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[Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo ]]>

The first Kizumonogatari was the best thing I watched last year. It was an original mix of all things anime, a film that took me completely by surprise. This is a luxury Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen didn't have. I came in with similar expectations, which might have been unfair for a sequel that aims to be little more than a mere continuation of the first film. Nekketsu-hen wasn't a big disappointment mind, but it never raised the bar like follow-up episodes of FLCL (its spiritual twin) managed to do.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Nekketsu-hen is the central part of a 3-part story arc. Even within the context of a traditional feature film, that middle part is always the toughest to get through. The beginning of a story is supposed to be novel, fresh and exciting while the finale holds all the big build-ups and emotional payoffs. The middle part functions as the connection between start and finish and that's exactly what this film aims to be, though Oishi and Shinbo do their best to add some extra spice where possible.

This second film is a direct continuation of the first one, meaning you can't really treat this as a series of stand-alone films. Order is of utmost importance here. While the story itself could maybe stand on its own (at least to a certain degree), there are too many references and unexplained parts to make sense (or as much sense as possible) of the events in Nekketsu-hen. If you want to counter the mid-arc lull you could possibly wait and watch the films back to back, but I simply wasn't that patient.

Now that Koyomi has become a vampire and with Kiss-shot still yearning for her lost limbs, the stage is set for a little battle count-down. If Koyomi wants to become human again, he has to return all stolen limbs to Kiss-shot. In order to do that he needs to defeat the three esteemed vampire hunters who stole the limbs from Kiss-shot. While any normal person would try to focus on the task at hand, Koyomi still finds the time to hang out with Tsubasa, the girl he has got an enormous crush on.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Visually Nekketsu-hen is pretty much on par with its predecessor. While that's definitely good news, it's also a little disappointing at the same time. The upside is that all the awesome parts of the first Kizumonogatari are still here. The zany editing and ridiculous pacing, the varying visual styles and the lush animation all add up to a superb visual experience. The downside is that nothing really new was added. The first film introduced all these cool visual tricks, this second film does very little to build on that. It's still a sight to behold, but the wonder and surprise of the first film are definitely gone here.

The same can be said about the music. The strange mix of jazzy and electronic sounds hasn't lost any of its appeal and still functions as a great differentiator, but it doesn't really offer anything extra compared to the previous film. It's still a great score and it fits the film like a glove, but it didn't quite exceed my expectations. And of course the voice actors are the same too, though that's only natural considering it's a direct continuation of the storyline, with pretty much the whole cast of characters intact. The only notable addition to the cast is Hochu Otsuka, a man with a very unique and instantly recognizable voice, but he has a pretty limited part. No English dub is available for now, which is a blessing as the film is so entrenched in anime culture that anything besides Japanese audio wouldn't make sense.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

I compared the first film to FLCL, based on novelty value, creativity and surprise. But where a series like FLCL tried to improve upon itself with every new episode, Nekketsu-hen tries to consolidate the strengths of the first film. Oishi and Shinbo are treating the three films as a single entity, which makes for a slightly different experience. It's difficult to fault them for their decision, as right now the anime industry isn't as open to experimentation as it used to be, but personally I would've preferred a more daring approach.

If all of that sounds a bit negative, it's because the first film set the bar pretty high. Nekketsu-hen is still a jolly bundle of weirdness and a breath of fresh air compared to most other contemporary anime productions out there. And with this middle part out of the way, the road is wide open for a sprawling finale. I'd wager that seeing the three films back to back is probably going to be the best way to enjoy Kizumonogatari, seeing how connected the films are, but I still found a lot of greatness in this second part. This film series is a real treat for people with a soft spot for anime, though I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:58:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Zhangke Jia/x10]]>
Zhangke Jia

Pre-2000 China didn't have much in the way of arthouse cinema. There were the Zimou Yangs, Kaige Chens and Tian Zhuangzhuangs of course. They all made films that appealed to the arthouse crowd, but those films were mostly poverty porn dramas that followed very similar outlines. Along with the industrialization of China a new generation of film makers rose to the top, both on the commercial and the arthouse side. Nowadays Zhangke Jia is China's biggest arthouse representative, though not quite a personal favorite.

While Jia is no stranger to poverty porn cinema, most of his films have a more contemporary and/or urban feel. No more films about poor people in faraway rural villages being supressed by the government, but films about city youngsters or the older Chinese generations adapting to the industrialization of their towns and cities. It may sounds like a rather small variation on an existing theme, but it does have a strong impact on the overall feel of his films.

Jia started in the mid-90s, though his first film never made much of a splash. Xiaoshan Huijia [Xiaoshan Going Home] is very much a student film. It shows traces of Jia's trademark style, but it's also severely lacking in execution. It's little more than a badly preserved personal experiment that will only appeal to the very biggest of Jia fans. In the following years Jia would hone his skills, with films like Xiao Wo [Artisan Pickpocket] and Ren Xiao Yao [Unknown Pleasures] showing clear improvements upon is first effort.

Zhantai [Platform] was Jia's first internationally acclaimed film, but I couldn't stand it. It's just too ugly, too obvious and impossibly slow. Its most defining scene is the one where a car drives down a dusty hill, just to find out the road is closed, reversing its way up the hill again. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes and all Jia does is register the event in real time. Your mileage may very though, seeing as many people ended up liking Zhantai, but this just isn't my kind of cinema.

The first Jia film I did like was Shijie [The World]. The battle between rich and poor/old and new is still very much present, but this time it's happening in an urban environment rather than a rural one. For a Chinese film, it was an overdue variation on an overused theme. For the next couple of years Jia would remain pretty consistent, with films like Sanxia Haoren [Still Life] and Hai Shang Chuan Qi [I Wish I Knew] doing pretty well at film fests around the world. In 2008 he made Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City], a fake doc that felt more honest and real than most other documentaries out there and ended up becoming my favorite Jia film so far.

In recent years Jia has been branching out a little. The themes and characteristics of his films haven't really changed, but he's been trying out different genres. Tian Zhu Ding [A Touch of Sin] contains crime and action elements, whereas Shan He Gu Ren [Mountains May Depart] plays with slight sci-fi influences. These genre elements do little to change his films though, if anything it highlights that Jia is still telling the same story and is still making the same point as he did 20 years ago.

Even though things were looking up in the mid-00's, it's clear that Jia and I will probably never agree on what makes a great film. As he's the sole (consistent) representative of the Chinese arthouse scene I'll probably keep an eye on his future work, but my expectations are rather low. If you're into poverty-indulgent cinema and films reminiscing about a nicer past then Zhangke Jia might be worth checking out. The man has a pretty decent arthouse following and is regarded highly by the festival crowds, so there's definitely some appeal there. Start with his mid 00s work though, his later films don't really benefit from the added genre influences and his earlier films are crude and clunky.

Best film: Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhantai [Platform] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 10:29:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen/Mamoru Oshii]]>
The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War poster

Some ten years ago I stopped looking at the films Japan was producing, instead focusing on Japanese films that were actually ready for Western consumption. I got tired of setting myself up for disappointment. That doesn't mean I'm completely unaware of what's happening over there though. When Oshii revealed his new Patlabor live action project, my Facebook wall lit up with trailers. I left it for what it was, well aware of the slim chance I'd ever get to see it. But lo and behold, sometimes luck is on my side and when the option to see Mamoru Oshii's latest Patlabor film presented itself I jumped at it right away.

The Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen [The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War] tails a 13-episode series, very much like the original setup of the franchise. In theory it's a sequel to Kido Keisatsu Patoreba: The Movie 2, but in reality it feels a lot more like a live action remake of said film. The plot is a continuation of the Tsuge storyline introduced in the second Patlabor feature, but Oshii revisits so many landmark moments of his '93 animation classic that it becomes impossible to look at it as a mere sequel. 

Oshii has been going through some rough patches the past couple of years and those struggles are still apparent in Tokyo War. Adapting anime to live action is no easy task, regardless the film has some problems with pacing and tone. Anime-specific comedy doesn't mix well with real-life actors and the jumps between comedy and contemplative moments come quite sudden. It just feels a little awkward at times, especially when comparing it to original film, where pacing and tone were stand-out elements.

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to enjoy though. Once you get past the weirdness of seeing all those recognizable Patlabor 2 moments redone in live action, there's plenty of vintage Oshii to soak up. From the elaborate camera work to the excellent use of music and some exquisite action scenes, there's hardly ever a dull moment. And if all the Patlabor 2 nods weren't enough, Oshii is also referencing some of his other films (the Ash basketball and of course the famous basset shot - with Oshii's very own silhouette next to it if I'm not mistaken).

There are times when Oshii's genius shimmers through, but those moments are too often interrupted by short comic interludes. I did find out afterwards that I watched the short version (there's also a director's cut that lasts an extra 30 minutes), which is a bit of a bummer since those extra 30 minutes could go a long way towards fixing the pacing problems. Whether you should watch Patlabor 2 first is also a tough question. It's a direct sequel so knowing the plot of its predecessor is definitely helpful, but there are so many references to the original that you might get stuck comparing the two rather than enjoying this film for what it is. I'm sure to give it another go when I get my hands on the director's cut, but for now it isn't quite the masterpiece I'd hoped for. Still a very good film though, especially if you're partial to the work of Oshii.

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 11:11:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Adaptation./Spike Jonze]]>

How do you turn a book about flowers into a big cinematic success? The answer is simple: you get Charlie Kaufman to do your adaptation. But what if Kaufman himself is struggling to do justice to the source material? Well, then you get something that looks a lot like Adaptation. The Inception of screenwriting, an absurd window into the mind of one of America's greatest screenwriters. A film that is sure to leave you baffled about what you've just witnessed, especially when you're watching it for the first time.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The source of all this weirdness is The Orchid Thief, a book written by New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean. The book is about John Laroche, a rather peculiar horticulturist who got arrested for taking a rare ghost orchid from a Florida state reserve. He did it with the help of a group of Seminole natives, an important caveat as Laroche claimed the Seminole natives were allowed to take flowers out of the state reserve. As Orlean starts warming up to the peculiarities of Laroche, she slowly becomes an integral part of the story.

Adaptation was supposed to be just that, a film adaptation of Orlean's book. It turned out to be something entirely different. I would've loved to have been there when Orlean was reading the script for the very first time, it must've been quite a shock for her. Instead of seeing Laroche and herself rewritten for the big screen, she found herself tucked away inside a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt the book. The Orchid Thief was still there somewhere, but more as a diversion than anything else.

Normally I'm not a big fan of people too wrapped up in their own problems (and a screenwriter writing a script about his own difficulties adapting a book is probably one of the most self-centered scripts that could ever be written), but Kaufman adds a welcome dose of humor that makes it that much more enjoyable. He pokes fun of his own persona, gives himself a fictional brother who's more successful than him and still finds a way to spend some quality time with Laroche and Orlean. The structure might appear messy at first, but multiple viewings reveal a tightly knit script.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The visuals take a bit of a backseat to the narrative. Jonze isn't the most visually inclined director to begin with, but it's clear that the visual aspect was deliberately kept low-key so it wouldn't take too much away from Kaufman's writing spectacle. There is some visual trickery (two onscreen Cages and of course the famous filmed-from-inside car crash, which Adaptation helped popularize) but nothing too special or out of the ordinary. It never looks sloppy or dull either, just a little average.

The score is ultimately forgettable. So much in fact that I had to skip through the film once more while I was writing this review, just to hear what music there was. I can't say I really missed it either and I wouldn't be surprised if Jonze figured that most people would feel the same. Then again, a good soundtrack is always a pre and as time passes by it could've become a great differentiator to keep the film attractive. For now though, I can live with the stylistic choices Jonze made.

Acting-wise I really can't complain. Nicolas Cage is somewhat of a gamble, but his less than charming portrayal of Charlie Kaufman (and brother Donald) is hilarious. Cage eclipses all the other actors, which is quite a feat as Chris Cooper is also giving it his all as Laroche. Even Meryl Streep is okay, though she'll never become a favorite of mine. The secondary cast is nice too, with Keener, Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in notable parts. And if you're the type that loves cameos, you can spot director David O. Russell in a very minor part.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The film's finale is just as genius as it is divisive. I have to admit that it didn't gel with me the first time I watched it, even though I did get the idea behind it. But consecutive viewings left me prepared for what was to come and made it a lot easier to get on board with Kaufman's vision. That doesn't mean it'll work for everyone, but it's a pretty slick and unique twist and a smart take on Kaufman's own struggles. You may even call it prophetic in 2017, as in he end Donald trumps (hah!) Charlie.

Jonze's sober presentation puts Kaufman in the spotlight and looking at the stellar script he wrote that might have been a good call. The acting is top notch too, but having seen the film a couple of times now the novelty has worn off and the somewhat simple presentation does make Adaptation a little less appealing than it could've been. It's still a great film with lots to enjoy and quite a few stand-out moments. People who haven't seen it should definitely try it out, but over time it just got a little less special than it used to be.

Wed, 04 Jan 2017 10:58:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Movies 2016/The highlights]]>

There's no escaping it. Another year is coming to an end and so I've been pretty busy compiling my list of the 10 best films I've watched this year. 2016 didn't differ that much from the previous ones. I watched a lot of crap, but there was also plenty of magnificent, inspiring and uplifting cinema. I won't be dragging out the introduction too much, but if you're wondering what films made it the previous years, here's a quick recap that might be helpful: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.

10. Umimachi Diary (2015)

Hirokazu Koreeda is back to his former self. Umimachi Diary is a very welcome addition to Koreeda's oeuvre, at least for those who prefer his mellower side. Not that the film lacks drama, but ultimately Umimachi Diary is more about the gentle, laidback, summery vibe that permeates its every single frame. It comes warmly recommended, though I'd suggest you keep it for a pleasant spring evening or warm summer day to get the most out of it.

09. Bai Ri Gaobie [Zinnia Flower] (2015)

Tom Lin Shu-Yu returns with a more solemn endeavor. Bai Ri Gaobie is a film about loss and mourning, inspired by personal tragedy. It's going to be a change of pace for fans of Lin's previous films, but in the end quality prevails and Lin slowly reveals a strong, moving and intricate drama about the process of mourning. Well-acted, beautifully stylized and very pure, Lin's third feature only strengthens his status of one Taiwan's most promising talents.

08. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken [The Case of Hana & Alice] (2015)

I didn't quite know what to expect from Shunji Iwai's return to the world of Hana & Alice. Iwai's previous feature was a pretty severe flop and I didn't quite get why he was turning Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken into an animation feature. Turns out there was nothing to worry about. This prequel turned out even better than the first film. It's a smart blend of animation and traditional live-action drama that keeps its intentions hidden until the second half of the film, but delivers in spades if you allow it its freedom. Welcome back Mr Iwai.

07. Ten no Chasuke [Chasuke's Journey] (2015)

Hiroyuki Tanaka (SABU) is back to his old self. After Usagi Drop and Miss Zombie, Ten no Chasuke is his third gem in a row. It's a vintage Tanaka though, meaning it's not the most coherent of films as Tanaka still gets side-tracked quite easily. But if you're used to his style of film making, Ten no Chasuke holds plenty of genius. it looks magnificent, it's original and it entertains from start to finish. And any film that reunites Ren Osugi with Susumu Terajima deserves an extra accolade.

06. Soredake [That's It] (2015)

Closing off the list of directors returning to their former glory is Gakuryu Ishii. Even though he changed his name (from Sogo to Gakuryu) to break with his (cyber)punk past, Soredake is a film that feels like a mix of his old and new persona. The film takes its inspiration from a punk song and Ishii revisits his energetic style of filming, but he also throws in some novel elements. The result is an explosive combination of everything that made and makes Ishii great.

05. III [III - The Ritual] (2015)

If you need proof that films don't really need a big budget, look no further than Pavel Khvaleev's III. This young Russian DJ/producer is a self-thought director, but delivers one of the most impressive horror/mysteries of the past few years. Wildly imaginative, visually gorgeous and creative in its solutions to deal with its limited budget, the film is a testament to how vision and talent can make up for lack of funding. An amazing film and I'm happy to report that Khvaleev is already working on his next film. 

04. Pusong Wazak! [Ruined Heart] (2014)

When Tadanobu Asano signs up for a Pan-Asian project, you better take notice. Luckily for me Third World Films did, otherwise I would've completely missed Khavn's Pusong Wazak! With the help of Christopher Doyle behind the camera and Asano in the lead, Khavn delivers a classy, off-center and fizzling film that defies description. It's pretty experimental and freeform, but I'm quite certain that those with a taste for originality won't be disappointed.

03. Shoto Pisu [Short Peace] (2013)

It took me a while to finally catch up with Shoto Pisu, but boy was it worth the wait. I'm pretty big on anthology projects, especially when they're comprised of anime shorts. Somehow these films always end up being a playground for trying out new and original styles of animation. Shoto Pisu is no exception. It's bloody gorgeous, really creative and offers plenty of variety. None of the shorts are disappointing, with the final one being just absolutely mind-blowing.

02. Hardcore Henry (2015)

Remember the insanity that was Crank (and its sequel)? You've been craving something equally insane and adrenaline-inducing? Well, it's Russia to the rescue. Ilya Naishuller delivers the most manic actioner in years. Entirely shot from a first person perspective, this blend of action, scifi and fantasy thunders on from start to finish. It's probably a bit much for some people and if you're looking for a solid plot there won't be much here for you, but those yearning for an immersive rollercoaster ride will find themselves overwhelmed.

01. Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen (2016)

Japanese animation is going through some rough times, but there are shimmers of hope. Kizumonogatari is a film not unlike Furi Kuri. There is no fixed visual style, no obvious storyline, but there is a rhythm and a deeply rooted passion for creativity and originality. The film may be a bit easier to grasp for those who saw the preceding TV series, but they are by no means a prerequisite to enjoying this 64-minute long work of art. And best of all, there are two more films in the works.

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 10:51:03 +0000
<![CDATA[Spectral/Nic Mathieu]]>

2016 is coming to an end, which means I'm spending my free time assembling a traditional end of year list, on top of my yearly top 250 update. Those things take time, which is why I tend to prefer films that are a little lower on my priority list, in an effort not to interfere with the work I've already done. And so I turned to Spectral, a decent enough looking Netflix Original that seemed like a fun way to pass the time. Turns out it's a pretty awesome genre flick, the kind that only comes around every two years or so. Oh well ...

screen capture of Spectral

Netflix has been pretty busy building a solid library of Originals. So far they've failed to produce any stand-out films, but even their weakest entries have managed to reach at least some basic level of quality. So far I've enjoyed Netflix' support of smaller genre films, which has yielded some interesting projects (like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House), but they never reached the point where I was intrigued enough to dedicate a full review to their films. Spectral changed that.

Mind you, this is a pure-blooded genre flick. Don't go in expecting some kind of elaborate plot or a well-developed squad of characters, because you'll be left behind empty-handed. Mathieu aims for sci-fi grit and explosive action and that's pretty much what you'll get out of Spectral. It's the kind of film 30-something year olds will reminisce about 20 years from now, in the same vain my generation is swooning over simple genre fare from the 80s. It isn't the classiest of cinema, but it's damn great fun nonetheless.

The plot revolves around a war zone in Moldavia, where soldiers, civilians and rebels alike are being murdered by some unidentified entities. A genius scientist (Clyne) is summoned to uncover the true identity of the enemy, but his squad is annihilated and Clyne, together with a just couple of survivors, finds himself alone in a deserted, foreign city with an army of killer entities on the loose. Shakespeare it is not, but the plot provides all the necessary hooks for an explosive sci-fi spectacle.

screen capture of Spectral

I'm not quite sure how much money Mathieu had to his disposal, but Spectral doesn't look cheap at all. The CG is way better than your average B-film, the camera work is elaborate and immersive and the settings are pretty detailed. The war-torn city looks nothing less than impressive and the colossal labs and industrial scifi designs give the film a raw and brutal edge. Add a muted color palette with lots of green/blues and you get a pretty fine-looking sci-fi flick.

The soundtrack is a much more generic affair, with little or no memorable pieces of music. It's mostly functional background noise that simply fills the gaps between conversations and sound effects. Score-wise that's pretty much all you can expect from a pure genre film, even so a slightly more outspoken selection of background music wouldn't have hurt the film. As it is now, the music is pretty bland, but chances are you'll hardly notice.

The same goes for the actors. James Badge Dale and Emily Mortimer aren't bad considering what little they had to work with, but most characters here are pretty generic and apart from a pretty nasty kill halfway through there isn't much room for bonding or actually caring about the fate of the cast. Most of them are simply cannon fodder anyway. Some people will consider this a negative, I see it as a necessary evil to allow for more dedicated sci-fi/action entertainment.

screen capture of Spectral

Spectral isn't all that original. It starts off with a serious dash of Black Hawk Down, gradually adds layers of Terminator Salvation and finishes off with an extra dose of Eden Log. Add to that a structure that would translate perfectly well to an FPS game (the Metro franchise came to mind) and you get a pretty simple film that's clearly more about execution and fan service than it is about creativity and originality. But that's exactly what good genre cinema is supposed to be.

