Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hong Kong Asian Film Festival 2011

Festival Homepage

October 18th to November 18th.

The 8th Hong Kong Asian Film Festival is another superb participant in the city’s vibrant film festival calendar. There are a whopping 65 films in the line-up from all over Asia screened over the course of a month. The schedule is jam-packed with quality featuring some of the most exciting new stuff in Asian cinema. This is all nicely complimented by director’s retrospectives, cult classics, and a very interesting Taiwanese section, amongst others. Screenings will take place in three cinemas, the Broadway Cinematheque in Kowloon, the Palace ICF near Hong Kong Station, and the One in Tim Sha Tsui.

The festival opens with local royalty Johnny To’s latest film, Life Without Principle, that sets a slow-burning heist movie to the backdrop of the global recession. More than just a plot device, his film looks extensively at investment banking in an interesting spin on the genre. The films multi-strand narrative dumps a police inspector (Richie Jen, a To regular), his wife (Myolie Wu), and a banker (pop star Denise Ho) into the mixer. It looks perhaps a little slower than what fans of To have come to expect, but is definitely a film which is seeking to place itself right in the now. For the closing film fellow Hong Konger Wong Ching-Po’s live action adaptation of a Japanese anime series Let’s Go takes centre stage. The film is loosely inspired by the cult Space Emperor God Sigma about enormous robots in 2050, not, confusingly from the Japanese manga Lets and Go, . Nevertheless, it seems to be an entertaining opera of sci-fi violence. If the style and verve of Wong Ching-Po’s most recent film, Revenge: A Love Story, have made their way into this effort, fans of this kind of thing should be very excited. The gala presentation of the escapist Starry Starry Night, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, is another notable landmark on the calendar. It is based on the illustrated book by Jimmy Liao about two teenage outsiders who are immediately drawn to each other.

Making up part of the Cineaste section, Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu is a fantastic little film, which was in competition in Cannes this year. Set in Japan’s Asuka region, close to the city of Nara, it taps into the serenity of the countryside to tell the story of a complicated romance that forces those involved to reassess their lives. Like her previous film, the grand prix winning Mogari no Mori, it looks beautiful. Another intriguing Japanese film being screened is Himizu, an adaptation of a hugely popular teen manga. The intrigue is in the circumstances surrounding it. The film was written and about to go into production in Northern Japan when the earthquake hit. Director Sono Sion decided that he would use these characters to tell the story of the earthquake, re-writing the film around the tragedy. The shoot went ahead in the devastated region and has some incredible scenes of the sheer destruction. It must be said, though, that this is still an adaptation of the manga, violence, absurdity, and all. Nevertheless, the movie’s use of the earthquake is not gratuitous and it actually does have something to say on the crisis.

A retrospective of two Chinese directors whose careers have intertwined also stands out. Wang Xioashuai and Lou Ye marked a movement away from the conservative cinema of the fifth generation to make films that were more in touch with modern China. They have both been heavily censored, and even exiled. Xiaoshuai’s Frozen on the life of a struggling performance artist who undergoes the ultimate sacrifice for his art looks fascinating. His take on the life of migrants in So Close to Paradise illustrates the dark side of Wuhan. His latest film 11 Flowers is the centre-piece. It is the story of an eleven year old boy who by chance finds a murderer on the run in the woods, promising to keep his whereabouts secret. Lou Ye’s break-through 2000 film, Suzhou River, a noirish underworld vision of Shanghai that was banned in China is great to revisit, along with his recent Spring Fever. Despite being himself banned from entering the country, he shot it in Nanking using a cast of five actors and working with hand-held cameras [? Not characters] to avoid detection. As with Wang Xioashui, Ye’s latest work is on as well. It is the adaptation of Jie Liu-Falin’s auto-biography and was shot on location in Paris.

The up and comers of the New Talent Award section of any festival is always worth checking out and HKAFF will not disappoint with a varied collection of great new directors. The stunningly animated King of Pigs from Korea which looks back at the child-hood memories of two angry misfits could be brilliant. Its unique style and adult content mark it out as one to see. Representing Hong Kong, Tsui Shan Jessey Tsang’s Big Blue Lake about an actress returning to her hometown has been impressing audiences. The period piece, The Sword Identity, about a Chinese warrior who is mistrusted due to the foreign style of his sword did well on the festival circuit this year and looks like a solid contender for the award being handed out in the New Talent category.

The special sections are what really mark out HKAFF. The Taiwanese collection represents an industry in the midst of a boom. It consists of 15 films from this year or last with some quality pictures. The main attraction is epic Warriors of the Rainbow, the dramatization of aboriginal Taiwanese standing up to Japanese rule at the 1930 Wushe incident. It was the most expensive film in Taiwanese history at 25 million US dollars. Squished into one film when screened in the Venice film festival, it arrives here in all its two part glory. The Killer Who Never Kills is another one to look out for.. The quirky narrative centres on an assassin who never kills anyone. He befriends his targets and sets them up with alternative identities before claiming the money. However, love gets in the way in this romantic, indie comedy. Two documentaries, Cherish, on a scavenger who creates art from recycled objects, and Children From the Distant Planet, a touching piece on raising autistic children, both look like gems.

The classic Nikkatsu retrospective also looks brilliant. The great Japanese film director Seijun Suzuki worked extensively for the studio between 1956 and 1967, producing a prolific 40 films in eleven years. He became famous for surreal, peculiar yakuza films like Tokyo Drifter. The studio were constantly on his back, demanding he rein in some of his creativity. One of his films being shown, Kanto Wanderer, was a sequel that he had been drafted in to direct. Instead of toeing the line, he went the other way and made it unrecognisable from the original. The other, Branded to Kill, which is being shown at HKAFF, is the film that pushed the studio to the edge and he was swiftly fired after getting it into the can. Regardless of this, it is an absolute peach of a movie that is a must-see in the cinema. Another excellent selection is Lovers are Wet, part of Nikkatsu’s Pinky Violence Series. Pink films in Japan are soft-core pornography and were mainly made [I don’t get this original prose – was this what you meant?]by film school students. Whereas the mainstream studio output had strict limitations on the extent that creativity was accepted, if the titillation quota was met directors could be as inventive as they pleased. It led to a peculiar collection of some the best films to be made in Japan. Lovers Are Wet is a great example of this fascinating episode in Japanese cinema.

Sci-fi fans and geeks of Hong Kong will be satiated by the amusingly titled Asian Superheroes collection. It features a modern masterpiece made on a budget that you could barely buy a small car for. Invasion of the Alien Bikini from Korea has wowed festival audiences all over the world and is as exciting, stylish and quirky as sci-fi gets. For fans of weird Japanese stuff, screwball director Noburo Iguchi, who I last saw wearing nothing but sumo garb in 3 metre deep snow, has brought his Karate-Robo Zaborgar to town. It is one of those camp Japanese oddities that depite going over your head (or under it) still remains an entertaining watch. Thailand’s Red Eagle is going for the full-on Hollywood superhero thing, and from the trailer seems to pull it off a lot better than most of the stuff coming out of America.

