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[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
<![CDATA[Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai /Various]]>

The anthology film concept isn't all that popular in China (yet), but Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai [Run for Love] might give it a fair little boost. When three of China's biggest directorial talents (Qunshu Gao, Hu Guan, Yibai Zhang) were coupled with two up and coming directors (Hua-Tao Teng, Meng Zhang) and were asked to each direct a short about a couple in a foreign country, there was very little that could go wrong. And so it happened.

screen capture of Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai

I guess you could say Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai is the spiritual successor of About Love, a somewhat recent Pan-Asian anthology project showcasing three Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese) directors all doing a local love story. Even though this film shares a strong thematic connection (and a director, Yibai Zhang is part of both projects) with About Love, the concept was turned on its head. This time around five Chinese directors set out to direct a love story in a foreign setting.

The film opens with Yibai Zhang's segment, a small but endearing love story set in Otaru (Hokkaido) Japan. Otaru in winter is the ideal setting for a cozy, cuddly romance and Zhang is the ideal director to pull it off without things becoming too tacky or sentimental. Eddie Peng and Ziyi Zhang (didn't even recognize her at first) make for a nice couple, the setting does the rest. There's a small twist near the end that's a little predictable, but it hardly takes away from what's basically a sweet and warmhearted introduction to the anthology. 4.0*/5.0*

Second in line is Hu Guan's segment, set in Istanbul, Turkey. It's a much livelier short about an older couple visiting the city with their daughter. While they're wrapped up in one of their fights, the young girl wanders off and joins a group of Turkish kids. What follows is a search that will hopefully reunite both groups. It's a colorful and fun film, though the contrast between both parties (the fearful and quarrelling parents vs fearless and carefree kids) is a bit divisive. The thematic density is rather high too, luckily Guan still manages to keep it light and vibrant. 4.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai

When China is doing an anthology with each short set in a different country, there's no way the USA would be skipped. Meng Zhang's film isn't the most topically daring either, with a road trip from east to west following route 66. But the beautiful cinematography coupled with a great central duo royally make up for the somewhat tepid premise. Wang Qianyuan does a solid job, though it's Wu Mochou who ends up being the biggest discovery of this entire anthology, successfully ridding herself of her rusty pop idol image. Not the most original entry in the anthology, but a damn effective one. 4.0*/5.0*

Hua-Tao Teng's short is the exact opposite. Set in Norway and sporting a rather novel premise, the film itself feels a little dim and lifeless. Michelle Chen plays a Chinese nurse traveling to Norway to work in an elderly home. The home is in a valley, the surrounding mountains blocking the sun all winter. When Chen's favorite patient's health is quickly declining, Chen's Norwegian suitor comes up with a plan to make life a little better for the folks in the village. While an okay idea and tastefully shot, the fact that everybody talks English (even the Norwegian characters amongst each other) is weird and the central romance is a little stale, with too much attention going to the plot rather than the relationship of both protagonists. It's not a bad short, but surely the worst of the bunch. 3.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai

The biggest surprise is kept for last, though those in the know should foster at least some expectations when they see Qunshu Gao listed as director. The final short is set in Saipan and features a high-concept plot about two competing lovers meeting up after the dead of their shared romantic interest. Saipan makes for a stunning setting and the sharp, more abstract styling of the short is a nice change of pace for the anthology. Zhou Dongyu and Tong Liya do a great job and the short's finale is one that lingers. No doubt my favorite short of the five. 4.5*/5.0*

Gao's entry is essential as it adds some necessary edge to this anthology. The first three shorts are nice and effective, but they play it rather safe (whereas this platform is ideal for a little experimentation). Overall Zai Shijie De Zhongxin Huhuan Ai is a great film though and a solid introduction for those interested in Chinese (romance) cinema. There are no weak shorts, one exceptional piece and enough variation to breeze through its 140 minutes running time. Finding it will probably be the toughest challenge.

Wed, 16 Nov 2016 11:14:00 +0000
<![CDATA[Perfume: The Story of a Murderer /Tom Tykwer]]>

I've never been a big fan of historical films, especially not the ones dragging on for more than two hours straight. Needless to say, my expectation were low when I went to see Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in theaters some 10 years ago. But what are expectation for if not to be shattered. Perfume turned out to be an excellent piece of cinema and 10 years later it hasn't lost any of its edge. Revisiting it for a second time was every bit as captivating as seeing it with virgin eyes all those years ago.

screen capture of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The film is an adaptation of the German novel Das Parfum, written by Patrick Süskind. For once I have actually read the source material, though only after having seen the film first. While this might have somewhat affected my judgement, I feel quite confident that Tykwer's rendition far outshines the book in its attempts to transfer the mystery of smell to its audience. While the book mostly resorts to repeating the word 'olefactory' page after page (disclaimer: I did read the English translation), the film actually captures the beauty of smell through image and sound.

What sets Perfume apart from most other historical films is the fact that it doesn't feel obliged to stick to old-fashioned cinematographic techniques. Very often historical films are somewhat plain in their presentation, forgoing more modern styling as were it some kind of anachronism that would break people's suspension of disbelief. Tywker clearly doesn't mind and puts all his cinematography tricks to use in order to make this film come to life. And with amazing result.

Perfume tells the story of Grenouille, a young orphan growing up in the poorest quarters of Paris. He's somewhat of an outcast, but possesses an extraordinary sense of smell. On his first trip to the wealthier quarters, he becomes so infatuated with the smell of a young girl he ends up killing her by accident. Torn by the loss of her smell Grenouille seeks out the help of an old and washed-up perfumer, begging the man to teach him about composing perfumes and extracting smells from all different kinds of objects.

screen capture of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Transferring the sense of smell to film is no easy task, so it's understandable Tywker used every trick in the book to get the job done. For that reason alone, the cinematography stands out. There are lots of close-ups and tracking shots giving the audience a better feel of materials and their textures, scenes in slow-motion highlight Grenouille's extraordinary skill and rapid editing creates a feel for Grenouille's surroundings that goes beyond simple visual impulses. The introduction on the fish market wouldn't look too out of place in a Tsukamoto film (think Soseji), which is surprising for what is by and large a commercial blockbuster project.

The soundtrack too plays a big part in this. Written by Tykwer himself, the score is comprised of ethereal-sounding classical music and symphonic opera-like pieces. In combination with the visuals it makes for an overpowering experience, the sensation of smell coming to life through the thick atmosphere, created by all different audiovisual elements working in unison. While not typically the kind of music I prefer, Perfume is the perfect example of a soundtrack that works wonders within the context it is used.

And finally there is Ben Whishaw, who almost single-handedly carries the film. He has little dialogue to work with, yet his awkward, almost alien postures and expressions effectively bring Grenouille to life. No doubt this is one of the roles he'll be remembered for. The secondary cast too is up to standards, with Dustin Hoffman as the whimsical perfumer Baldini and Alan Rickman as the overbearing father, but their parts are mere blips within the total span of the film.

screen capture of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Sealing the deal is Tykwer's ability to keep it tense and interesting for the film's entire running time. The first time I watched Perfume, I expected it to settle down halfway through, but luckily that never happened. The story keeps advancing in surprising directions while the cinematography refuses to take a step back. Tykwer builds up to a sprawling finale which baffles in the finest way possible. It's rare to see a film keeping up its momentum for two hours plus, but Perfume manages to do exactly that.

Perfume still feels quite modern and contemporary because none of its audiovisual trickery was used gratuitously. The film is 10 years old now, but it doesn't feel like it has aged all that much since it was first released. Everything Tykwer does is done with a very specific reason, giving it a stylistic splendour that rises far above the hype of the day. Add some strong performances and an interesting story and you have a film well equipped to become a righteous classic.

Tue, 08 Nov 2016 10:40:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Da Tang Xuan Zang/Jianqi Huo]]>

It's quite rare to catch a new Jianqi Huo film this close to its original release, so when I got the opportunity to watch Da Tang Xuan Zang I immediately jumped at it. Jianqi Huo is somewhat of a personal favorite and while his films usually don't look all that attractive on paper, he has an excellent track record of changing my mind once I've seen them. Da Tang Xuan Zang isn't any different. While the long trek of a Buddhist monk didn't immediately appeal to me, the film itself convinced me otherwise.

screen capture of Xuan Zang

The name Xuan Zang may not immediately ring a bell, but he's quite the famous historical figure in China. If you're familiar with Hong Kong cinema (or classic Chinese literature for that matter) you're sure to have heard of Journey to the West. As it turns out, Xuan Zang's trek to India is what inspired the original novel (and thus its countless adaptations). Don't expect a fantasy epic though, Xuan Zang's journey is more religious in nature, making this a more timid and relaxing film compared to the more outrageous Journey to the West adaptations.

Jianqi Huo is a good fit for directing Zang's biography. He has a knack for serving Chinese culture in such a way that it appeals to both local and oversees audiences. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that Huo's film was selected to represent China in this year's foreign film Oscar competition. Bear in mind though that some affinity with Buddhism is welcomed when watching this film. While the Buddhist influences aren't too overbearing, there are parts that touch on very particular subjects of the religion. Even so, as someone with little passion for religion, it never really bothered me.

The film follows Xuan Zang on his big adventure from China to India. His motivation? Finding the original Buddhist scriptures and cross-checking them for translation errors and omissions. Zang suspects the Chinese teachings are insufficient and sets out to clear things up by visiting the very source of his religion. But the road ahead is long and challenging and Chinese citizens aren't even allowed to travel West. That doesn't stop him though, even when he's faced with seemingly unbearable hardships.

screen capture of Xuan Zang

Jianqi Huo has a special talent for framing nature in all its glory and Xuan Zang's journey gives him all the material he needs. While Zang crosses mountains, deserts and forests Huo finds ample opportunities to showcase his trademark lavish shots. He couldn't fully escape China's seemingly unquenchable thirst for shoddy CG though, but those moments are few and far between and at least the CG is functional (reinstating the old temple in its former glory and bringing rain to the desert). Overall it's a gorgeous-looking film.

The soundtrack too is up to Huo's usual standard. That means traditional-sounding Chinese music intertwined with ethereal string ambient. It's a beautiful combination and a good match for this type of film. There are a few moments where it felt like Huo was actually pushing it a little, crossing from beauty straight into kitsch, but on the whole the film provides a very pleasant, gracious and soothing audiovisual experience.

While there is a rather large cast, the film rests solemnly on the shoulders of Xiaoming Huang (playing Xuan Zang). Huang fares well as a devoted Buddhist monk, keeping his calm posture even in the most dire of circumstances. The rest of the cast is somewhat fleeting, mostly people Zang meets on his trip to India. It's not that the secondary cast is disappointing, there are notable performances from Jiayue Lou and Winston Chao, but they simply lack the screen time to make much of their parts.

screen capture of Xuan Zang

Da Tang Xuan Zang isn't a very contentious biopic. Xuan Zang is portrayed as a near saint, a venerable monk who touches the hearts of everyone he encounters. Zang's only true challenge comes in the form of nature's hardships, but even those are quickly conquered (apart from one rough passage in the desert). Don't expect a typical rise and fall structure or a voyage filled with setbacks. While Zang's undertaking is handled with the proper respect, Huo avoids almost all negativity, opting for a much more uplifting film.

The first hour is probably the strongest. When a little over halfway Zang finally reaches his destination in India the film spends more time digging into Buddhism itself, compared to the more road movie-like structure of the first part. It's not a showstopper and there's still plenty of beauty present in the second half, but it's something non-religious people should take into account. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed Zang's trip, not in the least because of Huo's skilful presentation.

Wed, 02 Nov 2016 10:51:21 +0000
<![CDATA[Tung-Shing Yee/x10]]>
Tung-Shing Yee

Tung-Shing Yee (often credited as Derek Yee) fits the typical Hong Kong profile. He's an actor, writer, producer, director with at least 15 titles matching each job description. He started out as an actor, took on writing and directing and would later help to produce a battery of films. Guys like Tung-Shing Yee live and breathe cinema, though it's not always clear whether their artistic aspirations outshine their commercial ones. That said, Tung-Shing Yee directed some pretty interesting films during his (still ongoing) career and it would be unfair to just discard him as just another Hong Kong director.

Yee started out in the mid '80s, directing Din Lo Jing Juen [The Lunatics]. His older work is a little hard to track down though, the oldest Yee film I managed to get my hands on was Zai Jian Wang Lao Wu [Bachelor's Swan Song], a loud and frantic comedy about the hardships of getting married in Hong Kong. I can see how it did well locally, but like most Hong Kong comedies it's very much a niche product and even by that standard it's surprisingly vocal and jittery. Probably not the best film to start with unless you're already familiar with Hong Kong comedy.

Yee's first respectable international appearance came in the form of Lie Huo Zhan Che [Full Throttle]. A typical street racing film (think Initial D) starring Andy Lau. But it was Se Qing Nan Nu [Viva Erotica] released in '96 that marks Yee's first artistic high point. In fact, it's probably the best Yee film I've seen to date, offering a remarkable and refreshing look at Hong Kong's prudish and hypocritical stance on Cat III material. At a time when Hong Kong cinema was struggling for relevance, Yee's film was a bright light in a sea of darkness.

That's not to say he would breeze through Hong Kong's millennium struggle. With only one film in seven years, Yee clearly lacked the posture to save Hong Kong from its film slump. But when things started to get better, Yee also resurfaced. Mong Bat Liu [Lost in Time] is a decent drama (which in itself is quite an achievement) relaunching Yee's career. Wang Jiao Hei Ye [One Night in Mongkok] would up the bar to "just short of great, but with a neat twist" and that's where Yee would camp out for the coming years.

While films like Moon To [Protégé], San Suk Si Gin [The Shinjuku Incident] and Cheung Wong Chi Wong [Triple Tap] wouldn't exactly revolutionize Hong Kong cinema, they wouldn't fully conform to the norm either. Yee's films are a little different from what Hong Kong protocol prescribes and with a decent can of actors to back it all up, all of Yee's post 2000s films are worth a try.

After Yee released Daai Mo Seut Si [The Great Magician] in 2011 things got a bit quieter, but last year he returned with Wo Shi Lu Ren Jia [I Am Somebody] and this year he's teaming up with Hark Tsui to work on a brand new martial arts epic. It's clear there's still some life left in Yee and based on his previous films it's definitely something to look forward to.

Tung-Shing Yee is not the most obvious of Hong Kong directors, but once you've worked through the more famous ones he's a man you're bound to run into. While he hasn't made a truly great film yet, his output is very consistent in quality and there's always some interesting angle that differentiates his work from other Hong Kong films. His earlier films are a bit shabby, but if you can get a hold of one of his post-2000 work it's definitely worth a shot. And if you're a bit more versed in Hong Kong cinema, Se Qing Nan Nu is a neat little gem about the Hong Kong film industry that deserves a bigger audience.

Best film: Se Qing Nan Nu [Viva Erotica] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zai Jian Wang Lao Wu [Bachelor's Swan Song] (2.5*)
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)

Mon, 31 Oct 2016 10:44:26 +0000
<![CDATA[Lost Highway/David Lynch]]>

Lost Highway is one of my old all-time favorites. Way before Lynch's Eraserhead and Tsukamoto's Tetsuo showed me a different window into the world of cinema, Lost Highway warmed me to the notion that there was more to film than the mere quest for realism and/or an airtight plot. Somehow I never revisited the film since, so I was quite eager to find how it had held up over time. Luckily the verdict was positive, though I do have to say it doesn't rank amongst my absolute favorites anymore.

screen capture of Lost Highway

Lost Highway is somewhat of a fresh start within Lynch's own oeuvre. After a couple of lesser films and anthology projects, Lost Highway would reestablish his name amongst film fans. It would be a little disrespectful (and unfair) to call the film a warm-up exercise for Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, but as far as managing expectation goes it should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. All the Lynch weirdness is here, just not as polished compared to his latest films.

If you're looking for a tight package you might find yourself struggling with Lost Highway. A lot has been written and said about the whats and whys of Lynch's film and broadly speaking there is a pretty fitting explanation floating around, but the key to the film lies in Lynch's statement saying not even he consciously understands every element within his film. Part of Lost Highway was simply made on intuition and gut feeling, abandoning ratio in favor of a better, more visceral film.

The film follows Fred Madison, whose life is about to take a turn for the worse. He gets a strange phone call telling him Dick Laurent (an unknown man) has died, at about the same time he starts receiving video tapes with footage shot in his own house. To make matters even worse, the final video tape reveals the gruesome death of Fred's wife. When he involves the police, they question his sanity and decide to put him in jail. And that's when things get really weird.

screen capture of Lost Highway

Traditionally Lynch's films don't hold up that well visually and Lost Highway is no exception. The camera work is solid as always, but the lighting is a little drab and the editing is pretty blunt at times. Camera angles aren't always flattering and some settings look pretty empty and barren. It makes the film appear older than its actual age, luckily Lynch's knack for unique imagery eases the pain a little. Still, it's a shame his films tend to lack that extra layer of visual polish.

The soundtrack is rather crude too. A series of Rammstein tracks are used throughout, but with very little relevance. The timing of the songs is seemingly random and they offer little support to what's shown on screen. It stands in stark contract with the score Angelo Badalamenti wrote for Lost Highway, which is moody, atmospheric and a real asset for the film. I can only assume Lynch was very much into Rammstein back then, but that's a poor excuse for messing up the soundtrack like that.

The casting too leaves something to be desired. Pullman and Arquette try to make the best of their part, but they're visibly struggling to make sense of it all. Balthazar Getty is slightly better, but he also fails to be truly convincing. I get this isn't the easiest film to get a grip on for the actors, but there must've been better choices (quality-wise). The only one who made a truly positive impression is Robert Blake as the "mystery man". It's a rather simple part, but ultimately he's the one that defines the film.

screen capture of Lost Highway

While the film suffers from stylistic decay, Lynch remains a master in setting up mysteries and submerging his audience into a nightmarish world. Despite being a little rough around the edges, halfway through Lost Highway had me captivated and from there on in things just got more and more outlandish. It does require you to let go, if you get stuck on trying to make sense of it all you're bound to miss a lot of the film's appeal. That's not to say there isn't some thematic puzzling to be done, but I would keep that for a second viewing (or some post-viewing internet reading).

Like most of Lynch's films, Lost Highway aged considerably. But while the visuals, the soundtrack and the score failed to impress this time around, the atmosphere has remained pretty much intact. It's still a dark, unsettling and bewildering experience that drags you down its feverish path. It's not Lynch's best film, but a worthy starting place for people unfamiliar with his work. For me the film has lost some of its shine through the years, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thu, 27 Oct 2016 08:48:45 +0000
<![CDATA[Feng Shen Bang /Koan Hui ]]>

It's been a few years now since Hong Kong cinema fully embraced CG and it seems there's no stopping this trend. The current onslaught of CG fantasy blockbusters is almost mind-numbing, a continuous stream of kitsch and ugliness firmly keeping international interest at bay. Koan Hui's Feng Shen Bang [League of Gods] is the latest to join the hype, but contrary to my expectations I actually enjoyed this one. Your mileage may vary though, as spirited CG-bashers still have plenty to complain about.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

If the name Koan Hui doesn't ring a bell, don't feel bad. Even though he's anything but a novice, he's been actively keeping himself out of the spotlights for the past 25 years. He did however work as second/assistant director on quite a few high-profile martial arts/fantasy films (most notably Ching Se and Shin Liu Ni Liu) and moved on to visual effects supervisor from there (working on films like The Legend of Zu, SPL and Dragon Tiger Gate). He's often seen as Hark Tsui's protégé and it shows in Feng Shen Bang.

Feng Shen Bang is an adaptation of a 16th century Chinese novel, but don't expect anything too serious or historical. The film is an unbelievable mishmash of classic and modern fantasy elements and then some. It's hard to imagine this is a faithful rendition of the original novel, then again I'm not quite familiar with 16th century Chinese literature so take it as an educated guess. What I do know is that it's completely bonkers from start to finish, which I consider an immense asset for a fantasy film.

There is a plot, but it's pretty complex and convoluted and not much time is spent explaining things in detail. It may be a bit easier to grasp if you're familiar with the source material, but for most it'll be easiest to just go with the flow. In short, a nine-tailed fox disguised as a concubine is pressuring a king to rule the world, a band of heroes is looking for the Sword of Light in order to stop the king. There's way more to it of course, but it's better to just find out for yourself.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

Visually it's a huge pile of contradictions. To say the film is CG-heavy is an understatement and there's quite some crappy CG to get worked up about, but for every failed shot there's also one that works (and works well). Furthermore, the CG is functional. The days a film like this could be made with just practical effects are long gone and since just about everything and everyone is otherworldly, the CG is very much a necessity. On top of that, Hui's aesthetic sense is quite good, so even though the film lacks technical prowess, there's still a lot of visual splendor that adds to the fantastic nature of the film.

The soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect from a film like this. I don't know if they have some kind of big music reserve for fantasy blockbusters, but it all sounds pretty much identical. Chances are you won't even notice it that much, with the film moving forward at such a blistering pace. The music is just noise in the background that coincides with the visuals, it never really draws much attention to itself, but it would be nice to see some progress in future blockbusters. It remains a mostly untapped well of potential.

As for the cast, little can said except that most of them are underused. Many famous names were drummed up, but they're hidden under layers of makeup, clothing and CG. Jet Li, Louis Koo, Angelababy, Fan Bingbing, Zhang Wen, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jordan Chan, Andy On ... they're all present and very much in frame, but they're just stick puppets, shouting some epic lines or battling CG enemies. I guess they're needed to attract bigger crowds, but a little more quality exposure wouldn't have hurt the film.

screen capture of Feng Shen Bang

Feng Shen Bang isn't what you'd call a film without defects. It's easy to completely demolish it in a review and just lump it in with the rest of the CG-heavy Chinese/Hong Kong blockbusters. But it also has a (huge) saving grace. The film's excruciating pacing combined with the wacky fantasy elements make it a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride. It reminded me of films like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Flying Dagger, Kung Fu Master and similar blends of manic action and fantasy. There's a surprise around every corner and even when something falls flat there's hardly enough time to get worked up about it.

This clearly isn't a film for everyone. Wacky fantasy isn't quite popular in the West and the lack of technical prowess is sure to put some people off (though the production design was lavish), but I ended up loving it despite entering the film with very low expectations. I think Hui learned a lot from the directors he worked for in the past and managed to properly update a somewhat lost interpretation of the fantasy genre. It's almost impossible to recommend as I usually tend to dislike films like these, but Koan Hui did a great job convincing me not all is bad in the world of Chinese blockbusters.

Mon, 17 Oct 2016 10:14:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Nashan Naren Nagou/Jianqi Huo]]>

Sometimes a director needs a little luck to get his career off the ground. Nashan Naren Nagou [Postmen in the Mountains] is the type of film that could only be unearthed by the mere randomness of hype. Back then Jianqi Huo was a complete nobody, even so his film was picked up for international distribution. I loved it the first time I watched it, but Chinese cinema changed a lot over the past 15 years, so I was looking forward to see if Huo's breakthrough film had managed to survive the test of time.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

Even though it's perfectly possible for Asian films to achieve a certain level of recognition in the West, those credits are rarely extended to the director (bar a handful exceptions of course). So while Nashan Naren Nagou received positive criticism, Huo had to start from square one when he released his next film. It's probably one of the main reasons why it's so hard for Asian cinema to get a foot in the door here. You may be a talented director, but with each film you make you have to prove yourself all over again.

That said, it's already a small miracle Nashan Naren Nagou made it to the West in the first place, because it's hardly a film with broad international appeal. Apart from some local folklore (which always does well over here), the film is virtually void of any dramatic impulses and consequently "suffers" from slow pacing. It's interesting because the premise leaves plenty of room for drama, Hou just chose a different path for his characters. What you're left with is some Ghibli-like rural charm spread over a 90 minute walk.

The film documents the succession of a local mailman working in the Hunan mountains. The job of mailman is a little different from what we're used to, a mailman in Hunan generally leaves on a three-day journey through the mountains, on foot, visiting different villages while delivering and collecting letters and packages. When the old mailman retires, his son, who never got to see much of his dad, is appointed as his follow-up. When they make the trip together (a one-time experience), they finally get a chance to get to know each other a little better.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

Nashan Naren Nagou is a gorgeous looking film, though it must be said that part of its visual splendor comes from the amazing scenery. The Hunan mountains are as much part of the film's visual identity as the cinematography itself. Not that the cinematography is bad, mind you, the lighting is exquisite, the colors are vibrant and warm and some of the shots will linger long after the film has finished, but the environment really is a character of its own here and plays a big part in the overall visual impression.

The soundtrack too adds a lot to the overall atmosphere. Traditional Chinese instruments and sounds aren't shunned, but they are combined with soothing ambient sounds. Even though it's typical string-based 80s ambient (think Brian Eno and Steve Roach) and not the more modern processed-sounds type variant, it's still pretty progressive. Especially when used in a Chinese film about traditional values. It's a really nice addition that made the film that more relaxing.

The cast is small but solid. Rujun Ten (of Red Sorghum fame) and Ye Liu (this was his breakthrough film) do a great job as father and son. They seem to share a connection that perfectly translates the feelings of their characters towards each other. As for the rest of the cast, I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually local folk who were asked to participate in the film. Whatever the case though, they come off as genuine and believable, which is a big plus for a film like this.

screen capture of Nashan Naren Nagou

The father-son theme is well executed and a dash of local folklore adds some extra spice, but when all is said and done Nashan Naren Nagou is a film about two guys taking a three-day trip through the mountains. If you want narrative and dramatic impulses, this film won't be for you. If, on the other hand, you want a film that feels like a small vacation, make it a triple bill with Shinkokyo no Hitsuyo and Omohide Poro Poro and simply sit back and relax.

I must say that Nashan Naren Nagou lost little of its appeal over the years. Maybe it's because the film feels rather timeless, showing a part of China that looks as if time has had no influence there, or simply because I have a soft spot for Asian low-drama rural cinema. The bottom line is that I still enjoyed it immensely. Jianqi Huo is one of China's hidden gems, a director who makes films with soul and warmth. It's an easy recommend, if you can stand the slow pacing that is.

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 10:12:43 +0000
<![CDATA[Seiji: Riku no Sakana/Yusuke Iseya]]>

It's always a little sad to see young talent being ignored. Yusuke Iseya may have made a name for himself as an actor, his directorial efforts are passing the world by mostly unnoticed. Needless to say I was pretty excited when I got the chance to catch up with Iseya's second feature film, Seji: Riku no Sakana [House 475]. In its core a somewhat traditional Japanese drama, but featuring modern touches to spruce things up a little. The result was far from disappointing.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Iseya's acting career has been one of mostly highlights. From his very first part in Koreeda's Wandafuru Raifu to the indie greats of Sogo Ishii's Dead End Run and the mainstream success of Casshern, Iseya has always an eye for stand-out cinema. He's still young though and making it as a young writer/director can be a serious challenge. Iseya's first (Kakuto - 2003) was a very promising film, but it would take him eight years to finally produce a follow-up.

Riku no Sakana (literally Fish on Land) feels like a film from a director who matured considerably, but still managed to keep part of his youthful enthusiasm alive. Stylistically the film aligns with what you'd expect from a (serious) Japanese drama, but there's also enough room for lighter moments. Some playful camerawork and quirkier characters betray Iseya's age and background, but they do add some welcome flavor to the film, setting it apart from its peers.

The film starts with Boku remembering his bike trek across Japan. Back then his journey came to a sudden halt when he crashed his bike into Kazuo's van. Luckily Kazuo was kinder than his scoundrel looks let on and he was willing to take Boku to a nearby inn. That's where Boku met with Shoko and Seiji, the peculiar tennants of the inn. He decided to halt his journey to stick around, while getting to know the people living in the area.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Visually Iseya has everything under control. The foundation of the film's visual identity is taken from Japan's traditional dramas, with beautifully framed shots, a toned down color scheme and subtle camera work, slowly easing the audience into the film. But there's also room for a little visual intensity, with several impressive close-up scenes and some fun editing tricks livening up the frame. It's a strong, balanced combination that feels like a logical evolution.

The soundtrack aims for a similar balance, but falls short. The classic drama score is up to par though, with a selection of nice piano tunes complementing the visuals. It's tried and tested territory, but it works. The modern touch comes in the form of (rock) band music, which sadly turned out to be a little underwhelming. I'm not a big fan of Japanese films doing band-related stuff in the first place, Riku no Sakana is just another example of why I prefer they'd stop doing it. It lacks identity and at times takes over the film in a way that feels like a waste of time. Luckily these moments are limited, but it's a shame nonetheless.

The cast is impeccable though. Contrary to his first film, Iseya doesn't take up the main part, in fact he doesn't even show up in front of the camera at all. Instead Hidetoshi Nishijima and Mirai Moriyama take up the leads. Both are very capable and deliver strong, moving performances. Nae and Hirofumi Arai shine in supporting roles, rounding off an excellent cast. Performances can be a little impenetrable for people not used to Japanese dramas I guess, but that's hardly the actors' fault.

screen capture of Seiji: Riku no Sakana

Seiji: Riku no Sakana is one of those films where the main character is little more than a vessel for the audience. Boku has his own path to follow and Moriyama does a great job adding a little depth to his character, but in the end he's really just a pair of eyes that allows us to spy on the relationship between Seiji and Shoko. It's an interesting approach that throws you for a loop, but it's also an approach I'm sure not everyone will appreciate, as it forces you to switch perspectives halfway through.

This may just be Iseya's second film, but it feels a lot like the work of a confident, accomplished director. It's a shame his output is a little limited in quantity right now, because I feel he would be a welcome addition to Japan's current director line-up. Even so, it's good to know Japan has people like Iseya lying around, skilled individuals with a rich career in film who can deliver the goods in front as well as behind the cameras. Riku no Sakana is a fine drama and if you like Japan's take on the genre, it's an easy recommendation.

Wed, 05 Oct 2016 09:59:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Rob Reiner/x10]]>
Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner is one of those directors you keep running into when exploring various corners of America's extensive film catalogue. You won't see his name pop up too often if you only skim the top layers of the mainstream, but once you dig a little deeper you'll find that Reiner is nothing less than a monument. His oeuvre is mostly centred around drama, romance and comedy cinema, but with a decent Stephen King adaptation and an infamous court drama under his belt, Reiner's range is clearly broader than just one single niche.

It all started in the mid 80s, when Reiner released This Is Spinal Tap, a faux documentary following a fictional metal band. It would be unfair to underestimate the impact of this little niche film (it's the only film rated on /11 on IMDb and "turn it up to 11" is still a rather popular quote), but even as a non-metal fan I couldn't really enjoy the cheap insults and bad parodies of said music scene. If you want to have a laugh at metalheads just watch Story of Anvil instead, at least that documentary had some heart.

Two years later Reiner would enjoy his first real success. Stand by Me is one of the quizessential films of the 80s, especially now that the whole 80s hype is at its very peak. With its strong 80s vibes and boyish charm it's not hard to understand why so many people love to revisit this film. If you're a fan of the era and you like a young male-only cast going out on some big adventure (like a more serious version of The Goonies), this should be a top priority (if you haven't seen it already of course).

Reiner would continue his high with The Princess Bride (a much-referenced and lauded film, although its popularity is somewhat country-specific) and When Harry Met Sally... (probably his most mature film to date). The latter is actually my favorite Reiner film, with a solid central duo, a quirky romance and just enough drama and bite to keep it interesting while making sure the actual romantic bits remain intact.

After that it was time for Reiner to branch out a little. Misery is one of the better King adaptations, a decent thriller with a memorable Kathy Bates, A Few Good Men a more than decent court drama featuring Jack Nicholson's infamous "You fucked with the wrong marine" speech. Reiner fared surprisingly well in two genres that weren't really his home turf, even so he quickly changed back to more familiar grounds, giving the impression that Reiner himself didn't feel truly at ease directing these films.

I kinda lost track of Reiner during the 90s, it wasn't until he directed Alex & Emma in 2003 that I ran into him again. The film is basically When Harry Met Sally 2.0, updated with a new set of actors and a different plot. It's a nice enough film, though not all that special. But Reiner was stuck in a rut. His films didn't attract too many people and his audience was starting to forget about him.

He did however have one more moment in the spotlights. The Bucket List is a wildly popular film featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two grumpy old dudes on a trip to see the world while they still have the chance. It's a pretty cheesy affair, but it is well liked by many. Reiner went back to directing smaller, retro-inspired films after that, with Flipped and The Magic of Belle Isle as a result. I'm sure these films have their audiences, but I'm clearly not part of them.

