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Archive for April 2011

REVIEW: Love Addiction

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ふゆの獣 (Fuyu no Kemono)

Released: 2010

Director:Nobuteru Uchida

Starring:
Megumi Kato
Momoko Maeda
Hiroyuki Sato
Kosuke Takagi

Running time: 92 mins.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

There’s a certain hysteria of twentyish love – where everything is a do or die moment, where love (or lack of) pushes a person to operatic highs (and lows), where desperation runs hand in hand with passion, where young souls reveal themselves with a self-possessed and naked honesty – that Nobuteru Uchida and his quartet of young actors catch brilliantly. If only for a few split seconds. There are moments that shine through the wobbly handheld camera shifting focus and focal length that make a simple (and simplistic) metaphor for the changing relationships of the ménage a quatre that inhabit the closed universe of “Love Addiction.”

These good moments, though, do not add up to much of a film. The opening half hour or so of development are craftily put together, throwing the viewer into a world that’s all on edge. The final hour devolves into a mess of narrative and cinematic clichés with ever escalating faux emotional highs and a complete deflation in lieu of any meaningful catharsis.

From the furious whip pans and constant reframing of emotional spaces to the actorly improv and mining of dangerous psychological ground, “Love Addiction’s“ no-budget look at the fucked up love lives of a generation owes its existence to John Cassavetes. All well and good. Unfortunately Uchida’s direction, though on the surface giving the actors room to explore new depths, ultimately leaves them hanging. There’s an awful lot of cryin’ and emotin’ but it just goes nowhere.

There is one moment where Shigehisa (Hiroyuki Sato), the two-timing jerk of the story tells his girlfriend, Yukako (Megumi Kato) a long winded story/alibi/lie involving a friend losing a key an how this friend’s girlfriend bicycled two hours in the rain to deliver it. The story goes round and round becoming a revelation of Shige’s manipulations, self-centeredness and his fading interest in the needy Yukako. It’s reminiscent of the sort of riff Ben Gazzara or Cassavetes himself often pulled off.

Love Addiction opens on Yukako and Shigehisa. It’s obvious there’s trouble in their neck of the woods. He’s all taciturn. She’s wimpily prying, denying, trying to find out about the other woman in his life. She finds the telltale sign, a rhinestone encrusted artificial fingernail among the contents of his pocket. Meanwhile, Noboru (Kosuke Takaki), who’s just trying to get laid – though he’s mixing it up in his mind with love – is obsessed with Saeko (Momoko Maekawa), she of fake fingernails. She, however, just wants to be friends. She’s got larger fish to fry in Shige’s bed. To compound it all, they all work at the same place. Small and large revelations happen. Yukako lets it all out to Noboru – and vice versa. Noboru: “This is the first time I’ve ever talked about myself.” They have a one-night stand in a love hotel. Sometime later the big confrontation happens in the cramped confines of Shige’s apartment. Yukako walks in on Shige and Saeko making love. A lot of lies and denials from all sides twists the trio in a back and forth ballet of neediness, callousness and confusion. In the meantime Noboru comes by to have it out with Shige. The accusations, denials, lies and some sort of truth telling lead to the final emotional explosion (proceeded by an emetic catharsis) in which Noboru grabs a knife and attempts to kill Shige. An escape and a chase take them out of their cramped citified environment, through a shrine, into a copse and out into fields. The illogic of this change of physical space, despite artistic intent, works too obviously and rather poorly on an emotional or symbolic level. Noboru gives up on his murderous mission and has a heart to heart with Saeko (still no nookie, though) and Yukako (after long and desperate searching) finds Shige. Love addict that she is, she’s ready to jump back into the fire with her final lines, “I haven’t seen your face in a while. Now I remember.”

Though the ensemble is largely left adrift, with allowances for only big emotions and boundless tears, Hiroyuki Sato as Shige, shines in a perverse way. Holding it close to the vest he creates a rather despicable character, that doesn’t necessarily hold a charm, but rather an attraction. On the surface, he’s cool and strangely alluring. Though he’s ostensibly normal, he’s got a bit of rough trade to him. But as he sheds his exterior, a true miscreant emerges. He’s the one character that doesn’t fall into stereotype. Yukako, ever mistreated and unloved, remains faithful. Saeko is all self-centered kawaii-ness – the perfect vapid girl of ever otaku’s imagination. Noboru is the nerd in need of true love. He’ll never get it.

One can look at through the history of cinema and find deeper, better films that tackle the complexities and issues of mad love. Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” or Cassavetes’ “Love Streams” are a couple of benchmarks that come to mind. One cannot fault Uchida’s attempt at working the theme, but unfortunately, “Love Addiction’s” small and insignificant glimpses into the workings of the heart don’t add up to a cogent big picture.

Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, April 23, 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

April 26, 2011 at 7:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Le Quattro Volte

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Le Quattro Volte, Michelangelo Frammartino’s quiet meditation on life, death, transformation and goats marks the blossoming of a filmmaker with a singular vision – one to be reckoned with. For all intents and purposes, looking like a documentary, Le Quattro Volte is rather a tightly constructed and edited fiction, if that is the proper word. The film opens on an old shepherd and his flock of goats. During the slow-paced sequence, the old man goes about his daily routine. The rhythm of life is set. A brilliant Rube Goldberg-esque set piece closes his story and his life as penned goats escape from their pen into the village as a low-budget passion play parades by. The second part follows the short life of a baby goat to its heartbreaking conclusion beneath a tall pine. Act three sees the tree chopped down re-erected for a village celebration. The final act documents making the tree into charcoal. It’s from these simple pieces that Frammartino illustrates the complex and fragile webs of existence in this beautiful and transcendent masterpiece.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

April 19, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Sore demo hana wa saite iku / それでも花は咲いていく

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Comedian/musician/tarento Maeda Ken’s directorial debut, Sore demo hana wa saite iku is a sentimental look at three pervs in three parts. The ostensible exploration of each tale is of the motivation/tragedy/humanity of each unlucky guy’s story. With the somewhat baffling device of having each segment titled with a flower’s name, the whole shebang starts off with “Edelweiss,” the tale of a lonely pederast (Nishina Takashi), who doesn’t really have the nerve to act on his compunction. However if shame were a medical condition, he’d be a textbook case. “Hyacinth” follows a fetishist (Takito Kenichi) with a talent for breaking and entering. He returns to the same empty apartment, leaving his scent and messages for the deaf female occupant who’s conveniently away whenever he comes by. Really! The final act, introduces an Oedipally retentive pianist under the title of “Pansy” – perhaps the most fitting of the three. Maeda would best stick to his impressions of Matsuura Aya, rather than the director’s chair after this poorly conceived exercise in overwrought badly written and directed sub-television fodder.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2011.

Three Points / スリー★ポイント

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Yamamoto Masashi has been lurking at the edge of the Japanese film industry for the last 25 years creating a fascinating, if uneven, oeuvre built around near-documentary improvisations by his preferred casts of non-actors, most of whom exist on the edges of Japanese society. Three Points encompasses three different approaches in three locations. The film opens in Kyoto amongst a semi-bohemian cohort of down-and-out rappers. The rough and tumble crew of real-life Kyoto OGs exist in a dark, violent Kyoto demi-monde. Intercut with their fictional story is documentary footage of life in Okinawa. Hunting for crabs, hanging out and interviews with American GIs throw a very personal look at Okinawans just getting by. The cutaways between the Kyoto and Okinawan footage is smartly done, creating a palpably exciting frisson between documentary and fiction and the clash of traditional and US culture. Unfortunately a rather blasé fiction attempting to graft Polanski and Arnofsky takes over the screen for the last third of the film sucking the life from the wonderful first two sections of the film.

Originally published in EL Magazine, May 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

April 19, 2011 at 12:47 pm

REVIEW: Villain

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悪人 (Akunin)

Released: 2010

Director:
Sang-il Lee

Starring:
Satoshi Tsumabuki
Eri Fukatsu
Masaki Okada
Hikari Mitsushima
Kirin Kiki

Running time: 139 mins.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Sang-il Lee’s artistically rocky, monetarily successful career has been classic. A savvy independent filmmaker jumps into the mainstream with a set of uneven films culminating in his 2007 “Full Monty” variation, “Hula Girls”. A big success in Japan, including several awards, “Hula Girls” showed the potential birth of a hack. 2010, though, brought a new energy and gravity to his oeuvre with The Nose, his addition to the omnibus film, “Kaidan Horror Classics” and with “Villain (Akunin)”. “Villain” proceeded to take the 2010 Kinema Junpo award for best Japanese film and pop to the top (or 2nd place after “Confessions”) of many critics 10 best lists.

“Villain”’s morally ambiguous exploration of a murder’s psyche is brooding and stunningly shot noirish road movie that channels Hitchcock and Nick Ray, throws in a little Emily Bronte and James Whale for good measure, all with a deeper social critique that harkens back to Lee’s own early films.

The story centers on Ryuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki). On the surface, he’s another working class tough with dyed yellow blonde hair lurking around in his loud tricked-out car. Asocial and occluded, he’s the perfect sociopath; ultimately responsible for the murder that drives the action of the film, but also a tragic anti-hero that one doesn’t necessarily root for, but feels for.

Stalking Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), a woman he met through a dating site, he gets rebuffed one dark night as she drives off with Masuo (Masaki Okada), a better moneyed fellow more to her liking. The next day she is found dead – murdered.

The murder opens up an exploration of who the true villains and victims are in this tangled nest. One plot thread involves Ryuichi’s grandmother (Kiki Kirin), left with the duty of raising her grandson – thankfully spared of any excavation or explanation of Ryuichi’s psyche – is exploited by medicine-selling huckster and his thugs and later by the media circus that camps out by her seaside village home. Another thread follows Yoshio (Akira Emoto), the slain Yoshino’s bereaved father. He’s no saint himself, discounting his wife’s suffering with traditional macho posturing as he goes out to impotently enact his revenge on the rich kid, Masuo, whom he assumes is the killer of his daughter. As revealed in flashback, Masuo himself, though not actually being the killer, could just as well have been.

And then there’s the heart of the tale, a story of young lovers on the run. As evidence begins to link him to the murder, he hits the road, hooking up with Magome (Fukatsu Eri), a clothing store saleswoman looking for any reason to get out. Even with the rough-sex-approaching-rape first date she has with the inept Ryuichi, she sees her chances at redemption of both him and herself. With this turn of events, Ryuichi and Magome become a contemporary Bowie and Keechie, though with decidedly more complex and confusing motivations that the anti-heroes of “They Live by Night” (and “Thieves Like Us”).

Fukatsu Eri takes Magome from a tentative wallflower to a young woman who, though not quite understanding how, finds her power of sexuality and survival in a fool’s errand of escape with the doomed Ryuichi. Through this transformative role, she captures a deep and uneasy look into the classic small-town girl’s dream of escape. All at once one recognizes the immense vulnerability, desperation, love and sheer willpower that could motivate such action. Quite rightfully she’s been feted for her performance, picking up the best actress award at Montreal.

Satoshi Tsumabuki as Ryuichi has a more difficult job of getting into one’s head. Here’s a young man who doesn’t understand much of the world, let alone what would drive him to kill someone – and it scares him. Magome helps him open up, but it’s too late. He’s far into flight mode. By the end, with a mob of flashlight holding policemen, like the villagers in “Frankenstein”, descending on the lover’s abandoned lighthouse lair, Ryuichi reveals that Magome may not know who or what he really is. He proceeds to strangle her. It’s the one moment of the film that may have worked better in the script than on screen, but it serves to demonstrate the enigmas and contradictions of the human soul, if somewhat ham-handedly.

A coda brings Magome to the roadside memorial for Yoshino. A chance near-meeting with Yoshino’s father leaves her in an unresolved position – to mourn for the victim of her lover, to upset a man coming to terms with a senseless death, to recognize her own complicity in the events, to take care of her own fragile place in the world.

Sang-il Lee’s open-ended exploration of society’s ills and villains marks a healthy return to his older passions. The visual logic highlighting a moody and rain-soaked landscape, small dying towns, shopping malls and highways and the windswept bluffs surrounding the perhaps overly symbolic lighthouse at the easternmost tip of Shizuoka is deftly handled by economic editing, audacious sound design and the genuinely breathtaking cinematography by Norimichi Kasamatsu.

Originally published in Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, Apr. 2, 2011.

 

Written by Nicholas Vroman

April 3, 2011 at 7:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized