It is never easy keeping up with the current
Japanese film scene for a couple of reasons. They tend to take a long time
to release the films on DVD – and when they do they rarely have English
subs and on top of that often cost over $60. So most of us are dependent
on the films being picked up and released by non-Japanese distributors
or coming across them in film festivals. So there are tons of Japanese
films I haven’t seen from last year. In no particular order, here are a
few I saw that I found worthy of checking out. I am generally using the
films in Midnight Eye’s list
of 2003 films as my guide as to what came out.
Everyone expects a Miike film to be weird but
the last five minutes of this film is mind bendingly weird like nothing
I have ever seen – it will have you re-evaluating the sexual act - and
yet it’s touchingly humanistic in a bizzaro “Jules et Jim” way. The film
is surprisingly bereft of violence except for one poor dog that gets his
due (oh and a fellow who . . . well its hard to explain without demonstrating
with a large spatula). It is about a young Yakuza who gets orders from
his higher ups to kill his immediate boss who he seems to have feelings
for . . . . While driving him to his death though, a sudden stop in the
car seems to do the work for him, but when the body vanishes the film turns
into a very Lynchian search for him as the young Yakuza comes across a
number of very peculiar natives of a small town. It is by turns very funny,
at times totally mystifying and at times somewhat dull but always a small
kick in the head or a tickle to your midsection.
I saw this a while back and found it to be
a very intelligent droll film that slowly falls into place over its running
time. A wanted man is on the run from the cops and ends up finding refuge
with his ex-wife who he had cheated on when they were married. Nevertheless,
she hides him in a secret alcove behind a wall but begins to cleverly assert
herself over him and persuade him to sign divorce papers. She makes
him to listen to her lovemaking and other parts of her everyday life that
goes on as he silently has to stay put. Nearly the entire film takes place
in the house and it slowly unfolds like a mannered play. It is comedic
to some extent in a very subtle way, but also quite thoughtful and playful.
You mean they make Japanese films that have
no violence, decapitations, sex, schoolgirls or lactation explosions? You
would hardly know by the films that get most of the attention or are given
DVD releases with subs - but this is one of them. It is about four sisters
from the youngest at 25 to the oldest at forty-something - and their relationships
with each other, their elderly parents and the men in their lives. Told
in a bite size episodic narrative, it slowly gains real emotional ballast
by the end - a little comedy, a little drama, a little tragedy. I enjoyed
it a fair amount and it won the Best Director Award at the Japanese Academy
I went into this one expecting to hate it ala
the Korean film "Bad Guy" from the blurbs I had read. A social worker is
secretly photographed pleasuring herself and the fellow then blackmails
her into doing slightly perverse things in public. My reaction to the prospect
of seeing this was ugh – another misogynistic film - but I had to watch
this for other reasons - and was pretty much blown away by it. Filmed in
a blue tint like an avant-garde expressionistic silent film, it is at times
stunning and hypnotic - a few images will have you gasping at how cool
they are and never wanting them to stop. And in the end this turns out
not to be an exploitation film at all – or misogynistic - but really about
a woman coming to terms with who she is and what she wants to be. Strange,
chaotic, pretentious and sublime.
Taken from a popular work of fiction, this
is another film of female empowerment but very different from Laughing
Frog or Snake in June. Four middle aged women work in a meat processing
company and do their best to make ends meet and to help take care of their
families – but none of them are very happy with the lives they have ended
up with. One of the four kills her abusive husband and calls the other
three over to help dispose of the body. They find out that they are pretty
good at this – meats or human – it’s all the same to them – and they decide
to go into the business of body disposal. It becomes quite tense as some
bad guys come looking for them.
This outlandish concoction of vampirism, gangsters,
sci-fi, heroic bloodshed, romance, philosophy, male bonding and pure melodrama
is strangely entertaining and by the end surprisingly heartfelt and sort
of profound in a cheesy movie kind of way. Taking place in the near future,
the Japanese economy has collapsed and a flood of impoverished immigrants
has moved to Maleppa, a (fictional) city in China, to live. Sho, a young
Japanese street urchin finds an unconscious man, Kei, and pulls him into
his hideaway to recover. Kei repays this gesture by saving the lives of
Sho and his two friends when a gangster comes looking for them – by devouring
him. He is a vampire. They develop a bond of a very peculiar sort.
Jump ahead fifteen years and the four of them are now in cahoots to rob (and for one of them to eat) other crooks. One night while doing so they come across Son (Wang Lee Hom) who is already there to kill the large gang for raping his sister (Zeny Kwok) and after teaming up to obliterate the crooks all of them become fast friends afterwards. But as time goes on, this group collapses as one is murdered, one disappears and two end up being in rival gangs. With silly but enjoyably cool Matrix like action sequences mixed into the loopy melodrama that is spread over a number of years the film manages to hook you in like an afternoon soap. Two Japanese rockers, HYDE and Gackt, play Sho and Kei and they are fascinating to watch in their sleek Bowie androgyny. It was also a pleasure coming across Zeny who has sadly gone missing in Hong Kong after two terrific films, Merry-Go-Round and Glass Tears.
