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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for September 2010

On the set of “Cut”

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The new film by Amir Naderi wrapped a few days ago. Here’s a report from a visit to the set a few weeks ago.

Another sweltering day in the hottest summer on record for Japan found me at the Hashimoto station. On the western edge of Tokyo’s sprawl, Hashimoto claims a few highrise buildings near the station, quickly turning into acres of warehouses fanning out toward the hills beyond the Sagamigawa. I met with Eric Nyari, one of the producers of Amir Naderi’s Cut, and an investor down by the Macdonald’s at the street level of the sprawling station. 10 in the morning and well into the 90s. We were off to visit the set, located in a nondescript warehouse deep lost in a sea of nondescript warehouses about a 15 minute ride from the station.

We pulled up to the warehouse, got out of the car and walked into a large dimly lit space. A boxing rink commanded the center of the room. To the left a barroom set, to the right a wall covered with pictures of fighters, score sheets underneath them. Behind that wall a set, the room of small gambling room, the ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. The far exit of the room opened to a wall of dingy fight gear, gloves, weights, other mysterious athletic stuff and large and lumpy punching bag hanging from the high rafters midway between the wall and the rink.

Toward the back of the large  space, on the left, was another room. This was the set for a yakuza boss’s office. Dim, in shades of dark brown and green. Simple Japanese style, that still reflected a certain underworld tastlessness. And at the far back to the right was the set where the shooting was happening today – a rundown men’s room at the end of a hall festooned with old fight posters.

Naderi’s Cut is the second production by Tokyo Story, a new production outfit headed by Nyari and his pals, Engin Yenidunya and Regis Arnaud. Their first outing, Cast Me If You Can, is a sweet and gentle relationship comedy that’s hitting Japanese screens this fall. The second film is from a completely different cut of cloth.

First of all, Cut is set in the brutal world of small-time yakuza. It’s also directed by the passionate and indefatigable Iranian auteur, Amir Naderi. Naderi is most famous for his 1989 breakthrough film, Water, Wind, Dust – one of the first films of the post revolutionary Iranian New Wave to hit European and American screens. Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami may be more familiar names, but Naderi worked with them and is instrumental in defining the look, the concerns, the style and feel of contemporary Iranian cinema. Naderi tends toward small stories that work with big metaphorical import. He’s brilliant with casting faces and types and bringing out intense emotion with minimal dialogue.

Cut features Hidetoshi Nishijima as a young man who offers himself up to be a human punching bag for a gang of yakuza thugs in order to pay off his dead brother’s debts – debts from monetarily unsuccessful film productions. Naderi’s take on the yakuza genre also allows him to make some bigger, grander statements about his main interest, film.

The morning saw Naderi, cast and crew rehearsing a scene where Nishijima gets a particularly brutal beating, the thugs getting more and more excited as Nishijimi continues to accept the blows, pulling out 1000 yen notes for each punch. The gangsters each have different motivations and reactions to their brutality. Some are downright drunken and dangerous thugs fulfilling their violent tendencies. One is tight little guy, who visibly emotionally suffers with each blow he gives. He give the impression of a man wracked with some hidden guilt that can only be expressed by violence. At the end of his session, he bows with stiff politeness to the man he has pummeled.

Three cameras running simultaneously catch the action. One from a window behind our protagonist. The other two from behind a removable wall on the set. One filming a long shot. The other getting detail and midrange profile shots.

The room is way hotter than the 90 or so degrees outside. Naderi works feverishly, darting among the crew and cast for quick confabs with the cameramen, Nishijimi or the group of distinctive character actors. His intensity, coupled with the genuinely intense scene and the rising heat keep everybody on their toes. He cajoles. He yells. He talks softly when necessary. He works the crowd like a ring master, keeping his eye and his hand on every little detail and nuance that he can pull out of the scene.  Rehearsal. Shoot. New angles. More rehearsal. More shooting. Well manipulated by the maestro, the actors show more thugishness, more brutality, more anger. Nishijimi himself, by the end, drooling, bruised, staggering, yet still with this come-at-me-again look in his fiery eyes, keeps a controlled vehemence and hate barely beneath the surface.  The final take of the morning leaves everyone a bit dazed.

And then it’s over. Naderi gives a heartfelt thanks to his crew. Everyone applauds for a morning’s work well done and it’s off to lunch and cooling down a bit.

Cut is due to be released in 2011.

Link – Facebook site for Cut


















Originally published in Hot Splice, Sept. 27, 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 26, 2010 at 8:11 am

Lost Paradise in Tokyo / 东京失乐园

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Director Kazuya Shiraishi’s auspicious debut feature, Lost Paradise in Tokyo is not without its rough edges and a somewhat sentimental denouement, but on the whole it sparks with a smart script and a trio of well-tuned actors who turn the unusual love triangle story into a touching parable of coping and getting by in the big city. Mikio (Katsuya Kobayashi) plays a salaryman out-of-water, charged with taking care of his developmentally disabled brother, Saneo (Takaki Uda). This involves basically locking him in the apartment all day.  Hiring a call girl, Marin (Chika Ushida), to service his brother’s sexual needs opens the door to facing down their demons and allowing the three to follow their dreams.  Kobayashi plays the controlling brother with a well-modulated sense of love, shame and reluctant devotion. Uda does the hard role of a man with adult needs and desires warped in the mixed-up mind of autism. And Ushida’s balance of no-nonsense sex worker and cosplay wannabe with dreams brings heart and soul to the kawaii girl looking for something more.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2010 at 2:02 am

Toku no Sora / 遠くの空 / Distant Sky

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From his roots in commercials, music videos and phone delivered content, director Haruo Inoue exhibits a workman-like facility with quick and easily digestible images and sure, though simplistic way with putting a story together. The wholly predictable Toku no Sora is a case in point.  With a trio of fine actors, Inoue dabbles in a story of the lives of Korean/Japanese, focusing not on the usual tales of xenophobia and repression but on a simple melodrama of uprooted lives. The story involves young office worker (Rina Uchimaya) developing what on the surface appears to be a May-September romance with her new boss (Eung-su Kim).  As her boss’s back-story of being a young student protester and the tragic split-up of him and his young love during the Gwangju incident of 1980. Of course, the third party in this story is Rina’s mother (Fukimi Kuroda), who, as it finally turns out, is none other than her boss’s ex. Painful reconciliation follows (accompanied by a painfully bad soundtrack) and a bittersweet ending is had by all.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2010 at 1:57 am

Namae no nai Onnatachi / 名前のない女たち / Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano

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Despite being directed by perverse and prolific Hisayasu Satou, one of the 1990s Four Heavenly Kings of Pink (pinku shitenno) – a group of directors who re-vivified the wilting pinku genre –  Namae no nai Onnatachi is a surprisingly flat insider’s look at the inner workings of Japan’s sex movie industry. The melodrama involves the naïve Junko (Norie Yasui), conned into working on a pinku film, but soon finding her inner idoru as a cosplay Lousie Brooks bobbed blue-haired Lulu. A mandatory rivalry between her and the sex scene savvy Ayano (Mayu Sakuma) turns into a quasi-lesbian camaraderie.  The cast is drawn from well know idoru (Aya Kiguchi, Natsumi Kamata) and tarento (Ryunosuke Kawai). Even the usually brilliant Makiko Watanabe phones in a role as Lulu’s mom.  But despite it all Namae no nai Onnatachi trades in well-worn clichés and two-bit psychology. The subplot with a bit of legs is a sick comic interlude involving a fat otaku stalker. It unfortunately gets thrown away in a Grand Guignol bloodbath that is as gratuitous as it is silly.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Micmacs

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Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s delightful anti-arms industry comedy, follows in style of his previous films, Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and The City of Lost Children, in creating a mythical Paris where through insane plot contrivances, love and justice conquer all. Jeunet consistently pulls it off sans irony in these very cynical times. French superstar comic Dany Boon plays the hapless Bazil. His life as a video store clerk is changed as he is hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. Soon, he finds himself on the street. Meeting a group of self-sufficient DIY clochards, a sort of Mission Impossible team is assembled to take revenge against a pair of arms manufacturers for his own shooting and the killing of his father by landmine. The movie proceeds like a Rube Goldberg invention, with ever-fantastic twists and turns filling out the inevitable triumph of the little guys.  As usual, Jeunet populates Micmacs with a brilliant cast of ultra-French eccentrics. And of course, the inimitable Jeunet regular, Dominique Pinon appears as Fracasse, the human cannonball.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2010 at 1:47 am

Toilet / トイレット

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Quirkiness is director Naoko Ogigami’s stock in trade. With the mildly amusing Megane and Kamome Shokudou behind her, filling out her resume of deadpan characters in odd situations, she adds to her oeuvre with Toilet, a low-budget quickie following the foibles of a set of Japanese/Canadian siblings coming together after the death of their mother. Quirkiness abounds with cross-dressing agoraphobic musical savant little brother Maury (David Rendall), uptight older brother Ray (Alex House), mildly neurotic sister Lisa (Tatiana Maslanya) and Baachan (Masako Motai), the silent and wise font of displaced Japanese culture. Unfortunately, the contrived situations, the ever escalating plot diversions (the air guitar riff leads nowhere) and the all-too-neat resolutions in which each character comes to terms with their respective dilemmas make for a thoroughly clichéd though mercifully short 70 minutes. There are some moments of clever comedy, particularly in appreciation of the toilet, or more specifically, the washlet of the title. The moments, unfortunately don’t add up and Toilet’s droll attempt at meaningful comedy feels a bit constipated.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2010 at 1:44 am

Tokyo-jima / 東京島 / Tokyo Island

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In 2008, Natsuo Kirino won yet another award, this time the coveted Tanizaki Prize for her novel, Tokyo-jima. Tokyo-jima basically works the possibilities of a single woman cast away on an island of men. Director Makoto Shinozaki manages to turn a story of sexual power and manipulation into a bad version of Gilligan’s Island – which is not to put down the crew and passengers of the Minnow. Nearly everything that can be misdirected, mishandled and generally missed manages to get on screen with a stupefying layering of offensive stereotypes (gay, Chinese, women), slimy sentimentality and extensive product placement. In fact, you can buy the Tokyo-jima scarf worn by actress Tae Kimura for 48300 yen. In better hands, this wicked comedy of the battle of the sexes could have had some edge. As the film relentlessly rolled by, all I could think of was Bunuel’s subversive send-up of Robinson Caruso or Peter Brooks’ Lord of the Flies. The high passions and metaphorical possibilities of castaway stories make for some great yarns. Tokyo-jima misses the boat.

Published in EL Magazine, September 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

September 1, 2010 at 1:40 am