The lengthy running time of the event from October 18th to November 18th gives festival-goers ample opportunity to take advantage of the great movies being shown. Tickets range from 60-75 dollars and are generally screened twice during the festival. The beauty of this festival is its variety. There’s an awful lot to get interested in this year, so go forth and watch.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Interview with Paul D. Miller AKA DJ Spooky

Paul D. Miller AKA DJ Spooky's film Rebirth of a Nation reinterprets D.W.Griffith's controversial, racist, revisionist, landmark 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The movie puts DJ culture in the director's chair seeking to show how history has a habit of recycling itself. In remixing Birth of a Nation it makes its own context. DJ Spooky created the score for the film , which is performed by the fabulous Kronos Quartet. Rebirth of a Nation has been screened at London's Tate Modern, New York's MoMa, and the Acropolis amongst others. It arrives in Hong Kong for its Asian premiere. There will be two performances on October 15th at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Additionally, DJ Spooky will be doing a Master Class and DJ demonstration on the 14th. Tickets and information are available on the Hong Kong Arts Centre website. Get involved.

What is it that made you want to reinterpret, or remix Birth of a Nation?

Okay well the first thing you've got remember with race in the United States is that it adds layers and layers of complexity to an already paradoxical society. I mean with film Birth of a Nation is the DNA of American cinema, if you look back. So when I was thinking of the last election with Bush dividing the US into red state, blue state. In a way that you really could that the former states of the confederacy had all voted for Bush in this strange way. It was making me think more and more about that, so I just took it from there.

What is the significance of the title Rebirth of a Nation?

Well it's about remixing, recycling, repurposing and what ends up happening with political landscapes, especially in the Obama era. You've got the Tea Party, and the Republicans and they are going crazy and my film was made during the centre of when Bush was starting all these wars so I wanted to try and get people thinking about the way that the past shapes the present, and in a way tell that story. The Re in the title was just a way of saying reason, recycle, repurpose.

America remains fairly divided to this day. Political and legal equality was eventually established, but on a social and economical level there is still a huge disparity. How much real progress has been made with racial equality?

Well, lets see, we just saw a huge situation where a guy got executed by the state of Georgia. There's a lot of problems between race and our place in the legal system. There's a lot of inequality based on economics, based strange statistical use of politics. A white yuppie who does cocaine, will serve a lot less time than an Asian, a Latino, or a black person who smokes weed. Something simple like that, you'd be surprised. When you start looking at the big picture and the numbers, it is eerie to see how statistically speaking we are more unequal than a lot of previous periods in United States' history.

What do you make of Griffith's image of Lincoln. The Great Heart/ Hero of the South, or do you see him as the Great Emancipator, or something else entirely?

Well regardless of how you feel about him one, Lincoln was a Republican, and two, he was a very progressive visionary on a lot of issues. So I respect his memory and I think he is an important figure. the funny thing you have to remember, he was hated in the South that's why he got assassinated. Amazingly enough there isn't anyway that you could all of a sudden make that the composite. It's very easy to remember he was killed because the Southerners hated him, I don't see why he becomes this figure, but it helps with the story for African-Americans. He's very respected, and he is very renowned as a hero for keeping the country together.

In the film you argue that Griffith's depiction of the Lincoln assassination is equivalent to the way the media portrayed events like Katrina and Iraq. What specific links would you make?

I would say that Lincoln and the way that that narrative set-up in the film, where his assassination all of a sudden leads to a worse treatment of the South. There's a lot to be argued for the way Katrina played out in the midst of the South as a kind of new forum for debate. You know, it's funny. Lincoln really was hated by the South and the Republicans because of the Civil War amazingly enough they were hated in the South for almost a century. It took the civil rights movement to get the South to move away from the Democrats. I always view that as a very strange paradox, especially from our current moment, because Republicans called it under Nixon the Southern strategy, which was to co-opt white anger in the South about the civil rights movement and to use that for political gain. Whereas Lincoln was just trying to make things work and be functional. There all these strange situations.

You have that great clip at the beginning where Griffiths is being asked about the truth of Birth of a Nation and he replies, "Truth...What is the truth?" How would you describe the media of today's relationship with the truth?

As we see all over the world, wars, revolutions, the fall of nation states and governments because of Facebook or Twitter. People want to hear what they view as something that relates to their life, their experiences. If their experience in life is misery, and people are on the TV saying everything is great, well, they are going to see that there is the old media and the new media. New media is far more responsive to actual conditions, more local perspectives, which a lot of the time is far more truthful than the national media or Fox News or whatever. If you compare that to what happened in North Africa with all these countries Libya and so on. People were able to compare and say look we are tired of this.

As you've mentioned there are numerous parallels between now and when Birth of a Nation was released, the red/blue divide, external threats, and so on. When you were making this film Bush was in power, since Obama has come in and looking at the reaction to him in certain parts of American society, do you see the fear of the Lynch character as slightly prophetic?

Yeah, he is mixed race, it's about someone who represents the fear of the blurring of the lines of ethnicity. Whites in the US and the Tea Party won't believe that Obama is American because he has a birth certificate from Hawaii. He is mixed at every level, so he represents complexity. But also what's eerie about it is he's not going to push pack as hard as he could. I think he's been letting the Republicans frame the debate on a lot of issues. So it's eerie because you want to see more of a push back, and actually amazingly enough, I think Hilary Clinton at this point probably would be able to push back because she is from a viewpoint within the norms of what they see as political discourse. Obama vs. Lynch it is eerie how resonant it is. He is not evil like Lynch, in fact Obama is a nice person and I think he is too nice.

In light of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, with Obama in office, beyond symbolic importance has he substantively achieved much for African American rights?

Well, it is a very paradoxical situation because he doesn't want to push the idea of blackness too much because he feels like it would piss of whites. But the problem is just his existence has pissed off whites laughs. You know they will accept Bush, they will accept all sorts of stuff. But I think the fact that he is very smart, he went to Harvard for real, whereas Bush was a D- student who benefited from a lot of hook-ups is a very big issue for them. I think the Tea Party and the rank and file of Fox News Republicans find it difficult. You know, he hasn't really appointed that many black people to office, as a symbol it is very powerful but he is more of a centrist like Bill Clinton.

There are similarities between Obama and Lincoln, in some respect if Obama was to miss his 2nd term would this be in any way comparable to the Lincoln assassination for you?

Well, assassination is a whole different thing. Assassination implies that you were in power and they really couldn't get you any other way. Whereas what's happening now is there has been a relentless, I'm talking unflinching war against Obama since he even first got in office. The Republicans have been hitting him on every level to weaken the idea of a multicultural person in office, and they would probably have done the same thing to a woman. Anybody who is outside of this idea of a very stratified norm of what they view as American, which usually is white male. If it was an Asian, a Latino whatever I'm sure they would have done anything, as long as it's not one of them laughs.

Talking about a North South divide, most presidents of American have come from the South. Do you think there is any significance in that?

