personal blog - This part of my blog is dedicated to articles about my personal life. What moves me, what interests me, where I'm going and what I'm doing. en-us (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken /Shunji Iwai]]>

Welcome back Mr. Iwai. After 10 years of mucking about (doing documentaries, an anthology segment and even releasing his English-language debut almost nobody bothered to watch), Shunji Iwai is back with a new feature film. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken [The Case of Hana & Alice] is only tangibly related to Shunji Iwai's last serious effort, but fans of his earlier work will be happy to learn that Iwai made a very worthwhile comeback. The biggest surprise though is that his latest feature is an animated film.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

For the longest time, it seemed as if Hana to Arisu would be Iwai's swan song. The film was received well both locally and abroad and it felt as a culmination of everything Iwai had done as a director. Then after its release the big void started. Luckily Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken isn't just the final twitch of a dying director, Iwai's next film is already out and doing the rounds, so there's clearly some life in him left. Don't watch Satsujin Jiken expecting a simple prequel/cheap cash-in either, because even though both films are related, they offer quite a different experience.

The move to animation is definitely an interesting one. It's not just Iwai's first venture into the field of animation, it's also the animation world's first real confrontation with a guy like Shunji Iwai. In a way, Satsujin Jiken feels as if Iwai is building upon Satoshi Kon's legacy, only with the strong genre elements removed. There's a realness to the animation and the atmosphere that's usually completely absent from animation films, but not without ignoring the strengths and possibilities of the medium.

The film tells the story of how Alice and Hana meet up for the first time. It's not a true origin story though, as it takes half a film for Hana to even show her face. The first part of the film is structured around a murder mystery/urban legend in Alice's school. It's only during the second half that Hana and Alice actually meet up, determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery. Just don't expect anything too exciting or tense, Satsujin Jiken is still predominantly a drama and the murder mystery is merely an excuse for the drama to unfold.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

Iwai used a unique method of rotoscoping to animate his film. Usually rotoscoping is used to attain more fluid animations and more detailed character outlines, but that's clearly not the case here. The backgrounds carry a watercolor look and the characters appear rather simplistic in their detail. Iwai actually pulled back the framerate to give the animation a more Japanese (read less fluent) feel. Even so, the technique is still very noticeable in the smaller motions and bearings of the characters. There's something very natural and lifelike about how they move about, which is largely absent for traditional animation. Add to that the beautiful coloring and the stunning backdrops (they look as if someone painted over some detailed storyboard sketches) and you have a very unique result, pretty difficult to compare to other animation films I've seen so far. Not only that, it's also perfectly suited to Iwai's directorial style.

The soundtrack is very much in line with Iwai's previous films. That means typical string and piano tunes, the kind that can be found in most Japanese dramas. The quality of the music is great though and Iwai uses the score skillfully, never over- or understating key moments. The dub is top notch too, though part of that is because both Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki returned to voice their characters (while also standing model for the rotoscoping). Both girls are 10 years older now, which could've been a problem if the film had been live action, but through the wonders of animation it's not a bother at all.

screen capture of Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken

The first half of Satsujin Jiken may be a little confusing for people who like to know right off the bat where a film is going. Iwai is playing with several chess pieces, slowly aligning them to properly kick off the second half of the film. That's when Satsujin Jiken settles down to become the type of drama we've come to expect from Iwai. Personally I liked the extra bit of variation in the beginning, I've seen pretty much every Iwai film so far so it's nice to see something a little different, but I'm sure some people will be a little disappointed that the film changes direction after the first half.

Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken was better than I expected. It's no easy transition to go from live action to animation after 25 years of directing live action films, but Iwai found the right balance between Japanese live action drama and the magic of animation. The film looks great, the story is moving, the characters quirky but lovable. And in true Hana & Alice tradition, there's another stand-out ballet scene that lingers long after the film has finished. Fans of Iwai and Japanese animation are in for a treat with this one.

Thu, 22 Sep 2016 09:38:33 +0000
<![CDATA[Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu/Foung-Hon Chiang ]]>

It's clear by now that the big Taiwanese cinema boom isn't happening anytime soon, despite some very promising signs a couple of years ago. That doesn't mean the country is lacking in quality films though. From time to time a little gem floats by and whoever is paying close attention will be aptly rewarded. Foung-Hon Chiang's Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu [The Missing Piece] is such a gem: a sweet, little film that successfully combines lighthearted drama with touches of deeper emotion.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu presents itself as a warm, sweet and comfortable drama. Taiwan is an ideal setting for a film like that. It's one of the greenest places I've ever seen, there's sea everywhere, the summers are sunny and it has remote places that look as if time has stood still for the past 50 years. Just looking at some stills is enough get that vacation feeling going. And Foung-Hon Chiang exploits that to the fullest.

The second sign that betrays this film's Taiwanese roots are the betel nut stands. Not that it's uncommon to have small food stands alongside the road in other countries, but these betel nut stands are something peculiar. They hold the middle between food stops and public softcore erotica, with scantily clad women serving their customers drinks and betel nuts. If that sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because Kang-sheng Lee's slightly more famous Bang Bang Wo Ai Shen [Help Me Eros] also featured them prominently.

The film follows Lin Daofeng, a young boy who suffers from a strange affliction. Whenever he is asked a question, no matter how simple, it always takes him 5 seconds to reply. Tired of upsetting people he goes on a hitchhiking trip, hoping the contact with others will help him get rid of his problem. That's how he meets Shasha, a betel nut girl. Together with three others Lin spends his days hitchhiking around the island, bonding with Shasha and her friends.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

Chiang's idyllic vision of Taiwan completely dominates the cinematography. At its worst, the weather is mildly cloudy, meaning that the film overflows with bright greens and fresh blues. Palm trees, the sea and lush vegetation make for a perfect backdrop in which five quirky characters prance around. The camera work is up to Taiwanese standards and the editing feels solemn and timely. Add a couple of modern touches left and right and you end up with an extremely pleasant-looking film.

The soundtrack walks a fine line between comfortably beautiful and slightly overdone. It has a strong Joe Hisaishi vibe, perfect for its summery setting, but it lacks Hisaishi's subtlety and it can be a little too present at times. But right when you think it'll start becoming annoying, Chiang dials it back a notch and it returns to be being just nice and fitting. It's definitely not a bad soundtrack, but a little subtlety would've gone a long way in making it better.

Luckily the cast is right on point. Po-Hung Lin is well on his way to make something of his career. After his small part in Transformers: Age of Extinction he demonstrates he can easily carry a film by himself. That said, he is still outperformed by Ella Chen, local pop star turned actress. The two form a marvelous duo, with Chen-Nan Tsai and Mei-Chao Lin serving as perfect sidekicks and Wei-min Ying taking care of the more comical bits. An all-round strong cast.

screen capture of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu

The strength of Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu is the particular balance it upholds between its joyful and upbeat appearance and its slightly more sensitive core. When Chiang is focusing on his quirky characters and their funny adventures the film is extremely light and easy-going, but whenever he takes a step back a more painful layer of emotions is revealed underneath. Some might find the upbeat side not quirky enough, others might be disappointed that the dramatic side lacks depth (it's not hardcore arthouse after all). The experience is rather personal, but for me it worked extremely well.

Foung-Hon Chiang produced a sweet, sunny and pleasant film. The acting is great, the film looks good and contains just the right amount of drama to stop itself from becoming too sweet and/or sentimental. Ai Shang Que Jiao Zu is the perfect film to brighten up a warm, summer evening, though you'll have to put in the effort to dig it up somewhere. Internationally speaking it has been completely ignored. Luckily the Taiwanese DVD comes with English subtitles, so even if nobody else decides to pick it up it still has a fighting chance to prove its worth.

Thu, 01 Sep 2016 09:52:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu/Kitaro Kosaka]]>

It's Vuelta time. With the 3-week Spanish cycling Tour well on its way, what better film to watch than Kitaru Kosaka's Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu [Nasu: Summer in Andalusia]. Anime might not be the most obvious choice when you're looking to appease your film/cycling fix, but it turns out to be one of the best. It's been a while since I watched the first Nasu film, turns out it has lost little of its shine over time and it hasn't concede its crown of 'best cycling film' yet.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Cycling is not an easy sport to translate into a feature film. Even though races are long and dramatic opportunities are plentiful during a 3-week cycling tour, races are often decided in mere minutes, the rest of the race is spent consolidating a lead or working hard to take back the escapees. As a sport it's a great mix of tactics and physical endurance, but looking at the groups battling for seconds miles on end doesn't make very interesting film material.

Point in case Dante Lam's Po Feng [To the Fore], a rather poor attempt to make a cycling drama. It felt more like a dramatized introduction to the sport rather than a film centered around a couple of cyclists. All the more surprising that a short anime like Nasu manages to do everything exactly right. The race part is exciting, almost believable (there is some slight dramatization, probably needed to get some thing across to people not familiar with the sport) plus it comes with some very nice drama on the side.

The film follows Pepe, a young rider for a Belgian team. The sponsors want him out because he's not winning enough, but with a finish in his hometown Pepe is extra motivated to take center stage in one of the biggest tours in the world. It's a blistering hot day and the peloton is dragging its feet, so Pepe take off and leads a break of 6. Meanwhile, Pepe's brother is getting married nearby, when he sees Pepe is leading the break he quickly decides to move his wedding party to the finish line.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Kitaro Kosaka learned the trade at Ghibli and it shows, although not too explicitly. There's something in the character designs that gives off a slight Ghibli fragrance, without them being a downright copy. The backgrounds feel a little empty at times and the 4:3 ratio is slightly disappointing, but the animation is gorgeous. It may not be abundant, but the way the peloton moves and slithers across the road is extremely convincing. There is some CG involved there, but it is very well hidden and the hand-drawn style persists throughout. The film was clearly made on an OAV budget, but the result is impressive and rises above its budgetary limitations.

The soundtrack is equally nice. A combination of more traditional drama music (strings and pianos mostly) and typical Spanish sounds, inserted to give the music some additional colour locale. It's not a very memorable or demanding soundtrack, but it does add something to the warm, somewhat lazy atmosphere already present. The voice acting is on par with the better anime releases too, with no sign of an English dub to ruin things for unsuspecting DVD hunters.

screen capture of Nasu: Andalusia no Natsu

Even though Nasu is only 45 minutes long, it never feels flimsy or shallow. Kosaka did an excellent job inserting some depth and drama with very short but telling moments. There is a history between the two brothers, there is also a lingering romance, there is the wedding going on and Pepe's lack of job security that pops up halfway through. And Kosaka manages all that with very little exposure or needless explanation, all to make sure there's enough time left for the actual race.

Nasu is a great seasonal film. Its summer vibe is tangible, it coincides with the Vuelta and it gives one of the best depictions of cycling ever caught on (fictional) film, let alone animation. On top of that, it also serves some worthwhile drama. The animation is solid, the voice acting is great and the film feels a lot meatier than its 45 minute running would give away up front, without ever becoming too laden or demanding. Just tack on Nasu: Suitcase no Wataridori (the follow-up) and you're set for 90 minutes of summer fun.

Tue, 30 Aug 2016 10:01:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Onna ga Nemuru Toki/Wayne Wang]]>

Director Wayne Wang is traveling. After his visit to China to work on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, he continued his voyage east in order to direct the newest addition to his oeuvre. Onna ga Nemuru Toki [While the Women Are Sleeping] is an adaptation of Spanish writer Javier Marias' short story, set in Japan with a fully Japanese cast. The result is an interesting mix of cultures and influences, dominated by Wang's subdued yet detailed style of direction.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

Wayne Wang is a pretty unique director. Born in Hong Kong, he actually started his career in the USA. Even though Smoke and The Joy Luck Club brought him minor success, he never managed to secure a permanent seat in the mainstream. His films are rather hard to come by and most of his work is overlooked (though I'm pretty sure directing Maid in Manhattan didn't help his status). Hopefully for Wang, Onna ga Nemuru Toki will turns some heads back his way.

I never read the original story, but its premise provides all the necessary material for an intriguing film. The story was moved to Japan and some minor details were changed, but from what I've heard the core of the story remains very much intact. Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a mystery with subtle yet definite mindfuck elements. It's one of those films that starts off quite normal, but not long after strange bits begin creeping in, piling up until they become an unsurmountable puzzle that cannot be ignored.

The story follows a couple out on a work vacation. Kenji is a writer, Aya an editor. Aya is visiting one of her clients who lives in the neighborhood while Kenji remains at the resort to rest. One afternoon by the pool, Kenji notices and old man and a young girl who are more than just familiar with each other. Intrigued by the odd couple, he decides to follow them around as he tries to figure out how the two are related. When Kenji learns about the weird fetish of the old men, his mind starts to wonder.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

I haven't seen enough Wang films to know how strong a visual mark he leaves on his films, but if you've seen Smoke and you imagine that film through the eyes of a Japanese cinematographer, you come pretty close to the look of Onna ga Nemuru Toki. That means very strict camera work, beautiful framing and rigid but atmospheric use of color, giving the film a slightly dreamy impression. It's not the most expressive or energetic of films, but it looks beautiful nonetheless.

The soundtrack is a mix of classic piano tunes with some more modern touches in between. It captures the essence of a Japanese drama soundtrack, but adds a little extra Western flavor without it becoming too cheesy or distracting. It's a nice blend of influences, though the result isn't all that remarkable or memorable. It's simply a good soundtrack that does the film a couple of favors, but won't leave a big enough impression to label it a true asset.

The casting is right on the mark though. Hidetoshi Nishijima is great as the confused writer, Sayuri Oyamada excellent as his pushy wife. Still they are overshadowed by the presence of Takeshi Kitano, who plays the part of the old man. If you're not a fan of Kitano's style this role probably won't do much to convince you. After all, he's somewhat of a one-trick pony in front of the camera. But I love the man and the weight he puts on his characters and he really shines as the strange and somewhat pervy old man. Also kudos for casting Lily Frankie as one of the secondary characters, it's always fun seeing his face pop up.

screen capture of Onna ga Nemuru Toki

While the mindfuck part of the film is somewhat explained, Wayne leaves it to the deduction of the viewer to piece everything together. Unless I missed it, there's no scene or snippet of dialogue that truly reveals what the whole mystery was about. You may find that confusing, especially if you were hoping for a James Wan kind of ending, but in my opinion is does a better job at leaving the mystery intact while still explaining in broad lines what exactly you've been watching.

Onna ga Nemuru Toki is a fine mystery/thriller. The film looks great, sports a good soundtrack, has a perfect cast and handles both its mystery and its audience with the proper respect. It's not the most flashy of films and chances are more bolder films will quickly take its place, but its core qualities are rock solid and shouldn't wane with time. Wayne Wang's journey to Japan was a successful one, if it's up to me he can prolong his stay for a little while longer and make it a Japanese trilogy of some kind.

