Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Happy Together (春光乍洩, Wong Kar Wai, 1997)

4K

“Turns out, lonely people are all the same” according to the hero of Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy handover romance, Happy Together (春光乍洩). A statement cutting straight to the heart of Wong’s sensibility, it at once casts the individual as the universal as a man is forced to see himself from another direction, mirrored in the eyes of his former lover a man he can neither keep or forget. The title’s all too apparent irony becomes plain as the couple find peace only in incapacity, lovers on the run perpetually in search of but unable to attain the image of idealised romance. 

As if to signal his intent, Wong begins with a zoom in on the symbol of the love the two men can never fully realise in the colourful lamp bearing the image of a majestic waterfall they continue to search for but only one of them finds. Switching to a melancholy black and white he shows us for the time at least a semi-explicit sex scene between two men played by two of the biggest stars of the day while the hero, Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), laments in voiceover his tendency to give in when his lover, Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), utters the phrase “Let’s start over” encapsulating the tempestuous quality of their romance. To do just that, they’ve fled pre-Handover Hong Kong for Argentina in the hope of fixing their relationship but have discovered only more of the same, their contradictory qualities highlighted by their isolation in an unfamiliar environment. 

Tellingly Po-Wing first breaks up with Yiu-Fai on the road after they fail to find the waterfall as if in acknowledgment of the impossibility of mutual acceptance. Both ending up in Buenos Aires the pair awkwardly reunite, Yiu-Fai working earnestly as a bouncer at a tango bar while Po-Wing becomes a sex worker, his sharp outfits and sunshades an immediate contrast with Yiu-Fai’s somber workwear. Nevertheless, when his new life implodes leaving him badly beaten it’s to Yiu-Fai that he returns. By turns resentful, Yiu-Fai will later describe these days as their happiest, those in which Po-Wing was in a sense tethered, incapacitated, and dependent, his worst qualities neutered by his present need. Demonstrative and affectionate, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with the reluctant Yiu-Fai but is soon up to his old tricks again as his wounds begin to heal while strangely jealous as Yiu-Fai develops a friendship with an itinerant young man from Taiwan, Chang (Chang Chen), who works at the restaurant he transfers to after getting into a fight avenging Po-Wing at the tango bar. 

Like Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing, Chang claims he left Taipei because he was “unhappy” and is currently on a journey to the “end of the world”, looking for a lighthouse where it is said the brokenhearted can leave their sadness behind. It isn’t exactly clear if Chang realises Yiu-Fai is gay, seemingly shocked on picking up the phone to hear a man’s voice where he expected a woman’s but saying nothing of it and continuing to frame his conversation in heteronormative terms, though Yiu-Fai certainly seems worried what the fallout might be of Chang’s accidental discovery. Perhaps in flight from an uncertain future in a Hong Kong on the brink of a “reunion” with an authoritarian regime, the two men live freely bathing in the isolation of being two alone together in an unfamiliar culture, but their paths are always set to diverge. Sobbing into Chang’s Walkman, Yiu-Fai bounces to the end of the world and back again, observing the roaring waters for himself before travelling on echoing the footsteps of Chang, representative of another Sinophone nation, coming to realise that his wandering is possible only because he has a place to which he can return. 

Po-Wing, meanwhile, unexpectedly clings to the past, attempting to mend the lamp while living in the apartment he once shared with Yiu-Fai now regretful that they can perhaps never again “start over”. Leaving his sadness at the end of the world, Yiu-Fai extricates himself from a previously toxic relationship in exercising his right to “start over” having accepted the impossibility of his idealised dream of romance. Impassively observing the news of Deng Xiaoping’s death, he travels a nighttime Taipei, apparently resolved to reclaim his home choosing perhaps a kind of rooted independence following Chang’s example as he rides the elevated train into a neon-lit night filled with energy and positivity for the future. Shot with the melancholy greens and woozy ethereality of Wong’s emotional landscape, Happy Together deceptively mines the joys of moving on in a gradual unburdening that spells the end of loneliness.  


Transfer: As the original negative was damaged by fire and could not be fully restored, some of Tony Leung’s monologues have unfortunately been trimmed though the presentation is otherwise more faithful to the original than others in the series if also deepening the greenish tint.


Happy Together is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Fallen Angels (墮落天使, Wong Kar Wai, 1995)

4K

Wong Kar Wai may be associated with a melancholy existentialism but Chunking Express, filmed on the fly in an effort to shake off frustration during the famously difficult shoot on Ashes of Time, had been a breath of fresh air which characterised pre-Handover Hong Kong as a place of anxiety mired in nostalgia but also with tremendous energy and a fervent hope for the future. Its quasi-sequel, however, is the other side of the coin. If Chungking Express’ Hong Kong were heaven Fallen Angels (墮落天使) is its hell. 

