Summer means Asian Films Are Go*. The New York Asian Film Festival will present its wild selection of the most recent and most curious films culled from the current crop of Asian pop cinema. This is also the second year the festival will be held in conjunction with Japan Society’s Japan Cuts festival of new Japanese films, which begins July 2nd.
From Chinese war pictures (Assembly) to Japanese spaghetti westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django) the unclassifiable breadth of Asian cinema is on display. But this year a fascinating trend continues to emerge amidst the hyperbolic genre explosions the fest is known for: stream of consciousness slices of life, those who like a little representation with all that mythological presentation.
Fine Totally Fine
Fine Totally Fine follows horror-obsessed slacker Teruo and the menagerie of square pegs that satellite around him. A gardener by day, Teruo spends his free time scaring his friends in clever ways and aspires to open a haunted house. His bedroom is adorned with horrific edifices in his own image. These include bloody life-like casts of his head and a poster of himself as Dracula. But gradually the quirks of real life subtly eclipse the visceral theatrics of Teruo and his haunted house dreams.
The various oddballs that populate the universe of Fine Totally Fine are treated with empathy and respect. Their comical idiosyncrasies are refreshing celebrations of individuality. As Teruo, pudgy, doe-eyed character actor Yoshiyoshi Arakawa effortlessly channels a pastiche of types ranging from Japanese everyman Tora-san to Shemp from the Three Stooges. Teruo’s best friend Hisanobu, who works as a hospital administrator, strives to be normal. Yet Hisanobu can’t separate himself from the adulthood-shirking activities of Teruo and the dreamers that comprise their circle of friends. This is brilliantly reflected in an innovative plot device: They all take part in making a strange short film that comments on the greater story at hand.
Akari, an endearingly cute, accident-prone young woman enters their lives through an odd string of coincidences. Akari’s sudden appearance unleashes a repressed passion for life in both Teruo and Hisanobu. Akari meanwhile, seems unaware of her own latent artistic talents. Her fascination with, and obsessive paintings of a wild, outsider artist homeless woman underlines a main theme of the film. Making his feature film debut, director Yosuke Fujita quietly applauds the free-spirited underdog with a wry comic sense. For all its absurdist humor, Fine Totally Fine is balanced with genuine emotions, multi-dimensional characterizations, and sharp observances of how it feels to not quite fit in. If there’s any hope left for odd little films and their niche audiences Fine Totally Fine will be a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, (or at least the audience winner at the NYAFF).
(Co-presented with Japan Cuts).
It takes some gall to name your film M, and then you got a lot to live up to. Fritz Lang, director of the original M, pioneer of German Expressionism and master of American film noir, somehow—when he had the budget—subsumed visual style to plot even as he subsumed plot to visual style. His most visually advanced films (Metropolis, M) are, you know, classics: their construction nourishes your involvement in the story and vice versa. Unfortunately, this M’s director, Myung-se Lee, nails only half the equation, and that only 3/4s of the time.
Lee’s M drowns in style. It’s beautiful. Is it ever, relentlessly. Sometimes M’s frames are beautiful like a perfume ad, sometimes like CSI Miami, sometimes like a Harper’s fashion spread and sometimes like nothing you’ve ever seen: eye-popping overwrought facial close-ups or hallucinogenic tracking shots of upscale living rooms all bathed in blue save for an impossible wavering watering blast of yellow floating in blue. Bodies overlap, rooms merge into one another or turn on their axis’; a running girl vanishes into a pitch-black alley and emerges into a sunny street that instantly becomes a noon-time thunderstorm. If only all this gorgeosity was in service of something.
Only, it ain’t. At least not after about the midway point when, as suddenly as a noonday thunderstorm, you might be subject to a piercing urge for all this beauty to have meaning. The unrelenting style is supposed to bear us into the tortured mind of a tortured novelist bewitched by a young girl with a giant crush on him. The young girl might be the novelists dream, or his memory, or her own ghost. But it becomes quickly apparent—no, wait, it becomes agonizingly slowly apparent—that the director is not going to sort out all the parallel beautiful realities he evokes. Rather, the same characters would go into the same amazing bar, the same sinister alley, the same grubby sushi restaurant and the same bitchin’ apartment and have the same conversations over and over and over again. At some point, after one conversation among many, the screen goes black, thus signifying an end...still, the damn thing is beautiful, and if you love mise-en-scene, camera movement and set design above all else, the first hour is mind-blowing.
David N Meyer
Dainipponjin (Big Man Japan)
Hitoshi Matsumoto, half of the phenomenally popular Japanese comedy duo "Downtown," makes his directorial debut with this bizarre, deadpan mockumentary. Matsumoto, or Ma-Chan as he is better known, plays Daisato, a middle-aged sad sack who appears a little down in the dumps. Daisato is estranged from his wife and young daughter, and for some reason inflammatory graffiti mars his house. Occasionally rocks crash through his windows.
The apparent motivation behind the hostilities hurled at Daisato seems to have something to do with his job. But what does Daisato do? He protects Japan from strange monsters that show up to wreak havoc every now and then. How this run of the mill loser becomes a superhero is revealed in an ironic sight gag, hinted at by the title. The ensuing heroics of the title character allow Ma-chan to poke fun at his own celebrity while boldly commenting on contemporary society.
Ma-chan’s brilliant conceit is to combine a reality TV style documentary with the kaiju (monster) genre so iconic of Japanese pop culture (think Godzilla). Needless to say, this is far from your typical kaiju. Instead of fantastical rubber suit creations, the horrors at hand are visceral personifications of postmodern ennui. One monster is a milquetoast with a comb-over and a body made up of what appear to be electronic cables. Another is a gigantic baby known as ‘The Child Monster.’
Dainipponjin does get a bit bogged down by uneven pacing. The everyday documentary moments seem indulgently overlong as they build up to outbursts of dry slapstick. But the odd juxtaposition of the mundane and downright weird ultimately succeeds. Dainipponjin takes Japanese society to task in a scathing satire of media trends and modern everyday hang-ups.
(Co-presented with Japan Cuts).
Assembly is an epic, and less an epic of revolutionary romanticism typical of Chinese war films than a more western approach focusing on individuals in and against historical turbulence. In war or peacetime, the hero Gu Zidi demonstrates single-minded stubbornness in the missions impossible he sets out to achieve. In war, Gu leads an ill-equipped troop against a superior enemy force, fighting as his soldiers are crushed before his eyes, until he alone survives—left to drag their shattered bodies into a cave. He answers the suspicious inquiry of a heartless bureaucracy, futilely trying to assert his troop’s honor. He stands alone on a bridge leading to the familiar battlefield where his comrades lie unknown. He appears as a tiny spot on a vast mountain of coal, trying like crazy to dig out his comrades’ corpses. In these encounters, the insignificance and helplessness of individual against historical force and social machine is elevated to the sublimity of David fighting Goliath.
This fight is especially tough in Chinese culture, where both Confucianism and communism suppress individual value. Gu himself has little individuality to claim; his name (literally “millet field”) refers to the place where he was found as an abandoned orphan. The bugle-call for ‘Assembly’—which would have meant a life-saving retreat—haunts the story and frames not only the hero’s unbearable survivor’s guilt, but also the crushing conflict between the value of the individual and the need for missions that sacrifice individual life. Gu cannot solve this dilemma despite his unhesitant willingness to sacrifice. Nor does the story defining the struggles of an emerging state allow us to make simple choices. Individuals in this film are, as in the familiar phrase quoted by a character, “drops of water in the vast ocean.”
The battle scenes deviate from the panoramas of revolutionary romanticism and focus on the blood-soaked cruelty of war and breathtaking details recalling Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The desaturated colors evoke the effect of a black and white film, distinguishing the redness of gunfire, blood, and the red scarf of a vividly depicted coward-turned-hero. These contrast with the richly colored peacetime scenes and with traditional Chinese war pictures. A new generation of Chinese directors is exploring an international cinematic language in their discovery of national history and collective memory.
This Vietnamese box-office smash spins an adventure tale revolving around the nation’s struggle against French colonialists in the 1920s. Cuong, an altruistic Vietnamese, works for the French as a special agent against rebel forces. Brother fights brother and westerners are bad. Trying to foil an assassination, Cuong battles the beautiful (and ass kicking) daughter of a wanted rebel leader. But before you can say Ho Chi Minh, Cuong quickly resolves his inner conflict and joins forces with the rebel babe to fight against the nasty colonialists and their treacherous Vietnamese coconspirators.
Does that sound a bit contrived? Perhaps it is, but rousing set pieces and a rollercoaster pace keep the formula successful. The melodrama is peppered with Vietnamese pathos and boasts an epic scope similar to Paul Verhoven’s romanticized Nazi potboiler Black Book (though on a slightly lower budget and with the tawdry bits removed). The Rebel does lack the tongue in cheek humor that marked Tsui Hark’s classic Peking Opera Blues and its outré treatment of China’s 1911 revolution. However, the Vietnamese have more than enough reason to be solemn and serious about their past, even if it is in the form of a Saturday matinee cliffhanger. The Rebel is replete with gun fights, torture, opium smoking, eye-gouging (off screen, thankfully), nail biting chase scenes and astonishingly acrobatic martial arts thrashings.
The two heartthrob leads, Johnny Nguyen (also one of the writers) and Thahn Van Ngo, manage to remain gorgeous throughout, particularly when springing of walls into spin kicks that land on baddies’ heads. Thahn is especially impressive, combining a tough as nails persona with sultry sex appeal, all while kicking incredible amounts of kung fu butt. Nguyen, though far from winning a Stanislavski award, gives Tony Jaa (Ong Bak; Thai Warrior) more than a run for his money. Nguyen and Thahn are already teaming up for another actioner Monk on Fire.
Who’da thunk it? Johnnie To, the man behind dark, intense crime films like Exiled and Triad Election directs a romantic comedy. Granted it’s about a team of pickpockets, led by Hong Kong movie lothario and To regular Simon Yam, so it’s not a complete departure from To’s preferred genre. Still, no one dies and there’s not a single gun fight. Thematically The Sparrow is less concerned with the evil that men can do, even if the main characters are professional thieves. As strong as To’s men appear to be, they are little match for the power a woman can hold over them.
One day a sparrow flies into the apartment of master pickpocket and amateur photographer Kei. His crew warns Kei that this must be a bad omen. Soon afterwards Kei comes across a mysterious young woman (Kelly Lin) while taking snapshots. A string of unexpected events grow into a game of cat and mouse between Kei’s crew and the woman.
The Sparrow takes some inspiration from classic ’60s Hollywood romantic thrillers (think Charade or To Catch a Thief). But rest assured, Johnnie To’s noirish fatalism lends a somber tone to an otherwise lighthearted milieu. Visual metaphors, sight gags, and introspection supersede the witty repartee standard of the genre. Pickpocketing is treated as a refined art form that slyly matches To’s own cinematic sleight of hand, evident by the fascinating geometric shapes created within the mise en scene. A bird’s eye shot of a maze-like stairwell down which the alluring young woman flees away from Yam speaks volumes about the evasiveness of a woman’s heart. In the film’s most hilarious physical gag, Kei and crew and the woman find themselves entangled between each other, an elevator and a pane of glass. Johnnie T. brilliantly creates odd spaces that move the narrative, elicit laughter and emotion all at once. Perhaps as Bob Le Flambeur was to Jean Pierre Melville, Sparrow is Johnnie To’s personal, life-affirming comedy of manners.
Sukiyaki Western Django
Takashi Miike takes on the spaghetti western, with the semi-unfortunate collaboration of Quentin Tarantino. The result is an avalanche of both their tropes: madhouse appropriation, perfectly deranged/perfectly chic costumes, a hyperbolic visual style with gigantic Japanese quote marks around every shot, proper nods to the genre being appropriated, some hilarious dialogue that’s almost too damn cute and at least twenty minutes more of all of the above than anyone could possibly want. Had Miike cut those twenty, Sukiyaki would be just about perfect. As is, those who love the cheaper, less aspirational spaghetti westerns—like the original Django or The Great Silence—cinema-geek in-jokes, and are accustomed to Miike’s pacing, will add quite the notch to their movie-watching gunbelts. Others might love the first hour, and then go enjoy a pleasant dinner somewheres. As often happens with Miike, the incessant invention of the first half is riveting.
