MC 2.2 Shades of Sion Sono at Japan Cuts 10th Anniversary

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

Part of this year’s 10th Anniversary Japan Cuts festival of Japanese film is a mini focus on outspoken rabble-rouser Sion Sono. It’s a fitting addition to a landmark edition of the festival, which has shown numerous films by the prolific director whose works have jarred, delighted, and flabbergasted their audiences for the past several years. It also jels perfectly with the festival’s unstated theme of radicals and rascally revolutionaries, running through both its narrative and nonfiction selections. Sono’s uncompromising attitude and artistic work puts him right at home in this group.

Three films may not seem sufficient to give him his due. But considering this isn’t a full on retrospective (the last to occur in New York was at the Museum of Design in 2011), the trio of works being shown on July 16 – 2 of his recent films plus a documentary made about him, along with an appearance by Sono himself, do form an elegant statement.

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© 2016「園子温という生きもの」製作委員会ࠖ © 2016 “The Sion Sono” Film Partners

THE SION SONO (directed by Arata Oshima) takes an insightful look at the philosophies and working process of the man, mainly by spending time with him and letting him speak – something he does not mind doing at all. Perspective can also be gleaned by talks with those who have worked closely with him. While Sono’s contemptuous attitude toward widely accepted commercial films and critics are well known but amusing to see unfold – we all like someone who names names – real illumination comes in the opening sequence of the film wherein Sono prowls through his studio filled with paintings and sets to work on some of them while deconstructing notions of good and bad. It’s a multilayered act, as the artist appears to reacquaint himself with his work in this medium, engage in the process while discussing it.

The intensity of feelings burning in and around his brought to the surface, not only in hearing from the director himself, but emotional conversations held with Megumi Kagurazaka his wife and an actress that has figured prominently into many key roles in his films, including WHISPERING STARS. She will also appear in person for its screening on the 16th.

Amusing testimonials on Sono’s singular quirks and compulsions come from Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, who speak of their work on Sono’s critically acclaimed HIMIZU. And lest one has been taken primarily with Sono’s ‘bad boy’ image, there is a decided charm to be found in a glimpse of Sono’s earliest activity, which holds uncanny earnest. A very early journal of movie going with collage elements and reviews show signs of a connoisseur and voice of remarkable wit in the making.

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The Whispering Star © SION PRODUCTION

THE WHISPERING STAR is made all the more interesting for the insight we may gain from the documentary, which features footage from the planning stages of this stark exploration of the science fiction genre. There is not much to speak of plot, which finds an android with extremely human qualities (Kagurazaka) as an intergalactic courier in the wake of civilizational collapse. The film is shot in a mesmerizing monochrome.   Here Kaguraka’s subtly expressive voyager, taking in this new world around her with understated wonderment and consternation, is also entrancing against the overall static unfolding of events.

These are accompanied by LOVE AND PEACE. Released in 2015, it is too early to call it one of his classics, but by all rights this will be one. It is essential viewing, not only for Sono fans but anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. But in terms of the director, it prominently features so many hallmarks of that have distinguished his work, with a notable absence of lurid violence or sex. There is what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘psychodramatic’ style that Sono employs, wherein personal trauma is magnified by key characters to the point of feeling like a large scale devastation. Music turned way up in the mix pulses and pounds, extreme closeups turn bystanders and casual tormentors alike into grotesque monsters and capture every detail of the actor, who has apparently been told to exaggerate mannerisms to cartoonish proportions, and regular scenery is augmented by vibrant colors. All the while scenes are sped through quickly, highlighting only those that emphasize the character’s plight.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

This only describes the first 10 minutes or so of LOVE AND PEACE, during which a fumbling menial worker at the offices of a recording studio dreams of rock stardom and pines after a subdued colleague (Kumiko Aso) while serving as the punchline of the office jokes. But with a bit fantasy and Sono’s panache for plot progressions both imaginatively far fetched and compelling, his fate takes a turn for the better. It is a rise and rise story that ends up a unique twist on the usual convention of exploding egos leading to an inevitable fall.