It really felt like a TV movie of the week
on one level, but I ended up finding it quite moving on another level.
It’s basically about a small town in which dead people begin coming back
to life to reunite with their loved ones - but it isn't a horror film at
all - but really a soapy drama/romance with a "life affirming" message
throughout. The cynical side of me feels like I should roll my eyeballs
at it, but I ended up getting sucked in completely and totally buying the
whole thing from the weepy reunions to the inevitable partings.
I don’t know if I can really recommend this
film – a guilty pleasure for me - but it has a certain corny bad popcorn
likeability to it. If you are a fan of Princess Blade then this should
appeal to you as it has much the same feel to it but with a bigger budget.
From the director of Versus, it stars a petite cutie pie swordswoman who
deals out death like a deck of shiny playing cards - much of the action
is quite cheesy and yet quite satisfying in some bubble gum ultra violent
way. Azumi has been trained to be a professional assassin from childhood
- this takes place back in the samurai days - but underneath the vast death
count is a girl who just wants to have fun and do girlie things - but her
calling keeps calling her back - at one point she literally takes on 100
or so sword/rifle wielding killers and rips through them like a hot blade
through melting butter - not exactly believable since she must weigh about
as much as my left arm - but it is fun to watch! The heroine, Ueto Aya,
has the acting range of a glass of water, but you are almost willing to
overlook this because of how cute she is and what short skirts she wears.
It is sort of like mindlessly sucking on a slurpy for over two hours.
With thoughts jumbled in her mind like broken
speeding comet fragments, Rei (Shinobu Terashima) wanders through the convenience
store looking for wine to help her sleep and to keep out the voices from
her head. So detached from life that she is almost shell shocked, she wants
to connect even in some small way – “I want to touch someone”. Into the
store walks blonde haired Takatoshi (Ichi the Killer, Nao Omori) and they
gaze at each other for a second – a small gesture that she exists – and
as he passes he lightly touches her. “I want him – he is good enough to
eat” she tells herself and follows him outside. He is a truck driver delivering
loads all over the country and she gets into the truck with him – they
engage in desperate love making and she asks him if she can come along.
He assents. It turns into a journey of healing and understanding that is
wonderfully natural and slow paced in its dialogue and narrative. This
has shown up on most Top 10 lists of Japanese films – often at the very
top or near it – and though I don’t think I would rank it quite that high
it certainly is a uniquely intimate film that speaks to the inner pain
we all share sometimes.
I ended up seeing a lot of Korean films this
year and thought that Korea more consistently than any country produced
quality entertaining films. They weren’t all classics - though some four
were – but most of them were enjoyable on some level and all simply look
so good. This was I thought a nice change from last year when I found myself
disliking a lot of what I thought were really tiresome Korean comedies
that ruled the box office. Here are some short thoughts on a few that I
especially enjoyed in no particular order.
No one is turning out better romances than
Korea these days. They tend to fall into two basic types – light comedy
or soapy tearjerkers that generally have a high level of melodrama waiting
for you. This film would definitely fall into the soapy category, but it
does so with such earnestness and innocence that it is nearly impossible
not to be pulled into the lives of the people portrayed. In parallel the
film depicts two romances some twenty years apart of a daughter in the
present time and her mother in the past and the cumulative effect eats
right into the marrow. It has wonderful production values and is all around
a totally classy film.
One comic character that Korean films have
nearly all to their own is the adorable feisty female that was exemplified
so well in My Sassy Girl and has taken up residence in a number of films.
They have this one particular combination of facial expressions that begins
with their eyes squinting, a look of pure disdain comes over them, then
a quick head flick and finally they petulantly blow out air through their
pursed lips that always gets me. I would love to get that thrown my way
some day. Su-wan (Kim Ha-neul) has the look down perfectly and has many
opportunities to use it in this enjoyably harmless and far from taxing
fluffy romantic comedy.
She is a college student who earns a bit of extra money tutoring high school students and gets stuck with Ji-hoon (Kwon Sang-woo), an arrogant rich kid who is her own age but has fallen two years behind due to poor grades. He wants nothing to do with this arrangement, as he prefers keeping his cool uncaring James Dean image and the attentions of the hotties at school. Finally though, he is put in a position where he needs to excel in school and turns to her for help. Though the pacing of the film is a bit slack, there is plenty to like here – two very appealing performances, some decent action and one of those crazy Korean chaotic endings that they do so well.
