Tag Archives: Asian film

Black Lizard

Black Lizard 1
Black Lizard

Screening at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France) on 13 September 2017
Format: Cinema
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Writers: Masahige Narusawa, Yukio Mishima
Based on the story by: Edogawa Rampo
Cast: Akihiro Maruyama, Isao Kimura, Kikko Matsuoka, Junya Usami
Original tile: Kuro tokage
Japan 1968
86 mins

The delirious adventures of a queer criminal as seen by Yukio Mishima and Kinji Fukasaku.

Footsteps echo in the dark. A hand knocks on a door. A flap is lifted, a pair of eyes peeks out, the door opens. Footsteps lead down a corridor decorated with fluorescent drawings. Another door flings open and the psychedelic lights and music of a nightclub explode onto the screen, frenzied dancers wearing little aside from body paint gyrate to a wild groove while men gleefully grab handfuls of sequined breasts, the walls around them decorated with Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. In such a heady atmosphere of decadence and loose abandon, it does not seem unnatural that the mistress of the place, a femme fatale in slinky black dress and diamonds, should be played by a cross-dressing male actor (the celebrated Japanese transvestite Akihiro Miwa, here credited as Akihiro Maruyama). Mrs Midorigawa, aka the famous criminal Black Lizard, approaches Detective Akechi, sitting alone at the bar, who came ‘by chance’ to the secret club, and their encounter is the start of a sexually charged, fatal face-off where romantic tension is played out as the mind games of two people on opposing sides of the law.

Continue reading Black Lizard



Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: Cinema

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Cast: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui

Japan 2016

76 mins

Sion Sono diverts Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot into a subversively playful and multi-layered take on the female condition.

The 2016 edition of the Etrange Festival offered audiences the chance to see two of the five films commissioned by Nikkatsu for their 100th anniversary, as part of the Roman Porno Reboot Project. Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind was labelled by Nikkatsu as ‘Battle’, and Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno as ‘Art’. The latter director is a regular at the festival, as there has hardly been a year without at least one Sion Sono film programmed.

Anti-Porno starts in an Almodóvar-like colourful flat, in bright blue, yellow and red, with young Kyoko naked (but for her panties) dancing to her ghost-sister’s rendition of Offenbach’s ‘Nuit d’amour’, after a particularly boozy night. Unlike his earlier contemplative I Am Keiko (Keiko desu kedo, 1997), where the action (or the lack of it) was confined to an unrealistic red-painted flat fitted with yellow-painted appliances, so as to focus on the passing of time, the frantically paced Anti-Porno is rather a reflection on confinement and on the impossibility of real freedom, as the leitmotiv of a living lizard inside a whisky bottle reminds us constantly.

Every detail in this room feels artificial and exaggerated, while the film becomes more and more hysterical, as the versatile artist Kyoko becomes more and more sadistic with her assistant. Kyoko eventually has her bleeding and then raped during an interview that she gives to lesbian fashionista journalists. And just when we tell ourselves that this is really too much and too kitschy, so does the director, who orders the scene to be cut. Once the suspension of disbelief has been shattered, Sion Sono plays with endlessly embedding successive layers of reality, as he did with parallel worlds in Tag.

Sion Sono loves metaphors and, as in most of his films, he can’t get enough. Both the flat and the bottle stand for the virgin/whore dichotomy, to which Kyoko finds herself confined by the world of men. Sion Sono also adds another layer, using butterflies escaped from a biology book and trapped under a schoolroom ceiling to denounce the glass ceiling still blocking Japanese women. Yet Kyoko’s several soliloquies do not do justice to the film’s clever, manifold levels of perception and reality, concluding on one final and rather trivial aphorism: ‘Men’s world is shit, men’s dreams are shit… Porno is shit’. Why did Sion Sono opt for such an obvious and direct address? Was it because the film was a commission for Nikkatsu? Because he had already perfected the poetic treatment of the female condition in Japan in his previous films? Or because he feared he had not been fully understood so far? For, despite a few delightfully funny scenes, among which the bourgeois family dinner conversation on genitalia certainly ranks highest, Sion Sono gets excessively serious here. One has the impression that Anti-Porno moves from a form of criticism to that of a manifesto, bringing hope in the wake. In Tag, Mitsuko’s only solution was seppuku; in Anti-Porno, though Kyoko’s sister chooses death too, in the final scene we leave Kyoko writhing on the floor in gallons of paint, obsessively seeking ‘an exit’.