As if to signal the connection between the two visions of Hong Kong, the twin protagonists of Fallen Angels each repeat the words of He Qiwu, cop 223, that daily one rubs elbows with a thousand strangers some of whom may later become friends or confidants, but this time around the words spell less of possibility than of a fatalistic inevitability. Indeed, the central drama occurs because melancholy hitman Ming (Leon Lai-ming), tired of his life, yearns for control after years of “lazily” allowing all of his decisions to be made for him. “The best thing about my job is there’s no need to make decisions” he explains, “who’s to die, when, where..it’s all decided by others.” “I don’t know whether it’s a good decision or not” he adds after vowing to make a change, “but at least it’s mine”. 

Good or bad it hardly matters, it is all decided. The protagonists of Fallen Angels live in a kind of purgatory of perpetual longing, looking for a connection which seems to elude them. Ming has been in a non-relationship with his “partner” (Michelle Reis), more of a handler, for 155 weeks, a “dating” method which seems to spell out his preoccupation with time. Despite their long association, however, the pair rarely meet in person, believing that “partners should never get emotionally involved with one another”. That’s something the unnamed partner later comes to accept, explaining that after moving on from Ming she’ll be careful to avoid becoming attached. Mirroring Chungking’s Faye, we find her in Ming’s apartment, sharing his space, tidying up for him, changing his sheets, and repairing his ansaphone but slipping past him at the train station careful that the streams do not cross. Yet she also tells us that sometimes she sits in his favourite seat at their favourite bar because it makes her feel close to him, avowing that sometimes it’s better not to get too close, find out too much about someone and you lose interest. “I know how to make myself happy” she adds, ironically resorting to just that, alone on Ming’s bed while he drifts into another non-relationship with a woman who dyed her hair blonde (Karen Mok) in the hope that it would make her memorable. 

The obsession with blondes recalls Brigitte Lin’s wigged assassin from Chungking Express, another “Blondie” bringing together mute ex-con Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), prisoner no. 223 neatly mirroring He Qiwu’s badge number in addition to sharing his nickname and having apparently lost his voice as a child after eating expired tinned pineapple, with his “first love” Charlie Young (Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei) who enlists his help to track down the treacherous young woman about to marry her ex. He later rubs elbows with a changed Charlie, dressed in a stewardess’ uniform ironically mirroring the romantic ending of Chungking Express seconds after Chi Moo’s clumsy mimicking of Faye’s iconic dancing, though she does not remember him. Like Ming, Chi Moo wants control over his life, deciding to be his own boss, but does even this partly out of resignation that his muteness makes it much more difficult to make the kinds of connections he longs to make. He lives parasitically making an illicit living “borrowing” other people’s businesses after hours and intimidating customers into buying his services, eventually losing two father figures in quick succession, thrusting him into an unsought adulthood in which he returns to his former life but tries to pick stronger businesses that won’t “get hurt easily”.

Despite its sense of defeat and melancholy, perhaps even a touch of nihilism, Fallen Angels does however end with a sense of peace and positivity even in that which may or may not be a transitory connection for the gentle warmth it imparts. Collaborating once again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s underground Hong Kong is a purgatorial dreamland of infinite longing filled with the fatalism of a gangster noir in which there is no future and no freedom only loneliness and death punctuated with brief moments of warmth, but in those brief moments is perhaps a reason for living at least until one’s “expiration date” arrives. 


Transfer: The most radical of the 4K restorations, Fallen Angels is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, cropped from the 1.79:1 of the original release with the effect that the images appear further constrained while additional distortion occurs at the edges of the frame. In his introduction to the series, Wong offered the following comment on the aspect ratio change:

With Fallen Angels, I have changed the format to CinemaScope, because it was originally what I had intended to release the film in. When we were cutting the film, we accidentally turned the Steenbeck on anamorphic instead of standard. I felt that the film looked much more interesting because the setting[ck] enhanced the distance of the characters on top of the extreme wide angle that we shot with. Back then, it was impossible to shoot a film in standard and release it in anamorphic. With this restoration, we have successfully fulfilled this wish.

Additionally, while the film maintains the distinctive green tint in keeping with the house style of the new restorations, several scenes originally in colour have been regraded to monochrome while others originally in monochrome have been retouched with elements of colour.



