Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Flavors of Youth: Anime Nostalgia in China

It is not often Japan and China cooperate, so any time it happens must be significant. Thanks to the animation house that produced the instant-classic Your Name., China never looked as good as it does in this anime anthology. Bittersweet memories resurface for the grown adult protagonists of Li Haoling, Yi Xiaoxing & Yoshitaka Takeuchi’s Flavors of Youth (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday on Netflix.

Mainland China is all about motion and migration, so it makes sense the brief wrap-arounds collect our main characters in an airport. It is a vastly different China than the quiet provincial town the protagonist of Yi’s “Sunny Breakfast” grew up in. He was largely raised by his loving grandmother, because his parents were working in the big city. Each day, she brought two bowls of San Xian noodles from the town’s beloved noodle shop for a hearty breakfast. As he matured, those noodles and those from the successor noodle store (not quite as good, but maybe even more inviting) took on special significance in his life.

“Sunny Breakfast” is a sweet little tale that elevates mood and nostalgia over drama and big pay-offs. It is quiet, but it resonates, especially for anyone who has walked through a neighborhood like the East Village, pointing out all the once-popular establishments that aren’t there anymore (Dojo, Mondo Kim’s, Mahmoud’s original location, the Japanese hotdog place, etc., etc.).

Probably, Takeuchi’s “A Small Fashion Show” packs the least punch of the trilogy. Set in Guangzhou, it follows the struggle of a supermodel at risk of losing her mojo as she ages into her mid-twenties or whatever and her younger sister, an aspiring designer, whose frocks could provide her the inspiration she needs. Obviously, this is a story we can all relate to. Still, it is nice to see a mature and endearing sisterly story unfold on screen. Takeuchi (a 3DCGI artist on Your Name) also makes the city of Guangzhou sparkle like a fantasy realm.

Easily the best constituent film and the closest in tone to Your Name is Li’s “Shanghai Love.” Conceived as an homage to Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second, it tells the story of how a high school romance went wrong and the remorseful Rimo’s desperate attempt to make amends years later. The twists of fate are heartbreaking, but it feels very true to life for anyone who grew up in the 1990s, no matter where that might have been.

Flavors is a wistful film about memory and regret, but Li (also serving as “overall director”) ties everything together in a way that actually feels upbeat and hopeful. The seventy-five-minute film is probably too slight of stature for a conventional theatrical release, but it should charm anime fans who chose the stream it. Recommended for viewers in the mood to savor the right kind of sadness, Flavors of Youth launches on Netflix this Saturday (8/4).

Fantasia ’18: Loi Bao

Tam always kept a good head on his shoulders, until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now he keeps his head on the body of a murdered assassin, thanks to the breakthrough technology of “Uncle” Ma (who technically isn’t either). That muscle memory is a trip, but it will be awkward when the dead man’s nasty associates will come looking for him in Victor Vu’s Loi Bao (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Like Condorman’s alter ego, Tam used his superhero graphic novels as his own wish fulfilment fantasies. He also wrote bizarrely tragic historical epics about fathers dying in battle that will be little comfort to his wife and pudgy son as they wrestle with his prognosis. However, Uncle Ma has the technology. He just needs a viable body, which very conveniently delivers itself, along with a hail of bullets from his murderers. It is a good thing Tam and Ma happened to be in the right forest at the right time, because they are able to sneak the body back to his lab for a head switcheroo.

Suddenly, Tam knows Kung Fu, but his hands need to relearn how to draw. He also might be getting flashes of the previous tenant’s memories, especially when he visits a pretty young emergency room doctor after some of his early heroics. Inevitably, Tam starts saving children from burning buildings and the like. He also does a lot of parkour. However, his new body won’t be so much fun when an organ trafficking gangster starts threatening Tam’s family.

Since Charlie Nguyen ran afoul of the government censors, Vu has become a veritable one-man Vietnamese film industry. He has been working his way through the catalog of genres, so it was probably inevitable that he would give superheroes a go. Frankly, the action in Loi Bao is pleasingly gritty compared to the films coming from the Mouse House and Bugs Bunny’s corporate masters, including quite a bit of slickly choreographed gunplay.

The biggest drawback is Vu’s predilection for melodrama, which remains undiminished in Loi Bao. Like clockwork, the film comes to a screeching halt so Tam’s wife can lecture him about calling undue attention to himself or suspect him of getting up to some hanky-panky with Dr. Young-and-Available. Seriously, give us all a break. On the other hand, there are at least two wildly over-the-top third act revelations that perfectly reflect the spirit of superhero comic books.

Cuong Seven is just okay as Tam, but he is definitely at his best performing action director Vincent Wang’s fight scenes. The entire ensemble is rather uneven, but Ngoc Anh Vu is the clear, unchallenged standout as Dr. Temptation.

The action scenes are crisp and clean—and so is Nguyen K’linh’s cinematography. In fact, it is rather interesting to see a superhero tale in a Vietnamese setting, where sleek, affluent homes lay nestled not far from grimy back alleys, at least judging the Hanoi Vu depicts. Regardless, few superhero movies have a body-count this high so you have to give Loi Bao credit. Recommended for fans of superheroes, martial arts, and parkour films, Loi Bao had it North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days

Heaven can wait, but reincarnation has a strict deadline. “Paragons” must prove their worthiness in forty-nine days or they will have to go through the purgatorial slog with the rest of the moral slobs. Apparently, paragons run in the family. Gang-lim and his team of guardians helped firefighter Kim Ja-hong navigate the seven hells and now they have been assigned to his murdered brother Su-hong. This time, the case awakens painful memories for the guardians that had been suppressed for nearly a millennium in Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

It isn’t easy being a guardian. Gang-lim and his assistants, Hewonmak and Deok-choon are one reincarnation away from their one-thousand-year quota, but despite his worthiness, Kim Su-hong will be a hard case. He was an angry ghost, because he was killed by two of his army comrades, but Gang-lim helped ease the bitterness in his heart, only slightly violating the afterworld’s Prime Directive. As a further complication, Kim claims he does not want to be reincarnated, but he goes along with the process out of curiosity.

As a condition for Kim’s expedited trial, Gang-lim’s team must also take care of some housekeeping in the human realm. An old man is long overdue to ascend, but Sung-ju, the house god living in his flat chases away all guardians that come with a death notice. He is played by Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee, so you know he will be formidable. In a major violation of protocol, Sung-ju now lives openly with old man and his abandoned grandson. However, he has a few secrets that will be of interest to Hewonmak and Deok-choon, because he served as their guardian way back when.

The previous film, AWTG: The Two Worlds, featured some intriguing afterlife world-building and some Tsui Hark-worthy fantastical action sequences, but seemed relatively self-contained. However, Last 49 Days answers just about every question viewers might have had, while deepening the backstories and mythology, eventually serving up several heavy revelations. It definitely tops the first film, even rectifying the some of the first film’s flaws, like the weak prospective paragon.

The intertwined histories of Hewonmak and Deok-choon are particularly compelling and so is the chemistry that develops between them, as played by Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi. As Gang-lim, Ha Jung-woo is still all kinds of steely, but he also ups his game, reaching for levels of classical tragedy. Even though Ma/Lee has become an action lead in his own right, it is easy to see why he would take an ensemble role as Sung-ju the household god, because it is quite an effective showcase for his larger-than-life screen-presence and good-naturedly luggish comedic chops.

The Two Worlds was visually impressive, but it is The Last 49 Days that really forges an emotional connection. We liked the first film, but after watching the second, we kind of love these characters. So, good news: we will be seeing more of them. The first two films were shot back-to-back, Matrix/LOTR-style, but The Two Worlds was such a monster hit in Korea, two more films have already been greenlit. Consider us down for the franchise. Recommended for fans of action-fantasy and good karma, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days opens this Wednesday (8/1) in New York (simultaneous with Korea), at the AMC Empire.

Fantasia ’18: Penguin Highway

When scores of penguins suddenly appear in this rural Japanese village, it is a little like Magnolia, but exponentially cuter. In fact, these penguins might just save our word as we know it, but until then, they are quite charming to have around in Hiroyasu Ishida’s Penguin Highway (trailer here), which won the Satoshi Kon Award at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Aoyama is a reasonably well-socialized fourth grader, considering how smart he is. Nevertheless, the compulsively-experimenting science whiz is already looking forward to his future success. When “waddles” of penguins start waddling through his baffled town—way outsides their natural habitat, obviously—Aoyama is the first to start formulating hypotheses. Of course, that means he starts researching in the field, with the help of his loyal pal Uchida. However, he is also rather interested in the mysterious woman now working at the local dentist, whom he gallantly refers to as “The Lady.”

She is smart and has attitude, as well as other things a boy on the verge of puberty might notice (she is voiced by Yû Aoi, after all). Aoyama realizes he can learn a lot from her just from their conversations and chess games. However, his interest in her rises to a higher level when he realizes she apparently has a mysterious connection to the penguins. As if that were not enough, Aoyama and Uchida also help their classmate Hamamoto investigate a phenomenon that pretty clearly holds cosmic significance. Hamamoto is also quite the junior scientist, which is probably why she has a crush on Aoyama.

Highway is surprisingly intriguing as science fiction, warmly endearing as a coming of age story, and it is just the living end as a penguin fantasy. Despite the borderline Summer of ’42 relationship between Aoyama and the Lady, the film has a lot to offer family viewers, including lessons on the scientific method and the depiction of two fathers who are smart and engaged parents (Aoyama and Hamamoto’s dads). Plus, there are all those fun-loving penguins.

The animation (with character design work from Yojiro Arai) is visually quite lovely, but it is the film’s bittersweet vibe that really stick with you. The trappings are contemporary, but narrative has a timeless element to it. When you get right down to it, it would be ever so nice to stroll through this burg in the foothills, with a dozen penguins for company.

To his credit, Makoto Ueda never dumbs down his screen adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi’s source novel. There is some clever stuff in here and the stakes get planetary in scope. Yet, it still faithfully evokes all the optimism and confusion of young adolescence—with penguins. This film is just a total winner that is just too good for American anime fans to miss out on. Very enthusiastically recommended, Penguin Highway had its international premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Fantasia ’18: Rokuroku The Promise of the Witch

These are absolutely, positively not the Yokai of Lafcadio Hearn. They are the work of cinematic provocateur Yudai Yamaguchi, who is indeed Japanese, whereas Hearn was not, much to his regret. Yamaguchi even happens to be a horror movie maker, but he tones down a signature gory mayhem a tad in the strange and spooky Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Izumi lives with her grandmother and aged grandfather, whom they assume is going bonkers whenever he raves about the spirit in the tree watching him. Yeah, well guess what? There is indeed something malevolent and uncanny afoot. In fact, there are quite a few Yokai spirits preying on people tangentially linked to Izumi.