Pierre Kapitaniak

The Empire of Corpses

The Empire of Corpses 1
The Empire of Corpses

Format: Dual Format (Bluy-ray + DVD)

Release date: 26 September 2016

Distributor: Anime Ltd

Director: Ryôtarô Makihara

Writers: Koji Yamamoto, Midori Goto, Hiroshi Seko

Based on the novel by: Project Itoh, Tô Enjo

Original Title: Shisha no teikoku

Japan 2015

120 mins

Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk

Unusual touches and a profusion of ideas are let down by hasty direction and animé clichés in this steampunk revisiting of Frankenstein.

In a parallel 19th century, society has been reshaped by the scientific innovations of Victor Frankenstein and Charles Babbage. A vast underclass of living corpses function as soldiers, servants or suicide bombers – revived by Frankensteinian injections and programmed with punch-card software generated by Babbage’s giant proto-computers. In 1878, boyish medical student John Watson reanimates a close (perhaps, very close) friend as a sad-eyed scribbler he names Friday (though his official designation is Noble Savage 007). Blackmailed by one-eyed spymaster Walsingham, who uses the code-name M, Watson and Friday are packed off on a quest to get the lost notes of Victor Frankenstein. These are being used by renegade Russian scientist Alexei Karamazov, who is holed up in an Afghan stronghold. Alexei wants to refine the process to match Frankenstein’s original, unrepeated experiment in creating an articulate monster with a soul (or, at least, intelligence). Also involved in a chase that dashes about the world – including spells in Tokyo and San Francisco – before looping back to London are macho British adventurer Frederick Burnaby (a real historical character), bosomy American mystery woman Hadaly Lilith (an Edison-made automaton, working for ex-President Grant), the USS Nautilus (a nod to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as much as Jules Verne), and Frankenstein’s white-bearded original monster (‘the One’).

This steampunk animé is based on a novel by Project Itoh, which seems to borrow an approach from my own Anno Dracula. It takes a different Gothic text as source but similarly extrapolates a world dominated by fall-out from a famous monster’s story and mixes in real people and characters from other Victorian fiction. The book was published posthumously (completed by Tô Enjo), which might explain why the film’s plot clanks a little as it waffles about weighty themes (what is a soul?) while speeding through incidents (several wars and mini-apocalypses), which might have benefited from a more leisurely approach. Too often the main characters are on the sidelines of mass action, watching or taking notes while battles are fought or maddened zombies run riot (seemingly turning vampire by the amount of neck-biting on view). There are several unusual elements, like the understated homoerotic bond between Watson (who doesn’t hook up with his usual partner until an after-the-credits tag) and his corpse near-doppelganger Friday, but the picture slips into an animé-manga rut as it all boils down to a world-changing catastrophic event masterminded by a cackling villain and thwarted by straight-up good guys. A confusion of characters – including a Karloff-look flat-headed brute – clash with each other at the Tower of London as a Big Magic Effect appears in the skies above.

The animation is variable, with rich detail and backgrounds but some shaky character stuff (Hadaly’s ridiculous breasts are rather disturbing).

Kim Newman

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Format: Blu-ray + Dual Format Steelbook

Release date: 29 February 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Daisuke Tengan

Based on the novel by: Ryû Murakami

Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki

Original title: Ôdishon

Japan 1999

115 mins

Takashi Miike’s tale of a businessman’s quest for the perfect bride retains its horrifying power.

