a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Soman kokkyou 15 sai no natsu / ソ満国境 15歳の夏

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soman001Based on the book by Kazuo Tahara describing ostensibly real events, Soman kokkyou 15 sai no natsu, as directed by Tetsuya Matsushima, is a particularly ham-fisted and unintentionally hilarious revisionist history about he waning days of WWII. In this bit of obscure history (?) a group of junior high school-age soldiers march across Soviet-occupied Manchuria, not yet giving up even though the Japanese have surrendered. In this version, a Yak fighter appears from nowhere, strafing the boys, yet not hitting a single one. Soot-smudged faces represent the long days without eating food or bathing. And somehow, through all their trials, they managed to find a nice, friendly Chinese family here in this war-torn country where there’s a justifiable hatred of its former occupiers. Of course, the family has lots of food and a love interest. They naturally take the boys in and take care of them. All of this is framed around some contemporary students discovering the details of this ridiculously overwrought story, learning about the bravery and romance of life during wartime.

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2015.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 30, 2015 at 3:00 am

Fires on the Plain / Nobi / 野火

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nobiShinya Tsukamoto has apparently long dreamed of filming Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel, Nobi (Fires on the Plain). Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 version is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece, bringing the chaos, tragedy and horror of the last days of the WWII in the Philippines, where Japanese soldiers were left to their own devices as command structures broke down. Their world became a living hell, a brutal struggle for survival devolving into cannibalism. Tsukamoto’s ignores the more considered approach of Ichikawa and uses his trademark style of violently shaky camera work, whip pans, shock cuts and a soundtrack punctuated by overwhelming loudness to create a more visceral and in-your-face approach to the proceedings. Any feeling, empathy or even, disgust and revulsion (they come off as laughable) gets lost in his stylistic flourishes and lack of directoral focus. It seems that Tsukamoto-san swings (his camera a lot) and misses the main, pacifistic message of the original novel and Ichikawa’s movie – that war reduces all men to savagery. Tsukamoto’s version, like most of his oeuvre, offers heat, but little light.

Originally published in EL Magazine, August 2015.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 30, 2015 at 2:55 am

Los Jinetes

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Left to right: Luis Lopez Carrasco, Miguel Llansó, Cesar Velasco Broca, Chema Garcia Ibarra, Ion de Sosa. Photo by Leonor Díaz

The first question is what do we call them? These 5 guys who are turning the Spanish film world on its head, who are all buddies and exchange roles on each other’s films – producer one time, screenwriter the next, then cameraman, then director – pushing and inspiring each other to make better and better films. And they’re all – each and every one of them – making great films.

So what do we call them?

The Spanish Underground. Some folks call them that. I don’t know how underground you are when you’re being feted at lesser and greater film festivals all over the world. They may have been underground once, but they’ve crawled out of their holes and their films are seeing the light of day in darkened screening rooms, festival halls and over the Internet.

The Spanish New Wave. Nope. Been there, done that with a mess of other national cinemas. These guys are more of a tsunami – terrifying and unstoppable – anyway.

Cinco Jinetes del Post-Apocalipsis. The 5 horsemen of the post-apocalypse. A friend of theirs brought up the idea of jinetes on one of their facebook pages. A bit grandiose, but it gets closer. Closer to the themes, the ideas, the inspirations that have been made manifest in their films. And a bit closer to the end of the world, which is where many of their films begin.

So, who are they? Cesar Velasco Broca, Ion de Sosa, Chema Garcia Ibarra, Luis Lopez Carrasco and Miguel Llansó. That’s who they are. And you will be hearing their names a lot more.

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First there’s Velasco Broca, he of Ming the Merciless pate and carriage. His short films fly somewhere between Maddinesque appropriations of some sort of lost cinema history and a logical (if that’s not to oxymoronic) leap from/in/of the lineage of surrealism. From Bunuel to Val de Omar – to whom he made a filmic homage (lensed by Ion de Sosa) – to Velasco Broca. It makes sense – in a surrealist sort of way.

