Sunday, August 31, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori)

Hurry Up!

Winning the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival last year, I actually found it a tad difficult to appreciate this piece by Naomi Kawase, as compared to Shara. I am beginning to suspect that I have a profound disengagement with movies that deal with grief and loss, especially when it takes on a very detached approach in some ways with the characters constantly unable to deal with those emotions for the most parts.

The closing film of this year's Japanese Film Festival, the movie opened true to Kawase's penchant for capturing moving air. Here, we see lush greenery on tree tops dancing to the motion of wind, and vast open fields where blades of grass sway back and forth when caressed by the breeze. It's like watching a National Geographic episode of forests and greenery before the opening credits kicked in to start the film proper. I even suspected that M Night Shyamalan could have paid homage in his The Happening, which also had plenty of such shots put into it.

The story tells of the relationship that formed between Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) and Machiko (Machiko Ono), the former an old man in an elderly home who has been aloof after the lost of his wife some 33 years ago. 33 years is an extremely long time, and to miss someone for that long, well, you know how strong his emotions are to his wife. On the other hand, Machiko is a staff at the same elderly home, but she too is grieving internally for the loss of her son, and her husband squarely puts the responsibility and blame on her petite shoulders.

While initially starting off on the wrong foot with fiery misunderstanding, they soon hit it off in a game of tag in the great outdoors, where the camera pulls back to reveal again the large open spaces, and the two protagonists finding and connecting with each other, two tiny creatures in the space that Nature offered, only to act as a precursor of a more adventurous outing that would come soon after, in an excursion that took a turn for the unexpected when their car ran into a ditch.

In what seemed to be a wandering around aimlessly on foot deep inside nature herself, both Shigeki and Machiko had to depend on each other to keep to their wildlife tour, with the former having the objective of wanting to look for his late wife's grave, like a pilgrimage in itself. The observations from far earlier gives way to a more intimate look at the two, and Shigeki turned into some kind of enigma, clutching his all important haversack, as they go from set piece to set piece, some quaintly quiet, while others I seem to make no headway from sudden outbursts which persisted as being more whiny than anything else.

Might be a masterpiece for some to appreciate, especially with its beautiful cinematography, but everything else was certainly lost on me probably due to my lack of extreme patience, and I grief in not being able to be moved by this movie.

Right: Naomi Kawase

Director Naomi Kawase was in attendance for a panel discussion and Q&A session with the audience, and explained that The Mourning Forest was supported by many people, and made her treasure it, while marking a milestone for her. Winning The Grand Prix prize at Cannes International Film Festival last year, she initially wasn’t told what or whether the film won an award when invited to the prize ceremony, and hence didn’t prepare a thank-you speech for it. Here’s an excerpt of tonight’s Q&A:

Q: How has the working relationship with Machiko Ono evolved over the projects you’ve both worked on?
Naomi Kawase (NK): It was in Moe No Suzaku that I discovered her. For The Mourning Forest she had actually applied during the audition for the role, and coincidentally because she fit the role, she was selected.

Q: Did you have any alternate endings in mind for The Mourning Forest?
NK: Yes I did have a few endings, which were centering around the returning of the protagonists to real life. In the making-of documentary, it documented the “phantom” mystery ending. As for the helicopter, we actually dreamt that it does a rescue, and we had actually filmed that!

Q: May I know what is your process in directing your actors?
NK: It takes a lot of time. As a director I create an environment where they don’t even notice the camera. I don’t use terms like “action!” or “cut!” but rather an equivalent with “start” and “thank you”. The elderly people in The Mourning Forest were very natural, and I got my staff to interact with them a lot. The protagonist (played by Shigeki Uda) was really an ordinary man whom I discovered at a bookshop near my home, and I thought that he would be perfect for the role. For scenes like the watermelon scene, I was capturing the moment on film. I prefer for the actors to feel and experience the characters for themselves.

Q: How do you decide whether the camera should be handheld, or mounted on a tripod?
NK: This is usually decided between the cameraman and me, and we go by feeling and intuition, going by the flow of the characters in a scene, and allowing the camera to follow that flow.

Q: You have a lot of personal touches in your movies. Do you have a fear that it may not be reaching out to a wider audience because of that?
NK: No, not at all. In fact just before Kya Ka Ra Ba A (Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth), I had thought about giving up filmmaking, but a man told me that even if the films were to be personal, there would always be an audience for them.

Q: If you find that your actors are “acting”, how do you direct them back to genuine feelings again?
NK: I start by believing in them. I believe that each one of them has a story to tell, and I wait. And while waiting, sometimes I have an idea to motivate them, or to relate an experience to them. They will eventually get to the point. I have seen some brilliant moments that they can bring out.

Q: Your films seem to dwell on the themes of the cycle of life and death?
NK: It’s because I don’t know the answer that I’m obsessed with finding it. Perhaps it starts off with the fear of death, thinking and worrying about it. Different people have different versions of enlightenment. One commonality is what is now, what is present, and what that meaning is to us.

Naomi Kawase also shared about her experience working on If Only The Whole World Loved Me, which was an international film done overseas, a departure from familiar themes, collaborating with a cameraman from France, and working with a popular film actress. She likened it to an adventure, working with different people coming together to make one film.

[Japanese Film Festival] Sakuran

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

While watching Sakuran, I can't help but to chuckle at how long queues were formed, gawking from the outside, trying to get a taste of the cherry pie, as it somewhat mirrored my patiently waiting for the movie to be screened here, in any form, on the big screen. I had tried to get tickets to watch this during last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, where director Mika Ninagawa was in attendance, together with actor Masanobu Ando, but alas the tickets were sold out within minutes going online. It made my day to know that this year's festival had Sakuran in its lineup, and needless to say, this was one of two films shown during the festival that tickets were completely snapped up. And I guess waiting a few more days to the second last session of the fest is nothing compared to waiting for it for 18 months.

So what do I think about it? I thought it was an absolute delight, and well worth every minute of the torturous wait to feast my eyes upon it. For those who have watched Memoirs of a Geisha, comparisons will be inevitable, from storyline right down to every other aspect of filmmaking, and in my opinion, Sakuran trounces Geisha hands down. Narrative-wise, it dealt with similar themes and development of its lead character, with their being sold to slavery in a brothel, before their good looks meant being groomed for their inevitable role of economic contribution to their owner's coffers in the world's oldest profession. However, these are strong willed individuals who refuse to conform, and stories of such nature never fail to add a dash of conflicted romance to spice up the plot.

For historical buffs who want to know a little on the timeline and difference between the Geishas and the Oirans, the latter were high class courtesans meant for the pleasures of societal who's-who during the Edo period and were skilled in areas like dance, music and calligraphy, before the rise of the former group brought about an end to the Oirans, akin to an evolution of the role. The oirans operated from segregated "pleasure quarters" back then, which is like one big integrated resort filled with entertainment for pleasure. Both groups have elaborate rituals and rites, and in Sakuran, we get to see a grand procession of the top Oiran on impossible heels, together with her entourage being paraded, sort of heralding their arrival to the top, as well as to probably become a live advertising billboard.

Based on a manga, the protagonist of Sakuran is Kiyoha (played by rocker Anna Tsuchiya, who owned the role), who when young was a scruffy looking kid with attitude and a motor mouth, and we see her transformation into that of an Oiran, an epitome of elegance, but still stuck with that caustic, acerbic wit and tongue (pardon the pun). While she possesses some innate powers of seduction mastered from a young age of observation, which naturally propelled her to fandom and legendary status amongst pleasure seekers, she too like Sayuri of Memoirs, yearns for freedom and escape from bondage, and while having to deal with plenty of suitors, here ranging from Lords to Samurais, her heart inevitably belonged to one man who, as the saying goes, is always close by.

It centers around the love and life of a courtesan, and this movie would not have pulled it off if not for the very glamourous Anna Tsuchiya taking on the lead role, and giving the role a three-dimensional personality and dripping charisma all over the screen each time she comes on. With a flutter of the eyelash, or a whisper of her uniquely sounding voice, she owns this role, and is very much less of a bore given that she's not squeaky clean, nor a damsel-in-distress. She doesn't mince her words, and speaks her mind openly, which endears her, and is

But besides the acting front, with a whole supporting cast of wonderful actors bringing to life their respective characters, the movie is as strong on the technical end. Having a woman at the directing helm provided a very measured translation in bringing out the internal strength of a woman, and the art direction, costumes and sets too were pretty perfect. In fact, one of the earliest observations that strike you is that the colors are strikingly rich and saturated, and the gold fish and their tanks of different shapes and sizes, will make you wonder if you should go creative with your aquarium at home too. With an eclectic sountrack of pop, rock, and even jazz to boot, there's never a dull moment in Sakuran as there's so much going on that you wish for the film to never stop going.