Along with Hideo Nakata’s Ring and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Takashi Miike’s Audition was one of the main films that introduced audiences in the UK (and subsequently the world) to the ‘delights’ of what would become known as ‘extreme Asian cinema’, thanks to Tartan Films, who released all three as part of their ‘Asia Extreme’ line. Prior to Audition, Miike was best known as a director of low-budget yakuza thrillers that were frequently violent and occasionally bizarre, making him an unusual choice to handle a deliberately paced and cinematically restrained film, but he showed himself to be fully equal to the task. Audition is based on the novel of the same name by Ryɼ Murakami, and was scripted by Daisuke Tengan, the son of Shōhei Imamura, one of Japan’s most respected directors. Prior to his own career, Takashi Miike had spent several years working under Imamura as assistant director.

Ever since the death of his wife seven years earlier, middle-aged businessman Aoyama (Ryé Ishibashii) has divided his time between caring for their son and work. At the prompting of his now-teenage son, he decides to marry again, but has little patience with (or experience of) the protracted dating and mating rituals of today’s youth. Instead, Aoyama and his colleague Yoshikawa in the media industry (Jun Kinimura) decide on a different method of meeting a woman that meets his modest standards (intelligent, artistic, refined, demure etc). They put out a casting call on the radio, asking for new would-be actresses, ostensibly to star in a forthcoming TV drama. Aoyama will read through the applications and pick the ones he’s interested in, while Yoshikawa looks for potential stars. Their selections will be invited to an audition. If all goes according to plan, Yoshikawa will find himself a new star while Aoyama can get a step closer to finding an ideal wife.

At this point first-time viewers will no doubt be wondering how Audition came to be categorized as ‘extreme’, and how Miike earned a reputation as a controversial, transgressive director. Certainly the comic audition montage (complete with the jaunty pop accompaniment) gives you the impression you’re watching yet another romantic comedy about a man going to ridiculous lengths to find love. There’s even a stock character from such films: Aoyama’s secretary, who clearly has feelings for her boss. True to type, he is completely unaware of this, immersed in his absurd quest for the perfect woman. There is no doubt therefore that Miike and Tengan intended us to feel that we are indeed watching a light-hearted romantic drama, for the first third of the film at least.

Once the character of Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina) is introduced, things begin to change. On the surface Asami is everything Aoyama is looking for, but we are slowly given glimpses and snippets of information that suggest something may be very wrong with this young woman. The man she gave as a reference on her application form disappeared mysteriously, while a previous employer was brutally murdered. None of this fazes Aoyama at all, since he’s already decided she is the woman he wants to marry. Against the advice of his friends, Aoyama continues his courtship of the beautiful, strange Asami.

In its final third Audition takes a turn into horror territory, with scenes that retain their power to shock even in our desensitized era. How much of what we see is actually real is not entirely clear, since certain scenes do appear to take place in Aoyama’s head. It has been suggested that it’s all a hallucination, brought on by guilt over his disloyalty to his dead wife. This is not supported by the rest of the film, however; the final scenes are clearly real. Audition has also been interpreted as a criticism of Japanese male chauvinism, as represented by Aoyama’s rigidly old-fashioned and objectifying view of women. Unfortunately, any serious points Miike and Tengan might have been making about Japanese masculinity and patriarchy are heavily undermined by the fact that in no way, shape or form does Aoyama deserve his fate. He’s certainly guilty of deceit and manipulation, but his comeuppance firmly outweighs his crimes. It doesn’t help that Asami is a two-dimensional character. Her difficult past and Aoyama’s schemes would certainly leave her with a right to be deeply hurt and angry. But the real source of Asami’s anger is an utterly unreasonable demand that makes it impossible to sympathise with her, unlike the used-and-discarded women of Fatal Attraction and Play Misty for Me. Having carefully manipulated the audience throughout, Miike provides an extremely memorable crescendo calculated to shock and horrify, something that few films manage to do quite as well as Audition. It might not be a noble ambition, but on its own terms Audition can only be considered a great success, as well as an essential Japanese horror film.

