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Terracotta Film Festival 2012 April 22, 2012

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Another year, another excellent Terracotta Film Festival. This year’s line-up had a nice blend of relatively unknown gems, while still featuring the popular blockbusters and well-known filmmakers. I only saw four of the films, but what I saw, I liked. (more…)

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The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker (2007) May 14, 2011

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With a title like that, you can’t really go wrong.

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura has a reputation for comedy dramas with seemingly random plots that make sense right at the end (see also the fabulous Fish Story). This little gem, which I was fortunate enough to see at a random movie meet up in a London bar, is much the same.

For what it’s worth, the story follows Shiina, a freshman law student who’s encounter with a next door neighbour embroils him in a convoluted affair involving three friends, foreign exchange students, love, death and Bob Dylan.

To say any more would ruin the plot, and, to be honest, require more words than I care to spare in this post! But I assure you it all makes sense. Every cog in this tightly directed piece does its part in servicing a fantastically well-written plot, which comes to a very satisfying end.

And that, I believe, is where the magic lies. A friend once explained to me the importance of the ending to any story – it leaves you, the viewer/reader, with a final feeling to go way with, whatever has gone before it. Nakamura has mastered this, along with the handy knack of actually mopping up his many clues and tying up his plot threads, ducks and all. And with so many seemingly random ones, it’s no wonder he ends up with titles like this.

Kamui: The Lone Ninja (Kamui Gaiden) (2009) May 11, 2011

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I have to wonder, with a technologically-advanced society and one of the best animation industries in the world, why oh why is Japanese CG so goddamn awful?

Kamui is a distracting, if a tad over-long, take on the classic manga. Its a tale of one breakaway ninja and the forces that pursue him, the class boundaries of Tokugawa era Japan, and, at its heart, trust and fateful encounters. It has to its advantage a great performance from the ever-reliable Kenichi Matsuyama, a fascinating story and some super fight scenes.

Where it falls down is its attempt to pack maybe too many of the manga’s storylines into two hours – to the extent that a lot of plot turns seem a bit too random – and some frightening overacting (stand up, the overly emotional Susuku Ohgo, who plays Sayaka).

But its main problem is the computer generated effects. Far from blending into the background, or at least being bad in an ironic way (as in Japanese gorefests like Tokyo Gore Police or Machine Girl), Kamui’s CG just jars you out of the movie experience and there’s far too much of it. It’s a shame as the film itself, while not great, is entertaining enough. And you just feel that, for a samurai-era movie, there should be ways to do present most of this without having to resort to bad computer graphics. Especially if you know what your country’s track record is like.

Kimi ni Todoke (2010) May 9, 2011

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I’m still reading the Kimi ni Todoke manga, which I’m enjoying immensely. I’ve purposely avoided any of the anime, as I realise it skips ahead the Viz translations of the manga and I don’t want any spoilers. But I figured this recent movie would probably ‘reimagine’ things to get a nicely wound up ending, without giving away the real plot. And besides, it’s got Mikako Tabe in it ^^;

Straight up, this is nothing amazing. The film is so-so, mistaking a snail’s pace for ‘breathing room’ and character development. It’s also full of the overly cheesy tropes (such as god awful piano/string music to overemphasise the ‘heartfelt moments’) that plague most Japanese mainstream cinema. But it’s not altogether terrible and not quite as much of a travesty it might have been.

The story stays largely covers the same ground as the first 7 volumes of the manga, rejigging some bits so they can all fit into a 2 hour running time. The ending could maybe have been done better (why did they just gloss over the Xmas bit and instead opt for a New Year ending?).

The protagonists are ok. My darling Mikako Tabe is, for once, not playing the same ditzy clown she does in almost every movie/drama and she makes for an effective Sawako, though as some have pointed out, not quite as goofy as the original character is. Miura Haruma’s Kazehaya isn’t quite as I would have imagined him, but is decent. However, the casting of Chizu, Yano and Ryu are spot on, with Misako Renbutsu particularly brilliant.

Overall, it’s not going to have anyone raving about it, but it’s enjoyable enough for fans of the manga or anime.

Petty Romance (2010) May 8, 2011

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Petty Romance posterA lovely little film marked my participation in this year’s Terracotta Film Festival. Petty Romance (Ze-ze-han Ro-men-su) is a sweet, entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, brightened further by an imaginative blend of live-action and animation, and a sparkling performance from the two lead actors.

Lee Sun-Kyun and Choi Kan-Hee play Jeong Bae and Da Rim, an intellectual manhwa artist with no storytelling skills and a hopeless sex columnist with no experience of sex. Teaming up to win a $100,000 comic book prize, opposites eventually attract, but not before both learn a thing or two about what’s really important to each of them.

I’m a sucker for romantic comedies and Korean romcoms in particular (often the first thing I look for when I’m on an international flight ;) ). I’ve said it before: mainstream fare like this is so generic that more often than not you end up with banal crap. The recipe is almost too easy, so it’s refreshing when once every so often one gets it right.

Petty Romance benefits from imaginative direction, with Kim Joung-Hoon utilising Korea’s first-class animation studios to really bring Jeong and Da’s creations to life. But it really wins because of its fabulous lead actors (with history from a Korean drama series), whose wonderful chemistry left a big smile on my face.

Norwegian Wood (2011) April 3, 2011

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It is, in many ways, the impossible adaptation. The popularity of his novels makes it surprising that there has been just one ‘Murakami’ film before. The fact that the plots often feature the oddly supernatural, or not very much actually happening, makes it less surprising. Yet, as Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani showed, capturing the essence of what makes the novels means capturing the inner-monologue, the feeling that drives the story, is what’s most important.

A friend said to me once that Tony Takitani was the “most beautifully pointless film” she’d ever seen. Slow-moving, but gorgeously filmed, and full of emotion (at least that that readers of the original short story would have interpreted), its point was perhaps lost on those who fell asleep during the snail’s pace.

So what of Norwegian Wood, the most eagerly awaited of Murakami adaptations? It is, in many ways, as faithful an adaptation as we might get —  like Ichikawa, director Tran Anh Hung captures perfectly the incredible feel of a Murakami novel. The whole thing is like a crisp, gorgeous dream, every scene dripping with angst and emotion. That it’s as slow as Tony Takitani perhaps again shows its faithfulness to the source material.

(SPOILERS AHEAD and some of this might not make sense to those who haven’t read the novel) (more…)

Afterlife (1998) June 30, 2010

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Afterlife

Another Kore-eda classic. Afterlife (or Wonderful Life as it is known in Japan) is an imaginative, quiet tale of a waiting room between this world and the next.

When people die, they appear on a small campus, akin to a school or temple, where they are asked to select one memory from their life to be recreated on film and screened just before they move on to (presumably) heaven.

Now, getting past questions of why film is the medium chosen, why beings in the afterlife should have to recreate such a thing using 90s technology, or who is making them do it in the first place, it’s quite an elegant conceit.

Kore-eda uses real interviews with real people to bring, well, realism to his fantastical idea. And as fantastical as the concept is, the film itself isn’t so. Deliberately shot in a low-profile way, you’d have no idea this was about the afterlife without the characters referring to it.

What the film explores beautifully is different people’s concepts of a happy and successful life and what people really remember, and realise, is important to them. We spend our whole lives trying to figure out what our purpose in life is. This film considers that we spend at least part of our afterlife still trying to work that out.

Ashita no Watashi Tsukurikata (How to Become Myself) (2007) February 14, 2010

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What makes a good movie? Or, to be more precise, what makes you like a film? Often, and given the obsessiveness with which I review/analyse movies on this blog, you’d think it was the closeness to perfection — perfect script, execution, acting, pacing etc. — that makes for a good film. But sometimes it’s a film’s faults that endears it to me. That’s what I was thinking as I watched Ashita no Watashi Tsukurikata.
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Still Walking (2008) January 17, 2010

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I’ve seen Tokyo Story twice and I do like it. But the overwhelming feeling it left me with, both times I saw it, is an unbelievable sense of guilt about not spending more time with my parents. In that respect, Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s Still Walking is a perfect film to accompany the BFI’s Yasujiro Ozu season.

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Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) January 3, 2010

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Or possibly the most wonderfully random Japanese film I’ve every seen. It’s that randomness that I love most about Japanese movies, and random, slapstick, Japanese movies that I love most. And Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers delivers with aplomb.

The plot, for what it’s worth, is about Suzume, an ordinary Japanese housewife in an ordinary Japanese town who finds life isn’t so ordinary when she takes on a part-time job as a spy. Sort of.

What the above paragraph doesn’t convey is how the film is neither as exciting as that makes it sound, or as pedestrian. One of the two things I really liked about it (after Ueno Juri and Yu Aoi ^^;) is how it tells a coherent narrative while being completely unpredictable. You’re watching perfectly ordinary activities, in perfectly ordinary locations, but performed by people who are just off kilter.

The other thing is its central theme: the celebration of the ‘ordinary’ as a quality of value, be it a person who leads an unremarkable life or a ‘so-so’ bowl of ramen that is neither tasty or terrible. As one of the characters says, “To be truly ‘ordinary’ is a rare skill — one might say ‘extra-ordinary'”.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give away what is, at 90 minutes, a nicely compact story. But I highly recommend it to those who love modern Japanese movies for the same reasons I do. It’s full of wonderful characters who are  inspiring, funny and almost like you and me.