Sunday, August 29, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Sweet Little Lies (Suîto Ritoru Raizu)

Should We Tell?

You see it happen all the time, where it's usually the guy having a good time at the arcade, or engrossed in a portable video game, and you wonder just what's going across their other half's mind – are they just going to sit/stand around and do nothing or peer into what the bells and whistles of the game is? I'd always thought that it's advantageous to spend quality time together, and if you have someone else distracted for the most parts when going out, one might as well head home. This is just relationships but what if it's crept into a marriage?

Sweet Little Lies is this year's Closing Film for the Japanese Film Festival, and it's a relatively new film, with the JFF/Singapore being the 4th country in the world to screen it. Based on the novel by Kaori Eguni and directed by Hitoshi Yazaki, it is not an easy film to sit through, and by that I mean that it's an excellent, engaging film, but poses a lot of real world questions that it'll probably take you a lifetime to figure out, if at all, and depending on which set of values you're subscribing at any point in time.

We see the house of married couple husband Satoshi (Nao Omori, whom I last saw in person at the gala premiere of The Laughing Policeman at TIFF last year) and Kuriko (Miki Nakatani), which to me is quite the life for the husband as the wife wakes up early to ready everything for him (OK, perhaps a compromise is made since she works from home making teddy bears), and then lovingly calls him up through gentle knocks on the bedroom window. On the surface it seemed like the perfect married life in a perfect little house, but for all the chic and functional furniture within, one can feel that the relationship has gone a little bit stale, but with nobody daring to rock the boat and communicate desires. The traditional roles of husband and wife are extremely well defined and dutifully executed as we bear witness to their painful routine, but we slowly see the cracks surfacing through instances like the calling of each other at home having to resort to the use of cellphones.

The film sets you thinking from the onset, and you'll be wondering whether it is a requisite for couples to share common interests in order to bind them together and sustain a relationship. Obviously both Satoshi and Kuriko share very little interests together, which makes it baffling how they managed to hook up in the first place, and staying married without a single quarrel over 3 years and counting. Some of us subscribe to that being a little bit fantastical, and are more convinced that arguments are inevitable and sometimes do lead to a better understanding. You'll also start to wonder if rising costs of living meant a child is out of the picture now, and whether physical intimacy does play that big a role as the glue, here one being unwilling to initiate, and the other being more interested in video games and music and secretly I think yearning the singlehood life where you have the liberty to do what you want, when you want, without consulting anyone else.

Both leads Omori and Nakatani present their stark differences in characters really well, having to sit on the fence in preferring the status quo, yet being unable and unwilling to assert for something more as we can observe from their nuanced performance. As the film alludes to, no relationship can survive without passion nor truth, which the narrative takes this litmus test on. It's different interests in each other in contrast to that of their respective stalkers (at the early point when they come into the picture) who shower their mark with plenty of much needed attention, like Miura (Chizuru Ikewaki) planting ideas onto Satochi with lunches every Wednesdays on her off days to meetings at nights, and Haruo (Junichi Kobayashi) increasingly bumping into Kuriko out of sheer coincidence, attending her bear product show versus her husband's absence which translates to not giving two hoots about supporting his wife, preferring to spend time in a virtual video game world. It's a marriage, or any relationship for that matter, doomed to failure with the writing already on the wall.

Yazaki's film challenges you to pass judgement, and it is this challenge that's not easy to do. You'll be confronted with a very wide incident base and scenes that knock on your beliefs, deciding how guilty is the guilty, and who's to blame in any expected fallout should it happen. On one hand you're provoked to point fingers, yet on the other you're rooting for the couple to somehow work out their differences or face utter destruction in their 3 years of spending their lives together, but despite knowing if it ends it should end, rather than to drag it out. With infidelity being cited as a key reason why couples separate, you want to get in on laying the blame, but only through careful thought as it's easy to point fingers on either, yet it takes two hands to clap.

It confronts your fundamental beliefs in the institution of marriage, especially what constitutes cheating - the desire, of not telling the other if something is not quite what it seems, or the deed itself? Which is more severe, cheating involving the body, mind or both? How do you draw the line, especially if I'm coming from the husband being quite the selfish chauvinist in not wanting to give up a little bit of time off his pursuits to help or support his wife. This in itself could be used as justification why someone will want to stray, then again, if the fundamentals are strong, who would? See the dilemma, which Yazaki continues to present throughout the film. We even hear a warning shot early in the film given by Kuriko, together with plenty of red herring moments, but we again see the double standards practiced.

As the adage goes there's no smoke without fire, and if not kept under control, it'll soon spiral all directions, like an addiction that has to be satiated, and looking at the characters, they're only momentarily happy but beneath are quite rotten to the core with guilt. Everything continues to be smooth sailing and only the audience is let in on who's doing what, and put in a position to reflect upon how one will handle similar situations, depending on where and how you draw the line.

One of the key questions as the film inches its way to the finale, will be whether the couple can maintain status quo as per the title in keeping their sweet little lies to themselves, or as part of matrimony decide to tell each other the truth. Will they be better off in doing so and living up to an honest relationship, or will ignorance still continue to provide that bliss? We learn guilt has already set in, yet didn't see whether both Satochi and Kuriko will be learning from their lessons. The film raises questions, but you're left on your own devices to provide the answer, which is never immediate. For those in relationships, this film plants that fear factor into you, questioning how much you know and trust someone else, and for those who are not, well, did this film set in motion that a trustworthy relationship is something of a pipe dream?

I'd like to reckon this film like an anti-thesis and companion piece to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, where a couple meets and contemplates a relationship because their spouses are cheating on them with each other. In this one, we go over to the other side and observe what happens when both spouses cheat, yet remain quite ambivalent about it all, each keeping their own titular sweet little lies. One film is steep in romanticism, while this one presents a frightfully possible reality through its cast performances and composition - cinematography under Isao Ishii is beautiful - that masks the underlying currents and trappings of a troubled relationship/marriage. Definitely one of the best films I've seen this year!

[Japanese Film Festival] Lala Pipo: A Lot of People (Lalapipo)

Toward a Greater Future!

It sure is a lala pipo (a lot of people) in this film, and it is this kaleidoscope of quirky characters that makes it a winner with its comedy. The opening cheekily deals with those who have, and the have nots, where the ying-yang opposites clash, and in this film presents characters on opposite sides of the spectrum of those who get to exercise their desires, and those who struggle in much desperate, mirth inducing fashion where different points of view get put across.

And it is the characters that make this a fun romp. We have Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) the freelance writer, whose physical size makes him the butt of the jokes in the first act, having no luck and quite down and out in the love department. He pleasures himself so often that he begins to hallucinate that his bro down below morphs into a cynical, sarcastic furry green puppet, who pops up every now and then to pass a remark or two, and complaint about being touched too often. I think this arc got the most laughs, whether politically correct, or not!

Then we have the flower of the story, Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) who goes from office lady to progress into various levels of the adult entertainment industry, starting from the relatively benign karaoke bars, to private bars that require the exercise of hands and mouths, before ultimately making her debut as an adult video star. Perhaps it is this arc that is pretty compelling to watch, as an innocent girl unknowingly becomes smitten with her pimp-boyfriend that she willingly enters the industry, but hey, the money's really obscene to begin with.

Tying very closely to her it that of her pimp/scout Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), who is constantly on the prowl for fresh meat. After all, he gets a first hand cut at all the perks and not to mention the commissions for every assignment that he progresses his recruit into. With his charismatic smile and non-threatening demeanour, it's really no wonder how many are taken into such modus operandi, through the provision of that emotional attachment, before it becomes all purely business. But of course this is someone with a heart of gold as it turns out, and comedy comes in large doses when he's assigned a matured AV star (Mari Hamada) to manage, who comes with a little twist in the story as well in bringing along her emotional baggage.

There are other characters and subplots which pad the film aside from these main characters, such as a k-box employee who's quite the delusional chap and imagines himself to be Captain Bonita (complete with, erm, large phallic protection and a suspiciously familiar looking mothership rivaling that from Austin Powers) whose mission is to save the world from smut that's even infecting him, and a chubby AV actress (Tomoko Murakami) who's actually quite the shrewd lady in know what she wants, and how to get her objectives fulfilled.

Ultimately, Lalapipo is just that, about people, whose lives all intertwine in ways you may deem too coincidental and befitting of only a film, but frankly, you'd never know how serendipitous things can actually be. It also provided quite the holistic, though comedic look at the entire adult industry in Japan and its pop and cultural influences on people and their attitudes toward it. It's light-hearted, yet if you sit back and think about it, it's almost a means to an end for most of these characters with a dream to fulfill, and perhaps a reflection of ours as well, be it for love, acceptance, or even a career.

