Friday, October 29, 2010

Kadokawa Horror Collection Pt. 2

I should mention that these weren't Kadokawa pictures. Three were released through Toho and the other through Toei. Kadokawa just bought the rights once it was clear the J-horror thing was on the wane. Having seen all four now, I think it also important to note that, as J-horror goes, these films weren't in the forefront of what you'd call frightening. They'd more properly be tagged "J-atmos" or "J-pop" than anything approaching horror. However the overall quality of the productions runs from decent to outstanding, so as long as you don't come with expectations of getting the shit scared out of you, you're still likely to get something from each of them.

Inugami (2001)

Inugami is a beautifully rendered film based on what I would guess is an unfilmable novel by Masako Bando. Therefore, there's something of the WTF to the proceedings, requiring an open mind and a willingness to just let things happen. The film was shot in lush locations of dazzling natural beauty in the mountainous regions of Shikoku, the smallest of the four major islands of Japan. Shikoku is commonly known as a rural backwater with towns full of superstitious, xenophobic hicks (a pivotal factor in the film). But that's always the way, isn't it? You get to some beautiful, remote corner of the world only to be repulsed by the locals. In this case they're the Shinto version of Puritan witch-burners and they've got their sites set on Miki (lovely Yuki Amami), a member of the mysterious and wealthy Bonomiya family who, for generations, have been associated with deadly supernatural dog spirits known as inugami (inu = dog, gami = gods). Curses, ghosts, incest, suicide, lovely scenery, there's something for everyone (even if you're not quite sure what's going on). Castwise, it's great to see Shiho Fujimura and Keiko Awaji, two veteran actresses of classic samurai cinema, appearing here in their twilight years; time hasn't done a thing but wrinkle them. Then there's Atsuro Watabe who more recently appeared as the priest dad in Love Exposure. The Verdict: Not a horror film, but not a bad escape either.

Shikoku (1999)

Guess where this film is set? Yep, we're back on the island, but this time out the villagers aren't quite so hostile, the tone is more low-key, the focus softer (literally -- either they blew it up from 16 mm or they smeared vaseline on the lens). That said, it's far more creepy and, in my opinion, the most J-horror of the four films on offer. Three childhood friends are separated (one moves to Tokyo, one dies), only to be reunited as adults (well, the boy and girl who lived are adults -- the dead girl never made it past 16). So it's a supernatural love triangle with, once again, a Shinto-inflected back story. This is the one film of the four that I'd seen previously; I was drawn not only by the J-horror but the presence of Chiaki Kuriyama (here playing the ghost girl Sayori). There's something captivating about Kuriyama; she's not the greatest beauty -- got something of a honker to be frank. But she conveys an intriguing, cat-like essence I found striking upon first encountering her as the knife-wielding Chigusa in Battle Royale: "Come at me. Every inch of me will resist you!" Her unique blend of schoolgirl prim and feline menace work perfectly in Shikoku. Elsewhere there's the great Makoto Sato in a small role as Sendo the yamabushi (mountain priest) who's determined to close the portal through which Sayori has returned. If you don't know who Makoto Sato is, look him up in the index of Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. You've got some great performances to look forward to!

So that's it. Not much of a Halloween offering, I'm afraid. But no worries, there's always Kwaidan (1964), Jigoku (1960), Organ (1996), Pulse (2001), Illusion of Blood (1965), Ringu (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), Kuroneko (1968), Matango (1963) and, of course, Evil Dead Trap (1998).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Kadokawa Horror Collection Pt. 1

Out of respect for the season, I'm working my way through the Kadokawa Horror Collection. These four films date back a decade to the glory days of J-horror when long-haired lady ghosts ruled and everything from video cassettes to PCs was haunted! As with any box set, the quality control is a little wonky, but overall I'm having a pretty good time.