Jim Harper

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A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 25 January 2016

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: King Hu

Writers: King Hu, Sung-ling Pu

Cast: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Ying Bai

Taiwan 1971

200 mins

This sumptuous wuxia classic continues to thrill and enchant.

Somewhere in Ming dynasty China, Gu (Shih Jun) is a sign writer and scroll painter, living with his mum in his 30s and unattached, an embarrassment to her for his lack of ambition. He won’t take the exams that would enhance his status, he hasn’t married, and is far too content to spend his life with ink and paper for her liking. He isn’t lacking for curiosity, though, and observes the arrival of strangers in town closely. Members of the Eastern Group secret police force are turning up in increasing numbers, there’s a blind fortune teller (Ying Bai), and, more alluringly, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), who has moved, late at night, into the creepy house/fort next door. Getting in over his head Gu finds that the latter two are fugitives; he’s a general, named Shi, she’s a warrior whose father has been slain by a corrupt official who has the same fate in mind for her and the rest of her bloodline. Gu is seduced by Yang, by her story, and by the chance to apply the military knowledge he has been acquiring his entire life. But this is not ink and paper, and as the fights, melees and all-out battles ensue, a lot of very real blood is going to be shed.

A classic of the genre, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1970) added an undeniable touch of class to the martial arts movie. It’s long, at an epic 200 minutes, it’s in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese of the standard Hong Kong chop socky flick, and, whilst fully delivering on wild action, also serves up a fair amount of philosophy and contemplation, ultimately ending up in a decidedly trippy vision of Buddhist salvation that would go down like a lead balloon at a Sonny Chiba all-nighter. Moreover, A Touch of Zen largely eschews the formulaic vengeance dynamics that largely dominates the genre. Its bookish hero fails entirely to undergo training by a master and transform into a death-dealing warrior in order to take out the chief bad guy in the last reel. Instead he is taken on a far less familiar arc, left literally holding the baby as his battles are fought for him, largely disappearing in the third act. This hurts the film a little, because Shih Jun’s Gu is an immensely likeable and engaging character, a 14th-century proto-geek. There’s something child-like about him, dreamy and detached, and overtaken by his enthusiasms. His loss of innocence when confronted by the actual corpses that all of his invention has led to is genuinely distressing. Miss Yang also surprises, less for being so damn kick-ass with a sword or throwing weapon, which must have been unusual in 1970, if less so now, but for her no-nonsense attitude about what she wants and what she’s prepared to do. We can glean her inner turmoil from her furrowed brow, and we understand from the tragic past story what has happened to make her this way, but in her onscreen time she is taciturn and self-contained and, in Hollywood terms, bracingly unsentimental or sympathetic, in a manner that would still be refreshing and novel in modern cinema.

There’s a distinct change of tone for the last act, in a fashion familiar to fans of Eastern cinema. The mystery story with spooky overtones that dominated the narrative gives way to a series of running skirmishes against a new Eastern Group enforcer. Yang and General Shi come to the fore, and are in turn sidelined when the abbot of the monastery to which they are fleeing (Roy Chiao) takes the stage. That the film is not totally derailed by all this gear crunching is mainly down to King Hu’s film-making suss. A Touch of Zen is, if nothing else, an extraordinary piece of visual storytelling. It’s fascinating to see how Leone’s Westerns, themselves inspired by Kurosawa’s samurai films have been absorbed into this Taiwanese concoction’s stylistic bones, but A Touch of Zen is more mystical and multifarious than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and has its eyes on more than gold. The film sets its scene with images of spider webs, moves on to countryside scenes, and shows us around the abandoned fort, with not a single human figure in sight for the first five minutes. Large sections are wordless, where composition, choreography and Wu Dajiang’s impressively expressive score combine to create a fluid whole. It’s about faces and figures moving in and out of shadow, beams of light cutting through smoke, and landscape after landscape. Hu’s restless camera doesn’t merely observe, it aims to bedazzle and concuss and terrify, summoning different moods and atmospheres depending on the demands of the story, progressing through dust and rock and rain through to the final reel’s colour negative and lens flare delirium. It’s a hell of a journey, taking us from, if not Loachian realism, then at least a recognizable domestic world, through increasing levels of stylised bonkers-ness to end up in the ballpark of spiritual transcendence. The latter fight scenes are of the typically gravity-defying, physics-denying kind, which would later be found in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its ilk. Wang and Shi leap from forest floor to treetop and treetop to bad guy, dodging daggers along the way, each scene as delineated by setting and style as the musical numbers in a Gene Kelly flick. It’s fucking cinema, baby, and if you don’t get a jolt of sheer delight from such exuberant nonsense then I pity you.

For all that, it’s not flawless. The tonal shifts are jarring in places, the Scooby gang business of the haunted fort sits uneasily in the same film as the darker past, with its betrayal, torture and murder. And the third act feels like a sequel, of sorts, to the tale we have become invested in. It’s energetic and enthralling stuff, but sidelines characters we know to focus on, the Abbot, who’s pretty much the concept of Deus Ex Machina in person, stepping in to wrap things up where Gu, Wang and Shi have failed. These are quibbles; A Touch of Zen’s status as a classic is thoroughly deserved, it’s a wonderful thing, and looks and sounds fantastic in this Masters of Cinema restoration.
Bonuses include a booklet (including a vintage interview, Hu’s notes on the film from the Cannes 75 press kit, and the original short story that inspired the film), a documentary on King Hu’s cursed and blessed career and a great video essay on the film by David Cairns.

Mark Stafford

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The Plague at Karatas Village

he Plague at Karatas Village
The Plague at Karatas Village

Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Writer: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Cast: Aibek Kudabayev, Nurbek Mukushev, Tolganay Talgat

Original title: Chuma v aule Karatas

Kazakhstan, Russia 2016

80 mins

A unique nightmarish allegorical tale of corruption in Kazakhstan.

There have been a few Kazakhstan breakthrough films: Tulpan, The Gift to Stalin, Mongol, Kelin, Harmony Lessons and Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s downbeat 2014 film The Owners to name a few. The latter director/writer had the international premiere of his new film, The Plague at Karatas Village, at the Rotterdam festival, and in common with The Owners, this film deals – though more obliquely – with his deep disturbance at the lawlessness and corruption at every level of Kazakhstan society.

In this story, a well-intentioned young man with a mission to clean up the village arrives in Karatas to serve as the new mayor. In seeing a number of villagers in a state of illness, he recognises the symptoms as plague-related. The villagers, as well as the authorities, all insist that they have only the flu, and it becomes evident that the money that has been sent from central government to combat the disease has been pocketed by corrupt officials who have allowed the plague to rage unabated. As the new mayor inevitably and violently gets dragged down into this pit of corruption, with its attendant abuses of power and the resultant repression, and soon thereafter madness, he slowly but surely finds himself descending into a living hell.

That is the story, but the plot unfolds as a wildly surreal, weirdly mythological, elliptical aural and visual journey that is presented as a slow-burning fable where bizarre characters break into Saint Vitus-like dancing, fits and shakes, and make utterances and sounds like possessed ones speaking in tongues. The sets are darkly atmospheric with a subdued lighting and colour palette, while the performances range from zombie-like to overly theatrical, which gives the whole cinematic composition its uncanny feel. As it slips into a kind of expressionist horror scenario reflective of, according to its author, the rotten state of present-day Kazakhstan, the viewing of this film leaves one with the mixed sense of implausibility and surreal bewitchment. An opaque parable, and described by the jury who awarded it the Best Asian Film Award thus: ‘A story of corruption, the abuse of power and inertia are given an absurdist, Brechtian treatment. The director creates a totally unique universe, somewhere between Ionesco, Kafka and David Lynch.’