Initially, Rokuroku looks and acts like an anthology film, with Izumi’s narrative serving as the framing device, but we eventually learn everything is insidiously linked together and rooted in a sinister episode from her childhood. The truth starts to reveal itself when she reunites with her childhood friend Mika. So, what transpired years ago in room 666 of that eerie abandoned hotel? To be honest, Izumi isn’t so sure herself.

Co-written and produced by creature creator Keita Amemiya, Rokuroku has a wonderfully macabre look. Some of the assembled Yokai tales are little more than sketches, but several are strong enough to stand on their own, particularly the story of an art student who falls under the influence of a weeping balcony spirit. Yet, they collectively work together quite cleverly. Miho Nakanishi also hits all the right notes as the somewhat shy, but resilient Izumi.

Of course, the third act is completely nuts, so be prepared and buckle up. Tonally, the film rivals the madness of Obayashi’s House, but it is even more logic-challenged. Yamaguchi and Amemiya practically throw the kitchen sink at viewers, but the film is still considerably less bloody or scatological than Yamaguchi’s greatest hits. Recommended for fans of supernatural horror and cult weirdness, Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch screens again on Tuesday (7/31), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’18: Ajin Demi-Human

Think of them as a race of Logans, but more demonic. They could be cousins to the Tokyo Ghouls, but they are pretty much invincible. You might think Kei Nagai would be delighted to learn he happens to be one, but instead it leads to nothing but trouble in Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Ajin: Demi-Human (trailer here) screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The discovery of the Ajin is relatively recent, but it has the Japanese government spooked. They look like ordinary humans, but they have superhuman regenerative powers. They cannot be killed—they just “reset.” Nagai learned of his Ajin status when he was hit by a bus and popped back up. Ever since, he has been poked, prodded, sliced & diced, and constantly reset by the government research team led by the emotionless Yu Tosaki. The good news is Sato and Tanaka, two Ajin liberation terrorists are about to break him out of the lab. The bad news is their lust for vengeance and genocidal terror is more than he can stomach.

Suddenly, Nagai is on the run from both the government and Sato. His only allies are his ailing sister Eriko and a kindly old lady living on the outskirts of the forest, who adopts them both as surrogate grand-children.

Frankly, the parallels between Motohiro’s Ajin and Kentaro Hagiwara’s Tokyo Ghoul, two live action manga-anime adaptations, is quite striking, but there is more action and better visual effects in Ajin. In fact, the fight scenes rather cleverly incorporate the Ajin powers, making them quite distinctive. If you are hit in the arm with a tranquilizer gin, just hack it off. Stuck in a disadvantageous position? Try a strategic reset.

Takeru Satoh is a bit aloof as Nagai, but his has the necessary steeliness and action chops to be convincing in the super-powered melees. Gô Ayano is flamboyantly sinister as Sato and Tetsuji Tamayama makes an even more loathsome jerkheel as Tosaki. However, former AKB48 Team A member Rina Kawaei steals scene after scene and fight after fight, as the formidable Izumi Shimomura.

Frankly, the X-File­-style government conspiracies and cover-ups are tired clichés at this point, but action director Takahito Ouchi manages to keep upping the ante with each big, ultra-cinematic set piece. This is not a subtle film and it sure isn’t boring. Recommended for viewers in the mood for some supernaturally super-charged action, Ajin: Demi-Human had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Dear Etranger

Americans were raised on shows like Full House, so our conception of family is the more the merrier. Japan is more reserved and innately more concerned with issues of authenticity. At least that is certainly the case for two families linked by step-children in Yukiko Mishima’s Dear Etranger (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Makoto Tanaka lives with his second wife Nanae and his two step-daughters, cute-as-a-button-five-ish Eriko and the surly sixth-grader (if that’s not a redundancy) Kaoru. He still sees his first daughter Saori during his limited visits, but she lives with her mother, Tanaka’ ex-wife Yuka and her second husband. Unfortunately, he is rapidly succumbing to late-diagnosis cancer.

Tanaka’s new family also has plenty of drama to contend with, most obviously starting with Nanae’s pregnancy. Resenting this development, Kaoru becomes obsessed with the notion Tanaka is preventing her from seeing her biological father, the abusive compulsive gambler, Sawada. For extra added pressure on Tanaka, he has just been demoted from his salaryman executive position to a job picking orders in the company’s warehouse.

Haruhiko Arai’s screenplay, based on Kiyoshi Shigematsu’s novel, basically unleashes the perfect storm of family challenges, but everything feels believable and true to life, except maybe Kaoru’s hyper-petulance. Seriously kid, give us a break. In fact, Sara Minami is forced to play Kaoru as such a one-note pill, she is considerably outshined by the young but wildly mediagenic Miu Arai as Eriko and Raiju Kamata as Saori, who really scores the film’s knockout punch confronting Tanaka late in the third act.

Yet, for the most part, Etranger is remarkably even-handed. Rena Tanaka and Shinobu Terajima are both unusually potent and messily human as Nanae and Yuka, respectively. It is like their character assets and liabilities are perfectly balanced, item for item. Tadanobu Asano gives them the space and support to shine in their key scenes together, but as Tanaka, he is truly the heart and soul of the film. He is the ultra-Everyman, but with an edge and fraying patience. Likewise, as the contemptible Sawada, Kankuro Kudo finds ways to surprise viewers and humanize his character.

You could almost think of Etranger as the red-headed step-child of Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son and Miiwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse. It is a quiet film, but there is nothing simple about its family angst. Very highly recommended, Dear Etranger screens tomorrow (7/29) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Japan Cuts ’18: Amiko

High school crushes tend to be disappointing, especially if you get stuck with them permanently. Maybe this plucky Japanese school girl should consider herself lucky to be spared the popular Aomi. However, she figures a cute boy who can quote Radiohead is worth fighting for, so she intends to take her shot in screenwriter-director Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Social media is not exactly a progressive force in Yamanaka’s film, but at least we will be spared the kind of bullying and shaming horror stories that have driven so many recent Japanese high school dramas. Amiko does not have a great many friends, but she is relatively leveled headed. She is not engaging in sexual activity either, though she might have some ambitions with respect to Aomi. He is a disdainfully cool kind of kid, who hates playing on the soccer team, even though he is their star player. Aesthetically, Amiko finds him totally dishy, especially after spending one fateful day with him.

Their banter was everything she could hope for, but they haven’t spoken since. She hasn’t fully revealed her feelings to her bestie Kanako yet, but it is pretty clear she is nursing a crush on someone. That is why Amiko almost feels betrayed when he runs off to Tokyo, under highly disappointing circumstances.

The way the film represents modern teens’ preoccupations and anxieties definitely has the ring of authenticity, which is to be expected, considering Yamanaka shot Amiko on the fly when she was only nineteen-years-old. It also has some of the sad-girl-poetry excesses of its demographic. Nevertheless, there is something appealing about its rawness and lack of pretense. Even with the brief sixty-five-minute running time, Amiko has the stuff of a neo-neo-punk cult favorite. Yet, despite all attention devoted to Aomi, the freshest, most memorable aspect of the film is its depiction of her friendship with Kanako.

Aira Sunohara is terrific as the title character. She can be both tart-tongued and touching, even during the same scene. Likewise, Mako Mineo is quite endearing as the somewhat naïve Kanako. The chemistry shared by her and Sunohara is totally convincing, but it is hard to see why anyone would be so obsessed with Hiroto Oshita’s aloof Aomi.

After watching Amiko, we wish we could introduce the titular protag to Izumi Kawashima, the sarcastic Daria-like heroine of About the Pink Sky. They share similarly mordant perspectives, but Kawashima might have helped moderate Amiko’s consuming ardor. It probably hits home with a bang for many teens, but for older viewers, it is just a mostly amiable but rather rough around the edges amble through the collective unconscious of Japanese youth culture. Recommended as much for Yamanaka’s future promise as for its own merits, Amiko screens tomorrow afternoon (7/29) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts (and screens again this coming Tuesday during Fantasia).

Friday, July 27, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Thicker Than Water

Which is harder, running a printing business or maintaining a healthy relationship with your sibling? Clearly, the former, because the Ikuno family print shop is still a going concern. The bond between the Ikuno sisters is an entirely different matter, but the Kanayama Brothers might be even more distant and distrustful in Keisuke Yoshida’s Thicker Than Water (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Yuria Ikuno is smart and hard-working, but she is also socially awkward and does not at all conform to glamor magazine standards of beauty. Her sister Mako Ikuno is cute, ditzy, and popular. She is also a bit of a slacker, both at home and at work. Each resents the others’ attributes, so they have long waged a cold war of snark and one-upmanship. Their latest battle will be fought over an unlikely prize: their regular sub-contracting customer, nebbish Kazunari Kanayama.

Initially, Kanayama can’t even recognize the interest directed at him. Of course, he has long carried a torch for Mako, so it is no contest once she makes her overtures sufficiently obvious. Unfortunately, she is a poor winner, who does everything possible to stoke her sister’s jealousy. Kanayama also has a hard time enjoying the moment, due to the angst caused by his bullying brother Takuji, an ex-con recently released from prison.

Thicker is absolutely not saccharine or sentimental, so it is nothing like a Japanese cousin to the old Sela Ward Sisters TV show. The sibling relationships in this film are already badly damaged and they are only getting worse. Honestly, it is not at all certain whether they will be able to patch up their differences.

In her film debut, manzai stand-up comic Keiko Enoue is an extraordinary discovery as Yuria. She is nakedly vulnerable, but also painfully self-loathing and sometimes downright petty. Honestly, she and Miwako Kakei are perfect together as Ikuno Sisters. Sometimes they make us feel for them acutely, while other times we are appalled by their behavior, but they always come across as real characters grounded in real-life, who inspire strong emotional reactions.

On the other hand, Masataka Kubota (whose sad sack eyes are getting him type-cast in films like Tokyo Ghoul) is such a doormat as Kanayama, it is hard to get how either sister would be interested in him. However, Hirofumi Arai takes the thuggish Takuji in some unexpectedly interesting directions.