Thu, 25 Aug 2016 09:52:42 +0000
<![CDATA[Zhou Yu De Huo Che/Zhou Sun]]>

Back in the early 00s Chinese cinema was finding itself at a turning point. After being dominated for years by rural dramas sporting strong social themes, more modern/urban-themed films were starting to find their way to the public. Zhou Sun's Zhou Yu De Huo Che [Zhou Yu's Train] was one of the early examples of this change of pace. When I sat down to revisit Sun's film I was curious to see how well it had survived 15 years of Chinese cinema renaissance.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

The first time I watched Zhou Yu De Huo Che my knowledge of Chinese cinema was practically nil. I remember watching the film for the first time, wondering to myself when Tony Leung would finally show himself. I was completely unaware of the fact that there were two popular Chinese figures going by the name of Tony Leung (three if you count director Siu Hung). The difference between Ka Fai and Chiu Wai meant absolutely nothing to me. That's at least one thing that didn't bother me this time around.

I'm still not quite sure how Zhou Yu De Hou Che landed a local release, though like most Asian releases back then it was probably a combination of festival recognition and sheer luck. The global interest in Asian cinema was starting to boom around that time and I remember watching whatever I could get my hands on. By modern standards Zhou Yu De Hou Che is a pretty simple romance, enhanced by subtle artistic choices and a slightly convoluted plot. While it inevitably lost a little of its initial impact, it's still a beautiful film though.

The story follows Zhou Yu, a young vase paintress who becomes enamored by a budding poet (Chen Qing). He lives quite far away from her, so Yu ends up travelling the distance by train. Their relationship is passionate but unstable and the long train ride gives other interested parties plenty of opportunities to steal Yu away from her poet. Zhang Qing is the most persistent of the bunch and his advances start to pay off when Chen's career as a poet fails to take off.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

Visually the film is on par with its peers. That means strong use of color and lighting, some very nice compositions and a couple of attractive tracking shots. Sun has a broad arsenal of visual tricks, but he uses them sparsely and wisely. He may lack a clear individual style, at least based on what he puts on display here, but Zhou Yu De Huo Che looks beautiful from start to finish and that's a definite plus for a romantic drama with slight artistic pretenses.

The music is by Shigeru Umebayashi, one of Japan's most famous soundtrack composers. It's a solid, fitting soundtrack, but at the same time it's also pretty safe and familiar. The score consists of classic compositions, mostly consisting of piano and violin work. It's atmospheric and gracious, on the other hand it's also exactly what you'd expect from a film like this, almost to the note. A slightly more daring soundtrack would've been nice, but that doesn't seem to be part of the Chinese film DNA.

Zhou Yu De Hou Che leans heavily on its central trio of actors. Tony Leung (Ka Fai) and Honglei Sun are both great as the competing guys, but it's Gong Li who pulls most of the attention towards her. She actually has a double role here, although the not-"Zhou Yun" part is considerably smaller. But the acting is great all-round, even the secondary parts, small as they may be, put in the necessary effort. Always a plus for a film that relies on dramatic impact.

screen capture of Zhou Yu De Huo Che

In essence, Zhou Yu De Hou Che is a pretty simple film. There's a love triangle, some dramatic interference and people pondering what to do with their lives. Sun adds a little complexity by giving Li an extra part to play and he likes to jump around in time and place, though applied more from an artistic point of view than a puzzling one. It adds a little extra flavor to the film, but it is in no way essential to the core experience.

There's a basic quality that keeps Zhou Yu De Hou Che on its feet, even though I've seen better and more creative variations from China in more recent years. It's still a great film, with a strong central romance, solid acting and a pleasant audiovisual finish. It's also an easy film to recommend, even when you're not all that familiar with Chinese cinema, as long as you don't expect anything too innovative or groundbreaking you should be able to enjoy it.

Thu, 18 Aug 2016 11:14:57 +0000
<![CDATA[Ubume no Natsu /Akio Jissoji]]>
Ubume no Natsu poster

Akio Jissoji is somewhat of a cult figure. He started out as a director in the Ultraman franchise (both series and films) and ended his career directing obscure horror films. I've reviewed his segments in Rampo Jigoku and Yume Ju-ya, shorts that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from Ubume no Natsu [Summer of Ubume], his final standalone feature film. He died not long after, joining a prestigious list of directors who kept going right until their final breath.

Even though Ubume no Natsu was made in 2006, it has little to no ties to the Asian horror wave that was all the rage back then. This is no 'less is more' horror flick trying to mimic the success of Nakata or Shimizu, instead the film harks back to the classic Japanese horror stories of Edogawa Rampo. Dark, twisted and supernatural, but with a strong psychological core. Ubume no Natsu is an adaptation of the first novel in the Kyougokudou series, a novel that is also enjoying its own manga adaptation right now.

The film is set in the early 50s, following a detective who is called in to investigate the events surrounding a mysterious hospital. Patients, mostly children, keep disappearing on the hospital's premises. When members of the staff are also ending up dead, the neighborhood's imagination starts running rampant. Of course the case isn't so easily solved and several other people are brought in to try and explain the mysterious events.

If you care about a great cast, this film has you covered. An insane amount of familiar faces are featured, from the lead roles down to the smaller, secondary parts. Shin'ichi Tsutsumi and Masatoshi Nagase are probably the most prestigious names, with actors like Hiroshi Abe, Susumu Terajima, Suzuki Matsuo, Rena Tanaka and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa also on board you just know you're in for a treat. It's great to see all of these actors brought together in one film and it's pretty clear they had a lot of fun shooting Ubume no Natsu.

The presentation is top notch too. Even though Jissoji was already quite old when he shot this, the cinematography is quirky and playful. There are some great angles, the editing is fun and even though he uses the same visual tricks a few times too often, the film looks great throughout. The soundtrack is a bit more classic in nature, but goes well with the film. The two combined create a mysterious, dark and intriguing atmosphere, the kind you expect from a tale that could've been written by Rampo.

Don't expect any gore, don't expend a typical Japanese suspense flick. Ubume no Natsu is a film that relies more on intrigue and mystery, with some perversion and psychological horror thrown in for good measure. The presentation is great, the cast is impressive and even though the film is quite long, it never drags or becomes boring. There are better films in the genre, but that's hardly a critique on this film.

Tue, 16 Aug 2016 09:52:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen/Oishi and Shinbo ]]>

The anime feature film is crumbling under the weight of a terrible creative lull. Just ten years ago anime feature films were enjoying an immense peak in quality, with at least 3 or 4 high profile films being released each year. Nowadays we're getting swamped by slightly upgraded TV shows and Studio Ghibli rip-offs. It should come as no surprise then that my expectations were rather low when I sat down to watch Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen. A mere 64 minutes later I had quite a different story to tell.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Even though originality might be key, fact is that Kizumonogatari is part of an established franchise. The film is a prequel to Bakamonogatari and Nekomonogatari, both TV series adapted from NisiOisin's books. Other entries in the franchise include Nise-, Hana-, Tsuki-, Koyo- and Owarimonogatari (also TV series), so the film comes with quite a lot of baggage. I must admit that I haven't seen any of the TV material, nor did I read any of the novels. It's hard to say for sure of course, but I feel quite certain that this only increased the effect this first Kizumonogatari film (there are three planned in total) had on me.

It took me a while to get a grip on the film. There are parts that reminded me of Soul Taker, but there's also some of Makoto Shinkai's earlier work in there and even Colorful (the TV short series, not the feature film) passed through my mind a couple of times. I understand that's a rather nonsensical blend of influences, which is why I think this film is probably best compared to FLCL. Not because it shares particular stylistic influences, but the impact of Kizumonogatari somehow matched that of FLCL. It's so different from anything else I've seen, so free and unrestrained yet so very hardcore anime that I think the experience of seeing it for the first time is extremely similar.