The Plague at Karatas Village is a curious fable that is not always successful at arousing – much less satisfying – the uncanny responses it hopes to stir in its intended audience, but is nonetheless the sort of committed filmmaking that needs making and rewards viewing.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.

The Moulin

The Moulin
The Moulin

Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Huang Ya-li

Original title: Le Moulin

Japan, Taiwan 2015

160 mins

A fascinating, contemplative documentary on 1930s Taiwanese modernist poets.

If you thought that it might be a tad painful to watch a nearly three-hour documentary on an obscure Taiwanese pre-war, avant-garde group of poets determined to bring a modernist agenda to the cultural table – think again.

The Moulin concentrates its eye on seven literary men who heroically formed a poets’ collective, ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’, in 1933 in order to introduce the spirit of surrealism, and especially the ideas of André Breton and Jean Cocteau, to a Taiwan that had already been occupied by the Japanese for 40 years. Protest at this colonial occupation was a linked purpose of the group. Their chosen vehicle – in common with many proselytising artistic avant-garde movements of the modernist period – was the production of an advocacy journal, which in reference to its French intellectual affiliations and to its surrealist intentions, they named The Moulin. The intentions of ‘Le Moulin Poetry Society’ were clear: to lob a bomb into the body of historical Taiwanese (and by extension Japanese) artistic forms and to attempt to re-configure the poetic and artistic agenda. The seven were to be bitterly disappointed, however, as their journal and their aspirations met with incomprehension and failure, and The Moulin only survived for four issues.

Their hitherto forgotten story is revived in this fascinating slice of cultural history, which mixes old film clips, radio programmes and re-enacted scenes with spoken lines of poetry, on-screen imaging of the original texts and the incorporation of traditional songs, to paint an imaginative portrait of the group and provide a fulsome context for its understanding. The film interestingly notes a visit in May 1936 by Jean Cocteau, who enthusiastically showed his admiration for the Eastern culture that provided direct inspiration for the group.

The recounting of their story covers a turbulent time span in Taiwanese history, from the Japanese occupation, through the war years and to the 1950s annexation by China, all of which reflect the cultural struggle that the country endured. Utilising the dictum that ‘things are good to think with’, director Huang has chosen to reveal key aspects of the story not through facial close-ups but through his preference instead of close-focusing upon human interactions with objects of significance: the lighting of cigarettes, reading of texts, leafing through pages, gazing at photographs. This creates a poem-like reverie that takes its time to unfold and demands a contemplative response from the viewer to project meaning upon these ‘small’ gestures.

Huang Ya-li’s moving and expressive film essay is a revealing and memorable account of this forgotten slice of modernist history – a history that all too often relies on Eurocentric narratives and ignores the larger international moments that occurred elsewhere. This is a very welcome antidote to that centrist tendency.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 11 January 2016

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Writer: Takeshi Kitano

Alternative title: Fireworks

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima, Tetsu Watanabe

Japan 1997

103 mins

Takeshi Kitano’s 1997 masterpiece wonderfully mixes ruthless violence and heart-breaking melancholy.

Although his international profile has waned somewhat in recent years, the contribution made to contemporary Japanese cinema by the multifaceted media personality and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano remains incontestable. Having directed a unique series of festival hits throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Kitano was perhaps the most internationally successful and visible Japanese filmmaker of the era, at least outside of the J-horror boom. Working in conjunction with Office Kitano, Third Window Films is revisiting this golden age in the director’s career by releasing three newly restored classics, starting with what many consider his best: 1997’s Hana-bi, winner of the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival.

Tender and thoughtful, but punctuated with sudden bursts of ultra-violence, Hana-bi is a wonderful synthesis of the conflicting styles of Takeshi Kitano: the pensive auteur, and his more thuggish screen persona, ‘Beat’ Takeshi. Kitano channels both the brutality of his early directorial efforts, such as Violent Cop (1989), where he plays… well, a violent cop, and the observational sensitivity of quieter works like A Scene by the Sea (1991) or the sorely overlooked Kids Return (1996).

