a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Watashi no otoko

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Watashi no otoko starts with an interesting premise. Hana, a young girl orphaned by the tsunami of 1993 in Hokkaido is taken in by Jungo (Tadanobu Asano), a 20-something distant relative. Cut to Hana (Fumi Nikaido) as a teenager, living with Jungo in a perpetually snowy port town. Their loving relationship turns into a different kind of loving – with a mess of repercussions. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri is deft with a certain kind of cinematic naturalism. His Summer’s End and Sketches of Kaitan City prove it. Outside of that realm, he gets into cold water. One can pinpoint the scene in Watashi no Otoko where it all falls apart – a blood drenched Kubrickian fantasy lovemaking session that’s supposed to be the turning point of the affair between Hana and Jungo. After that, the plot devolves into some sort of thriller meets tragedy that misfires on both fronts. Nikaido puts her all into Hana, giving her a bit of believability, whereas Asano, usually a blank slate, ends up chewing the scenery at the denouement with a patent dishonesty.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2014

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 3, 2014 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sanjinés Retrospective

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ukamau01Jorge Sanjinés, one of the most consistently brilliant practitioners of the Third Cinema movement, is getting a nearly complete retrospective at K’s Cinema, May 3 – 16. Third Cinema expounded an anti-Hollywood model of cinema that dealt with such issues as neo-colonialism, capitalism and racism. Sanjinés has been at the forefront since the beginning with his first short, Revolución (1962), a piece of Eisensteinian agit-prop that puts the struggle of indigenous people into a new revolutionary spotlight. His first features, Ukamau (1966) puts a fable of revenge into an anti-colonial context. His next, Blood of the Condor (1969) tells a neo-realist tale of a sisyphean struggle of a man to help his brother survive. Both are in indigenous languages. El coraje del pueblo (1971), found him developing a collective approach to filmmaking, recreating a tragic miners’ strike. His work since has been consistently been exploring the edges of political cinema. But what one is mainly left with are the beautiful faces that Sanjinés has committed to screen and the deep humanity that informs his political stance.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 12, 2014 at 2:49 am

The Black Square / 黒四角

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Black_SquareThe Black Square, Hiroshi Okuhara’s meandering piece of kitchen sink surrealism is filled with interesting backdrops, images and characters and a few too many half-baked and hermetic situations to justify its 2 plus hours. The film takes place in Beijing’s Song Zhuang Artist Village, a Tarkovski-esqe landscape of industrial buildings with the natural world reclaiming the space. A mysterious black square appears, hovering over a field. Soon, a man (Hideo Nakaizumi) emerges from it. An alien? A foreigner? He has no memory or history. He’s taken in by Zhao Ping (Chen Xixu), a struggling artist and his girlfriend Hana (Miki Suzuki), also an artist. He begins developing a relationship with Zhao’s sister Lihua (Dan Hong) in this milieu of art world outliers. Throughout all this, there are flashbacks to a Japanese/Chinese love story that takes place during the Sino-Japanese War, new age-y musings on spiritual bonds and love that all sort of reflect on the goings-on of Mr. Black Square and his contemporary cronies. Ultimately, director Okuhara’s self indulgence feels more like a black hole.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 12, 2014 at 2:44 am

Bokutachi no kazoku / ぼくたちの家族

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bokutachiYuya Ishii’s Bokutachi no kazoku begins with a simple premise. 60-year old Reiko (Mieko Harada) suddenly starts turning dingy. A visit to the doctor reveals a brain tumor and short lease left on life. Her husband Atsuaki (Kyozo Nagatsuka) and two sons, Kousuke (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Shunpie (Sosuke Ikematsu) are suddenly thrust into dealing with the situation – and themselves and their family relationship. With a particularly sensitive hand, Ishii shows the more stereotypical occluded side of Japanese family relationships (among men in particular) and at the more subtle undercurrents of how these relationships are tested and how they function under stress. It’s fitting that the title of the film uses “bokutachi” – a male version of “we” – to describe “our” family. The three male leads, Nagatsuka in particular, work the silence and the implicit understandings and misunderstandings of male communication – and the lack of it. The social constructs and constrictions of their world are finely limned. Mom, though, unburdened by disease, becomes a bit too homily-rific- perhaps a necessary counter to her family of boys.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2014.

Disregarded People / Sutegataki Hitobito / 捨てがたき人々

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disregardedHideo Sakai’s execrable feature, Disregarded People, is ostensibly a hard-hitting look at the baser instincts and truths of humankind. Bruno Dumont he ain’t. Sakai reinforces and perpetuates the dumb macho ideas and misogyny that are rampant in the male-dominated Japanese film industry. In this tale, Yuusuke Mamiana (Nao Omori) returns to his old island hometown for some vaguely existential reasons. He meets a woman that he attempts to rape, apologizes, and then really does rape her. Like any normal woman, she decides to live with him and bear his child. Oh, and a little later in he rapes a bar owner, who of course, has no problem in having him continue being a customer. Good thing there are no cops on this island! Even taken as a broader parable about the human condition, Disregarded People is barely a joke. And a not very funny one at that. The film opens – and closes – with the distraught Yuusuke moaning, “Why was I ever born? Why am I even here?” I’m still trying to find the punch line.

Originally published in EL Magazine, April 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 12, 2014 at 2:16 am

Ieji / The Way Home / 家路

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img1540099541489Nao Kubota’s premier feature, Ieji, has a great premise, a host of great actors and particularly cogent message for post 3.11 Japan, but falls flat in its unisnspired direction and its length. Not that Kubota’s heart isn’t in the right place. The story pits Jiro (Kenichi Matsuyama) and his brother, Soichi (Masaaki Uchino) against the reality of life in the shadows of the Fukushima meltdown. Jiro, young, single, with a troubled past has moved back within the no-man’s zone surrounding the stricken reactor to rebuild and replant. His older brother, Soichi, is still living in cramped temporary housing with his wife (Sakura Ando), daughter and mother (Yuko Tanaka). The conflicts around individual and collective responsibility, family ties and the future of Tohoku are given the perfect opportunity to be played out. Even with his incredibly fine cast, though, Kubota doesn’t give them much room to breathe deeply, though he give them plenty of Ozu-ish time to appear meaningful. Flat and flawed as it is, Ieji is still better than most films dealing with 3.11.

Originally published in EL Magazine, March 2014. 

Written by Nicholas Vroman

March 20, 2014 at 5:41 am

No Man’s Zone / 無人地帯

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NMZ_poster_vertical_webNo Man’s Zone, Toshi Fujiwara’s Marker-esque exploration of the effects of 3.11.takes him within the 50 kilometer no man’s zone surrounding the crippled and leaking Fukushima Nuclear plant. He visited the area in spring, shortly after the meltdown and was one of the first to document the affected area. The journey is not merely the usual disaster sightseeing trip, but a serious questioning of how it was and is being mediated, along with a healthy dose of asides and commentary, interviews with a handful of holdouts living with the zone and scenes of destruction countered with things like blooming cherry trees and flowers. For a film about one of the major disasters that ever hit Japan, it’s surprisingly beautiful. What are most powerful of No Man’s Land are the images of nature’s healing and rebirth, even tainted by the invisible poison left by man. The final, somewhat mundane image of a tree takes on a new meaning in Fujiwara’s hands – something akin to hope, leavened with frightful knowledge and the weight of recent history.

Published in EL Magazine, February 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

March 20, 2014 at 5:36 am

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