Thursday, December 23, 2010

Norwegian Wood - Noruwei no Mori - 2010

Director - Anh Hung Tran

Rating - 4/5

A beautiful dream-like interpretation of Murakami's novel.

Like the Japanese translation of the Beatles song itself (Norwegian Forest, rather than wood) this adaptation of Murakami's best-selling novel is just a little askew. It makes up for this by being a sumptuously shot, dream of a film.

The story is deceptively simple. Toru, Naoko and her boyfriend Kizuki are best friends in their high school days in the '70s. Everything seems perfect, except of course everything is not perfect. Without warning, Kizuki sits in his car in a garage with a pipe attached to the exhaust, and turns on the ignition killing himself. The story picks up again 3 years later with Toru now a university student in Tokyo. The student riots are going all around but they always feel peripheral to the story. He bumps into Naoko in a park and they reignite their friendship, which eventually becomes something more. This is too much for the fragile Naoko. She heads to a retreat for depression, isolated in the Kyoto mountains. Toru meets Midori, playful and lively, she is the the opposite of shy Naoko, and finds himself trapped between the past and the future. The deviation from the books narrative is minimal and anyone who has read it will feel immediately familiar.

The book was of a man reflecting from his 30s, scouring his memories. Whilst this flashback element is not really here, apart from Toru's occasional voice-over. The film does manage to recreate this through its airy style though, making the whole film feel like an extended memory. It struck me at times as sharing some parallels with Wong Kar Wai's 2046, visually and thematically, the scene from the back of the cab seems like a direct homage. Unfortunately, the actors don't strike you as Murakami creations at times. Kenichi Matsuyama is handsome and does a good job, but the Toru from the pages doesn't really leap out of him. This is perhaps unfair criticism, as a lot of Toru's characterization was achieved through the access to his inner thoughts as narrator of the book, but there is a notable paring down of all the characters. Rinko Kikuchi, here as Naoko and familiar from Babel, applies herself well to the role. She seems ethereal, adding to this otherly effect by spending half the movie in the clouds of the mountaintop retreat. The three main stars, with Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, are maybe a little too picture perfect for this film but overall they contribute solid performances.

Anh Hung Tran's direction is great and the film is really beautiful from start to finish. The shots of Toru and Naoko in the mountain are spell-binding. Those scenes are translated perfectly into film. He envelops Naoko and Toru in the nature surrounding them, losing them in it. The essence of the seasons, snowy mountains, autumnal hues, are distilled into the film serving as a timescale and a metaphor for the story.His focus on nature, the extreme close ups of the plants are stunning, make for some brilliant imagery.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's score is pitch perfect. It briefly seems at odds, it's the last thing you expect, but very quickly makes a great deal of sense. As in There Will Be Blood it is never merely background music, but something that bears almost the same influence as the camera itself. He imbues a foreboding dread, lacing otherwise innocuous scenes with the feeling of something toxic. There are even sequences reminiscent of Anderson's masterpiece, as the mountainous ranges of Japan are captured just as the desolate wilderness of America's hunt for oil was. The occasional music tracks, apart from the titular Beatles one, comes from krautrock band Can. All well chosen and appropriately used they, along with the immaculate attention to the period detail on screen in the sets and costumes, let the '70s ooze out of the screen.

The film does have moments where it lapses. The acting is a little in patches. One scene where Toru is crying and drooling (literally) in anguish on the rocks is a bit too much. There should be more trust placed in the audience. His turmoil is apparent, he is sleeping in a rock cave, it doesn't need to be overplayed like this. The film is a bit slow in getting running, though it seems to grow with confidence as the story progresses. A couple of the big scenes, like where Reiko, Naoko's confidante, sings Norwegian Wood don't quite come off as perhaps intended, but are in the minority.

Flawed definitely, but an exceptional film. For any Murakami fans complaining about the legitimacy of this as an adaptation, I urge you to cast your memory back to the forgotten Tony Takitani. That was a film, largely ignored, that truly, in every essence, adhered to the Murakami style and atmosphere. Norwegian Wood is more of a compromise but an entirely valid one. At the end Midori asks Toru where he is. He can't answer, unsure like the feeling of waking up from a dream. Norwegian Wood is a film that is hard to hold onto, but lingers with you, a meandering dream-scape of sorrow.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Battle Royale 3D - Batoru Rowaiaru 3D - 2010

Director - Kinji Fukusaku

Rating - 4/5

I still vividly remember seeing this when it came out in 2000, in Camden. It was only on limited release in the UK due to the moral outcry that followed it around. There was a strange flyer that depicted London just like the map the students are given in the film, with the handful of cinemas that were screening. I remembered hearing that Japanese politicians were up in arms at the preposterously violent high-school story and that American distributors weren't touching it with a ten foot barge pole in light of the Columbine massacre. Aside from that though, I was largely in the dark.

