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: