hideyoshi’s cab and demands to be taken to his prep school. Hideyoshi at first tries to get rid of him, but when he learns that Densuke comes from a rich family, he seizes on the opportunity to get himself out of his financial hole. Recalling the advice of an old prison mate (Takashi Sasano) who pops up now and then to give fantasy pep talks, Hideyoshi hits upon the idea of demanding ransom from Densuke’s parents. Densuke is also on the run; he is impulsively running away from home because he hasn’t been getting along with his parents lately. A foolproof plan, right? Well, if you think so, then you must have not seen a film before. Myriad complications ensue when Densuke’s father turns out to be no ordinary business executive, but a yakuza boss (played by Sho Aikawa, who by now can do this kind of role in his sleep), who sends an army of underlings out to find Densuke and Hideyoshi.

Accidental Kidnapper, based on a 2004 novel by Hiroshi Ogiwara, is light and genial entertainment, which is not especially ambitious or demanding of the viewer. The film plays everything straight down the middle, so that while there are many incidents and complications that pile on top of one another during its course, there’s little sense of urgency or danger. Each event feels like a function of pre-determined plotting, rather than organically arising from the characters and their environment. That being said, one can’t discount the considerable charms Accidental Kidnapper does possess, the main one being the great cast Sakaki has assembled. Takahashi and Hayashi work together beautifully, making their initial personality clashes and eventual camaraderie feel natural and never less than believable. Sho Aikawa and Shun Sugata (as the boss’ right hand man) portray their yakuza roles with considerable skill and charisma, and the quirky baby-voiced actress/singer YOU also impresses in a more limited role as Daisuke’s mother. Accidental Kidnapper, appropriately enough for what is essentially a road movie, also contains some quite stunning scenery, and the natural beauty of the countryside is as easy on the eyes as the film itself is easy on the brain. So while Accidental Kidnapper isn’t a very substantial film, there are plenty worse ways to while away a couple of hours than in the presence of a bumbling criminal and the adorable tot he keeps in tow.

Accidental Kidnapper screens at Japan Society on July 8, 6:15pm. Click here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival 2010 Review: Ye Daying's "Tian An Men"

Tian An Men. 2009. Directed by Ye Daying. Written by Wang Bing. Produced by Han Sanping. Cinematography by Yang Tao. Edited by Cheng Long. Music by Xu Xiangrong. Production design by Quan Rongzhe. Visual effects supervised by Feng Liwei. Sound by Gu Changning.

Cast: Pan Yueming, Liu Xiaoxin, Tian Lihe, Xin Peng, Guo Keyu, Masanobu Otsuka.

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

Aliens, ninjas, mutant girls, soft porn, ass-kicking martial arts, unclassifiable weirdness … the New York Asian Film Festival truly has something for everyone, and these elements are perennials of this festival that is now in its ninth year. Such creatures and film genres, in fact, should by now be expected sights at the NYAFF. However, one of the true oddities of this year’s selections is Ye Daying’s Tian An Men, a slightly modernized slice of straight-up PRC propaganda created for last year’s 60th anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Tian An Men is very much a throwback to the Chinese state productions of the 1950s and 1960s which glorified China with heroic episodes from the country’s history. The most famous cinematic product of last year’s celebration/nostalgia trip in China was Huang Jianxin and Han Sanping’s The Founding of a Republic, a star-studded super-production that detailed the history leading up to the formation of Communist China. The cast was a veritable who’s-who of just about every significant star of mainland China and Hong Kong. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Zhao Wei are but a few of the superstars who appeared in this film, mostly glimpsed in the briefest of blink-and-you-missed-them cameos. Alas, despite its blinding star-wattage, The Founding of a Republic was a tedious exercise in mind-numbing exposition, so obsessed with trivial detail and blindly reverential that it was practically unwatchable. Still, the film did extremely well, breaking box-office records, probably more because of the patriotism of its audience rather than any real enthusiasm about its quality.