Spectral isn't the blow-out hit Netflix needs to convert the masses, nor is it the classy arthouse hit that it needs to attract a more hardcore film fan audience. But it is a stellar genre film that hits all the right notes and it is a breath of fresh air amidst 5 or 6 years of failed sci-fi revivals. If you're looking for a sci-fi actioner that aims to deliver the goods rather than tries to tick all the necessary "good film" boxes, Spectral is one of the easiest and fairest films to recommend.

Wed, 28 Dec 2016 10:54:16 +0000
<![CDATA[Les Filles du Botaniste/Sijie Dai]]>

Ten years ago I managed to catch Sijie Dai's Les Filles du Botaniste in a local theater. Back then that was still a reality, nowadays it's almost unimaginable to go see a Chinese film (or even China-related, like this one) in a movie theater. Ten years is a long time though and I honestly couldn't remember too much of this little gem, except that I liked it a lot. I hadn't seen the film since, so it felt like an appropriate time to revisit my favorite Dai.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

Even though Les Filles du Botaniste takes place in China, the film is listed as a French-Canadian co-production. Not too surprising when you know that Sijie Dai relocated himself from China to France at a relatively young age, but I imagine the subject matter also played some part in the decision. The film is quite critical of China's stance on same-sex relationships and that critical attitude is exactly the kind of thing that can get you banned from making films in China. I guess Dai just didn't want to be bothered too much with censorship perils.

While the production has the feel of a genuine Chinese film, Dai shopped around and rounded up a more international crew, with some French picks (soundtrack, cinematography and lead actress) and a few Vietnamese actors in secondary roles. A risky move as the film might have lost some of its impact should it have come off as an outsider's critique, but except for the casting of Mylène Jampanoï Dai is pretty successful in hiding the film's international roots.

The film follows Min Li, a young orphan who gets selected for a prestigious internship in one of China's most renowned botanical gardens. Once there Li runs into An Chen, the daughter of the botanical master. The two grow fond of each other, but they also realize their love has to be kept secret from their surroundings. When the master's son returns, Li figures that marrying his son is her best shot at staying inside the botanical gardens after finishing her internship. But leading a double life isn't as easy as she imagined.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

The cinematography was handled by Guy Dufaux, who did a truly amazing job. He had of course the luxury of working in a magnificent setting, but even then the film looks stunning. With overwhelming dark greens and piercing reds (a popular Chinese color scheme) and subtle, hypnotizing camera work the visuals construct a magical place that feels like it exists in a reality of its own. It just oozes atmosphere, which makes the drama that more accessible.

The soundtrack too is top notch. It resembles the music of Jianqi Huo's films, blending traditional Chinese sounds and instruments with smooth, relaxing ambient. It creates a very solemn, soothing atmosphere that goes hand in hand with the visuals. It's clearly an outlier in composer Eric Levi's oeuvre, but he handles it with deceptive ease. Not the most memorable of soundtracks maybe, but a very strong and loveable one nonetheless.

Aside from the ending, the casting is probably the most controversial element of the film. Even though Mylène Jampanoï is half-Chinese, she really doesn't look the part. It takes a bit of getting used to, but she does well with her character. That said, I wouldn't be too surprised if they picked Jampanoï mainly because she feels comfortable doing nude scenes. For some reason those very scene didn't end up destroying Xiaoran Li's career, but it's nonetheless a very risky move for a Chinese actress.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

Les Filles du Botaniste might be a very gentle, subdued and soothing experience, the final act is pretty brutal. Not in presentation, all its gruesomeness happens off-screen, most of it is just implied and Dai doesn't even linger for maximum sentimental impact, but the vileness is unmistakeably there. It's a deeply tragic ending, but it never comes off that way. A rather unique feat that I can't really link back to any other film I've seen. I'm sure it's quite polarizing, but I loved it.

Sijie Dai made an impressive film. Its gentle nature might make it a little too inconspicuous, it never really demands to be loved and cherished, it's also a film that quickly drifts to the back of your mind, but it's a powerful experience and one that keeps its value even after multiple viewings. It's a film without any obvious weak points and with plenty to love, but I guess it just misses that little sparkle that makes people put it into their lists of absolute favorites. Still a very worthy recommend though.

Tue, 27 Dec 2016 10:45:05 +0000
<![CDATA[The Neon Demon/Nicolas Winding Refn]]>

Like him or not, Nicolas Winding Refn is someone with a firm opinion on what a film should be and whenever he announces a new project, the world takes notice. When The Neon Demon was first revealed I simply sat back and waited. Apart from some vague notion that it was about the modelling world I had no idea what to expect. Sometimes I end up loving Refn's films, sometimes they leave me completely cold. I'm happy to say The Neon Demon put an end to Refn's recent lull.

screen capture of The Neon Demon

While watching Refn's latest I was reminded of many other films. There's a bit of Mulholland Dr. in there, some Beyond the Black Rainbow and a serious dash of Heruta Sukeruta. If The Neon Demon has one big weakness, it's that it wasn't obviously better than any of the films it reminded me of. Refn comes close, matches some of these films' good points, but it never quite comes together to create something better. There's no shame in that, especially considering how high I rank the films I mentioned, but it does leave the film struggling for an identity.

The Neon Demon gets off to a flying start though. The first 15 minutes are dazzling, a feverish neon dream driven by pulsating beats, extremely stylized settings and almost abstract characters. It all comes together in a mesmerizing strobe-like sequence, the kind that's right up my alley. It riled me up for a superb 120 minutes, but when the scene's final flash fades from the screen Refn switches gears and starts a narrative part that kind of left me hanging. It's not as if the film makes a complete U-turn, but the intensity is dialled back a notch or two and the plot is given a bigger focus.

Jesse is a young, 16 year old girl who moves to LA to make a splash as a model. In a world of manufactured beauty, she gets noticed because she's an all-natural. Jesse enters a cold and harsh world, but she quickly hardens to the shallow and exploitative nature of her work and the people surrounding her. The envy of the other girls is enormous though and as Jesse shoots to the top others are determined to undermine her success.

screen capture of The Neon Demon

The cinematography is superb. There are no random shots, no sloppy sequences between money shots, nothing left up to chance. The poisonous neon colors drip from the screen, the editing is minute and the camera work is exquisite. You could say the film has two different visual speeds, but that's merely a result of how much narrative is in the way of Natasha Braier's stand-out work. It's no secret that Refn like a well-stylized film, but The Neon Demon is by far his most accomplished visual work to date.

The soundtrack too is a serious step up from his two previous films. The 80s synth aren't completely gone, but their presence is less dominant and demanding. Instead Cliff Martinez serves a more thumping soundtrack, where grit and atmosphere seem to meet in the middle. Refn is also very meticulous in the way the music is incorporated into the film, feeding off the visuals to create an even more immersive experience. I don't think I'd like the music as much outside of the film, but if anything that's a testament to the skill involved here.

The cast is decent, though I'm not a big fan of the almost robotic way of acting Refn aimed for. It's clearly intentional, but the awkwardness at times overshadows the intended effect. Fanning is good as the lead, the models around her effectively capture the distorted and mutated beauty ideals that are the norm in the modeling world, but you can question whether Fanning provided a big enough contrast with the people around her. Acting-wise it sufficed, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The supporting cast is decent too, even Keanu Reaves is bearable.

screen capture of The Neon Demon

After the blazing start it takes until the halfway point for the film to shift gears again. The mid-film sequence that illustrates Fanning's metamorphosis is just as stunning as the beginning and seemed to kick-start a feverish rush to the finale, but again Refn steps on the breaks and lets the narrative back in. What's worse is that the finale itself lacks the same visual impact seen in the middle and at the start of the film. I appreciate Refn's choice to avoid the typical "descent into darkness" path, but his alternative just isn't quite as powerful.

The final act is quite brutal though. The first part of the film is pretty PG, with no nudity and few extremes, the ending turns that around. Still, the violence and perversities are so stylized that it would be quite a stretch to think they were added for mere shock value. Deplorable as some of these actions might be, they never really repulsed me or grossed me out. Mainstream audiences might see it differently of course, because what Refn shows isn't your everyday drama, but a seasoned film fan isn't going to be too offended.

There is some greatness in The Neon Demon, but quite often it is bogged down by too much narrative, somewhat fickle acting performances and (unfair?) comparisons with better films. There's a lot to like here, the film never bores or gets stale, it's extremely stylized from start to finish, but two key sequences show a glimpse of what could have been. Still, it's a return to form for Refn and one of the best films released this year. It gives me hope for the future, but The Neon Demon is still some way removed from Refn's best.

Thu, 22 Dec 2016 11:00:50 +0000
<![CDATA[Darren Lynn Bousman/x10]]>
Darren Lynn Bousman

The '00s saw a very large uptake in horror films, but unlike the directors of the '80s (or their Asian counterparts) very few Western directors stuck with the genre. Most of them saw it as a springboard to enter the film business and either failed or went on to do work in other genres. Not Darren Lynn Bousman. Even though he started out by taking over an existing horror franchise, he's been releasing his own work on a regular basis for the past 10 years. Not everything is great, some of it is extremely cult and niche, but at least Bousman shows heart for a genre that many other left to die.

The world got to know Bousman when he took Saw out of James Wan's hands. A hefty assignment as the very first Saw was quite the runaway hit. Bousman would direct episode 2 to 4 and it's due to his outstanding work the series managed to run as long as it did. Episode 3 in particular managed to match the quality of the first, with 2 and 4 trailing slightly behind. Before his Saw adventure Bousman directed Identity Lost, but much like Wan's first film (Stygian) it is considered (or made to be considered) "lost". 

When Bousman left the Saw franchise he turned his back on mainstream horror for a while and dove headfirst into a quite peculiar niche. I'm not even sure there are enough rock opera horrors to call it a niche, but if you're a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show then Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil's Carnival are two films worth checking out. Bousman even has a sequel to The Devil's Carnival planned called, though I can't say I'm looking forward to it. Rock opera horrors really aren't my thing, that said Repo! is goofy enough to warrant some interest for people with a more general interest in splatter horror.

He also tried his hand at remakes. Mother's Day is a reimagining of Troma's 1980 film. It's darker in tone and really more of a companion piece to Funny Games. People expecting a remake true to the original are bound to be disappointed. It's not a bad film though, but it lacks any defining qualities. In that respect Abattoir is a much better adaptation (adapted from a graphic novel this time). Quite dark and atmospheric but also a little freakier and weirder, in a way that it leaves you guessing where it is going for most of the first hour. That is, if you haven't read the graphic novel of course.

It's not just all sequels, remakes and niche cult though, Bousman also has a few more mainstream horror films fleshing out his oeuvre. 11-11-11 is a nice mystery, a more horrific version of The Number 23 if you wish. The Saw-like ending wasn't quite necessary, but apart from that it's a fun little genre film. There's also The Barrens, which is probably his best film outside of his work on the Saw franchise. What starts out as a pretty common 'lost in the woods' horror becomes a pretty tense and claustrophobic affair. Nothing too unique and out of the ordinary, just very solid genre fun.

Add to that a good short in the Tales of Halloween anthology and you get a director who lives and breathes horror. He may not be a stand-out director or a name that draws flocks of people to the movie theater, but at least he's true to a genre and keeps on investing time in money in what he loves. He's more Stuart Gordon than he is John Carpenter, but in a time when there's a clear lack of dedicated horror directors that is more than good enough.

Best film: Saw III (4.0*)
Worst film: The Devil's Carnival (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.15 (out of 5)

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 10:34:10 +0000
<![CDATA[Chang Jiang Tu/Yang Chao]]>

After winning Cannes' 2004 Palme d'Or in the Un Certain Regard competition, Yang Chao almost completely disappeared from the stage. As it turns out he wasn't truly gone, just working very hard on his next feature film. Chang Jiang Tu [Crosscurrent] was 10 years in the making and proved to be worth the wait. It's not a very easy or accessible film, but if you're used to arthouse cinema and you're somewhat accustomed to watching Chinese films this is an easy recommend.

screen capture of Crosscurrent

China's film market is a strange and alien place. There's money flowing everywhere and everyone wants a piece of the cake. The opening credits of Chang Jiang Tu start with a total of 25 (!) producers, divided into executive, associate, co and plain categories, not something you see very often when watching an arthouse film. Don't worry though, these producers are just there for financial and/or prestigious reasons, butting in and demanding something commercially viable clearly wasn't on their agenda.

Yang Chao isn't too bothered by narrative constraints. There's a very thin premise that gets his main character from A to B, but that's hardly enough to keep the audience awake. Instead Chao aims for a moody, poetic yet downbeat atmosphere. Symbolism and poetry take center stage, with the Yangtze river forming the perfect setting for a sullen trip into the very heart of China. Chao still finds a lot beauty in all of it though, so it's anything but a depressive journey, just not a very merry one.

After his father's death, Gao Chun inherits his boat and decides to honor his old man's legacy. His first assignment involves transporting a no questions asked cargo up the Yangtze river. Chun finds a poetry book amongst his father's old junk which describes the cities alongside the Yangtze river, furthermore Chun sees a different incarnation of the same women in every port he visits. Slowly but surely the trip up the Yangtze starts to chip away at Chun's mental health and before long it's as if he is living in a dream.

screen capture of Crosscurrent

The cinematography was handled by Ping Bin Lee. Maybe not the most resounding name, but for years he handled the films of Hsiao-Hsien Hou and delivered some standout work on Tran's Noruwei no Mori, Koreeda's Kuki Ningyo and Jiang's Tai Yang Zhao Chang Sheng Qi. Lee doesn't disappoint in the slightest, the film's blues and grays are incredibly atmospheric, the camera work is top notch and even though some of the locations look a little dreary, Lee always manages to find beauty in them.

The soundtrack is fitting, with An Wei’s dark and lonely cello-based melodies running underneath Lee's lush visuals. But in the end it wasn't the music nor the visuals that drew me into the film, instead I got hooked on its soundscapes. The sounds of splashing waves, clanking metal and roaring ship engines are pretty much omnipresent and put me in an almost trance-like state. In combination with the slow, moody pacing it makes for a very drowsy, yet warm and immersive experience. Chao's use of sound here is exemplary.

The cast is small and the few returning actors have little dialogue to work with. The main character is played by Hao Qin, an actor who is slowly working himself up as someone with global appeal. He's been appearing in some international-facing Chinese films and has managed to stand out each and every time. Zhilei Xin on the other hand is a fresh face, but she holds up remarkably well besides Qin. While their parts are relatively shallow, both to a terrific job with the bits they are given.

screen capture of Crosscurrent

As the film progresses and Chun travels deeper inland, the film becomes weirder and more abstract. If you're trying to cling to a narrative this will become a problem, since you'll be increasingly grasping at straws. If you manage to let yourself be swept away by the film's atmospheric tides though, it feels like the film could just go on forever. Chao constructs such a deep, churning whirlpool of dark, melancholic and poetic emotions that you'll find yourself unable to break free from the screen once the credits start rolling.

Chang Jiang Tu is probably a little too impenetrable to become a big festival favorite, but if you're a dedicated arthouse fan Chao's latest shouldn't pose too much of a problem and once the film has you in its grip the payoff is grand. Lush visuals, captivating soundscapes and solid acting make for a brooding, dense and enveloping experience. Don't be put off by the battery of producers, they're not their to hijack Chao's film, Yang Chao is completely in control and delivers one of the best Chinese films of the year.

Tue, 13 Dec 2016 10:40:19 +0000
<![CDATA[Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis /Yuichi Fukuda]]>

There are only a select few films that, against all odds and better judgement, got made anyway. Films are big ventures and producers don't like to take many gambles. Ironically though, these films often turn out to be pretty damn awesome. It's even rarer to see one of those films get funding for a sequel, so when I read the announcement of Yuichi Fukuda's Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis, I couldn't quite believe me eyes. Despite its obvious flaws, I really liked the first film. Even so I tempered my enthusiasm, because how do you write a sequel to a film like that?

screen capture of Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis

Representation in films is a thing these days. When it comes to race people are asking for more equality (as in: more Asian and African-American actors in Hollywood films), but when it comes to gender, demands tend to get a bit more repressive. Words like objectification start flying around and sexuality is slowly becoming somewhat of a taboo again. Clearly director Fukuda doesn't agree and tries for a different approach. Mind you, this is no Japanese Magic Mike, but the male body does get plenty of opportunities to shine.

Female superheroes in particular are often looked down upon because of their skimpy, sexualized outfits. Well, Hentai Kamen one-ups them. Wearing just stockings and underpants (stretched all the way over his shoulders), Hentai Kamen's costume leaves very little to the imagination. And when it does, there's always Fukuda's camera ready to serve you plenty of butt and crotch area shots. The main characters isn't just some shabby, geeky pervert either, Hentai Kamen is quite buff and shiny (not to mention well-shaven).

The plot is incredibly silly, but what did you expect from a film like this. Hentai Kamen's arch nemesis is back and this time around he brought a vacuum cleaner with him. Why? To suck up all the used panties in Japan (which is what gives Hentai Kamen his exceptional powers). Things become a bit more complicated later on and there's actually quite a lot of lore to go through, but needless to say the story shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's little more than a hook for the film's wacky sense of humor.

screen capture of Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis

Visually the sequel is a clear step up from the first film, no doubt due to a bigger budget. But don't go expecting Hollywood-style imagery, the focus lies on comedy and the visuals play a big part in that. Cheesy CG effects and goofy practical effects make for a fairly simplistic look, but if you're fine with kaiju cinema (or Sushi Typhoon's work) then this will be easy enough to stomach. If anything, it looks way more accomplished than a film like this has any right to.

The soundtrack is a clear knock-off of other super hero themed films. It's cheesy, it's bombastic, it's not really all that good but it has enough comedy value for it to be excused. It's also not all that present or demanding, so it's quite easy to ignore if you really can't stomach this type of soundtrack. Films like these are rarely dependent on a good score anyway, so considering the fact it's good for a few laughs the film could've done much worse.

The acting is way over the top, so that's another thing to take into account. Hentai Kamen is filled to the brim with larger than life caricatures, expecting anything remotely natural or immersive is just going to kill the fun. Ryohei Suzuki and Fumika Shimizu take up their old parts again, with Suzuki being visibly comfortable in his weirdly uncomfortable role. It's a key element to the success of the film, as the Hentai Kamen part requires him to be as in your face as possible.

screen capture of Hentai Kamen: The Abnormal Crisis

What made this film way more fun than I'd expected it to be is the many different flavors of comedy present. There are of course the obvious kaiju and Power Ranger-like influences throughout the film, there's also an unmistakeable middle finger towards the politically correct (though with a big twist), there are some smart parodies of Japan's pervy hang-ups (much like Colorful - the 16 episode mini series) and some surprisingly deadpan deliveries. It all adds up to something quite weird and quite unique, but also quite specific and niche. Going in with a good understanding of how and what the film makes fun of is probably a prerequisite.

Hentai Kamen's manga origins surely helped to make this film become a reality, even so it's remarkable that Yuichi Fukuda managed to make it into something bankable. The film is pretty corny, it's pretty childish and it definitely has its flaws, but it's also pretty smart, confident and goofy. And it made me laugh harder than any other film this year, which is what a good comedy is all about. It's not easy to recommend, especially if you're not familiar with this type of film, but if you're feeling adventurous and you don't mind gratuitous exposure of male butts and crotch areas, be sure to give this one a chance.

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 10:33:47 +0000
<![CDATA[Furi Kuri/Kazuya Tsurumaki]]>

Back in 2000, I felt very little affinity towards the work of uber otaku Hideaki Anno's Gainax. The company was riding its Evangelion high, but I never really understood what people saw in that series. Then came Furi Kuri [FLCL], a different kind of anime. A blend of all that was anime and then some. I've watched it several times since that first viewing, but the last time must've been 7 or 8 years ago. In other words, the moment was ripe to see if the series still stood proud a good 16 years after it was first released.

screen capture of FLCL

The timing for a rewatch is ideal, as Toonami recently announced a brand new 12 episode follow-up series for 2017. And truth be told, even though I loved the original to bits the story specifics never quite stuck with me. On top of that, 2016 also saw the release of Kizumonogatari, the only anime since the original Furi Kuri run that deserves a straight-up comparison with Gainax' darling. Some freshening up was in order and since this OAV clocks in at 150 minutes only, a little binge watch sounded like a fun way to pass the time.

Furi Kuri is what you get when you let a bunch of talented animators run wild. It's the prototype of an animator's wet dream. An impossible mix of influences and homages, ranging from Evangelion and Project A-ko to The Matrix and South Park. Furi Kuri paved the way for films like Dead Leaves, Trava: Fist Planet and Heruzu Enjueruzu, but in its entirety it's less defined and/or contained compared to those films. In many ways, Furi Kuri is the definition of a perfect disaster.

If you're hung up on a decent plot though, Furi Kuri is going to be quite the challenge. Not that it lacks plot, but the story is such a mess that it's pretty hard to keep track of everything that's going on. The premise is muddled enough, with aliens on vespas and robots coming out of people's heads, but it's all the unrelated stuff in between that makes it difficult to construct a coherent whole of all its different elements. Personally I think it's an asset rather than a weakness, but it's divisive at best and some people will get lost in its narrative maze.

screen capture of FLCL

This being an animator's animation, it's really all about the animation and art style. There is a dominant art style, but just barely. Furi Kuri switches between four or five returning art styles plus the homages and guest animators that pop up from time to time. From shell-shaded bullet-time to Azumanga Daioh-like abstractions, from hyper animation to South Park simplicity, it's all here. Mind you, this isn't just some "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" approach, whatever Tsurumaki considered to be worthy was meticulously researched and executed, always looking for original angles that could add something to overall impression. To make it even better, the animation itself is also incredibly lush and wildly creative, making for a very intense visual package. Cherry on the cake are no doubt the animated manga sequences, something never done before or after since.

The soundtrack is equally defining. Handled by J-Rock band The Pillows, it could've ended up a complete disaster. I'm not a fan of the genre and it's everything but an obvious choice for a bonkers series like this, but in a way the songs are what gels everything together. Tsurumaki does a great job integrating the music and the sound does bridge the gap between Furi Kuri's various extremes. As for the dubbing, watch the Japanese dub. I know that's what I always say, but Furi Kuri is so explicitly Japanese that it's impossible to localize anyway. There are so many fast-paced dialogues and typical Japanese puns (you might not get the meaning, but you can definitely make them out) that there's really no contest. Even when you prefer a localized dub, this is the one anime where you have to give the original a fair chance.

screen capture of FLCL

While it's hard to pinpoint the one thing that stands out the most, what makes Furi Kuri unique to me is the way it manages to blend its hyperactive front with strong elements of melancholia running underneath. Furi Kuri continuously plays with these extremes, switching between them frantically, creating some kind of start/stop pacing that sounds horrible on paper but works remarkably well while you're watching. It's a bit like that picture that contains two different images depending on how you look at it, but you can never see them both at once. It's both melancholic and hyperactive, never at the same time, but consistently so.

If you're new to Japanese animation, Furi Kuri is probably not the best way to make your way into the genre. It's crazy, it's frantic, it's so out there and so full of references and homages that it's probably a bit too overwhelming to take in (or to distill what parts are typical for anime and what parts are just unique to this series). But if you have a soft spot for animation and you love to see a bunch of very talented people given carte blanche then this is it. It's 150 minutes of pure animated joy, an original and creative piece of animation that raised the bar considerably. The upcoming sequel has big shoes to fill, not just because the original is exceptionally well made, but because it still stands for the reimagining of an entire genre. That's something very hard to replicate.

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 11:01:43 +0000
<![CDATA[Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara /Akira Nagai]]>

There's a clear lack of original films in Japanese cinema nowadays, but at least they have a stash of original novels and mangas that serve as good source material for their movies. Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara [If Cats Disappeared from the World] is the latest in a very long list of novels making the journey to the silver screen. Akira Nagai was chosen to direct and does a pretty great job, despite the obvious hurdles that come with heading an adaptation.

screen capture of Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara

If you're looking around for the trailer you might run into one that starts with a selection of sobbing Japanese girls sitting in a full theatre. It's the romantic equivalent of a horror flick trailer showing footage of screaming and quivering people watching the film. While not all that surprising (after all, cats will be disappearing), it's a good example of smart marketing as the actual amount of sob-inducing moments is actually quite limited. Sekai Kara Neko is more drama with a fantastical note than it is a full-blown tearjerker.

The premise is pretty smart and feels a little like a modern interpretation of Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. The film explores what would happen when certain inconsequential-looking items were to be completely erased from this world. The feel-good nature of the film prohibits it from becoming too introspective or philosophical, but within the boundaries of its own limitations it does a commendable job of adding the appropriate weight to its premise.

The film follows a young postman who, quite out of the blue, finds himself diagnosed with a brain tumor. When he returns home his guardian angel is waiting for him with a peculiar proposition. He is allowed to live on, but for every extra day he stays alive something must disappear from this world. Unable to leave his old life behind, he reluctantly accepts. It doesn't take too long though before he realises that even the most insignificant objects have dear memories connected to them.

screen capture of Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara

Light plays a big part in the visual appeal of the film. The camera work is what you'd expect from a drama like this. Excellent framing, slow movements and gentle editing, all in all very pleasant but nothing too exceptional. Lighting and color on the other hand add a lot of atmosphere. From the fine, icy winter sun covering Hokkaido to the warm, summery vibes in Buenos Aires, every part of the film has its own distinct character and tone, though all in sync with the film's overarching style.

The score is a tad more present compared to other Japanese dramas. I guess it has to do with the scope of the project, as it does make the film a bit more accessible. It's never overbearing or too sentimental though, finding a nice balance between subtlety and out in the open emotion. It's not the kind of score you're going to think back on fondly once the film is over, but it's good enough for its intended purpose.

Takeru Sato was cast for the lead role, not too surprising if you saw him in the recent Rurouni Kenshin live action trilogy. He has the right profile for the part and he does a commendable job. He's assisted by some first-class secondary actors, namely Aoi Miyazaki, Eiji Okuda and Gaku Hamada (he's a bit of a strange one but has been making a name for himself recently). The cast is pretty much impeccable, though the film's focus on style and plot is bigger than the need for superb performances.

screen capture of Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara

After a short intro explaining the premise, the film runs through four segments, one object disappearing per segment. Through each segment we get a bit of info on our protagonist's past life and how these various objects have affected his life and relationships. There's a small twist at the end that might not sit too well with those looking for a more serious treatment of the material, but it does fit the tone of the film and it comes as a nice antidote to the more dramatic moments during the finale.

Sekai Kara Neko ga Kietanara is a film that aptly blends the more serious elements of Japanese drama with some fantastical touches and a slightly more accessible front, without going full commercial tearjerker. It reminded me a little of Boku to Tsuma no 1778 no Monogatari, though the established source material of this film will be sure to open it up to a much wider audience (at least in Japan). All in all, it's a fine entry into the Japanese drama genre if you're unfamiliar with it. No obvious weak points, some original touches and a very agreeable atmosphere.

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 10:36:10 +0000
<![CDATA[Hsiao-Hsien Hou/x20]]>
Hsiao-Hsien Hou

It is no exaggeration when people say Hsia-Hsien Hou is one of the most important directors of Taiwanese cinema. Together with Ming-liang Tsai (and to a lesser extent, Edward Yang) he revolutionized Taiwanese film, yanking it free from Hong Kong's standards while earning it international recognition at some of the most prestigious film festivals around the world. As these things go, Hou's and Tsai's domination became stifling over time and recently a fresh bunch of young Taiwanese film makers uprooted their reign, but that doesn't change the fact that without them Taiwanese cinema wouldn't be where it is today.

