Thursday, July 21, 2011

Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Masahiro Kobayashi's "Haru's Journey"

Haru's Journey (Haru to no tabi). 2010. Written and directed by Masahiro Kobayashi. Produced by Muneyuki Kii and Naoko Kobayashi. Cinematography by Masamichi Uwabo. Edited by Naoki Kaneko. Music by Junpei Sakuma. Production design by Jun'ya Kawase. Costume design by Masae Miyamoto. Sound by Shin Fukuda.

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Tadao Nakai), Eri Tokunaga (Haru), Hideji Otaki (Shigeo), Kin Sugai (Keiko), Kaoru Kobayashi (Kinoshita), Yuko Tanaka (Aiko Shimizu), Chikage Awashima (Shigeko), Akira Emoto (Michio), Jun Miho (Akiko), Naho Toda (Nobuko), Teriyuki Kagawa (Shinichi).

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

The masterful performance by legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai is the most obvious central attraction of Haru’s Journey, the latest film by Masahiro Kobayashi.  Nakadai plays Tadao, an ornery, cantankerous character close to the end of his life, who despite his age is as impulsive, foolish, and self-centered as any typical adolescent, a fact that is remarked on by other characters in the film.  In the nearly wordless opening sequence, Tadao is furiously leaving his home, followed closely on his heels by his granddaughter Haru (Eri Tokunaga), who tries to keep him from leaving.  Taking great offense to Haru’s expression of dissatisfaction with their home life – she has been taking care of Tadao by herself in the years following her mother’s suicide – Tadao sets out to look for his long lost siblings, in the hopes that one of them will take him in.  Tadao, as portrayed by Nakadai, is a complex character: a man with many faults, a selfish man who has hurt nearly everyone around him, yet is not entirely unsympathetic.  Nakadai brilliantly portrays the multifaceted nature of Tadao – the charm and humor that attracts others to him, as well as the many negative qualities that just as strongly repel them.

Haru’s Journey is essentially a road movie, one that begins in Hokkaido (the usual setting of Kobayashi’s films), and winds its way through the towns of Japan’s northern region, as Tadao and Haru visit his siblings, and are summarily rejected by them for various reasons, mostly dealing with the long family history that is gradually revealed in the course of their trip.  Kobayashi recasts Ozu’s Tokyo Story in a sense; his film similarly involves a search for familial shelter on the part of its protagonist.  But while Tokyo Story concerned itself with intergenerational conflict, Haru’s Journey is more about conflicts within the same generation; Tadao’s siblings are still very angry with Tadao because of the selfish ways they were treated by him in the past and, in some cases, bitterly gleeful over his now humbled status as an impoverished supplicant.

Significantly, even though Tadao is the character we initially focus on, the film is not titled Tadao’s Journey.  This is because the true evolution of character occurs within Tadao’s granddaughter Haru, who comes to learn more about him during their trip, and also because she is the catalyst for all that happens.  A quietly wrenching scene occurs late in the film, when Haru confronts her estranged father (Teruyuki Kagawa) and demands answers to why he left her mother, an act Haru believes precipitated her mother’s suicide.

On the surface, Haru’s Journey seems to be much more conventional than Kobayashi’s previous austere, formally rigorous works such as Bashing and The Rebirth.  However, his new film represents an intriguing marriage of potentially sentimental and melodramatic material with an aesthetic style that pulls back from overheated emotion.  Kobayashi makes frequent use of long shots showing the forbidding landscapes he places his characters in, creating a distancing effect that is penetratingly observational.  His detached stance toward the characters and events serve to make the more emotional and conventionally dramatic scenes stronger than they would be without the countervailing elements he places around them.  Kobayashi makes full use of the talents of Tatsuya Nakadai, as well as the iconic presence he brings to this film, along with his association with such Japanese masters as Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi (no relation to Masahiro), Hideo Gosha, and others.  Kobayashi, however, doesn’t allow Nakadai’s legendary status to overwhelm his film, and allows generous space for visual schemes and fruitful interactions with the other characters.  Nakadai, with the aid of Kobayashi’s sharp, tough screenplay, never plays to audience sympathies, retaining his character’s hard edges and uncompromising stubbornness.  Eri Tokunaga is a subtly powerful presence as Nakadai’s foil, and while she may initially seem to be overshadowed by her veteran co-star, her steadfast and steady presence, as well as the emotional journey her character takes, makes an ever greater impression as the film progresses.

