Tag Archives: Asian film

Love & Peace

Love Peace1
Love & Peace

Format: Blu-ray, DVD + VOD

Seen at LFF 2015

Release date: 11 July 2016

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kumiko Aso

Japan 2015

117 mins

Sion Sono has made an insanely warped family film about a rock star and a turtle.

Brace yourselves, folks. Sion Sono has made a Christmas family film, albeit one that may well traumatise any children who come in contact with it. Love & Peace tells the story of Kyo (Hiroki Hasegawa), an office drone whose youthful dreams of rock stardom have long since withered. He is now such a pathetic loser that his life is the subject of derision on morning TV – although this may or may not be a dream sequence. One lunch break he buys a turtle from a vendor on a park bench, names it Pikadon, and immediately treats it as his only friend and confidante, telling the turtle all his hopes and desires: to be in a band, have a hit song, play in the Tokyo Olympic stadium. But when his co-workers find Pikadon on him the next day, their mockery drives him to flush it down the toilet, where it follows the currents to wind up at a kind of Land of Misfit Toys deep in the sewers, presided over by a boozy wizard (Toshiyuki Nishida). He grants Pikadon magical powers, and thus Kyo, stricken with remorse over his actions, starts to have his wishes granted: he becomes a Spiders-era Bowie-esque star, on his way to the top, but Pikadon is growing in size with every wish.

As that précis probably reveals, Sono’s latest is not the easiest film to sum up. It feels decidedly sick and strange without actually crossing the line into something taboo or transgressive. It’s glossy-looking and has a budget, but the actual experience of watching it is abrasive; for much of the running time we’re watching shonky puppets with squeaky voices interacting with unsubtle human performers, while in the background that parping march from Walter Carlos’s soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange alternates with the horrifically catchy title tune over and over again. For long stretches the film lacks forward momentum, essentially spinning its wheels before it gets to where we know it’s headed. The Sewer of Misfit Toys is a candy-coloured nightmare of live animals and busted merchandise, run by a kindly old man with worrying Charles Manson/Jim Jones parallels. The outside world seems to be full of cruel idiots. And our lead character is pretty hard to like. In fact, Sono seems to want us to despise his hero. I’ve never been fond of the word ‘snivelling’, but Kyo actively snivels in the early stages as an office worker, when he’s not being a delusional gurning man-child at home, a screeching loon in the street and finally an egomaniacal prick when he attains stardom. What fellow worker Yuko (Kumiko Aso) sees in him is hard to understand.

How much of this annoyance is intentional, and what the hell Sono means by it, is, as usual, hard to say. I have the feeling that someone who was more au fait with current Japanese pop culture might get more out of it. Whatever: there are sizeable chunks of Love & Peace where it sits on the right side of ‘delightfully deranged’ and delivers. I suspect that my face sported a sizeable grin for the moments when my head wasn’t buried in my hands. And the climax is a jaw-dropping thing, wherein a glitter-suited feather-cut Kyo stomping around the stadium stage is intercut with full-on Kaiju action as a Gojira-sized Pikadon goes on a slow-moving rampage through Tokyo’s streets under the obligatory assault of the armed forces, on his way to a reunion with his master. The rest… Well, it manages to be both sweet and creepy, Sono eschewing his customary sex and violence but still ending up somewhere… unhealthy. It feels like warped children’s birthday entertainment, like… How’s this? Like a clown on misdiagnosed prescription medication putting on a puppet show with stuff he’s pulled from the wreckage of a plane crash. There you go. Fill your boots, and, y’know, Merry Christmas…

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

Watch the trialer:

Han Gong-ju

Han Gong ju
Han Gong-ju

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 13 April 2015

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Lee Su-jin

Writer: Lee Su-jin

Cast: Chun Woo-hee, Jeong In-seon, Kim So-young, Lee Yeong-ran, Kim Choeyonjun

South Korea 2013

112 mins

Loosely based upon a shocking real-life case that took place back in 2004, indie drama Han Gong-ju became one of the most talked about Korean films of 2014, screening at around a dozen international film festivals as well as enjoying an unprecedented domestic release on over 200 screens, with admissions in excess of 220,000, making it one of the most widely seen and successful Korean independent productions of all time. Ironically though, this is a film that perhaps works more the less you know about it. So, for those looking for a short, spoiler-free verdict: Han Gong-ju is an absorbing, character-driven film that handles its thorny subject matter with sensitivity and fragmented grace. And although its execution is slow-burning and limited in certain respects, it is definitely worth checking out. Here’s the longer version…

Han Gong-ju follows the titular heroine, Gong-ju (a breakout performance by Chun Woo-hee), a victim of a sexually violent incident on which the film is heavily built upon, and which I shan’t go into in any further detail. She is transferred to a new school and is put up in the home of her former teacher’s mother (Lee Yeong-ran), and even does some shifts at her reluctant host’s convenience store. At school, however, Gong-ju keeps herself as isolated as possible. But after a fellow student, Eun-hee (Jeong In-seon), overhears Gong-ju singing while showering in the swimming pool changing area, she tries to coax the withdrawn girl into joining her a cappella group. But as Gong-ju lowers her defences, her traumatic past begins to catch up with her.

Not only does the past catch up with Gong-ju, it also catches up with the viewer. Writer-director Lee Su-jin chooses not to reveal the specifics of the incident right off the bat, opting to drip-feed information by shrewdly shuffling scenes from the past with scenes from the present. It is only in the film’s final scenes that we get to fully comprehend what has happened to her. It’s an interesting approach that has the potential to be either highly rewarding or highly frustrating for the viewer. On balance it’s the former that triumphs. However, there is a regrettable dash of the latter: although the film’s structure is fascinating to see unfold, with its intertwining timelines and subtle incidences of boundary-blurring hallucinations as the presence of another victim (Kim So-young) impresses herself on Gong-ju’s psyche, it does present certain limitations. For instance, a scene where the parents of some of those who were also involved with the incident start to hound Gong-ju with legal documents raises some interesting questions about the culture of victim shaming (something which sadly seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s media landscape), and also hints at just how complex the still ongoing case actually is. However, the film’s time shuffling means that these wider elements are left relatively unexplored.

Last seen on Korean television screens in the daft comedy series Vampire Idol (2011-2012), Chun Woo-hee performs admirably in a role that requires her to be almost constantly estranged from those around her. Again, Lee’s choice in story structure means we rarely see more than varying shades of glum, save for one rather radiant moment when Gong-ju picks up an acoustic guitar and loses herself in song. It’s the other performances, particularly those by Lee Yeong-ran and Jeong In-seon as surrogate mother figure and self-appointed best friend respectively, that create an environment within which Chun can excel with such an introverted character. They are supporting actors in every sense.

In a way, Han Gong-ju functions as a quietly sensitive inversion of Kim Ki-duk’s more scandalous Moebius (2013) – another recent Korean film that focuses on the aftermath of a sexual incident. Lee Su-jin’s work is certainly the more palatable and nuanced of the two, carefully underplaying the lurking nastiness of Gong-ju’s ordeal without trivialising it – a scene where the sound from an online video that captured part of the incident can be heard (but not seen) on a laptop is one of the film’s most devastating moments. Making his feature debut (his previous short film, Enemy’s Apple (2007), is available as a special feature on the Third Window Films DVD and Blu-ray release), Lee demonstrates an astonishing sense of craft, complemented by unobtrusive but sensuous camerawork. The film’s style comes across as methodical, yet somehow casual, and exerts a commendable level of authorial control that, while perhaps not fully mastered in this instance, shows a great deal of potential. Han Gong-ju is a welcome reminder of the power of suggestion.

Mark Player

Watch the trailer:

Tokyo Tribe

Tokyo Tribe
Tokyo Tribe

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 May 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Sion Sono

Writer: Sion Sono

Based on the manga by: Santa Inoue

Cast: Akihiro Kitamura, Tomoko Karina, Hitomi Katayama, Ryôhei Suzuki, Nana Seino

Japan 2014

116 mins

A Jap hip hop gangsta musical, Sion Sono’s latest is set in an alternative Tokyo where the rival gangs that rule the city’s outer districts have been maintaining an uneasy truce for years, until, over the course of one night, a murky conspiracy is set in motion to set clan against clan and bring war to the streets. Can the various antagonistic pimps, hustlers, strippers, dealers and loved up teens overcome their differences, beat the bad guys and restore peace?

Of course they bloody can. This isn’t a film of murky moral complexity, this is an exhilarating, garish manga-based phantasmagoria, much more concerned with giving us a wild ride than with such fripperies as plot or storytelling or making a whole lot of sense. Filmed largely in fluid roaming steadicam takes that must have taken an age to set up and choreograph, Tokyo Tribe is a feast of outrageous action against over-the-top set design. The screen is full of scantily clad gyrating girls and splattery ultra-violence, when it’s not full of eccentrically dressed MC’s telling you what’s up. Rather than giving us anything authentically human, most of the actors are channelling hip hop archetypes, exemplified by Riki Tekeuchi’s utterly grotesque turn as chief bad guy Lord Buppa, a leering, groping cannibal king in a gold Elvis suit, eyeballs rolling so far back in his head it suggests he’s permanently overdosing on elephant tranquilisers.

If all this sounds like a blast, well, it is, up to a point, but after the first 20 minutes or so a certain repetitiveness creeps in. Once again, there’s the feeling with Sion Sono that he’s not really in control of his material. He’s having too much fun to be concerned with consistency of tone, or getting over characters and story. The result is a whole lot of cool stuff that doesn’t really slow down or speed up or build. Whilst it’s never boring, irritations creep in. The various ‘tribes’ are introduced to us over and over again, whilst the evil plot at the centre of the tale is left largely unexplained. A military tank is introduced with much fanfare only to be utterly forgotten about. A dick size joke that should, at best, have been a throwaway gag is allowed to take over the final moments of the film. Elements don’t gel; at times it plays like a Rooney/Garland ‘let’s put on a show right here’ flick, at others like Tinto Brass’s Caligula. The ‘one love’ vibe that ends the movie doesn’t fit with the fetishised weaponry and wall-to-wall arse- kicking. The colourful cartoon fun stylings don’t sit well with the rape and torture scenes.

Sure, some of these glaring contradictions may be part of the hip hop culture Sono is representing. But like a rapper yelling ‘Peace! Out!’ after a set filled with Glock-wielding revenge fantasies and badass bragging… well, you find yourself wishing for a little more self-awareness and self-control. The sexual politics especially are pretty horrible, from the opening scene where a naïve female cop is stripped to the waist to be used as a map of Tokyo by knife-wielding bad boy Mera (Ryôhei Suzuki, who, frankly, did not die enough) practically all the film’s female characters are used as squealing eye candy, when they aren’t being used as kung fu kicking eye candy: it’s a rare shot of female lead Nana Seino that doesn’t feature the gusset of her white panties.

Still, the music by B.C.D.M.G throbs and pulses effectively, and it has energy to burn. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. But I’m still waiting for Sono to give us the undeniably great, mad film that he clearly has the chops to deliver. Tokyo Tribe: big fun on screen, bad taste in mouth. Peace. Out.

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2014 coverage.

Watch the trailer:

The World of Kanako

The World of Kanako
The World of Kanako

Format: DVD

Release date: 15 August 2016

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Writers: Tetsuya Nakashima, Miako Tadano, Nobuhiro Monma

Based on the novel by: Akio Fukamachi

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Nana Komatsu, Satochi Tsumabuki

Original title: Kawaki

Japan 2014

118 mins

From Memories of Matsuko through to this new offering, director Tetsuya Nakashima has developed a striking world of intense violence, emotional and physical, punctuated by moments of candy-coloured exuberance. While Matsuko, Confessions and The World of Kanako were all adapted from novels written by different authors, there is a continuing fascination for adolescent girls and the strange closed-off realm they inhabit running through them (as well as through Nakashima’s earlier Kamikaze Girls).

Kôji Yakusho, a favourite of the great Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s, plays Akikazu Fujishima, a washed-out former detective searching for his missing estranged daughter Kanako at the request of his distraught ex-wife. In the course of his investigation, he uncovers a vicious underworld of drugs, brutality and sexual exploitation. As terrible secrets are revealed, he is also forced to face the memories of his own actions as a father and husband.

Akikazu is a man who can only express himself and relate to the world through violence. His approach to the people around him, whether he feels affection or aversion for them, is pretty much limited to shouting, beating and raping. And although the film’s focus is on Kanako, it is really Akikazu’s vision of the world that the audience is plunged into, and it is a fairly relentless, harrowing experience. As the film progresses, it is as if the violence inside him became increasingly visible physically, as if it could no longer be contained: as he is forced to face himself, his already unkempt appearance gradually descends into full-on bruised and blood-stained messiness.

A gaping absence at the heart of the story, Kanako remains a question mark that looms over the film, an enigma that remains mostly unresolved. Essentially unknowable, she is outlined only through other people’s perceptions of her, people who all have deep, passionate, powerful feelings about her. Here as in Confessions, teenagers are troubling, ambiguous creatures, simultaneously playful and cruel, childlike and knowing, unpredictably alternating between innocence and nastiness, to the utter bewilderment and dismay of the adults around them – and Kanako is the ultimate example of that. But just as in Confessions, adults are capable of terrible acts of revenge for the wrong done to their loved ones. As morally murky as Confessions, and as emotionally intense as Memories of Matsuko, The World of Kanako is a visceral dive into hearts of darkness and the ties that bind them.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our London Film Festival 2014 coverage.

Watch the trailer:



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 1 September 2014

Distributor: Lionsgate

Directors: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto

Writers: Takuji Ushiyama, Timo Tjahjanto

Cast: Kazuki Kitamura, Oka Antara, Rin Takanashi, Ray Sahetapy, Luna Maya

Indonesia, Japan 2014

132 mins

A co-production between Indonesia and Japan, Killers, the sophomore feature from directing duo Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto – better known as the ‘Mo Brothers’ (although they’re not related) – seems like a conscious step up in artistic integrity after their ultra-bloody but otherwise unambitious debut horror, Macabre (2009). Working under the increasingly influential auspices of Gareth Evans – the Welsh-born director behind successful Indonesian martial arts flick The Raid (2011) and its sequel The Raid 2: Berandal (2014), who serves here as executive producer – Killers is a grisly, multilingual serial killer-themed tale featuring two intertwining narratives set in different countries.

In Tokyo, Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura), a slick, emotionally aloof businessman haunted by traumatic childhood memories of his dead sister, lures women back to his secluded home where he videos their torture and murder before posting his efforts on the internet for all to see. In Jakarta, Bayu (Oka Antara), a disgraced journalist and viewer of Nomura’s videos, finds himself in a situation where he has to kill two men intent on robing, raping and possibly murdering him. Traumatised, he is compelled to document the aftermath and uploads the footage to the same website. Nomura sees the video and reaches out to Bayu, encouraging him to continue scratching this newfound itch for murder that Bayu insists he doesn’t have (or does he?). Meanwhile, Nomura undergoes his own crisis when he inadvertently befriends a potential victim, a meek flower shop owner (Rin Takanashi) saddled with her young mentally ill brother.

The film cleanly criss-crosses back and forth between the two protagonists as their respective storylines shift, develop and, occasionally, collide. It soon becomes apparent that Killers doesn’t intend to be a straightforward genre shocker, although the film’s pulse-pounding opening salvo, which sees a woman run for her life through the woods with a masked Nomura in pursuit, may lead you to think otherwise. This scene’s whomping stop-start sound design immediately announces that we are in jugular-grabbing horror territory. But what starts as horror melds into psychological thriller, which in turn segues into a revenge narrative, as Bayu sets his sights on taking down a corrupt public figure (Ray Sahetapy) who has caused him much personal strife. Bayu’s inner conflict both mirrors and is at odds with Nomura’s, whose interactions with Hisae the flower shop owner suggests that he might be losing his killer instinct. The Mo Brothers, along with screenwriter Takuji Ushiyama, are confident in heaping on dramatic complications that mould and re-mould the plot, giving the film some unexpected dimensionality and a welcome sense of not quite knowing how things are going to play out.

Visually, each strands adopts its own subtly differing traits: Nomura’s side of the story possesses a chilly baroque shimmer, whereas Bayu’s leans towards loose docudrama (the respective cityscapes that envelop them – the sterile glass and concrete facades of Tokyo and the more rundown and weathered Jakarta – emphasise this dichotomy). But what’s interesting is when the stylistic ephemera of one seem to seep into the other. Bayu’s butchering fantasy reveals glimpses of the violently artistic flourishes of Nomura’s killings, while Nomura’s lapses of control load stress on the pristine veneer that characterises his world. These are among many subtle decisions that lay the groundwork for the inevitable coming together of the two characters. Incidentally, the film’s weaker moments arguably lie when Nomura and Bayu are united – talking directly to one another over the internet using stilted English – and the film’s gripping denouement risks being undermined by some less-than-stellar slow motion and green screen effects.

Nevertheless, Killers is a suitably impressive work, refusing to simply tick the boxes of its genre in favour of aiming for something higher. The film hits hard when it needs to; its punchy sound design, use of music and explosive moments of violence give certain sequences the kind of intensity that many films of this ilk strive for but often can’t quite deliver. A genuine investment in the characters goes a long way in this regard, which the film takes the time and trouble to nurture. The result is a tense yet strangely intricate dramatic thriller that not only delivers on viscera but also ruminates on grander themes concerning the desire to kill, the need to document it, and our curiosity in, and perhaps even obsession with, the morbid. Part of Nomura’s motivation to kill stems from the views his videos receive, and the burgeoning popularity of Bayu’s videos creates further cause for insecurity. Although some of these ideas aren’t as fulsomely explored as some may like, the film never spoils the fun by lecturing self-referentially about the viewer’s foregone compliance over consuming violent media. With its commendable handling of style and substance, Killers confirms that the Mo Brothers are a filmmaking pair to watch.

Mark Player

Watch the trailer:

Belladonna of Sadness

Belladonna 1
Belladonna of Sadness

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the East End Film Festival

Screening Date: 23 June 2014

Venue: Red Gallery

Director: Eiichi Yamamoto

Writers: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto

Based on the novel La sorcière by: Jules Michelet

Original title: Kanashimi no Belladonna

Japan 1973

93 mins

As a critic with an interest in the history of Japanese animation and manga, it is refreshing once in a while to come across a film that is like nothing you’ve seen before. While some animé films save money by using limited animation here and there, before Belladonna of Sadness I’d never seen a movie where around 40% of the running time consists of the camera panning across still drawings and paintings. By using this technique so extensively in-between the more traditionally animated sections, it avoids appearing like a cost-saving exercise (which is not to say it wasn’t, as the film actually bankrupted an animation studio) and creates a very different kind of storytelling that seems to hark back to older forms of Japanese entertainment such as Kamishibai or Emaki-mono. Kamishibai storytellers would travel from town to town entertaining children with a box that had an opening at the front, in and out of which different painted scenes could be moved, like a 2D version of paper theatre, with a soundtrack performed by the storyteller. Revived in 1920s Japan during the global economic depression, Kamishibai had its roots in an older form of pictorial narrative, that of Emaki-mono scrolls, which display a story to the viewer as they roll the unfolding image from one end of the scroll to the other.

The EEFF screening will be accompanied by a live score from Charlie Boyer and The Voyeurs.

By containing filmed versions of both Kamishibai and Emaki-mono and mixing the style of older visual narratives with more modern animation (which in this case lifts imagery from 1970s fashion magazines and even a brief homage to The Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine), Belladonna of Sadness almost feels like a tour of Japanese visual storytelling culture. All of this may sound charming – and indeed it often is – but the film is certainly not suitable for children, as the starting point for the screenplay was a 19th-century book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La sorcière) by Jules Michelet, and the film contains many scenes of rape committed against the central character. Although these scenes are thankfully tamer than hentai animè from a decade later, such as the risible Urotsukidôji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), or even live action cinema at the time – for example Lady Snowblood released the same year – the imagery of a woman split apart by a river of blood that splinters into bats is still the stuff of nightmares.

Belladonna 2

The plot is a somewhat misogynist tale of a poor couple who try to raise the tithe needed to get married on their local Baron’s estate. When he demands 10 times the amount, the fiancé has no choice but to let his bride spend a night with the Baron instead. Deflowered and full of shame, the next day Jeanne welcomes a penis-shaped demon into her bedroom (and body) so she can be empowered with the forces of evil to fight the corrupt regime they live in. The fantastical and erotic elements of the film are sometimes an uneasy mix, and perhaps only the use of scrolling images to replace much of the animation prevents the film from being a gruelling experience, as the focus of the plot is often on the repeated abuse of the female protagonist.

The third in a trilogy of animated ‘pink’ films made under the supervision of Osamu Tezuka, the most revered creator of Japanese manga, Belladonna of Sadness followed two light-hearted erotic fantasies by the same director, which contained animation that was recognisably by Tezuka himself – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). However, this film swaps the child-friendly artwork of Astro Boy (1964) and Kimba the White Lion (1966) for a striking style influenced by fin-de-siècle European artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt. The soundtrack is also exemplary, and like the globetrotting visual aesthetics, mixes sleazy Euro-pop – of the kind that might grace a 1960s film by Roger Vadim – with Japanese jazz. Only the subject matter leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which the filmmakers clumsily try to belatedly justify with a coda comparing the events of the movie with the sacrifices made by women who died during the French Revolution. But the many unique elements that make the film stand out from its peers, including the art on screen, combined with the Emaki-mono presentation, make Belladonna of Sadness a must-see for fans of Japanese animation.

Alex Fitch

Watch the trailer:

Double Take: The Raid 2

The Raid 2
The Raid 2

Format: Cinema

Dates: 11 April 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Gareth Evans

Writer: Gareth Evans

Cast: Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra, Julie Estelle

Indonesia, USA 2014

150 mins

Virginie Sélavy and Sean Hogan share their views on the eagerly awaited sequel to The Raid – the 2012 Indonesian action stunner, written and directed by Welsh-born Gareth Evans.


The Raid took everybody by surprise in 2012: a lean and mean, hyper-kinetic, brutal Indonesian martial arts film shot by a Welshman, this unlikely proposition giddily renewed the genre and showed tired Asia and stale Hollywood how it was done. The Raid 2 ups the ante still, not just in relation to the first film, but to action film generally. A prodigious amount of energy has gone into devising super-dynamic, brilliantly inventive fight scenes, choreographed to exhilarating perfection and expertly filmed, with Gareth Evans able to handle elegant wide angles and tightly confined spaces with the same dexterity. The film is one seriously jaw-dropping, breath-taking, gasp-inducing set-piece after another: the toilet cubicle melee, the mud brawl, the car chase to top all car chases, the savage kitchen fight where anything goes, with side distractions courtesy of hired assassins Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man (the latter recalling the enigmatic assailant in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent). The violence is not only superbly imaginative but full of humorous touches too: Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man in particular have assassination scenes that are as funny as they are vicious, involving claw hammers and a baseball as weapons respectively.

This second helping of 100&#37 freshly squeezed action is, however, slightly adulterated by its narrative ambitions. Where the plot of The Raid was threadbare and fiercely functional, its follow-up attempts to develop a grand crime saga with colourful rival gangs fighting over control of the city, a deadly father-son conflict, and a taciturn hero caught in a hopeless situation (Iko Uwais reprising his role and taking up where the first film left off). Melancholy assassin Prakoso adds to the misguided and tepid efforts at tugging at the audience’s heartstrings, his fate underlined by a particularly distracting use of Handel’s ‘Saraband’. (He is played by Yayan Ruhian, who was terrific as Mad Dog in the previous film, but whose talents are sadly not best used here.)

These, however, are minor gripes, simply because the action is what truly matters here – and what action! Admittedly the radical economy of The Raid had a ruthless perfection that is missing here, but this is not a film that you choose to watch for its story. Despite its flaws, it is impossible not to enjoy this new furious assault on the senses. The whole 150 minutes are a full-on riot of orgiastic violence and preposterous fun: you will be grinning all the way home. Virginie Sélavy


Proof that you can have entirely too much of a good thing, Gareth Evans’s The Raid 2 stands as a curious artefact of what happens when indie filmmaking meets the modern franchise mentality. For whilst feted by grassroots genre audiences as a gritty, no-holds-barred alternative to Hollywood CGI action pablum, The Raid 2 actually bears all the hallmarks of any committee-made studio sequel you’d care to mention: the wearying insistence that bigger equals better; a paper-thin how-can-the-same-shit-happen-to-the-same-guy-twice narrative (along with the obligatory insistence that this is now going to be a trilogy and was always intended as one, honest); and a general unwillingness to realise when one has outstayed one’s welcome.

Opening a short time after the climax of The Raid, the sequel picks up hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) as he agrees to go undercover in a bid to bring down the criminal power structure of the city. The plan requires him to be declared dead, just another faceless victim of the events of the previous film. So leaving his pregnant wife, off Rama goes to prison for two years in a bid to bolster the underworld cred of his new identity, before coming out and immediately infiltrating his way to the heart of the criminal organisation.

What hurts The Raid 2 is not so much this sort of by-the-numbers plotting – The Raid was similarly slight on story – but its pretensions towards being some sort of The Godfather-with-roundhouse-kicks crime epic. Whereas The Raid understood that its slender narrative was merely the means by which it got from Kickass Setpiece A to Kickass Setpiece B, and thus wasted as little time on it as necessary, the sequel deludes itself into thinking that audiences are keen to learn more about its sprawling cast of cut-out characters, rather than simply wanting to watch them kick seven shades of shit out of each other at the earliest given opportunity.

Thus we have such digressions as the return of Yayan Ruhian (antagonist Mad Dog in the first Raid), this time around playing a contract assassin who unwittingly gets caught up in the creaking gears of the plot. We first witness him taking out a gang of hoods who have absolutely nothing to do with the story, then are forced to sit through an interminable dinner scene with him and his ex-wife (the curse of backstory strikes again), before the film finally remembers what it’s good at and throws him into an epic nightclub brawl. But as the fight nears its tragic climax (complete with Handel on the soundtrack for added pathos), you’re forced to consider that all of this has been in the service of a character who’s nothing more than a plot device, and that no amount of hamfisted scripting can make him anything more than that. It’s at times like these that The Raid 2 resembles a rambling old codger reminiscing in the pub, forever talking in circles and never getting to the payoff.

Nevertheless, whilst the film’s timing of punchlines may be slipshod, it is of course the punches that people have really paid to see. And in this regard The Raid 2 definitely justifies the hype, more than surpassing the action beats of the original. Several moments – a combination car chase/fight, a climactic faceoff in a restaurant kitchen – drew admiring applause from the audience, Evans’s grasp of his craft truly demonstrating just how turgid and lazy most modern action movies are. The choreography and stunt work are stunning, often jaw-dropping (one suspects the reason Hollywood doesn’t make films like this is partly because modern health and safety standards preclude it), and these set pieces are certainly enough to recommend The Raid 2 in and of themselves.

It’s just a shame that the film surrounding them is so flabby and shapeless, really only kicking fully into life in the second half. Gareth Evans may very well be the Second Coming of action films, but even Jesus needed a hand occasionally. And The Raid 2 would certainly have benefited from the input of another writer and editor. If (as seems likely) Evans parlays the success of these films into a US directing career, the fervent wish of his hardcore support seems to be that he might bring some much-needed balls to the complacency of modern corporate Hollywood. Fair enough. But what the Hollywood studio system always stood for was discipline and the art of delegation, and The Raid 2 serves as notice of the fact that there are lessons to be learned there for indie filmmakers too. Sean Hogan

Watch the trailer:



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 25 February 2013

Distributor Eureka

Director: Kaneto Shindō

Writer: Kaneto Shindō

Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô

Japan 1964

100 mins

Kaneto Shindō’s Onibaba (1964) is an allegorical tale of transformation and uncovered deception. The narrative is set in rural 14th-century Japan during civil war between rivalling shogunates. Two women, a middle-aged mother (played by Shindô’s business partner and future wife Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, (Jitsuko Yoshimura) scavenge to survive. Their modus operandi is to lie in wait in towering susuki fields (Japanese pampas grass) until unsuspecting samurais exhausted by the war pass. Then the women attack. They spear and kill the warriors then strip them for their clothes and swords that can be traded for meagre bags of millet. Systematically they work together to drag their prey to a deep hole and fling them in. Back at their hut they eat, rest, exchange their goods with a covert vendor and await new victims.

This stark austerity is caused by a war that is not the women’s but the generals’ and emperors’ higher up in the social order. But it is the overlooked world of the women that becomes Shindō’s focus. They are not condemned, after all they are doing what their male compatriots are doing a few miles away on the battlefields. Instead, their actions are portrayed as part of a world turned upside down where morality mutates, frost in summer ruins crops, a horse gives birth to a cow and the sun rises black in the sky. It is into this strange yet matter-of-fact cycle that Shindō injects a surreal depiction of erotic desire and a seemingly supernatural twist.

Tension in the film arises when this need for physical survival is met with erotic desire. When Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from fighting in Kyoto without the younger woman’s husband her mother-in-law is forced to consider life without her when she predicts she might leave with Hachi. The consequences are life-threatening, and a game of cat and mouse begins as the mother tries to keep her close. Here, Shindō moulds a childhood Buddhist fable warning against duplicity for his own means. In Onibaba, truthfulness is about finding the limits of your own freedom in an unfathomable moral sea.

The bleak brutality and violence is echoed in the stylistic choices for the film. The soundtrack scored by long-time Shindô collaborator Hikaru Hayashi provides minimal drum rhythms that are remindful of a racing heartbeat or blood pumping through the body. They harness a sense of survival of the fittest or the shrewdest. Like the sound, the mise en scène is pared down to eerie glimpses of sky, smothering fields of pampas grass, small stretches of water and caves. Close-up shots of the reeds make the most of their animistic qualities. Taller than a man or a woman, they seem to move of their own volition, animated and magical. Filmed from overhead they become an uncanny engulfing swell that can carry you along to meet concealed malign forces. This is where exhilaration and terror meet: what will these enigmatic grasses reveal?

Nicola Woodham

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress

Format: DVD

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Writers: Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki

Japan 1958

126 mins

Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 action adventure The Hidden Fortress belongs to a swashbuckling genre of heroic derring-do: jidaigeki. Its main innovation was to concentrate its interest on the plight of a pair of quarrelsome cowardly peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), who, in the aftermath of a large battle, are forced to bury the dead. The largely comic figures owe their mismatched comedy not only to Laurel and Hardy, but, going further back, Pistol and Bardolph in Shakespeare’s Henriad. They quarrel over gold, they are lazy, greedy, disloyal and potential rapists, always looking to get the upper hand and only ever thinking of rectifying their ways when in danger of imminent death. ‘Let’s be kinder to each other,’ they cry, only to go back to arguing once the danger has passed.

Kurosawa’s film is a straightforward action film on one level. Tahei and Matashichi meet up with an important general (Toshiro Mifune) and a princess in disguise, Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara), in the hidden fortress of the title. They are lured to helping the pair by the promise of the hidden Akizuki gold, which everyone is searching for. The motley band make their way with the gold disguised as firewood through enemy territory, hunted by soldiers, and heading for the safety of their own land. Like Kurosawa’s later masterpiece Ran, The Hidden Fortress also has within it the imprecation ‘take physic pomp’, as the verities of feudal loyalty are interrogated and the princess sees through her own eyes the unfairness and cruelty of the system of which she is a leading representative and beneficiary. She is made aware of the sacrifices – including the ultimate – that others are willing to make on her behalf and sees the sufferings of those who are not as fortunate as her in the nature of their births, particularly the position of a poor peasant’s daughter who is about to be sold into slavery when she is rescued by the princess. Notions of honour break down quickly when it is obvious that what everyone is really searching for is the Akizuki gold, and therefore many of the nobles are no better than Tahei and Mataschichi, who if anything, retain at least their knockabout honesty.

For the first time Kurosawa films in the Tohoscope widescreen format, and he uses it to great effect, showing a precarious Japanese landscape full of perpendicular steepness. A slave revolt tumbles down a steep set of Odessa-like steps, and our comic duo are constantly clambering up and down the sides of the gravelly hills in their attempts to elude capture. The fortress itself is no more than a ring of steep hillocks, surrounding a small redoubt. The characters’ difficulties are occasionally liberated by scenes of wonderful actions such as Mifune’s duel with an old enemy and the fire festival, which turns from an obstacle to a moment of revelation. Apparently, a 1970s science fiction film was influenced by it as well, but there’s plenty to enjoy without recourse to that.

John Bleasdale