Shadow of the Wraith (Ikisudama, 2001)

A dozen years before Shadow of the Wraith, director Toshiharu Ikeda gave us the immortal Evil Dead Trap. It appears Ikeda-san mellowed considerably in the interim. Only mildly scary, Wraith plays more like a promotional video for the band Doggy Bag (whose idol brothers Koji and Yuichi Matsuo play and act in the film). There are actually two stories: 1) A spooky high school girl stalks the red-headed Japanese boy of her dreams (Koji), killing the competition with the help of her own malefic doppelganger; 2) A normal high school girl fights a powerful yet diminutive ghost in her new apartment with the help of a dreamy guy from her homeroom class (Yuichi). Only a faint aura of Argento influence remains in Ikeda's treatment of the freakier scenes (bright colors, creepy synths) compared with the more elaborately giallo-influenced set pieces of EDT. On the whole, unless you're a hardcore Japanese pop culture enthusiast with an interest in idols, you'll probably want to skip this one.

Isola (2000)

Hey, what if you had multiple personalities and one of them turned out to be the malevolent disembodied spirit of a woman scientist who died in an isolation tank and is now killing everyone around you? Dig the conceit? Then you'll enjoy Isola. Set in Kobe during the aftermath of the Great Hanshin earthquake, everything's all rubbly and the aura of crisis hangs heavily in the air. A pretty yet troubled young psychic arrives on the scene and soon bonds with a high school girl afflicted with the above-mentioned personality disorders. Can they stop the evil spirit before she kills again? I enjoyed this film, and found it slightly weirder than the average J-horror. The beautiful girl with the 13 personalities turns out to be Yu Kurosawa, teen idol and granddaughter of Akira Kurosawa. Shortly after making this film, she married and retired from the business. Too bad, she had a truly hypnotic allure. Also present in a small role as a suicidal old man, is Hideo Murota -- he's been in everything from Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

OK, on to the other two ...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Snow Trail

Snow Trail (1947) is a milestone film for students of Japanese cinema, chiefly as it marks the screen debut of one Toshiro Mifune. Scripted by Akira Kurosawa and directed by his childhood friend and lesser-talented fellow Toho director Senkichi Taniguchi, it is not an outstanding film, but as you've no doubt gathered by now, there are some outstanding things in it.

Most remarkable by far is the performance of Takashi Shimura. Of course a remarkable performance from this legendary actor isn't remarkable in itself, as he gave so many: an embarrassment of riches. Here, he's a bank robber on the lamb with his younger and far less nice partner in crime (Mifune). They're stalking about in the Japanese alps. Why they decided to head there is never explained, but it makes for many a beautiful scenic vista (and much trudge-based plot padding). The two men (there was a third but he fell down a ravine) find themselves in a remote lodge with a kindly old man, his charming granddaughter, and a cheerful local mountain climber. They're all snowed in and there's nothing for it but to sit and wait. Shimura's heart begins to thaw in this compassionate company; Mifune's hardens. While the older crook sips sake and moons paternally over the girl, his angry young cohort spends his time cleaning his gun and counting his loot. Tensions mount. Something's gotta give ...

As I say, the film belongs to Shimura. The Spencer Tracy of Japanese film, he could say it all with a mere gesture. A more natural actor you'll never find, nor a more versatile one. From the battle-hardened Sengoku warrior of Seven Samurai to the cancer-riddled bureaucrat in Ikiru and all points in between, Shimura's every turn was perfection. In Snow Trail, he undergoes a transformation of character upon which hangs the rest of the picture. Everything else is fairly cookie-cutter, including Mifune's rather two-dimensional heavy. However, even in this comparatively unrewarding role, we see a Mifune already nearly fully-formed. His pent-up tension, his flashes of rage, his body language; he's a natural. Watching his performance, it's possible to grok with a then-37-year-old Akira Kurosawa and his determination to get this hot new talent on a set of his own (which he promptly did with the following year's Drunken Angel).