The incorporation of diverse musical pieces that are pitch perfect fits is another attribute of Sono’s films in peak form and here it occurs both within and without the story. Aside from wonderfully catchy rock anthems that our down on his luck protagonist begins to magically produce, background music provides numerous callbacks to previous films. Viewers of the director’s numerous works are rewarded in spades, with a rousing callback to the infectious jingle that rang throughout WHY DON’T YOU GO PLAY IN HELL.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

While the story has feel good elements, it is far from slight. Throughout the movie, scenes that may seem like background noise show Japanese youth with a general lack of awareness about the atom bomb’s treacherous role in the country’s history. Names are also used to show misunderstandings or perhaps a repurposing of history’s scars. Then there is Sono’s unprecedented incorporation of elements straight out of Western imports like Toy Story, a representation of Disney and Pixar both. When this comes to clash with mass destruction ala quintessentially Japanese kaiju movies, it is as though the collective Japanese self identity and its subjection to Western influences is being exploded onto a moving canvas. Who wins may come as a surprise. It is heady thought provoking stuff works on the mind while the personal story of sad sack turned star stirs the emotions.

For tickets and information on these and other films in the JAPAN CUTS lineup, visit the Japan Society website.

MC 2 JAPAN CUTS Deeper Into Movies

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This is a banner year for the annual JAPAN CUTS film festival, which looks to celebrate its tenth anniversary this summer, and marks its second edition as a fully independent entity. We can see it here continuing to redefine itself with the continued push into new directions – documentary films are even more prominent, and workshops on experimental film continue to happen, yet are joined by a collection of 30 minute movies by new artists that will run continuously in a room that all can visit. Not only is its programming more expansive, but there is a marked focus on serious films. Most of the slate is grounded in reality, its best films often grounded dramas, with fantastical elements far less prominent than in previous years and light, airy entertainment little to be seen. The landscape is notably characterized by voices decrying injustice and seeking to illuminate, even come to grips with terms with challenging circumstances. The world-weariness of the fest may very well be a reflection of the frustrations and concerns of a current generation of filmmakers, as well as the elder representatives of Japan’s film scene returning, perhaps reminded by current political climates of situations they rallied against once before.

The cast of characters in this year’s onscreen world looks like a rogue’s gallery of freedom fighters, revolutionaries, teachers going against the grain, as well as those trapped in the margins of a society turning its back on those who are different or lack the economic resources to get by. Those characters reel in psychic pain or strike out in the form of drug dealers or those who have turned to petty crime to support their artistic endeavors. The stories of those who have been spurned by the world and lash out in turn are as compelling as those who are striving to save it.

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A CAPELLA looks at students in the throes of the anti war movement of the 70s who meet at a smoky café to discuss their activity and favorite art. Its female lead played by Riko Narumi is striking as both a fiery and ruminative girl on the verge of adulthood. While there is a palpable backdrop of activism, the story zooms in on the relationships she and her peers forge, filled with betrayal and sexual frankness. The characters here often feel like they are just playing at being revolutionaries and this is very much the point, as we see these far too young individuals struggling to be leaders in a fight against apparent oppression yet find love, belonging as their ids rage during the tumultuous time. The tone of the film and Narumi’s performance will linger on the brain days after viewing.

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KAKO: MY SULLEN past is a more contemporary tale that sees radicalism as the background of a tale of growing up and facing a mysterious figure from the past. The narrative brims with mystery as Kako (Fumi Nikaido), a scornful sardonic student’s world is disrupted by the return of a woman in her family named Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi). There is a tension as strange disappearances are spoken of and reported on in the news and the behavior of those around them become strange. The sparring of accomplished leads from different generations in Kikaido and Koizumi is exhilarating.

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THE ARTIST OF FASTING comes from Masao Adachi, a director with years of experience, and feels very much like an artifact harkening back several generations yet comes to us from 2015. It shows a man who dedicates himself to fasting for 40 days in hopes of finding enlightenment, who does so in the unglamorous street of a shopping arcade. A circus of media frenzy, religious and political groups, and radical organizations erupts around him in a decidedly dark and unhinging viewing experience.

A male elementary school teacher (played by Kenga Kora) is one of the protagonists in BEING GOOD, which lays bare the disconnect among adults over raising children. Abuse at home and the trail it brings into the classroom is shown with a matter of fact cataloguing of gripping real life horror. Steadily and almost unnoticeably at first, characters build the resolve to follow their convictions to bring about the change that they can.

