a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Harmonics Minyoung / Minyon Baion no Hosoku / ミンヨン 倍音の法則

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Harmonics_Minyoung-p1Director Shoichiro Sasaki has had a long career working for NHK doing radio plays, dramas, docs and more poetic meditations on a raft of themes. Harmonics Minyoung is ostensibly about a young Korean woman coming to terms with something having to do with her family and her own history. The direction and writing are so muddled that the film amazes in its almost primitivist ineptitude. And this is from a veteran of Japan’s audio-visual industry! Min Young plays the eponymous title character, a Mozart otaku who manages to break into song after song after song, either singing along with Amadeus, butchering old American gospel and folk songs or the Korean anthem, Arirang. She grins her way annoyingly through any and all dramatic situation in low angle socialist realist close-ups. She befriends a homeless young bootblack (huh?) on the contemporary streets of Shibuya. About halfway through this epic-length slog, all the characters fall into a pre-war family drama that supposedly explains whatever unexplained issue that haunts our ever-positive heroine. By the end, who cares?

Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 2, 2014 at 4:51 am

Mother / マザー

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Mother_(Japanese_Movie)-p1At the ripe young age of 77, horror manga auteur Kazuo Umezu, finally makes his directorial debut with Mother, a vaguely autobiographical jaunt into low-budget psych-horror, leavened with a healthy dose of surrealism. The film’s all about mommy issues. One’s not sure whether Umezu’s doing a final lifelong purge of all his Freudian bugaboos or doing a grand send up of all the hoary conventions of a genre best described as psychological farce. No matter, the mom that keeps haunting Umezu’s stand in, kabuki actor Ainosuke Kataoka, is a beautiful ghoul who keeps leading him into a series of clichéd horror movie situations. The talented Kataoka, clad in Umezu’s signature red and white-striped T, lends a sort of downbeat comic timing to the whole affair that keeps Umezu’s wandering directorial hand a bit in place. Give props to Umezu for trying. He’s been a major force in defining the look and direction of manga since he hit the scene in the 60s. He’s relatively new to filmmaking, so give him a little time to develop.

Originally published in EL Magazine, October 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

October 2, 2014 at 4:47 am

Tokyo Tribe / トウキョウ トライブ

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mainIn some not too distant future, 23 different youth gangs control the streets of Tokyo. Soon an all-out war is going to break out. Sono Shion’s adaptation Santa Inoue’s manga, Tokyo Tribe 2, takes its rather flimsy source material and turns it into a backhanded tribute to all things trashy and enjoyable about Tokyo. Plus, turning the whole thing into a rap musical definitely deflects the illogical, vapid and flimsy story. What matters here is the action, the nutty situations and the several stunning sets that turn the future Edo into a cross between a Colonel Kurtz wonderland, a graffitied warzone and pan-Asian marketplace where anything is for sale. There are plenty of broad, grotesque and hilarious stereotypes, so who needs character development. This Tokyo of the imagination is anything but the sterile, modern metropolis it is. It seems a bit of wish fulfillment on Sono’s side, which makes the whole thing so enjoyable. Through all the violence, cannibalism, perversion and guignol, there’s a whacky, fun and ultimately positive vision of a possible future.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 30, 2014 at 1:04 am

The End of the Special Times We Were Allowed / 私たちに許された特別な時間の終わり

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img04260_convert_20140717194305sDirector Shingo Ota cut 30 minutes from his documentary’s original length of 151 minutes. If he’d cut another couple hours it might be an acceptable movie. The End of the Special Times We Were Allowed is being touted a serious look at the issue of suicide among young people in Japan. It is not. It’s a self-indulgent mess, ostensibly in tribute to its subject, Sota Masuda – a sort of Japanese Graham Parsons lookalike, without the talent, but with the substance abuse – who committed suicide during the shooting of the film. Somewhere underneath the utterly pretentious scenes of Ota draped in black, wearing a paper mache death mask, acting like judgmental Batman and an offhand misogyny is a moving story of a young man, Masuda, falling apart emotionally. The best Ota can get from it is a hackneyed conclusion of there being two kinds of suicidal personalities and an occluded personal anger that he must put on screen. I recommend a psychologist, Ota-san, rather than this sloppy self-therapy, which isn’t good for you, nor your audience.

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2014.

 

No

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no_ver6No, Pablo Larrain’s third film in his trilogy about the terrible Pinochet years that straightjacketed democracy in his native Chile, is a kind of Z in reverse. Unlike Z, No dramatizes a happier story – the ouster of Pinochet – though with a qualified ending. Gael Garcia Bernal plays René, a young advertising wiz, who has the unenviable job of creating a campaign to get rid of Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite, manufactured by the fascist government to keep Pinochet in power for 8 more years. The odds are stacked against him. But he uses advertising tactics to keep the message “positive” and he wins. Chile won. No was shot with old video cameras. The look is evocative of old low-res TV. It works perfectly to set the time and place that seems a little naïve, but set the foundations of contemporary political advertisement – feel good with little substance. Contradictions abound in No – public good vs. its complete sellout, voting “no” to say yes. Larrain illustrates them with brilliant performances and a compelling script. No? Yes!

Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2014.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 30, 2014 at 12:50 am

Still the Water / 2つ目の窓

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still-the-water-posterNaome Kawase manages to curb her new ageist tendencies a bit to create a moving coming-of-age story in her new film, Still the Water. At the heart of it is the bravura performance by Jun Yoshinaga as Kyoko, dealing with the impending death of her mother and having a crush on the difficult Kaito (Nijiro Murakami), who’s having his own mommy issues. Murakami isn’t quite up to the task of giving more than a couple of dimensions to his character. However Yoshinaga builds a more than believable character who shows fathoms of depth beneath her surface task of trying to get laid. Taking place on the island of Amami-Oshima, Kawase carefully paints a portrait of a community dealing with lives, deaths, relationships and the beautiful and terrifying qualities of nature. The scene where Kyoko’s mother passes is a tour de force of working sentiment and an almost anthropological view as she’s sung off into the unknown with island folk songs. Kawase, who can be a maddening filmmaker, sometimes finds sublimely magic moments.

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2014

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 5, 2014 at 9:41 am

Forma

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T0018889qAt nearly 2 and half hours, director Ayumi Sakamoto’s debut feature, Forma, manages to demonstrate how “slow cinema” can go all wrong. The plot follows a handful of characters. Ayako (Nagisa Umeno), an OL living with her dad (Ken Mitsuishi) runs into an old high school classmate, Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka) and offers her a job. For the first 80 minutes or so, it’s obvious that something’s off and pretty foreboding about their relationship. The second act focuses on Yukari and a subplot about her relationships with her fiancé and another young man. It ends up with a highly telegraphed denouement – a 26-minute shot where all is sort of revealed and the obnoxious Ayako is finally killed off. Slow cinema has its auteurs. Look at Bresson or Lisandro Alonso. But between the poorly written script, endless shots that neither further the thin plot nor build mood and most egregiously, fore front a completely banal high school revenge story, Sakamoto’s exercise in audience abuse shows she has no clue about how and why people make movies.

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2014

Written by Nicholas Vroman

August 5, 2014 at 9:38 am

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