[Japanese Film Festival] Directions - NDJC 2008

I had originally intended to skip this session to get much needed rest, but watching the great selection of films from NDJC 2007 graduates convinced me that this morning's session from the graduates of 2008 was worth the getting up early for. Again a mixed bag of films that do their best to appeal to a wide spectrum of audience, one thing you cannot deny is the fact that they are all crafted with technical and storytelling skills.

A Lying Woman's Daybreak
Yuriko the piano teacher is going about her usual classes from the confines of her home studio, until a loud banging sound of nails on her main door interrupts her ongoing class, together with the loud chants of impolite words cursing at her for being the other woman in another marriage. Disgraced, she goes from teacher to becoming a bento preparer/packer, working in a shop until her past accidentally catches up with her.

With the cover of a new life blow, the film moves at a more frenetic pace with the introduction of subplots that make you wonder, here's a film that actually puts the character through the pain of what others have felt before, and the going through of that guilt trip. And the pain Yuriko feels won't be lost on one because it deals with how others will look at and perceive you should there be any whisper of moral wrongdoing, and how at times others will take advantage of situations.

What I thought was poignant in the story was how Yuriko was able to take an objective look from the outside at a predicament similar to what she has gone through, seeing first hand the extremes of a wrath from the side of the wife, and how another is made miserable and to suffer for it, with family members also affected inevitably. Sometimes being embroiled with someone else's problems provide an opportunity to take stock of ours, and the finale, let's just say that it's a life goes on approach, with a long road ahead that requires courage to deal with issues head on.

Urara is a geeky female whose lack of fashion sense and dull attitude makes her the ripe target for bullying by her office colleagues, and even at home, where she suffers in silence since her mom and sister offer her no reprieve from the constant jibes, and worst, contribute some of their own. Then all of a sudden, every repressed feeling has got to be released, and Urara goes through a bizzare and massive transformation from geek to hot chick, like something inside her head finally snapping, and suddenly in her new found confidence, able to take on challenges and succeed.

Perhaps this is a reminder to all out there that the key to a more interesting, fulfilling and colourful life, is courage and confidence to be who you really are, and to be comfortable in one's skin, rather than to force a disguise and then puppet play through your life. You may be geeky and timid, but that doesn't mean continuously taking the shit from everyone around you. One tip though in the film, Smile! It's really totally different if you beam wide with pride and genuine happiness, and seriously, I'm in love with Urara's smile that in a single scene just assures you that all is going to be well.

Curiously though, this film ended in almost similarly uncanny ways as the earlier short, as it had the protagonist on a mounted vehicle riding toward a seemingly endless road ahead, which promises of a better life since they are headlong toward a destination far away.

The Sparkling Amber
I had thought the first short would likely be a firm favourite, until this one came along that justified the 2.5 hours put into watching the class of 2008. Ryoko lives with her widower dad and twice a week his new girlfriend Michiko will come visit. It's still new into their relationship and understandably Ryoko is apprehensive about the intents of Michiko like all daughters would when there's an appearance of another woman perhaps competing for her dad's affections. But the outcome of this film after its set up for something big with a urine test and Ryoko's dad becoming a substitute, makes this an interesting tale on a rather dysfunctional family trying hard to be normal, and what comes out of it is an episode that reinforces family ties and love.

It's a fine family drama that deals with the dread of loss, with the audience in on it with additional knowledge of how it's going to develop, only for the director to pull the rug from under our feet in a way we'd appreciate that it's done.This interesting twist compensates for the downcast feelings of unnecessary distress since you're likely to feel for the characters thanks in large parts to the actors' performances, and has enough bittersweet moments in it. They inevitably engage and draw you into their family. Film also highlights the power of close family ties and love within those who share the same blood (and the wannabes) although I was a little bit let down by the final revelation on the outcome of this unique family unit that shared a memorable event together.

There's a small scene which was quite morbid, and frankly I thought that if a lot would be loss if this scene was snipped. Thankfully good senses prevailed and it was't a hasty decision made without seeing the whole film in context.

This edition is like a pendulum swing, where the previous was something satisfying and touching, but this particular one being quite baffling. Michiyo and her mom relocates to the countryside, and en route to and from her new school, Michiyo passes by a mysterious looking well in the middle of a sprawling field. For some reason, she enjoys standing on it, deciding to live dangerously. You'd come half expecting something to jump out from the well and scare the living daylights out of her. But no, and instead, you get a mysterious old man popping up, someone who deems himself a demon of sorts predicting Michiyo's death in 3 days. What happens will tread the realm of the fantastical, and frankly, not a favourite of mind although like the previous edition you got to tip your hat to the director's bold vision and idea in willingness to try something challenging.

A Third Skin
And to round things up is a musical piece that's touching yet sad at the same time. We follow the routine of a young homeless pianist who plays for his passion, which is to spread the love through free music, playing in a park for all and sundry to enjoy the simple pleasures of listening to an aurally pleasing tune. At the end of a session he'll wrap everything up and push his piano to a corner, waking up the next day to perform again. Alas a group of violent teenage ruffians decide to change all that, and through their inexplicable and destructive ways, burn the piano.

Help comes in the form of another homeless lady who lives in an abandoned tunnel, where she has amongst her found possessions, an old piano that needed some serious tuning. Through the repairing of an instrument comes a story of friendship, and the give and take of one, where a shared connection doesn't always mean taking and not giving, which is clearly meted out here with invaluable gifts that friends bring to the table. Like the films before it, the film also opts for a rather bittersweet ending since a piece of unfinished business gets completed, but at what a price. You'd definitely wonder why the need to end it the way that it did, although it certainly steered clear from the usual conventions.

Perhaps that's how the group of filmmakers were chosen each year, for that extra something that they bring and contribute, rather than to rely on the same old without the courage to challenge conventions and tell bold, original stories.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Live Tape (Raibu Têpu)

Like A Busker

As the festival started for some reason I took note that there were a number of great musical pieces in most of the films presented, but I suppose Live Tape is a different ballgame altogether, with music almost end to end of its 74 minute duration, following the musician Kenta Maeno as we walk in and around Kichijoji, Tokyo in what would be one continuous take involving 15 different songs being performed live on the streets.

Opening with following a cute looking girl (Tsugumi Nagasawa) in a demure pink kimono at the Musashino Hachimangu Shrine, we soon meet up with Kenta Maeno for that extraordinary journey that will keep you guessing whether it was improvised, or staged. It's a musical-documentary film of sorts that defies convention, but you won't have time to dwell on the many questions as your attention will soon be arrested by the more than interesting background happenings. With people obviously conscious that a film is being made and they stand around to stare, it is in the audience's looking back at what's captured, and the little human background interactions at times, that makes this film a delight to sit through.

Director Matsue was a director-in-attendance guest at the Japanese Film Festival before, and local audiences will be no stranger to him and his films. Here we do hear and then see him appear in front of the camera to perform a quick chat with his subject, the musician Kenta Maeno, and through this moment that a lot more was revealed as to why and how the film was made. It is through interruptions such as these that allow Maeno to interact with the public, and even take a breather and drink, since this was shot under cold weather conditions.

There's a good mix of slow and fast numbers, all of which were excellent to sit through even though I had to rely on subtitles to understand what was being sung, some of it really being hilarious lyrics to read off the subtitles. In any case, music cuts through language barriers, and even without reading what it means, feeling the rhythm as Kenta Maeno moves through the streets of Tokyo, already makes this musical-documentary a winner. It's no wonder why it was awarded the Best Picture Award under the Japanese Eyes section of the Tokyo International Film Festival last year.

For those interested to know the full set list of what's being performed, here it is: Summer at 18, Tofu, Fat on My Heart, 100 Years From Now, The Living Me, Fat on My Heart, Mansion, This Body, Romance Car (with Er Hu), Can't Be Just Friends, The Message, Dance (with Saxophone), Sad Song, The Blue Room, Weather Forecast (with The David Bowies band) and Tokyo Story.


There was a short video clip screened at the end of Live Tape which had director Tetsuaki Matsue recount his days when he was in Singapore, and the message to all fans here was to explain some of the technicalities such as being filmed on a small miniDV camera on 1 Jan 2009 around the area of Kichijoji where he was brought up. He also hoped that the film will be able to resonate with the audience here, since there would be some similarities with Singapore that the local audience can hopefully take away.