If you're looking for any kind of strong, coherent story though, this film probably isn't for you. We follow Araragi, a somewhat reclusive student who one day walks into a vampire (named Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade, go figure) thirsting for blood. Araragi runs away, but retraces his steps and decides to sacrifice himself to save the vampire, because why not. In return, she promises Araragi she'll change him back into his human form, but only after he slays the three vampire hunters that are after her. Shakespeare it is not, but it's a good enough hook for some great fun.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Visually it's a whirlwind of different styles. It's clear that Oishi and Shinbo gathered some of Japan's greatest animation talent to work on Kizumonogatari, but that doesn' mean everything looks slick and lavish. Some of the CG is elemental, cold and lifeless and stands in great contrast to the lively animation. But it's done with a purpose and a clear vision, not just because they lacked the talent or because the budget didn't allow for better CG, because some of the computer work does look amazing. The same goes for the intertitles, which appear almost random, at times feel completely nonsensical, but add a very peculiar, unique flow to the film. The editing too is unique, sometimes staying slightly too long with certain scenes, at other times cutting quickly between different angles. Not everything is logical, but it all makes sense.

The soundtrack is also a strong asset. It's slightly jazzy, with an electronic finish. But more importantly, it's perfectly in sync with the editing. Together with the visuals it creates a strongly rhythmic, almost poetic flow that feels very futuristic. It's a perfect example of how a solid soundtrack can be cut up and applied in such a way that it becomes something more. The voice acting is on par with most high-profile anime features, meaning that it's done well but it comes with a fair amount of anime stereotypes. Then again, it's exactly that weird combo of artistic excellence and anime silliness that defines the atmosphere of the film, so it definitely adds to the appeal of the film.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen

Kizumonogatari is Oishi and Shinbo's playground. It's a film that is truly defined by the choices of its directors and animation artists, not by plot or characters. Nothing is merely shown or told, every scene is seen as a new opportunity to do something weird, funky or insane. Every single second feels like a counter reaction against the staleness and almost soulless production that is ruining Japanese animation. It's probably a little uneven because of that and those looking for a deep, homogenous and more traditional film experience might be put off, but if you like something different, Kizumonogatari will not disappoint.

You may think 64 minutes is rather short, but it's perfect for a film like this. After a short period of acclimatization (probably depending on how familiar you are with the franchise), the film washes over you like a tornado, constantly throwing you off balance and finding new ways to surprise. The knowledge that two more films will follow helped me to part from this crazy experience. Kizumonogatari is anime the way I like it. It's a directorial tour de force, a film that proves there's still some life left in the Japanese animation scene. It's probably a bit much for some, but if you're into more experimental and weird animation and you don't mind a little silliness, this is definitely one to check out.

Thu, 11 Aug 2016 09:43:08 +0000
<![CDATA[Following/Christopher Nolan]]>

A long time ago, in what almost seems like a past life, I was a pretty avid Christopher Nolan supporter. I liked Memento and Insomnia, but it was Following, Nolan's first feature, that really caught my eye. A film that was intriguing, smart and streamlined, a bare-bones low budget movie that amazed despite its obvious limitations. My taste in films changed a lot since then, so when I finally sat down to watch Following again I was pretty eager to find out whether its qualities were lasting.

screen capture of Following

Nolan is the archetypical example of a director who cannot handle a budget. The more money you give him, the worse his films become. His entire career has been one slippery slide to the bottom, all the way down his latest blockbuster disaster Interstellar. He's in good company though, with people like Darren Aronofsky and Peter Jackson following very similar paths. yet Nolan is the undisputed king of budget waste, a feeling that only grew stronger when I rewatched Following.

Following was made on a production budget of just 6000 dollars, which is ridiculously small for a professional film. Nolan cut every corner he could, every element of the film is tailored to get the maximum result out of minimal effort, including the screenplay. There are no fancy visual requirements, no demanding action sequences and no need for a big cast. Following is a film that relies on an intriguing setup, a small group of actors and tried but bested audiovisual methods. And Nolan makes it work, seizing total control over the film.

The story is about a jobless wannabe writer who starts tracking random people, just for the fun of it. When he notices his new hobby is rapidly becoming an addiction, he sets up a couple of rules for himself that act as boundaries, keeping him from getting into trouble. Basically the rules prohibit him from getting too close to his victims. But one day he ends up following what looks like a thief and his curiosity gets the best of him. Little does he know the thief is actually on to him, getting more and more worked up about this unknown guy following him.

screen capture of Following

Like many other low-budget first-time efforts, Following was shot in a grainy, high-contrast black & white. It's a smart choice if you want your film to look stylish without worrying too much about the cinematography. Not that black & white is an absolute guarantee to success, but when your camera equipment is limited, it's probably the best option you've got. Following looks nice enough, but it doesn't quite compare to the likes of Pi or Tetsuo. The only truly remarkable thing is that Nolan doesn't give you any visual clues to differentiate between the flashback and the normal scenes, effectively creating an extra layer to the puzzle.

The soundtrack is subtle but interesting. Nolan chose a ambient-inspired soundtrack, going for maximum effect with minimal soundscapes. The music goes well with the black & white cinematography and blends extremely well with the dialogues. It's a bit like Pi's soundtrack, where music and dialogue become one, though once again Nolan loses the battle with Aronofsky's first. That said, Following builds on a rock solid audiovisual experience.

The cast was kept very small. It's just the three main actors and some very minor secondary parts. The actors are okay, though it's clear they aren't A-list material. Lucy Russell in particular is a bit static and lifeless. Jeremy Theobald isn't perfect either, but at least he has a good voice to fall back on. Best of the bunch is Alex Haw, it's just a little weird to see he never pursued any other acting jobs. As a group they fare well though, especially for a film like this.

screen capture of Following

Following is a film that is low-key by necessity, but that's actually what saves the movie. As the puzzle slowly unravels, there is no time or money for epic reveals. There are several twists, but no sentimental soundtrack or flashy edits to make them appear bigger than they are. There's no extra build-up, no spicing things up just for the heck of it. The plot and twists simply do their job, the mysterious atmosphere and overall intrigue do the rest. Simplicity is a real asset here and it actually makes the film more complex.

Nolan never managed to allocate the extra budget for his following films in any meaningful way. He kept writing puzzling stories full of twists and turns, but as his films grew bigger he just added a lot of pointless padding that only took away from the experience. Following is still Nolan's only masterpiece and I've got a strong feeling he's never going to return to directing smaller films. It's a shame because deep underneath the Hollywood kitsch lies a great storyteller and a more than decent director. Following may be slim and bare-bones, but it's a solid film on every level that never outstays its welcome.

Tue, 09 Aug 2016 09:44:40 +0000
<![CDATA[Stephen Chow/x10]]>
Stephen Chow

Saying Hong Kong comedy is an acquired taste is a big understatement. It enjoys little to no international exposure and truth be told, that's not much of a surprise. Infantile humour, gross over-acting and some cultural weirdness make it one of Hong Kong's least appropriate export products. That doesn't make it objectively horrible of course, it just takes a little extra time to get used to and since people in the West rarely invest their time in Hong Kong cinema most comedies remains stuck in Hong Kong.

There is only one man who managed to beat the odds, which is Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow. Chow started out as an actor, but it didn't take long before he switched to directing his own films. It turned out to be a smart move for Chow as not long after he managed to distribute his films internationally. An even bigger feat consider the state of Hong Kong cinema in the late 90s/early 00s. Chow is probably the biggest and brightest comedian Hong Kong as ever known and a perfect entry point for those who want a taste of what Hong Kong comedy has to offer.

The first film with Chow in the director's chair was Gwok Chaan Ling Ling Chat [From Beijing with Love], a strange Bond parody he helmed together with Lik-Chi Lee (also included is actor Man Tat Ng, long-time Chow collaborator in front of the camera). The film gives a good idea of what to expect from Chow's films. Goofy comedy, lots of parodies and a fair slice of action, all delivered at an excruciating pace.

At the beginning of his career Chow would keep to codirecting his films. Po Huai Zhi Wang [Love on Delivery], Sik San [God of Cookery] and Hei Kek Ji Wong [The King of Comedy] are all made together with Lik-Chi Lee, for Daai Laap Mat Taam 008 [Forbidden City Cop] Chow relied on director Vincent Kok to help him with his directorial duties whenever he was performing in front of the camera. These older Chow films are all good fun, but clearly just preparation for what would become Chow's big international breakthrough.

In 2001 Chow surprised the world with Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer]. While the rest of Hong Kong was struggling to produce anything half decent, he created a CG-heavy football comedy (of all things) that went on to conquer international audiences. It's a great entry in Chow's oeuvre, although his follow-up might be an even be a bigger contender for most successful Chow film. Kung Fu is a perfect blend of his typical comedy, some funky martial arts and a dash of classic Triad action. If you want to crack open Chow's oeuvre, start with Kung Fu.

With CJ7 Chow would lose the interest of his newly acquired international audience. A fun film still, but with its young protagonist and a fairytale-like plot maybe a bit too childlike to appeal to the people who got to know him through Siu Lam Juk Kau or Kung Fu. After that, Chow would try to further rebrand himself, coming out with Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West], a spiritual follow-up to the A Chinese Odyssey series in which he originally starred. Sadly the film turned out to be a CG crapfest (like so many big budget HK affairs nowadays), the only bad mark in Chow's oeuvre so far.

His latest film is somewhat of a return to form, although it never reaches the heights of his best work. Mei Ren Yu [The Mermaid] is a fun eco-fantasy with Chow's trademark comedy. It's a shame Chow retreated from acting though, as he remains a crucial element in the success of his films. Without him in front of the camera, his films just aren't as funny. Still, if you're looking for some goofy comedy, Chow's oeuvre is warmly recommended. He's by far Hong Kong's most lucrative comedy export product, rightfully so. Start with Kung Fu and Siu Lam Juk Kau and go from there.

Best film: Siu Lam Juk Kau [Shaolin Soccer] (4.0*)
Worst film: Xi You Xiang Mo Pian [Journey to the West] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Cheung Gong 7 Hou
Average rating: 3.50 (out of 5)

Fri, 05 Aug 2016 08:46:12 +0000
<![CDATA[Pavel Khvaleev - III/An Interview]]>

To say III is a divisive film is an understatement, but if you love fantasy, mystery and horror it's a film that begs to be seen. With a budget of only 15.000 EUR, Pavel Khvaleev directed one of the best films I've seen all year. A perfect excuse to grill him about this success story. If you want to know more about making films on a shoestring budget, about the Russian horror scene and what's next for Pavel Khvaleev, you'll find all the answers right below.

Pavel Khvaleev on III

Niels Matthijs: You started out as DJ/producer in Moonbeam, an electronic/dance project you set up together with your brother. From there on out you started to direct your own music videos and finally you ended up doing your own feature films. Are you a creative genius or did you get any formal training in music/film?

Pavel Khvaleev: Unfortunately, I didn't get any formal music or film education. To some extent that's an omission since you have to spend a lot of time learning everything by yourself. But on the other hand, this lack of formal education doesn't appear to burden me. In a creative sense it’s actually better as it does not set any limitations for me. All my mistakes come from my personal experience and I am the only one who is responsible for them. It turns out that vision comes from within, not from outside. At the moment, music and cinema stand united for me.

While watching III there were only a select few moments where I could see signs of the limited budget you worked with. I kind of figured III was a low-budget production, but when I heard the film cost only 15,000 EUR I pretty much fell out off my chair. How did you manage to keep the production cost so incredibly low?

That’s right, we spent 15,000 EUR on III. First of all, this amount was so small because everyone was working out of pure enthusiasm, simply believing in the future of our film. The main expenses were related to the rental of locations, the prosthetics and the trip to Germany with our entire team. Secondly, the entire post-production, editing, CG effects, color corrections, sound and music were done by me at home, so that also played a major role in keeping the film budget low.

Looking at the credits (people doing multiple jobs, family members and friends in the crew) it's clear this is a project born out of passion. These things either turn out really well or they end up amateurish crap. Were you ever afraid you might not be able to pull it off?

We were just doing what we all liked, not even realizing that it could be bad. Even if it had turned out to be crap, the worst that could've happened was that we wouldn't have received any invitations to international festivals and we wouldn't have received any awards. We would've just presented the film in our city and hopefully it would have been quickly forgotten. But things turned out completely different and we are sincerely surprised and happy with this. So, now we can continue to develop the genre of indie films.

Great creature design is rare in horror films, I must say III really nailed that part. Who came up with the designs and how did you translate them that well to the screen which such limited resources?

Thank you for the compliment! Probably the most important thing we had to learn was to find the delicate balance between dilettantism and quality level. We did experience some difficulties with certain scenes, but we managed to cope. This was our first experience on such a large scale project, despite the fact that we had to learn many professions on the spot, such as how to do all the prosthetics work. Together with Evgenia Zakharova we spent a lot of time creating the monsters from scratch.

One of the most interesting critiques I've read about III is that it would feel too much like a music video. Personally I feel the score is a very overlooked part of film making and even when the music itself is nice, there's usually very limited interaction with the visuals. Was this something you paid attention to or did it come natural?

Music is part of my life and apparently I failed to hide my special relationship to it during the editing process. To some extent, it was also done on purpose: it was an attempt to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere through the music and through the observation of nature. Nowadays, audiences are so used to dynamic and controversial plots because commercial films have set such a standard. But we wanted to create a more layered world of characters. I now understand that it can be a positive hallmark of our work.

I read you found general inspiration in films like The Cell and Silent Hill, personally I got a slight Avalon (Mamoru Oshii) vibe from III. Any other important sources of inspiration that influenced the way III turned out to be?

Oddly enough, it were the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch that we used as a reference from the very start of the project. His special relationship with religion and his artful depiction of monsters perfectly matched the mood of III. Just before starting work on the scenario we saw his paintings in the Prado Museum, which influenced us all a lot. Then of course there's my own music, which has always been filled with quite minor atmospheric tones.

Russia has a reputable cinematic history, but the past 10 years or so not many Russian films have reached us here in the West. There's Aleksandr Sokurov on the arthouse side and Timur Bekmambetov handling some more commercial projects, but that's about all I can come up with. What happened?

I have the same question as a viewer. In my opinion, there is no such thing as “healthy professional competition” in Russia at the moment, which ultimately drives film art (like, for example, in Hollywood). Film crews led by directors and producers often have one single goal in mind – getting rich. And nobody cares what they produce as long as in the end they receive the money.

Take for example Tarkovsky or Parajanov, who both became renowned around the world for directing films with unique and deep stories. They stood out from the crowd, which is the real key to being successful abroad. I think it’s time for a new generation of film makers who will change that situation and who will bring something very personal to film production, instead of seeking imitation.

Why did you choose to do a horror film? Russia doesn't really have a history in horror cinema and even though horror fans are known to watch just about everything that is labeled as horror, they usually don't take well to films that deviate from established niches?

This genre is only emerging in Russia now. As it turns out, a couple of years ago young Russian filmmakers somehow started realizing all at the same time that this niche was almost unexplored, so they al started working in this direction. With III, we’ve tried to make a film on the verge of genres, to make it deeper, which is something you cannot always find in horror movies.

Why are there so few genre films coming from Russia? Is there something structural blocking such movies from being made, or is there simply a general lack of interest in genre cinema?

There is nothing preventing genre films from appearing, except the factor of low demand for them in our own country. And to get any attention abroad, a Russian film must be truly unique and original.
For example, last year Brussels was covered with posters of an independent film called Hard to Be a God by Alexis Herman. This surprised us very much, because in Russia this film was only shown in small independent theaters.

2016 is shaping up to be a great year for Russian genre cinema though. Ilya Naishuller's Hardcore Henry made big waves and now III managed to land a Netflix deal. Do you feel something is changing in Russia or is this just a coincidence?

As far as I know, there were difficulties while shooting Hardcore Henry. To finish the film they had to raise money through some kind of a crowdfunding campaign. We were shooting III entirely with our own money and thanks to the success at film festivals and through the work of our producer Frank Ellrich we landed a global release on Netflix. But the main problem in Russia is a complete lack of support for genre films from the state, so we can rely only on ourselves.

Pavel Khvaleev on Involution

I saw you're already working on your next project [Involution: site / trailer] which is looking to be a post-apocalyptic scifi. That's raising the bar considerably. Will it be something completely different or are you looking to build on what you already established with the previous films you did?

As for the picture's budget, it will be bigger than that of III, as we’ve expanded our team a little, inviting 3D artist Aleksey Poplavsky and one more producer, Olga Feshchenko. I again will be doing all post-production and music on my own, while my wife Alexandra is responsible for the screenplay and the original story. We want to take this film to the next level, which we'll try to achieve with the help of the cast, some crowd scenes and bigger opportunities to implement our ideas.

And as we did in III, we also will continue to play with unusual surreal scenes, such as dreams and immersions, allowing the viewer to see the inner world of our characters. This will once again involve large-scale work with the production of props and some 3D modeling.

What if I would give you 5 million EUR to spend on Involution? Where would you put that money? Or do you prefer to work with smaller budgets, doing everything with a small, tight-knit crew around you?

Of course, a bigger budget would have helped us to implement bolder and more creative ideas, because in both III and Involution we have to think about money limitations first, only then can we further develop our ideas. With 5 million EUR we could afford to cast actors with well-known names, as well as construct film sets and use more advanced equipment for filming (cameras, lenses, cranes and other devices). This could help to bring in new ideas, new angles and to feel creative freedom to the fullest extent. But our production team would still be quite small, though very loyal.

How difficult is it to combine directing feature films with making music and touring? Is it something you'll be able to combine in the future or will you have to choose between one of the two (and if so, which one are you mostly likely to keep doing?)

This year my brother and I shut down our Moonbeam project that has successfully existed for 12 years, so now I have a little break just to fully engage myself in the creation of Involution. But after that I will once again return to music. I'm afraid I would never be able to choose just one thing, so I will find some way to combine those two .

Thu, 04 Aug 2016 09:23:39 +0000
<![CDATA[Saihate Nite/Hsiu-Chiung Chiang]]>

If there's little in the way of resource swapping between Japan and Taiwan when drama cinema is involved, it's probably because Japan tends to be somewhat distant when it comes to working with foreign talent. Even so, director Hsui-Chiung Chiang managed to bridge the gap with Saihate Nite [The Furthest End Awaits], her second full-length feature. It shouldn't come as a surprise that it's a match made in heaven, as both countries share a very similar approach to the genre.

screen capture of Saihate Nite

If you're searching for other examples of Taiwanese directors working in Japan, sooner or later you're bound to bump into Hsiao-Hsien Hou's Kohi Jiko. There's an interesting link there, as both films not only share a fascination for the popular caffeine drink, but Chiang actually learned the trade under Hou's mentorship as an assistant director. That said, Chiang has style of her own that isn't immediately linked to the Hou's work, at least not any more than it is linked to Japanese/Taiwanese drama cinema in general, so don't go in expecting a Hou clone.

Saihate Nite is a perfect summer film if I ever saw one. It has that leisurely island vibe (including the obligatory teacher-student interactions), it has a healthy dose of Asian food porn and its characters are inherently pleasant (with ony one notable exception). Add a hefty dose of sun and sea and it really starts to feel like mini-vacation. You could compare it to films like Megane, Kikansha Sensei and Shokudo Katasumuri, but ultimately Chiang serves her own pleasant blend of summer drama.

The story revolves around Misaki Yoshida. Misaki first lost track of her dad after her parents divorced when she was only 4 years old, later her dad got lost at sea and was never seen since. Eight years after his disappearance Misaki's dad is pronounced dead and Misaki inherits his old cabin by the sea. She packs up her things and moves to the cabin, setting up her little coffee shop there. That's where she meets Eriko, a young single mom who has all the trouble in the world raising her two young kids.

screen capture of Saihate Nite

On the visual side, Saihate Nite is everything you'd expect from a Taiwanese director shooting an island drama in Japan. Blue and green are the dominant colors, the film is wrapped inside a soft and airy glow, the camera work is meticulous and delicate and there's an underlying beauty that adds a lot of atmosphere. The visual style isn't grand or in your face, but it's pleasant, comfortable and stylish. Pretty much perfect for a film like this.

The music is extremely traditional, a collection of subtle piano pieces make up most of the score. I can't say I remember much of any individual tracks, but as a whole the music adds a lot to the film's warm and soothing atmosphere. There's a reason why dramas like these often end up with piano scores, it simply works. Don't expect to be blown away by the score, don't hope for something novel and game changing and just enjoy the sweet, delicate piano sounds.

The cast too is hard to fault. Hiromi Nagasaku and Nozomi Sasaki put in great performances, Masatoshi Nagase is awesome, even when he has to play the bad guy and the child actors too do an amazing job. There's also a small part for Jun Marakami (playing Misaki's dad), who rounds off this excellent cast. Every single actor adds something of his own to the film, which says a lot about Chiang's ability to properly coach the actors she works with.

screen capture of Saihate Nite

Saihate Nite is a very female-centered film. Almost all of the characters are women/girls, except for Nagase, who plays the crude male rapist. If that makes it sound like there's a big man vs women theme at play here, it's only because we've become so accustomed to the topic that we can't stop seeing it everywhere. Luckily the film is more layered and not at all judgmental, keeping the focus on the drama and the struggles of its characters, rather than extrapolating their problems to a broader message.

If you feel like watching a smooth, agreeable and warm-hearted drama on a leisurely summer day, Saihate Nite is a perfect match. It's a sweet, subtle and slowly paced drama, both technically and aesthetically pleasing. There are some edgier parts, but they never dominate the film and only pop up to smoothen out the relationships between the various characters. Saihate Nite is a great team-up between Taiwan and Japan, though that shouldn't come as too big of a surprise, as their dramatic output has been somewhat similar for a while now.

Wed, 27 Jul 2016 09:32:34 +0000
<![CDATA[Shinjuku Suwan /Shion Sono]]>

With no less than 5 films clumped together, 2015 was a monster year for Shion Sono. I'm amazed at how he managed to keep everything on track, as none of the 2015 films I've seen so far (which is all of them except Hiso Hiso Boshi) felt rushed, unfinished or derivative. Shinjuku Suwan [Shinjuku Swam] is one of the better entries in Sono's 2015 marathon, a yakuza flick with a twist that sets it well apart from its peers. Or what did you expect?

screen capture of Shinjuku Swan

Shinjuku Suwan is no doubt one of Sono's more commercial outings. It's not as childlike as Rabu & Pisu, not as perverted as Eiga: Minna! Esupa Da Yo! and not as gruesome as Riaru Onigokko. On top of that, it's a manga adaptation so it also comes with a built-in audience. It's structured like a pretty typical Yakuza film, with some Crows Zero-like elements thrown in for good measure. It shouldn't be too hard a film to market, the question is whether it will ever get a fair chance in the West.

Having seen my fair share of Yakuza-themed films over the years, it's nice to see the concept applied in a slightly different setting. Instead of dealing with typical Yakuza criminals, Shinjuku Suwan relocates itself to Kabukicho, Tokyo's red light district. Girls are being scouted to work in bars and parlors, two competing scouting companies are at each others throat, doing their best to dominate the market. It's only a slight twist, but it makes for a different enough experience.

Tatsuhiko is a poor, young boy with no real goals in life. One day he stumbles onto Matora, who recruits him to become a junior scout. After a short introduction, Tatsuhiko accepts the job, hoping to do a little good and offer protection to the girls scouted by him. Tatsuhiko has a knack for scouting and quickly becomes Matora's protégé. What he doesn't know is that he is about to become a pawn in the violent struggle between the two competing companies.

screen capture of Shinjuku Swan

Shinjuku Suwan is not Sono's best-looking film, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feature some nice shots and classy scenes. It's just that some part of the film look a bit drab compared to what Sono usually dishes out. It's not that it ever looks bad or unappealing, some scenes just miss that little extra shine. Still, Sono can't go entirely without the occasional visual touch-up and all in all Shinjuku Suwan is another fine-looking film. It's just no Tokyo Tribe or Jigoku de Naze Warui.

The soundtrack was a little disappointing though. I'm usually a pretty big fan of Sono's way of incorporating music in his films, but somehow the music never seemed to suit the film all that well. It was a little too poppy and slick for my taste. Maybe not all that exceptional for a Japanese soundtrack (especially not when it's a manga adaptation), but I missed Sono's usual playfulness and creativity. Sono's soundtrack are always a ton of fun, somehow that didn't come across this time around.

Sono did however assemble a pretty cool cast. Go Ayano is great as the film's lead, Yusuke Iseya shines as his mentor, Yu Yamada equally impresses and Nobuaki Kaneko is downright creepy as one of the competing henchmen. But in the end it's Takayuki Yamada who leaves the biggest impression as Ayano's adversary. A cool, grim and tormented character who spins completely out of control. It's a pretty fun bunch who add lots of flavour to their characters.

screen capture of Shinjuku Swan

With a running time of 140 minutes, Shinjuku Suwan is quite long. It never drags though, as Sono crammed a lot of content in there. There's Tatsuhiko's rise in the company, the rivalry between the competing companies and some romantic drama thrown in to flesh out Tatsuhiko's character. Shinjuku Suwan is three films rolled into one, but Sono is always in control and makes sure the three parts are well balanced and intersect at given intervals.

What Shinjuku Suwan may lack in originality, it makes up for in rock-solid execution. It's not one of Sono's crazier films, it's not a film that opens any portals to new cinematic experiences, but it's a fun, pleasant film with a slight yet definite twist, just big enough to offer a new perspective on a pretty established genre. Sono fans will have little trouble gobbling this one up, others might be better off watching the Crows Zero films and a few Yakuza flicks in preparation.

Mon, 25 Jul 2016 09:32:28 +0000
<![CDATA[Ils/Moreau and Palud]]>

The 00s were an amazing decade for horror cinema. From the Asian suspense to the rise of outback horror and of course Hollywood's reconciliation with the horror icons of yonder, fans enjoyed a global stream of horror films to quench their thirst for the morbid. Though in the end it were the French that reigned supreme. Ils [Them] is one of the films that made a name for itself back then, 10 years later I was dying to find out if and how it had survived the hype. Truth be told, I wasn't disappointed in the slightest.

screen capture of Ils

I guess Alexander Aja kicked off the French horror hype when he released Haute Tension, though its broader origins could be traced back to the grim, late-90s arthouse cinema of directors like Denis, Noé and Grandrieux. Aja was followed by Gens, Bustillo, Maury and Laugier, directors whose films where characterized by their directness and harshness as well as their stylistic presence. Ils doesn't really fit that mold, besides being French of course, yet is was thrown in with the rest just the same.

Ils is actually a less is more kind of horror flick. It's a pretty basic home invasion film that holds few surprises (a small twist at the end, though it's more of a revelation than an actual twist) and bets everything on execution. Ils is a smart film that never overplays its hand. It's short, features only three seperate settings and a small cast, but that's all it really needs to put you on the edge of your seat. The rest is just pure, uncut tension conjured by Moreau and Palud.

The film follows Lucas and Clementine, a young French couple living in Romania. Lucas is a writer and working on his latest novel, Clementine took up a job in a nearby school, where she teaches French. They live in an abandoned country house and contact with the local community is limited. Even so, they live a pretty comfortable life, until one night they're being harrassed by someone or something. Not sure what their assailants are after, Lucas and Clementine hole up in their house, knowing fully well their old bunk isn't exactly suited to keep people out.

screen capture of Ils

Even though the film looks somewhat unremarkable nowadays, Ils was part of that early DV movement that ruffled quite a few feathers back then. The choice for DV adds to the agility of the camera work, which is used to great effect when people are sneaking in and around the house or when they are chasing each other. The bad news is that most of the film is shot at night or in the dark, which results in some overly grainy images. I feel the overall visual balance is still positive though, but there are times you have to cope with lesser image quality.

The soundtrack is a pretty typical horror affaire. Not bad, properly executed but not all that noticeable. It does add to the atmosphere, yet you'll be hardpressed to remember much of it afterwards. The use of certain sound effects is more interesting and has a more profound impact. It's nothing spectacular or innovative, but some well-timed thumps, a few exaggerated noises and a strange rattling noise are what I remember best from Ils' sound palette.

Ils is a small film in every sense of the word, so it's no surprise that the cast was also kept to a minimum. There are a handful of extras, basically no-one qualfies as a secondary actor and then there are of course the two leads. Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen do a solid job, both as a couple and as two hunted people who don't know who or what is chasing them. The panic and fear in their bodies is tangible when they sneak through the house and their surroundings. These are fairly limited performances of course, they didn't have all that much to work with, but they do an excellent job nonetheless.

screen capture of Ils

Ils is the perfect example of a film that plays its strengths and doesn't overstay its welcome. It's an easy film to fault if you don't care about home invasion cinema, it never really ventures outside of its genre boundaries and adds very little to what's already out there, but it's tailored to perfection. Knowing how it all ends did affect a second viewing, although the tension remained tangible throughout. It's just that the little revelation at the end had lost some of its initial impact.

The duo went on to make the unfortunate US adaptation of The Eye and each went their own separate way after that. A real shame because as a duo they showed great promise directing horror films. Ils is a perfect genre film, one of those films that won't disappoint when you have any love for its niche. It's an easy recommend, unless you feel completely impartial to the genre, then it's probably best to just leave it be. I still enjoyed the film a lot though, even when I watched it the second time around.

Mon, 18 Jul 2016 10:02:44 +0000
<![CDATA[III/Pavel Khvaleev]]>

There's something brewing in Russia. After the insane action fest that was Hardcore Henry, I recently bumped into another interesting niche film that managed to rise well above its own limitations. Pavel Khvaleev's III (III - The Ritual) is a mystery/horror film that bets high on concept and atmosphere, possibly alienating some traditional horror fans along the way, yet sure to win over those who value films with strong and unique identities.

screen capture of III - The Ritual

Even though Russia has a very respectable cinematic past, it's never really been the go-to country for great genre cinema. Horror films in particular are largely abscent from their local produce. That said, Russian horror isn't a complete novelty. In 2007 Pavel Ruminov's Myortvye Docheri turned a couple of heads and Andrey Iskanov's Visions of Suffering is another "recent" attempt, though more on the experimental side of things. The fact that both films are almost 10 years old though does illustrate their general lack of interest.