At the very beginning of the film the audience
is told that this is based on the true story of a serial killer who was
never found by the police. Oddly, this doesn’t really lessen the tension
that the film provides, but it does lend it an underlying layer of true
pathos and eeriness. The killer may still be out there somewhere. Waiting.
A series of young women are being brutally murdered in a small Korean town
and the police go from one possible suspect to another, but they can’t
pin it down. The film follows these cops as they become more and more obsessed
with tracking the killer down and their lives slowly disintegrate as they
see other women dying despite their efforts. It is a powerful film that
will leave you with a big gnarly pit in your stomach as it refuses to tie
everything up neatly and just says in effect “this is how real life is”
and it hurts.
This sequel to the very popular first film
doesn’t seem to have received many accolades from critics or Internet posters,
but I thought it was actually more amusing than the original. It doesn’t
have nearly as much action though and that may be an issue with some folks
– it becomes much more of a family screwball comedy/drama and the character
of Shin Eun-gyeong is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light than previously.
Shin gets knocked out in a fight and loses her memory. A kindly restaurant
owner finds her and he takes her in to recover and she begins working there.
As time passes, she is amazed by her incredible dexterity with knives and
assumes she must have worked in a circus at one time. While she is making
a deposit in a bank one day, three thieves rob it and she quickly turns
the tables on them much to her own shock. Some of her old rivals get word
of this and come to hunt her down. Get ready to rumble.
I have seen this described as a black comedy
but I sure wasn’t doing any laughing while watching – it felt more like
a worm eating its way through my brain. Violent, freaky, numbing and despairing,
it is not an easy film to watch or react to, but one that should be experienced
because sometimes that is what film should be about. Shin Ha-kyun plays
a mentally unstable young man who is sure that aliens have infiltrated
the human race and are on the verge of attacking in full force. To ferret
out their plans he kidnaps a wealthy industrialist who he thinks is one
of these aliens and begins torturing him in some painful to watch scenes.
Your sympathies are torn apart as the film relates back-story on the two
men – Shin has clearly gone around the bend but he has a tragic sad past
that to a large degree was the responsibility of the businessman who is
an arrogant elitist. The ending is one that seems to divide viewers – many
hate it, others find it brilliant – I am still trying to decide.
Two single female friends are each about to
turn thirty and neither has any prospects of marriage in sight and there
is a certain amount of panic in their eyes. Chang Jin-young has just been
dumped by her boyfriend and been demoted at work, while Uhm Jeong-hwa goes
through boyfriends like tissue paper but can’t maintain a relationship
with any of them. In this sweet low-key comedy they both meet the man who
might fulfill their needs, but at the same time they don’t really want
to give up their independence. In the end this is more about their friendship
than their love affairs. This rarely goes for big laughs and settles for
being a slow paced and slyly amusing look at being single in contemporary
times and also occasionally pokes sweet fun at other romantic films.
This was absolutely my favorite film from last
year - from anywhere. It is a brilliantly opaque horror film that has the
trappings and cinematography of an art film, but keeps the horror firmly
in place like a corpse nailed into its coffin. It is absolutely chilling
and creepy at times, beautifully filmed and edited like no other "horror"
film I have seen - and it leaves you feeling like you were punched in the
stomach at the end. It can be extremely confusing and is open to multiple
interpretations of what happened, but it is like being trapped in a glorious
room of mirrors for two hours as you try and discern what is real and what
is delusional. A father and his two daughters come to stay in their country
home where the new stepmother is waiting for them. Things begin creaking
in the nighttime and this fragile and not very happy family is stretched
to the snapping point of insanity. Just fabulously exquisite.
This is a very solid if not original police
procedural film that reminded me of the old Ed McBain 87th Precinct books.
band of sadistic young thugs are sporadically robbing helpless victims
and leaving them dead or brutalized. Two cops get on their trail, but clues
are few and far between and they turn to some other criminals to help them
out. The film also focuses to some degree on their personal lives – one
has a wife, the other is infatuated with a woman that he sees on the street.
It also brings in a number of the other cops from their station into the
story and this all adds up to a sense of day-to-day realism that I enjoyed.
Much of this romantic comedy is just plain
goofy, but it has such a sympathetic core that I ended up liking it a lot
more than perhaps I should have and found myself laughing a lot more than
perhaps I should have! It is like a face full of sticky sweet taffy. The
main pleasure is actress Lee Na-young who plays an awkward, bespectacled
romantic dreamer with such utter charm that you just want to hug her. She
is a clerical government worker and one day an angry foreigner comes in
to complain about his gas bill, but since no one in the office speaks English
they all lose face and so send a not too keen Lee off for English lessons.
Here she meets Jang Hyuk and immediately falls for him, but he only has
eyes for the sexy Australian teacher (Angela Kelly). It becomes a mish
mash of comedy, fantasy and drama that leads you exactly where you want
I only saw two films from Thailand that I thought
were topnotch films from last year - most of the others I came across were
low budget quickies. Of course I have yet to see Ong Bak because there
is no version with subs out yet.
Two deaths bring together a lonely Japanese
ex-pat living in Bangkok and a Thai working girl in this lush languorous
still life filmed by Christopher Doyle. This film is cool to the touch.
Sleek, distant and dreamlike, the plot is secondary to the mood, atmosphere
and visuals that are created. The compositions in the film are stunning
– opaque colors infuse the scenes - it opens with a shot of a lime green
lizard on a green wall – then to two chairs against the wall – then to
a man hanging from a noose – all beautifully framed. Later a blood-splattered
wall begins to almost take on the look of a Japanese water painting as
it drips down and takes form. It is a beautiful film that at times might
test your patience with its suffocating stillness, but it is at the same
time fascinatingly oblique.
Underneath the slow artistic surface lies a
film with a heart of noir. One evening a woman’s newly married husband
goes out and doesn’t return and in her search for him she discovers things
about him that show another darker side. This small low budget indie film
received a fair amount of deserved critical praise as it made the rounds
of a number of film festivals (Berlin, Hong Kong, Deauville) in 2003. To
some degree it has that film festival flavor to it with its artistic ambiance,
slow pacing, long silences and emotionally stifled characters. It crawls
along in the shadows slowly revealing truths in which very little is what
it initially appears to be. By the tingling finish I was completely hooked.
Warriors of Heaven and Earth
This is a straight out tale of gallant heroism
and male bonding during the Tang Dynasty with loads of action and shot
in the stunning vistas of the Gobi desert. An Imperial agent and a wanted
criminal find themselves fighting together against a band of cutthroat
killers and learn to respect each other as they methodically and skillfully
kill the bad guys by the dozens. If they survive though, they have promised
to duel in Beijing. It stars Nakai Kiichi, Jiang Wen and Vicky Zhao-wei.
Two of the same actors from “Warriors” star
in this all together different film. Vicky Zhao-wei and Jiang Wen meet
on a blind date and it quickly becomes apparent that this will be a short
night as he is quite obnoxious and the studious and conservative Vicky
wants nothing to do with him. Something about her intrigues Jiang though
and so he continues to chase after her and slowly she accepts him as a
friend. He then meets a woman that is her exact double – but she plays
piano at a bar and leaves with the occasional man for money. He thinks
they must be the same girl but is never sure as they are so totally different,
but he finds himself falling in love with both – or is it the same girl.
Much of this plays out in tight close-ups that make it very intimate and
almost claustrophobic. Though in theory I suppose you would classify this
as a romance, it is a very cool and distant one until its passionate ending.
The cinematographer is Christopher Doyle and he gives it a polished sheen
that glistens. The DVD from WA unfortunately forces you to be a speed-reader
as the subs often stay up for a nanosecond.
It wasn’t much of a year for Bollywood and
I only ended up watching a handful of films made during the year that had
received some decent word of mouth. There are a few others that I have
yet to get around to that are also suppose to be quite good such as Kal
Ho Naa Ho and Baghbaan. Here are a couple though that I enjoyed.
Science fiction films are very unusual for
Bollywood, but this one happily indulges in UFOs and cloying aliens. It
certainly has aspects of E.T. about it, but even so it was a delightful
and charming film that had me happily sitting there in the theater throughout.
After it was finished my friend leaned over and said “let’s stay and watch
it again”. Hrithnik Roshan plays an adult character but one with the mind
of a child – that is until an alien shows up and cures him and makes him
a super stud so that he can romance Preity Zinta. I need one of those.
Hrithnik gives a lovable performance that is amazingly sweet without going
A taut noir tale of a man (Anil Kapoor) coming
to Calcutta looking for revenge and to retrieve something very dear that
belongs to him. He has to go up against corrupt politicians and psychotic
gangsters, but not to worry – he has the stunning Rani Mukerjee in his
corner. It is beautifully filmed and well-paced, but would probably have
been better served without the musical numbers as they sidetracked the
narrative for no real purpose and broke the tense mood of the film at times.
Throw Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerjee into
the same film and you are guaranteed a certain level of enjoyment. Both
are terrific in this story of two people who fall madly in love with one
another, get married and then allow the fairy tale to fall apart. Lots
of luscious musical numbers and the two most charismatic actors in Bollywood
Basically, this is an Indian version of the
Hollywood film, House Sitter, but while that was a comedy this is an out
and out romance and a fairly enjoyable one. Rani Mukerjee loses her job
and her place to live and with no where else to go she moves into a home
being built by Ajay Devgan for the woman he wants to marry (Sonali Bendre).
Rani pretends that she is engaged to him and when he discovers her ruse,
he goes along with it to make Sonali jealous – but how many men could resist
Rani for very long – not many.