This is a quiet, unassuming film, but it is often brutally honest. In many ways, it serves as a contrary corrective to genteel Japanese domestic dramas from the likes of Yoji Yamada and going all the way back to Yasujiro Shimazu, but it still demonstrates the Japanese film industry’s continued mastery of the genre. Recommended for viewing with friends rather than family, Thicker Than Water screens tomorrow afternoon (7/28), at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

14 Cameras: The Slumlord is Back

He is an old wheezy guy with a gimpy leg and stinky halitosis, but he is unstoppable when it comes to terrorizing and killing athletic yuppies a fraction of his age. There is the horror movie mentality: fear gross old people. “Gerald,” as he is identified in the credits, is quite the creep. His hobbies are spying on his tenants and keeping women locked up in a remote cellar. The stakes will rise when he starts a dark web live-cast in Seth Fuller & Scott Hussion’s 14 Cameras (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Yes, this is the sequel to 13 Cameras, so that probably tells you all you need to know. However, screenwriter Victor Zarcoff (who also wrote and directed the first film, originally titled Slumlord) deserves credit for mixing things up here. The latest family that has rented one of Gerald’s vacation condos are still completely unaware of his invasion of their privacy. Yet, things take an even darker but quite interesting turn during the third act.

Gerald’s latest abduction victim is also quite a fighter. Frankly, the psycho-sicko might be spreading himself too thin. In fact, his strange hours and constant shipments of weird video gear finally arouses the suspicion of someone close to him (at least in terms of proximity, but not necessarily emotional attachment).

For what its worth, 14 Cameras is superior to 13 Cameras, by a factor of five or six. Apparently, that extra camera makes a world of difference. Keep in mind the new film still suffers from many of its predecessor’s flaws and excesses, but at least there is some suspense this time around, because the ending is not an obvious downer of a foregone inevitability.

As Gerald (screen name “Slumlord”), Neville Archambault is undeniably creepy, but it is even harder to buy into him as a slasher superman three years later. Seriously, it gets downright painful watching him puffing and panting through his kill scenes, sort of like the spectacle of Gerard Depardieu playing action heroes in movies like Viktor.

Sure, we’ve seen worse. Heck, 14 Cameras is better than the thematically similar Unfriended: Dark Web. Of course, Airbnb and various internet share swap sites will not be too crazy about it, but its cautionary privacy warnings are not uncalled for. Nevertheless, 14 Cameras is not exactly great cinema or required viewing. We still can’t recommend it, but we do not resent spending time to review it. For fans of the franchise, 14 Cameras opens today (7/27) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Outrage Coda

Otomo is tan, rested, and ready. His recent time on Jeju Island has been restorative, but he will swing back into action when an up-and-coming yakuza misbehaves in a hotel controlled by his protector. The Yakuza factions will double-cross each other every chance they get, but they cannot possibly contain the chaos let loose by Otomo in Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage Coda (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

After beating up two prostitutes who balked at his S&M games, the arrogant Hanada demanded an apology from their organization. Instead, he gets a humiliating dressing-down from Otomo. Hanada even agrees to pay restitution, but he kills Otomo’s bag man on the way out of the country. This does not sit well with Otomo’s new boss, Chang, the politically connected leader of a Korean syndicate that also has operations in Japan. When Hanada’s belated attempt to apologize backfires, Otomo is given the unspoken go-ahead to extract some old school payback.

Since a crisis is also an opportunity, etc., etc., an old school gangster faction within Hanada’s Hanabishi-kai schemes to exploit the brewing conflict with Chang to oust their current president, Nomura, a former financier who did not come up through the yakuza ranks. Of course, while he’s at it, Otomo would also like some payback for his lieutenants who were killed in the previous film.

As director, screenwriter, and lead actor, Takeshi Kitano/Beat Takeshi totally delivers the gangster beatdown goods, once again. Coda is nearly as good as the original Outrage and considerably superior to the still-pretty-good Beyond. In some ways, Coda feels like Kitano’s summation film, sort of like a yakuza Harry Brown or Gran Torino, but Kitano and Otomo apologize for nothing. They might be grizzled and world-weary, but they still have work to do—and if you’re part of it, then woe unto you.

As Otomo, Takeshi the thesp always tacked an ultra-cool, understated approach, but he pares his performance down even further this time around, like a minimalist yakuza Mad Max. However, when he has something to say, it is usually very funny, in a stone-cold kind of way. Kitano also has the support of a small army of colorful supporting players, such as Toshiyuki Nishida as the opportunistic but high-strung underboss Nishino and Pierre Taki as the thuggish Hanada.

For fans of the previous Outrage films, Coda will at least meet and most likely exceed their expectations, which is saying something. It is a fitting conclusion to Otomo’s grand story that has a puncher’s chance of becoming Kitano’s definitive film. It is also a ripping good time at the movies. Very highly recommended, Outrage Coda screens Saturday (7/28) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Our House: Ghosts and Machines in Suburbia

The Lightmans are sort of like Party of Five, but with sinister science fiction and horror elements. Technically, Ethan Lightman, his younger brother Matt, and their little sister Becca would be a party of three, unless you also count the ghosts of their late parents—assuming the spirits really are who they represent themselves to be. Whatever they are, big brother is the one responsible bringing them into contact with his siblings in Anthony Scott Burns’ Our House (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lightman was determined to conduct his energy transference experiment that fateful night, instead of staying home with his family. As a result, his parents were killed in a freak head-on collision—at least that is how his resentful brother Matt sees it. Lightman dropped out of school to take care of his siblings, but he just can’t let his experiments go.