In Hana-bi, Kitano stars as Nishi, a former police officer still reeling from a disastrous stakeout that saw one fellow officer killed and another seriously injured (Ren Osugi). His terminally ill and silent wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) is discharged from hospital after the doctors admit that there is nothing more they can do. Owing money to the yakuza, Nishi decides to rob a bank to pay his debt, give reparations to the widow of the slain officer, and use the rest to take his wife on one last road trip before she dies.

Those looking for a slice of straight-up Japanese cops-and-gangsters action may be dismayed by Hana-bi, as ‘auteur’ Takeshi wins out over ‘Beat’ Takeshi. The film moves at a relaxed, contemplative pace, even finding the time to include a secondary narrative focused on Osugi’s character, who, bound to a wheelchair as a result of his injuries, has taken up painting as a means of passing the time. These images seem to offer some sense of accompaniment to the main narrative, which is beautifully realised (the paintings seen throughout the film, incidentally, were done by Kitano himself).

Another aspect that takes precedence over the less salubrious moments is Nishi’s relationship with his wife, who, it’s implied, has not spoken since the unexpected death of their child some time earlier. Despite having hardly any meaningful dialogue, Kitano and Kishimoto form a very strong bond as they quietly visit various tourist spots in rural Japan. Kitano manages to twist the psychopathic qualities of his ‘Beat’ Takeshi persona and imbue his character with a pathos that perhaps first reared its head in Sonatine (1993), but is here fully formed, making his violent streak all the more potent and unexpected. It’s a subtle but marvellous performance from a media personality who, in Japan at least, was perhaps better known for clowning about – see, for instance, Kitano’s extended cameo in his zanily polarising comedy Getting Any? (1994).

That’s not to say that, in Hana-bi, Kitano has shed all humour in the pursuit of serious drama. His wry visual wit is present and accounted for: revelation through juxtaposition; taking the time to follow up on incidental characters after they no longer have any bearing on the narrative (one example being the man who tries to put the moves on Nishi’s wife on a beach and is beaten for his insolence; he is seen later by the roadside, drying his clothes and licking his wounds). Kitano also manages to find the right balance between the overall calm pacing of the film and its short bursts of ruthless physical brutality (including, at one point, some nasty business involving a pair of chopsticks), with the two styles gelling together better than one might expect.

After nearly two decades, Hana-bi remains a high point in Japanese cinema’s renaissance of the 1990s. Despite its (pleasantly) meandering quality, it retains enough toughness to appeal to those coming to Kitano’s body of work from other more genre-orientated contemporary Japanese filmmakers. Naturally, if you’re a Kitano fan, you already know what to do.

Third Window Films will be releasing two more films by Takeshi Kitano, Kikujiro (out on 22 Feb 2016) and Dolls (out on 14 March 2016).

Mark Player

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Ruined Heart: Another Love Story between a Criminal and a Whore

Ruined Heart
Ruined Heart

Seen at LFF 2015

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 7 December 2015

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Khavn de la Cruz

Writer: Khavn de la Cruz

Original title: Pusong wazak: isa na naming kwento ng pag-ibig sa pagitan ng puta at criminal

Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Elena Kazan, Nathalia Acevedo

Philippines, Germany 2014

73 mins

Khavn de la Cruz’s Filipino musical noir compensates for its lack of plot with oodles of style.

At its worst, Ruined Heart feels like what happens when an ‘edgy’ fashion shoot gets out of hand, gets bitten by a radioactive DJ set and mutates into… something less than a movie. It doesn’t have a story as such. After some rockin’ black and white tattoos-on-a-dead-guy titles we are introduced to some archetypes: the Whore, the Criminal, the Friend, the Pianist, the Godfather. Everything after that is a series of rambling tableaux, set mostly in the crowded streets and covered markets of a nameless town (or towns) in the Philippines. Loosely, the Criminal falls for the Whore, the Whore gets killed by the Godfather, the Criminal takes up the gun, it doesn’t end well. But even this simple narrative is chopped and screwed. There’s no real dialogue, though occasionally characters utter poetic and lyrical profundities; instead we have an ultra-cool soundtrack playing over street celebrations and fights and fireworks and car rides and killings and parties and orgies and a lot of scenes of the Criminal and the Whore running and walking and dancing and fucking and falling in love. The imagery is occasionally upsetting and obscene, often repetitive and mystifying.

That said, the cinematography is by Chris Doyle, so it looks amazing and feels energised and rackety and fluid. Asano Tadanobu (Criminal) and Nathalia Acevedo (Whore) are both photogenic as hell and fun to watch, and the eclectic hip jukebox score is a blast. So while the film often tries the viewers’ patience it also delivers up sublime moments where it all clicks into place and you’re grinning from ear to ear as the characters dance, in a decidedly unchoreographed fashion, to ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ by John Holt, or ‘She Said’ by Hasil Adkins. It tests Godard’s maxim that ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl’ to breaking point, delivering both less and more than most would expect from a night at the picturehouse. We get dazzling imagery and fine musical moments by the skipload, and moments of that elusive beast ‘pure cinema’, but a decided deficit of anything else to chew on. It’s an exercise in style over, well, pretty much everything, but it’s a buzzy, seductive style nonetheless.

Much credit should go to Brezel Goring of Stereo Total, who created the bulk of the soundtrack, with mentions for contributions from Grauzone and the Flippin’ Soul Stompers, who play live on screen. Khavn De La Cruz wrote, directed and produced, I’d cast a wary eye out for the rest of his work, but I’d definitely accept an invite to any party he’s hosting.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

Yakuza Apocalypse

yakuza apocapypse 1
Yakuza Apocalypse

Seen at LFF 2015

Format: Cinema

Release Date: 6 January 2016

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi

Cast: Yayan Ruhian, Hayato Ichihara, Riri Furankî

Original title: Gokudou daisensou

Japan 2015

125 mins

The ludicrously prolific Takashi Miike (as I write this, IMDB lists 99 credits as director since his debut in 1991) seems to work in different modes. There’s the high-end classy work he did for Jeremy Thomas (13 Assassins, Hara Kiri ); there are the extraordinary cult films he made his name with in the West (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer); and there are a whole lot of other films he seems to have tossed of in short order that work on a ‘throw it against the wall and see if it’ll stick’ principle. Yakuza Apocalypse is very much a third mode film.

‘Unkillable’ yakuza boss Kamiura is in fact a vampire, who manages to infect loyal underling Kageyama with his condition after being decapitated by assassins. Kageyama in turn infects some of the common populace and soon the world is out of whack: if everyone is a yakuza vampire, then where do Kamiura’s old gang get their status from? Soon a Kappa demon turns up and the conviction grows that some kind of apocalypse is in the offing. A female yakuza has steaming milk issuing from her ears, with which she tries to cultivate a new crop of ‘decent civilians’. The end of days arrives in the shape of a frog-headed martial arts master who looks like a sports team mascot with a bulging hypnotic eyeball. A Kageyama/Frog smackdown ensues. The world ends.

Trying to describe the plot of this effort is a thankless task. There’s stuff in here from spaghetti Westerns and Road Runner cartoons. There’s a lot of informative and/or baffling dialogue (‘Yakuza blood tastes bad and has no nutrition’). There are nice ideas that go nowhere, and wacky bits of business that occasionally pay off (love that frog). There’s an almost philosophical thread about what defines a yakuza. (Kageyama’s skin is too sensitive to allow for the requisite tattoos, the dearth of ‘decent civilians’ makes the old gang question their place in the world.) But much of this gets forgotten as the chaos mounts. It’s not boring, but it is frustrating, all a bit scrappy and makeshift and half-baked. There are the desired moments of weirdness that Miike fans would expect, but here they just don’t add up to much. Ah well, there’ll be another one along any minute…

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Watch the trailer: