Monday, June 28, 2010

JAPAN CUTS at the Japan Society NYC

Hey all my East Coast homies, starting Thursday, July 1st it's the fourth annual JAPAN CUTS Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema at the Japan Society, the largest showcase of contemporary Japanese film outside Japan. Special guests include filmmakers Momoko Ando, Noboru Iguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Tomorowo Taguchi, Toshiaki Toyoda, Hitoshi Yazaki, Isao Yukisada, and actors Tatsuya Fujiwara and Daichi Watanabe.

Films to be screened include Confessions (dir. Tetsuya Nakashima), Sawako Decides (dir. Yuya Ishii), About Her Brother (dir. Yoji Yamada), Blood of Rebirth (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda), Bare Essence of Life: Ultra Miracle Love Story (dir. Satoko Yokohama), Dear Doctor (dir. Miwa Nishikawa), Golden Slumber (dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura), Nightmare Detective II (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto), Parade (dir. Isao Yukisada), and Zero Focus (dir. Isshin Inudo).

Great chance to get right up to the minute with Japanese film and yet another reason to be in Manhattan!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Green Fish

I've been working my way backwards through the filmography of Korean novelist and director Lee Chang-dong. A couple of years ago I saw his then-latest film Secret Sunshine (2007) in San Francisco and was properly blown away. More recently I screened Peppermint Candy (1999), another triumph. And just now I've seen his directorial debut, Green Fish (1997). Remarkably, that amounts to the majority of his output; he's only made five films in the last 13 years. But if the other two films are as good as the ones I've seen, he can take all the time he wants. His stuff is worth the wait.

Green Fish follows the progress of a young guy named Mak-dong (Han Seok-kyu) from newly-discharged soldier to low-level gangster via an encounter with a mysterious beauty on a train (Shim Hye-jin). She's a singer in a nightclub owned by local gang boss Bae Tae-gon (Moon Seong-guen), whose moll she is, but she's also got a thing for Mak-dong. If all this is starting to sound somewhat film noir-y, it is. What makes the film remarkable is its utterly unpretentious realism. Such a seemingly hacky set-up works because Lee Chang-dong roots his characters and situations firmly in terra firma, employing a style you could call verite noir. As with his other films, Lee isn't so concerned with conventional story-telling as with direct, visceral human experience. This leads to an unpredictability in his films; standard tropes do not concern him, only raw emotion (and a certain measure of social commentary). But since most films are simply a series of surprises anyway, Lee's approach works, albeit from a completely different direction. The audience's cinematic expectations are thwarted by the rude intrusion of something unexpected that might actually happen.

So, for example, when Mak-dong's brother gets pulled over by a cop, he tries to bribe the cop ... and the cop takes the bribe. Mak-dong's brother only has one large bill and asks the cop for change. The cop agrees, then gets in his car and drives away. So crazy brother chases the cop, demanding his change! Elsewhere an imposing thug from a rival gang bumps into Mak-dong in a store, causing him to drop his groceries. The thug picks them up and apologizes ... in English! Then, moments later, he returns with his cohorts to beat the shit out of Makdong and his pals. Green Fish is filled with moments like these. Things inevitably ratchet up but, again, not in the way you might think, and the film ends on a decidedly unconventional note.

One more reason to see Green Fish is the presence of the incomparable Song Kang-ho (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, JSA, The Quiet Family, Thirst), here playing one of Mak-dong's fellow gangsters. It's an early, small role for Song, but his manic energy is in full force -- any time he's on the screen, you can't take your eyes off him. He would team up again with Han Seok-kyu in the taut political/crime drama Shiri (1999).

Green Fish won the Dragons & Tigers Award at the 16th Vancouver International Film Festival.

Friday, June 11, 2010

They can't all be good ...

Contrary to appearances, I have not been neglecting this blog. I have, in fact, been screening films to write about, but they've all been too sucky or non-shocking to qualify. But then I thought, "Hello, why not write about them anyway?" As Groucho Marx once remarked after a particularly crap joke, "They can't all be good, you've got to expect that." You said it, Groucho!

The lamest of the lot by far was Battlefield Baseball (2003). I'd wanted to see this one for years, having heard it was similar to Shaolin Soccer (only with Japanese zombies instead of Chinese martial artists and baseball instead of soccer). Plus Tak Sakaguchi is in it, and I thought he was great in Versus. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered it was utter dogshit. Seriously, I'm willing to forgive a lot in terms of outrageous, manga-esque excess (see my Asia Shock for ample proof), but this film didn't even deliver on the promise of its own outrageousness.

The premise, wafer-thin as it is, is this: A high school principal fears for his prize baseball team when he realizes they're slated to play another team known for mutilating and murdering their opponents on the field. That's it, that's the whole movie. Apparently, the film's budget did not allow for special effects, as all such mayhem happens off screen, leaving us to view a baseball field strewn with cheap-looking body part props. To keep things going, people come back to life, only do the same schtick all over again. Ugh.

Then I watched Dorm, (2006) supposedly a Thai shocker about a haunted dormitory in a boy's boarding school. Part The Devil's Backbone, part The Sixth Sense, the film isn't bad, in fact it has a gentle charm that infuses what amounts to a supernatural coming-of-age picture wherein a living boy and a ghost boy help each other and those around them. But it sure ain't scary or even remotely shocking.

So I decided to throw on a Hideo Gosha film, Four Days of Blood and Snow (1989), about the notorious "226 Incident" that occurred February 26 (hence 226), 1936, in which a group of young Imperial Japanese Army officers attempted a coup de e'tat. Knowing Gosha's visceral style and reputation for brutally realistic screen violence, as well as his string of just-plain-awesome samurai and yakuza films from the 60s and 70s, I figured it was a slam dunk. Gotta be great, right?

Nope. Sadly, whatever Gosha had in 1969 (when he made both Goyokin and Tenchu), he'd all but lost 20 years later. Outside of a thrilling sequence early on, in which the rebellious young officers run around Tokyo assassinating government officials, the rest of the film is just a tedious bore, suffering as it does from the same problem that plagues most films coming out today: No character development. The half dozen leaders of the coup attempt are flat, flat, flat. We are expected to just hit the ground running with these guys without any background, a bunch of wooden toy soldiers spouting the usual nationalistic banalities. Who cares? Wanna know how to make an ensemble piece set in wartime work? Try Paul Verhoeven's The Soldier of Orange.

So now I'm on to the next film. Never fear, dear reader I'll find something good for you. It is my quest, my raison d'etre (and, usually, something I enjoy -- here's hoping I have better luck with Green Fish).