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Bryan Hartzheim gives us the skinny on some of the highlights of Japanese cinema (and one Chinese picture) screened for industry professionals at the American Film Market.
dir: Takashi Miike
Everyone in the film circuit has been talking about Miike's "western" Sukiyaki Western Django with Quentin Tarantino, and video game fanboys have been pining for Like a Dragon, his new yakuza flick based on the Sega PS2 game. But everyone in Japan has been actually watching Crows: Zero, which just unseated the unstoppable Hero's seven-week lock on the Japan box office top spot. Crows: Zero is a prequel to popular boy's manga Crows, and it's gotten both male fans of the manga and girl fans of heartthrob Shun Oguri into theatres, with the teenage vote a shared factor. In its opening weekend, it's already Miike's most profitable film to date, further entrenching the video film store geek's favorite cult auteur into the Japanese studio mainstream with his newest film about Oguri's, the son of a yakuza boss who transfers to Sakuran High, a campus overrun by gangs of toughs, with ambitious plans to take it over by assembling his own crew and uniting the various warring factions.
Cultists need not fear: the usual Miike porridge of videogame violence is still here, replete with more puffed up faces than a dozen K-1 matches, more crunching hits than a thousand football games, and a dollop of semen-laced humor used as mixer for your male cocktail. The setup of the school is also intriguing: with not a single teacher or curriculum in sight, it's campus as battleground, with classrooms functioning as bunkers, and gymnasiums and pools filling in as mini boot camps. It's all chaos, but organized chaos, and atmosphere-wise, it's reminiscent of Kyung-Taek Kwak's 2001 Friend. But narratively speaking, Mr. "Ichi" is actually returning less to his yakuza flicks than he is to his Young Thugs stories of youths coming of age through war on the blacktop. The yakuza here are bored, ambitionless losers, and Oguri, though often despicable, is reacting plainly to the pointless death that surrounds his father's life. The supporting bit players are manga-esque: hammy but unfunny. The women are no better than distracting eye-candy, and if your best actress is the wooden Meisa Kuroki, that's a good thing. But the male leads are uniformly terrific -- brooding, charismatic, well-spoken, and above all, vital, showing Miike can still draw memorable performances from his actors. You might prefer the bizarre quality of indie Miike, but mainstream Miike is doing good things for Japanese cinema, injecting a unique vitality into a stale studio system so much in need of it.
dir: Yoshimitsu Morita
Akira Kurosawa is all the rage in Japan these days. Forgetting that the public was largely indifferent to more than half of his films when he was making them, production companies are now lining up to remake many of the most influential movies in his canon. This last September, TV Asahi broadcast TV remakes of High and Low and Ikiru with all new casts and staff, but without changing a thing plot- or scene-wise. And it was just announced that Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa's samurai epic that Lucas aped for Star Wars, is going to be remade as a feature length movie, with the focus now being on, instead of the rugged toughness of Toshiro Mifune and Misa Uehara, that of Jun Matsumoto, a pop idol. Now, Toho and Kadokawa have purchased the rights to remake the original Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjuro, which, fortunately, isn't faced with such disastrous casting decisions. Yuji Oda reprises Mifune's immortal role of a ronin who materializes out of thin air to help a group of half-wits rescue their clan chief during Edo-era Japan. Oda is a comic veteran, an acting pro who takes the craft seriously unlike much of his pop brethren, but he needs the right script, as he's never been much of a dramatic actor. He's an actor who begs not to be taken seriously, and, as expected, he settles into the comedic bits here without seeming capable of communicating darkness.
The original Sanjuro is every bit as witty as Yojimbo, but in many ways, more tragic. It's also an incredibly violent picture, but for some (marketing) reason, this new version is toned down. Though Ryuzo Kikushima, who helped pen the first script, was here to collaborate on the revised version, there are virtually no script changes. At least Morita and Co. didn't go the route of The Inugamis and pointlessly shoot it scene for scene, but the effort here is pointless in a different sense. Why bother doing it again if you're not going to update the vision? Are Japanese so lazy that they can't stay awake with actors who don't appear regularly on TV and aren't in color? (My guess, judging by first-hand surveys with my college students, would be yes).
dir: Zhang Jiabei
What is it about movies with retarded heroes that make us so uncomfortable? Or maybe it's just disinterested. I can only draw these conclusions judging from the completely empty theatre where Cherries was screening, as not even a single distributor so much as peeked a head in! It's unfortunate, as this film set in a rural village somewhere in 1980s mainland China is occasionally moving in its portrait of a retarded young mother who, with the help of her crippled husband, raises an orphaned girl. It sounds like disability stew, but the film poignantly touches on the politics of China's "one-child" policy and the fact that thousands of newborn baby girls are abandoned by their parents every year (resulting in the incredibly skewed gender ratio now an irreversible course of China's future). Jiabei coaxes a moving but comical performance from Miao Pu as the wife, and a less worthy but still notable performance from husband Tuo Guoquon. It never hurts to have a film's backdrop be that of the majestic beauty of China's seemingly endless supply of ethereal landscapes: mountains, fog, puddles of water, rice paddies, and even the hobbled interiors captured unobtrusively by DP Osame Maruike. It's a slight and effective effort, though hampered by its narrative manipulation, encouraging our easy and often unearned compassion for characters simply from their handicap. John Keats said "we hate art which has a palpable design upon us." The film has merits, but it's too hard not to think of Ozu's subtle and restrained Tokyo Story and how it handled the same soap-operatic material and didactic message ("love your mother; go visit her -- NOW") without openly clawing at our heartstrings.