Deeply humanistic yet unsentimental, harshly rendered yet beautiful, Haru’s Journey both draws inspiration from and subtly critiques the sentiments of classic Japanese cinema, and proves, once again, that Masahiro Kobayashi is more than worthy to stand alongside the master filmmakers who created those earlier works.  Haru’s Journey, which deals with loss and survival among its themes, gains rather tragic resonance by events outside the film; it was shot in some areas that were devastated by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.  Appropriately, 50% of the ticket sales from its screening at Japan Society will be donated to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Ryoo Seung-wan's "City of Violence"

City of Violence (Jjakpae). 2006. Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan. Written by Kim Jeong-min, Lee Won-jae, and Ryoo Seung-wan. Produced by Ryoo Seung-wan and Kim Jeong-min. Cinematography by Yeong-cheol. Edited by Nam Na-yeong. Music by Bang Jun-seok. Martial arts direction by Jung Doo-hong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-wan, Jung Doo-hong, Lee Beom-soo, Jeong Seok-yong, Ahn Kil-kang, Lee Joo-sil, Kim Byeong-ok, Kim Hyo-seon, Kim Kkobbi.

Ryoo Seung-wan, a favorite and frequent guest of the New York Asian Film Festival, has two films in this year's edition: The Unjust, his latest and one of his best, a sprawling tale of urban corruption and moral corrosion; and a retrospective screening of the swift-moving, down-and-dirty action flick City of Violence. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival.

City of Violence, Ryoo Seung-wan’s lean and limber 92-minute noir, is very much a back-to-basics production after his previous, more ambitious films Arahan and his most impressive work to date, Crying Fist. Even though the knee-jerk reaction would be to identify Quentin Tarantino as his principal influence, a much more apt comparison would be the Shaw Brothers epics of the ‘70s, such as The Five Venoms, which Ryoo has expressed his great admiration for. City of Violence is anchored by its incredibly energetic and acrobatic action scenes, choreographed by his lead actor and long-time martial arts consultant Jung Doo-hong.

Jung plays Tae-su, a Seoul detective who returns to his childhood home of Onseong after the murder of Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-gang), one of his old friends. He reunites with his old crew, including Sukhwan (Ryoo Seung-wan) and Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo). Pil-ho has become a powerful gang boss who, in a bid for legitimate respectability, is working to build a casino to make the town a major tourist attraction. Pil-ho tells Tae-su how the murder occurred (this scene is replayed multiple times, Rashomon-like, throughout the film). However, after visiting Wang-jae’s widow, Tae-su immediately smells a rat, and suspects that he hasn’t been told the entire truth. He decides to remain in Onseong and investigate the murder. Sukhwan, also suspicious, assists Tae-su.

City of Violence is so swift and relentless that one only notices its flaws on later reflection. Tae-su’s sudden realization of Wang-jae’s true killer doesn’t quite make sense, and the flashbacks to his friend’s younger days are rather awkward. However, while watching the film, these weaknesses seem to be minor since the movie contains enough style and verve to overcome them. City of Violence contains two impressive set pieces. One occurs early in the film, when Tae-su is confronted by scores of high-schoolers – uniform-clad schoolgirls, break dancers, motorcycle punks – whom he must fend off, each with their own weapons and fighting styles. The other is the film’s final fight scene in an inn, where Tae-su and Sukhwhan are armed with swords, battling dozens of henchmen (and one woman), and crashing through sliding screen doors and up and down staircases. To put it in musical terms, if Ryu’s previous film Crying Fist was his orchestral piece, then City of Violence is his garage band record: fast, loud, and somewhat ragged, but containing very entertaining and catchy riffs.

City of Violence screens July 13, 3:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater, with director Ryoo Seung-wan in attendance. For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Hisayasu Sato's "Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano"

Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano (Namae no nai onnatachi). 2010. Directed by Hisayasu Sato. Written by Naoko Nishida, based on the book "Women Without Names" by Atsuhiko Nakamura. Produced by Ryoji Kobayashi and Koichi Kusakabe. Cinematography by Kazuhiro Suzuki. Edited by Hiromitsu Yamanaka. Music by Jun Kawabata. Production design and art direction by Kaori Haga. Sound by Ataru Ueda.

Cast: Norie Yasui, Mayu Sakuma, Makiko Watanabe, Ini Kusano, Hirofumi Arai, Aya Kiguchi, Yuji Tajiri.

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

This year’s New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts festival is graced by new films by two of the “Kings of Pink,” directors who made their name in “pink films,” softcore Japanese sex films.  One is Takahisa Zeze’s Heaven’s Story, a sprawling 4½ hour examination of the aftermath of two murders which leaves the pink genre altogether, brimming with passion and ambition.  The other is Hisayasu Sato’s Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano, which is somewhat more connected to his sex-film roots, since it is set in the porn film industry.  Sato’s film is a hard-as-nails examination of this industry, based on Atsuhiko Nakamura’s nonfiction book Women Without Names, a collection of interviews with porn actresses. Accompanied by vertiginous images of Tokyo’s streetscapes, and often peering into puddles and gutters, the film is a quietly disturbing look at how personas are given and created, and how they can be simultaneously liberating and imprisoning. Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a porn Pygmalion, in which sleazy recruiters and promoters exploit women and trade them as commodities for entertainment value.  The women are very much aware of this, but they manage to derive some emotional value from this work and try to navigate through this sordid world and to find some personal space and freedom within it.

Mousy office girl Junko (Norie Yasui) has long been dominated by her sexually profligate mother (Makiko Watanabe), and is a withdrawn, shy presence at her office-drone job.  She finds very unlikely liberation from this restricted existence by a porn promoter whom she encounters on the street, who asks her the key question that opens her up to a new world: “Wouldn’t it be fun if you could become someone else?”  This someone else, suggested by the director of her first porn shoot, is a blue-haired, sailor suit wearing otaku character named Lulu.  She takes to the work very quickly, reveling in the double life she leads and her secret satisfaction that she is not the worthless person her mother thinks she is; strangers watch her, desire her, and send her fan letters.  Lulu has a rival in Ayano (Mayu Sakuma), a violent woman who immediately resents Lulu’s meek demeanor and naïveté; however, Ayano eventually warms to Lulu and comes to be protective of her.  The stardom Lulu has gained from being in porn also brings its dangers, most pertinently in the form of an overweight otaku (Ini Kusano) who sends Lulu her first fan letter, along with many more, and begins stalking her.  Lulu’s predatory promoter takes advantage of Lulu’s willingness to do anything on screen to steer her toward ever more physically dangerous, even life threatening, video shoots.  All these situations threaten to completely implode Lulu’s existence.

Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano is a sort of a meta-porn, a film that deconstructs the makings of this sort of film, utilizing a plot which could be that of a porn film itself.  The repressed woman’s awakening to her hidden sexual nature is a perennial plot of porn and many forms of erotic art.  The film is anchored by two fine and convincing performances by Yasui and Sakuma, portraying the newbie and the veteran who both find their own ways of escape from, or at least freedom within, their prisons.  Sato explores it all with a hard-edged, unsentimental eye, a nonjudgmental and non-stereotypical stance that makes this a film (mostly) not for titillation, and insistent of the dignity of its characters, and by extension, the real women who work in the sex-film industry.  Alternating between steely near-monochrome and lurid color (especially in a very violent and bloody scene near the conclusion), Sato’s film departs from the more extreme imagery and subject matter of his previous work (which depicted bestiality, rape, and most notoriously, self-cannibalism) to deliver an emotionally and psychologically penetrating film.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival/Japan Cuts 2011 Review: Yu Irie's "Ringing in Their Ears"

Ringing in Their Ears (Gekijouban Shinsei Kamattechan: Rokkun roru wa nari tomaranai). 2011. Written, directed and edited by Yu Irie. Cinematography by Kazuhiro Mimura. Music by Shoji Ikenaga. Art direction by Naoko Hara. Sound by Osamu Shimizu.