Fallen Angels is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Chungking Express (重慶森林, Wong Kar Wai, 1994)

4K

Despite scoring an early success with his debut film As Tears Go By, an atmospheric gangster picture starring some of the most popular actors of the day, Wong Kar Wai’s second feature Days of Being Wild, a melancholy arthouse drama of loneliness and longing set in the heady 1960s, proved disappointing at the box office and divisive with domestic critics. Unable to secure funding for a planned sequel, Wong founded production company Jet Tone Films and agreed to a studio offer to direct a wuxia adventure which was at that time an extremely popular genre. The shoot on Ashes of Time was however notoriously difficult (Wong eventually extensively revised the film for its 2008 “Redux” re-issue), and during a short break from its various demands he shot Chungking Express (重慶森林), an extremely vibrant, zeitgeisty journey through pre-Handover Hong Kong in which a lovelorn policeman is preoccupied with expiration dates while another reflects on new possibilities when his stewardess girlfriend rediscovers her right to make her own choice. 

Lovelorn policeman He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), badge number 223, has just been dumped by his girlfriend of five years but as she chose April 1 to break the news, he assumed it was a joke. To go along with it, he’s been buying tins of pineapple which expire on May 1, firstly because his girlfriend May loves pineapple and secondly because May 1 happens to be his birthday. If she hasn’t got back with him by then, he’ll accept that their love has “expired”. A rather melancholy young man, Qiwu gets his emotional release through jogging in the rain, avowing that while running your body sheds water so you don’t cry as much and in the rain no one can see you anyway. The password for his answering service is “love you for 10,000 years”, but his attempts to hook up with old flames from his little black book are a series of embarrassing misfires, the first having turned in early, another already married with two children, and the last not even remembering him. Nevertheless, despite his melancholy he lives in a constant state of possibility as his opening monologue reminds us in his defence of the city as a place in which one may brush past a hundred people a day some of whom may later become friends or lovers. 

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong he inhabits is one of infinite nostalgia. He tells us that his girlfriend is often likened to ‘70s Japanese pop star Momoe Yamaguchi, only to lament that he was never quite her Tomokazu Miura, Yamaguchi’s frequent co-star whom she later married and thereafter left showbiz to become the ideal housewife and mother. The woman that he falls for, a mysterious drug trafficker (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia) hot on the trail of a group of Indian tailors she’d hired as mules who absconded at the airport, wears a trench coat, blonde wig, and sunglasses seemingly modelled on Gena Rowlands in Gloria. She too however is caught in a moment of crisis, admitting that the sunglasses and raincoat are in a sense an attempt to hedge her bets while the expiry date on an abandoned can reminds her that time is running out. The conclusion Qiwu comes to is that to May he is no different to a can of pineapple, past his best and fit to be abandoned, while the mysterious woman eventually implodes her assumed identity by taking her revenge and thereafter shedding her trademark wig to recede back into the crowd pausing only to send Qiwu a happy birthday message via his pager in another act of distanced communication.  

The irony of Qiwu’s seeming obliviousness to his proximity to crime is never touched upon despite his apparently deep, essential connection with this slightly older mysterious woman whom he manages to woo despite his awkward opening gambit of asking if she likes pineapple in four different languages. Nor does he seem to be familiar with fellow officer badge 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who frequents the same late night food stand as he does, while neither of them apparently know the mysterious “Richard” who seems to have beaten them both to win the heart of previous assistant also coincidentally named May who has now been replaced by proprietor’s cousin, Faye (Faye Wong). Obsessively listening to California Dreamin’ at high volume because it stops her thinking too much, Faye falls for 663 who is apparently unceremoniously dumped by his air hostess girlfriend (Valerie Chow Kar-Ling) after being persuaded to alter his regular order of Chef’s Salad for Fish and Chips introduces a new element of choice into their relationship. 

In a kind of meta, expressionistic irony, 663 becomes obsessed with his sadness gently consoling the inanimate objects of his apartment in his girlfriend’s absence, lamenting that his soap bar has grown thin while his dish cloth weeps until finally the whole place floods. This last incident is partly down to the ministrations of Faye who has been, in the nicest possible way, semi-stalking him, using the keys which were returned to the food stand along with a letter 663 refuses to read to break into his flat and literally breathe life back into it by tidying up and replacing the fish in his fish tank. 663 appears not to notice as her distanced care seemingly nurses him back to health even as they begin in a sense to swap roles, he shedding the policeman’s uniform his ex mistakenly thought suited him better for the flannel shirts left by Faye which reflect perhaps his authentic self as observed by the woman who truly loves him. 