I had missed the gala premiere of Live Tape when at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) last year, and festival director Gavin Liu, who was there, shared in a post screening discussion that he had met director Tetsuaki Matsue and Kenta Maeno as well. He also revealed *spoilers* "... even though the route was rehearsed, this film captured a 74 min moment in which anything that happened would have been shown as it is, which is itself is a beauty as it captured the spontaneous decisions to react to the policemen and at the park", the former because permits had to be obtained to shoot where they wanted/had to, and the latter with getting away for performing at the venue by saying that they were rehearsing, as the venue only has 12 scheduled performances per year.

Here are the interview clips conducted with the TIFF winners, where Tetsuaki Matsue was sharing the stage / panel with Ounie Lecomte, who directed A Brand New Life.

Part 1 of 12

Part 2 of 12

The Stool Pigeon (铫人 / Sin Yan)

I'm Cool Like That

This is the stuff of what Hong Kong action crime thrillers are made of, with the sets being the real streets of the city upon which a high intense cop and robbers drama unfolds, and engaging characters that you actually care about. Already having given us Fire of Conscience earlier this year, it seems that there is nothing stopping hot property of the moment Dante Lam, who had helmed hard hitting same genre movies such as Sniper and Beast Stalker, which starred Liu Kai Chi, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung in leading roles reuniting for Stool Pigeon, looking set to have been improving film by film, and frankly is fast becoming a firm favourite storyteller of mine for Asian crime thrillers after Johnnie To with his consistency for gripping edge of your seat material.

Thanks to the success of Infernal Affairs, we've seen in recent years a fair share of police dramas that deal with that of an undercover cop either battling his loyalty and allegiance, his return to a life of normalcy, or even have his persona spill over to real life through immense popularity in the cult character, like Laughing Gor. We know that the police have as part of their investigative arsenal the infiltration of undercover cops, but what's often overlooked is the role of the police informant in a leading role, until now.

Dante Lam's story is extremely engaging in its examination of this peculiar outsourced role, where one is backed by the formalities of contract to define a relationship of transactional nature – material wealth in exchange for critical information, with bonuses to come with milestones achieved too! But such dangerous work close to where the action is with risks involved doesn't impact a police personnel, and this is clearly a win situation for the cops because this risk of being caught and maimed/killed in the course of an accidental discovery is transferred to a non-uniformed person, often someone desperate enough and comfortable to be living on the fringes of society, such as an ex-criminal. But being human, the cops have to learn to not become closer than necessary to their informants, so as to minimize guilty pangs should there be a need to no longer support them, and literally to throw them to the sharks for the greater good – the tragic irony of it all.

Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung swap sides now from Beast Stalker, and Tse plays the role of Ghost Jr, an ex-convict released only to find his sister being pimped by the underworld to pay off their dead father's gambling debt. After some deliberation he takes on the offer by Cheung's inspector Don, and officially in the eyes of the law Ghost becomes Don's informant, with a direct line to his handler and if necessary being able to waiver any arrest if made during the course of his work as an informant. His role is to infiltrate and report back on the gang activities of Barbarian (Chinese actor Lu Yi) and his wife (played by Kwai Lun-Mei), who are planning a jewellery shop heist, and are in need of a driver, where Ghost's skills will come into handy.

Just like how Donnie Yen is discovering a new lease of life in his career as an action hero, Nick Cheung, once overlooked as leading man material, now finds new ground in crime thrillers, and being equally adept at both positive and negative roles just brings out the wide spectrum of his acting abilities. Dante Lam's cop character so far have always been flawed and pained, and being dedicated time meant a subplot involving his wife and relatives, which serve to deepen the character's backstory. In fact, the many human drama that Lam injects into his characters all provide them a lot of depth rather than to be just that one-dimensional role most cops and robbers story tend to trap themselves into .

For instance, Kwai Lun-Mei's gangster moll role is something that's totally different from her usual sweetie pie ones, and she has enough of what it takes to pack a punch in this genre, which is surprising to say the least, in both delivery and providing to be the wildcard in Stool Pigeon. Boldly casting her against type is what I felt showed the courage of Lam and team to explore new ground (including Stool Pigeon's premise) and having seasoned actors, each of whom have won acting awards in recent years, also serves as an indicator that you're getting powerful performances all round.

Action-wise, Stool Pigeon is no sitting duck. While time is devoted to the human drama, action is not just left to plain boring gunfights, as there are a lot more moments here involving chases from vehicles to foot and hide and seek that provides most of the thrills with its superb editing and execution, either in a crowded market evading a swarm of cops, or between apartment units to avoid detection. Like most Dante Lam films, the finale provides that bang for the buck, and Stool Pigeon has one of the most intense sequences he had come up with thus far, set in an abandoned school where the set design provides a visually arresting feast for the eyes, while your heart feels and roots for characters going all out for each other's throats.

I'd prefer this over Fire of Conscience, and easily is a contender for one of the best films this year! Highly recommended, and I'll be more than keen to watch this in its original Cantonese language track.

[Japanese Film Festival] Mime-Mime

World At Her Feet

So far we've been treated to 35mm prints of classics filmed the traditional way, but advances in camera technology means we'll begin to see a proliferation of consumer grade handheld DV cameras being used to make feature films of reasonable quality. Mime-Mime is one such film where writer-director Yukiko Sode has a story to get off her chest, so why not do so given the means readily available?

Mime-Mime opens with the audience staring at a bobbing female head. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's going on when she emerges after a while, wet around her mouth. Then it's the post-coitus smoke where we see Makato (Niijima Ayaco) in the room of her high school teacher, much to the disgust of visiting female students when they see the lovers in positions enough to suggest what's going on behind closed doors.

As with the theme of Youth this year, Mime-Mime follows the confused ordeals of an indifferently cool teenage girl who can't hold down a permanent job, and like most young adults, are finding and groping around their way in the dark to try and discover their calling. Meanwhile, Makato has to satisfy her desires, and so explains her weekly counselling and release sessions with her high-school teacher-lover, who's obviously in it as a no-strings attached F-buddy. Makato lives in a messy bachelorette pad, is disorganized and frankly living a very lonely and emotionally empty urban lifestyle where getting trashed in a pub is the best she could do. She has no objectives in life and is emotionally unstable, so it does get a wee bit difficult to try and identify with her predicament since she hardly takes any positive steps forward.

But the film is not about the constant moping and whining Makato finds herself in, even though her exterior can hardly betray what she's running away from, but just not aware yet. It's about breaking out of our boxed shells, and for Makato it's from the lifestyle she's most comfortable with, to in her own words, wanting to lead a decent life from a life of decadence thus far. The most symbolic gesture she will ultimately do, will be to break her own taboo of cutting the hair of friends and acquaintances, and to do so on her own. Trust me I know of folks who do that, where it's akin to a vow of trying to get themselves into a new life, a breakaway from troubles created by and to disassociate with the old facade, and to give themselves an opportunity to start afresh.

And the journey to achieve that comes with enough drama and comedy, courtesy of a series of events such as her mom remarrying, and various testy relationships blowing both hot and cold. The one major impact will be her childhood friend Nakaji coming back into her life, for some reason ended up being her roommate, and a budding romance that seems to be more platonic as he helps to provide that pillar of strength and geeky courage to encourage her to move forward rather than to be stuck in a rut, and best of all his intention of bringing her out for camping, is one of those quirky ideas that will elicit some comedic disbelief into his level of geekiness. The other highlight would be the dreadfully awkward conversions around the dinner table early in the film, and amongst all films that have dinner table conversations, this one stood out amongst the best.

It was the wonderful contemporary soundtrack that kept this film from sinking into pessimism and the drone of negativity (I for one am hardly a fan of such a mood), with some nice cinematographic moments that I'd thought would have looked absolutely gorgeous if captured on traditional 35mm film.

[Japanese Film Festival] Directions - NDJC 2007

This weekend's installment consists of another section that the Festival is focusing on in alignment with its theme of Youth, and that's the New Directions in Japanese Cinema, selecting short films that are part of the yearly 5 shorts output under VIPO (Visual Industry Promotion Organization) where film-making skills are imparted to young creative talents, and they're put through the paces to make 30 minute films on 35mm. The goal of course is to discover the next generation of Japanese feature film directors, and looking at the varied works of what's in store, you'd never know if one of them will make the jump to the feature real soon. Today's session is taken from the 2007 graduates, and tomorrow's will be from the 2008 batch.

A Bus To Heaven
Amongst all the shorts today, this remained my firm favourite, perhaps because I have a soft spot for romantic tales. We see two friends Yuzo and Tora celebrating the former's birthday in a restaurant, although it was supposed to be Yuzo celebrating with his girlfriend Miki, if not for an argument arising from Armageddon (Bruce Virus and Liv Lighter, ha!) - another reference to this Michael Bay film from the Festival selection - and the discovery that Miki is actually a hostess aspiring to be an actress. Yuzo is unable to accept this deception and her choice of a career, hence their separation.

The second act takes place on a "party bus", so deemed by Tora as a birthday gift to Yuzo because it is the public bus ride from Shibuya via Roppongi to Shinbashi that is packed with hostesses seated at the back of the bus, and Tora being prepared to let out the secret of his picking up of women that involves being the livewire in a makeshift party atmosphere onboard. I really wonder if this can happen in Singapore! It is through this act that we see how Yuzo has his mind broadened, that we should not judge a person by their occupation - it's still an honest means of living, and they are human too with dreams of their own.

The last part is of course having everything pan out as intended, focused on reconciliation and frankly, here's where the saccharine sweet moments come in when a man with his mind open can start to humble himself and take the initiative to pursue his path to happiness, with a little help from the outside from friends who care, and bother to make things happen. Comes complete with generous doses of comedy!

Good Bye, George Adamski
And yet we begin the film set in another bus! We see a man with a pacemaker at the priority seat creating a scene with every passenger who sits beside him and whipping out their mobile phone. In what would be a case of serendipity, this man Sadayuki, turns out to be the childhood friend of Haruo, whom Sadayuki had chased away from the seat earlier. We then learn from Haruo's flashback about Sadayuki back during their school days, where the latter was obsessed with UFOs, and tragedy struck him when they were en route to a forested mountaintop.

Now having to bump into Haruo again, Sadayuki managed to convince Haruo into following him to meet up with Nagasawa the UFOlogist, and that forms the basis of this story about friendship, and how no matter how crazy it may be or sound, friends when we bump into each other, almost always continue where we last left off. Some light comedy found itself through to the delusions of Sadayuki who adamantly believes he and his friends have been inserted by alien microchips, as well as his perverted pranks played on unsuspecting females by the lifting of their skirts, which will prove to be his downfall.

It's a little bittersweet because as a friend, you do no know whether to walk away from someone who behaves so irrationally, or to stick to him thin and thick because after all, that's what friends are for.

Seismic Girl
If delusional characters aren't enough in the previous film, then Seismic Girl will more than compensate that for you. Here, Mitsuko brandishes a knife from he onset, and we here her state her fears of having Satoshi to pursue his earthquake research dream in the USA, because his ex-girlfriend Yuri will be in tow as a fellow roommate. I suppose it boils down to trust, though understandably for someone like Mitsuko, she fears the threat posed by Yuri, who comes from a pedigree family.

Hearing about the legend of the Catfish Stone, said to have prevented earthquakes from being felt in the town of Miyama, Mitsuko makes plans to get rid of this stone because if quakes existed in their town, then her boyfriend will find no reason to go overseas since they happen at their doorstep. This leads to a catfight between two women out to ensure that their beloved man chooses them over the other, and what happens in the end seemed like a karmic wheel of transformation because one has defiled an artifact out of sheer frustration. Moral of the story - never step on two boats with one leg.

This is perhaps the most ambitious short of the lot presented today, consisting of only 1 leading actor and 2 support ones, in what would be an unconventional tale told in a fairly abstract fashion that dwells on the notion of what if a plant or tree, being living things, can talk, and what they will feel about and talk about on a daily basis. We see a man in a hole in the ground, but this man is no man, and his monologue is not about escape, but rather an observation on the things that he saw while being rooted to the ground. It's a talking, singing man-plant, specimen 4923!

It's almost as if it's a one man monologue throughout if not for a little boy who comes round to play with whatever's available, symbolizing how the young can embrace nature, and an older man who is the tree doctor, ensuring all tree samplings have the opportunity to grow big and strong... unless Nature has other plans such as the threat of a lighting strike. It's a nature story, and it is to the actor's credit that he is able to keep us engaged with his tree-like antics.

Restaurant UFO
This is my second favourite short this morning, set in a town famous for its UFO sightings, so much so that all businesses will declare a 50% off on days when a UFO is sighted. But of course the story tells more of this, and at one point talks about its low birthrates, as all the girls in the town are moving to the bigger cities for a chance at better opportunities in life. Schoolgirl Yu also harbours the same hopes, and is contemplating delivering newspapers to get a scholarship to enter a university in Tokyo.

But of course this migration will mean to leave her dad's restaurant, much to her dad's displeasure. We see how Yu is a critical resource to his business since her mom had walked out on them for another man. And we know how busy business can be when UFO sightings are reported and the business has to honour its discounts, made worse when unscrupulous business people take advantage of such clauses to help boost sales when more people hit the shops to enjoy up to 50% off. Talk about exploitation, and the calling in of fake sightings.

For a film that's 30 minutes long, it sure packed a couple of subplots, including Yu's conversations with Takeshi, a boy who had chosen to abandon Tokyo to return home to help out in his dad's business, as well as the reappearance of Yu's mom to seek her family's forgiveness. In some ways the film talks about how any youth will want to take advantage of their natural desire to want to seek flight from home to journey the world in search of their oyster, and yet how at the end there is almost always no place like home. It's incredibly moving toward the end even though it started off with a quirky premise, and has its beautiful snowing landscape at one point to thank for that made this film a beauty to look at.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Bare Essence of Life Ultra-Miracle Love Story (Urutora Mirakuru Rabu Sutôrî)

Deep Breath

As festival director Gavin Liu mentioned, the selection thus far and for films to come are from directors who are either starting out with their rookie feature film effort, or into their second film. I suppose this clearly ties in with the theme of Youth as well, and not to mention that Bare Essence of Life stars one of teenage fandom's most versatile actors Ken'ichi Matsumaya. After all, he starred in the very popular Death Note series, as well as its spin off L: Change The World, and I believe his films thus far had always been relatively successful at the box office in Singapore, which accounted for the full house in today's screening.

But this film isn't the usual popcorn blockbuster that we normally associate Ken'ichi Matsumaya with, and through his performance here my respect for his spectrum of emotions got bumped up a notch. Ken'ichi plays Yojin, an eccentric organic farmer boy who stays with his grandmother and picked up his green thumbing skills through taped recordings of his grandfather, to varying degrees of success. If there was any movie character seen this year that exhibited similar behavioural traits, then it will be Shah Rukh Khan's Rizwan who suffers from Asperger's Disease. Yojin is equally impulsive, and possess this man-child quality that only Ken'ichi can make it both equally irritable, and lovable at the same time.

He's the ultimate unpredictable live-wire, and can invoke a vege-war should his ego be bruised. Being very popular with children especially when they play at his exasperated expense, Yojin's very routine nine to five life got disrupted by the introduction of a new kindergarten teacher Michiko (Kumiko Aso) into their town of Aomori. Yoji's heart stirs for Michiko, who had escaped from Tokyo to start life afresh, since her fiance and his secret lover had died in a fatal car accident, with the former having his head sliced off an never found. Talk about the bizzare that will be more bizzare as the tale gone on.

But not before seemingly looking like an against the odds romance story with two individuals brought together with the promise of a big scaled Potato Festival, having to spend quality time through their walks home, with one being infatuated with the other, and the other being nonchalant about the affections shown. A major incident then happens involving being buried in soil and sprayed with pesticide, where Yojin changes and becomes a more serious man with only traces of his child like demeanour left. The supporting characters of the limping principal, a psychic consultant and her gossipy grandchildren, Yojin's grandma and the doctor he frequents who has an estranged son, all make for small distractions from what's to come eventually.

I can't quite put my finger on the intent of the message in this film, nor the themes it wanted to touch on since the last hour became totally surreal and fantastical, and had this ominous air to it yet laced with a tinge of light black comedy. Yojin fuels his change with continued dousing of home-made pesticide which he believes will make him more normal for continued acceptance by Michiko, and seriously I wonder the lengths anyone would go to induce change just to be with somebody.

But that's not all. We see Yojin's interaction with a walking dead man (Arata from Air Doll, unrecognizable without his head). Then Yojin suffers from intense vomiting before turning into a walking zombie (no, it's not of the George A Romero variety that craves human flesh), and I thought it tried to talk about the evolution of life, since Yojin had broached the topic of evolution and the necessity for change if he was to continue in his relentless pursuit of his lady love.