And I'll end it off with one more comparison with Memoirs of a Geisha for good measure - this film is less dramatic or epic in scale, but more than compensates for it with its excellent charismatic cast, and a lot more flair without sinking into the melodramatic, even though I had wished for a darker ending. Oh, and because the film wasn't framed properly during the screening, I had a field day with spotting countless of microphones popping up all over the place overhead, and in one scene with the spewing of blood, had seen two fingers and a hose doing the deed. While these moments didn't ruin the movie, it did however brought a little shine off movie magic.

[Japanese Film Festival] Embracing (Nitsutsumarete) / Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth (Kya Ka Ra Ba A)

Naomi Kawase was in attendance to introduce today’s screening to the audience, and this afternoon we go back in time before the loose “grandmother” trilogy to her earlier documentaries about her search for her identity. It’s been eleven years since she was last in Singapore to present her film at the Singapore International Film Festival.

Nonetheless it was great to be able to finally meet the director in person, especially when her earlier movies screened had very brief glimpses of her in front of the camera. In Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase, we learn of her penchant for shooting images that capture the wind, such as flora swaying rhythmically to the gentle breeze, and the likes, that we see being featured in most of her films.

In Embracing, Naomi Kawase embarks on a quest to look for her birth parents, who had separated before she was born, and was brought up not by her mum, but by Uno Kawase, Naomi's grandmother. As a film, it was filled with countless of old photo stills that become road maps, where she visits those locations on those photographs, but the places now seem fairly quaint. However, what continued in the narrative was having Naomi flit from address to address in her attempts to locate her parents, and the film became somewhat experimental in nature, with the travelling from one place to another interspersed with related images from the past. While not very interesting stylistically, it did highlight the repetitive dread of her searching and constantly hitting upon dead ends and a cold trail.

While Embracing was somewhat OK for me, I couldn't quite fathom Sky, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth. It had really long continuous takes, and contained certain elements from her works which I taught was last seen in Katatsumori or Ten, Mitake, with vaguely familiar scenes coming back all over again. This despite having its introduction go back to elements from Embracing.

For some parts, it felt like a recycling, or an overlap in the material covered, although the central theme to this movie is the dealing with the news on the death of her father, whom she did not know personally. It then became somewhat like a search for self and identity, right down to the final moments where she decided to get the same tattoos as her late father. And the lines between documentary and fiction really got blurred this time round, as even her receipt of the Camera d'Or award on stage in 1997 got featured here as well, being the first Japanese recipient, and the youngest ever award winner to receive it.

Somehow, these documentaries were extremely personal in nature, and for one, I couldn't get past those personal elements, and found it difficult to do so with my constant questioning of the whys. I guess not being privy to that kind of information on a deeper level, naturally made it become more of an interpretation of the images at face value, at least for me.

[Japanese Film Festival] Summer Vacation With Naomi Kawase / Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry

Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase is Tetsuaki Matsue's take on the production process of Shara, coming off something quite like a making-of documentary, but somehow offered a lot more than just the usual behind the scenes look. Here, he was given access to cast and crew, with permission given by director Naomi herself to have a free reign to capture the entire process, and to talk to almost anyone on set.

In this film though, we also get to see some of Kawase's earlier movies, where she candidly shares in an editing suite, some of the bloopers that she had made in them. Even a scene in Shara is not spared, though truth be told, I wasn't even aware of that bit of blooper, until she pointed it out - if you pay close attention, there was some alternating between the usage of a microphone, and a loudhailer.

We learn a number of trivia about Shara the movie from Tetsuaki's movie, such as how male lead Kohei Fukungaga was actually a real life street musician plucked from the streets by Naomi to star in her movie, and how Yuka Hyyoudo was selected from more than 1000 applicants for the role of Yukie. For the most parts it played out like a usual making-of, with scenes from rehearsals, and on set happenings being the order of the day. Having Shara the movie shot chronologically, this documentary also follows the same chronological order, starting from 20 Aug 2002 to 28 Aug 2002, where the film was shot in a total of 8 days.

I had thoroughly enjoyed being able to witness how the famed Basara street festival scene was filmed, and to listen to the beat of the drums in the excellent music used for that scene. It's not hard to imagine that actually was shot during the real festival, where the crew rounding up very game members of the public to join them in their film version of the celebrations.

Come to think of it, watching how Tatsuaki successfully managed to capture the emotions of everyone, how different the feelings were on first and last days of production, made me reminiscent a little of my own experience extended to me by Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, where I was on set at the start of her production of Mukhsin, and on the set at the end of Muallaf. The feeling toward the end was one of relief, happiness, and plenty of hugs, some sad that their working days together on a common goal had come to an end, but you can feel that deep sense of camaraderie that is undeniably present in everyone, and the resolve to one day meet up again soon, to work toward another common goal, another film.

The payload of this documentary actually came toward the end. As we see through Tatsuaki's eyes, he painted a very shy picture of Kohei, in how he had changed after a pretty girl had given him his very first kiss. In fact, he even composed a song right after that, and while yet reluctant to share it, Tatsuaki managed to coax it out of him. And Yuka, you can tell, is no fool too, even before we come to the final interview, you can observe that she's playing it rather coolly, and I'd bet she has a fairly good idea that Kohei did develop some feelings toward her as the shoot went on. I thought it was a bit cruel too with her being quite nonchalant about it, but I guess if one's not interested, then one will try as best as one can not to reject and hurt other's feelings outright.

So while Summer Vacation started off with some inclination of trying to discover any budding romance between the leads in the movie for real, while there may be some suggestions in real life, the reel one certainly didn't manage to translate and cross over to the real one. I'd suggest to watch both Shara, and Summer Vacation, to see and experience it for yourself.

In Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry, Tetsuaki Matsue documents 3 encounters with 3 women, who had agreed to cook curry rice for him. He has developed a liking for curry rice ever since it was made by his first girlfriend, and in this personal documentary, it almost seems like a food travelogue program as he goes from place to place to meet up with the women, each of whom cooks a different type and style of curry.

Shot in Nov 2002, it's actually quite formulaic and follows a template - he meets up with the woman in question (first being Eri, then Nakanishi, and lastly Mika his girlfriend), and they go shopping for specific ingredients. They then proceed back to her apartment, and the cooking begins, before savoring the delicacy in the private confines of home, and always with an accompanying beer. They share great conversation throughout the evening, before retiring for the night (no, nothing raunchy here!). The next morning, the curry rice is made into breakfast, as it does seem that it will taste better if left overnight.

It's nothing fancy in the presentation, but if you're looking for an explanation or deeper insights into this film, then you might want to read on in Tetsuaki Matsue's Q&A and panel discussion after the screening, as transcribed below.

Right: Tetsuaki Matsue

Tetsuaki Matsue was in attendance at today’s screening, and confessed that as he was slightly embarrassed by his earlier movies, decided to wait outside the screening hall rather than to sit through it with the audience. He had wondered why the festival would want to showcase these 2 particular films, until he had realized the theme of this year’s festival. Thankfully he made it back to the hall after the screening for a panel discussion, and here’s an excerpt of that discussion, starting off with a brief introduction to his films screened this morning:

Tetsuaki Matsue (TM): How Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry (EJWMHOC) came about, I was asked to do a 30 minutes self-documentary as part of an assignment. I was told to just do a theme that I liked, so I thought about making a film talking to women that I liked. As a documentary I don’t know if it was interesting for you, as I was filming it, I wondered if my own responses going into the film would hopefully be interesting for an audience. At a deeper level, the documentary told of how I felt about the 3 women in my life, and my relationship with them. I’ve made almost 30 other documentaries, but this one is special.

Q: We know that the final girl featured is your girlfriend, but who were the first two?
TM: The first lady featured, it was actually my first time meeting up with her, and spending some personal time together. She was someone I met at a function. The second one, I had spent a lot of time hanging out with. What’s special is that it would have been near impossible to do what I did without a camera, as it was difficult to get into their homes, and have them cook curry for me etc, so the camera actually helped in my cause! (laughs) In Japan, when we think of curry rice, it’s always that it tastes better the next day, so that allowed me to stay overnight at their place! I went shopping for ingredients with them, go to their homes and cook, and it was roughly the same content for each segment, with the difference being the kind of relationship I had with each of the ladies. If you were to measure the length of the footage against the segment length of each girl, the first lady had about 5-6 minutes, as it was my first time meeting up, and we didn’t have much to talk about.

Q: How has your perception of women changed, and if you were to make a film about women, what would you choose to spotlight on?
TM: I now look at them through a younger, childish perspective. Each time I see EJWMHOC, I would be embarrassed because I was trying to be macho, and a big man, and I’m so embarrassed about that. Last year in my new documentary Dotei Wo Produce (The Virgin Wildsides), I had some 20 year old virgin boys who I provided a camera each, and made them do a documentary – I was interested in the Otaku subculture - and wanted to learn more about it, and the point at the end of the film is to get them to confess their feelings for the girls who they like. So now when I look at my work, I’m regressing back to life as a teen and relearning about the world.

Q: Why did you use a young boy as narrator for Summer Vacation (with Naomi Kawase)?
TM: When Shara was filmed, it was exactly this time of mid-end August. The movie was filmed in 8 days, and for me, despite some documentaries I have made, I still considered myself inexperienced, and to be on the set of a fictional feature film was a new experience, and I went in with nervousness. Surprisingly, the production was almost like a documentary since it went chronologically, and we were filming in Nara, and it was very quiet on set, and it was very enjoyable for me to be able to witness that. I stay in Tokyo, and the trip to Nara reminded me of my junior high school vacation. I wanted to go in to see, learn, observe and to enjoy, so the young boy was chosen as a narrator to represent me. As you can see, over time I developed close relations with Kohei Fukungaga (who played Shun) and identified with him a lot, and I tried to get closer and draw him out.

Q: You’re Korean-Japanese, how do you feel operating in what is essentially a homogeneous society?
TM: When I made Annyong-Kimchi, it was the first time I was aware I’m a Korean born in Japan, so I wanted to explore that in the movie. I had my citizenship when I was young. Each of us has our own experiences, and if you have 100 of us gather and to talk about and share our experiences, it will all be different. So there’s a huge array of different views on being Korean-Japanese in Japan. I went to Japanese schools, all my friends are Japanese, and my mindset is very much Japanese but I must admit there’s a small part of me inside that is deeply aware that I’m not fully Japanese. But if you ask me if I’m Korean, I definitely cannot say that I am. It’s hard to explain in words how I feel but in my films, my genre is Japanese films. In EJWMHOC, the green curry is done in the Japanese way, and when you eat it, you might still think it’s Japanese curry, so that’s the way it is.

Q: It is common in the shooting of a making-of documentary, that it adopts a 3rd eye function. How do you organize and could you tell us more of the interaction process with the cast? You do interact a lot with the main crew, and it’s not easy being an outsider shooting what they are shooting?
TM: In a usual documentary, my film would have a lot of NGs because it’s too close. I always ask close relationships questions to get them involved in the process. This particular documentary is special because the director Naomi Kawase had allowed me to film parts of it when normally it wouldn’t be allowed for the usual documentary style. Why it was so was because she didn’t want me to make just another normal making-of film, and wanted me to tell the story through my eyes. The crew was experienced to making-ofs and had done them before. I could actually get close to the team and get a closer feel of things. I stayed where the crew stayed, slept in the same place too. In most making-ofs, you have to take an objective stance but I hate those type of documentaries, so I’m grateful for the experience given to me by Naomi Kawase to do this.

If you’ve seen the movie, during the Basara street festival scene, I actually appeared in one of the shots as I went about doing this documentary! I recently did another making-of documentary for a film with Ken’ichi Matsuyama (of Death Note). If I did it in the same way as I did this, they would say no and I would not be allowed to keep asking to interview the cast. The days to shoot the making-of will also be scheduled, with all questions vetted and prepared before hand. But that’s the normal way, which is harder for me. I had to approach it differently to make it interesting for myself.

Q: What do you think of Naomi Kawase’s style in her personal documentaries, and her reaction to the documentary you did of Shara?
TM: Once Summer Vacation was done, it was screened together with Shara some 3 years ago with the lead actors at the screening. What Naomi Kawase said to me, was that it was really my perception and viewpoint which was really captured. I’ve watched her documentaries even before I made my own, and frankly I love her documentaries more than her fictional films. Why I liked her documentaries is that she makes it look like a fictional feature film. In a lot of them she had captured the moment, of the reality of the situation. Her camera just happens to be there, capturing the emotion of the scene. Naomi Kawase’s approach to documentaries is different – If she doesn’t have a camera she won’t understand what is happening, so she brings a camera to understand. I like people who do that, who produce things. Currently my style is to go in with the camera, to capture reality and to create a story from there. As such I am able to change reality into my story in a way that is interesting.

Q: Were you trying to rekindle the romance between the leads in Kohei Fukungaga (Shun) and Yuka Hyyoudo (Yukie)? It was heartbreaking because there was no clear answer in that.
TM: It’s not something I was trying to rekindle or make happen, but I had a feeling that was what Naomi Kawase was hoping for. On the first day, after listening to Kohei, maybe he has a feeling of liking for Yuka. After the kissing scene, which was Kohei’s first kiss, I thought something had changed in him, a change Kawase might be hoping for. When making the documentary I didn’t have a goal. I went into the set to feel the atmosphere, and trying to capture that, putting them together in a story as I saw it. So at the last scene, I knew he was very shy and can’t express his feelings, so I had to step in and ask Yuka. It seemed that for the guy it was an important feeling, but to the girl, she was quite casual about it, what with her eating of bread when answering my questions!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Broken Blossom / Pathos

The double bill feature documentaries by director Naomi Matsuoka this evening could be poster-child movies for our authorities here who are tasked to look at boosting fertility rates and addressing fertility / population issues. In some ways, they form a bookend, touching on extremely personal issues in the whole schema of things, from an individual viewpoint on stigmas, problems and challenges attached to wanting but losing a child, before almost waxing lyrical on the joys of being a parent.

In Broken Blossom, Naomi Matsuoka documents her unfortunate experience of suffering a miscarriage. And really, it was quite brave of her to have revisited this ordeal all over again while making the movie, and being very candid in the sharing of her views, and her suffering of losing her own flesh and blood. You can still feel her pain of loss, especially when she opens the documentary with a tinge of regret of not being able to have captured precious moments back then because of the lack of a camera.

She spent significant time debating and probably berating those who chose to abort their child during pregnancy. For her, the miscarriage is unforeseen, and like almost all sufferers, had to go through tremendous emotional turmoil to deal with their loss, mostly stemming from guilt whether they had been directly responsible. It’s very different from a conscious decision made to abort a fetus, where she had observed some young girls doing so in such casual terms, she wonders whether they actually know the gravity of the situation of having to kill a life. I thought this segment will probably resonate amongst those who had undergone the medical procedure, whether Naomi Matsuoka’s chiding will get through to them, should they watch this documentary detailing her arguments against it, from a personal viewpoint.

Besides dealing with the issues of her miscarriage, Broken Blossom was also like a family portrait documentary, as she looks back on her own family, and her relationships with her brother and father, who wasn’t put in very good light, but managed to appear on camera anyway, despite objections. There’s a tragic sense of death and despair permeating throughout the documentary, as she self narrates her thoughts and feelings about death and loneliness at an old age, besides also documenting the passing away of her mother-in-law, and the observation on burial rituals on Cheju Island in Korea.

I wondered how she felt watching Naomi Kawase’s Birth / Mother earlier before the screening of this movie, thinking that it might have been a bit painful to observe the bundle of joy that is Kawase’s, but Pathos puts aside this unease, especially when in itself was a celebration of being a mother to two children.

In this International Premiere (we being the first outside of Japan to have watched this documentary), it opens with the Happy Birthday song, which almost continues from where Broken Blossom left off. Pathos plays out like a home video, where proud parents eagerly capture various candid shots of their child in their discovery of a whole new world, and without a doubt, Naomi Matsuoka’s cute daughter Sakuya inadvertently steals the entire movie. For would-be parents, or parent wannabes, I think Sakuya’s innocence and wide-eyed inquisitiveness will charm you, in encouraging you to buy into the idea of parenthood that the local authorities are trying their darnest best to promote, and you’re likely to hope that your own kid would be as easy to handle, manage, nurture and teach.

But it’s not just all saccharine sweet focus on the child, as the director does focus on other pertinent issues like the complexities of the modern women role, of juggling everything in her stride to achieve some semblance of work-life harmony, of being the role of a mother and a wife. And she wears her heart on her sleeve too, in her reminiscence of her miscarried child, who is not at all forgotten.

Naomi Matsuoka’s experience of child birth at a midwife’s clinic was also captured in the last act of the movie heralding the arrival of her newborn Ruka, with recording the moment, and of Sakuya’s reaction to witnessing the birth, that was nothing short of amazing and an eye opener too. During the panel discussion she mentioned that some Japanese ladies, and I’m pretty sure that might be some in the audience, who would have marveled at the alternative available in child birth besides the usual hospital venue. Similarly like Birth / Mother, the camera doesn’t flinch away from being an observer in the process.

Personally, I thought that these two documentaries by Naomi Matsuoka were unselfishly personal in her daring to bare her soul for the audience, in issues that are very close to the heart. In essence, I felt that they both worked in providing a pro-family voice and triumphs over many of the other attempts seen here locally which throws economic and monetary benefits to those who are married and require that extra push to start a family. Maybe these films seen together would be a great motivational factor to provide some positive encouragement to those couples.

LtoR: Interpreter, Naomi Matsuoka and Dr Ann Tan

Director Naomi Matsuoka was in attendance today to share more about her films in a discussion panel. Joining her was Dr Ann Tan from the Singapore Council of Women. Here's an excerpt of the Q&A.

Q: Could you share with us the audience reaction and response to your movies?
Naomi Matsuoka (NM): Both movies (Naomi Kawase’s and mine) had our special perceptions and are personal. For most Japanese, most are used to giving birth at the hospitals. For us, we chose to give birth at the midwife clinic and thought that it’s the best way for us. According to my understanding only 1% to 3% uses the technique the way we did, with the midwife rather than the doctor. Most of the reactions from Japanese audiences was that it was a new discovery for them. Things have been changing in our society. I know of some friends who are afraid of giving birth and having children. Pathos was screened for 2 weeks in Osaka recently, and some female audience members told me that if they could give birth like that (through a midwife), they would like to as well.

Q: How were you able to cope with aftercare?
NM: I gave birth to my first child in the hospital, which meant that I was in good care of the medical staff, but when we were discharged, we were on our own and I felt a little bit distressed because after all, it was my first time. In the midwife clinic (the birth of my second child), we can go back to them with questions, and thus longer term care was provided. In Osaka, given the low birth rates, there’s a system of having the elderly to assist and getting themselves involved in child rearing.

Q: Could you elaborate about Atsuki the soft toy?
NM: (laughs) Usually I would like to keep it a secret, but since you’re my first international audience, I will share it with you. I first received Atsuki when I had the miscarriage, and I received it from a girl who had miscarried twice before. Atsuki is hand made. Suzuki-san (sp?) was helping Naomi Kawase as well, and that’s how I got to know her. She used to live in Tokyo, but after her ordeal she had chosen to live in a rural part of Nara. For women who had to go through the misfortune of a miscarriage, sometimes you do get envious when you see the children of other women. Some deal with this by keeping pets, or making toys. She made Atsuki, and when she gave it to me during my miscarriage, she told me “This is like my child, please take care of it”. Before Sakuya was born, Atsuki has always been there. Now Atsuki Is Sakuya’s favourite toy and she even sleeps with it. Suzuki-san now has 2 children.

Q: Are there any plans to continue your director career, balancing it with your responsibility of motherhood?
NM: Frankly I would like to live a life without making movies! After Broken Blossom, I thought I had already done it, and need not make any more films. But when it was screened in Japan, a lot of women came up to me, some were crying and when they saw Sakuya – whom I had brought along to the screenings – some became genuinely happy, so I thought about another movie and that became Pathos. As for my next movie, it really depends on the interactions with people, and the inspiration I get. It’s difficult to maintain a balance. I participated in the editing process for Pathos. The first stage, I had a professional editor work on it, while I did the later stage at night while my children were asleep.

In life, each of us here has a role to play, and there’s a need to find some balance. I always say this to the audience at the screenings – I am not special, and being a director doesn’t mean I’m more special than any one of you. Each of us has a role to play, and were made for that role. It’s a matter of finding it, and playing it. A lot of us struggle through life as we try to find that role. Once found, the sense of unease disappears. Happiness has different definitions in our hearts. Even if the role you find is not important to other people, what matters is so long as it’s important to you.

I struggle a lot in life, and I know of others who are struggling too, and we can do something to make a difference in their lives, why not? You’ll not only make others happy, but yourself too.

Q: Is there any coaching involved for your daughter in Pathos?
NM: It was all natural, and no coaching at all. Adults cannot coach children, and you’ll be amazed that more often it’s the other way round.

Q: Was there any emotional struggle in bringing your documentaries to the big screen, especially since you mentioned that you do the editing yourself?
NM: You may think that I’m naïve but I believe one person’s thoughts and ideals could change the world. So that’s why I put my thoughts into the making of the films and it really helped that people felt that the movies touched them, and their responses have been encouraging for me.

Q: Some of your shots were really dark or really bright. Are there any reasons for it?
NM: When I was filming, I used both film and digital cameras, and when taking the shots I relied on my instincts to decide which camera to use. So sometimes you will see differences in colour, lighting etc and to me, it was the capturing of the moment which is more important to me. So maybe my work can be described as just is. If I feel a cut is necessary, I would use it, even though technically it’s not superb.

Q: How did you convince your family to work in your personal films?
NM: My husband does make films, so he understands. What worried me was my dad who dislikes being in it. I think if it’s capturing the truth of the moment, there might be criticisms, but it conveys something to people. So long as you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to share them with me.

Q: Your husband played a big part in your films. Was he involved in any part of the creative process?
NM: In the scene in the delivery ward and the focus on my daughter, I wasn’t giving any directions, just telling him to take Sakuya and deciding for himself what to do. His response to the film is usually “Ok” or “Good”, and that’s his usual reaction. In Japan, hospitals only allow the husband to enter the delivery suite. Only 1% of women opting for the midwife clinic is having their first child. These midwife clinics definitely are connected to hospitals in case of crises or emergencies. I was quite tickled when audiences here laughed at the scene where Sakuya cried. In Japan, audiences reactions were divided into being relieved at the birth, or being sympathetic toward Sakuya. In fact after the scene at home, Sakuya started to put Atsuki into a box and place the box at her stomach, playing make pretend of delivering a baby and asking me to hold her hand!

Q: What was the significance of the scene with the windows, carrot, 2 pandas and pug?
NM: There’s no deep meaning. Initially I didn’t want to get married because I thought being alone I could enjoy life. What I wanted to convey was that even when married, I can still have fun by myself. The carrot was just left too long in the fridge that it cannot be eaten.

[Japanese Film Festival] Katatsumori / See Heaven (Ten, Mitake) / The Setting Sun (Hi Wa Katabuki) / Birth/Mother (Tarachime)

It's quite obvious why these films were grouped together, since they all deal with the subject matter of Uno Kawase, the grandmother of director Naomi Kawase, who had actually been the one (with the grandfather, who passed away when she was 14) providing her care since Naomi's parents left her under their charge. The first three films were made in the mid 90s and shared a similar look and feel, while the last installment, Birth/Mother, was made recently, and really was starkly different in tone.

In a tribute to her grandmother, Naomi Kawase's Katatsumori had her firmly in the camera sights in a tribute to her and the relationship and special bond that they share. Primarily we see the grandmother gardening and showing us her excellent green fingers. While it’s less of a Q&A style, Naomi just captures a slice of her everyday life, and their lives together as at a point in time they interchange roles and Uno Kawase gets behind the camera. There were plenty of shots that take place in the garden, and many lingering ones, so much so that Grandma actually pleaded with Naomi to turn the camera off.

It’s easy to see that she’s quite uncomfortable to be in the limelight, or having the camera pointed so in her face. But these extreme close ups somewhat serve a point, as if to document and wanting to remember every line of wrinkle Uno has, in an affectionate way. It’s akin to the notion of pea growing, where the filmmaker and her subject are like two peas in a pod, in a motif spread over a season of growth that this documentary takes place in.

Besides the usual interactive scenes, there were also some shots of old photographic stills of Uno in action, against the backdrop of the perpetual whirr of the camera. And fittingly, this medium length film ended with Uno’s rather rhythmic snores at nighttime.

See Heaven continues along similar veins, except that the relationship is now more pronounced, in having the two of them collaborate and sharing scenes together. This 10 minute movie however had a rather dramatized, unflinching shot of the grandmother burning trash (or what seemed to be trash), and that went on almost like forever almost like a silent movie. There is still the same narrative composition of the grandmother tending to her garden (which seemed to be staple, by the way), and this rather experimental movie got bookend by sunrise and sunset.

In the third part of the series shot in yearly succession, Setting Sun felt a lot like Katatsumori Part Deux, except that it really felt like it’s the same movie all over again. With the perpetual whirr of the camera as before, there was a revisit to some of the areas featured before, and some shots, just like the dripping tap, got recycled here again. We get faced with the same protests by Uno Kawase not to shoot her up close too, as the composition of her shots still preferred to want to etch the memory of her face permanently to the audiences mind.

The narrative here got compartmentalized into sections without narration and dialogues in the later half, and although it seemed like a throw back to the first film, I did connect with it for its simple opening with the resonance of the term “See you”, instead of “Good bye” in a bid to farewell. Like the Chinese term “Zai Jian”, I thought it was always more meaningful to use the term because it has a connotation of wanting to meet again, somewhere, sometime, unless of course one’s intention was good riddance, then a curt “bye” would suffice.

When it come to Birth / Mother, everything that we’ve seen got thrown out the window. This was starkly very different, and was like a tale in 2 halves, the first an overbearing grief hanging over it, while the second had glimmers of hope. If you think that the earlier close ups were difficult to endure with people’s faces breaching personal comfort zones, this one had close ups of even more private regions up close, and the cordial nature dissipated when Naomi berated her grandmother about using a term on her which had deeply upset.

It’s unlikely that this was staged, though it was very difficult to fathom how one could have shot the sequence. While you can sense the foundational love for the other person was there, the surface ripped away some form of dignity, making one person confess, in camera no less, about possible misdeeds, and the seeking of forgiveness. I thought it was rather sad as I witnessed the more confrontational styled interview questions, which had become a lot more pointed.

Uno Kawase is visibly aged as she approached her 90s, and while the protests are no longer documented (perhaps cut?) there’s a sense of resignation to being made to appear in the movie, and I wonder how Naomi found the heart and the strength to bore down the documentary in the way that she did, since we learn for the first time today that it was Uno who actually brought her up. Also, the camera probably captured the last few days of Uno’s live on earth, as I stand amazed at how the camera still found itself to be rolling in an ambulance en route to the hospital. Staged? Deliberate? I do not know. One thing’s for sure though, is that the power of film allowed Uno Kawase to be immortalized for posterity despite her absence, and as seen in the previous movies, came back to life again on the big screen through a capture of memories in the documentaries.

The second half of the film moved away from this grief, and from death we moved to life, as we bear witness to Naomi’s own birth of her child Mitsuki, watching without flinching from the screen, how she came to this world. I would think that this process would probably be not without excruciating pain, and for the segment of the film, the audio was turned off to spare the audience the loud decibels. It was literally watching the proceedings head on.

Two different themes, on opposite ends of the spectrum, made Birth / Mother an exploration of thems such as life and death, and family, with Naomi Kawase unselfishly bringing very personal issues out to the open, in attempts to share with everyone her experiences and opinions, though at times during some of the films as mentioned in this series, unless you’re in the know, you may find some portions of it bewildering, as if not privy to some inside information.

[Japanese Film Festival] Shadow of Sand

Directed by KAIDA Yusuke, this currently ranks as my least liked film of the festival, not that it's because it's shot and presented in digital video, but for the fact that it's somewhat not strangely bizarre enough, being able to predict what's going to happen, and the not too subtle approach the director took to present a character's state of confusion, despair, and the deterioration of her mind.

Being a feminine focused theme, the guys in the movie turned out to be quite pathetic. You have Yukie's actor boyfriend Tamagawa, who's a classic dreamer yearning for starring roles, but not being able to secure anything nor contribute to the household income. Being earmarked to continue the family's ryokan business, he chooses to alienate himself from his parents by cutting off contact, leaving Yuki to deal with his mother. He doesn't lift a finger to help around, and complains just about everything from the type of noodle meals he gets served, and for not having the apartment air-conditioned.

Then strangely he becomes very quiet, and not being able to speak. He mucks around and smiles, and becomes the quintessential committed and domesticated man. Surely you suspect something had gone wrong already, and it doesn't take rocket science to figure it out, especially with obvious clues and complaints from supporting characters like neighbours telling about a stench emitting from the room. If you choose to believe that the smell came from accumulated rubbish in the room, then we were also told in passing of his taking up the business. It was really left open ended.

Either way it wasn't too clear, and became quite slipshod in allowing the audience to figure it out whichever way they wanted to. It could be a figment of Yukie's imagination, if at all to begin with, since she could have consciously created this perfect being who shuts up and doesn't complaint or argue with her, in attempts to convince a fellow colleague Majima that she's happily in a relationship, to resist his advances. There were other minor characters that came and went, such as Tamagawa's busybody mom who dropped by to borrow money under the guise of entering a dance competition, and to many, Yukie's a hot chick, since even the landlord tries to court her in his overzealous ways with the showering of gifts and free services.

One thing's for sure though, there are some surreal elements and shots that were placed throughout the movie, but somehow I do not take a liking if they feature vast, open sandy landscapes, with footprints embedded in it. There was a local movie which had this, and I didn't particularly liked the segment, so I guess a personal idiosyncrasy will be to avoid movies containing such shots like the plague.

Friday, August 29, 2008


To Infinity and Beyond!

In some strange twist of Fate, the local release of recent Pixar movies always had us here twiddling our thumbs wondering when it'll finally make its way to the screens, while we hear the accolades ring from the rest of the world in marvelling at the quality that Pixar continually churns out. It's likely that the distributors want to coincide the release with the local school holidays, but frankly, the money also comes from the adult crowd, as testament to this full house in one of the largest screens downtown during a late night screening with nary a noisy kid in tow.

And I may sound like a broken record, but Pixar has done it again. Quality stories with quality animation, and it kept the run time to a manageable under 100 minutes, compared to the previous offering Ratatouille, which clocked near 120 minutes (or actually felt that long). I never expected WALL·E to pack in such a strong emotional punch, not that Pixar has never animated non-living objects before (such as Cars), but there's a certain child like innocence appeal that WALL·E possesses, that makes him very charming, and very endearing to the audience.

As a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth-Class, Isaac Asimov's Robot directives has him firmly and dutifully carrying out his duties of compacting Earth's rubbish, as the last of its class on Earth to clean up the mess. Humans have now polluted the world so much that they took to Space in Star Trek inspired ship designs, to live out there while WALL·Es take over to do some massive spring cleaning. Until of course, our WALL·E becomes like The Last Man, erm, Robot on Earth with a cockroach companion, acting and emoting superbly that puts Will Smith to shame.

The fantastic thing about WALL·E is that it can tell so much by so little. The first few minutes establish everything we need to know about the current world, and paints a very humanistic, soulful value to the dusty, dirty and rickety robot. He (see what I mean?) has a lot of eccentricities, and in performing his duties, develops quirks and becomes a collector (of junk) of sorts, which allows the creators to pump in plenty of sight gags and inside jokes ranging from sound effects (I swear my Apple is now a WALL·E pre-cursor) to paying homage to movies such as 2001: A Space Odessey.

In essence, WALL·E is a love story in human terms, where the boy tries hard to get the girl, only to have her spurn his advances. EVE (which stands for Extraterrestial Vegetation Evaluator) is WALL·E's object of affection, who got sent to Earth as a probe for life. And my, she's a difficult one to handle, being state of the art, as well as packing a mean self-defense mechanism that makes breaking the ice really difficult. Not to mention as well, a fiery temper to boot. Which means our guy has to really try, and try hard, to break that wall down. Poor thing really, because all he wanted to do, was to hold her hand. The Beatles would have been proud.

But of course you'll have to throw in tougher adversary and events to make it all the more worthwhile in WALL·E's pursuit of EVE, which spans lightyears and a plant that becomes the catalyst for their romance. A lot of the movie takes place on board The Axiom, the human ship where a vision of the future is presented, which metaphorically holds a mirror up to ourselves in our over reliance in technology that we're beginning to grow sideways, and not noticing the things that nature has in store for us, human to human communication, and the things that matter. It also has an soft environmental message and stance thrown in, but done so subtly that you wouldn't feel that it's being preachy and a turn off.

I hate to admit it too that the movie turned me into a big softie, especially its cliched finale, where you know what will happen, but yet want to second guess if the filmmakers could be so heartless with an ending that I thought would really make me shed a tear. However, it's Disney after all, and when you think of merchandise opportunities, then business sense prevails.

WALL·E deserves every acclaim that it's got, and let me contribute mine too. If you have time to only watch one animated movie this year, or want to bring your kids to one, then make no mistake, WALL·E is the perfect choice, without a doubt, hands down. It makes it to my books as contender for the top 10 movies of the year. Highly recommended stuff, and the leads don't even speak much save to call out to each other!

Oh, do put your bum on the seat early too, as with all Pixar features, there's always a short that preluded it, and Presto is nothing short of hilarious, and a crowd pleaser to rouse the audience into a frenzy before the main act takes over. I guess it's high time I purchase the collection of Pixar shorts available on DVD as well.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Told You Not To Make This, Did I

I guess in all fairness, the reviewer for a Star Wars movie should declare which side of the fence he's on, whether he thinks the Original Trilogy was the best thing since buttered toast and the Prequels were utter trash, or ambivalent to the fact that George Lucas is an expert at massaging the fat udders of cash cows, what with his special editions, tweaks and re-releases that continue to confound even his most loyal of fans.

I belong to the latter, and for one am willing to give this movie a shot, even though the general crowd decide to give this a miss and wait for the DVD, since after all, this has its origins in being a pilot episode for an upcoming animated series. In a theatre of less than 10 persons on a Friday evening, the response to this film does not bode well, even though it had inputs from the Lucasfilm Animation Singapore studio, and a whole host of Asian creative talent in its credit roll. I thought as a movie it still entertained, but somehow something was missing, that elusive X-Factor of the Force that makes this a Star Wars movie.

Perhaps it is the missing 20th Century Fox fanfare, given the change in distributor. One never misses the full regalia of the Fox logo unveiling itself, before the ubiquitous "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away", and the Title coming up close on screen to John William's majestic opening score, and the unique scrolling text summarizing the prologue. What we got instead was to start things off with Starship Troopers styled ra-ra, and a narrator (horrors!) taking over prologue duties.

Those were some of my initial petty gripe, as I slowly came to terms with the notion that while this is a different direction the animated film is (or films are) taking, it still had George Lucas executive producing it, and under his watchful eyes, it is still canon. Yes, it finds itself a rightful place within the established mythos, and I guess with a title like Clone Wars, there can be revenue generating episodes and installments that can continue like, forever. Not to mention the numerous ideas for characters and objects to get thrown about, linking to the ka-chings of cash registers from Legos to collectible figurines.

Story wise, it sits snugly in between Episodes 2 and 3, though I'm not sure where the initial Clone War animated episodes will fall into, though likely before this movie. In efforts to save cost in getting the numerous stars back to voice their roles, we only get 3 characters in Mace Windu, C-3PO and Count Dooku voiced by the original actors in Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels and Christopher Lee. The rest got new voices playing them as best as they can, and frankly if you were to close your eyes, some of them came close, except perhaps for Matt Lanter who doesn't really sound as convincing as Hayden Christensen.

The Clone Wars continue deep in the galaxy, and both Count Dooku and Lord Sidious continue the expansion of their plot to take over the universe. This time it involves the Hutt family, and the object of tussle happens to be Hutt's infant son, as both the Jedis and the Sith / Trade Federation engage in a chess battle to scheme and counter-scheme for Jabba's trust (and deep stupidity and folly I might add) in order to gain control of supply chain type of advantage in the Wars. While the plot is kept simple to follow, it still managed to weave some genuine tension into the scheme of things, even though we know that certain characters have god-like invulnerability (due to their presence in Episode 3), but we aren't too sure of the fate of new characters, such as Ahsoka Tano (voiced by Ashley Eckstein), Anakin's new padawan learner.

This time round it continues the focus on Anakin's development as Jedi Knight and now a master with a fledgling under his tutelage, so we see how one complements the other, even though both are equally as impetuous and reckless. Obi-wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) takes a back seat, although the opening action sequence continue the good rapport between teacher and student, before things go downhill as we all know in Episode 3.

Some might complain about the lack of sophistication in the quality of animation, but I guess this is something that the character designers had decided upon. There's a permeating and general sense of doom and gloom in how the picture always has this dark shade overcast on it, as if to continue to fortell the bad fortune the Jedis are getting themselves into, oblivious to obvious traitors in their midst, and even though with each small victory, continue to play to the sinister ploys of the Sith.

Those who hate the Prequels will continue to hate this piece of work just for the fact that it's based on the same timeline, but for me, I thought it managed to pull it off and came through convincingly despite the immense juggernaut of work that came before it, and firmly positions itself amongst them, just like how Ashoka relentlessly aims to prove her worth amongst the established Jedi generals in the Wars. I for one, am looking forward to any next installments on the big or small screens, even though I have a bad feeling about Ahsoka given her lack of presence in Episode 3. I hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Shara (Sharasojyu)


The Japanese Film Festival now embarks on a turning point where the films of featured directors in attendance will be screened. As introduced by festival programmer Leong Chung Meng, the movie today was made by Naomi Kawase back in 2002, and this is the first screening of her third feature film here in Singapore, one in which she also stars in as well. Also, there was a documentary that was made in parallel about the movie at the time of production, and for those who want to know more about Shara, you would want to join in the screening on this coming Sunday morning at the National Museum Gallery Theatre, where director Tetsuaki Matsue (of the documentary Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase) will be in attendance as well.

First and foremost, I thought the camera took on a life of its own, and drew a lot of attention to itself. It's free-wheeling, panning, tracking and zooming into noises that call out for notice. In some sense, it took on voyeuristic elements as it seemed we're right there with the characters and witnessing incidents as they unfold in the movie at first person's perspective. Not only that, Kawase has a penchant of incredibly long takes, not slow moving all the time though, but having scenes reveal themselves in one continuous shot. I would've imagined the nightmare during production should someone mess up, and the need to start over. Shots following characters also seem to be favourites, where it felt like we had to perpetually chase after the characters to follow on every plot development.

The story's nothing to shout about, as it looks at the lives of a household in Nara, Japan, after a member of the family mysteriously disappears, leaving behind mom Reiko (Naomi Kawase), dad Taku (Katsuhisa Namase) and their son Shun (Kohei Fukungaga). The opening shot's quite peculiar as well, as a slow moving camera rotates about in a room, as we hear continuous background chimes from the neighbourhood temple, with the voices of Shun and brother Kei conversing, and finally seeing them through window reflections, before a game of "follow me" turns into mystery, one which never gets resolved conclusively in the movie, unless you deem that the eyes from which we watch the movie, is from the eyes and perspective of Kei's.

Kei's disappearance is classic X-Files, just as how Fox Mulder had to deal with Samantha's own, and here we follow the family and how they each dealt with this - as one of the unseen characters puts it - case of "spirited away". Taku immerses himself in organizing the annual Basara street festival as its chairperson, while mom Reiko cultivates green fingers. Shun, blaming himself for losing sight of his brother, exorcises his demons through painting, and from the care given by girlfriend and neighbour Yu (Yuka Hyyoudo), who turns out to be living with her aunt. Even then, the theme of loss doesn't get forgotten, in another long talkie scene where Yu learns of how she came to live in a foster home under the guardianship of her aunt, in a rather incestuous tale that sounded a wee bit incredible, though surprisingly moving.

All's not doom and gloom though in Shara, in case you're wondering if this movie's slow pace would be your cup of tea, or whether you'll feel down after watching a sad movie. The movie ends off with a rather uplifting note of hope, where the anticipated birth of a child with a fine penis (yes, it was from the movie, ok?) lies in stark contrast with the mysterious loss of one in the beginning. In fact, things start to pick up (in pace even) after the Basara street festival scene, where before the narrative dealt with the mulling over Kei, and had generous allowance to set up all the principal characters.

And what a spectacle the Basara street performance was! Though it was highly repetitive, you can't deny the exuberant energy that the camera captured from the performers, entertaining all in a mesmerizing dance on the streets, which turned into a wet rain dance sequence under heavy downpour. If any scene would've stuck in your mind after you leave the theatre, this would be it, with a little wry scene where Shun had in his crowd control duties, inadvertently blocked the view of a cute knee-high tall child with his palm.

Shara turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, and I now look forward to the documentary by Tetsuaki Matsue titled Summer Vacation with Naomi Kawase, where the focus is on "the emotional journey of the 2 lead actors - both amateurs - through the tight 2-week long shoot as they grapple with their roles, the tense atmosphere of the film, and Kawase's unique directorial style". I'm sold already!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] The Milkwoman (Itsuka Dokusho Suruhi)

In Sickness and In Health

"I have someone I care about, but that feeling I can never allow to be known..."

I guess those who have been in a one-sided relationship of some sort before will be able identify with the lead character Minako (Yuko Tanaka), a 50 year old woman who is still in the pink of good health, as demonstrated by her daily, grinding routine of waking up extremely early in the morning to prepare for her milk delivery work, where she has to lug bottles of Megmilk in a bag in a route around her town like clockwork, to exchange empty bottles for full ones, and to collect payment and issue receipt. And there's always be that one delivery stop that's right at the top, needing to scale a long flight of stairs in order to achieve customer satisfaction.

And peculiar enough, that stop happened to be a stop delivering to a man with whom she has been in love with for almost all her teenage to adult life, and not having the product appreciated, but poured down the sink. Having gone to the same school, we see that they're not talking to each other, and in their daily life always seem so close physically, but yet so far away. There's no eye contact, save for cursory glances by chance, and little acknowledgement of each other's existence. We learn that they share a past that probably destroyed all notions of being together, where clear attraction between the two was hampered from developing further by the earlier generation.

While I thought Minako was an interesting woman in herself, one who has kept her feelings suppressed for so long, one can only wonder what kind of damage it would do. If I read that the original Japanese title means "At some time the days you read books" and it's accurate, I felt the movie had a wonderful finale with that shot of her well stocked bookcase, likely alluding to the fact that she's not alone after all, and had probably fallen back on her crutch of sorts to deal with the pain of being alone, and back to a lifestyle which she had already been accustomed to for 50 years. Besides immersing herself in two jobs, she has those books which serve as a form of escapism, and occasionally pens little sweet nothings to song dedication shows on the radio.