dir: Masato Harada
You can tell a lot about a nation's psyche through its horror movies. We have the slasher flick, where psychos or victims of harassment exact revenge on oversexed teens. The Japanese explore the psychological, usually through the now standard supernatural story, but they've also become adept at making suicide movies, perhaps appropriate for a country that experiences it at a higher rate than any other in the world not part of the old Soviet bloc. This film offers the dual pleasures of watching a topical subject in the thriller mold, and starring a wonderfully eclectic cast comprised of excellent actors (Hiroshi Abe, Yoshino Kimura, Yusuke Iseya) and very pretty eye candy (a bunch of chicks from pop group AKB48, Ryuhei Matsuda, who actually does some acting ability). Suspense-vet Harada directs this story adapted from a Yasushi Akimoto concept (he of the brilliant One Missed Call series) about a song that, once heard, propels the listener to well, suicide. The film begins with the suicide of a high school girl who jumps off the roof of her school building during broad daylight, some attributing her death to bullying, others to hearing her hum the "suicide song" shortly before her death. A tabloid magazine gets wind of the rumor and dispatches Riku (Matsuda, impossibly handsome for a sleazy tabloid reporter) to investigate. Eventually, a group of high school girls nonsensically sing the song at a karaoke booth together, spurring the suspense in the film: will they all kill themselves or not?
The mealy-mouthed screenplay seems to have more than the topic of suicide on its mind: the destructive impact of tabloids, high-school bullying, societal violence, and voyeurism all get lip service. And the movie reminds us that there is a war going on, you know. It's all shot at you in such speed that you're not really supposed to think about it as much as be impressed by the dazzling economy with which it gores into you. I think this is the first film to attempt a connection between suicide bombing and orgasm. The film is frivolous about social responsibility; much of this is to be taken seriously, but much is not as evidenced by the frequent obfuscation the director presents his story with (Hitchcockian cross-cutting and 360? spinning of camera, Kubrickian color schemes). Suicide Song eventually takes the unsatisfying "ghost story" route and ends sentimentally (as to be expected from a screenplay by Hula Girls scribe Daisuke Habara), but while its net effect is probably closer to a film like Jisatsu Manual, at its most sporadically inventive it measures up to the more manic moments from Sion Sono's Suicide Club.
Detective Office 5
dir: Koji Hagiuda
Detective Office 5 has a novel concept which harkens back to old school TV formula: a detective office which responds to the needs of each client by employing a different, supernatural detective to fit the client's needs each week. It's an idea that could naturally only work in the serial format, as the office has seemingly dozens of sleuths sitting around waiting to be employed over several episodes. The episode I saw, one of over 50 shot, involved the "seeing eye" detective who can see dead people. Okay, so that's not the most novel concept, but the execution is surprisingly cinematic for a series that isn't even ready for TV -- it's going to be broadcast entirely online. Hagiuda, who directed the dreamlike Rakuen ("Paradise Sea"), has a gentle touch that fits well paired with the trendy Japanese supernatural horror realm so in vogue today. The result is a series which looks like it has the potential for a drawn-out Kwaidan.
If Today was the Last Day
dir: Akina Yanagi
At long last, a story not set in Tokyo! First-time director Yanagi gets bonus points from me for the fresh idea of setting her story on Hachijo Island, a piece of land which can only be accessed by ferry or plane though technically part of Tokyo proper. Yanagi wrote and directed the story of Seiko, a 20-year-old student who runs away from home to Hachijo Island to meet twin sister Maiko, who she's been estranged from since she was a toddler. Once there, Seiko and Maiko must work together with the Hachijo Island community to put on the annual cultural festival despite sniping by tourism officials over the lack of a budget. There are other conflicts that pose a problem to a festival staging, conflicts which are firmly entrenched in the traditions of Japanese TV melodrama: separated siblings reuniting, parents reconciling with their children, communities coming together, milk of human kindness, terminal illness. Speaking of a lack of budget, the film, which is still seeking a distributor, is a small defense for a story setting that is becoming all too rare in Japanese cinema: that of the rural and cultural backwater. Yanagi is a little too aware of this fact, as she has her characters espouse the sanctity of their digs a little too frequently for my taste. Still, the treacly melodrama is balanced out by the authenticity of the surroundings: shot on location on Hachijo Island, with Yanagi personally handling much of the digitally shot mise-en-scene herself, and abetted by a cast comprised mostly of amateurs and residents of the island.
For more on the Asian presence at AFM 2007, click here.
For more capsule reviews of films at AFM 2007, click here.
Date Posted: 11/16/2007