Yeah, I mean the South because they lost the war. There is actually a really funny book called A History of White People written by a Harvard professor, a very serious book on the construction of whiteness. In Europe, and I DJ in Europe all the time now, the Germans and the Swedish, the French have issues with the English, the Spanish have issues with the Basque, and so on, it's complex. But they are not all running around saying, "Hey, I'm White." The construction of whiteness is very much a part of the American project, so when you're saying presidents are from the South, that's because there you can easily play off race versus actual facts. So a lot of times the Republicans can get poor whites to vote against their interests, "You know what I don't need health care!" You'd be surprised. Or they'll say "the Earth was made in seven days" but they don't need science.

The Birth of a Nation in many respects marks the dawn of modern cinema. Do you think that with its DJ perspective Rebirth of a Nation is somewhat a pioneer in its own right?

With remix and DJ culture,with sampling, you can pull anything out of context and re-edit it, and make the edit itself become an art form. So sampling, the idea of literary play with words, games theory, mixed memories, all of that is part of the way the globe functions now. Once something is digital you can edit it and change it any direction. There is even software now which allows you to change someones face in a photograph. This is just the beginning.

The DJ as director and the cut and paste philosophy, what does it add to our understanding of cinema?

For me right now sampling is about pan-humanity. It's saying Asian, African, European, Latino, and so on, that we can exchange culture. That means that there is respect for the human subject, and it's not about region or one style. And sampling breaks open so much creativity. It's really important for me to celebrate that and it's also important for me to that as a literary and arts foundation for the twenty-first century.

In the past you've talked of Warhol's concept of the fund object. What does that mean to you?

Think of anytime you play a record, I'm talking like vinyl. You are dealing with a couple things, one, the record cover sleeve, two, the actual piece of vinyl. And the record cover sleeve, in my last book, I found the person who invented the record cover sleeve. He was still alive, his name is Alex Steimler. Alex created a revolution in graphic design on a lot levels, because you had to start thinking about visual and sound. When you say found objects, usually its a kind of collage. They pull the collage from bits of pieces of newspaper or books or posters and cut them up. But to do the same thing with sound you are doing the same thing with geography and memory. The found object becomes the world and I think sampling is like a mirror you hold up to the world.

A while back I saw Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari screened while a new wave German punk band played. What other films do you think would be fit for musically influenced remixes?

I think music for re-score/remix, the perfect film is Metropolis and that's been done a couple times. Another film that could be really beautiful is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm really interested in a lot of Chinese cinema, you know Wong Kar Wai's 2046 and also some of the stuff coming out of Japan Akira Kurosawa Seven Samurai. I would love to see re-score's of those in the future.

Do you plan to do any of those yourself?

Yeah, I plan on doing a lot more. Right now my main project is The Book of Ice it just came out. Basically, I took a studio to Antarctica and went to all the main ice fields. The whole idea was to do what I call acoustic portraits of ice. I wanted as much as possible to show that you could have a kind of sampling applied to landscapes. Sampling is usually for records, but I wanted to show that you could sample geography and time. It was a really beautiful project. We went to Antarctica for 6 weeks and was staying in all these different glacier fields. It was super intense. It was so much fun and crazily remote. It was so cold if you fall in the water you would die in two minutes. I like doing weird projects it keeps life interesting.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Paradise Kiss - 2011

Director: Takehiko Shinjo


Unimpressive film of the popular girls comic series.

Part of the shoujo (young girls) manga scene, Paradise Kiss is a live-action adaptation of Ai Yazawa's five volume tale. If the concept of young girls manga isn't enough to put you off in the first place there are a plethora of other reasons to persuade you. The characters are, by and large, paper-thin caricatures of stereotypes that will fill you with a desire to inflict severe physical pain on them from the off. This is in no way helped by a painfully over-long story. No matter how much you've had enough of the three-act rom-com structure, you will never think of it more fondly then when this film launches into its annexed fourth act of unbelievable nonsense. As one for the kids Paradise Kiss, naturally, has some sensible little life morals at its heart, but when they are delivered by such incredibly, self-obsessed, preening buffoons it feels akin to taking anger management lessons from a psychopath.

The story tells the trials and tribulations of Yukari Hayasaka's (Keiko Kitagawa) fledgling steps into the world of fashion and modelling. She is a struggling high-school student, buckling under the pressure of all the entrance exams and a demanding mother, pushing her since she was a toddler. By chance one day she is accosted in the street by the permanently agitated fashion student Arashi who, along with transvestite Isabella, persuade her to come to their design studio, the titular Paradise Kiss. There, Yukari is introduced to the other members of the gang, ditsy girl Miwako, and leader, the self-titled 'genius', and all round immense prat Georgy Koizumi (Osamu Mukai). They introduce the 'frumpy' (read stunningly beautiful) Yukari into the world of fashion college. Before she knows it she has left her high-school, high-school sweetheart, and family behind to move in with Georgy and agreed to be their model for the end of year fashion show. These initially unusual people will surely have some nuggets of wisdom to impart on our heroine. Perhaps it could have something to do with everyone telling her, and then repeating it over and over again in voice-over flashbacks, "You don't even know who you are yet." Unsurprisingly it does.

One of the only members of the cast to emerge without their reputation lying entirely shattered in pieces on the floor, though there are some sizable cracks, is Keiko Kitagawa, as Yukari. She gives her performance some gusto, and is at least likable. She is strikingly beautiful and the transition from clutsy high-school girl to attractive model is perhaps not quite as pronounced as was intended due to this. Nonetheless, she holds her own and at least has some screen presence. Mukai plays the arrogant, egotistical, and condescending student designer Georgy. Hat permanently at a 45 degree angle and a constant smug grin, he is easily one of the most irritating characters to wander around a cinema screen in a long time. The single most frustrating part of this performance is that it is obviously intended to come across as ice cool, whereas anyone with a mental age of over 17, and you'd hope even those a little younger, will surely see him for the swaggering arse he is. He assumes the role of mentor for Yukari trying to get her to come out of her shell. Alarmingly, one of the ways he does this is by taking her to a love-hotel and forcing himself on her. If, like me, you don't buy into the absurd idea of him as a plausible love interest, then it negates anything he has to say and makes the final 40 minutes an unbearable slog.

The rest of the cast rarely rise above filler. They clearly had much larger roles in the comics, but here they must make do with the odd thirty seconds of screen time allowed. Arashi (Kento Kaku) bizarrely is inexplicably angry whenever he is involved. Like a drug addict going cold turkey he shouts at everyone. Except he isn't a drug addict, and their is no real reason for these constant outbursts. Isabella played by Shunji Igarashi is fairly decent and is a believable transvestite, he just has very, very little to do. Their inclusion was obviously essential, as dictated by the source material, but if they have nothing to contribute it doesn't stop it from being pointless. In terms of performance quality, it is hard to give a solid opinion. I wondered whether the actors were attempting to imbue this with a feel of the manga, or simply just not very good at acting. There were lots of unnatural and exaggerated shots of surprise, shock, and so on. It was decidedly cringe worthy in parts but I suppose the benefit of the doubt is required here as there are plenty of other things to moan about.

Though not quite Lord of the Rings, Paradise Kiss just refuses to end. One of the saving graces of romantic comedies is they almost never over-stay their welcome. They reassure us with their predictability, fluttering nicely around the ninety minute mark before floating into the end credits. In a way they are not unlike a dream, you have a rough idea of what happened but little tangible memory of it. Things seem to be going nicely along with the program here, and just when you think you sense the fade to black around the corner, another thirty minutes are mercilessly tacked on. I appreciate the requirements of adaptation, and that clearly a lot of sacrifices were made to accommodate the running time (the TV serialisation took twelve episodes), but when a film this formulaic in every other respect steps out of sync for even a moment it jars, sticking out like a sore thumb.

The production values are quite high for a film of this nature. Things do generally look quite nice, and there isn't so much of that TV movie feel that sometimes plagues low budget Japanese movies. However, the fashion isn't going to fool anyone. Believe me when I say I am no fashionista, not remotely. But, if even the jeans and T-shirt brigade can sense that something is a tad amiss in the haute couture stakes, then you have a problem. The dresses look like a flower threw up on them, as though they were designed by a particularly giddy seven year old. Everyone taking everything so incredibly seriously and raving about how inspired it all is, just adds to the silliness. I know that the age-group this is aimed at are not known for being the most grounded members of society, but there is something borderline offensive to all these 17-20 year olds acting like they are the center of the universe and all humanity. If anyone has had the misfortune to watch Gossip Girl where pre-teens stalk New York as if they ruled the world, it will be a familiar sense of over-whelming nausea.

Paradise Kiss clearly has a target audience, and I'm sure that its members will be able to appreciate this for what it is. For non-fans there is nothing here worth turning your heads for. Even viewed as a simple rom-com it comes up wanting. Having been translated into over eleven languages and recuperating over half of its budget in its opening weekend in Japan alone, it is easy to understand why Fox International were interested in getting this made. This, however, is definitely not a flattering example of Japanese manga up on the big screen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Japanese Manga in the Movies.

Just as in Hollywood, comic book adaptations are a big deal in Japanese cinema. However, where Western adaptations are largely restricted to the adventures of caped crusaders, the more diverse nature of Japanese manga allows for far more genres within the genre. Animations, live-action films, American re-appropriations, chick-manga-flicks, all make up large parts of this immense, and increasingly global industry.

For many cinema-goers the first point of contact with characters that inhabit blockbuster comic-book adaptations like Spiderman, are with the films themselves. In Japan with manga ubiquitous and almost entirely stigma-free this is never the case. A visit to a manga cafe, round every corner in the big cities, is a revelation. Every wall of these enclosed, windowless emporiums is an enormous bookshelf, which heave with comics on every subject imaginable. Visitors pile selections into shopping baskets before retreating to dimly lit booths and reading their hearts out. Walking past a convenience store after 6.00pm anywhere in Japan will see a row of white-shirted salary-men and school students in the window, normally two deep, pawing through the latest releases. The immense importance of manga in Japanese cultural life means that when a comic does get made into a movie it is a major event on the cinema calendar, and comes attached with a dedicated fan-base who queue up for tickets in droves.

Around 300 films have made the transition from paper to camera. The overwhelming majority of which, have been turned into animated films. Household names such as Doraemon a cat-like alien who helps the hapless elementary-school student Nobita, Detective Conan a crime-fighting 17 year old high-school student, and the bizzare pirates of One Piece with super powers like elasto-arms, churn out summer movies to capitalize on the kids school breaks. The jury is out on the merit of these films as their stories exist externally to the narrative of the manga. They are generally perceived as light-weight cash cows. Try telling that to one of the millions of kids who dragged their parents to see One Piece: Strong World in 2009. Despite being the tenth film in the series it pulled in a hefty 48 million dollars to make it Japan's second highest grossing domestic film of the year. The first, incidentally, was an animated Pokemon film.

This is not to imply that animations in general are in any way inferior to their live-action counter-parts. Some of them are genuine landmarks in cinematic history. One of the first to arrive internationally was the brilliant and renowned Akira in 1988. It is the story of Neo-Tokyo in 2019 with rival gangs ravaging the dystopian metropolis. Visually sumptuous and genuinely epic, just like Blade Runner it is one of those rare films that depict vivid futures and somehow manage to remain undated as the decades roll by. Only eight years away from 2019, rioters in London are doing their best to make it look prophetic. Ghost in the Shell, about cyber-police protecting the mainframe from virtual criminals, is another essential moment in anime history. Adult in presentation, but even more so thematically, it has been sighted as a major influence on films like the Matrix. It's sequel Innocence, an official selection at Cannes, is of the same high standard, using animation augmented with CGI technology to give it a really striking beauty.

Ghibli, with Pixar, mark the pinnacle of children's animation. Generally releasing original stories, their one foray into manga adaptation is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Maybe not quite in the same league as Spirited Away or Princess Monoke, it is still an exceptional film. A typical Ghibli piece with strong female lead and resonating with the environmental concerns that are a key element of all the studio's work. One slight aside is that with a lot of animations like these, especially the older ones, the English dubbing can be clunky, wooden, and down-right bad. Japanese audio and subtitles is almost invariably the way to go.

Live-action films are less frequent, yet with the advent of cheap CGI technology are going through something of a boom. This said, they tend to float around two extremes, as in brilliant or just down-right awful. The re-release this month of Battle Royale is as good a place as any to start. Dividing opinion all over the world, banned in the U.S following the Columbine massacre, and forcing Japanese politicians to create a committee on violence in the media, it's probably the most memorable release of any Japanese film. It's kind of a sociopathic Lord of the Flies about high-school students forced to kill each other to survive, brilliantly directed, unflinchingly brutal, and darkly comic. If that's not quite sadistic enough for you, then Ichi the Killer is more than a few steps up the twisted ladder from even that. Capturing all the blood-splattering, unbridled gore of the comics it is the story of the under-dog madman Ichi in his fight against the sinister yakuza. A tough watch, but for people with the stomach for a bit of ultra-violence, it doesn't come much more ultra than this.

The Death Note series, about a boy who has the power to kill people just by writing their names in a notebook, was immensely popular in Japan. An interesting concept with a clear attempt to maintain a feel of the comics in its acting. It is worth watching, if verging on the light side of things. There is no better live-action adaptation though, than the masterpiece that is Old Boy. Part of Korean director Park Chan Wook's trilogy of revenge films, the story is lifted from the manga series and given its own spell-binding spin. Live Octopus eating, incest, maniacal violence, bags of style, and a phenomenal performance from lead Choi Min Sik, this really is as good as it gets.