Cast: Fumi Nikaido, Kurumi Morishita, Kiyotaka Uji, Yui Miura, Tatsuya Sakamoto, Maki Sakai, Mikito Tsurugi, Keisuke Horibe, Shinsei Kamattechan (Noko, Mono, Chibagin, Misako).

(Note: This review has been cross-posted on VCinema.)

Yu Irie’s last two films, 8000 Miles and 8000 Miles 2, detailed the travails of aspiring Japanese underground hip-hop artists.  With his latest, Ringing in Their Ears, Yu shifts to a rock milieu, an expansion of focus, and a leap of structural ambition, offering an Altmanesque multi-character narrative centering on Shinsei Kamattechan, a real-life rock band whose members play themselves.  The narrative is driven by a musical ticking time bomb, counting down to an upcoming performance by the band; there is a bit of suspense concerning whether Noko, the band’s mercurial, reclusive lead singer, will even show up for the gig.  As with many other details, this reflects reality outside the film; Noko assiduously avoids the press and refuses to participate in band interviews.  The narrative strand directly involving the band finds the group at a turning point in their career, having signed to a major label after gaining a large following on the internet.  Again, this has a real-life parallel; Shinsei Kamattechan was signed to Warner Music Japan last year after building their following with surreal homemade videos on You Tube, and a successful indie album release.  In the film, the band faces the perennial dilemma that comes from being on the verge of mainstream stardom: whether to “sell out” by making a bid for broad audience appeal, or remaining true to the essence of what attracted their fans in the first place, even if this retards their progress in conventional career terms.  This choice is presented to the band’s manager by an arrogant, bullying record company executive, who wants the band to change its image and rewrite one of their songs as a positive anthem to encourage hikikomori (pathological social shut-ins) to emerge from their rooms.  The manager, almost certain the band won’t go for it, gingerly, and reluctantly, tries to bring up the subject with the group.

While the band prepares for its show, we are taken into the lives of other characters whose crises orbit the group, and who are all connected with this music in some way.  Kaori (Kurumi Morishita), an office cleaning lady by day and an exotic dancer by night, is also a harried single mother driven to distraction by dealing with her son Ryota (Tatsuya Sakamoto), who won’t let go of the laptop given him by his estranged dad, and who horrifies his teachers by leading his kindergarten classmates in choruses of very morbid Shinsei Kamattechan lyrics.  Kaori wants to take the night off from the club to see the band in concert, but her boss gives her a hard time, threatening to replace her with younger girls.  Meanwhile, high-school girl Michiko (Fumi Nikaido) obsessively pursues her dream of becoming a shogi (Japanese chess) champion, which drives a wedge between herself and everyone around her, including her father – who increasingly resents her rebelliousness and who Michiko blames for turning her brother into a hikikomori – and her cheating boyfriend, who gives her a CD of the band’s music to listen to.

The film shuttles back and forth between the band and the parallel storylines, building to a crescendo with an impressively edited final sequence on the day of the show, in which all the narrative lines converge into an ecstatic explosion affirming the power of rock and roll, and most especially the passionate and idiosyncratic brand that Shinsei Kamattechan practices.  Their music is a vessel that allows their fans to express their hidden feelings and desires, allowing them to experience epiphanies and to break out of prisons both self-imposed and created by society.

Irie gets major points for ambition and well-drawn characters, but the grand statement he is clearly going for remains elusive, since his style of filmmaking rarely rises above the functional.  One hopes for more of a transcendent feeling from this film, for more poetry and less prose.  Still, Ringing in Their Ears nicely captures the power of a song, and the myriad ways it can hit listeners in the deepest and most personal places.