Dude rides into town – it’s a samurai’s context, but everbody’s dressed like Deadwood, if Deadwood were costumed-designed by Gautier. The town’s in turmoil, split between two rival gangs, who wear red and white designer cowboy/samurai duds respectively. Before the dude shows, Tarantino, dressed like a big ol’ cowboy and speaking in the sort of Japanese accents utilized by the wily Orientals in American WWII films, gives us a prologue, turning every ‘L’ into an ‘R’. Before one can suss whether this is racist, actually funny in a horrible way, or Miike messing with us, we learn that the Japanese actors speak only English. Some are unintelligible, some sound like they learned their lines phonetically and some declaim like John Gielgud. It’s truly weird, with no apparent thematic or narrative purpose: just another Miike/Tarantino big idea that we alternatingly suffer through and are amused by.
Suffering through: as the dude sizes up the two gangs, one of them of them shouts: “Don’t try any Yojimbo shit!” (Yojimbo, of course, being the Akira Kurosawa chanbarra from which all spaghetti westerns sprang. In it, a samurai comes to town, plays one gang against the other, watches them slaughter each other, and pockets all their gold.) Later, the coolest, most chic samurai gunslinger, with Motley Crue hair, a nose like Adrian Brody and a really thick Japanese accent, hollers to his gathered troops: “That’s tits on the bull thinking!” Clearly, Tarantino’s having a little laugh.
As he does in an unnecessary sequence in which, of course, T slaps a woman down. It’s about at that juncture where things get increasingly self-indulgent, though mildly so by Miike’s standards. A sheriff develops a split personality and speaks in first one voice and then another. That’s amusing for about ten seconds, but Miike gives him fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! The shootout finale should be orgasmic ‘n’ climactic, but Miike, for all his visual bravura, can’t quite get a handle on the action sequences. They play as disjointed shots, with none of the bracing unity of, say, the final battle in Open Range.
Miike’s nuts, always has been. Tarantino adores genre signatures and his own self. Who’s to tell these two when enough is just that?
Adrift in Tokyo
Joe Odagiri is the most internationally visible Japanese movie star next to Tadanobu Asano (Mongol, Ichi the Killer). With model good looks Odagiri can be suave, seductive and edgy. But he can also appear effete and vulnerable in a way that seems to drive women wild. In Adrift in Tokyo Odagiri manages to find a happy medium of both aspects and be funny as well.
Odagiri plays Takemura, a scruffy young law student with a serious amount of debt. Suddenly Fukuhara, a threatening debt collector, bursts into Takemura’s shabby apartment with a one day ultimatum: payment or intense pain. But the next day, calm, cool and collected Fukuhara shows a change of heart. Fukuhara offers Takemura a healthy sum of money—substantially more than the debt—to simply accompany him on a walk through the streets of Tokyo. Their clashing personalities allows for an interesting comic exchange. Takemura is the younger but more worrisome of the two, taking on the role of a disapproving old man, opposed to Fukuhara’s lackadaisical spontaneity.
This improbable premise opens into a variety of interesting stories and sentiments. It is partly a serenade to a fascinating metropolis. We are also exposed to interesting quirky aspects of Japanese culture. There is the cos-play (costume play) club where people dress up as their favorite characters. We meet an odd female friend of Fukuhara who worked with him as a mourner for hire. Tomokazu Miura, who was a heartthrob in his own right during the 70’s, shines as the brash, mullet-topped Fukuhara. His naturalness compels us to keep asking what he’s searching for: redemption, an epiphany or just a little piece of mind. Through the duo’s journey we are offered an often humorous examination of alienation in a family-centric society. The resultant quiet introspection of modern values skillfully evades over-sentimentality. With its cast of free-spirited individuals and refreshing irreverence Adrift in Tokyo retains a captivating and ethereal simplicity throughout.
(Co-presented with Japan Cuts).