MIDNIGHT BUS (NYAFF 2018)

MIDNIGHT BUS STILL 2
Copyright © M-Line Distribution
A family drama from Japan of a very high caliber, Masao Takeshita’s adaptation of the award winning novel centers around a family whose infrastructure has been pushed to the point of collapse. However, don’t let this lead you to believe that it is an explosive affair. Like others of its ilk (THE TASTE OF TEA, a bona fide hit at one of the festival’s earliest incarnations, comes to mind) the story has a knack for earnestly depicting characters who display grace under fire. While maintaining a sense of calm and a dignified air, the family unit here is more fractured than usual, and exchanges among them are more sharply pointed (sometimes with a delightfully wry edge). Yet all involved are presented as nuanced individuals. The patriarch of the family makes applause-worthy sacrifices, yet also keeps up emotional shields from those he is close to, rendering an effect on them as well.  While others may act in ways that will strike observers as maddeningly selfish, they are shown in a way that emphasizes their humanness.  Interesting conflicts of interest are explored, which cannot be sufficiently judged in terms of good and bad, right and wrong. And although there are trials, the film is not shy about celebrating triumphs and lingering in the ups that counterbalance the downs.  In short, this is a moving, insightful drama that treats its complicated subjects with plenty of sensitivity.

MIDNIGHT BUS is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Wednesday, July 11 at 6 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Director Masao Takeshita will attend the screening for a Q & A. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

#1 MIDNIGHT BUS STILL 1 MAIN
Copyright © M-Line Distribution

THE THIRD MURDER (NYAFF 2018)

THE THIRD MURDER STILL 3
© 2017 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION All rights reserved.

Drawing instant intrigue for fans of director Hirokzau Kore-Eda, acclaimed director of numerous works showing understated and often obscure views of family dynamics; how would his mark be made on a genre-fied courtroom drama by way of a murder mystery? It may not seem like as drastic a mark as one might expect. But there is an understated feel to it, even as that crucial testimony is called for in a courtroom on the verge of a decision. There are also some deep moral and philosophical quandaries being dealt with, putting the film in good company with its festival peers (such as SCYTHIAN LAMB).  The film is anchored by the very solid performances of Koji Yakusho, as an inscrutable suspect who hides myriad realities behind sad and searching eyes, and Masaharu Fukuyama as cocksure and morally flexible defense attorney, a character type of great familiarity.  Fukuyama’s character stands to change the most, and does so engagingly as complications in his own family life bear impact on his dealing with the case. There is a very Kore-eda esque feel to gently chiding interactions between him and his father, which are a bit meandering and very natural. A solid drama with a bit of arthouse subtlety, which leaves plenty of mental matter to consider afterwards.

THE THIRD MURDER is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday, June 30th, at 12:15 PM. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

THE THIRD MURDER STILL 47

 

RIVER’S EDGE (NYAFF 2018)

RIVER'S EDGE STILL 4
© 2018 River’s Edge Film Partners / Kyoko Okazaki / TAKARAJIMASHA

An exquisitely filmed downer from Japan, which may be mistaken for a cautionary tale on the ways of today’s wayward youth. A few hints show this to be a scene set in the 90s, like the absence of cell phones and a reference to going to see a Flipper’s Guitar concert in Shibuya. But this drama about adolescents with experiences way beyond their age shares some common themes with other tragic Japanese tales of teenagers (including one in this year’s lineup, LIVERLEAF, which falls short of RIVER’S EDGE): classrooms run by the kids where teachers are all but absent, intense clique-forming and bullying of individuals, parents mostly in the dark about their children’s social lives. There are scenes of sexual aggressions, drug use, and violence that are quite difficult to bear. So too are the main figures’ impassiveness at all that takes place around them. Every so often ire is raised, mostly that of Haruna, the loosely connected group’s central figure (played by an always fascinating Fumi Nikaido whose languid expressions are easy to get lost in). They can be accused of being vapid characters, written to lack depth. But the film is interesting in its way of cataloguing their trials with an air of neutrality, holding back from casting judgment. It feels like we are viewing these situations from the teenaged protagonists’ untaught and in many ways damaged points of view. It is apparent that, as coolly as they may react, these trials are more than they are equipped to day deal with. Their lack of change begins to feel like a condition of being trapped in their roles, and this makes it possible to empathize. While its cataloging of brutality feels merciless, it is beholden of a strange beauty; definitely worth viewing.