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Not so new to the realm of Japanese film are examinations of interpersonal relationships, a source of endless wonder in a society still marked by gender inequality and strict rules of conduct. BITTER HONEY navigates a relationship between male and female, artist and muse in a tale that incorporates playful magical elements. While it is mostly flirty and perplexing, the shifting tones land on an explosive exchange between writer and muse (Fumi Nikaido in another mesmerizing performance) that gets to the core of struggles over desires for commitment and freedom.

The best moments of THE ACTOR are also its bookends, in which an actor who is respected, seasoned yet far removed from the spotlight has an encounter tinged with romance with a bartender he meets in a small town he stops at for work. In these brief but patiently paced exchanges, The possibility of the two falling in love is thrown up against real life problems of family situation and the pursuit of one’s individual goals, and it quickens the pulse to see.

MOHICAN COMES HOME and THE PROJECTS are noisy dramas with plenty of comedic relief that aim at families veering off from the traditional notion of conventional. The returning MOHICAN sees his dreams of rock stardom dashed early on but his visit to his family finds him facing more universal plights such as a family illness. The film shows how devastating it can be while also finding unique ways to point out the little everyday moments of heroism among us. THE PROJECTS shows paranoia run rampant in a housing development populated by the elderly and those in less secure financial situations. The squabbling among tenants as they gossip over what the mysterious activity of an older couple who has recently moved in, and is dealing with their own tragic loss, is filled with unrestrained hilarity. The verbal exchanges both within and around the couple take from and center stage, even more compelling than the off kilter fantastical element that makes it ways into the story.

Maneuvering around this year’s festival may present a challenge. The schedule is not set at so much of a leisurely pace as past years, but comprises 10 days densely packed with films and talks. Within is a great variety of focuses. A new focus looking back to films of the past looks at less widely known yet important works that dealt in dark matter. Here there is Sogo Ishii’s BURST CITY with similar industrial shades as TETSUO: THE IRON MAN and a punk intensity running throughout. A section of documentaries offers an early look at FAKE, whose controversial subject Mamoru Samuragochi was both acknowledged as a musical genius and discredited in turn.

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Here and in other cases across the diverse lineup, the participation of guests working on both sides of the camera will create immediate dialogue between creator and audience. The troubling narrative LOWLIFE LOVE, whose central figure is a driven independent filmmaker prone to pushing around students and blurring lines between professional and sexual relationships with his crew, will no doubt generate questions about whether parallels exist between character and real life director Eiji Uchida. It is a dizzying array of guests, both young upstars and established figures the likes of which include director Mipo O who masterfully helmed last year’s CUTS highlight THE LIGHT SHINES ONLY THERE and this year’s BEING GOOD, actor/artist Lily Franky and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Sono Sion, director of many a festival favorite whose works have been celebrated in previous editions of JAPAN CUTS and other festivals, will also be on hand as he is given a brief multidimensional focus. Documentary THE SION SONO gives vital insight into the filmmaker’s guiding principles, formative years, and creative process going into a few recent films, one of which, WHISPERING STARS will also be shown. It is destined to be one of the director’s more esoteric experiments with a decidedly entrancing black and white aesthetic but little narrative substance to carry the stark vision of science fiction. The day long focus is balanced out by the director’s recent hit LOVE AND PEACE, which arguably puts the best of Sono on display including an intricate plot, frenetic music both within and outside of the story, and themes that find a collective Japan wrestling with its own identity. The only signature element missing is gore, making the film more accessible yet leaving just as much of a mark.

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While the action on screen is mostly somber, a burst of fantasy and perhaps a bit of optimism comes through in a collection of short experimental animated films culled from the works of new artists. Yet there is still a look to the past. Think of trippy psychedelic works such as PLANET SUAVAGE and even the recently unearthed BELLA DONNA as stylistic influences. TENSAI BANPAKU is a fast moving swirl of bright color patterns that playfully manipulates shapes and lines while MASTER BLASTER is a slinky roughly drawn cycle of female figures moving into and out of each other with uninhibited abandon, set to a jazzy score recalling the ‘70s. Another work, LAND walks a deft line between that surreal aesthetic and more precise renderings brought about by digital technology.

While grim portents run throughout this year’s movies, JAPAN CUTS has intensified its vision and secured itself a promising future as an essential survey of Japanese film. For more information and tickets about screenings and events, visit JAPAN SOCIETY website.

 

MC 1.5: HEART ATTACK aka FREELANCE @ NYAFF ’16

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One of this year’s two Thai imports on the New York Asian Film Festival slate has a very special something with potential to be a runaway audience favorite. The modern-feeling HEART ATTACK is clever, with razor sharp witty dialogue (if any nuance was lost in translation then the original Thai script must be a sheer brilliant act of word play), yet emotionally moving to such a degree that hearts will ache for its young crestfallen characters.

At its center is Yoon, a hopelessly withdrawn workaholic firmly set in a realm of freelance graphic designers. He represents a figure of legendary status among his peers. He narrates his journey, at first extolling the virtues of going days without sleep, and along the way decrying unnecessary obstacles to his career path such as a diet varied beyond his favorite 7-11 shrimp dumplings or shopping for clothes (his wardrobe is a consistent rotation of 90s grunge band t-shirts.   If played straight such a lifestyle could cause awe and consternation, but Yoon emits a playful, wide-eyed charm as he stubbornly holds fast to his folly.

With nothing impeding Yoon’s single-minded commitment to completing jobs, his body finally revolts by producing pock marks at an increasingly alarming rate. Doctor visits would appear to be futile in bringing about any positive change save for a fortuitous public clinic pairing with a little-experienced doctor who Yoon finds attractive.

The unexpected promise of human interaction, perhaps even romance, with a compatible peer gives Yoon reason to change but this self-preserving drive is still at odds with his hardwired habits. Which force will prevail becomes a major question of the narrative. Humanity surfaces in all kinds of disarming and amusing ways as the clever protagonist struggles to break away from what he has always done, even as he realizes it is what is best.

The telling of Yoon’s tale is one of the things that makes this film stand out. It moves quickly, hits an even balance of the main character’s lighthearted reproachful behavior and more serious heartbreaking failures to connect. Different energetic background music clues you to the mode of each scene, but also playfully stops midway to show an awareness that a subtle manipulation is taking place. One cannot help but notice the striking similarity between the free jazz percussion that scores Yoon’s trip into isolated work obsession and a certain anti-superhero film that won all kinds of awards in 2015, but otherwise the score feels refreshingly progressive.

That HEART ATTACK isn’t just a film that compels us to see if the guy and girl get together, but shows the potential of positive change to occur in even the most hardened cases, making it a universal winner. Though not all that concerned with the superficiality of an increasingly touch-up image conscious society, it is an incisive look at obsession with productivity. It is a sly turning the tables on the usual notion of slackers being flawed in the face of earnest hard workers.

Looking at the history of NYAFF Audience Award Winners, filled with countries of origins that have considerably widely established film scenes – Japan, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan – wouldn’t it be a remarkable for this year’s champion to be from Thailand? It would seem the perfect finishing touch for this 15th anniversary edition of the festival, never resting its laurels on what has worked before, and giving a significant focus to films South East Asia.

HEART ATTACK (FREE LANCE) is being screened at the Walter Reade Theater Sunday, July 3, at 6:30 PM. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.

 

MC 1.4: JAGAT/Brutal @ NYAFF ’16

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The screening of Malaysian drama JAGAT at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is yet another feather in the annual cinematic summer happening’s plumage of rare and unusual imports to New York City. Past standouts have been the propaganda-laden feel good story COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING from North Korea and SELL-OUT, a musical comedy with audience participation sing-along, (hailing from a far more metropolitan Malaysia.

What JAGAT brings to the screen is a by now classic story of youth learning hard life lessons, the kind that lead to dark futures difficult to acknowledge. However, at times the story’s telling is so far removed from narrative sensibilities familiar in areas with prominent movie industries (as well as those influenced by them), it promises to leave some viewers feeling something askew. No doubt lending to the singularity of the film is its being helmed by a first-time director in Shanjhey Kumar Perumal.

The film first sets its focus on Appoy, a likable and thoroughly relatable middle school aged child who sways to a very different rhythm than his traditional teachers and working class father (a truly imposing figure) who espouse strict old school values. It is the stuff of stories from the good old days, with the resourceful child angling a mirror so he can watch his favorite crime dramas on the family television, and dad coming home in a poster-ripping rage when the absent minded son cannot remember what he did with a work ID card.

At the same time, another narrative unfolds involving some of Appoy’s uncles who are connected to gang that runs increasingly afoul of criminal activity. Pointed conversations suggest a running internal conflict within the Tamil immigrant characters between living modestly and seizing power by more ruthless means.

A combination of experiences that find his creativity unwelcome by those in position of authority, and the influence of those he looks up to reveling in roguish activities sets off a change in Appoy, one the viewers are left to ponder as the movie comes to a close.

A barebones production is made up for by impassioned performances and a clever script; one in which Appoy’s antics often induce laughter and the subtle threat of violence among the older characters occasionally unsettles. The movie’s unique allure includes a remote small town setting presented without any polishing up and music baring the influences traditional influences that together with scenes of local rituals creates a stormy psychedelic effect.

Where JAGAT proves a bit bewildering is an uneven narrative path, including a rather abrupt montage that advances parts of the story a bit too inscrutably. One can also infer cultural and/or government restrictions coming into play, as there is virtually no onscreen violence save a few afterschool scuffles between Appoy and neighborhood bullies. The realism in these scenes do prove to add a surprisingly unnerving element, though.

Despite, and sometimes because of its rough patches, JAGAT is an absorbing blend of classic tale and unconventional storytelling. Seeking it out not only supports a new, compelling voice in cinema, but is also a nod of approval to the New York Asian Film Festival’s continued commitment to bringing unique and far flung programming.

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The New York Asian Film Festival continues its run through July 9 at the Walter Reade Theater and SVA theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for more information and tickets.

 

 

MC 1.2: Twisted Justice/日本で一番悪い奴ら(NYAFF16)

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© 2016 TWISTED JUSTICE Film Partners

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By the time we reach the end of TWISTED JUSTICE’s convoluted police corruption tale spanning the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, it might be difficult to remember just what was the first link in the chain of immoral acts. It all starts with a young judo competitor named Moroboshi Yoichi being recruited to the Susukino (a crime ridden entertainment district) branch of Sapporo’s police force because it will bring their team a coveted championship. When the dust has settled, the ripple effect of this seemingly innocuous transgression is astounding.

The true impetus for the spiral out of control comes when a crooked senior cop (played by Pierre Taki, whose performance one again leaves a frighteningly indelible mark in a Kazuya Shiraishi film) begins to mentor the novice after taking a liking to him. Or perhaps not so much taking a liking to as receiving a rub to his ego by keeping him in his company. One striking element of the narrative is the virtual absence of any pure friendships, as everyone expresses a perceived financial or psychological benefit from the relationships they forge. A well intentioned ex-convict and hallucinogenic drug user describes how becoming Moroboshi’s subordinate on the wrong side of the law makes him feel like he can become a big deal. A fledgling female police officer who later joins the police force enjoys a boost to her self-esteem by being with Moroboshi at his most swaggering. And in one of several scenes of depraved sexuality, Moroboshi excites himself to climax by crying out how his love connection will bring him acclaim and help his star rise.

TWISTED JUSTICE is director Kazuya Shiraishi’s second feature film to take on the true crime genre and is evidence of an artisan thriving in his element. In a departure from the mood of slow creeping dread established in previous film THE DEVIL’s PATH, this is by design a lopsided, sprawling affair. The film’s off-kilter funky middle east tinged tune is puzzling when it first hits the ears but soon comes to perfectly suit the eccentricities. Rather than build an intricate plot piece by piece, Shiraishi sets up a landscape of lunacy gone unchecked with Moroboshi’s part in it taking center stage.

It is full of local color: The tacky flashiness of chinpira suits, giant crabs feasted on straight off the shore, and steaming bowls of curry create an appealing sort of low rent decadence as Moroboshi’s foraging into Sapporo’s underground leads to unlikely territory involving Pakistani nationals and hot car lots.

The often flailing occurrences of interagency conflict and blatant disregard for law and decency reach absurd heights as plans are made in Moroboshi’s department to purchase firearms so they can be reported found, giving credit to their agency. It is a display of the cost of results being pursued at any means that cuts as deep as the best of The Wire. Things become so far gone that when the bottom finally falls out, it is a shock to the senses.

Go Ayano plunges into the lead role, pulling off a riveting on screen transformation, from tepid ‘yes man’ to swindling operator and beyond. When Moroboshi is humbled to cowering in a life or death situation, the acclaimed actor’s (who was invited to the NYAFF for the screening to be bestowed with a Rising Star Award) depiction calls to mind Choi Min Sik’s unrestrained emotional performance in past NYAFF highlight NAMELESS GANGSTER. And the movie is a similarly jaw dropping character study, yet all the more curious for its anchoring in reality.

In this time of Asian film when director’s names are becoming more numerous but output less consistent, it is encouraging to see a director hitting his stride with uncompromising gritty celluloid visions.

TWISTED JUSTICE (or NIHON DE ICHIBAN WARUI YATSURA) received its World Premiere screening at the New York Asian Film Festival and is now playing in theaters throughout Japan. For more information about the New York Asian Film Festival’s programming, visit the Subway Cinema website.

MC 1.1: IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD/世界から猫が消えたな (nyaff15)

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“IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD” © 2016 TOHO CO., LTD. / Hakuhodo DY Media Partners Inc. / Shogakukan Inc. / AMUSE INC. / CROSS COMPANY INC. / Magazine House Co., Ltd. / Lawson HMV Entertainment , Inc. / Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. / KDDI CORPORATION / GYAO Corporation / NIPPON SHUPPAN HANBAI INC.

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This elegantly heartrending movie gets right to the core of some of our modern existence’s cruelest contradictions: To experience love for people and things, we must also know the sensation of losing them. With the acquaintance of delightful new friends comes the inevitability of goodbyes. Is it a manner by which the universe maintains some semblance of balance? Or is it little more than life’s cruelest hoax? These are difficult questions for anyone to ponder, but especially the young souls at the center of this delicate narrative, found in their early 20s and 30s, a time when ids still cling to the idea of being the center of one’s particular universe, yet realization of being insignificant in the vast scheme of things begins to dawn. It is also a time when many experience their insecurities and self-concerns must share space with that of others, as the frailty, the mortality of other loved ones in their lives comes suddenly to the fore.

These are the emotional currents ridden by the main character as he experiences a cruel twist of fate that leaves the young man with only a few days to live. A deal with the devil, who takes on the character’s exact same form (is there a more loathsome or frightening opponent to consider than our own selves?), presents itself: grant this demon permission to take away something from the world in exchange for one more day to live. A deliberately paced taking stock of life and connecting with those who are most important in the daydreamer’s life ensues.

Akira Nagai, a director with a surprisingly scant filmography, perfectly captures the vibrant life forces through the couple played by Takeru Sato and Miyazaki Aoi. wistfulness, outrage, despair, and wonderment are communicated naturally through their dialogue and body language. As in many Japanese films, difficulties of communication is a prominent theme. As the inextricably entwined couple grasp at what lead to their drifting apart, or a father maintains an emotional distance from his ailing wife, it feels extremely familiar, relatable.

IF CATS DISAPPEARED… joins other contemporary films from Japan (see Daihachi Yoshida’s THE KIRISHIMA THING/桐島、部活やめるってよ) that share a love of films overtly, in the actions and conversations of characters. It is a love that becomes instantly infectious as characters meet and form disarmingly sincere connections over their passions. Interactions between the main character and his film connoisseur friend he mistakenly and repeatedly calls Tsutaya (the name of a popular chain of video stores) are quirky yet show people at their most fragile and compassionate states. They also create an urge to go out and acquaint or reacquaint oneself with classic works like Lang’s Metropolis or Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together.

The parts of the story touched by magic realism are sparing yet rendered in eye-catching fashion, just enough to shake up the melancholy with a much welcome dose of wonderment. The music accompanying these scenes has an assured coolness about it to boot.

Boasting scenes of natural beauty, amidst the brilliance of waterfalls in Argentina or the sloping landscapes of Hokkaido, Japan, it is a film that effectively calls for us to marvel at life’s marvels, even in the face of the most wicked of curveballs thrown our way. Mr. Nagai, I eagerly await your next film.

IF CATS DISAPPEARED FROM THE WORLD received its North American premiere at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival June 24th, and will be shown again on Monday, June 25th, 9 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for details and tickets.

MC 1: Japanese Perspectives @ NYAFF 2016

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The New York Asian Film Festival has long been offering a sliding door peek into distant cultures and landscapes by way of programming rare and adventurous films from distant shores. Perfect for New Yorkers to get a dose of exotica without leaving city limits, one can get a quick blast by way of a day at the movies or really immerse oneself in salient aspects of a country’s culture as well as trends in its film output with repeated trips to the festival’s home of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (June 22 – July 5) and new digs the SVA Theater (July 6 – July 9).

Gaining insight into Japanese culture is unavoidable after even a little time spent with its films, and this 15th anniversary edition of the NYAFF gives plenty of opportunity to do so. Below is a preview of some of the Japanese movies being shown along with some impressions. For a list of all of the movies as well as offerings from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South East Asia, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.

1.CREEPY

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CREEPY is a psychological thriller from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that has more than a little Hitchcockian flair for suspense. Its biggest reference point, though, is probably early Kiyoshi Kurosawa with the director going back to the kind of off kilter takes on seemingly familiar terror (CURE and KAIRO) head scratching affairs that made singular lasting impressions . This return to form is all the more riveting for casting popular actor Hidetoshi Nishijima as its brooding yet fiery lead and Teruyuki Kagawa, a reliable everyman of Japanese cinema who plays the far more fun villain with maniacal glee. The film’s score dances along a highwire, sending waves of tension down the viewers’ spines. All the while, an equally accomplished sound design makes for a thorough sense of dread and foreboding. The film has its fair share of awkwardness, it is Kiyoshi Kurosawa after all, so prolonged sequences of horrid acts may cause discomfort. It is as though the director is subjecting us to the same notion of being helplessly trapped by circumstances as its flailing protagonists. Like Kurosawa’s other thrillers, CREEPY brings out existential questions of free will and the entanglements of social structures, as well as more local issues of community and the notion of being a good neighbor.

 

2. WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY

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Don’t let the charming façade of WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY fool you into thinking it is entirely innocuous. The film similarly pokes and prods at traditionally accepted institutions of marriage and family life. The vehicle here is a light comedy focused around an increasingly rare three-generation household, whose eldest figures threaten divorce. While peppered throughout with a gentle zaniness that may seem antiquated, it slyly raises questions over values as family members’ true objections to the split are exposed. The main event is a protracted family meeting scene, which manages to be both no holds barred and civil. Everyone in the cast is on point but Hashizume Isao stands out as the family’s foible-filled patriarchal figure. He is delightfully incorrigible and a joy to watch throughout.

 

3. A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE

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Rougher going is the nearly 3 hour BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE, the latest from iconoclastic director Shunji Iawai (who will be honored at the festival with a lifetime achievement award). It is an odyssey of sorts for its wide eyed protagonist, whose transformative journey, along with the help of a peculiar ‘fixer’ (played by Rising Star recipient Go Ayano) takes her from lonely soul in need of salvation to a savior figure. Far less subtle in its skewering of society, Iwai takes on everything from narrow minded parents to the wastefulness of a population that frowns on recycling old goods. Interesting for its strange straddling of the line between realism and storybook logic, as well as its steadfastly independent production, it can be a tough slog due to some overly long static scenes, in particular those between the main character and one played by COCCO, an actress and singer whose own real life nuances makes for compelling onscreen viewing.

4. KIYAMACHI DARUMA

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Faring less well is the more straightforward genre exercise KIYAMACHI DARUMA. Its title a reference to an ill-fated yakuza member’s limbless state, the mostly plodding narrative only occasionally engages viewers in his unthinkable plight. Although initially suggesting off color humor at the main character’s expense, the proceedings largely maintain 1 sustained note of gloom and denigration. It doesn’t help that the movie’s look is lacking in innovation, reminiscent of video nasties from the 90s (remember Guinea Pig anyone?) that lacked any substance beyond their shock factor. A few points for not pulling any punches, but this story of betrayal amidst a backdrop of criminal activity mostly shouted through by its assorted lowlife characters failed to stir much interest.

 

5. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN

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In honor of its 15th anniversary, the festival is screening a few favorites from the past, including an appropriately slotted 11 pm showing of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. For those more interested in a visceral experience without the societal context, this was the world’s introduction to Tsukamoto Shinya’s wild imagination. It is a short blast of roughly hewn metallic imagery accompanied by a clanging and banging industrial soundtrack that tells the tale of individuals warped into industrial strength iron clad monstrosities drawn to destroying each other or the world, whichever comes first. With nods to the over the top transformation sequences in Akira, it has been recognized as a pillar of the body horror subgenre, but truly nothing has looked like this before or since. For those uninitiated, the opportunity to see the film that launched hundreds of thousands of passions for Japanese cinema, my own included should not be taken for granted.

For more information about the NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.