As the first knife flew towards a uniformed school girl's head there was a collective intake of breath in the audience. As the blade lodged itself in her head and she slumped to the floor, everyone in that packed screening audibly gasped in a state of shock. There was this dawning realization that this was going to be something more than a little unusual. Celebrating its tenth anniversary last year, it is as fresh as ever, and I have still never had an experience quite like it in a cinema since.

The film remains a dark, lord of the flies-esque gore-fest. Before explaining the plot it is worth mentioning that if you haven't yet seen this, it might be worth going into it blind. Its one of those films that just works better without knowing the story in detail in advance. Battle Royale is set in turn of the millennium Japan which appears to be going downhill fast. Young people don't respect their elders and the system is going to pot. A counter-measure, the Battle Royale act, is proposed to restore some order. As such, the worst behaved class of students in Japan are taken to an island each year, given a selection of weapons, and left to kill each other until one survivor, the winner, is left. Some students can't believe what is happening, others take to it with incredible relish. The film's original tag-line coined it nicely, "Could you kill your best friend?"

It’s not the most obvious choice for the third dimensional treatment, but it does add a certain zing to it, with the knives flying and such. There is still that lingering curmudgeonly feeling that 3D is not the necessity film studios claims it is, and a film like this will hit its audience with the same intensity even if it sticks to plain old 2D. Having said that, it is a bit of fun and it is nice to see a film that doesn't fit the big blockbuster mold giving the medium a crack. Director Kinji Fukusaku passed away in 2003 and his son, who took over the reigns of Battle Royale 2, converted the film as is to 3D in honour of its first decade.

The contrast of the ultra-violence (a film truly deserving of that moniker) and the hokey relationships between the kids is as odd as it is fascinating; a girl lies bleeding to death in her classmates arms with them telling each other how cool they are. There are many moments like this which give you that sense of "only in Japan." The incredible instructional video shown to the bemused students at the start is masterful. The super-genki (high-energy) host explains the horrific rules, exploding necklaces, and varying weapons with a cheerful relish that is sinisterly hilarious. The best thing is still Kitano as the head-teacher, played with a dead-panned edge that only he can pull off. It is an interesting twist on the archetypal Kitano character in films Sonatine and Hana-bi. He comes of as a sort of twisted Bill Murray. It is a welcome reminder of his capabilities as recent offerings haven't quite hit the mark.

The film is viewed as a modern classic in Japan. Tarantino placed it in his top twenty films since becoming a director in 1992, though Anything Else was in there too so make what you will of it. The excellent Chiaki Kuriyama, who played the running team girl Chigusa, went on to star as Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill. She is the stand-out of the young cast. When she ends one of her classmates last ditch attempts at losing his virginity , male members of the audience will find it a particularly tough moment. Lead boy Tatsuya Fujiwara is good as Shuya. He holds the film together well with his earnest performance. He went on to star in the successful Death Note series.It is a little bit hard to picture the boyish looking Yukihiro Kotani, Shuya's best friend Kuninobu, as the supreme l'enfant terrible, but he is only around briefly. The rest of the large cast are all solid, with everyone chipping in. Japanese classes are given numbers from one to forty, and it is chilling when said numbers are read out in the loud-speaker death reports, and flash up on screen.

The music that accompanies the film is perfectly picked. Orderly classical music beamed out over the battle-ground, utterly discordant and utterly fantastic. It also allows for one of the most peculiar scenes in the film. Kitano's head teacher begins his traditional rajio-taiso, a series of stretches that Japanese companies and schools traditionally perform every morning. As the chaos unfolds, this moment of serenity and order seems to hark back to a by-gone era often regarded with slightly misty eyes by Japan's older generation. Is this the sign of a shepherd who has lost his flock, or with all the monstrosities going on around it, is Fukusaku trying to expose this nostalgia as just an empty facade?

There are some sizable plot-holes here and there, that can be a little distracting. The prologue shows TV reporters announcing from the scene of last years tournament. It makes it seem a little peculiar when all the students froth with disbelief. The film is definitely stronger in the set up, and as the second half gathers pace it loses some of its dramatic push. Yet, Fukusaku labelled this film a fable, and as such it feels a little unnecessary to be pulling on the lose threads of the film. Regardless of the few short-comings, the film as a whole works exceptionally well.