When Becca starts having conversations with their late mother and various things start going bump in the night, Lightman realizes his Macguffin transmits spirit energy rather than electricity. By the way, it turns out some rather nasty business happened in their house decades ago. That suddenly becomes relevant when the supposed spirits of their parents develop violent tendencies.

Our House is actually a somewhat reconceived remake of Matt Osterman’s Ghost from the Machine, dating all the way back to 2010. Osterman also helmed the strange but quite good 400 Days and the flawed but interesting Hover, whereas Burns only had previous short work to his credit (including the best constituent short in the anthology film Holidays), but apparently producer Kyle Franke developed the project with the latter in mind. It certainly sounds like an unlikely re-whatever project, but here it is.

In fact, Burns displays quite a sensitive touch, privileging the family drama over the horror elements. He is definitely highly attuned to the messy human emotions of all three young characters. His weird suburban 1980s influences also shine through, especially in terms of the film’s look and vibe.

However, the core cast is rather hit or miss. By far, the standout is Percy Hynes White, who always feels really real as Matt, the middle child. On the other hand, Thomas Mann is problematically aloof as big brother Ethan, while some of the minor players are decidedly awkward.

Burns’ command of mood is quite strong throughout Our House, but his pacing is much less so. His commitment to dramatic realism is impressive, but a lot of the core market watches horror and sf to get away from family dysfunction. Still, there is a lot of promise here that could really be something with a tighter first act and more consistent casting. On balance, it is worth checking out, especially those who have a taste for angsty supernatural films, but most of us can safely wait for it to stream on Netflix or Shudder. In any event, it opens tomorrow (7/27) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

AAIFF ’18: Letter from Masanjia

Some good came out of the events chronicled in this documentary, but not a happy ending. Life can be disappointing that way, especially in today’s China. Nobody understood those harsh realities better than Sun Yi, a Falun Gong practitioner who was sentenced to the infamous Masanjia labor camp. When a woman from Oregon found a note he hid in a box of Halloween decorations it became an international media story that continues to reverberate across China. At great personal risk, Sun Yi set out to further document Falun Gong persecution and the horrors of Chinese labor camps in Leon Lee’s Letter from Masanjia (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Two years after she originally purchased it, Julie Keith found the fateful letter Sun Yi had written (in English and Mandarin) in the box of a Styrofoam tombstone purchased at Kmart. She took the letter public, as he beseeched his unknown reader—and it quickly ignited a firestorm. Many criticized her for supposedly endangering the mystery writer’s safety, but they were really acknowledging their own moral cowardice. Halfway around the world, Sun Yi felt vindicated and deeply moved by Keith’s proactive concern. In fact, he was inspired to renew his activism.

Released through the efforts of a human rights lawyer who would later be held incommunicado by the police, Sun Yi had been lying low, doing his best to renew his relationship with Ning Fu, his ex-wife, who had been forced to divorce him during his time in Masanjia. However, the Communist government is so embarrassed by the subsequent revelations regarding the torture and slave labor happening in labor camps, Sun decides to document his story while the time was ripe. Soon, he is collaborating with Lee over secured skype chats and clandestinely filming around Masanjia. Unfortunately, it is not long before the authorities suspect he is up to something, or they just intend to sweep him up with a regular Falun Gong round-up. Regardless, the cops start harassing Ning and his family, forcing him to go underground for their safety.

At times, Letter is unspeakably intense, because the danger is so real and palpable. The bespectacled Sun is also an acutely human everyman protagonist. You would almost call him nebbish, were it not for the aura of dignity that surrounds him. Of course, by documenting his own travails, Sun and Lee have produced a searing expose human rights violations in China. This is a case where the personal is political and the political is personal.

Letter was exceptional well cut together by editor Patrick Carroll because it largely plays like a thriller, but functions as an airtight indictment of CP crimes against humanity. Frankly, the final scenes have the force of a 2x4 to the face. Not to be spoilery, but Sun will not be available for the post-screening Q&A—and that really stings.

This is a frightening film for many reasons, starting with the suspected Chinese agent, who if he got to Sun, did so on foreign soil (Indonesia, who did nothing about it).  More fundamentally, it depicts the sadistic torture endured by Falun Gong practitioners. We know several practitioners, so it chills us to the bone thinking of what they could face from China’s terror machine, even if they never set foot on the Mainland. Like Anastasia Lin, Sun also makes the point that consumers should do their best to only purchase products made by democratic countries.