RIVER’S EDGE is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday, July 3, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

RIVER'S EDGE STILL 2
© 2018 River’s Edge Film Partners / Kyoko Okazaki / TAKARAJIMASHA

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (NYAFF 2018)

still_main_for ONLY printed publicity
© 2018 “The Scythian Lamb” Film Partners ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

This singular drama from Japan opens over a somber landscape in a quiet coastal town. It holds many provincial features, such as a festival meant to appease an evil spirit carried on year after year by an alarmingly superstitious populace, and a tendency for gossip. Tsukisue, a civil servant is sent to pick up 6 individuals and bring them into town. He is also charged with helping them integrate into their surroundings. Soon after, we learn that this is part of a social experiment; the new arrivals are inmates serving time for violent crimes, their sentences commuted so that they can be rehabilitated in a new environment. This sets the stage for a story rife with moral and philosophical conundrums, to be debated and explored.

While the unwitting official is left with responsibility over the lives of the ex-convicts (which proves to be a varied group), he also deals with relationship woes, magnified by the suffocating small town atmosphere. In all, he has quite a lot on his shoulders.

If the premise sounds as though it would make for a great mini-series, extended over several episodes, we are on the same page. In fact it is based on a manga, a format perfect for stories to sprawl outwards. And with all of the potential character interactions laid out, sprawl is exactly what the story should do. While off to a promising start, things begin to line up a little too conveniently. Characters take on developments or newfound interests that seem rather abrupt. It as though a linear conclusion is being raced toward, with all of those moral intricacies crumbling away to carve a path.

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB STILL 7
© 2018 “The Scythian Lamb” Film Partners ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

While the development of story does not satisfy through and through, there are aspects of it, in addition from its potential-laden premise, that are praiseworthy. Sound design, credited to Tatsuo Yamaguchi, is used to great effect. At times, electronic effects plod forebodingly. There is something akin to big drops of water falling into deep wells and causing ripples of foreboding that disrupt the calm. Then there are the jams forged by Tsukisue and his two friends, who reform a noise rock trio from their past to practice. (this would not be the first time that reliving or recalling one’s former band as a way to reconnect with the past surfaces as a theme in the festival) They forge propulsive sonic rumbles, something like a therapeutic cleansing of the air around them. While Scythian Lamb doesn’t hit the mark completely from beginning to end, it has enough going for it to make it interesting viewing.

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB is being screened at 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Thursday, July 5, at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

 

BLOOD OF WOLVES (NYAFF 2018)

BLOOD OF WOLVES STILL 5
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Kazuya Shiraishi has been something of a ringer for the New York Asian Film Festival, churning out a steady, reliable stream of hardboiled hits every time one of his films is brought in. Starting with the dark peek into the working of a grizzly murder case in THE DEVIL’S PATH, followed up by the convoluted tale of a corrupt cop’s rise and undoing in TWISTED JUSTICE, and topped off last year with the more simmering NIGHT OF THE FELINES, a low-key entry into the Nikattsu Studio’s Roman Porn Reboot series. This time at bat, the director with a knack for true crime dramas takes a big swing, and connects with BLOOD OF WOLVES. Deserving of the term period piece, Shiraishi’s production manages to convincingly evokes an 80s Yakuza crime drama. While of a mostly different look and feel, I am reminded of the great South Korean crime drama NAMELESS GANGSTER (which played a past NYAFF) and how thoroughly that film embraced a time period. I also cannot help but draw parallels between that film’s Choi Min Sik, and similarly revered Koji Yakusho featured here as a detective in lates 80s Hiroshima, specializing in dealing with the Yakuza.

To picture Yakusho here in his role as Detective Ogami, think of his ‘wildman’ persona in KAWAKI. Switching effortlessly between seething quietly and recklessly lashing out, seemingly unable to be contained. The well-worn trope of the odd couple is played to the hilt, as he is paired with the straight-laced Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka, who shows a great deal of depth in his portrayal of inner conflict).

As warring Yakuza factions edge closer and closer toward an escalating gang war, a multilayered story of corruption also unfolds. Acts of violence go to some teeth-grinding uncomfortable lengths, and Shiraishi’s storytelling has a karmic sensibility.

Ogami describes his situation of oft-compromised morality as ‘walking a line,’ and the film seems to do so too, not tipping its hand as to which way is right – upholding ethics at all costs or using questionale tactics to get results. A selection in this year’s Tiger Uncaged jury competition, and one that could easily walk away with it for its unrelenting intensity.

BLOOD OF WOLVES is being screened at The 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Monday, July 2, at 9:15 PM. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.

BLOOD OF WOLVES STILL 3
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (NYAFF 2018)

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD STILL 12
© Enbu Seminar

A most winning production that is destined to generate chatter in the audience, and I would think is a shoe-in for audience award (if the tradition of determining a crowd favorite is to be continued), ONE CUT OF THE DEAD can be taken as an impressive physical feat, a brilliant idea, and a triumph of the will. While not political in nature, it is a rousing testament to teamwork and undying spirit overcoming insurmountable tasks.  It also shows that the process of creation can be a brilliant thing, greater than the creation itself. Slotted somewhere in the realm of zombie schlock, the biggest risk it runs is being overlooked by a broader audiences. Those who find it are in for a treat. Ueda Shinichiro‘s film serves as an elevation of the genre, without exuding an ounce of self-importance. The ability to play with time and sequence is used to great affect, but never feels like it is being boasted. Its fast-paced soundtrack is spirited and playful, as is the ‘just over-the-top enough to be humorous’  nature of its cast. Go out of your way to see this.

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is being screened at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on Friday, July 13, 10:20 PM, at the SVA Theater. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information. 

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD STILL 7
© Enbu Seminar

Dynamite Graffiti (NYAFF 2018)

01
© 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

DYNAMITE GRAFFITI

Perhaps the best characterization of  Sue Akira comes in a (non-crucial) scene late in the film where he is visiting the maker of a lifelike prosthetic sex doll. The purpose is one of placating the head of the small company,  but puts Akira in a unique situation to explore the unknown; it also gets uncomfortably weird. And much of the life of the subject of this biopic seems to go like that; provoking, apologizing, and trying to satisfy the cravings of  a seemingly insatiable curiosity.

Context is important. Picture a desolate mining town during wartime, where Sue Akira witnessed his parents’ relationship explode, figuratively and quite literally when his mother commits suicide with a man she engages in an affair, employing the titular destructive element, and then further decays. Akira later whisks himself off to Tokyo with hopes of succeeding as an artist, while an oppressive censorious regime and radical leftists waged war, and an underworld criminal element took hold of back alleys and red light districts with bars and brothels. We follow as the student tries to make a living by plying his trade in these dangerous environs, but later forges a career as a successful pornographic magazine publisher in the ‘80s.

It’s a curious choice for an opening night film, which the festival holds up as a representation of their own path, devoted to incorrigible mischief (and perhaps more than a little audience-provocation). And it is not always so dynamic; the film that is. The telling of Akira‘s early and late days move at a somewhat plodding pace. The middle, though, particularly in the furor of his activity with prurient materials, does achieve some vivid proportions. An anarchic feeling of the time is captured well, both sonically with avant garde soundscapes, and visually with plenty of iconic artwork on display. Much of it would appear to be genuine artifacts; covers and  interior shots of the publications he worked on. Others being real or close approximations of psychedelic graphic design work of the time, bringing to mind such figures as Tadanori Yooko. There is also a brief but illuminating depiction of infamous photographer Nobuyoshi Araki (whose work is on display  at the Museum of Sex, tying in nicely to this screening, and will be  through the end of August).

04
© 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

And that was not a slip before, referring to these visuals as art. There is a definite artistic bent to Sue’s designs put forth, marking a strange intersection suggesting involvement with the pornographic industry was a way to get a foot in the door and find an outlet for his self expressive ideas.

While tied to the scene of radicalism and rebellion, Sue proved to forge a  shrewed existence that let him dip into trouble but only just so. It makes for a somewhat less fantastic subject than one might expect. Unsurprisingly, he does a less than stellar job in the relationship department, yet he manages to walk away mostly unscathed by his lapses in fidelity. It can feel somewhat irksome, yet it is probably a very honest accounting (in fact the film is based on an essay by the subject himself.  It mostly hangs together, except for one thread that follows his infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with a female employee, who later ends up suffering a debilitating mental ailment. Its depiction on screen is frustratingly lacking in point of view or any apparent reflection.

Drawing connections between shameful family experiences, and uninspiring atmosphere, with the gravitational pull of great metropolis like Tokyo, There is certainly insight to be taken about the rise of an artist/rabble rouser. There is plenty of amusing tawdriness to boot.

DYNAMITE GRAFITTI is the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival opening film, and will be screened with an appearance and Q & A by with director Tominaga Masanori and actor Emote Tasuku. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.