Mind you, III isn't a very typical horror film. It doesn't fall into any one of the established horror niches and fans of classic horror thrills, gore and/or tension should probably lower their expectations. The film comes with a hefty injection of fantasy and mystery, though the grim and twisted undertone comfortably catapult it into the realm of horror cinema. Add to that some pretty freaky creature designs and it's difficult to contest III's genre classification.

III follows two young sisters (Ayia and Mirra) living in a small Eastern Europe village. Their town is hit by a mysterious disease and people are falling left and right. When their mother succumbs to the plague the two sisters are left in the care of a local minister. Soon after, Mirra, the youngest of the two, also falls ill and the minister has no choice to muster up some old Shaman rituals in order to try and save the sisters from their demise.

screen capture of III - The Ritual

III relies heavily on visual atmosphere to draw people in. And while at times its budgetary limitations do shine through, if only just a little, the film looks pretty damn amazing overall. Superb shots making the most of their setting, great use of color, strong framing and some splendid creature effects all add to the mysterious, ominous atmosphere III chases down. Some effects and filters softened the image quality a bit too much, but I can't say it really bothered me either.

Even though Khvaleev is just starting out in the film business, he has already earned his stripes as a veteran musician. And as is often the case, the film really benefits from that. Khvaleev is half of Moonbeam, a Russian electronic DJ/producer duo that's been around for a good 10 years now. The soundtrack reflects that. Ethereal voices and crunchy beats and breaks add tons of atmosphere of their own, making III an impressive audiovisual experience. It's exemplary of how a good, tailored score can improve the overall quality of a film.

The main cast is small and consists of semi-pros and starters only (a grand total of three actors), but they all put in solid performances. They won't be winning any acting awards soon, but for a first film it more than suffices and as III relies mostly on atmosphere and audiovisual prowess anyway, I really can't fault the cast. They did what needed to be done and that's plenty for a film like this.

screen capture of III - The Ritual

III is a film that sprouted from Khvaleev's experience working on his own music videos. Together with his wife (story and script) and DJ/producer/friend Frank Ellrich he nurtured this project to fruitition. And in everything you can feel III is really one of those films. A very small crew, a small budget but tons of ardour and passion that helped to overcome all of the limitations and challenges laid before them. Sometimes these films end up complete turds, but the ones that do succeed are some of the best available.

Pavel Khvaleev is a talented director, no doubt. The world he creates is mystical, mysterious and eerie. The story is merely an excuse for some fantastical set pieces and superb audiovisual journeys into the minds of his protagonists. The result isn't as shiney and slick as most big budget productions, even so the film looks damn impressive. III might never find a broad audience, but it's very well capable of becoming a niche favorite. Anyone with a taste for the unique and occult should definitely check it out.

Mon, 11 Jul 2016 09:59:51 +0000
<![CDATA[Daap Hyut Cam Mui /Philip Yung Chi-Kwong ]]>

Ever since I watched Philip Yung's Mei Gaau Siu Nui last year, I've been looking forward to catching up with his latest film, Daap Hyut Cam Mui [Port of Call]. Hong Kong is in dire need of directors with a unique voice and Yung seems to fill that void pretty well. My expectations grew even larger when Daap Hyut Cam Mui went on to become a regional hit and started raking in East-Asian nominations (and a fair few actual award win too). Luckily the film didn't disappoint in the slightest.

screen capture of Port of Call

I was particularly curious to see how Yung would deal with a film that is, at least on paper, a better match for Hong Kong's classic genre cinema. Mei Gaau Siu Nui established Yung as a director who would break from the norm and do his own thing, but with more famous names attached to Daap Hyut Cam Mui I wondered if Yung could balance his own ideas with the call for a more commercial product. Worry not though, Daap Hyut Cam Mui isn't your average Hong Kong detective story.

The film is based on a real-life case that shocked Hong Kong back in 2008. A young mainland girl (Jiamei) travels to Hong Kong and ends up working as a prostitute. I guess this is somewhat of a local taboo as it's a topic usually shunned in commercial Hong Kong cinema, only off-beat directors like Herman Yau and Fruit Chan are known to make the occassional film about their hardships. Daap Hyut Cam Mui fits snugly into that same niche, though it must be said that Yung turns in a more solid and refined effort.

Not long after Jiamei starts work as a prostitute, she is murdered by one of her clients. The young man, a somewhat reclusive delivery guy, neatly disposes of her body and turns himself in, claiming Jiamei asked him to take her life. Veteran detective Chong is put on the case, but the search for the truth takes a big toll on his emotional wellbeing, as Chong is simply unable to comprehend what happened in that little room between these two young people.

screen capture of Port of Call

No doubt one of the biggest names attached to this project is Christopher Doyle, cinematographer extraordinaire. With Doyle on board visual excellence is almost a given, though don't expect to see his lush and frivolous side. While Doyle's signature is clearly visible, the cinematography is more in line with the film's grimmer and more introspective nature. Dark and murky colors give the film a somewhat dirty, sultry look, though Doyle always manages to capture the beauty in these settings.

The soundtrack is solid too. Nothing too adventurous or daring, but there are a couple of stand-out tracks that manage to grab the attention. It's definitely above par for a Hong Kong film, the only thing missing still is a truly coherent identity. The soundtrack works well with individual scenes and always add something of its own, yet it fails to become its own entity within the film. It's a small quip maybe, but something I feel could make a film like this even better.

Tough technically the star of the film, Aaron Kwok is eclipsed by both Jessie Li (Jiamei) and Michael Ning (the killer). Yung has a knack for introducing young talent and Daap Hyut Cam Mui is another great reminder that Hong Kong bolsters great young actors. That isn't to say Kwok underperforms, his portrayal of the detective is effective and layered, but he is merely a bystander trying to make sense of the actions of the events unrolling before him. Li and Ning are the true stars of this film.

screen capture of Port of Call

Daap Hyut Cam Mui isn't a true detective story. While the case takes up a large part of the film, Yung is more interested in the motivations of his main characters. More specifically, why does a young prostitute ask a first-time client to kill her. And why does the client oblige? Some answers are given along the way and while the events remain unfathomable for level-headed people, the finale (the reenactment of the murder) never feels forced or out of place. A testament to the great performances of Li and Ning and strong scriptwriting of Yung himself.

Even though Daap Hyut Cam Mui looks like a typical Hong Kong film from the outside, it couldn't be further removed from their typical commercial output. Yung doesn't shy away from using gruesome imagery when needed, neither is he afraid to show nudity when appropriate. The narrative structure is unique and refined, though a bit more taxing on the audience. Daap Hyut Cam Mui feels like a reimaging of the typical Hong Kong detective flick and it is all the better because of it.

Philip Yung had his work cut out for him when he started this film. Blending his own, unique style with Hong Kong's template film making was never going to be easy, but Yung succeeds with flying colors. Daap Hyut Cam Mui is edgy, challenging and accomplished. The film looks great, the acting is exceptional and the soundtrack is on point. Do watch the extended edition though (which runs about 30 minutes longer), while I can't compare with the shortened version there was nothing that felt superfluous and could be left out. I'm pretty excited to see where Yung will take it from here, as he's got quite a reputation to defend by now.

Tue, 05 Jul 2016 10:22:53 +0000