Even so she remains restless and bound for (temporary) exile while 663 once again refuses to open correspondence which may prove hurtful or unpleasant, getting a second chance at a fated love only thanks to the magical coincidences of the forever buzzing streets of Hong Kong. At once frenetic and anxious, Christopher Doyle’s swooping, mobile photography with frequent alteration in frame rate and transitions to slow motion capturing a sense of nervous energy, Wong’s take on the pre-Handover society is more positive than most as his neurotic, lovelorn protagonists breeze through their melancholia ultimately discovering a sense of forward motion in hope for the future born of chance connection in an ever moving city. 


Transfer: The 4K restoration is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and in keeping with new the house style, has shifted slightly towards the green in terms of colour grading which is overall darker and richer than the previous Criterion release.


Chungking Express is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)

The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1992)

“It’s never over for men like me” laments the hero of Kinji Fukasaku’s infinitely zeitgeisty 1992 action thriller The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日,  Itsuka Giragira Suru Hi), though the director might as well be talking for himself. Fukasaku is most closely associated with the jitsuroku gangster genre which he helped to create at Toei in the mid-1970s with the hugely influential yakuza cycle Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Through the difficult ‘80s, he’d sustained his career with a series of commercial projects and critically acclaimed prestige pictures, which is perhaps why he felt secure enough to go all in with an absurdist take on the death spiral of the Bubble Era. 

As the film opens, a trio of veteran crooks commits a series of flawless armed robberies which makes them all very wealthy. In an age of excess, crime is perhaps for them more a way of life than a means of survival save for one, Imura (Renji Ishibashi), who has massive debts from loansharks and is living with a constant sense of anxiety that his failures as a man and as a father may result in his beloved wife (Kirin Kiki) and daughter leaving him (for which he wouldn’t blame them). Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), the veteran gangster, enlists his girlfriend Misato (Yumi Takigawa) along with Imura to scout a possible new job their “boss” Shiba (Sonny Chiba) is planning up in Hokkaido. When they get there it turns out that Shiba has taken up with an extraordinarily irritating much younger woman, Mai (Keiko Oginome), and through her has befriended a young guy, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura), who’s come up with a plan to rob the takings from a nearby resort which he has heard run to 200 million yen transported in cash by car via remote mountain road. 

Kadomachi, who later claims he was once a police officer, is an annoyingly entitled young punk with bleach blond hair who wants the money to open a live music venue in order to support real rock and roll. So manic he seems to be on something, it’s a surprise that the guys agree to work with him though after a quick hazing they apparently decide he’s OK only to bitterly regret their decision when it turns out he was mistaken about the amount being transported. As veteran pros, the trio know that it’s better to just be happy with what you can get and move on, but they had each hoped this job might be the last and the disappointment proves too much for Imura who flips out and points a gun at his friends intending to take the lot but is calmly talked down only for Kadomachi to grab a gun and start shooting, making off with the whole 50 million. 

Deliberately down with the kids with his pulsing club score, Fukasaku seems to be taking a swipe at the Bubble generation who want everything now and fully expect to get it. Shiba pays the price, essentially, for refusing to act his age, trying to be young and hip like Mai and Kadomachi, while Imura is perhaps the opposite unable to escape from the post-war era with its poverty and vicious loansharks while also facing discrimination as a zainichi Korean which further deepens his anxiety for his teenage daughter. Yet getting her hands on the money Mai confesses that she has absolutely no idea what to do with 50 million yen, spending 50,000 on a handkerchief just because while even Kadomachi is eventually struck by a sense of futility in realising the money has corrupted him though he knows that it will eventually slip through his fingers. “People, life, they pass us by” he muses sadly while Mai confesses all she wanted was for someone to “notice” her, which they eventually perhaps do only it’s in the context of a nationwide manhunt. 

The vacuous youngsters are finally slapped down by the calm and collected Kanzaki whose lack of ostentation serves him well in the ensuing war on two fronts as he goes up against not only Kadomachi but the loanshark he was in debt to in an attempt to get his hands on the money. Fukasaku takes the jitsuroku and turns it inside out for a tale of Bubble-era excess filled with increasingly elaborate action sequences culminating in a high octane car chase and a shoot out with the entire garrison of the Hokkaido police force, yet as before crime only yields futility, the money floating away in Hakodate harbour, while we end on a trademark note of irony that shows us banks on every street corner, money is literally everywhere. What does crime mean now, what is the point of such ceaseless acquisition in an age of plenty? For Kanzaki, perhaps it just spells opportunity and well you can’t argue with that. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari, Garin Nugroho, 1994)

A lonely, motherless child’s infinite “curiosity” threatens to destabilise the intensely traditional world in which he lives in Garin Nugroho’s melancholy Sumba fairytale, Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari). Taking ownership of a borrowed camera, the boy seeks instant images in order to make sense of his existence and thereafter to explain the way sees the world to those around him, but often finds that his messages go unheard while his society finds itself pulled towards a fractured modernity anchored by corrupted male authority. 

At nine years old, Lewa (Windy) is in a way no one’s child and everyone’s. While his father works his land, Lewa rides his horse or spends time with the local women in search of echoes of the mother he lost in infancy. Somewhat literal, he finds it difficult to follow his Indonesian textbook, stumbling over the simple phrase “this is my mother” which might under the circumstances be an insensitive sentence at the best of times, but in this case because the illustration is of a typical Indonesian woman rather than a woman from his community and does not resemble him or the image he had in his mind of his mother. Asking his father about her elicits only partial history as he shows him the wreckage of the bus accident in which she died, Lewa becoming mistakenly fixated on the poster of Madonna (in name at least literally “the mother”) pasted on the side, snapping it with a polaroid camera gifted to him by a sympathetic travelling performer. 

“Pictures show reality” he muses, talking to another of his maternal figures, Berlian Merah (Nurul Arifin), the village’s most beautiful woman. Beauty can, however, be a curse though she perhaps won’t quite know that. Evil local big wig land grabber and Elvis obsessive Kuda Liar (Adi Kurdi) desires her and so manoeuvres to have her husband killed. Not content, he later goes after Lewa’s other mother figure, the school teacher who told him of an angel who could heal the sick and bring the dead back to life. Muddling images in his mind, Lewa skips school and writes letters to the angel as if she were his mother, looking for comfort and guidance but finding little more than frustrating silence. Kuda Liar hassles his father for his land, and his mothers for their bodies, thinking nothing of throwing little Lewa himself off a cliff simply for the crime of existing. 

Yet Lewa is repeatedly saved by his village chief who insists that Lewa is a good kid and being “curious” is no bad thing. It’s that curiosity, however, that repeatedly gets him into trouble, especially when he takes a photo of something he shouldn’t and offends a neighbouring village, triggering a long dormant feud into a moment of mass violence. “I don’t understand why I’m told I’m a bad person when all I wanted was to show my father’s real face” he writes in a letter on another occasion, unable to understand why others are not curious in the same way as he is, unwilling to see his version of the truth as mediated by the “reality” of his photographs. 

Garin Nugroho too is determined to capture a certain kind of “reality” of the lives of the islanders as they practice their traditional culture, including footage of a series of rituals as they are performed complete with bloody acts of animal cruelty while Kuda Liar is at least forced into performative contrition in a “ceremony of forgiveness” for throwing Lewa off the cliff (into water, he is unharmed), demonstrating the way such ceremonies are used to mediate disputes within the community unlike the more “civilised” trial which occurs at the film’s conclusion, charged with discerning a more concrete notion of “reality” but in actuality setting out to prove a preconceived narrative, unwilling to hear the truths of others. It’s this contradictory authority that Lewa struggles to parse, looking desperately for his mother while inheriting only problematic visions of masculinity from his distant, angry father, to the “mad” uncle Malaria (Fuad Idris), and the cruel eccentricity of Kuda Liar. Eventually it imprisons him with the notion that he must be “rehabilitated”, presumably to become less “curious”, taking away from him the means to define his own reality for himself but allowing him perhaps to find that which he had been looking for.   


Letter to an Angel streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Haruki Kadokawa, 1993)

Like him or loathe him, Haruki Kadokawa was the dominant force in commercial Japanese cinema from the mid-70s to the end of the Bubble era. Thanks to his circular marketing approach which involved producing movie adaptations of books his company published starring idols he had under contract at his movie studio and releasing the theme songs they often sang to accompany them on his record label, Kadokawa had a virtual stranglehold on ‘80s pop culture. All that came to an end, however, in 1993 when he was arrested for cocaine use/smuggling and accused of embezzling money to pay for his habit, eventually winding up with a four-year jail sentence. Despite all of that, Rex: Dinosaur Story (REX 恐竜物語, Rex: Kyoryu Monogatari) was until the release of Lord of the Rings in 2002 the highest grossing movie distributed by veteran studio Shochiku and was due to extend its 10-week run but was ultimately pulled early because of the “moral embarrassment” surrounding its director’s arrest. 

That moral panic might be all the more acute because as the title and poster might imply, Rex: Dinosaur Story is a tentpole family film released, despite its Christmas setting, at the height of the summer season and in the wake of Jurassic Park with an obvious eye on merchandising (much of which actually appears in the movie). The slightly ridiculous story revolves around 10-year-old Chie (Yumi Adachi) whose parents have recently split up with her mother Naomi (Shinobu Otake), a professor of veterinary medicine, heading to New York for an exciting work opportunity while she’s stayed behind with her nerdy father Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), a researcher of Japan’s Jomon period, and moved in with her maternal grandmother (Mitsuko Kusabue) at a Hokkaido ranch. Little Chie is it seems finding it hard to adjust and has become very withdrawn, refusing to answer when expected to introduce herself at her new school. Mostly she spends her time alone on the farm hanging out with the family dog and riding a horse while drawing pictures of her longed-for mother in a stylish Edwardian outfit with the farmhouse in the background. 

Meanwhile, Akira has made a discovery. A Jomon statue appearing to feature a boy riding on the back of a dinosaur along with a collection of shards he thinks are from a dinosaur egg have convinced him that dinosaurs may have survived in Japan until the Jomon period and perhaps may survive still. Intrigued by a message on a stele that advises one should not advance any further because a giant god is living further up the mountain, Akira takes his daughter and a handful of researchers to meet an Ainu priest (Fujio Tokita) who eventually leads them to a grotto where they find a giant dinosaur egg, narrowly escaping with it after having angered the gods. Akira and the researchers eventually hatch the egg, giving birth to Rex and allowing Chie to become his “mother”.

The egg’s discovery eventually hastens Naomi’s return, but she virtually ignores her daughter greeting her with nothing more than a curt hello while making it plain she’s only here to work on the historically significant discovery not patch up her family. Chie’s relationship with Rex is, in many ways, a way of bonding with her aloof mother who, it has to be said, comes in for a lot of slightly misogynistic criticism as a woman who “abandoned” her daughter to chase career success. Nevertheless, through parenting Rex Chie comes to understand something of motherhood while recognising that she and Rex are essentially the same and that he is most likely lonely missing his dinosaur birth mother. 

Meanwhile, she’s also acutely aware that not everyone has Rex’s best interests at heart. The birth of a cute baby dinosaur is obviously front page news with the consequence that Rex becomes the moment’s biggest celebrity trotted out for a host of TV commercials (featuring a cameo by Kirin Kiki) one of which has Chie and Rex perhaps insensitively sitting down to enjoy a wholesome family meal of Japanese curry. Aside from the irony, Chie’s attempt to suggest that they take break because Rex is after all a baby and he’s tired results in one of the other scientists, Morioka (Mitsuru Hirata), physically abusing him. Sidelined from the project, he enacts a dastardly plan to steal Rex for himself, turning up with four minions dressing like he’s just joined the Gestapo. 

In typical kids movie fashion, Chie and Rex end up on the run through a weird Christmas wonderland in which religious ceremonies and Santa mingle freely, a choir full of children led by her schoolfriend Kenta (Yuta Yamazaki) eventually aiding their escape by throwing snowballs at the bad guys. Chie’s attempts at “disguise” may be laughably bad, but it seems so many people are indulging in Rex cosplay that it becomes possible to blend in even while travelling with a dinosaur companion wearing a Santa hat and sunglasses. Nevertheless, the lesson that Chie begins to learn is that sometimes mothers have to separate from their children but it doesn’t mean they love them any less or that it doesn’t make them sad. Incongruously relegating the “happy ending” to a post-credits sequence, Rex’s distinctly Mid-Western aesthetic with its Dorothy-esque Hokkaido ranch coupled with the fantastical Jomon-era/Ainu mythology lend it a rather strange flavour but it remains an oddly nostalgic experience even as it lifts gleefully from its Hollywood contemporaries. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999)

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name as a punk provocateur with a series of visually arresting, experimental indie films set to a pounding industrial score and imbued with Bubble-era urban anxiety. Inspired by an Edogawa Rampo short story, 1999’s Gemini (双生児 GEMINI, Soseiji Gemini) is something of a stylistic departure from the frenetic cyberpunk energy of his earlier career, marked as much by stillness as by movement in its strikingly beautiful classical composition and intense color play. Like much of his work, however, Gemini is very much a tale of societal corruption and a man who struggles against himself, unable to resist the social codes which were handed down to him while simultaneously knowing that they are morally wrong and offend his sense of humanity. 

Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is a war hero, decorated for his service as a battlefield medic saving the life of a prominent general during the first Sino-Japanese War. He’s since come home and taken over the family business where his fame seems to have half the well-to-do residents of the area inventing spurious excuses to visit his practice, at least according to one little boy whose mum has brought him in with a bump on the head after being beset by kids from the slums. “They’re just like that from birth” Yukio later tells his wife echoing his authoritarian father, “the whole place should be burned to the ground”. A literal plague is spreading, but for Yukio the slums are a source of deadly societal corruption that presents an existential threat to his way of life, primed to infect with crime and inequity. His home, which houses his practice, is hermetically sealed from those sorts of people but lately he’s begun to feel uneasy in it. There’s a nostalgia, a sadness, a shadowy presence, not to mention a fetid stench of decay which indicates an infection has already taken place, the perimeter has been penetrated. 

The shadowy presence turns out to belong to his double, Sutekichi whose name literally means “abandoned fortune”, a twin exposed at birth as unworthy of the family name owing to his imperfection in the form of a snake-like birthmark on his leg and raised by a travelling player in the slums. Having become aware of his lineage, Sutekichi has returned to make war on the old order in the form of the parents who so callously condemned him to death, engineering their demise and then pushing Yukio into a disused well with the intention of stealing his identity which comes with the added bonus that Yukio’s wife, Rin (Ryo), was once his. 

Rin’s presence had already presented a point of conflict in the household, viewed with contempt and suspicion by Yukio’s mother because of her supposed amnesia brought on by a fire which destroyed her home and family. Yukio had reassured her that “you can judge a person by their clothes”, insisting that Rin is one of them, a member of the entrenched upper-middle class which finds itself in a perilous position in the society of late Meiji in which the samurai have fallen but the new order has not quite arrived. In Rin modernity has already entered the house, a slum dweller among them bringing with her not crime and disease but a freeing from traditional austerity. In opposing his parents’ will and convincing them to permit his marriage, Yukio has already signalled his motion towards the new but struggles to free himself from the oppressive thought of his father. He confesses that as a battlefield physician he doubted himself, wondering if it might not have been kinder to simply ease the suffering of those who could not be saved while his father reminds him that the German medical philosophy in which he has been trained insists that you must continue treatment to the very last. 

This is the internal struggle Yukio continues to face between human compassion and the obligation to obey the accepted order which includes his father’s feelings on the inherent corruption of the slum dwellers which leads him to deny them his medical knowledge which he perhaps thinks should belong to all. The dilemma is brought home to him one night when a young woman is found violently pounding on his door wanting help for her sickly baby, but just as he makes up his mind to admit her, putting on his plague suit, a messenger arrives exclaiming that the mayor has impaled himself on something after having too much to drink. Yukio treats the mayor and tells his nurses to shoo the woman away, an action which brings him into conflict with the more compassionate Rin who cannot believe he could be so cynical or heartless. 

Where Yukio is repressed kindness, a gentle soul struggling against himself, Sutekichi is passion and rage. Having taken over Yukio’s life, he takes to bed with Rin who laughs and asks him why it is he’s suddenly so amorous. She sees or thinks she sees through him, recognising Sutekichi for whose return she had been longing but also lamenting the absent Yukio who was at least soft with her in ways Sutekichi never was. “It’s a terrible world because people like you exist” Sutekichi is told by a man whose fiancée he robbed and killed. Yukio by contrast is unable to understand why this is happening to him, believing that he’s only ever tried to make people happy and has not done anything to merit being thrown in a well, failing to realise that his very position of privilege is itself oppressive, that he bears his parents’ sin in continuing to subscribe to their philosophy in insisting on their innate superiority to the slum dwellers who must be kept in their place so that they can continue to occupy theirs. 

Apart, both men are opposing destructive forces in excess austerity and violent passion, only through reintegration of the self can there be a viable future. Tsukamoto casts the austerity of the medical practice in a melancholy blue, contrasting with the fiery red of the post-apocalyptic slums, eventually finding a happy medium with the house bathed in sunshine and the family seemingly repaired as a doctor in a white suit prepares to minister to the poor. Having healed himself, he begins to heal his society, treating the plague of human indifference in resistance to the prevalent anxiety of the late Meiji society. 