But the final shot is the one that took the cake, involving the consumption of brain matter! It's insanely outrageous and will likely make you squirm from the morbidity of it all, even if the prop looked more plasticky-jello like and doused with generous doses of strawberry to make it more palatable. The tired mind of mine preferred to call it quits then and fully agree that it's indeed an Ultra-Miracle Love Story alright, written and directed by Satoko Yokohama.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Water Flower (Mizu No Hana)


For some reason unexplained the thought of Yasmin Ahmad's Muallaf came to mind when I read the premise of this film. The only remote connection these two films shared, is how a pair of siblings are on the run from their parents, with one parent thinking that the older sister had abducted the younger one. In Water Flower, Minako (Saki Terashima) does just that, but on her seven year old half-sister Yu (Himawari Ono) when she enticed the latter to escape with her to Aihama with the promise of toys and an ocean view.

I suppose once you strike that emotional connection with a small kid, they're more than likely to follow you especially when you deliver promise after promise of a fun time. More so when both Minako and Yu share some common DNA coming from the same mother Shiori, who had separated from Minako's dad, and forming a new family nucleus with Yu, and in some ways abandoning the teenage Minako. The introduction dwells on establishing this fractured family dynamics and challenges to livelihood, setting the narrative for that chance meeting and encounter between the two half sisters at an arcade, where one is frustrated by the mom's inability to send her to ballet lessons, and the other running away from a dad who made sexual advances in a drunken stupor.

From then on the story focused on the serendipituous manner in which the parents come together to look for their children, who spend their days in play at the house of their grandparents. Nothing much happens as the narrative stepped aside for aesthetics to take over, where every shot is nicely framed, and brings a sense of peace and quiet to two girls who find solace in each other's company from their respective topsy-turvy lives, with Minako inevitably serving as the surrogate mother to Yu.

Written and directed by Yusuke Kinoshita, when compared to the films in this year's lineup so far, this is probably the quietest of them all, especially when contrasted against the black and white classics which each had an agenda to push through to the masses. Water Flower is paced leisurely, and personally I still felt it had pulled its punches at the finale, where it opted to be open ended when there was no real need to. Still, it was probably the only way to end the film without condemning one of the protagonist as irresponsible and reckless in thw way things get developed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] A Stranger of Mine (Unmei Janai Hito)

So What's For Dessert?

Today marks the start of a series of paid screenings of the Japanese Film Festival, which if you do not already know comes in two parts, the first being the free ones that celebrate the classics and masters of Japanese cinema. The contemporary offerings get its air time now, and in this year's selection comes a number of films programmed from Japan's oldest film festival, the PIA Film Fest. I haven't seen a film coming out of that festival till now, and if this film is any indication on the kind of quality we could be expecting over the next few days, then I can't wait!

Written and directed by Kenji Uchida, A Stranger of Mine begins with what I thought would have made it a fine romantic film. Maki (Reika Kirishima) decides to leave her cheating fiance, and pawns her engagement ring for 3500 Yen. Literally packing up all her troubles in an old kit bag, she wonders about town alone and dejected, wallowing in self pity before finally ending up in a restaurant where Kanda (So Yamanaka) is reminding Miyata (Yasuhi Nakamura) that age is catching up on the latter and that he should forget about Ayumi (Yuka Itaya) the girl who had dumped him. A coincidental meeting of someone from the opposite sex is just about never going to happen to people over 30 years of age and to create an opportunity for his friend, Kanda gets Maki to sit with them before he disappears, leaving the two strangers to sink or swim with their new found acquaintance.

So begins what would be an episode of emotional connection through awkward conversations going nowhere before some certainty in a friendship emerges, and from then on I thought it's about two broken, lonely souls connecting and rediscovering the beauty of being in a relationship should they take the leap of faith together. In some ways their conversations around town hints at Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset, and some of the most beautiful love stories can actually happen in the simplest fashion with two interacting lead characters when their conversational pieces strike a chord emotionally between themselves and with an audience who identify with the topics at hand.

Hold you horses, buster, it is not this film! Uchida throws all that romanticism out of the window, and opts for a filmic romanticism of the non-linear narrative, where this film is not about two lonely, broken souls, but about 5 persons in total, offering a lot more to the entire story with the respective character arcs that enriches the entire story unfolding a series of events in 24 hours, giving us the expose on who the characters actually are, probing their intent and providing a multi-faceted look at their motivations, some uncanny, mostly comedic, some hopeful, while others scheming.

I'm all for non-linear narrative films, and am a sucker for them actually because of the way the filmmaker keeps you in suspense for the most parts, before slowly revealing the plot in a way that adds a little something to the film. This revelation doesn't need to be linear as well, and has to be done with skill so that the individual segments still made sense, is self-contained to tell a sub-story, and yet easy enough for an audience to pick up on certain cues meant to glue the rest of the segments together. Uchida succeeds on all counts, and what finally got delivered is a romantic comedy with characters we care for, even if they are fearsome gangsters, scheming fatales or wimpy nerds.

Just what about happens in the rest of the film best remains to be experienced yourself, so I'm going to keep mum about it. But I assure you that after Fish Story, this merits itself as one of the highlights of the festival experience thus far, and I'd enjoy a good madcap caper or two that demonstrated how the most innocuous of intent, with that proverbial suitcase of money and the necessity of Asian society and in general people across the board, to place a premium on face, and the saving of it. Certainly these were elements enough for Uchida to imaginatively craft a tale out of, and out came this superb film as a result.

As a character mentioned early in the film that nothing is coincidental, take it as a cue of what is on offer in the film, where you'd come to appreciate the intricacies of the storyline where every incident happens with purpose, makes sense and provides a lot of fun when the cat is let out of the bag, right up until the end credits, and more. It worked perfectly when a friend quipped “like that only ah”” and the end credit surprise came up for that coda. Made his day, and mine definitely.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Hogs and Warships (Buta To Gunkan)

If Looks Could Kill

Shohei Imamura films continue to be showcased in the Japanese Film Festival, and Hogs and Warships is a tale of pimps, gangsters and prostitutes put together in a melting pot that is the streets of Yokosuka, a port town where US Navy personnel spend their R&R in postwar Japan. And I suppose you know that means painting the town red with drink and women, with the Japanese folk all eager to make a quick buck through the provision of services.

I think there is no love shown here in painting, through the course of the film, how the pigs can refer to both the American soldiers - where the rowdy rank and file chasing skirts to bed, and the officers portrayed as more than willing to keep mistresses - and the Japanese men themselves who are pimping their town/city/country, where everyone's thinking of making good money in the shortest possible time. As an outcome, there's a whole load of black comedy that Imamura crafts in the film, where gangsters are constantly scheming and looking to outwit rivals, and the women well, relegated to either the backlanes waiting for pimps to bring in business, or pandering to the notion of being a kept woman for a better life overseas.

Hogs and Warships, or Pigs and Battleships, begins with showing the bleak picture of the impoverished in Yokosuka out to make a living through all means possible, despite the clamp down on bars and establishments by the Shore Patrol, that seems more symbolic and hence hypocritical in nature even, where a prostitute lashes out at a SP personnel for visiting her brothel just before the closure. After a quick introduction we're introduced to the protagonists in the lovebird couple Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura, who followed up this film with Onibaba, also featured in last year's JFF), one on each side of the sexes to touch on their respective strategies to better their lives.

Kinta's the quintessential easy-going, happy go lucky and unlikely gangster, where he thinks the money is with running with the gangsters, although he soon finds out his recruitment besides helping to operate the black market hog business, is to become the fall guy for practically everything that goes wrong for the gang, from the comical disposal of a corpse, to taking the rap for the gangster chief should it come down to that. With that comes the promise of riches beyond his imagination, with which he can pursue his dream of becoming a band manager.

Haruko is that steely lady that we've come accustomed to with Imamura's characterization of the fairer sex. Like the other romantic leading ladies in films like A Flame at the Pier and Good for Nothing, they possess this inexplicable hope that they are able to change their man through love. Here, Haruko persuades quite unsuccessfully for Kinta to give up his life of crime, wanting him to work in a factory, which to Kinta is a dead end job. The story of Haruko serves to be more interesting than the rest, especially through Jitsuko Yoshimura's performance where in the finale you can feel her resolve jumping right out of the screen in her determination to create a new life away from the old one where mistakes have been made and old hopes shattered.

It's the life and times of the working class during the era, and comes with a scene that's much talked about when all hell breaks loose on the streets of Yokosuka, where everything, including hundreds of pigs, comes together for that literal big bang finale complete with action, comedy and that tinge of poignancy even. With cinematography at its inventive best (the continuous spin from an eye in the sky angle when Haruko finds herself trapped in trouble was totally unexpected and made quite an impact on the passage of time), I found myself more interested with a glancing look at how the pachinko machine was manually operated at the backend by a number of hostesses working to feed those ball bearings into the player's machines!

[Japanese Film Festival] Sinner in Paradise (Kaette Kita Yopparai)

Domino Effect

And the lineup of films that appeals to an acquired taste continues, so far with Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes, and now Nagisa Oshima's Stranger in Paradise. While it's aimed to tackle themes like racism which seemed to be shunned at the time, there's a pretty good mix of humour that takes the mickey out of a number of events, and really requires some patience as well because everything seemed to have turned over its head and started afresh at the mid way mark, so don't be looking to walk out of the screening hall, or eject that DVD just yet.

Stranger in Paradise opens in a bizarre fashion, where three students (Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, Norihiko Hashida) strip down to their underwear at a beach and monkey around as if after watching Bloody Thirst and got inspired by the character's iconic image of having a gun pointed at his head. Eventually they do hit the sea proper, and a hand emerges from under the sand to swap two out of three of their clothing. All this played out over a very kitsch song that seems like chipmunks on steroids. It turns out that two Korean soldiers (Kei Sato and Cha Dei-Dang) had AWOL from Korea and found themselves wanting a new life in Japan, and with the Japanese authorities hot on their trail to repatriate them back, they need to find some scapegoats to pose as them, hence the sitting duck students.

In a jiffy we see the three students get sent to Pusan, then to jail, then to an American camp in Vietnam, then dying out there at the warfront. Only that this happens in so comedic a fashion that you'll begin to question the legitimacy of it all the moment it begins. The film consists of countless of surreal moments such as this one, including one involving life and death, repetition in a cycle, and as mentioned, having everything repeat itself almost all over again, though the second time round it marked some attitude changes, where the students take their knowledge of what's to come, and goes along with the game from the onset. Other surreal moments will involve character motivation and design changes especially that of a husband and wife team, and an interview segment out of the blue where (I believe it's staged) people on the street are asked their nationality, and we realized who outnumbers who – the result which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Somehow there are a few common threads, ideas and elements that run through the films so far. For starters, the music – they're all infectious and take some time to get out of your head, and then there's the shared dream landscapes the characters often find themselves in, like that in Sing a Song of Sex, and now Sinner in Paradise, where they seem to “wake up” from time to time yet unable to find themselves in what is deemed to be reality. I'm not even sure if there is one in the film to begin with, and wonder if paradise the title alludes to, is just that – a place without a proper beginning, or end.

Perhaps one of the key pointed moments that address the issue of racism head on involve the Korean soldiers being terribly insistent that the Japanese students wear the former's military clothing. In the midst of a policeman, the Japanese students, through a series of questions, realize that the authorities simply have no idea what the soldiers looked like, and are only following orders to look for anyone wearing those recognizable togs. It's quite clear that it alludes to how we are quick to judge others on the basis of appearance and from what we see on the outside, rather than to spend time to look into something more deeper and meaningful than appearances. The ending also saw that realization and reconciliation coming too little too late, and has something it wants to say about the Vietnam war with the use of a recognizable motif. The notion of Koreans not killing Koreans can also suggest a larger picture that we shouldn't be killing ourselves. OK, I think I've gone overboard in desperately trying to spot some meaning in the film.

It will probably take repeat screenings to truly appreciate the ideas that are put forth in an oblique fashion since with each scene comes more things that are curiouser and curiouser. At least it's peppered with comedy that you can laugh at while perplexed at the more stranger things that unfold.

[Japanese Film Festival] Her Brother (Otouto)


Yoji Yamada's film About Her Brother was a tribute to Kon Ichikawa's film Otouto, and I won't be able to tell you how so given that I've not seen Yamada's film in its entirety, suffice to say that both films are family melodramas that dwell primarily on the relationships between siblings, where the titular brother is actually the black sheep of the family for the shenanigans he gets into, and the troubles brought onto the family, especially for his sister.

Her Brother, or Otouto, tells of the story of a family of four. Dad does nothing but write on a daily basis, or spend time calculating the financial bleed brought about by son Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) whose laziness, troubles and general irresponsible behaviour he condones as part of experience building and growing up. I suspect too that in an Asian society boys generally get away with a lot of things as compared to the girls. His sister Gen (Keiko Kishi) becomes the primary caregiver of the family, since their incessantly complaining Christian step-mum is almost rendered an invalid given her chronic rheumatism, and so Gen does most of the work at home to become the cook, mender, cleaner and errant runner.

And what is a family drama without issues faced by the family? So we have a step-mum who rather believes outsiders such as Mrs Tanuma (Kyoko Kishida, the same actress from A Flame at the Pier) who proves to be quite the influence), rather than Gen her stepdaughter, which of course frustrates Gen. And the story has a pointed critique on religious fanaticism with the behaviour of the mother, but it's not all that bad as she makes at effort later to do things despite personal pain.

But the main problem here will be Hekiro being spoilt by a father who essentially allows him to do as he pleases, and thus his recklessness and devil may care attitude sometimes helps Gen, but mostly requires her to bail him out from sticky situations created by the owing of money to establishments such as billiard parlours, boat houses and even a horse owner. Being a lazy bum in school and mixing with bad company also spells trouble, but Gen's complaints consistently fall on deaf ears.

Does the family disintegrate? Of course not. Like almost all families, testy issues will crop up, but blood runs thicker than water, especially the strong bonds between sister and brother that the film goes all out to illustrate. Credit goes to the actors Hiroshi Kawaguchi and Keiko Kishi in their roles to deliver that believable chemistry and banter being siblings, which hits home a lot more when trouble besets one of them, and the entire family has got to adjust to the impending change. In some way I felt this film also became the precursor to many teenage romantic films out there where tragedies spring up with the introduction of a deadly disease that will be used to highlight character devotion and love, and Otouto contains this aspect by the bucketloads.

While some subplots are forgettable, such as the advances of a supposed cop Rokuno who's up to no good, there are ample touching moments especially in the second half for that tissue packet to be opened. The big fights also reminded me of some of my own many years in the past (*blush*), and yes, reconciliation very much happens faster than you can spell out that word. Such is family. What I enjoyed most out of this film was the look back at societal norms and attitudes of the time, where girls are encouraged to do just about everything in order to prepare for that one singular path in life – marriage, where they are supposed to continue in their domesticated role almost forever, and their value and contribution to their future households hinges very much in what they can do at the present time. And I'd like to think that this has already mostly changed in modern day civilizations.

I had enjoyed the film, so I guess what remains now is to find an opportunity to watch Yoji Yamada's tribute film in its entirety to see which aspects got retained, and just how a tribute film is done.

[Japanese Film Festival] A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu)

Do You See What I See

Shohei Imamura was one of the directors in focus in the 2007 edition of the Japanese Film Festival, but his vast filmography means that we continue to see some of his masterpieces in this year's edition as well. A Man Vanishes examines the concept of Johatsu, tackling the phenomenon of people missing in Japan over the years. It picks one such person from the list, someone who had seemed to disappear from the face of the earth due to embezzlement from his company, and the filmmakers begin an investigative documentary into the reasons behind and attempt at tracking him down.

The presentation of the documentary runs like an investigative drama predominantly filled with police interrogative type of questioning. The filmmakers take great pains to locate friends and family of Tadashi Oshima, and interviews them on camera – at times needed to mask their eyes to protect identities - to provide us a vast and hopefully objective opinion of the man we get engaged into looking for. This provides an opportunity for Imamura to touch upon themes such as relationships, as well as the general attitudes of people in Oshima's generation. At one point the occult is also pursued as an option to try and obtain answers to the million dollar question as to his current location.

And you may find that the film does get a little long-winded with no end in sight in its discussions and interviews, crafting a story quite unlike how it will be done in today's context, since the tale here come in pieces from the series of interviews, perceptions formed, and the memories of subjects that we know will be tainted inevitably by time. If done today, it'll be more in-your-face and to-the-point (though there's a reason why this was avoided) with a clear narrative guiding hand to point us where it wants us to look. This one spirals a little out of control where the interviewees and subject craft most of the talking points, and as a result we get a potential for a murder-mystery, involving two sisters who seem to be equally involved, and possibly guilty as to the outcome of Oshima's location.

But when the rug gets pulled under our feet through the sudden breaking of walls and the audience being engaged at a different level, we then realize how in effect the film may set out to make us understand how near impossible it is to solve cases of this nature, on how it's mind boggling to know where to begin, nor know whether time invested in investigations will lead to a successful outcome. It has to rely on the faulty memories of people insistent that they're right, and as events unfold show how stalemates are so easily reached when either party fervently believe what they see as experience as the truth, and in so will contradict the accounts of others. On the other hand, the line between reality and fiction, truth and lie gets blurred beyond recognition, so whatever you thought you knew becomes something you don't anymore.

In the last 2 scenes which are quite similar in content, one in a room and the other in an outdoor street location, one will get dizzy following the entire dialogue exchange, because it beats around the bush, never ends, and contains never ending bickering that you'll be exasperated enough to root for someone giving up. Thank goodness that the camera pulls out in time, though still leaving you perplexed over

Saturday, August 21, 2010

[Japanese Film Festival] Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki)

Shopping at Kino

I was wondering which of the films will prove to be the one big alternative, experimental experience, and to my surprise it had to be Nagisa Oshima's Diary of a Shinjuku Thief. As the festival director Gavin Liu had explained in the pre-screening introduction, this is a rare screening of the film, and the owner of Kinokuniya bookstores is actually the man playing the Kinokuniya store manager in the film, as are many of the performers playing themselves, being non-actors going their own real thing as captured on celluloid.

It's a treat all right, but I suppose it's an acquired taste that I still haven't cultivated. One of the draws to this film is because I'm curious to see how Shinjuku, the hotbed area in Tokyo where all things youth and underground take place, looked like in the swinging 60s, having been there in two consecutive years already. The film opens with a crazy introduction of a man forced by a group to strip down to his underwear (a rather flimsy one that barely protects his modesty), being accused of stealing some pipes, before the group start to cower when they see his tattoo. Then we're thrust into the narrative proper that deals with the titular bookstore thief Torio, cheekily nicknamed Birdtop (Tadanori Yokoo), as the camera follows behind him through the extremely packed Kino bookstore - where you can't help that people around just happen to gaze into the camera – until he gets nabbed by the eagle eyed salesgirl Umeko (Rie Yokoyama) for taking a book out without paying for it.

In fact he does so twice, and besides to experience the high from pinching things, a challenge he throws to Umeko later on in the story, I suspect he does so because he's got quite the hots for Umeko, an attractive though complicated lady, that even the store manager probably sensed something brewing between them, and offering not to report Birdtop to the cops, but to gift him some books as well as cash for both Birdtop and Umeko to spend. That essentially launches them into having some time off if you will to visit everything else that Oshima's intended to put into his film, with 4 different writers that will inevitably lead to a kaleidoscope of ideas, bringing forth the massive melting pot of different folks with different strokes.

Presented in sections split by intertitles that tell the time (worldwide to local, and other nuggets of trivia such as the weather condition at the time) the film is almost documentary in nature come this point, and interchanges between black and white and colour which I still have to figure out why, other than to not miss out in capturing the vibrant colours present in particular performances and scenes. There's a visit to a sexologist whose area of research may challenge Kinsey's, and a talking heads styled interview with a group that's focused predominantly on sex, where it gets expressed verbally, and later on, having numerous sex scenes which had to justify its R21 rating in Singapore.

Like the earlier films, this one is also rich in music such as Juro Kara coming on at every opportunity with a guitar, though the tunes were not quite up my alley. It's like a musical of sorts at times when characters inexplicably appears and break out into music. And while the story becomes more perplexing, I gave up trying to piece the narrative together since it was clearly abandoned to showcase various performances available at that era in Shinjuku. In that respect this film will work relatively well in capturing things that will inevitably be lost as time goes by, and for the modern audience to experience what it was like then, especially those vaudeville theatre styled acts. The other scene I thought I enjoyed until it proved to be outstaying its welcome involved Umeko walking by shelves of books, and quotes from the literary masters call out to her through voiceovers.

The film ends with a montage of scenes involving some protests with the police out in force. I suppose this would have echoed the feelings of those who did not agree with the film, some having to walk out before they get to the scene. A rare treat, but one that calls for an acquired taste to thoroughly enjoy.

[Japanese Film Festival] Air Doll (Kûki Ningyô)

Coming Alive

Writer-director Kore-eda has a strong fanbase in Singapore after his well-received Nobody Knows garnered him quite the following from a screening here years back. No sooner than the festival's tickets had gone on sale that it registered its first sell-out session in Air Doll, and two other subsequent repeat screenings released had all its tickets already snapped up. Either that, or the appeal of watching a sex doll come to life under Singapore's R21 rating uncut is too hard to pass up. I had that opportunity to partake in a masterclass session with Kore-eda during last year's Tokyo International Film Festival where three of his films got screened overnight with the director and his guests in attendance, but alas I wasn't in top form to have covered it. I'm regretting it now.

The other film I had watched with a sex doll featured prominently in the story was Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl starring Ryan Gosling, where his character bought a custom made sex doll over the internet not for sex, but for companionship. Personally I've always thought it creepy for anyone to own a doll to interact with and yikes, to make love to, and here even christening it Nozomi. But as a character in Air Doll puts it, a real life relationship may be too hard for some folks to handle because it comes with inevitable problems, warts and all. And yes while that's the truth, I still can't fathom the necessity of owning a doll for sexual gratification, but I digress.

Kore-eda's Air Doll is a fantasy film along the lines of Pinnochio, where an inanimate object comes to life and dreams of being a real boy. Here, it's all the more creepier when the air doll Nozomi suddenly without reason nor forewarning, starts to move on her own, and develops heart and soul through the course of the story. She doesn't need to yearn to be real, because she's almost real, utilizing clothing and makeup to conceal portions of her that are tell-tale signs that she's a life-sized made-of-plastic Barbie doll coming in the form of Korean actress Bae Doo-na (last seen in the Korean monster film The Host).

Bae brings her Nozomi a sense of that wide-eyed wonderment of the real world, and her performance as a plastic inflatable doll is flawless, with Nozomi constantly in amazement from the assault of the senses of sight, sound and touch. There's also a comedic innocence brought about through her zilch knowledge of the real world, which of course we'll expect this to be exploited by nastier humans, because the world is as evil as such, where innocence has no place once her honeymoon period is over. Balancing her routine very carefully with that of her owner Hideo's (Itsuji Itao) in order to enable her to work at a video store in the day, living an independent life undetected, and then being back at home on time to fulfill Hideo's sexual needs, things start to become a little more complicated when she develops feelings for her colleague Junichi (Arata).

Paced slowly to mirror Nozomi's journey of discovery of all things beautiful, from cosmetics to toddlers to that proverbial flower along the sidewalk, Air Doll contains a few scenes that provide that stark commentary about the emptiness of soul and the loneliness experienced in big city living. To Nozomi it's an abstract concept that she grasps only literally, but for the rest of us, we're likely to nod in agreement with the statements, since we're experiencing such feelings day in and day out. It is these episodes and incidents, through Nozomi's interactions with others that bring the film to life, and some of these can be as short as one self-contained scene like the one on the bus where she lends her shoulder to a sleeping man. It's all within our means to show a little compassion and to make the world a better place to live in.

While yet consumed with a pop kind of feeling throughout, and Kore-eda's most erotic film to date, the film is a meditation of life, and the fragility of it, where people are constantly in search of substitutes for things they cannot obtain to fulfill some need or want, which reflects quite well of our modern life where distractions are many, and substitution being a way of life from products to services. I absolutely loved how Kore-eda provided us scenes of satisfaction with a montage of lonely people doing simple things, to that switch later on with dissatisfaction with the same. It's a wonderful fantasy film that makes us reflect on our own parallels, but doesn't do so in a preachy way, instead relying on comedy through the literal interpretation of things as an early counterbalance to lighten the mood later on with tragedy meant for reflection.

The science-fiction equivalent will be something like Spielberg's A.I., where a young robot embarks on a quest to find his mother and become a real boy This air doll has plenty of humanity inside her, full of soul and that never-ceasing innocent curiosity that makes it a delight to watch, maintaining touching aspects to tug at your heartstrings. I'm quite certain the audience who have snapped up tickets so eagerly won't be left disappointed.

[Japanese Film Festival] Bloody Thirst (Chi Wa Kawaiteru)

For Friends

The second film of Yoshishige Yoshida (whose first film Good for Nothing was screened yesterday) earns itself the credit by my count of being one that contains the most number of images of a man holding a gun to himself. It's a stark image of being a trigger away from certain death and as part of the plot, goes from unsettling to numbness as the story wore on. I still preferred Good for Nothing, although this film marks a departure from its steady presentation then to one that's more kinetic in following the new lease of life of an unstable man.

The film opens with Takashi Kiguchi (Keiji Sada) in the confines of a toilet, on the verge of making a decision that will change the course of his life since his intent is to shoot himself and end it. As his company had announced its corporate downsizing to ensure some longevity in the immediate future, Kiguchi emerges with a gun to his head, begging the company spokesman like a plea bargain to exchange his life for the rest of his colleagues to keep their jobs. His friend Kanai intervenes at the critical moment, and adverts a tragedy on company premises.