Letter is a scary film, but it is also deeply moving. It serves as Sun’s epitaph, but it also gives him the last word. Ultimately, it is a fitting tribute to a brave man. Highly and urgently recommended, Letter from Masanjia screens Saturday afternoon (7/28), at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

AAIFF ’18: Badass Beauty Queen

When she competed as Miss World Canada, Anastasia Lin’s talents were telling the truth and exposing injustice (she also plays piano). However, the leadership of her pageant did not share her talents. Since Lin criticized the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibet and Falun Gong practitioners, the Communist Party was determined to silence her—and the Miss World organization was happy to serve as their muzzle. Yet, the would-be censors were not match for Lin’s guts and grace. The rest of the Western world should heed the events documented in Theresa Kowall-Shipp’s Badass Beauty Queen: The Anastasia Lin Story (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

They have some cool beauty queens in Canada, but some absolutely rotten pageants. One of Lin’s predecessors was Miss World Canada 2003 Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who used her platform to speak out against Iranian human rights abuses and encouraged Lin to compete. On her second attempt, Lin won the Canadian crown, which was initially reported widely in China. Then they realized the beauty queen was in the habit of thinking for herself.

When Lin’s mother separated from her father, she took her daughter to Canada for the superior educational opportunities it offered. At that time, she largely believed Party propaganda, but when she read uncensored accounts of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the oppression of the Falun Gong, it opened her eyes. However, as she began raising human rights issues, the Party used her captive father in their attempts to control and punish her.

The Chinese government’s behavior towards Lin (a Canadian citizen) and her Chinese family is deplorable, but not the least bit surprising. However, what is shocking is the extent to which the Miss World pageant (chartered in the UK) fell in line behind their Chinese masters. When the Chinese government refused her entry to Sanya to compete in the global Miss World pageant, the organization never uttered a peep. When they supposedly let her compete in the finals the following year, the categorically refused her permission to speak to the media, even though plenty of her competitors were allowed to do interviews. Yet, in each case, the attempts to silence and bully Lin came back on China and the Miss World pageant, like a bad PR boomerang.

Thanks to her friends, Lin was able to capture an awful lot of the intimidation as it happened. It is particularly eye-opening to watch the Miss World officials betray the principles of free speech for the thirty pieces of silver they receive from their Chinese sponsors. Frankly, they are worse then prostitutes, who merely rent out their bodies. The Miss World pageant sold out our freedoms along with their dignity—and they sold them cheap (Miss World officials declined the filmmakers’ interview requests, presumably because they have nothing to say for themselves).

Indeed, many of the experts interviewed in the film argue Lin’s story is particularly important because it illustrates the international implications of China’s oppressive attempts to silence critics. Lin is a Canadian citizen, but they targeted her and her family because she exercised her Canadian right to free speech.

In many ways, Badass Beauty Queen is a timely wake-up call regarding the threat China poses to free society, but it is also a highly intimate and watchable film. Kowall-Shipp shrewdly recognized the personable, down-to-earth Lin was the film’s strongest asset, so she let her personality shine through loud and clear. It seems inconceivable that the Miss World organization would try so hard to keep her away from cameras and microphones, but such is the extent of their craven corruption.

This is an important film that will make you deeply concerned and maybe even a little afraid of China’s ability to reach its critics in the West. Yet, it will also make you want to hang out with Lin, who despite all she has been through, never takes herself too seriously. Very highly recommended, Badass Beauty Queen screens Saturday (7/28) at the Village East, with a post-screening Q&A scheduled with Lin herself, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Radiance

In the case of Naomi Kawase’s films, it would be particularly difficult to write audio descriptions for visually impaired patrons, because of the delicate way she employs light. She probably understands this, because she obviously invites sympathy for Misako Ozaki, who is writing a descriptive script for a slightly less arty but still demanding film coming soon to Japanese theaters. Unfortunately, she has a harsh critic in her focus group, who also happens to be partially sighted. Yet, they will make a connection, at least to some extent, in Kawase’s Radiance (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Most of Ozaki’s beta testers are supportive, but not Masaya Nakamori. Initially, his criticism stings, but she soon learns he has good reason for his bitterness. Nakamori was an internationally renowned photographer, but his degenerative condition has forced him to give up his passion and vocation. Similarly, Ozaki is not the shallow young thing Nakamori presumes her to be. She is dealing with some pretty heavy issues of her own, including the recent death of her father and her mother’s progressive dementia.

So maybe they can forge something between a friendship and a romance, at least for a short period. In any event, it will not be the Nicolas Sparks style romance the international one-sheets clearly promise. Kawase does not do conventional romance, but issues of communication, perception, and aging are all in her power zone.

Without question, Sweet Bean is and will probably always be Kawase’s most commercial film, by a country mile. Still, Radiance is more accessible than representative works like Still the Waters or Mourning Forest. In many ways, it is a film lover’s film. In fact, it intriguingly suggests Ozaki’s focus group members effectively experience the same film new several times over, because her evolving approach to the descriptive script makes it something different each time. There is something provocative in that notion that we wish Kawase has devoted even more time to flesh out.

Nevertheless, Ayame Misaki, previously best known for franchises like Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters and Attack on Titan, is a genuine revelation as Ozaki. She is exquisitely expressive and sensitive, but also remarkably disciplined. In short, she is perfect for a Kawase film. Masatoshi Nagase (who was so quietly perfect in Sweet Bean) literally rages against the dying of the light as Nakamori, in an acutely human kind of way. Tatsuya Fuji also adds some wry seasoning as the director and lead actor of the film Ozaki is laboring to describe.