Comics don't strike most people as a particularly feminine pursuit. In most cases fanboys generally do tend to be boys. This though, is another intriguing difference in Japan. Not only do girls enjoy what might be viewed elsewhere as simply for the boys, there are huge swathes of the industry dedicated solely to girls. These kind of comics are referred to as shoujo, which means young girls in Japanese. Content wise they tend to revolve around love and friendship, there are some oddities just as in male orientated manga but to a far far lesser extent. They tend to be either super-serious or light-hearted. Just watching the trailer should make it fairly easy to determine which angle they are going for. For non-fans of Shoujo I can safely verify that light-hearted is considerably less vomit inducing, and sometimes, dare it be said, embarassingly watchable.

Recent examples include, Kimi ni Todoke (From Me To You): a geeky girl (naturally, a very pretty one) winning over the affections of the high-school heart-throb , High School Debut: Sporty high-school girl asks the coolest guy in school to coach her in romance in a film that plays up its manga origins, Honey and Clover: love triangle at art school, and Koizora (Sky of Love): based on a series of mangas only originally available on cellphones. It tells the story of the girl that falls in love with the punk-kid with a hidden sensitive side. They are immensely popular in Japan, cheap to make and guaranteed to do well, it is easy to see why studios are so enamored with them.

The Japanese film industry and Hollywood have always enjoyed a close relationship. Early Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa influenced Hollywood for decades, even Star Wars' C3P0 and R2D2 were even lifted from two peasant characters in his Throne of Blood. In the '90s Hollywood began rehashing the back catalogue of J-Horror films ad nauseam like The Ring, and The Grudge, with little fanfare.With fanbases in place, and considerable riches available to the successful adaptation it is no surprise that Hollywood, which pilfers ideas from all corners of the globe, is trying to get in on the act. However, and illustrative of the importance of manga to Japanese cultural identity, Western versions of Japanese comics are distinctly frowned on. Regardless of the higher production values and sharper effects, they just can't seem to make a mark in their spitirual homeland.

The shockingly bad Hollywood incarnation of the internationally popular Dragon Ball Z - Evolution was universally despised in its motherland. As the posters went up around Tokyo, dissenting voices began wondering why America thought it could kidnap an inherently Japanese story. Said voices were all vindicated on release as it was panned across the globe. The Disneyfied Astro Boy a collaboration between an American and Japanese studio, but with an American director and team of writers at the helm, fared better critically but was still a bit of a box office non-event in Japan, so too the Wachowski brothers (Matrix) Speed Racer. Interestingly, and perhaps instructive in the reasoning behind Hollywood's motivations, the films have all been relatively rewarding successes in China.

However, things are not all smooth-sailing with Japanese productions either. On paper the comics can go on eternally finishing each episode with a cliff-hanger, leading straight to the next edition. The sprawling nature of the books can be detrimental to the tight cohesiveness required of their silver-screen counterparts. The recent Gantz made this crystal-clear. The first of the two films was structured neatly around the first episode of the comics. It allowed for a tightly paced, neat, and accessible, film, which thoroughly deserved all its plaudits. The second was not so fortunate. Required to be the work-horse of the two, it took on far more than its fair share of narrative. It left some plot strands under-developed and frankly pretty confusing. Additionally, perhaps acutely aware that some of the more sci-fi elements of manga doesn't appeal to core female demographics, the lead roles frequently go to pop stars and teen idols in a bid to concrete a more broad interest. Their acting ability is sometimes as sketchy as their music. Yet, this is unlikely to change, as it is clearly working with Japanese manga adaptations religiously featuring in the annual box office top tens.

Manga in the cinema has undeniable ups and downs, the downs being in the majority, too. But, when they come good, they represent some of the best films to come out of Japan. With public demand increasing, production costs decreasing, and spurred on by the spiralling box office stats the number of live-action films will continue its upward trend. The afore-mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell films have both been optioned by major Hollywood studios for live-action remakes, with Spielberg behind the latter. They seem to continue to come up against stumbling blocks in the pre-production stage, but it would be interesting to see if Spielberg could break the American rot. At the end of the day with such large amounts of manga making it into cinemas it is unrealistic to expect it all to be of the same high standard. There is a lot of rubbish out there, but the occasional gems make it worthwhile.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Short Shorts Film Festival 2011

June 16th-26th

Short films normally get shunted around festival line-ups. They play against the schedule big hitters in some small inaccessible venue with little publicity or fanfare; not so the Tokyo Short Shorts Film Festival. For over ten years it has worked around the premise that a lot can be done in 25 minutes. Dedicated entirely to shorts it is the largest of its kind in Asia, with a reach that extends far beyond the continent. This year 68 films from 23 countries will be screened from the 16th to the 26th of June. The event’s scope, however, can be measured not only in the intake of films, but in it’s annual tours across Japan, and special events that have been held in Myanmar, Mexico, Singapore, and L.A. Its mark on the cinema-going trends of Japan’s capital can be seen in the opening of the Brillia Short Shorts cinema in Minato Mirai. Showing new work along with the 700 strong back catalogue of entries in monthly programs, it is a monument to the festival’s first decade. The festival is held in central Tokyo and Yokohama, with the heart of the event being the Harajuku venues of Omotesando Hills and La Foret museum.

The films are divided into groups and then again into programs. It is a good system that allows to you find what you want, giving you a few surprises at the same time. . The Japan Asia section looks great this year, with films from all over the continent. Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) and his brother Chan-Kyong's film Night Fishing, which was shot entirely on an iPhone, is one to watch. Of course, being a Chan-Wook film it will be incredibly violent, expect some unorthodox use of fishing rods. Other highlights include Bonz (Program A&J-B) about a mysterious floating iron ball that seeks out a boring old man, Oh, Happy Day! (A&J-C) about a girl that gets muddled up in a violent lovers tiff, Left or Right A&J-D) looking at a typically indecisive Japanese man, and the mysteriousNapolitan, Sea (A&J-F). There is also a chance to see some upcoming talent in the FC Tokyo program, not based on the football team rather the Tokyo Film School of Arts students. The majority of films will have both English and Japanese subtitles.

The international line-up boasts some big names with films featuring Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network), Keira Knightley (Adaptation) and Colin Firth (The King's Speech). Joseph Gordon Levitt's work Spark will be screened, too. It looks like an intriguing piece that blends the past and the present with some nice surreal elements. But, behind the big names there is quality in all of the programs. Oppressed Majority (I-A) a French film about sexism in a parallel universe where women rule the roost, the Brazilian All You Need is Love (Program I-C) that takes us back to the criminal gangs of the favelas, Last Passengers(I-D), a film that seems to be channeling the spirit of Amorres Perros, and Touch (I-F) by Jen McGowan all look great.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of J-League football Short Shorts is screening a special section of football related shorts. Stories look at the heart behind the sport, and with the recent debacle of the FIFA elections who couldn't do with a reminder of that. Three films in particular stand out amongst this group; The fascinating story of Panyee FC about a floating fishing village in Thailand and its unlikely kids football team looks brilliant, Oscar nominee Soccer Story from the spiritual homeland of soccer on the making of a legend, and Offside a fictional account of the football match between German and British soldiers in the first World War. Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry's film Eight about a young Liverpool supporter is featured here, too.

Keeping with the times there is a special 3D programme being shown exclusively at Cinemart in Shinjuku. 3D is still a massive opinion divider for me, watching the dulled colour of the blockbusters through the murky glasses has left me a little cold in the past. However, it is genuinely exciting to see some offerings from outside of the mainstream, and it'll be exciting to see what they do with the medium. There are several Japanese offerings, Run! which captures rural Japan in stereoscope nicely, Fragrance a story of a girl who is secretly in love with a musician, and the arty 2028 Belief by Chinese director Chen Xi. Some of the films have clearly been constructed with the notion of 3D as the central concept and look fascinating, the visual treats of the kaleidoscopic Uyuyui, Plasticity 3D which looks like an art installation, and the French Shooting all look to be genuinely innovative.Again demonstrating that the festival has its finger on the pulse, CG films have a ten deep program showcasing some of the weird and wonderful. It looks like it will have its fair share of Japanese oddities.

The festival has links to the American Oscars and works as a preliminary stage for Oscar entry making it an even bigger chance for film-makers to get some international recognition. The ties don't end there, as the festival will also be showing all the films selected in the Short Film section from this years Oscars. Luke Matheny's God of Love took that statuette home with his tale of a darts enthusiast who finds some darts that have the power to girls fall in love with him. Unusual love stories feature elsewhere in the programme with The Crush from Ireland, the story of a primary school boy who falls for his teacher. The inventive Madagascar, a Journey Diary which uses the pages of a travel journal to show the customs and lifestyle of Madagascar.

Rounding up the best of the rest the Canon EOS program is a selection of films made using the EOS camera itself. The camera shoots in digital high-definition and allows for films to be shot with much smaller crews. The Lets Travel program is a series of films made to promote tourism in Japan and Korea which has some solid entries. There are also Italian program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of unification, and a French program that offers a selection from this years French Film Festival. The Stop Global Warming! section with the excellent apocalyptic Dream is another to mark out on the schedule.

It should be a good year for Short Shorts, enjoy yourselves.

Monday, May 30, 2011

2nd IndBear Feature Film Festival 2011

The IndBear Feature Film Festival was a new addition to the IndBlue family last year. Along with IndPanda for short films and IndPolar for animation the team have most of the bases covered in what makes up a season of film festivals in Hong Kong. The focus is on independent cinema, so expect to unearth a few gems here that go under the radar of the bigger festivals. IndBlue themselves are a non-funded, non-profit organization working to help independent film-makers. They distribute and produce short films and features, with films being sourced from all over Asia. In addition they organize workshops aiming to set up an infrastructure for talent, and have even begun projects introducing film-making to Hong Kong secondary schools.

In its 2nd year there has been a slight downsizing of IndBear in terms of line-up, but there are some good quality films in its concise schedule. Individual films are generally only shown once or twice over the course of the events seventeen days with screenings from Thursday to Sunday so it’s advisable to book tickets in advance. The festival will be held in two cinemas in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district, the upmarket, luxurious MCL Telford and MCL Kornhill cinemas. The Telford cinema in particular is worth a visit in its own right, the impressive building being the recipient of the 2009 International Architecture Award.

One of the opening films, Invasion of the Alien Bikini took the Grand Prize at the 2011 Yubari Fantastic International Film Festival and is a is a gloriously wild, low-budget blend of comedy, sci-fi, body horror, and martial arts action. Produced on a budget of a mere $4500 by one of the stalwarts of Korean independent cinema Indiestory this kind of film is exactly what IndBear is all about.

Opening boldly with the Beethoven's 9th symphony, with more than a little nod to Kubrick, the film doesn't let up for the rest of its 75 minute running time. Oh Yung Doo's sci-fi extravaganza centres on the nerdy Young-gun, who prefers the moniker City Protector. He wanders the streets searching for damsels in distress. When he saves the sexy Monica, played by the excellent and alluring Eun Jung-Ha, she insists on taking him back to his apartment to express her gratitude. However, Young-gun has taken a vow of celibacy. Monica won't take no for an answer though and our hero must resist her increasingly tempting seductions.

Of course, Monica isn't all she seems and needs Young-gun to impregnate her to give birth to hordes of aliens and take over the earth. Throw in a father-son back story for our protagonist, random groups of high-kicking henchmen, and lots of sexual torture, and really what more do you need from a film? It might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but it won plaudits galore at Yubari, and was the first time a foreign film-maker has ever received the Grand Prize there. Director Oh Yung-doo is definitely one to look out for in the future. It’s only being show once on June 10th so make sure you get your tickets early.

There are a couple of other interesting Korean films that feature in the schedule. Set in Busan She Came From, by Kim Sung-Ho, is the story of a director In-soo re-writing a film, a man losing his sight who is searching for his daughter, and the daughter Hye-ryun who is escaping everything on the back of a motorbike. Their paths weave together and eventually In-soo’s re- write begins to mirror actual events, exposing the boundaries between fiction and reality. In addition there is the challenging Father is a Dog that continues to explore the themes director Lee Sang-woo developed in his previous works Mother is a Whore and All About Father. The film examines the claustrophobic hell of a dysfunctional family as three brothers suffer under the heavy hand of their abusive father.

Japanese cinema has two representatives at IndBear. The return of the fascinating Imaizumi Koichi, who used to be an actor in Japanese pink movies (a type of romantic, soft-core pornography with high production values), allows festival-goers another chance to catch his film that was screened last year The Family Complete. It’s about a peculiar family living in a traditional Japanese house, suffering from a strange new virus. Featured in the Up in the Air section of the line-up, it looks like it might be an interesting companion piece to Father is a Dog.

Additionally, the international premiere of Tentsuki is one to look out for. About life in the bizarre town of Tenshi Tsukinuke Rokuchoume, it focuses on bankrupt salary-man Noboru escaping his past. As he begins to acclimatize to the weird people he meets in this strange community, he falls in love with the beautiful and free-spirited Miyuki and wonders if perhaps he’s found the right place to settle down. However, a shocking event shakes Noburo’s conceptions of his idyllic new life. With director Masafumi Yamada’s background in J-horror films this looks like an exciting and inventive bit of work.

IndBear also has a varied intake of European films on show. German star Daniel Bruhl’s new movie My Words, My Lies, My Love is about failing writer David Kern who stumbles across a transcript of a masterpiece in a second hand store. In a bid to impress the object of his affection, literati Maria, he decides to present it as his own work. Things begin spiraling out of control, and before he knows it he’s on daytime TV chat shows, and signing copies of his book. Swedish film Sebbe that won best debut in Berlin last year is the story of a bullied teenager, getting grief from kids at school and his over-worked mother. As a way to cope he develops a hobby, spending his time in the local junkyard creating new things from other people’s waste. Also, The Life and Death of a Porno Gang about a struggling film director that teams up with a porn director to start an underground cabaret has been doing really well at festivals all over the world. From Serbian director Mladen Djordjevic it is typical of the exciting stuff coming out of that country at the moment. Be warned though, it is very explicit; lots of sex and lots of violence.

Alongside My Words, My Lies, My Love and She Came From there are another couple of worthy entries in the Lost and Found section of the festival. Obselidia, the first feature from director Diane Bell, tells the story of loner George, a man making an encyclopedia of obsolete things. He interviews subjects for his work using a VHS recorder and a typewriter. While constructing his opus, he meets the silent film projectionist Sophie. The two wind up taking a road trip to the desert to interview an apocalypse prophesizing climate scientist. It might be a bit quirky, but any film that manages to use California and Nevada’s fascinating and alien Death Valley as a setting deserves to be seen. For people looking for something a bit closer to the middle of the road Love in a Cab might just be able to provide it. After New Years celebrations Ke Qing and Zhu Erget find themselves fighting over a cab, they decide to share and realise that they are both going the same way. Over the next decade they gradually begin to fall for each other, but there are a few complications. With director Han Yew Kwang’s background in sitcoms this film offers something a bit lighter for the IndBear festival.

The festival closes with a documentary on the life and death of one of the icons of the Hollywood star system of the ‘50s, Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger. Last year was the 25th anniversary of his death, a victim of AIDS. It focuses on the double-identity of the super-star Hollywood hero, and his closet homosexuality. The film examines the duality of these two separate parts of the man, his film roles and how Hudson himself claimed that there was little difference from the image projected on the big screen and the reality of his private life. It should be a fascinating character-study and a strong film to close the festival.

There is lots to check out at this years festival, and IndBear is fast establishing itself as a solid fixture on the Hong Kong film calendar.

Ticket prices are $55-$60 for adults and concessions go for $45-$50 and can be purchased at the box-office of either cinema, online at, or over the phone 25-727-202

The Man From Nowhere - Ajeossi 2011

Director: Jeong Beom-lee

Rating: 3/5

Not the best revenge thriller out there but a solid addition to the genre.

The Man From Nowhere is another Korean revenge thriller in the vein of Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, et al. It takes the brutality of those films, but doesn’t really advance the genre in any clear way, apart from perhaps a slight step into the mainstream. When you see the freshly harvested eyeballs floating around in their glass casing though, you might disagree. The psychological intrigue element is a bit weak, lowering some of the thrill of the thriller side of things. Even if it feels a little like it is just there to tee up the set-pieces, the plotting works nicely enough. But, the saving grace is the action which gradually intensifies to a full on violent crescendo in the second-half. The film took in a hefty chunk of box-office takings in its native Korea, maybe attributable to the kidnapped child storyline, and heart-throb casting of the lead, which has allowed it to appeal to a wider audience.

Cha Tae Sik, or Ajeossi (mister) as he is referred to for the majority, works in a quiet pawn- shop. He has a dark past it seems, with rumors flying around that claim he was a sex offender or a criminal in his past. A young girl Soo-Mi, the daughter of a heroin addict, comes by his shop to pawn off stuff she’s shoplifted. Looking for someone to care for her, Soo-mi persuades Cha Tae Sik to become a begrudging friend. It is slightly reminiscent of the bond Jean Reno and Natalie Portman struck up in Leon, albeit less risque. When her mother gets caught up stealing heroin from some gangsters, Soo-mi is kidnapped, and it looks like she might end up as an involuntary black-market organ donor. Cha Tae Sik without his knowledge has inadvertently been holding the stolen drugs, in the bottom of a camera Soo-mi’s mother pawned to him. The double-crossing gangsters promise if he returns the drugs, the girl will go free. Things are never going to be that simple though, are they?

Won Bin in the lead role of Cha Tae-Sik left me a little unsure. The role was originally intended to be for a 60 year old, that figure then became a 40 year old and then became the handsome youthful Won Bin. The role was rewritten for him after he expressed an interest and at times his youthfulness does seem to jar slightly with the story. The film might have had a bit more substance with an older lead at the reins. Bin doesn’t do anything wrong per se, in fact he does a lot of things right. His hero is morally unshakable, permanently serious and grimacing, and has some legitimate reasons for the fact he is a lean mean fighting machine. However, he looks like someone you’d expect to see singing in auto-tune and mincing about in a pop video, as opposed to cracking heads in a vengeful rage. His hair flops all over the place, in a way that feels as if each follicle has been painstakingly adjusted to perfection, not exactly your standard blood-thirsty killer. In one scene, illustrating to us that he now means business, he shaves it all off whilst eye-fucking himself in the mirror. Action-wise though he is on the money, maybe not quite bringing the sheer muscular weight that others can, but overall it’s of a high standard.

Soo-mi the elementary school student, played by Kim Se-Ron, is very good. She gives a performance with an emotional maturity far beyond her years. The film does its best to steer clear of the kind of simplistic “point camera and cry” characterization, required of most child actors. The Spielberg-esque lost child narrative works well but as the action builds, by the second act it loses its significance a touch as Soo-mi’s story gets put on the back burner. It could have done with being a more constant element of the film rather than sandwiching the main content as it does. The team of police who are tracking the gangsters, despite being there from the start are a bit too peripheral, too. Their presence feels tacked on, under-developed, and ever so slightly unnecessary. The only role they really fulfill is to offer a bit of back story on the main character.

As is often the case with such morally black and white films the best parts tend to gravitate towards the bad guys, who eat up the screen safe in the knowledge that moral equilibrium is being restored single-handedly by Cha Tae Sik. These guys are about as amoral as it gets, exploiting elementary school kids, kidnapping, drug-trafficking, and organ harvesting. They are incredibly violent, and even in their down-time are date-raping girls working at their clubs. The stand-outs from a solid bunch are the deplorable brothers Jong-suk and Man-sik who get increasingly more and more reprehensible as the minutes tick by. Amusingly, they don’t really understand why Cha Tae Sik is gunning for them and keep referring to him as the pawn-shop psycho. Kim Hee Woon (Man-Sik) just edges it overall as the funny, angry boss that snares up the hero in his gang-land power-play. He has some good lines and grandstands in a pleasingly extravagant way, but as Cha Tae Sik explains, “Guys living for tomorrow have no chance against someone living for today.”

The action was a bit hard to sum up here. At first, in the shadow of other entries into the genre it seems a little tame (by Korean standards naturally), but before long nails are being shot into peoples legs and henchmen are being used as human shields. Despite not being the sole factor upon which films like this are measured, the violence of an ultra-violent film is obviously very important and strives to be memorable. Oldboy had the video-game like never-ending 2D fight section, the recent I Saw the Devil had that insane 360 degree, in car, stab-fest, and rest assured The Man from Nowhere has a few tricks up its own sleeve, too. The men’s room scene stands out as Cha Tae-Sik closes in on his target and extracts information by getting one of the gangsters to stab himself in the shoulder. In another our protagonist is ejected from a building by a top floor window falling down into the safety of the netting of a golfing range. But the piece de la resistance is the final confrontation with an unflinching energy that feels like something that would be equally at home on a Playstation as a cinema screen.

Hand-held camera work can be a bit over-used, even distracting, as if a director is reminding you that he’s there overseeing everything. Yet, it feels entirely appropriate here, capturing the rawness of these moments and there are some other little flourishes spread throughout the film The fight scenes use some excellent point of view shots, edited into the melee, putting you into the eyes of one of the combatants and illustrating the speed of the action. This is amplified by some brilliant use of sound effects, lacing each fight with bone crunches, the whoosh of air being swiped by a knife, and the clink of steel. There is one shot as well that had me wondering how on earth they managed it. Cha Tae Sik is running away from the police with the camera following close behind him. He launches himself out of a shut window, and you wait for the cut to the next shot which just never comes. The camera follows him down seamlessly and takes off with him running in what feels like one continuous shot, though I have a sneaking suspicion it might not have actually been. Camera trickery or not, it is inventive and exciting stuff.

This is a decent Korean revenge flick, no doubts about it. It isn’t up there with the greats that have, despite their extreme content become household names across the film world. It isn’t even the best one this year, that honor goes to the far superior I Saw the Devil, which played interestingly in the grey area between hero and villain. The lost child story-line works but isn’t as captivating as some of the bizarreness that has made up the backbone of other examples of the genre. This is slick stuff however, and put together so smoothly that you might not even care or notice. Revenge film fans will lap this up as the cool, stylish film it is, and who knows? Its slightly more accessible story-line, and hunky star might even draw in a few new believers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gantz: Perfect Answer 2011

Director: Shinsuke Sato

Rating: 2/5

A disappointing follow up to the promising Gantz. Sloppy plotting and pacing detract from the interesting concept at the heart of it.

Oh dear, what started out so promisingly finishes so averagely. All the intrigue and suspense that was built up in the tightly paced first two hours, peters out within thirty minutes and never gets going again. It's not a complete catastrophe, but it is a dismaying finale and a definite disappointment. Gantz was all about questions, Perfect Answer successfully removes the mystique.

Whereas originally we were dropped straight into the mix, here thirty minutes of slow and dull exposition is dumped on us before anything close to exciting has happened. Cramming an entire manga series into two films was never going to be easy and the demands of a lengthy and complicated narrative finally take their toll. The new characters that are introduced contribute little, and by broadening the scope it makes this conclusion a muddled affair. Perfect Answer, as the title would have you believe, is an attempt at explanation. The convoluted one offered here strains to wrap everything up neatly which was never going to be an easy task..

The story begins shortly after the first film and if you haven't seen that yet you might want to skip the next few paragraphs as there are spoilers aplenty. Kurono (Ninomiya) is fast approaching the hundred points that will set him free or allow to bring back one of the fallen players. The player he hopes to resurrect is Kato (Matsuyama), whose younger brother he has been looking after with the help of his “Will they? Won’t they?” college friend Tae (Yuriko Yoshitaka). He lives a double life, burger shop by day, alien killer by night.

However, the boundaries between the limbo of the Gantz world are beginning to blur as the post-brawl destruction makes news-headlines. A new character, Model Eriko Ayukawa, played by the alluring Ayumi Ito, finds a mysterious small black orb in her post box. The mini-sphere, like Gantz itself, gives her targets. Except this time the targets are humans, and her tasks are carried out in the real world. She is providing Gantz with his soldiers, and unable to resist. Another addition is shady looking P.I Masamitsu Shigeta (Takayuki Yamada) on the hunt for answers about a black ball in a mysterious tower block, who begins to pick up her trail. His search leads him to a group of aliens living in the real world, indistinguishable from humans. They procure his services in exchange for information.

Ninomiya's acting was already beginning to show signs of weakness, but the spotlight of the love interest and added heroism required of him here really illuminates the cracks. For the majority of the film he is fine, but when he sends it up with a mixture of anguished shouting, and some injured, struggling for breath crawling, it puts even the most hammy thespians to shame. The PG-13 relationship with Tae is tiresome, cutesy, and hard to care about. She is a pretty hollow presence and going for meek ends up moot. Their love story eventually takes centre stage and all the clever ideas built up dissolve in its blandness.

SPOILERS!Kato (Matsuyama) is back, which if you’ve seen a trailer you’ll know already, and doesn't do much wrong. As he does spend the majority of the film in a creepy, not very chatty, doppelganger role it would have been pretty hard to, but he is dependable as ever. The double doesn’t quite seem to make a lot of sense, although does allow for some exciting fight scenes and nice Terminator 2 allusions.

The rest of the surviving Gantz players chip in a bit more here, with mixed results. The ex-salary man Yoshikazu Suzuki (Tomorowo Taguchi) not quite taking to his new life as an alien assassin is a good presence. He looks like a fish out of water and is very convincing. The rest suffer from some serious over-acting problems. It’s almost as if they were trying to maximize the effect these bit-parts will have on their CV. As division creeps into the team things get a little bit more exciting, though there are a few too many Mexican stand-offs.

The aliens this time round are essentially just humans. Veins of black smoke trickle down to reform their limbs and they do that standard flittery eye thing to denote their unearthly status thing, but don’t expect any of the giddy heights reached previously. Before each action scene in part one you were wondering just what on earth is going to happen next, well in this film you know. There are no crazy looking 1950’s cartoon character robots, no angry deities, no half vegetable Frankensteins, just plain old run of the mill humans.. I was reminded of that common criticism of sequels that the formula is simply make everything bigger and louder. Well, for once that might not have been such a terrible idea because here less is less.

By the time the first action scene finally arrives, though decent enough, it doesn’t have any of the sense of mayhem and feels like a pretty routine set-piece. It is shot on a subway with real passengers, who assume that the group of futuristic, leather suited people are some sort of advertising stunt. What follows is a claustrophobic melee with plenty of carnage, but little imagination or originality. It works yes, but it is nothing new.

Perfect Answer is not entirely dreadful there are some good things going on here. Direction wise Sato takes some chances that come off well. There are some good, and sparingly used, first person point of view action shots that fit well with the film’s slightly video-gamesy vibe. Thrusting the viewer into the action it does have a pleasantly immersive effect. Some of the action scenes seem to have been looking at Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for inspiration as the characters float/fly across the Tokyo Rooftops, which looks nice. Perfect Answer is another technically well made film with convincing special effects and direction. It’s the stale pacing, sloppy plotting, and lack of surprise that let it down.

It’s unfortunate that Gantz did go on to suffer from Matrix syndrome ; an exciting high concept idea that gets lost in the following films. Like them, this is far more expansive stuff than the first and it loses its clarity. The simplicity of the action, plot, action plot structuring is out, and things are in full on epic-mode here. The need to follow the source material obviously made this a necessity, but it is handled all wrong. I said that no previous experience with the comics was required to enjoy Gantz. This is not so easy to argue with part 2 which squeezes a lot in that doesn’t seem to add up entirely. The intriguing first film was very good but, perhaps there is no perfect answer.