Ringing in Their Ears, a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, screens July 7, 9pm at Japan Society and July 11, 1:30pm at the Walter Reade Theater. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Japan Society websites.


Monday, July 4, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Lee Seo-goon's "The Recipe"

The Recipe (Doenjang). 2010. Directed by Lee Seo-goon. Written by Jang Jin and Lee Seo-goon. Produced by Jang Jin. Cinematography by Na Hee-seok. Edited by Kim Sang-bum. Music by Han Jae-gweon. Production design by Jang Seok-jin. Costume design by Kim Heui-ju. Sound by Choi Tae-yeong. Visual effects by Park Eui-dong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-ryong (Choi Yu-jin), Lee Yo-won (Jang Hye-jin), Lee Dong-wook (Kim Hyun-soo), Cho Seong-ha (Chairman Park), Ryoo Seung-mok (Kim Jong-gu).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A mystical and magical concoction, much like the doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) dish that it revolves around, Lee Seo-goon’s second feature The Recipe hinges on a brilliant bit of narrative misdirection.  Choi Yu-jin (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the producer/host of a sensationalistic TV expose program, is tipped by a prospective intern to an odd last statement given by Kim Jong-gu (Ryoo Seung-mok), a fearsome serial killer, on the day of his execution.  Jong-gu longingly utters the word “Doenjang.” (This is also the film’s Korean title.)  He goes on to express his wish for another bowl of the stew.  As we’ve been conditioned to do by so many other films, we expect to be taken into the convoluted past and secrets of this criminal, and indeed, this is the initial path Yu-jin pursues in his investigation.  However, to Yu-jin’s and our great surprise, Jong-gu quickly disappears as a significant character and instead the focus shifts to what would in any other film would be a peripheral figure: the woman who made the dish that mesmerized the criminal, allowing this fugitive to be taken in by the police and put to death.  This cook is one Jang Hye-jin (Lee Yo-won), and soon the story shifts to Yu-jin’s investigation of her life, and more specifically, the love affair that led to her own death in a car accident.  Along the way, Yu-jin learns the intricacies of doenjang making and is told about the metaphysical qualities of Hye-jin’s special brand, which mysteriously attracts butterflies, resurrects deadened taste buds, contains scientifically impossible 100% pure salt, and which proves to be a physical manifestation of her equally pure love for Kim Hyun-soo (Lee Dong-wook).  Yu-jin searches for this man, to get to the bottom of the enigma that is Hye-jin’s magical stew.

Free-wheeling mixing and matching of genres is a very much a hallmark of Korean cinema, and The Recipe takes this to a new level.  Lee’s film contains many different narrative modes and methods within it: the crime drama, the road movie, the romance, the melodrama, and the ghost story, with some off-kilter comic elements, and even an animated sequence, stirred into the mix.  On paper, this would seem like an impossibly unstable object; however, Lee’s sure and steady directorial hand, and the gorgeous and dreamy imagery she lends to her magical-realist tale, prevents it all from sinking into incoherence.  Lee Seo-goon, also known as Anna Lee, was the screenwriter (at 19!) of Park Chul-soo’s bizarre and satirical 301/302 (1995), which also had a very strong food-based theme.  But where that film depicts psychological imbalance and existential angst, The Recipe has a far gentler and more lyrical tone.  The film’s titular dish takes on an allegorical import that goes beyond mere food; its connection to nature and the land, and its representation of tradition and historical memory expands its meaning into a metaphor for the nation itself.  Hyun-soo’s status as a dual Korean/Japanese citizen, and the hinted-at colonial legacy which serves to drive the lovers apart, serves to make that metaphor explicit.

The Recipe, among its many other virtues, is a foodie film extraordinaire; it deserves to stand next to films such as Tampopo (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), and Like Water for Chocolate (1992) as another classic of this genre.  Produced and co-written by writer-director Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Good Morning President), Lee’s second film arrives 12 years after her debut feature Rub Love (1998).  Let’s hope this incredibly talented filmmaker doesn’t take nearly that long to make her next one.

The Recipe screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 5 at 3:45pm and July 9 at 7pm.  For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.