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. 

The New York Asian Film Festival returns, setting phasers to slay

DamNCYQ2

 

On June 29th, The New York Asian Film Festival will return, reliably, to the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center to thrill, dazzle, and vex adventurous movie-goers.  Its unique cinematic offerings, are culled mostly from the realm this and the previous year’s theater releases of Asian countries being represented, along with a handful of premieres.  One can look forward to 2 – 3 screenings each evening (more on the weekends) until things slide downtown to the SVA theater from the 13th – 15thfor a stacked conclusion.

Some things will be familiar to long-time attendees. An award for astounding action cinematography in the name of founding festival organizer Daniel Craft will once again be given, this time to Hong Kong cinema stalwart Dante Lam.  As well as a lifetime achievement award to a veteran figure of Asian cinema, here being Japan’s Harada Masato, and a Rising Star award recognizing vibrant new talent.

Some recently launched innovations, such as a gallery exhibition, this year’s theme being “Safe Imagination is Boring”  and a jury competition for best film, reserved for new directorial voices and now called the Tiger Uncaged Award, continue to take root. Ever changing, the festival will unveil some new features, such an HBO sponsored Free Talks series. Taking place at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Amphitheater, across the street from the Walter Reade, offering a chance for audiences to engage in lengthier dialogues with directors and performers in the movies being shown.

As for the films themselves, they again represent a significant range of countries both with film industries recognized globally, such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, and those with less (or somewhat less) worldwide exposure: Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand. The Philippines has taken on a steadily stronger presence, and this year really has a foothold in the proceedings with the number and quality of films being shown, as well as guests on hand. Deeming this year it’s “Savage Seventeenth” and touting an unofficial slogan of “not (being) your average fucking festival, ” the mostly young crew is staying steadfast in bringing a challenging selection of films, downright confrontational at times, and often with something significant to say.

There is no way I could dream of taking it all in. So here I present a sampling of films I’ve been able to preview that made an impression.  Numerous other films round out the fest, so be sure to visit the NYAFF homepage as you make your plan of attack.

DYNAMITE GRAFFITI (Japan, 2018) directed by Tominaga Masanori

BLOOD OF WOLVES (Japan, 2018) directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (Japan, 2017) directed by Shinichiro Ueda

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (Japan, 2017) directed by Daihachi Yoshida

THE THIRD MURDER (Japan, 2017) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

RIVER’S EDGE (Japan,  2018) directed by Isao Yukisada 

MICROHABITAT (South Korea, 2017) directed by Jeon Go-woon

MIDNIGHT BUS (Japan, 2017) directed by Masao Takeshita

WRATH OF SILENCE (China, 2017) directed by  Xin Yukun

LOOMING STORM (China, 2017) directed by Dong Yue

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD STILL 6
© Enbu Seminar

Hereditary: playing with dynamics, pushing limits

IMG_4270

19thmoviepass = Hereditary. A film that left me scared, disturbed, and deeply affected, has suddenly leapt into my top 3 of 2018. Proving that effective horror filmmaking is as much about the way of telling the story as the story itself (if not more so, it rides a line between real terror (the aftermath of loss, obsessive behavior) and the fantastical kind, it drags us through a dreary haze, frightening in how familiar it feels. It confuses, disorients, and finally turns into an all out assault. It might even go a tad too far, leaving less to mull on than if it were to pull out before  its mind shattering conclusion. But rollercoasters are not praised for giving us something to contemplate.  There is so much morbid acid-laced imagery that sears itself upon the brain, but the masterful performances of Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne as parents pushed to the brink of sanity that make the most significant impression. A shock to the system cutting through the notion of movie going as a slight diversion.

 

 

Artemis Hotel review: brief, yet overstays its welcome

18th moviepass = Artemis Hotel. Somewhere in this mess is a kernel of a good idea. In a tumultuous future LA, teeming with riots, an unlicensed hospital catering to the criminal element operates in the shadows, run by a tireless yet worldweary soul (Jodie Foster).

I felt a lack of ability on the part of those involved in directing to convey chaos. In its opening, there is rioting in the street, a bank heist is underway, but I wasn’t instilled with any heightened sense of panic. So when we move to the Artemis, I didn’t feel a sense of oasis from the storm; it’s just kinda dull. As we tour the impressively conceived of retro space, it feels like showing off, not development. Foster is fine, but does not command attention for a while long while. Things eventually do start to build to a frenzy, laden with cliches, such as an exciting enough narrow hallway shown down between lone protagonist and a horde of underlings (thanks, Oldboy) but by this point, I was already… checked out (pardon the pun).

Violence is needlessly gruesome at times, and the very underwhelming use of an intriguing cast leads me to the conclusion that this should’ve received a lot of revision before hitting the big screen.

Points for managing to fit Jodie Foster, Batista, Jeff Goldblum, and Charlie Day into one of the most unlikely cast mashups imaginable.

When involved in action sequences, Sofia Boutella is a captivating femme fatale, whose performance will hopefully not be overlooked.

 

JAPAN CUTS 2017: At The Terrace (テラスにて)

At the Terrace_sub04_350dpi

Veering from scathingly funny to scathingly…scathing, AT THE TERRACE is, overtly an adaptation of a work for the stage as Kenji Yamauchi crafts a film version of his own play. It is heavy on dialogue and light on movement; the entirety of it takes place on the terrace of a party, on which a rotating cast of partygoers plus the soiree’s married hosts exchange pleasantries, which are often entirely unpleasant.

The first interaction falls between the late arriving Mr. Tanoura, an employee of Toyota, and Mrs. Saito or ‘Saito-san’ one of three, which includes her husband and another guest, making for some of the film’s wordplay based banter, and adding to its overall atmosphere of commotion. Exit Saito-san (or enter the house, thus exiting the scene) and enter Mrs. Soejima, wife in the couple playing host. Like a seasoned vixen, she corners Mr. Tanoura over his being taken with Saito–san. While chiding him into confessing his affection, Mrs. Soejima (played by a shrewd Kei Ishabashi) also sets about wooing the hapless Tanoura with her own charms. From the outset her expert gamesmanship is established. Along with these players, there is the other Saito-san, whose gaunt demeanor due to illness makes him unrecognizable to some guests that had met him a year ago, Mr. Soejima, the pompous husband of the party throwing couple, and the Soejimas’ uninhibited son.

What at first is playful soon becomes confrontational, as agendas are revealed. It seems a veritable den of sheep and wolves. Some look to satiate carnal desires that would be taboo in their everyday lives, while others like the sorrowful —san struggle just to survive the night. Hypocrisies abound as the lines of etiquette are danced around.

Shows contradictions between acceptable behavior and that which is actually practiced. It should be obvious to all but the most insensitive of brutes that if abiding by polite conduct, Tanoura‘s initial fancying of a fellow partygoer should be left a private matter. But the attendees seem compelled to go along with the discussion of the matter led by Mrs. Soejima , showing a staunch hierarchy, with the obviously wealthy hosts at the top. Yamauchi’s whip-smart narrative finds tradition clashing with modernized behaviors and interests. When the participants refuse to play by the rules, a spectacular mess of sordid intentions plays out.

At the Terrace_sub03_350dpi

Kami Hiraiwa, who plays who plays Haruka Saitama (the Mrs.) does an incredible job of gliding from demure modesty to shameless abandon to hostile indignation. She is the center of an incredible drinking scene that calls upon physical comedy and subtle suggestion, at which she shines brightest amidst a collection of fine performances.

Yamauchi’s manner of revealing information about characters is done in such a way that never feels cheap or unrealistic. It feels as though we have been spending time with characters that have been playing a careful hand in a game routinely played in their social constraints, their cards being shown only when pushed to the point of necessity or exasperation. It is a dizzying thrill, with tensions cooled off by one of the funnier end credit sequences you’ll find in the festival season.

At the Terrace_sub05

AT THE TERRACE is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at The Japan Society on Sunday, July 16 at 6:45 pm. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.