And the rest, as they say, (as they say) is history.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Shinsengumi Chronicles

Once again, Animeigo and I are on the same page. In this case, it's page 194 of Warring Clans, Flashing Blades where I noted that Shinsengumi Chronicles is "largely accurate and impressive in its scope and devotion to a thorough retelling of the events of the day." Those unfamiliar with the Shinsengumi, a ronin militia formed during the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate, should probably read the whole review, as I spend a bit of time discussing the background and forming of this most legendary aggregation of lethal swordsmen. But even it you don't, Animeigo has done their usual whiz-bang job of providing lots of supplemental material to bring you up to speed.

One thing puzzles me, though. My name is on the back of the DVD case, after the quote "Samurai Knights of the Roundtable … " -- something I've never said or written in connection with this film. Either Animeigo's marketing department is confused, or they're just making stuff up. I understand they're under considerable stress just now, suffering from both a bad economy and consumer flight from disc-based media. But really, fellas, "Samurai Knights of the Roundtable"? Give me some credit. That's not only corny, but wholly inaccurate. These Shinsengumi guys operated more like gangsters than mythical Arthurian knights of old, something you surely know, so why wouldn't I?

But never mind this lapse, Shinsengumi Chronicles is a great samurai film, one of the best and highly recommended.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inch by Incheon

Just about halfway through a 9-hour layover at Incheon. As airports go, you could do worse; there are big, comfy cushions to stretch out on, plenty of restaurants, tons of free wi-fi, major shopping (if that's your thing). They're nuts for shopping in this country. All the cineplexes where the PIFF films were showing were inside shopping centers. One was in the Largest Department Store in the World (for real -- they have a huge Guinness World Records seal out front). One night after a screening, the elevators went on the fritz and we all had to use the escalators. Going down through floor after floor after floor of Prada and Gucci and Lancome and Chanel and the like -- I guess it's paradise for some folks, but I felt like I was descending through some realm of consumer madness.

Oh hey, there goes the royal family. It's a ren-faire-like procession of actors in Joseon period costume portraying the royals of yore. They walk solemnly up and down the third floor passenger terminal. Don't quite know why, but it's kinda cool.

OK, I've bored you enough with this non-film entry. Go enjoy your day (or evening). I've got thousands of miles before I sleep ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Secret Reunion

How great is Secret Reunion? Let me count the ways. It's a multi-layered, breathlessly-paced North/South Korean spy film; a buddy picture full of humor and action; a pitch-perfect political metaphor; and just possibly the best film I've seen all year.

Of course I'm a sucker for Song Kang-ho and, once again, he pulls the whole film together with his unique blend of schlubby, sleazy comedy and emotional intensity. He's a cornerstone of contemporary South Korean cinema for a reason; you just feel like you know the guy from the first frame and you're on his side, come what may. Major props also to newcomer director Jang Hun. A former AD to Kim Ki-duk, Secret Reunion is his sophomore effort after turning heads with his gangsters vs. actors debut Rough Cut (2008).

Song plays Lee Han-kyu, a National Intelligence Service agent fired for botching a mission to capture North Korean operative Song Ji-won (Kang Dong-won). Six years later, the two men meet, albeit under completely different circumstances, each becoming increasingly more involved in the other's life. Lee knows Song's real identity but keeps it on the down-low for his own purposes. Song does likewise. As events advance and tension mounts, the two men develop a mutual admiration and respect for one another. Can the North Korean and the South Korean work things out? Can't we all just get along?

Kang Dong-won deserves praise as well, perfectly complimenting Song Kang-ho's performance with his own stoic, steely stance. It's funny, I was just looking at him on Korean television the night before in a very different role, that of the title character in Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard, wherein he fights giant rat and rabbit spirits among other things. Yeah, you'll be hearing more about that one -- watch this space …

In any case, I found Secret Reunion so thoroughly enjoyable that I even forgot how loud it was. I don't know if it's Korean cinemas in general or just the films at the PIFF, but every screening I've attended has been just short of deafening. The sound on these films is cranked up to 11, way louder than anything in a cineplex in the States. So if you like your action loud, get your ass to Busan!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Busan Day 3

Unfortunately, due to a combination of poor timing, illness and first-timer ineptitude, I'm not seeing a whole lot of films here in Busan. I really need to get back here next year so I can utilize the knowledge I'm gaining from all the mistakes I'm making.