Radiance is not for short-attention-span lowest common denominator viewers, but it is a good film, with a heart and a brain. It not only makes us examine how we perceive the world, it also challenges us to reconsider the very act of perceiving. It is hard to put you finger on, but there is something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle going on in this film. There is also some very emotionally raw drama. Recommended for mature cineastes, Radiance screens tomorrow (7/25) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Dead Night: Barbara Crampton Kills, but the Movie Doesn’t

A cabin with New Age healing powers? Right, good luck with that. Maybe the iron oxide whatsit has restorative properties, but it’s not healing multiple stab wounds anytime soon. This will not be the family retreat Casey Pollack intended, but at least she gets a glimpse of the future in Brad Baruh’s Dead Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Casey Pollack was hoping a trip to the woo-woo cabin would have a beneficial effect on her husband James’ cancer. In retrospect, the snow closed roads and dead zone for cell service were definitely bad signs. However, things really got bad when her husband carried in a woman he found half-frozen in the woods.

Her name is Leslie Bison and she is quite a piece of work. Instead of expressing gratitude, she says the weirdest, most inappropriate things—and then she starts killing Pollack’s family. It is not really her idea. It is all part of a Faustian bargain—albeit one that doesn’t seem to trouble Bison very much. However, things get complicated when Casey turns out to be unexpectedly resourceful. Alas, that will not stop the world from blaming her for the murders, as we can see from a future true crime TV show interspersed throughout the film.

The faux TV report on Pollack’s alleged murders is really pretty clever, but it also sort of undermines the film. Basically, Baruh tells us what is going to happen and then it does. The end. We might be jazz fans, but this is a case where everyone could use a little syncopation.

Still, there is one thing definitely going for the movie: Barbara Crampton, who is pretty darned spectacular as the gleefully unhinged Bison. It is rather fun watching her chew the scenery and hurl dismissive zingers at her victims. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t go anywhere. This will be particularly frustrating for real horror fans, because in addition to Crampton, it has AJ Bowen playing James Pollack, Chase Williamson appearing in the 1960s prologue that really doesn’t make much sense in the context of the full film, and Don Coscarelli on-board as an executive producer. This film should be awesome, but it’s not.

Still, there are some distinctive supporting turns, in addition to Crampton’s villainous diva performance. Joy Osmanski is terrific as the evil New Age hippy Mika Shand and Daniel Roebuck is pitch perfect as the true crime host, Jack Sterling. It is just too bad they are in such a frustrating film that fritters away any possible suspense. Not recommended, Dead Night opens this Friday (7/27) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

The intrepid court investigator had legitimate mysteries to contend with in Tsui Hark’s two previous Detective Dee films, but this time out, you could say he is working on a loss-prevention case. Di Renjie has been tasked with safeguarding the Dragon Taming Mace, a fabled weapon with Excalibur-like powers and vital symbolic importance for the Tang Dynasty. That does not sit well with the Empress Consort Wu Zetian, who covets power (and the mace that represents it) for herself. However, the chancellor-sleuth will have bigger, more spectacular foes to battle in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Di knows the mace will be trouble, but fortunately he is not about to hide it under his bed or stash it in a closet (but maybe he would, because you would never expect that from someone so clever). That is why the distraction designed to lure him from the Department of Investigations only yields an unlucky murder victim. Wu’s Taoist agents will have to be more direct the next time, but that does not sit well with their ostensive commander, Yuchi Zhenjin, a captain of the Imperial guard, who has sworn his loyalty to Wu and his brotherhood to Di. He had misgivings, even before Wu’s magician-mercenaries start piling up bodies.

Things get rather awkward for all concerned when a shadowy third-party upstages Wu’s assassins with more powerful black magic of their own. Although Di largely stayed a step ahead of Wu’s conspirtors, he is still only a man. To combat the perfect storm of bad mojo approaching, he will need help from a monk who was once the apprentice of Di’s former ally and is now poised on the brink of enlightenment.

Like most of Tsui’s films, Heavenly Kings has some big-time spectacle, including dragons and albino King Kongs. Yet, unlike in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, none of the huge set pieces veer into kitsch or shtick, nor do they overwhelm the characters.

This time around, Mark Chao is more settled in and comfortable as the iconic investigator. He is at his best playing off William Feng Shaofeng as the conflicted Yuchi. Their strained but genuine friendship is one the most rewarding aspects of Heavenly Kings. On the other hand, a little of Kenny Lin Gengxin as Shatuo Zhong, Di’s bumbling sidekick, goes a long way. At least he does not step on Sandra Ma Sichun, who shines in their scenes together, as a homesick Taoist assassin, who develops a conscience and an unlikely attraction to Shatuo. Nevertheless, the real star is Carina Lau, in all her regal, scheming glory, as the grand Empress Wu.

There are some highly cinematic fight scenes in Heavenly Kings, but perhaps more importantly, it boasts some of the craziest, Earth-shaking Buddhist imagery since Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, which is saying something. If that kind of thing appeals to you as much as it does to us, then you have to see Heavenly Kings (a subtitle that is somewhat misleading out of context, but so be it). Audiences should also note there are several pseudo-stingers sprinkled throughout the closing credits, including one that effectively ties the two Chao prequels to the original Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Recommended for fans of Tsui’s style of action conducted on a grand scale, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opens this Friday (7/27) in New York, at the AMC Empire.