If you haven't seen Battle Royale it is definitely worth taking the opportunity to catch in the cinema. Regardless of the 3D or not it is a film that works best in the darkness of a cinema, as part of a captive audience. If you have seen it, then it certainly beats watching it on DVD again, no matter how many bonus discs they throw in with the re-release. Fukusaku's son said in an interview, "we never set out to make Harry Potter. The point is to make people think about big issues." Both of those statements are unequivocally true.

An interesting piece on the distribution problem encountered in America on its original release.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Autumn Adagio - Fuwaku no Adajio 2010

Director - Tsuki Inoue

Rating - 4/5

A Japanese nun approaching the menopause.

Set to the backdrop of a beautiful Japanese autumn, this is the story of Japanese Catholic nun, Sister Terasawa, played by Rei Shibakusa. It is a nuanced and delicate film, a transition. The story, perhaps a little unusual, is moving and well shot. Terasawa has, unsuprisingly, lived a quiet life. As she approaches the turning point of the menopause, three men enter her life. Each is completely different but they all begin to have a profound effect on her, making her ask questions about the choices and sacrifices she has made.

The film uses music and dance to extraordinary effect. The scenes with the ballet dancers, of which Terasawa, like us sits spell-bound watching are of the highest order. They express Inoue's message with a profound clarity. It is immediately evident why she chose to work with non-professional actors, Inoue wrote the film with Shibakusa, a musician by trade, in mind. The power of these moments coupled with the visual style, radiates from every scene and make a big impression. The films autumn is captured beautifully, visually depicting the change in Terasawa. It's an unusual and beautiful little film, that speaks clearly.

Akunin - The Villain 2010

Director - Sang Il-Lee


A peculiar love story that looks beautiful but has a coldness at its heart.

Set on the southern island of Japan, Kyushu, the story spans from Nagasaki on the western edge to the big city of Fukuoka on the northern tip. Akunin is the story of a man burned, who turns to the dark-side for a brief moment . It is compelling stuff, asking some big questions about the nature of judgement and how far you can push the desire to be loved.

Six peoples lives become entangled in a tragedy. A pretty, but vacuous young girlYoshino has been dating a young guy, Shimizu, from the countryside. They arrange to meet in Fukuoka but while he is waiting for her she finds a more suitable alternative, the handsome but morally vacant Masuo. They leave, and Shimizu slams on the accelerator. In the next scene the police are uncovering her body and this is where the story starts for real. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks which fill out the event, timed to manipulate our interpretation of the events.

The villain of the title, Shimizu, is a fairly simple character. Undernourished in his family life, lost in the world. His crime, of course utterly deplorable, is passionate not premeditated, and in a way, retaliatory too. His relationship with Mitsuyo, the excellent Eri Fukatsu, seems to offer redemption. Clearly his first mutual relationship with a women, he attempts to give her money after they have sex, of which the manner conducted is itself worthy of a psychiatrist's couch. You would never go so far as to say he is likable, but his vulnerability is disarming. At lunch with her in a quaint tourist restaurant he blurts out his terrible secret, exposing the unreality of the situation: a picture perfect romantic moment is brought crumbling to the ground.

Mitsuyo is the intrigue of the story. Her motives though clear, are impenetrably difficult to understand. She is evidently lonely; at work in a suit store she mistakenly assumes a romantic edge to an interaction with a customer. Without him ever getting wind we see her hopes raised and dashed as his wife turns the corner, in a way that seems very familiar to her. It is this loneliness that pushes her to avoid the taints on the outside of Shimizu. On their first meeting he barely speaks to her at first, distrustful and disdainful. She remarks that he is not the kind of person she normally spends time with. She emits an aura of innocence and with his bleached hair and sporty clothes his roughness jars. You imagine in a hundred other lifetimes their paths would never have crossed, but the pressure and longing to be with someone draw them together. His treatment of her is misogynistic, aggressive but she makes a commitment to find the decency in him.

The film looks amazing, capturing the island of Kyushu perfectly. It comes across as a cold, barren place, Shimizu and Mitsuyo struggling through it. I found myself reminded of Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, the story of a couple condemned to wander Japan bonded by an unbreakable rope. Their hideout in a lighthouse, though perhaps a little cliched, is striking and cinematic. However, too much time is spent on the exposition, it is a good 40 minutes before the set up has been established. The peripheral stories of the father and grandmother, even with some decent acting, can't help but be superficial. Apart from fleshing out the two characters and developing some of the themes, they have little purpose. The excellent performances, interesting ideas and visual style make this a solid film. Finally, though asked to analyse our own judgement of the characters, at the end the film is ambiguous in its own.