The first three films Hou directed didn't deviate much from the norm, though on hindsight there are various little indications that would foreshadow Hou's trademark style. Zai Na He Pan Qing Cao Qing [The Green, Green Grass of Home] in particular is an interesting film that exists somewhere in between the old and the new. Hou's fourth, Feng gui Lai de Ren [The Boys from Fengkuei] is generally considered to be the start of his actual career. An historically important film no doubt, but personally I wasn't all that convinced of Hou's direction. While the ideas were good, the execution still needed a lot of refining.

The first film to do justice to Hou's newly found approach was Tong Nien Wang Shi [A Time to Live and a Time to Die]. It still lacks the stylistic finish of his later films, but the focus on rural family drama combined with the subtle pacing make for a pleasant film nonetheless. Between '85 and '95 Hou would work on polishing his style, with varying results. Films like Ni Luo He Nu Er [Daughter of the Nile] and Bei Qing Cheng Shi [City of Sadness] would struggle with balance, Haonan Haonu [Good Men, Good Women] on the other hand was another clear step in the right direction.

Nanguo Zaijan, Nanguo [Goodbye South, Goodbye] marks the start of Hou's best period. It's the first film where his trademark style comes to full fruition. Long scenes, subtle pacing, atmosphere over plot, moody train rides, it's all here. But it wasn't until 2001, when Hou would finally team up with Shu Qi, that it would all fall into place. Qianxi Manbo [Millennium Mambo] is a real stunner, though its strong focus on modern urban life is somewhat atypical for Hou. In 2005 they'd come together for a second time, resulting in Zui Hao De Shi Guang [Three Times], by far my favorite Hsiao-Hsien Hou film.

In between Hou made another interesting film as a tribute to Yasujiro Osu. Kohi Jiko is set in Japan, stars Tadanobu Asano and has more trains than you can shake a stick at. It's the ultimate power-down film. A warm, subtle and poetic drama that casts a nice bridge between both directors. Sadly that about covers Hou's prime period, from there things started going downhill again.

In 2007 he directed a somewhat forgettable short for the Chacun Son CInéma anthology, something he would repeat a couple of years later with his contribution to 10+10, an anthology dedicated to Taiwan's 100th birthday. In between there was a decent adaptation of Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge, though the film was let down by Binoche's excessively loud presence. And finally there's Nie Yin Niang [The Assassin], Hou's unique take on the wuxia genre, a failed experiment that not even Qi was able save.

While Hou remains an arthouse favorite, his reign as king of Taiwanese cinema is pretty much over. I couldn't immediately appoint a single successor, but it's clear that Taiwanese directors stopped trying to copy Hou's style and started pushing their own, refreshing vision on filmmaking. For people who are new to the work of Hou there's still a lot to discover, particularly the films he made between '95-'05. After that you can travel slowly back in time to see how Hou became the director many people hold so dear.

Best film: Zui Hao De Shi Guang [Three Times] (4.5*)
Worst film: Feng gui Lai de Ren [The Boys from Fengkuei] (2.5*)
Reviewed films: Qianxi Manbo - Zui Hao De Shi Guang
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 10:19:42 +0000
<![CDATA[Puratonikku Sekusu /Masako Matsuura]]>

There used to be a time when Japanese dramas weren't readily available in the West (not that they are now, but at least there are options), so I used to just watch whatever I could get my hands on. Masako Matsuura's Puratonikku Sekusu [Platonic Sex] was one of the very first I ever saw, leaving me with fond memories of the film. A good 200 Japanese dramas later I couldn't help but wonder how it would stack up against the others, so it was time to give it another spin.

screen capture of Puratonikku Sekusu

I only found out recently that Puratonikku Sekusu is actually based on a novel, more specifically the autobiography of Ai Iijima. Iijima is a former AV girl who later gained popularity as a TV personality, speaking frankly about her past life. This film is loosely based on her experiences as a young girl in the AV world, though the story is quite heavily dramatized. Her book also spawned a TV series that same year, but I never got around to watching that one.

When a Japanese drama opens on a (school) rooftop, a seasoned fan knows what to expect. You're either going to deal with a group of delinquents (but that's not very drama-like) or deviants, or there's going to be a strong suicide theme running underneath. In Puratonikku Sekusu's case you can expect the latter, as Iijima fights to find relevance in her life. It's no doubt tragic that the real Iijima was found dead in her hotel room 7 years later, though official reports contradict the suicide controversy her death sparked.

The film follows Aoi, a young girl completely detached from her environment. After she is raped by some boys her family shuts her out, blaming Aoi for what happened to her. On the verge of ending her own life, she is stopped by an SMS of an unknown sender. Intrigued by the message, she replies, in turn saving the sender from making the mistake of a lifetime. The two manage to keep up each other's morale, but in order to deal with life's everyday reality, Aoi takes on a job in a hostess club. In no time she rises to the top of the establishment, pushing her deeper into the AV world.

screen capture of Puratonikku Sekusu

Visually it's on okay film, but don't expect too much of it. The camera work is nice enough, the editing solid and the lighting decent, but overall the film looks a little dim, even dull at times. Colors don't pop and there's a rather grainy quality to the images that takes away some of the appeal. It might just be a bad DVD transfer, but the look does correspond with other Japanese dramas made in that same era. By no means does it look sloppy or underdeveloped, it just can't compare to the surge of dramas that would follow in its footsteps.

The soundtrack on the other hand does deserve a little pat on the back. Aoi's friend works as a DJ and for once there's a film that doesn't feel compelled to switch out actual dance music by some lame, neutered soundtrack interpretation. The rest of the music is more in line with other Japanese dramas, the main theme in particular is a classic dramatic piano piece. It's decent enough and works well within the boundaries of the film, but it's nothing too earth-shattering. Still, props for remaining true to the club setting whenever appropriate.

Newcomer Saki Kagami features as Aoi. While she does a good job, it's clear she isn't a fully-fledged film actress. It doesn't really surprise me then that her career was rather short-lived and mostly happening in TV-related work. Joe Odagiri on the other hand is noticeably more at ease and would go on to have a successful career. But the most divisive part is no doubt played by Hiroshi Abe, who portrays a flamboyant but ultimately unlikeable rich guy. He does a great job, but some people just aren't going to like the character he portrays.

screen capture of Puratonikku Sekusu

Puratonikku Sekusu's main characters constantly linger on the edge of self-destruction. They make dumb choices, some of their problems are clearly of their own doing and there are plenty of moments where they could've escaped or turned their lives around, even so the drama never felt forced or unnatural to me. These are just two inexperienced kids, trying to behave like adults in a world that doesn't really care for them. If you cannot accept that premise though, some of the drama is going to be a bit much and the downbeat atmosphere might miss its mark.

This isn't a great film by a great director. It didn't kickstart Matsuura's career, nor did it kickstart Kagami's. It is a very solid drama though, without any obvious weak spots and some bold choices that help to distinguish it from its peers. If you're a fan of Japanese dramas Puratonikku Sekusu is an easy recommend, if you don't have a clear idea of what to expect there are probably better film to watch first. It's not as good as I remembered, but it's still a lot better than I had feared.

Wed, 23 Nov 2016 11:20:24 +0000