Tian An Men is easily far superior to The Founding of a Republic, if only because it dramatizes one specific episode rather than being a vast but shallow panoramic historical portrait. The film concerns a group of People’s Liberation Army soldiers tasked with getting Tiananmen Square in proper shape for Chairman Mao Zedong to give his speech at the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. Tian An Men delves into the rather fascinating minutiae of the problems the PLA faced in accomplishing their mission in the scant month in which they had to do it. The most dramatic episodes concern the acquisition of red dye for banners, and the quest to find proper sized lanterns to adorn the stage where Mao will speak. This scenario, on paper, threatens to be unbearably boring, but Tian An Men avoids this potential pitfall due to its detailed specificity, handsome production design (with CGI post-production enhancement), solid if unspectacular performances, and its utterly straight-faced sincerity. Tiananmen Square, of course, is associated in most people’s minds today with a far more tragic period of Chinese history, but the film that bears its name mostly succeeds in making this reality not an insurmountable impediment to appreciating this film.

Tian An Men screens on July 8, 1:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.

Watch the Tian An Men trailer here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Japan Cuts 2010 Review: Yuki Tanada's "Electric Button (Moon and Cherry)"

Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) (Tsuki to Cherry). 2004. Written and directed by Yuki Tanada. Produced by Ishiro UsuiTadashi OnoNayoya Narita, and Yasuhiko Higashi. Cinematography by Kei Yasuda. Edited by Sumiyo Mitsuhashi. Music by Sei Komiyama. Production design by Chie Hori. Sound by Yukiya Sato.

Cast: Noriko Eguchi, Tasuku Nagaoka, Misako Hirata, Akira Emoto, Yoshikazu Ebisu, Akifumi Miura, Shungiku Uchida.

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

Yuki Tanada’s 2004 erotic comedy/drama Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) is part of this year’s Japan Cuts section “Best of Unreleased Naughties.” This means, of course, the best unreleased (in US) Japanese films of the 2000s, but Electric Button is naughty in a very different way. Tanada’s film has been described as a distinctly female perspective on the Japanese genre of pinku eiga (“pink film”), which is a brand of soft-core sex film, but this isn’t quite accurate. Yes, there is copious sex in the film, but it isn’t as explicit or programmatic as in regular pinku eiga, the conventions of which usually demand five sex scenes per hour at roughly ten-to-fifteen minute intervals. Electric Button is closer to another genre of Japanese sex film called roman porno, which was similar to pink film but had a more literary, artistic bent and felt less formulaic than many pink films. Tanada, a female director, offers a startling inversion of the normally male-oriented perspective of these films, and calls attention to aspects that would normally not be closely questioned or examined.

The film’s protagonist and first-person narrator (a common pink film/roman porno convention, and appropriate to Electric Button’s literary milieu) is Tadokoro (Tasuku Nagaoka), a meek university student who is recruited to join an unusual literary group on campus called “Electric Button.” This group is devoted to studying and writing erotic literature, and they meet in an apartment festooned with erotic toys, novels, manga, and pornography. The name of the group is their cheeky reference to female genitalia. As one would imagine, the group consists mostly of a motley bunch of randy guys, including a workout fanatic, a white Westerner, and most oddly, a retired grandfather (the great veteran actor Akira Emoto), who is also a student.

Electric Button’s lone female member is Mayama (Noriko Eguchi), an established and published erotica writer who regularly churns out stories under a male pseudonym. She sits quietly as the guys welcome Tadokoro into their group, and as Tadokoro tries to impress them with his expert knowledge of female anatomy. But Mayama immediately, and accurately, identifies his true sexual status: “But aren’t you a virgin?” she asks Tadokoro. And while he tries to deny it, his secret is out. Tadokoro leaves the meeting mortified, but the next day is approached by Mayama, requesting his assistance. One thing leads to another, as they say, and soon Tadokoro finds himself summoned for regular sex sessions with Mayama. But there is an agenda: Tadokoro discovers that Mayama is using their sexual encounters as fodder for a novel she is writing. Rather than a literary muse, Tadokoro is more like a guinea pig for Mayama’s sexual experiments, which soon expand to include hired call girls and S&M torture artists. Tadokoro’s initial excitement turns to dismay as he becomes increasingly humiliated and aware that actual romantic feelings seem to only be on his side of the equation.

The drama and humor of Electric Button is mostly mined from the gender reversal Tanada performs on her sexual-awakening scenario. She casts Tadokoro in what would usually be the female role of the film’s central relationship. He is the shy, virginal character who is initiated into the world of sex by the considerably more experienced, and presumably older, Mayama. Tadokoro even bleeds the first time he has sex with Mayama in a clever parody of a girl’s first-time bloodletting. Mayama is a seemingly cold, manipulative user, unapologetically fabricating real-life scenarios for her fiction, assuming the more masculine role in her relationships, and disguising herself as a man for her readers. Tanada’s twisting of genre conventions heightens both the provocative eroticism of her tale and the volatile emotions on display. Tanada shoots Electric Button in the low-budget, functional style of erotic films, and this efficiency of form serves as dramatically powerful shorthand. Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) is an impressive debut film, and Tanada continued her explorations of young people’s sexuality, again featuring strong female characters, with Ain’t No Tomorrows (2008), which screened at last year’s Japan Cuts. Another recent Tanada feature, One Million Yen Girl (2008), also screens at this year’s festival.

Electric Button (Moon and Cherry) screens on July 7, 6:30pm at Japan Society. Click here to purchase tickets.

Friday, July 2, 2010

New York Asian Film Festival 2010 Review: E J-yong's "Actresses"

Actresses (Yeobaewoodeul). 2009. Produced and directed by E J-yong. Written by Yoon Yeo-jeong, Lee Mi-sook, Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Min-hee and Kim Ok-vin. Cinematography by Hung Kyung-pyo. Edited by Hahm Sung-won and Ko Amo. Music by Jang Young-gyu and Lee Byung-hoon. Production design by Hong Joo-hee. Costume design by Cho Yoon-mi.

Cast: Yoon Yeo-jeong, Lee Mi-sook, Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Min-hee, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Ji-soo, Lee Ji-ah, Kim Yong-ho, Oh Je-hyeong, Ahn Ji-hye, Yoo Te-oh.

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

Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Korean TV drama” could be the tagline for E J-yong’s delightful Actresses, a semi-improvised comedy/drama featuring a sextet of actresses – Yoon Yeo-jeong (A Good Lawyer’s Wife, The President’s Last Bang, The Housemaid), Lee Mi-sook (An Affair, Untold Scandal, Hellcats), Choi Ji-woo (Winter Sonata, The Romantic President, Everybody Has Secrets), Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All), Kim Min-hee (Hellcats), and Kim Ok-vin (Dasepo Naughty Girls, Thirst) – all “playing themselves.” (I’ll explain the quotes later.) The entire film takes place during a Vogue fashion shoot on Christmas Eve, teasing out the camaraderie and conflicts that arise among these strong women with equally strong egos. The action plays out in near-real time, faux-documentary style. The actresses are a cross-section of different generations: Kim Ok-vin and Kim Min-hee are the youngest, in their 20’s; Ko Hyun-jung and Choi Ji-woo are in their 30’s; Lee Mi-sook is in her 40’s; and the eldest is Yoon Yeo-jeong, in her 60’s.

The most pronounced conflict in the film occurs between Ko and Choi, who very nearly come to blows. Because they are of the same generation, they are the most direct rivals. Choi, prior to the shoot, is the most anxious at meeting the other actresses: “Just imagining a bunch of actresses with strong egos in one place … It’s so scary!” These women have had similar experiences and would seem to have natural camaraderie, but the dog-eat-dog nature of the entertainment industry encourages rivalries that can often become very bitter. Actresses makes much of Choi’s huge stardom in Japan, mostly due to the massive popularity there of Winter Sonata, the 2002 Korean TV drama that was a smash hit across Asia, and was a major work of the hallyu (Korean pop-culture wave) phenomenon. This forms a major part of the rivalry between Choi and Ko, who wishes for similar pan-Asian popularity; Ko identifies as her personal rival Lee Young-ae, who achieved great popularity in China due to her work in the 2003 Korean TV drama Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace). There is a funny bit in which Choi is accosted by a trio of middle-aged Japanese women fans when she arrives at the shoot; this was the main fan base of Winter Sonata in Japan.

The opening epigram of Actresses states that “There are male, female, and actress in this world.” This illuminates a major theme of the film: actresses are put in a separate category from “normal” people, their every move subject to media scrutiny. Especially as women, they are judged much more harshly for getting divorced or other supposed peccadilloes, things that ordinary people experience every day without being put under a public microscope. Such things happen in many other places, of course, but this situation is much more pronounced in Korea, which still remains a very patriarchal society. Actresses is quite astute in its depiction of the elaborate apparatus of image-making which is a crucial part of both the film and fashion industries. The Vogue staff (who also portray themselves) are well aware they’re taking a big risk by having all of these actresses, along with their attendant egos and insecurities, in the same room together. Kim Ji-soo, the Vogue department head organizing the shoot, advises her staff, “Just keep telling them they’re pretty.” E pokes fun (perhaps; it could be sheer reportage) at some of the outlandish and rather silly concepts for fashion photo shoots. Two of the more amusing are Kim Ok-vin wearing a low-cut red dress while carrying a fishing pole, and Kim Min-hee donning a big pair of velvet bunny ears and eating a cream-topped cupcake.

The final half-hour of the film, where all the actresses gather around an improvised Christmas dinner with copious amounts of wine, is the most revealing. They discuss their rivalries, the difficulties of personal relationships and being actresses in Korea, the pressures of fame and being under constant public scrutiny, and the divorces of three of them – Ko, Yoon, and Lee. The only moment that comes across as somewhat false is when all the actresses break down in tears toward the end of their talk. Although they are mining very painful personal material for this scene, the suddenness with which this is introduced feels a bit forced and shoehorned in to unnecessarily underline the film’s themes.

Even though Actresses is billed as featuring actresses “playing themselves,” its most clever gambit is in forcing the viewer to question what that really means. Much of the actresses’ personality traits – Ko’s wicked temper, Choi’s diva attitude, Yoon’s world-weariness and irritability – play upon Korean audiences’ popular notions of these actresses, and their media image. But is all this truly “real,” or instead film performances that actually have no basis in reality? It’s impossible to say, so who these actresses really are remains a mystery, despite a film form that encourages us to read what we see as actresses revealing their “real” selves. And if that’s not meta enough for you, as promotion for the film in Korea, all six actresses were featured in a photo shoot for … you guessed it, Vogue.

Actresses hums along at a breezy clip, and at first it seems like a mere trifle, if an enjoyable one. However, as things get serious in the final reels, it becomes clear that the actresses’ real lives (they all credited as screenwriters) have been mined to create a work that has much more depth than it initially appears to have. Viewers’ comprehension of this film is directly proportional to their familiarity with these actresses’ film and television work and their personal lives, as well as the Korean entertainment industry in general. Therefore, much of the proceedings will be a bit inside baseball for most non-Koreans. However, issues of the travails of actresses, and the double standards they are often held to, will resonate with viewers from anywhere in the world. Actresses may initially seem to be a superficial, if pretty, object, but in the end becomes a moving tribute to these beautiful women and their enduring allure. Actresses has a radically different style from E J-yong’s last film, the pop-art confection Dasepo Naughty Girls, and adds another facet to this director’s very eclectic career. Actresses is a lovely tribute both to the six women featured and to actresses everywhere. The film sparkles with effervescent charm, and there are doubtless many gems to be found in the outtakes. One could easily, and enjoyably, spend many more hours in the company of these wonderful women.

Actresses screens on July 3 at 7pm and July 5 at 3:40 at the Walter Reade Theater. Both screenings will be introduced by E J-yong. Click here to purchase tickets.

Actresses trailer:

Arirang TV piece on Actresses: