There was once a very underrated film called Paperhouse, in which a girl draws a picture of a boy and forms a connection with him that seems to span lifetimes. Le Portrait de Petite Cossette seems to have been loosely inspired by the same ideas: it’s about a young man who creates a similarly mystical connection with a girl who might have lived centuries ago, or maybe not at all. Like Paperhouse, the story is secondary to the images, but but Cossette is more interested in saturating the screen with images than in telling a coherent story — yes, even a coherent story that can be told through images. It’s as if they filled a sketchbook with every visual tangent they could come up with for their ideas, then proceeded to film them without much in the way of editorial discipline.
Kurahashi isn’t the type to chase woman, as his buddies chide him. From what we can see, he certainly isn’t: he’s shy and reserved, and seems to be more connected to the things in the shop than he is with any other person. Well, there’s Mataki, a girl who drops in occasionally for tea and sympathy, but she’s more of an acquaintance than a girlfriend, and harbors a troubling jealous streak. There’s also the woman who runs the shop, but she’s entirely too old for him, and entertains a host of more than slightly nutty beliefs — namely that there is a soul in all things, even inanimate objects, and that they must all be respected and let be lest you want to play with fire. Read more
Every truly great movie I have ever seen has, in some way, been about the human face. Bergman considered the human face to be the one true subject of all cinema, and made dozens of films about that one subject. Even a film as removed from individual people as Koyaanisqatsi has many shots where we simply stare at other people and realize there is nothing quite as alien as another person.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital is about life and death, but also the serene face of Tadanobu Asano, one of Japan’s most remarkable living actors because he suggests more when holding back than most people do when emoting. His face in this movie is a mask behind which a great abyss waits, and there are moments where he prods at his own face as if wanting to pull it off. Is there anything in there?
Asano plays Hiroshi, a young man who wakes up with no memory of his life after a car accident. His parents are patient and gentle, and prod him towards something that meant a great deal to him before the crash — a burgeoning interest in medicine. He enrolls in medical school and buries himself in his studies, not as a way of escaping his past but perhaps as a way of rediscovering it by proxy. One semester he sits down with a group of other students to dissect human cadavers, and discovers something hauntingly familiar about the corpse he’s about to dismantle. This was Ryoko, a girl he once loved.Read more
A Time to Live and a Time to Die is the first movie I have seen by Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou, and if it turns out to be the best he will ever make I won’t be surprised. Hou’s film has been compared to masterpieces like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but even if it had not been I would have probably drawn such parallels on my own. It is a quiet, contemplative movie, and it only gradually reveals itself to be about things so large and sad that this might be the only way to make a movie about them. Like another Taiwanese director I have come to admire, Ming-Liang Tsai (Rebels of the Neon God), Hou explains little and shows all we need to know, and we come away feeling that no explaining is needed.
The film draws directly on Hou’s life, and almost by accident becomes a portrait of the lives of many people like him — expatriates from the Chinese mainland who came to Taiwan, settled there to find a better life, and found that but also felt a terrible sense of loss and dislocation that being among their own family could not dispel. Hou himself was born in Kwangtung, and went along with the rest of his family when his father pulled up roots to seek prosperity after WWII. The film opens with them already settled in Taiwan, but Hou’s father has asthma, and they are compelled to relocate from the urban Hsinchu to the more backwater Fengshan in the south.Read more
Most every country that has a history of animated film has tapped into their vein of myth and legend for stories to tell, and Japan has done this countless times. Sometimes the inspiration is indirect: Spirited Away, for instance, doesn’t use any particular story but seems inspired by the whole canon of Japanese fantasy for its ideas. Taro the Dragon Boy is about as directly inspired as you can get — it’s an animated retelling of one of Japan’s most commonly retold fairy tales, and it’s actually quite a charmer if you can get past some of the cultural differences that have nothing to do with language or mythology. There’s more than one time when our hero does a handstand and we can see, well, everything.
Maybe I should talk about this first. Taro isn’t just interesting for its look and feel, but how it embodies major cultural differences between Japan and the West, especially when it comes to a story targeted at children. The facts of life and biology are not automatic sources of embarrassment there, and are not compulsively deleted from entertainments. I mentioned the hero’s lack of underwear, but there’s also a few moments where breasts are plainly visible. The disc isn’t rated, so I wouldn’t want parents to pick this up and automatically assume it’ll be Disney-pure, since it isn’t. Read more
Her eyes. I had a hard time watching Morvern Callar without being drawn to Samantha Morton’s eyes, which while they are not in every single shot are impossible not to notice when they do appear. Maybe that is for the best, because to have something that commanding of attention in every shot of a movie would be unbearable. Like Tatsuya Nakadai, all she has to do is look at the camera and you feel something — sometimes empathy, sometimes dread.
In Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay’s film named after the character she plays, we look at Morton — or, rather Morvern — and we feel dread and sorrow, because we are looking into the eyes of someone who is spiritually adrift for reasons that are deliberately difficult to decipher. She wakes up early one morning on the floor of her Glasgow flat, next to her boyfriend’s corpse. Sometime earlier that night he killed himself and left her the contents of his bank account, a novel (“I wrote it for you,” his suicide note says), and her Christmas gifts. It comes as some measure of her spiritual bankruptcy that she seems more interested in the gifts than the suicide note, or even the corpse. Read more
The first shot of Harakiri is not of a human face but an empty suit of ancestral armor — a perfect visual metaphor for the emptiness and inhumanity of the codes of honor upheld by feudal Japan’s ruling classes. The camera moves down corridors and through antechambers, all equally devoid of people: there are no human lives here, just symbols. In such an environment it is all too easy for tyranny and cruelty to flourish, and only a matter of course that the codes of the samurai would become mere façades.
Harakiri (or Seppuku) takes its title, as some of you have probably determined by now, from the name of the suicide ritual used by samurai to save face when defeated or disgraced. It was not, as has been mistakenly believed, something that had its roots in Japan’s pre-feudal history. Seppuku was devised by the samurai to keep their own people in line, and to provide a spectacular way of death so that the condemned could be exemplified. A condemned man who was given the opportunity to kill himself in this fashion could be redeemed in the eyes of others, and since feudal Japan didn’t believe in second chances, that was about as good as you could expect to get.Read more
Lady Vengeance, the final third in Chan-wook Park’s “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, is everything a movie should be: great entertainment, a work of visual art, and a thought-provoking meditation on everything it brings up. Without ruining any of the details (and to ruin a movie like this is a cardinal sin) I will say that it contains elements of both Sympathy and Oldboy, in terms of its plot, structure, style and themes. It is at times also as blackly funny and horrifying as both of those movies, and like them it is only about revenge in an indirect way. Its real subjects are sin and redemption, innocence and culpability — in short, all the things that the other movies in the trilogy were also obsessed with, and which also gave them the flavor of classic tragedy.
Vengeance opens in the middle of things, much as Oldboy began in the middle of things: the real story has actually started much earlier. A woman named Geum-ja (JSA’s Yeong-ae Lee) is released from prison, having served a thirteen-year sentence for abducting and murdering a three-year-old boy. Inside the prison, she was a “kindly angel”, extending a helping hand to all who needed it, but upon her release she immediately becomes cold and withdrawn. This change in behavior comes hardest of all to her spiritual father, a priest who has taken an interest in her case; in fact, Geum-ja’s first words to him upon being released are “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”Read more
The odd thing about Cutey Honey, the unhinged live-action version of the perennially-popular Go Nagai manga, is how strangely flabby and aimless it is. The manga was one of my first forays into Nagai’s wild universe of goofy, stylized violence and leering sexuality, and there were a slew of animated productions (a TV series, an OAV, a second OAV) that followed suit. And now we have a live-action movie, courtesy of Evangelion director Hideaki Anno — a curiously characterless and flat movie for someone normally associated with incisive and idiosyncratic projects. It’s like an episode of Power Rangers stretched out to feature-film length — glossy, flashy, and never more than superficially interesting unless you’re already a hardcore fan. And even if you are, don’t you have something better to do — like open your mail, or get your car washed?
Cutey Honey was one of Nagai’s most successful and instantly-recognizable characters — a lithe and chesty young woman who was actually an android composed of nanomachine-like structures, and fought various kinds of evil with an array of weapons. Her father / creator imbued her with the power to transform herself on the atomic level, so she would often fool her enemies by adopting various guises. (When ADV Films released some of the animated Cutey Honey projects to home video in the USA, they used an absolutely deathless tagline to promote them: “Some people would kill for a perfect body. Honey-chan’s got a dozen of them — AND EVERYONE’S TRYING TO KILL HER!”)Read more
Even a lesser film by a major filmmaker is still worth seeing. When a director of Akira Kurosawa’s caliber makes a film that doesn’t match his other work, it’s usually head and shoulders above most of the rest of other people’s outputs anyway. The Bad Sleep Well is not a bad film at all — in fact, it’s a very good film. It’s an earnest and even fairly angry movie about a highly contemporary subject — the porous and unsavory relationships between business and government — but it feels more like the first draft of a story that needed to be slimmed down, tightened up, given more focus and clarity before it could be filmed. There’s so much incidental detail that the impact of the story is heavily diluted, and we get the sense of a much better movie inside this one waiting to be revealed either via a rewrite or a heavy editing job.
I feel almost unkind dwelling on what’s wrong with Bad. Most of the movie’s problems are in the first twenty to thirty minutes, and in a way that only compounds the issue: one has to sit through a terribly tedious first act before the film manages to finally get all of its ducks in a row and present you with what appears to be the real story. Once all of this is out of the way, though, it becomes an almost entirely different film — one more akin to a cold-blooded European thriller like Diabolique, where people’s weaknesses are ruthlessly exploited while others dismiss their fears as paranoia or nonsense. Unfortunately, that film, too, has problems — not fatal ones, but enough to take what could have been a great movie and turn it into a strangely tiresome and detached one. Read more