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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for January 2011

Tokyo Filmex 2010

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The 11th Tokyo Filmex opened with Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s beguiling Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The opening film set the tenor of the week to come – experimental, personal, willing to take chances. At the opening ceremony festival director Kanako Hayashi gave a shout out to the man who pretty much put Japanese film on the international map, Donald Richie. All eyes in the audience turned toward the frail, but unbowed, man who graciously acknowledged the accolades. Over the last year the 86-year old Richie has been conspicuously absent from the film scene that he helped create, floored by age and illness. The fact that he appeared almost daily during the festival to watch films made the film-going experience for all a bit more profound. And when Abbas Kiarostami, who showed up for the Japanese premier of Certified Copy, gave his kudos to Mr. Richie, one realized that the reach of this man and his writings were not only deep, but far.

Tokyo Filmex brought out the big guns guest-wise this year. Not only did Kiarostami show up, but the list of big names in international cinema included Weerasethakul (on the competition jury), Jaco Van Dormael, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Sono Sion, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Amir Naderi, Lee Chang-dong and a host of other young and rising directors whose works were represented in this small but well-curated selection of films. Once again, festival programmer Shozo Ichiyama walked the delicate line between arty festival favorites, hot new Asian genre flicks and new works by new talent.  Not everything worked – the new Japanese films only batted at about 300 – but Filmex remains the only festival in Japan that one can say has a true personality.

In addition to the competition and special screenings, there was a small retrospective of friend-of-the-festival Amos Gitai’s work (including his new film, Roses on Credit) and a salute to the amazing 50s-60s director Minoru Shibuya. Eight examples Shibuya’s finely crafted smart and cynical oeuvre was presented in crisp newly subtitled prints. For these Western eyes it was yet another filmic discovery from the very fecund post-war years in Japan– the type of programming that Filmex has excelled in over the years.

Amir Naderi

Perhaps the most interesting and audacious program, new to the festival this year, was the Next Masters Tokyo program. 20 young Asian filmmakers, each with a feature film or two under their belts, spent the week in seminars, meet sessions and lectures with the big name directors invited and other international industry pros to workshop ideas, make connections and press the flesh with some of the best in business. Picking up on Pusan’s and Berlin’s development activities, Filmex has thrown it’s hat in the ring not so much in competition with but to augment other festivals activities in grooming and supporting new talent for the 2010’s The public and industry folks were invited to attend some of the talks. Of note was Amir Naderi’s performance piece/lecture/harangue in which he admonished the new crop of filmmakers to make films “from your heart, not your ass.”

The first few days of the festival began with a set of films, loosely built around similar themes, but with markedly different results. Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives opened the week with a very personal essay where time, myth, personal and political evocations built a strangely moving and abstract piece of experimental cinema. Even winning the Palm d’Or this year and becoming a festival favorite, it will be interesting to see how the general public embraces Weerasethakul’s idiosyncratic vision. One of the next day’s highlights was van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody. The visceral CGI laden epic was non-stop display of directorial inventiveness and cleverness. With a rather insane garden of forking paths and multiple destinies, van Dormael pulled off an audacious, fun and somewhat light journey that reveled in nostalgia for lost love. The hero of the story manages to lose, find, lose again and rediscover at least 3 loves, with several possible variations of loss thrown in for good measure. Perhaps more intriguing, though more uneven, was Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui’s A Year Without Summer. The film begins like a tropical L’Aventura, that about midway begins to deconstruct its mythic, psychological and narrative underpinnings in an abstract and beautiful trajectory.

Kazuhiro Soda

Other highlights included Kazuhiro Soda’s Peace. Soda’s made a couple of successful Wiseman-like documentaries on Japanese social institutions, Campaign and Mental (about a mental health clinic). With Peace, Soda turns the camera on his in-laws – both involved with public service for the physically challenge and the elderly. There’s also a story about cats and the 90 year-old Shiro Hashimoto that brings the big theme, peace, to the human and feline scale.  Bing Wang’s The Ditch was a well-made and moving piece of miserablism, that shined a light of moral outrage and witness to a particularly dark side of China’s contemporary past. Certified Copy, a bit of a know quantity, was exceptional for Kiarostami’s first film outside of Iran and for Binoche’s performance.  And the closing film, Poetry, confirms Lee Chang-dong  as if not the best, at least the most human filmmaker working in South Korea now. His story of an old woman dealing with her grandson’s huge moral transgression in a town where most want to cover it up and make it disappear has gained deserved kudos. Lead actress, Jeon Do-yeaon won the best actress award a Cannes this year for her heartbreaking performance as Mija, the grandmother in question.

Much anticipated was the Japanese premier of Sono Sion’s Cold Fish. 2 years ago at Filmex premiered his 4 and a half hour epic, Love Exposure – a tough act to follow. His most recent provocation, Cold Fish proved to be more problematic. Sion’s anarchic nihilism of past films joyfully sent up most everything society holds sacred. His new film moves toward a more fascist nihilism, daring the audience firstly to like it. Torn from the tabloid headlines, Cold Fish follows the bleak downfall of Shamoto (Kagurazawa Megumi) a meek tropical fish store owner taken under the wing of Murata,, a madly rapacious and much more successful capitalist. The great comic, Denden plays the role of Murata, a free market capitalist gone to the most black and logical of ends. Even as he dismembers former business collaborators and enemies and in one astounding scene, hectors Shamoto to man up and fuck his own (Murata’s) wife, he remains grotesquely likeable. Devolving into a gorefest with ample amounts of misogyny and audience abuse thrown in for good measure, one wonders if Sion is becoming the sort of monster that he so wonderfully sent up in films like Suicide Club.

Hao Ji

Fimex wrapped after 8 days with an emotional awards ceremony. Again, tribute was paid to Richie, with big hopes that all would see him again at next year’s fest. A Special Jury Prize went to Hao Ji, with his highly personal directorial debut A Single Man. Hao Ji gave a simple and moving salute to his father who passed away during the shooting of the film. There were no dry eyes in the house. Kazuhiro Soda won the audience award for Peace, deservedly so.  The Grand Prize went to Nobuteru Uchida for his film Love Addiction, a no-budget psychological drama, that by no means perfect, hints at a new talent in the Japanese film scene.

Nobuteru Uchida

Filmex delivered this year with a who’s who of international filmmakers, many open to late night drinking and karaoke sessions and an intriguing selection of new work, not all perfect, but in search of new talent. With the addition of the New Masters program, Filmex itself will be developing some of that very talent.

Originally written for Filmmaker Magazine.

Tsumetai nettaigyo / 冷たい熱帯魚 / Cold Fish

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Crypto-anarchist and provocateur, Sono Sion (Suicide Club, Love Exposure), reveals a disturbing trend in his new outrage, Cold Fish. Apart from two hours plus of audience abuse, this gore-fest’s underlying philosophy aligns Sion with a simplistic nihilistic fascism. In his vision of this dog-eat-dog world (or is it more cannibalistic?) powerful and successful capitalist uber-men are the heroes and weak-willed wimps are the true losers. And don’t forget that women are only in it for the sex with the current alpha dog. Cold Fish is a loose adaptation of a true ripped-from-the-headlines crime. In Sion’s adaption, the weak and unsuccessful Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikochi) falls in with the unscrupulous Murata (Denden), a pathologically perverse fish store owner who kills and dismembers anyone who gets in his way. Even though Murata may be crazy and evil, Sion’s heart lies with him. Everyone else in the film is portrayed worse. Murata’s the only one who’s got some style, humor and manly drive. Sion’s never been an easy director to like, but with Cold Fish he’s become quite despicable.

Originally published in EL Magazine, February 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 13, 2011 at 1:58 am

Wararaifu!! / ワラライフ!! / Wonderful Life!!

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Wararaifu!! is a sentimental coming of age story that feels like it was directed by an extraterrestrial. It follows, in cliché style, formal cinematic technique  – alternating between the contemporary prevails of its likeable but confused hero, Suichi (Jun Marakami) and flashbacks to his youth. However, most of these connections, at best, make no sense, and mostly serve as a sort of filler for a rather dull story of a young man trying to develop a modicum of commitment and responsibility. It’s as if director Yuichi Kimura has seen some films in his life (in fact he’s had bit parts in several), but never understood that the actions characters take should build up to an understandable and meaningful development of plot. Instead there are a series of disjointed scenes of a kid growing up – beach going, having a teen-aged run-in with the law, finding an abandoned puppy, losing it, playing catch and more – that are never allowed to exist beyond being syrupy signifiers of “youth.” As the clichés build, Wararaifu!! falls into something less than wonderful.

Originally published in EL Magazine, February 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 13, 2011 at 1:52 am

Byakuyakou / 白夜行 / Into the White Night

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Yoshihiro Fukugawa’s take on Keigo Higashino’s crime story, Byakuyakou is a textbook example of ill-conceived adaptation and hackneyed filmmaking applied to interesting source material. Fukagawa’s unsure hand tries to milk as much sentimentality as possible out of a hard-boiled affair to laughable effect.  He takes on the tale of an obsessive policeman trying to get to the truth of a murder long after the fact. At the heart of the story is the mystery of an Osaka pawnbroker found dead in a warehouse. Years later the dogged detective, Sasagaki (Eiichiro Funakoshi) revisits the case, tightening around the pawnbroker’s son, Ryouji (Kengo Kora) and the daughter of his mistress, Yuhiko (Maki Horikita). Through maddening and excessive flashbacks to Ryouji and Yuhiko’s youth Fukagawa manages to cheapen the psychological rifts and thoroughly muddy the events that led to the murder. By the time of big revelations and wrapping up of the whole affair, the viewer is left with uncaring amazement at the string of filmic clichés that are at the heart of Into the White Night.

Originally published in EL Magazine, February 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 13, 2011 at 1:48 am