His major work is a trilogy of films know collectively as Echos der Buchrücken (Echos of the Spine) They include Der Milchshorf / La Costra Lactea (Cradle Cap) – imagine Las Hurdes as a sci-fi mystery directed by Fellini; Kinky Hoodoo Voodoo – strange psychosexual goings on at a boy’s summer camp, oh and there are aliens involved; and Avant Petallos Grillados – bodily obsolescence at the hands of crab-clawed aliens in a pretty hostile world. These brief descriptions merely hint at the wonder and perversity of Velasco Broca’s oeuvre.

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And then there’s Chema Garcia Ibarra. After exploring a number of ideas through a series of short films, some a bit derivative of Velasco Broca, he finally came into his own with pair of brilliant films, Mysterio (Mystery) and Uranes. These films both feature a heady mix of sci-fi maguffins and a heartfelt exploration of myths, mysteries and that thing that people call faith. Mysterio follows a very average woman who finally figures it out. How to get out of world. Uranes is a hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking story, brilliantly constructed, that mixes Hitchcock, not just in technique, but the sense of profound disquiet at any ostensible morality of the universe and the countervailing tendencies of objective minimalism and subjective individualism. It all comes together beautifully.

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Ion de Sosa hit the scene with True Love, a personal documentary about a year he spent in Germany breaking up with his girlfriend. De Sosa’s omnivorous diaristic eye marks the seasons, obsessively noting the mundane and the relevant in his rundown neighborhood, capturing distressed exteriors and the interior of the squat he and his buddies inhabit. The film gets so personal we see him getting new tats, fucking his girlfriend and getting a stomach biopsy. We literally see his insides! How close can you get?

His follow up film, Sueñan los Androides – Androiden Träumen (Androids Dream), is a brilliant take on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The inspiration for Blade Runner. In de Sosa’s version, the dystopic blasted modernism of the 80s-developed resort town of Benidorm serves as the backdrop for a psychopathic blade runner to gun down much more human-than-him replicants. De Sosa’s cold take critiques not only the future, but also the present of life in Spain.

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And speaking of The Future – it’s the name of Luis Lopez Carrasco’s solo feature debut, El Futuro. It’s an all night long party set in the 1980s, where a soundtrack of obscure Spanish new wave songs obscure and drown out the conversations. The restless, claustrophobic, tight camerawork (shot by de Sosa) captures a generation whose legacy of experimentation with sex, drug and democracy left Spain with the massive hangover it’s suffering from now. Carrasco wants you to remember that.

He started off in a film collective, Los Hijos. Their work exists as a series of short fundamental formalist experiments and investigations into the essence of film to longer works, including El sol en el sol de membrillo, a lovely, funny and abstract deconstruction of Victor Erice’s El sol de membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun).

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Miguel Llansó, though based in Madrid, spends much of his time in Ethiopia, where he makes most of his films. He’s made many faux and real documents of Ethiopian life. He quickly found his own voice and vision with Chigger Ale, a celebration of Ethiopian culture, but this time with a wickedly funny story built around the childish and absurd megalomania of a Hitler wannabe (played deliciously by Daniel Tadesse, a kyphotic little guy). He constantly gets his comeuppance from his petty power plays and finally is launched into space with a dominatrix. So long. Have fun.

Llansó’s first feature, Crumbs, continues in the mode of Afrofuturism, but this time in a post apocalyptic landscape, where the dormant spaceship hovering above the Earth suddenly begins to show signs of life, beckoning our hero, Candy (played by Tadesse) to “return” to his Close-Encounterish destiny. With its send-up of Joseph Campbelisms, Llanso attacks consumer society and its detritus littering our future with a fuck-it-all surrealist streak mixed with graceful humanism.

Surrealism, sci-fi, retro-futurism and big metaphorical fables are just the tip of the iceberg of the themes that this quintet of auteurs are brewing up and melting down in our current rerun of end times. Their works are a welcome psychic antidote to the dull and mind-numbing product being pumped out from the entertainment factories of the world. They take some of the tropes. Hell, they were born and raised with and colonized by these tropes! Just like the rest of us. But they turn them on their heads, shake ‘em up and make them into compelling and absorbing low budget spectacles. Their future is now.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 25, 2015 at 7:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

An / Sweet Red Bean Paste / あん

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An-_Sweet_Red_Bean_Paste-p1Naomi Kawase has moved out of her tired and trite new-ageism into a more nuanced and substantial phase of her career with last year’s moving coming-of-age story, Still the Water, and now with An. The story’s pretty simple. Sentarou (Masatoshi Nagase – finally given a decent role in a worthwhile film to show his talent) is a beaten-down middle-aged ex-con, going through the motions of maintaining a tiny dorayaki shop. The place is frequented by a small coterie of high school girls, including Wakana (Kyara Uchida), in search of a father figure. Dingy old lady Tokue (the inimitable Kirin Kiki) arrives to save the day. She makes the best sweet red bean paste in Nihon. The initially reluctant Sentarou hires her and the business takes off. There are ups… and downs – and eventually Tokue ends up in nursing home. Kawase’s gentle take on this intergenerational trio travels a bit in a clichéd fetishism of Japanese food and exhibits some heavy-handed symbolism, but the great acting and smart direction give the story tons of emotional heft.

Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 3, 2015 at 2:31 am

Umimachi Diary / Our Little Sister / 海街diary

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Umimachi_Diary-p2Hirokazu Koreeda has always claimed that Naruse has been a larger influence on him than Ozu. Umimachi Diary belies that. Granted, the story’s about a set of sisters (the focus on women being more Naruse-like), but being set largely in Kamakura (Ozu’s town) and the gentle low-dramatic flow puts the film in Ozu-land. And the inspired casting of Lily Franky, in a small but important role, as a Chishu Ryu analogue, is an obvious homage to the master. The story follows a trio of sisters, 29-year-old Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 22-year-old Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho), who upon the death of their estranged father, finally connect with their young teen-aged half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose). They invite Suzu to come live with them and the film unfolds, showing their changing dynamics and relationships. The characters are a bit cliché – Sachi being a nurse/caregiver and the “strong” one, Yoshino being the mixed-up one and Chika being the happy-go-lucky Bohemian. But all the actors give their best, showing the subtle, yet rich, details of a family’s journey.

Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 3, 2015 at 2:26 am

Shinjuku Swan / 新宿スワン

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Shinjuku_Swan_(Japanese_Movie)-tpShion Sono’s filmmaking career has gone from the audience-abusing nihilism of the two final films of his “Hate Trilogy” to the soul-searching of his post 3.11 films and the more recent fuck-it-all fun of his last two efforts. He’s now hit a new nadir with a completely phoned-in sellout, Shinjuku Swan. The story follows the adventures of Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano), a young hustler, new to the dirty ol’ city, who finds his inner pimp and becomes a Kabukicho tout, accosting girls on the street in order to lure them into the slavery of Tokyo’s sex biz. As he rises in the underworld (he really doesn’t get too far) he gets beat up A LOT. And always comes back bouncing for more – glutton for punishment that he is. There’s the usual gang intrigue that leads to internecine warfare, the unbelievable love interest, endlessly clichéd underworld characters and plenny o’ violence. Shinjuku Swan is an ugly duck that celebrates the usual vapidity, misogyny and lack of original ideas the plague contemporary Japanese film.

Originally published in EL Magazine, June 2015

Written by Nicholas Vroman

June 3, 2015 at 2:20 am

Ryuzo And The Seven Henchmen / Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi / 龍三と七人の子分たち

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RyuzoWhether referencing the famous samurai and/or dwarves, or even the less famous hoods, Kitano Takeshi’s Ryuzo And The Seven Henchmen, his recent exercise in over-written plot makes for a rather dull successor to a long tradition of a lucky number of anti-heroes motivating a storyline. Here we’ve got Ryuzo (Tatsuya Fuji – remember him from Ai no corrida?) gathering together a bunch of old geezer yakuza buddies to kick some righteous young criminal butt after an attempted telephone scam. The old guys are cute, in their bullying one-dimensional caricatures. Not. Takeshi, who once challenged us to like his brutish criminals, now just let’s them signify, rather than earn our respect. These guys are types without much behind them. By the time of the big confrontation, the most interesting guy is the dead guy. And the final chase, with the ojichan’s hijacking a bus, is not only ineptly filmed and edited, but a total head-scratcher. Kitano’s take on those twilight gangster years revels in its easy way out, its pallid stereotypes and assumptions and its poorly manipulative and poorly paced structure. What were you thinking, Takeshi-san?

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2015

Written by Nicholas Vroman

May 3, 2015 at 12:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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