Reiner is still at it, but it seems his films are having a tougher time finding proper distribution. That said, LBJ (his latest) looks like a film that might attract a decent audience, with a couple of familiar names in the cast and a non-fiction halo to attract people interested in the life of vice-president Johnson. I'll probably watch it when I get the chance, but like most of Reiner's films I won't be putting in too much effort trying to track it down.

Even though I have no trouble recognizing Reiner's status, I'm not a very big fan of the man's work. His films are pretty cheesy and are well adjusted to the American mainstream. He likes to play it safe and if you're expecting something unique or surprising, you better look elsewhere. If on the other hand you are a fan of American romances and/or comedies, his oeuvre has a lot to offer.

Best film: When Harry Met Sally... (3.0*)
Worst film: This Is Spinal Tap (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.15 (out of 5)

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 08:26:09 +0000
<![CDATA[One Night Only/Matt Chung-tien Wu]]>

Even though Taiwan never really followed through on the immense promise it showed a couple of years ago, there's still heaps of untapped potential lingering over there. Matt Wu is the latest name to join the list of talented Taiwanese directors with a promising future. One Night Only is a superb calling card for a director his age, a film so full of vigor and cinematic joy it requires zero effort to overlook its slight shortcomings and just enjoy it for what it is.

screen capture of One Night Only

If Matt Wu's name rings a bell, it's probably because he started his career as an actor. Highlights so far include Make Up and Jianyu, but it's clear that Wu can do more than just parade in front of the camera. It's true that he got a little help from seasoned Taiwanese director Leste Chen (who took on the role of producer for One Night Only), but the film bears all the signs of a young, talented director eager to leave behind something he can call his own.

The only thing One Night Only lacks is focus, but that's somewhat characteristic for a film made by an eager, first-time director. It's almost impossible to pin a genre on One Night Only, with influences ranging from Hong Kong crime cinema to Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 to a million things in between. You may be put off by this, but it does give the film a certain vitality that is difficult to find in the films of seasoned directors. Once a director becomes more experienced, he tends to lose the boundless enthusiasm that comes with the naivety of a first-timer, so I definitely welcome films like these from time to time.

The film follows Gao Ye, an infamous gambler down on his luck. Knee deep in debts, his daughter is taken hostage and Ye is given a deadline to dig up the money he owes. That's a bit of a problem, since Ye doesn't have any and all he knows is gambling. His luck changes when he runs into Momo, a young and seemingly naïve prostitute. He manages to convince her to lend him some money, what Ye doesn't realize is that their meeting is anything but a coincidence.

screen capture of One Night Only

While the film may lack focus, there is one pleasant constant. From start to finish, from the very first frame to the very last, the film looks drop dead gorgeous. Cinematographer Charlie Lam did a terrific job, using extremely vibrant colors, graceful camera work and some amazing settings to give the film heaps of flair. The film is visually intense, not a single moment goes by without something cinematographically interesting happening on screen. It sure helps to gel everything together, especially when Wu goes through one of his somewhat crude genre switches.

The soundtrack is pretty interesting too. Chinese (and I'm including Hong Kong and Taiwanese) cinema isn't exactly known for its daring music choices, so it's nice to at least some experimentation happening. There's even a slight Johnnie To vibe going on, with some slightly quirkier track appearing at times you wouldn't really expect them to. It's not quite up there with To at his peak, but it's a fun soundtrack and it does a good job illustrating the fun Wu must've had making this film.

Taking up the lead is Aaron Kwok, in a role that reminded me a little of his part in the Pang's Jing Taam trilogy (though his character here is a bit more outgoing). It's no surprise Kwok has the necessary flair to pull off a role like this, the biggest revelation is Zishan Yang's performance, who gives Kwok a good run for his money. Yang is Matt Wu's wife and while that might have made the casting a little easier, Yang does absolutely nothing to betray Wu's trust. On the contrary even, as the chemistry between Yang and Kwok is another key element in the success of the film. Secondary parts are solid too, with Jack Kao and and Andy On as the most eye-catching additions.

screen capture of One Night Only

One Night Only is a film that's sure to divide its audience. If you're looking for a tightknit, well-scripted, solid experience, this might not be what you are looking for. If instead you don't mind a little genre hopping and you can appreciate a director who has visible fun messing around with the medium, then this is an easy recommend. The voyage from crime to romance to drama might be a weird one, but if you're not too fixated on the destination One Night Only is an awesome ride.

Matt Wu is hardly the first Asian actor to turn director, but he's definitely one of the more promising ones. He clearly isn't satisfied with making just another genre film, instead opting to shake things up a little. One Night Only is raw and undiluted cinematic fun, boasting superb visuals, a great soundtrack and a more than solid cast. I hope this film does well enough for Wu to get another shot at directing, because he definitely deserves to build up a second career as a director. I'm pretty confident this film will have little trouble making it in my list of 2016 favorites.

Wed, 28 Sep 2016 10:01:21 +0000
<![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