Yuko Tanaka did a commendable job as the emotionally strong woman resigned to her fate and her decision to love none other, her object of affection, Takanashi (Ittoku Kishibe) was a more interesting character who has more facets. Staying true to marriage vows, he spends significant amount of screen time looking after his sickly bedridden wife (played by Akiko Nishina), while juggling with his job of social welfare in the Children's Affairs department in City Hall. I felt that as a childless couple, the job provided him a means to care, not for his own, but for other people's children, the troubled ones who are neglected and left to fend for themselves. In a rare moment of rage, we see how he angrily chides such wayward parents who don't appreciate and wastes their children's lives away.

The story by Kenji Aoki provides little quirks to make its characters appeal and succesfully attempted to provide a lot more glimpses and dimension into them as well, such as how Takanashi is a hopeless Haiku poet despite being a member of the Haiku club, and supporting characters such as the aged Minagawa couple, where Masao (Koichi Ueda) lent some comical though sad moments as he slowly turned senile, while wife Toshiko (Misako Watanabe) narrates and brings us through this love story of a single woman at 50. Even Akiko Nishina's performance as the bedridden wife was nothing short of arresting, with her character's enlightened state of knowing her husband's past, and making unselfish, and painful decisions in her sickly state.

It's what you can expect from a typical Japanese romantic movie, sans young, nubile leads as star-crossed lovers, but with all other elements in place such as romantic set ups, love songs and those quintessential restrained but affectionate behaviour. I thought the story was in danger of going down the beaten track when unrequited love gets consummated, but director Akira Ogata managed to steer clear of the usual melodramatic moments in such stories, though the story did call for some obvious plot development into the final act that you can predict, especially if you're already way past your Romance Movie 101.

Not being your average lovey-dovey story, I thought The Milkwoman told a strong story with unrequited love as a central theme, and frankly a recommended romance movie (though told at a measured pace) if you're in the mood for some bittersweet loving, reminiscence, and seeking to live without regrets.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Harmful Insect (Gaichu)

Wherefore Art Thou?

I wonder what the English title of Harmful Insect alluded to, as I usually associate critters that do no good as pests, deserving of the right sole of boot, or that slap of a rolled up newspaper. Unless of course it referred to a couple of characters in the movie big or small, with the latter made up of lecherous men who can't wait to proposition the helpless school girl at every step of the way. Perhaps it made reference to somewhat frail creatures, who with the right tools and misguidance, able to do a lot of harm that for the particular crazed moment, they cannot comprehend the severity of their deeds.

Directed by Akihiro Shiota, Harmful Insect tells the story of a young schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki), whose father has mortally left her, and her suicidal mother compounding the problems that come with a broken home by her extreme mood swings, and hooking up with a boyfriend whom we know spells trouble from day one. We see that she skips school, and spends her days wandering the streets with a new found friend in a teenage delinquent, and Mr Kyuzo (Koji Ichikawa) a vagrant who is none too bright. Possibly her first real friends with whom she is able to connect, we see her happier days in a lingering, unspoken suggestion of romance, as well as a semblance of a dysfunctional family of sorts to belong to. They hang out, have fun, and even come up with dangerous though innovative ways to survive and "make a living".

Her tale can be broken into 3 acts, with the first being as described, dealing with her alienation from her proper place in society, in the school courtyard, and the second dwelling on attempts at trying to bring her back to where she belonged, thanks to the relentless efforts of her non-judgemental neighbour Natsuko (Yu Aoi), who turns out to be a pillar of strength for the girl, and her appointed guardian angel. I thought Natsuko as a character was a somewhat strong contrast to Sachiko, which you can tell from the very brief moments they interact, and even the kind of happier home that Natsuko comes from, in a scene so short, but tells a lot. And what more the act of self-sacrifice in giving up someone she loves (ok, so it might be puppy and even though debatable, you get the point) just to ensure that her friend finds some balance in her life, and to having someone else look out for her too.

But Sachiko's Miss Unpopular stigma gets stronger from an attempted act of violence, which leads us to the third and final act, with her flight from trauma. By now, events that develop on screen would already become quite episodic, as the story reads like a book, and plot threads open and close like a turning of a page. All these while we peer at letters written to a certain Mr Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe), which reads like diary entries explaining the inner thoughts of Sachiko, though I have to admit that at times they do seem abstract enough, and out of place.

While generally a quiet, slow moving movie, the sound design here alternates between tranquility, and really hard hitting loud noises ranging from falling marbles, banging on doors, the dragging of chairs in class, to the random jets flying overhead. Likely in echo of the character's state of mind, these loud noises do jolt you up from its peacefulness, knowing that there's always something negative brewing on the horizon. But while you think that the narrative's quite sedate, the payload actually gets delivered at the end, as you're likely to start to realize that you've been brought along for an exasperating journey all this while.

By the time the last 5 minutes play out and the end credits roll, you can't help but to feel a sense of pity, and anger even, at her giving up of hope, and falling into a web of deceit that she'll probably never be able to crawl out from. Then again, I'm second guessing that it's because of my negative nature adopted when viewing the story from tinted lenses made so by earlier unfortunate episodes of Sachiko's encounters with the wrong type of men, of being the kind of helpless schoolgirl jail bait that gets dangled in front of desperadoes. For all I know, she might be offered a job at a departmental store, or a fast food outlet. But who am I to kid?

Harmful Insect isn't that easy to sit through given its rather bleak nature, although its run time seemed to be a breezy less than 90 minute movie, which was anything but. You can feel its length as it keeps you guessing at some parts before providing you clear answers. But it will make you think in depth of the character of Sachiko and her possible aftermath, way after the end credits roll.

Monday, August 25, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Actress (Eiga Joyu)

Kinuyo Tanaka is the actress and one of the directors in focus in this season's Japanese Film Festival, but alas my work schedule had prevented me from watching a lot more of her works, be it those that she directed, or those she starred in. I have to admit though that those I did manage to catch, didn't really excite me, and I honestly thought her roles were rather pedestrian. I guess I have a lot of catching up to do, in order to understand what she's often heralded as one of the greatest Japanese actress there was.

And I left it to this 1987 movie directed by maestro Kon Ichikawa, to show me what I've been missing, in a dramatization of her life from her early days as an actress in the 20s, and ending quite abruptly in the 50s with her working with director Kenji Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). Whilst she had worked with some of the masters in Japanese Cinema, from Yasujiro Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) to Akira Kurosawa, it took another Japanese master in Ichikawa to have opened my eyes to the actress's body of works, and allowed me to understand a little bit more about her, and a whole lot more on the history of Japanese Cinema in general.

Actress is not just the story that charts the rise of Kinuyo Tanaka, played brilliantly by Sayuri Yoshinaga, who mesmerized and illuminated the screen with her charismatic performance of a legend, from her naively youthful days in pigtails, to coiffed professional veteran of the industry. We see how she started off in the studio system being one of many potential talents available, having her family's economical hopes all pinned on her, and down to having a sugar daddy of sorts in Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe) looking over her shoulder, whom she would get into and out of an unhappy secret marriage. Sayuri Yoshinaga provided that spark to endear herself to the audience, and needless to say, made me sit up and wonder just how the real actress was like in person, with her steely guts and perseverance in an industry that saw its brightest and darkest days during militarism and WWII.

The movie turned out also to have almost half the time spent as a pseudo-documentary of early Japanese cinema, tracking how moving pictures were imported to the country, and spawned an industry. Filled with plenty of recognizable characters as directors and stars from an era long gone, it also had actual film clips spliced into the movie, as well as some recreation of scenes, especially those starring Kinuyo Tanaka. From silent movies, to talkies, and to the advent of colour, it's almost Japanese film history 101, and I guess you'd come to appreciate little nuggets of information such as the studio system, and how cinema as a whole, had come to being from the early days. However, the lack of subtitles translating some of the movie stills was somewhat of a pity, as those who aren't familiar with films from that era (like ahem, me) may find yourself a bit lost. However, do pay attention to the dialogue though, because sometimes the narrative decides to super-summarize timelines, and have films, and eventful historical events, come through in dialogues between characters, which sometimes seemed rather artificial, as you surely don't expect anyone to converse in lecture style.

The last third of the movie was a little peculiar too, with a detailed focus on Kinuyo Tanaka's professional relationship with director Mizoguchi, where she clearly, in confidence, cannot fathom the director's rigid style and methods, and perhaps the unorthodox ways that he works, while he, in all his pomp, while acknowledging that the actress's suggestions and exasperation might have their merits, refuse to bow to professional pressure due to pride. They collaborated a number of times in their careers (which was also given the super-summary treatment), but had 2 key collaborations extrapolated for a detailed examination, and they made for engaging drama. One had to try and rein in her passion and keep within her boundaries, while the other had to try and open up to new ideas and suggestions.

So in essence, Actress had a bit of everything, despite being made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Kinuyo Tanaka's death. From being a showcase of Kinuyo Tanaka's early life and career, to being Japanese Cinema 101, I for one wished that this movie could go on further, despite its 130 minutes runtime, to show a lot more when Tanaka goes behind the camera and tries her hand at directing. But I guess to experience that, what more than to do so first hand with films having her at the helm?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

[DVD] Idiocracy (2006)

Man, I'm Smart

Mike Judge is best known for, and probably cut his teeth with his razor sharp sarcasm and wit on his Beevis and Butt-Head series. How does he perform now with live action and comedy set in a futuristic science fiction genre? Not a bad piece of entertainment for a rainy Sunday afternoon, though not exactly laugh out loud material from start to end.

The jokes here failed to go beyond the sight gags of making fun of conglomerates and fast food joints such as Carl's Jr, and I wonder how those executives take to their companies being made the butt of many jokes in the movie. Also, there seemed to be a pre-occupation with sex and money, with a number of jokes relying on the quick and the dirty to draw in the laughs. Sadly though, these fell really flat, as you could see them coming from a mile away, and unfortunately having the punch lines delivered without much impact.

However, the story though, had a lot of potential and actually set one thinking, especially in the current climate of low population figures here, and the local authorities getting into a frenzy to try and promote pro-family lifestyles, and dangling incentives to get our citizens to procreate to sustain a future. While we had this graduate-graduate pairing in hope to having intellectuals born to intellectuals, one wonders if the incentives would make any dent to these folks' ambition anyway when they work out the disincentives to having children, and the nightmare situation depicted here, is to have the dumb and dumber contribute the numbers, and well, dumb down the entire population gene pool. Scary thought eh, when natural selection goes to the dogs.

I hope I do not sound condescending here (and it's not my intent), but that forms the basis of Idiocracy, where the smart folks fail to re-populate themselves, and society in general have contributions coming from the less-intellectual because of their free loving, devil-may-care upbringing and irresponsibility. So given 500 years into the future, an average person leading an average life here, might seem as a genius to that dumbed down era. And that's exactly what happens to Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), an average Private in the armed forces who gets "volunteered" into a top secret program of soldier-hibernation, of keeping combat fit soldiers for the future to be used for conflicts then, when there's peacetime now.

And in a comedy, you'd come to expect things go awry at a drop of a hat, and the bulk of the jokes come from being in a dumb society who speaks improperly, and where the top-rated television programme is a Jackass clone. Sight gags go into overdrive here, and props keep things looking futuristic. But alas the story moves from set piece to set piece, following Joe through from a hospital, to court room, to jail, and finally to the White House, where he's made Secretary of the Interior to try and clean up the agricultural problem, and all the while trying to get new found friend Frito (Dax Shepard) to get him to a time-machine so that he can journey back 500 years to 2005.

The less illustrious of the Wilson brothers, Luke does pull off the exasperated Mr Average role here with aplomb, but the rest of the cast seem to go over the top with their performance as idiots, and made it a little difficult to sit through stilted performances, with some incredibly banal dialogue trying to pass off as humour. Like I mentioned, it could've been genuinely funny but it didn't, but thankfully it had its premise set up nicely, and provided food for thought of a future that could have Mother Nature pull a fast and funny one on mankind.

The Code 3 DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is presented in anamorphic widescreen format, with audio available only in 5.1 Dolby Surround English. Subtitles are available in English, Korean, Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese and Bahasa Indonesia, and scene selection is available over 20 chapters. When the disc is popped into the player, an anti-piracy video introduction gets played, which unfortunately cannot be skipped.

The only Special Features in the DVD is a set of Deleted Scenes presented in anamorphic widescreen, and removed probably because they didn't add much to the story or pace. Also, it's all polished, and not shots that were still not put into post-production. There are a total of 5 scenes here - Babies/Trashy Guy & Girl in Truck (0:11), Girlfriend #1 (0:47), Girlfriend #2 (0:27), Museum of Fart (1:05), Joe in White House looks out (0:26) - with a play all option available.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

[Japanese Film Festival] Floating Clouds (Ukigumo)

If you're looking for a movie that deals with clingy relationships, then Floating Clouds is without a doubt a movie that fits the bill to a T. Directed by Naruse Mikio and based upon the novel by Fumiko Hayashi, the female character in the movie will bring back memories of those who have had to deal with such stifling clinging, and well, for those who do act as such, a stark and accurate portrayal that would be akin to holding up a mirror and looking at oneself.

Hideko Takamine put up a commendable, if not personally what I deem as a remarkably irritating performance as Yukiko Koda, a woman perhaps with little self-esteem and respect, who decided to sacrifice an entire forest for one singular tree. Being sent to Indochina during WWII, she chances upon Kengo Tomioka (Masayuki Mori), and while he seemed to be prim and proper, and not giving her a second glance, soon they fall in love with each other, one despite having a wife back home, and the other, knowingly being the other woman.

But when the war ends and they get repatriated back to Japan, she looks him up, only to discover that he will not leave his wife, nor to rekindle their passion started in a foreign land. To make things worse, she discovers he's quite the cad, and to compound the problem, her insecurities and her paranoia makes you wonder why she can't afford to sever ties. It's one thing being made to suffer from unrequited love, but it's another if you are made to suffer deliberately, and bear witness to the insincerity of the other party. Running slightly over 2 hours, it does take its time to showcase the sorry state that Yukiko undergoes.

You can't really find fault with Naruse Mikio's direction of the movie - the handling of the narrative structure in the first act was deft, with the transition of time seamless, and the actors do their job to allow you to connect with their characters. However, like I mentioned, perhaps Yukiko Koda did such a fine job, that for me I found her to be a tad too irritating, even for my liking.

The Hunting Party


The first words that appear in the movie, told the audience something to the effect that only the most ridiculous or ludicrous of situations depicted, are true. And in fact, while it's supposedly based loosely on a true story off an Esquire article, there are enough of such said moments thrown into the mix so frivolously, that one would be forgiven should one think that this was entire made up. So what eventually held up the movie despite its wafer thin plot and hurried finale was the chemistry and banter between two charismatic actors in Richard Gere and Terrence Howard.

Narrated by Howard's Duck, a cameraman who's part of a tag team with Gere's gung-ho go-getting news reporter Simon, Duck recounts in the first 10 minutes the glory days of their partnership, where they brazenly dive right into conflict zones around the world just to live up the adrenaline, and gather awards, recognition and chicks along the way. But the Bosnian War in the 90s soon become the final straw that broke the camel's back of endurance on the evils of mankind, and coupled with the fact of personal loss, Simon loses it live on the air, and with that uncontrollable outburst, cost him his job and relegation from A-lister to scraping whatever unwanted news he can from places nobody is interested in.

As for Duck, he gets promoted to a cushy job working the cameras behind the scenes for a news anchor, and while the perks are good, he clearly misses the good ol' days of being shot at, and being at the forefront bringing conflict to the masses. Fast forward to 5 years after the conflict in Bosnia had ended, Simon and Duck meet again, and the former proposes one more collaboration between the two, that of snagging the much sought after interview with the war criminal known as The Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes), with rookie Benjamin (Jesse Eisenberg) in tow. What was soon discovered though, was Simon's personal quest for glory in wanting to arrest The Fox to claim the bounty of US$5M, which of course runs against the grain of the profession, and not to mention the escalating of risks involved.

There is potential plastered all over the movie which unfortunately when unfulfilled. For starters, the numerous cover ups of what could have been successful sting operations to make the necessary arrests. We all know how NATO and UN forces, well in fact the world, just stood back and watched while Bosnia burnt itself through ethnic cleansing, and how during the peacekeeping efforts thereafter, led to the discovery that the forces aren't doing much about the seeking and arresting of war criminals. The cover ups would have made this one huge web of conspiracy to sift through. However the hunting party had it too easy in just following a set pattern of hitting the bars for their clues, while encountering nasty locals who insinuate that their target was indeed around town. Supporting characters come and go, though the best were reserved for those men in uniform (love that Indian UN peacekeeper whose job was to train the local police), Diane Kruger in a role that could have been filled by any other blonde, and a welcome inclusion of Dylan Baker as a secret operative who's no fan of what our party of three got themselves into. And of course, not forgetting the self-fulfilling prophecy of having ludicrous moments in the story, which made it slightly comedic, unintentionally.

While the story's pretty much plain sailing, it is the charisma of both Gere and Howard that made this movie rather engaging, with one having nothing and thus losing nothing in this crazy, dangerous pursuit, and with the other having just about everything to lose from position, career and a hot chick in waiting. Sure there are other moralistic viewpoints that the movie could have, would have and probably should have adopted to make it a thinking man's movie, but what came across ultimately was a tongue-in-cheek rendition of a serious topic made frivolous by the many trivialities used to spice up the movie for mass entertainment. Could have been great, but alas.
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