Gemini is released on blu-ray in the UK on 2nd November courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a commentary by Tom Mes, making of featurette directed by Takashi Miike, behind the scenes, make up demonstration featurette, Venice Film Festival featurette, and original trailer.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sonatine (ソナチネ, Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

The problem with being a yakuza is that there is never any rest. Staying alive means constant vigilance, make a mistake and it could be the end of you or, conversely, get too good at your job and place a target on your own back. The hero of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (ソナチネ) declares himself tired, not just of the life but life itself. By his fourth picture, Kitano was perhaps feeling something similar, later describing the near-fatal motorcycle accident he encountered some months after the film’s completion as an unconscious suicide attempt. For years he’d been one of Japan’s top TV personalities working a breakneck schedule that left him little time for other outlets such as painting, novels, and acting for others, but still he longed to be taken more seriously as an artist in his home nation where audiences largely stayed away from his “serious” films, as they did with Sonatine which flopped at the box office and put an end to his arrangement with Shochiku who had distributed his first two features in which he had also starred. 

For this third film, A Scene at the Sea, Kitano remained behind the camera and distanced himself from the themes of crime and violence which defined his early career, crafting instead an intensely melancholy tone poem about a deaf surfer falling in love with the ocean. In Sonatine he casts himself as the lead for the first time since Violent Cop, this time as a gangster experiencing extreme existential malaise when confronted with the futility and emptiness of his life in organised crime. Murakawa (Takeshi Kitano) is aware he has probably reached the zenith of his career as a mid-tier gang boss working as a, by all accounts, unexpectedly successful enforcer in a rundown area of the city. His first crisis concerns the owner of a mahjong parlour who thinks the yakuza are an outdated institution and refuses to take their threats seriously. He sees no need to pay them the customary protection money and assumes they’ll back off he simply tells them he’s not interested, but he is very wrong. Murakawa has him kidnapped to teach him a lesson, observing while his minions attach him to a crane and threaten him by dunking him in a large pool of water. Immediately apologetic, the man sees the error of his ways, but Murakawa doesn’t really care about the money anymore and so they dunk him again to see how long it takes a man to drown, barely shrugging as they realise he really died. 

Either because he’s an unusual man, or because he is simply tired of everything, Murakawa no longer bothers to abide by the rules of petty gangsterdom. He doesn’t do deference, smoking away long before his boss offers permission to do so and feeling unafraid to voice his reluctance when he’s ordered to take some of his guys to Okinawa to settle a nascent gang war involving one of their affiliates. Murakawa doesn’t want to go because he lost three men in a similar job in Hokkaido, but in reality has little choice. Later events prove he was right to be suspicious. The Okinawan gang boss tells him that he reported some minor friction with another gang out of courtesy and is confused he’s been sent reinforcements, not that he’s not glad to see them. As soon as they arrive, however, the tension rises and Murakawa and the guys are forced into hiding, holing up at the beach as they await orders from head office or word on a possible truce. 

Murakawa, his two right-hand men, and the Okinawan gangsters adjust to tranquil island life, playing on the beach and taking the time to master the art of Okinawan folk dance, but the grim spectres of death and violence present themselves even here in empty games of Russian roulette and Murakawa’s childish prank of digging sand traps for the guys to fall into as if into their graves. While he’s busy admiring the night sky, the silence is ruptured by a local tough chasing a young woman onto the beach where he proceeds to rape her. Murakawa doesn’t intervene but is challenged anyway and then forced to kill the puffed up youngster while the young woman, Miyuki (Aya Kokumai), becomes strangely attached to him, impressed by his cool dispatch of her attacker. 

Murakawa’s somehow innocent relationship with the young woman creates a minor rift with his men who resent the absence of his leadership at a time of crisis while he ponders alternate futures outside of the gangster brotherhood. But deep down he knows that his idyllic beach holiday cannot last forever and that he will have to leave this liminal space eventually for a destination of which he is all too aware. As he explains to Miyuki, when you fear death so intensely you begin to long for it if only for an end to its terrible anxiety. 

The title “Sonatine” is apparently inspired by the “sonatina”, a short, tripartite piece piano players attempt to mark an attainment of skills before choosing the future direction of their musical career. Murakawa undergoes three distinct arcs, from the city to the beach and back again, but perhaps knows there is no future direction in which for him to travel only the nihilistic fatalism of a life of violence. As for Kitano, it does perhaps draw a line in the sand marking the end of an apprenticeship and its associated compromises as he fully embraces an authentic personal style, like Murakawa no longer prepared to be deferent in an admittedly exhausting world. 


Sonatine is the third of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by an audio commentary by Chris D recorded in 2008. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring an essay on Sonatine and introduction to Kitano’s career by Jasper Sharp,  an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)