But this widely reported incident catches the ear of Nonaka (Mari Yoshimura), who decides to use Kiguchi then Kanai for her insurance company as its spokespersons, selling the idea that a man who is the epitome of self-sacrifice is beneficial to an insurance company and hawked the idea of creating a PR celebrity for the firm. Kiguchi reluctantly agrees, and Nonaka's campaign to groom him and build his publicity turn out to be a resounding success.

If I may skew the thought that a man who lives by the gun dies by it, then Bloody Thirst (or Blood Thirsty) charts of a man whose new life created by the mass media, also becomes the target of it, or at least the tabloid aspects, where seedier reporters with quaintly any morals will just go about do anything in order to get sensationalized soundbites, or racy – doctored even through entrapment – pictures of such media created celebrities in compromising photographs. After all, scandals sell newspapers and magazines. Yoshida's film touches on both the influence and power of the mainstream media in giving anyone their 15 minutes of fame, and how it can be used to create social icons and memorable images to sell ideas.

However, Kiguchi as the choice of a role model or spokesperson is also called into question, and goes to show how Nonaka's due diligence in ensuring suitability just gets tossed to the wind, in order to quickly milk the growing public sentiments over the man. We always wonder what it takes to be publicly adored, or how role models get created and worshipped before a scandal comes in to destroy credibility. Kiguchi's rise to fame was based on the instability of a man at his wits end, where his relationship with his wife is in the doldrums and his private life just about to fall apart, so we can just about guess the longevity of someone who's rise is based on so much negativity, ready dirt if you will, available to be exposed anytime.

The story also develops the slow and steady growth of a tussle of control and war between the creator and her product, one clearly conscious about wanting to exploit an image and to control her icon, while the other decides to use his new found fame to push through agendas since he's commanding a voice that is heard, and what he thinks is good for the public. Fervent public support puts him into a bubble with the notion that such support exists permanently, something that he'll discover is never the case. Managers of an image and brand come and go, and we know that corporations prefer to keep their distance from losers.

A sidebar plot gave the tabloid reporter and his model friend Yoko (Yuuko Kashiwagi) some legs to carry the film as well, and the fickle exploitative relationships between the characters in the film reinforces how nasty people with an agenda can be, through the use of tools such as blackmail and entrapment, going as far as to bait a man's wife in order to hurt him where it hurts most. I thought it was the lowest of the low to employ such tactics, with an intent to just bring down someone just because.

[Japanese Film Festival] A Flame at the Pier (Namida O Shishi No Tategami Ni)


As I mentioned, music seems to be playing a big part in the festival films thus far, and A Flame at the Pier by Masahiro Shinoda is also filled with varied music, from a guitar ballad about seagulls which Sabu (Takashi Fujiki) uses to serenade ladies, to like an Elvis Presley movie with him rocking and rolling off the cuff to masses at a party. But this is unlike a Presley film which is almost always so uplifting and sunny. If anything, this story is about the tragic life of Sabu the young adult, a henchman beholden and indebted to his boss, the limping Kitani (Koji Nanbara), whom he believed had saved him from an air raid when he was young which resulted in his disability.

A Flame at the Pier opens with a sit down strike amongst the dock workers, who are protesting about their poor work conditions, long work hours, ill treatment and paltry pay. What more they still have to provide a kickback percentage of to Kitani and his thugs and muscles to well, keep them out of trouble. Decisions to unionize themselves to bring in better bargaining power has always led to the ringleader meeting with tragedy, and it's no prizes guessing the involvement of you know who in order to maintain and satisfy the greed of managers and the company. Clearly you can see the rich-poor divide that is very prominent amongst the haves, throwing opulent parties attended by who's who of society, and the have nots who are obviously struggling.

At some points I thought the film was a romantic one even, with two separate threads running, one that dwelled on the budding romance between Sabu and Yuki, a waitress he saves from a barking dog by flinging it against a fence (yes, you gotta see it to believe!) to contrast the forbidden yet open affair between Kitani and Reiko (Kyoko Kishida), the wife of the impotent dock company's president (So Yamamura) who needs an escape from her loveless and dead marriage, since she's in it for the money. And similarly to Yoshishige Yoshida's Good for Nothing, Yuki holds onto the hope that her love, or a demonstration of it, can change Sabu for the better, since she's just about the only person in his life that sees the better side of him for the time being, the rest of the workers warning her that he's nothing good but a company dog made to obey orders by Kitani.

This is quite the tragedy in having a protagonist being someone who's being manipulated on all fronts, and not being able to live his dreams of making it big through his great singing voice. Instead what we see is a caged bird puppet who operates as told by his master in a show of blind faith and loyalty, being dangled with a carrot of a promise that his hard work will be rewarded sometime in future. But in the meantime, the exploitation continues, and he's subjected to a life filled with lies, betrayal and of being used by others in positions of power, making him no better off than those he's supposed to monitor, and experiencing the double whammy of watching his romantic happiness slip away, and his commitment of a grave sin.

Goes to show that unless bold steps are taken to walk away with courage from what we know is wrong, we're going to be forever stuck in a vicious circle that becomes too late to walk away from one day. There's no riding into the sunset with his lady love in this film, although a sunset does feature in casting its rays onto a figure in solitude.

[Japanese Film Festival] Sing a Song of Sex (Nihon Shunka-Kô)

I'm slowly suspecting that music will continue to play a large part in the festival films presented, as thus far we got treated to the jazzy tunes in Good for Nothing, the punk rock Fish Story (still a earworm), and now a slew of Japanese folk songs with some recognizable Western evergreens peppering the soundtrack of Sing a Song of Sex, which is also known by its other title Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, and boy are they bawdy when left to the devices of the singer to improvise.

Directed by Nagisa Oshima outside of the studio system, Sing a Song of Sex as the name implies has as a chief plot element a number of bawdy songs, as explained by Otake (Juzo Itami) to be an outlet for expression by the oppressed masses who have no other avenue to describe their misery, other than to sing about the pleasures of sex and desire, although a number of the lyrics tell of stories about the poor and the things they have to resort to for a living. It's quite clear that Oshima crafted a pointed commentary of society at the time (since he's largely involved in various student demonstrations), through the discussions between Otake and his group of co-ed students as they bar hop after the student examinations, the girls truly being enamoured by their handsome teacher, while the boys just tagging along because of their fantasy in bedding some, if not all, of their female schoolmates.

Like Good for Nothing, these four male students do seem like the usual teenage idle bunch, perhaps so because the examinations are just over, and they're looking for some sort of release and letting their hair down, one of which is to hit the town painting it red, and spend time watching the latest pinku film. Why not, for all hot blooded males, that the topic of sex will pop up inevitably when they talk crap and thrash talk about women and their individual sexual fantasies, that ironically, they do not know how to act around one, especially when they start boasting about what they intend to do with the school flower Fujiwara (Kazuko Tajima) whom they all call “469” based on her examination hall seating assignment.

And the way Oshima had presented this lustful desire had a ring of Nolan's Inception to it, that it deals with a shared fantasy dreamscape where all of them exist and can bear witness to one another's actions in his realm, but instead of falling into deep sleep and needing a kick to wake up, here it goes a one up in being able to do while day-dreaming, therein eliminating the risk of falling into limbo. Of course there's no idea to be planted, only idle boasts of what they're capable of which will have its bluff called later on in the film. This section of the film was one of my favourites for its conceptual execution, but the subject matter will surely disturb.

Like the films from the 60s I've seen thus far, the cinematography and the landscapes are quite the sight to behold, especially those wide shots of a wintry landscape, and the few scenes of the downtown city and subway which seem quite quaintly familiar. We follow the four friends, of whom the leader of the pack Nakamura (Ichiro Araki) stands out for having more to do in the film, and responsible for the death of Otake due to his inaction, a preventable death by a silly mistake on Otake's part if you will, but with irresponsible youths, there's always no due consideration where their actions or inactions will take them in the future.

The second half of the film splits its narrative into two tangents, leading up to the realm of the strange. In the first, we follow Nakamura to the home of Otake's sweetheart Tanigawa (Akiko Koyama)where Nakamura is contemplating how to break the news of his responsibility to her, and it becomes a guilt trip enactment of what happened. The second follows the rest of his friends as they seek out Fujiwara at an anti-Vietnam war movement, also to apologize to her for their virtual violation, but get sort of involved and caught up in the song-singing rallying of the students, and when both threads merge for the finale, it's one really warped mix of lust and desire against a quick folktale history of that between Korea and Japan, taking place inside a pyramid shaped building.

Far out. Hoi hoi!
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