Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera approach Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Kim Jong-kwan, 2016)

movie_imageKim Jong-kwan’s award winning unexpected indie box office hit has been given the rather odd English title of Worst Woman (최악의 하루, Choeakui Haru) in contrast with the original Korean which simply means “The Worst Day”. In fact, the film is about two people – an aspiring Korean actress with problems in her personal life, and a Japanese writer visiting for the launch of the Korean translation of his novel, each of whom is indeed having an exceptionally unlucky day. Part walking and talking, part split focus romantic comedy, Worst Woman is a polished piece of indie filmmaking anchored by quality performances and an interesting approach to its material.

Eun-hee (Han Ye-ri) is supposed to be rehearsing for a play but somehow she’s not really into it, much to the consternation of her coach. Heading off to meet up with her vacuous soap star boyfriend, Hyun-Oh (Kwon Yool ), Eun-hee runs into a hopelessly lost Japanese man who asks her for directions but mangles the pronunciation of the address leaving her with little idea of the destination. Nevertheless, Eun-hee eventually helps the mysterious traveller, Ryohei (Ryo Iwase), find the place he’s looking for only to realise he’s been given the completely the wrong time and there’s no one there to meet him. The pair then decide to have coffee together in a nearby cafe before Eun-hee leaves to track down Hyun-oh.

At this point their paths diverge but each is in for a disastrous day. Eun-hee argues with Hyun-oh about a previous (married) boyfriend before teasing him about his decision to wear a face mask and sunglasses “in case someone recognises him” (hilariously, he still gets snapped when a passing woman realises only a celebrity would be wearing such an attention seeking disguise). The playful argument suddenly turns ugly when Hyun-oh calls Eun-hee by another girl’s name leading her to dump him on the spot and leave as quickly as possible. Moping around, she posts a picture of the view from the park on Twitter which “concerns” the aforementioned married ex-boyfriend, Woon-Chul (Lee Hee-joon), who also wants to take Eun-hee for coffee in an attempt to rehash the past.

Meanwhile, Ryohei has finally met up with his publisher but quickly discovers his book launch is not all that it seemed to be. Not only has the venue changed, but only two people have turned up (and even that was an accident). Making the best of things, Ryohei takes the “guests” to a nearby coffee shop and attempts to talk to them about literature with mixed results. The apologetic publisher is Ryohei’s biggest supporter, translating the book himself and determined to share it with his fellow countrymen, but has problems of his own which mean that the Korean edition of Ryohei’s novel is set to remain on the shelf a little longer.

Chatting awkwardly in English in the cafe, Eun-hee asks Ryohei what he does for a living to which he jokingly replies that he “lies”. His job is, in essence, to make things up – he’s a novelist, albeit one with only a single book to his name. Eun-hee laughs and says she’s same, only she’s an actress, and like Ryohei she is not yet famous or even particularly successful. In fact, Eun-hee has been giving the performance of her life off stage where lying has become something of a bad habit. Though she had told Hyun-oh about her relationship with Woon-chul, even explaining that he was a married man, it appears that perhaps she hadn’t been sharing the whole truth with either man. Needless to say, her taste in men has not served her well and the choice between the petty and self obsessed Hyun-oh and the possessive, persistent and obsessive Woon-chul may not be worth making.

If Eun-hee’s romantic difficulties undermine her sense of self confidence, Ryohei gets a professional dressing down from a bilingual journalist (Choi Yu-hwa) who claims to be a fan of his work but has serious questions about his approach to character. Why, she asks him, does he create such violent and sadistic scenarios and then allow his characters to suffer within them. If the writer is god, does he not owe it to his creations to show a little benevolence? Ryohei is a put out to receive such an underhanded criticism during an interview, especially as he doesn’t consider himself to be a cruel person, but now realises that perhaps his world view is a little bleaker than he’d previously thought.

Both having experienced one of those days which throw everything else into stark relief, the pair run into each other again at twilight in the picturesque Namsan Park. Eun-hee revisits the opening monologue from her play, now managing to breathe life into the lines informed by her recent experiences, before reuniting with Ryohei and making another surprising suggestion – that they set off on a long walk along the park trail which she has never managed to complete. The opening narration from Ryohei told us that he’d been dreaming a lot of his home town and had, unusually, come up with a story idea whilst travelling. Smarting from the criticisms of the journalist and realising many of the characters he’s denied a happy ending to are slightly lost, essentially nice women just like Eun-hee, Ryohei decides that it’s time to make an exception. He imagines the same place he is right now, only it’s snowing and a woman is looking nervously back along the path. This time there is no need to worry, he doesn’t know all the details yet, but this woman is definitely going to be happy, at least someday.

Featuring a light jazz score and indie-style straightforward direction, Worst Woman recalls both the distant irony of Hong Sang-soo and other recent cross-cultural romances such as A Midsummer’s Fantasia (which also starred leading man Ryo Iwase) and Hong’s own Hill of Freedom. A tale of city serendipity, the film makes use of constant reoccurring motifs from coffee shops and national parks to professional insecurity and confused relationships but even if Eun-hee has been playing the role of herself with both of the men in her life, her connection with Ryohei seems to have a more authentic quality. Light yet poignant and filled with sophisticated comic touches, Worst Woman is a delightful late summer romance which ends on a refreshingly upbeat, open ended, note careful to leave the door open for these two frustrated artists to make the best of their worst day.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.

Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Shadows (밀정, Kim Jee-Woon, 2016)

age-of-shadowsWhen the country of your birth has been occupied by another nation, what do you do? Do you fight back, insist on your independence and expel the tyrants, or quickly bow to your new overlords and resign yourself to no longer being what you once were? Kim Jee-woon becomes the latest director to take a look at Korea’s colonial past with the Resistance based thriller Age of Shadows (밀정, Miljung) which owes more than a little to Melville’s similarly titled Army of Shadows, as well as classic cold war spy dramas The Third Man and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

The film opens with an impressive set piece in which two Resistance members, Jang-ok (Park Hee-soon), and Joo (Seo Young-joo) are betrayed whilst trying to sell a Buddhist statue. Joo is captured but Jang-ok makes a run for it as what looks like the entire Japanese garrison of Seoul chases him, running gallantly over the picturesque Korean rooftops. Cornered, Jang-ok is confronted by Korean born Japanese policeman Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho), once a Resistance member himself and a former comrade in arms of Jang-ok. This is the point Jung-chool’s carefully crafted collaboration beings to fracture – his friend, rather than allow himelf to be captured, shouts “Long Live Korea” and blows his own brains out.

His mission a failure, Jung-chool is then moved onto the next investigation which aims to dig out the Resistance top brass in the city. Jung-chool’s Japanese boss Higashi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants him to infiltrate the cell headed by antique dealer and photographer Woo-jin (Gong Yoo) in the hope that it will lead them to head honcho, Jung (Lee Byung-hun). However, Higashi also saddles him with a very young but high ranking Japanese official, Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), to “help” him bring in Woo-jin.

In Jung-chool’s final conversation with Jang-ok, his friend berates him for the decision to turn traitor and work for the Japanese rather than against them. Jung-chool asks him if he thinks independence is a credible aim, implying he’s long since given up believing in the idea of the Japanese ever being overthrown. Jang-ok evidently believed in it enough to sacrifice his own life, but other comrades have also abanoned the cause and actively betrayed the movement in much more serious ways than Jung-chool’s pragmatic side swapping.

Even if Jung-chool has decided that if you can’t beat the Japanese you may as well join them, he’s coming to the realisation that his superiors, even if they’ve previously treated him warmly, will never regard him as equal to the Japanese personnel. Hashimoto’s sudden arrival undercuts Jung-Chool’s career progress and reminds him that he serves a very distinct purpose which may soon run out of currency. Higashi, having seduced Jung-chool with promises of a comfortable life and praise for his skills, does not trust his Korean underling enough to send him out on his own. This personal wound may do more to send him reeling back to the other side than anything else, especially as his “replacement” Hashimoto is a crazy eyed psychopath who has half a mind to burn the entire city just to be sure of getting his man.

A man who’s been turned once can be turned again and so mastermind Jung decides to prod Jung-chool in the hope that he’ll become an asset rather than a threat. As he puts it, what’s more frightening than feeling your heart move and Jung-chool’s certainty has already been shaken. Song Kang-ho perfectly inhabits Jung-chool’s conflicted soul as his old patriotic feelings start to surface just as he begins to truly see his masters for what they are. Always keeping his intentions unclear, Jung-chool is the ideal double agent, playing both sides or maybe neither with no clear affiliation.

Like Army of Shadows, the final nail in the coffin is delivered by a sentimental photograph. In this chaotic world of betrayals and counter betrayals, there can be no room for love or compassion other than loyalty to one’s comrades and to the movement. Yet against the odds Woo-jin comes to trust Jung-chool implicitly, certain that he will finally choose the side of freedom rather than that of the oppressor. The relationship between the two men provides the only real moments of comic relief, though others members of the group are less well defined including an underwritten part for Woo-jin’s Chinese love interest (Han Ji-min) who isn’t permitted to do very much other than model some elegant twenties outfits.

Maintaining tension throughout, Kim intersperses psychological drama as betrayal piles on betrayal, with intense action sequences including a particularly claustrophobic train based game of hide and seek. Inspired by real historical events, Kim does not claim any level of authenticity but sets out to tell the story of the double dealing inside a man’s heart as he weighs up duty and self interest and asks himself how far he’s willing to go for the sake of either. The age of “shadows” indeed, these are hollow men whose identities have been eroded, living only for today but in certainty of the bright tomorrow. Kim’s examination of this turbulent period is both a big budget prestige picture with striking production values, and a tense, noir-inflected thriller in the mould of Melville, but also a nuanced human drama unafraid to ask the difficult questions which lie at the heart of every spy story.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wong Jing, 2016)

mission-milanoDespite its title, Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wángpái Dòu Wángpái) spends relatively little time in the Northern Italian city and otherwise bounces back and forth over several worldwide locations as bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung (Andy Lau) chases down a gang of international crooks trying to harness a new, potentially world changing technology. Inspired by the classic spy parodies of old, Wong Jing’s latest effort proves another tiresome attempt at the comedy caper as its nonsensical plot and overplayed broad humour resolutely fail to capture attention.

The film opens with its strongest scene as Andy Lau’s bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung escapes from a Parisian hotel room after being attacked by a machine-gun wielding, cross-dressing French maid. Like much of the rest of the film this sequence is not particularly connected to the subsequent goings on, but on his return to China Hung begins investigating reports that a top technology firm run by the descendants of a famous Robin Hood inspired criminal is about to unveil a new bio product known as Seed of God. During the meeting, the Swedish professor presenting the research is kidnapped by a Japanese vigilante group known as Crescent which Hung believes is working for the evil worldwide organisation KMAX. Teaming up with the tech firm’s CEO Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), Luo’s sister (Nana Ouyang), and sidekick (Wong Cho-lam), Hung sets out to retrieve the technology before it falls into the wrong hands.

Seed of God is a bioengineered crop which can flower even if thrown on stony ground. All it needs is water and away you go – instant mango tree wherever and whenever you want. This discovery could end world hunger, but it would also be very bad news for anyone involved in traditional agriculture. Hung and Luo recognise the danger and neither want to see this new technology end up with KMAX who would not be particularly interested in applying it ethically.

Originally reluctant teammates, Hung and Luo build up a buddy buddy relationship through competitive games before eventually agreeing to work together. Luo does most of the hardline fighting while Lau’s Hung backs him up with splapstick-style comic relief. Though often mildly exciting, the action sequences have a comedy vibe dominated by Hung getting thrown into ladies’ bathrooms or knocked back on his behind by a skilled lady assassin while Luo keeps losing his glasses to a particularly mean opponent. Unfortunately, Wong relies heavily on CGI for many of the action set pieces beginning with the obvious rooftops of Paris backdrop, right up to the sports car meets heavy duty lorry incident in the middle and aeroplane based finale.

The humour itself has a heavily retro feel filled with sexist jokes such as Hung crashing into hotel bedroom containing a confused topless woman in the opening sequence and a seduction section in the middle in which a key asset is wooed using her teenage love of Alain Delon and supposed desperation for male attention. Hung is clearly modelled on Bond and even has the agent number 119 though in truth he’s more like Maxwell Smart meets Inspector Gadget with his clean cut nerdiness and ubiquitous trench coat. He even has a Q-style tech specialist (named Bing Bing so we have the “classic” Li vs Fan joke) who’s made him a killer phone with every kind of spy feature conceivable including lightsaber, but can’t actually make a phone call. Add in genre tropes of unusual weaponry and laser filled corridors, and Mission Milano is looking very uninspired.

Despite its Italian destination, Mission Milano employs a frequent musical motif that it is distinctly Spanish – another clue to how all at sea the film is in terms of coherence. A minimal stab at romance between Luo and a friendly agent on the other side, and Hung’s ongoing pining for his ex-wife who left him because his world saving habit was just too stressful, attempt to add some character drama to the piece which remains lukewarm in approach to its cast. Lau turns in an uncharacteristically large performance, grinning and gurning his way through the lacklustre script,  but not even his presence can heal the many problems plaguing the film. Never as funny as it desperately wants to be Mission Milano is a trying experience which, although intermittently amusing, (thankfully) proves instantly forgettable.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Nagisa Oshima, 1970)

man-who-left-his-will-on-filmEvery story is a ghost story in a sense. In every photograph there’s a presence which cannot be seen but is always felt. The filmmaker is a phantom and an enigma, but can we understand the spirit from what we see? Whose viewpoint are seeing, and can we ever separate that subjective vision from the one we create for ourselves within our own minds? The Man Who Left his Will on Film (東京戰争戦後秘話, Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa) is an oblique examination of identity but more specifically how that identity is repurposed through cinema as cinema is repurposed as a political weapon.

The film begins with an anarchic scene in which two men argue over use of an 8mm Bolex camera. The man whose voice we can hear is angry with the cameraman who he claims has stolen his camera only to use it for “trivial” street scenes and landscapes whereas he needs it to “capture the struggle” by filming a nearby student protest. Eventually we can verify that there are two men as the protagonist, Motoki (Kazuo Goto), briefly moves in front of the camera in order to try and snatch it away from the filmmaker. The man holding the camera then runs off as breathless, handheld camera takes over. Motoki follows him and we follow Motoki as the scene takes on an ominous quality. The cameraman reappears atop a nearby building before plunging to his death camera in hand. Stunned, Motoki approaches the bloody scene and, noticing the camera is still intact, tries to retrieve it only to be picked up by the police who confiscate the camera as evidence.

Motoki then wakes up back at his left wing commune with his friends eager to know what happened. Strangely, they do not seem to be aware that one of their number has died and are more worried about the police being in control of one of their “means of production”. Even the dead man’s girlfriend, Yasuko (Emiko Iwasaki), begins to doubt the fact that he ever existed at all. Motoki and Yasuko begin investigating the mysterious presence together, chasing their elusive filmmaker and each taking possession of his form on more than one occasion but the question who owns these images, whose identity defines the narrative, proves an elliptical and ethical dilemma.

Oshima, evidently, was no right wing stooge but even if The Man who left His Will on Film takes the world of the student protests as its milieu, it does so to undermine them. Motoki’s comrades view filmmaking as a revolutionary act. They claim to turn the camera into a weapon by using it confront reality, but as Yasuko later admits much of this is a rationalisation which allows them to continue a “bourgeois” art form without abandoning their left wing principles. The cadre members spout marxist dogma and argue about who has the highest political consciousness, but all they ever do is film the ongoing struggle. Their fight is empty, their vision blank.

Notably, the first of several arguments over dogma relates to “ownership” of the camera itself and whether Motoki and another comrade fought hard enough to retrieve it from the oppressive state. Did Motoki chase after “his” camera, meaning he condones the idea of “private” property which is contrary to the communal nature of the group, or “their” camera which is a revolutionary tool? The camera itself is singular, but the group is plural. This commune is intended to work as a hive mind, the people as one with one vision and one identity but Oshima exposes this as an impossibility. The group is a collective of individuals with different ideas and opinions which do not necessarily conform to a common point of view.

This is further brought out when the camera is retrieved and revealed to contain a collection of seemingly apolitical landscapes and street scenes. The group members are quickly bored with the static shots of everyday subjects, some berating the filmmaker for his “bankrupt” politics and lack of artistry while others vow they must honour their comrade’s struggle by watching the film to its conclusion in order to derive the meaning. The unseen filmmaker has indeed left his “will” on film, not as a testament or embodiment of future policy, but his literal “will”. His individual spirit and vision are contained within the seemingly innocuous shots in a political act of revolutionary individualism. He is the film, the film is him.  His vision dominates, we must accept it or remake it as our own.

Motoki, constantly chasing shadows, attempts to remake the film in the mould of the original filmmaker but unexpectedly encounters aspects of his own life already existing within it. Yasuko’s approach is more proactive. She inserts herself into the film, makes her presence known and refuses to be invisible. She picks up the camera and fights for her place within the frame. Hers is the struggle of the true revolutionary filmmaker, imprinting herself and her vision onto the film.

Where does this leave us? We’re in the film too. We see the film and, in a sense, recreate it in our own minds, recasting ourselves as director and protagonist. We see the film subjectively yet we cannot divorce ourselves from the original vision. Motoki’s venture fails because he only sees the landscapes, whereas Yasuko takes the same images but repossesses them, remaking them in her own image in a true act of cinematic revolution. Yasuko has seized the means of production and overthrown the tyranny of anonymous images in refusing to be constrained by someone else’s will. The camera is a weapon, but it is we who choose what it sees, and in turn what it sees in us.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)