I did get to see a wonderful Korean comedy from 1961, Under the Sky of Seoul, and last night I caught Sion Sono's latest, Cold Fish. The latter is a perverse, serial killer splatfest that could only come from the unbridled imagination of the man who gave us Suicide Club and Love Exposure. I won't say any more about it, as it's one of those films best seen knowing as little as possible -- just let it slice into you and scatter you in pieces all across the theater floor.

Elsewhere, I wandered down the beach to where they shot all the outdoor restaurant scenes for Tidal Wave. That was a mind fuck, like stepping into the movie (minus the tsunami and Park Joong-hoon). Then, when I went back to the hotel room, what came on the TV? Yep, you guessed it. I was inside the movie watching the movie inside my hotel -- what would Poe say? (Clue: It's tattooed on this chick's back).

OK, gotta run. Going to see the new Song Kang-ho spy picture Secret Reunion. Love that guy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pat in Pusan (well Busan really)

After an ungodly 18-hour journey, I'm finally in my hotel room in Busan, South Korea. Why am I up, writing this? Not only is it after midnight here, but, according to my clock, I've been up all night and am shuffling around in the dewy dawn like some overripe meth head. Only traveling in Asia can leave you so skuzzily in need of a shower and yet so damned exhilarated (meth don't even come close). Now all I need to do is get enough sleep to function for the PIFF.

More to come ...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Special NYC Screening

Gotham Screen International Film Festival 2010 in NYC will be holding a special tribute screening for the late anime master Satoshi Kon. His last feature film, Paprika, will be screened in 35mm in Tribeca Cinemas on Oct 13. I caught the premier back in 2007 and wrote a review.

If you haven't seen this amazing film, you should now. Its a special film made by a special human being. Who can read his last words and not be moved?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tidal Wave

In light of my impending trip to South Korea for the 15th Pusan International Film Festival, I thought I'd watch the beach front location of the event being violently demolished by a massive tsunami. For a giggle. To this purpose, Tidal Wave (2009) delivered the goods. The other 90% of the film however ... not so good.

In the classic disaster flick formula, we're introduced to a variety of characters with whom we are expected to bond through long intervals of character development. This serves two purposes: 1) It sets up a payoff when the shit hits the fan -- we're emotionally invested in the fates of our new friends; 2) It creates padding (let's face it, you can't have 120 minutes of giant waves crushing stuff). So you've got the brave young coast guard guy, the plucky single mom, the lovable loser guy, the brainy-yet-hot chick, the scientist who knows the tidal wave is coming (but no one will listen), the adorable child, etc., etc. These individuals all display an emotional range that goes from goofy to sappy and back again. And again. And again. Yep, that's pretty much all you get here, either goofy or sappy. The laughs are played broad, usually involving slapstick and/or some measure of extreme drunkenness. And despite how tough or smart a character might be, underneath they're all histrionically sentimental. Behold, as the waves finally hit, the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth! The film's special effects are matched only by the emotional spectacle the actors make of themselves.

There's also an issue with the ending, which it's impossible for me to spoil unless I go into detail (which I won't). The thing is, in a film like this, where you've already kept the audience waiting for the vast majority of the picture, when the grand finale comes, the one thing it shouldn't do is drag. Oh how it drags. It drags like a drag queen taking a drag on the back of a dead dragon. It's a drag.

That's not to say there aren't some thrilling moments, like right when the wave hits. Obviously these scenes will resonate more with the tens of thousands of Koreans who flock to the lovely Haeundae Beach area each summer (the Korean title of the film is Haeundae). Me, I've been looking at pictures of the place in tour books and online in anticipation of my visit, so it was a little spooky seeing it wiped out by a cyclopean wall of water. Those without fond memories or a vested interest in Haeundae Beach may not be so engaged. However, if you're a disaster film fan, you'll probably want to see Tidal Wave, if only for the FX and the novelty of a modern Korean take on an old genre. If so, good night and good luck.