Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

memories_of_murderThe Korea of the mid-1980s was a society in flux though you might not know it looking at the sleepy small town about to be rocked by the country’s very first publicised spate of serial killings. Between 1986 and 1991, at least ten women ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers were murdered while the killer seemingly got away with his crimes, either dying, fleeing or perhaps getting arrested on other charges explaining the abrupt end to his crime spree. Bong Joon-ho’s fictionalised take on the case, Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Salinui Chueok), is not so much interested in the killer’s identity, but wants to ask a few hard questions about why the crimes took place and why they were never solved.

In October of 1986, Inspector Park (Song Kang-ho) rides a junk cart out to a paddy field where a farmer has found the decomposing body of a woman blocking a drainage ditch at the edge of his land. Park quickly confirms that it is, in fact, the body of a murdered woman and tries to look unphased while a strange little boy distracted from his bug catching neatly echoes everything he says, playing policeman while the other children run roughshod over the crime scene trailing their butterfly nets behind them.

Needless to say Park and his bruiser partner, Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are ill equipped to handle a case of this magnitude, especially when it becomes clear that the murder is not an isolated episode. They are later joined by a more experienced officer from Seoul, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is not used to country ways and finds it hard to adjust to their distinctly old fashioned and unscientific approach to law enforcement. Park, resentful at being saddled with a babysitter from the city and made to feel as if his small town skills aren’t good enough is determined to prove that he knows his stuff even as he begins to realise that perhaps policing really isn’t for him.

Park is the kind of policeman every small town has. Placing great faith in his detective’s instinct, Park is sure that he “just knows” who is naughty and who is nice. He asks suspects to look directly into his eyes so that he can assess whether they’re telling him the truth but it’s more of a party trick than anything else, looking into Park’s earnest gaze most suspects will crack. Early on Park’s boss gives him a test – two boys have been brought in and are patiently filling out forms. One caught the other in the middle of raping his sister, stopped him, and dragged him to the police station. Which one is the brother and which the rapist? Park feels sure he knows, and one could certainly make an educated guess based on the number and positioning of bruises on the suspects’ faces, but attempting to identify criminality based solely on perceived shiftiness or not liking the look of someone is crossing the line from professional instinct to ignorant prejudice.

The truth is that Park knows he’s no great shakes as a law enforcer. He was never meant to be – small town cops don’t generally do a lot of crime solving, they maintain order through the visible presence of authority. Thus he takes against city boy Seo because he instantly feels threatened by his urban sophistication and big city ways. Seo is perhaps not the best cop Seoul had to offer, but he is trained investigative techniques entirely alien to Park and Cho. The extent to which they’re out of their depth is obvious when they seem to know they’re supposed to secure the crime scene, but can’t, allowing valuable evidence to be carelessly destroyed.

Park’s investigative techniques involve making scrapbooks of shady local guys and browbeating suspects, eventually trying to railroad a young man with learning difficulties into confessing to the crime through a process of physical violence and mental attrition. Put out by Seo’s more concrete leads, Park’s only other contribution is to suggest they start looking for guys with no pubic hair which sees him waste more time hanging out in public baths and doing a lot of inappropriate staring. Wasting time is Park’s biggest crime though, amusingly enough, he and Seo end up in exactly the same place when Park consults a Shaman and Seo pursues a more rational line of enquiry lending credence to the idea that neither of them is really much better than the other.

What gets lost is that a woman, and then several more women, are dead and there is a man out there preying on wives, sisters, and mothers yet nothing much is being to protect them save reminding them to take care of themselves. Park wants the kudos of catching a killer but he barely thinks about the consequences of arresting the wrong man, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that the real killer would still be out there posing a threat to every woman in the town. Despite the fact that this is a small place where the victims are known to most people, there is little in the way of public grief or even sadness. The only sign of public feeling is in the small protest held outside the police station when a member of a local church is arrested.

The protest may be the key. In this strained era, Korea was reaching the end of its period under the control of a military dictatorship with the Olympics still a few years away and democracy the bright dream of brave radicals. Park and co. are the “friendly” face of the ruling regime, one of their secondary roles is doing the government’s dirty work. Hence when they really need extra manpower to chase a suspect they are denied it because everyone in the local area has been sent to suppress a protest in a nearby town. This is a scant few years after the Gwanju massacre, “suppression” means more than just standing around with riot shields designed to intimidate. Yes, there’s a crazed killer on the loose, but he is only a symptom and manifestation of a social order which has long since abandoned the idea of protecting its citizens in order to more effectively oppress them.

A woman can walk down a street in broad daylight and be terrified by a man trying to ask for directions because she has been taught to be afraid and knows the threat is real. A television news report on the trial of a policeman accused of violence and sexual assault reminds us why she can’t trust Park. Her government does not care about her. It could make more of an effort to solve these crimes, but it won’t, because the appearance of order is always preferential to its reality. The memories of murder run deep, they speak of all the stifled impulses of a life under a dictatorial regime. No one does anything because there is nothing to be done.

The identity of the killer is, in this sense, irrelevant – it is the society which is ultimately responsible for creating him and then for failing to put an end to his crimes. Park and Seo, eventually working together through a kind of cross pollination, think they’ve found their man but can’t prove it because Korea doesn’t have DNA testing facilities and they need to wait for results from an American lab. The evidence is circumstantial yet convincing, and one can’t be sure. The face of evil is “plain” and “ordinary”, much like your own. If you want to find the answer, start looking closer to home.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)

9-soulsToshiaki Toyoda has never been one for doing things in a straightforward way and so his third narrative feature sees him turning to the prison escape genre but giving it a characteristically existential twist as each of the title’s 9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ) search for release even outside of the literal walls of their communal cell. What begins as a quirky buddy movie about nine mismatched misfits hunting buried treasure whilst avoiding the police, ends as a melancholy character study about the fate of society’s rejected outcasts. Continuing his journey into the surreal, Toyoda’s third film is an oneiric exercise in visual poetry committed to the liberation of the form itself but also of its unlucky collection of reluctant criminals in this world or another.

Former hikkikomori Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) is being thrown in at the deep end as the 10th prisoner in a crowded communal cell to which he has been consigned after the murder of his father. Not long after he arrives, one of the veteran inmates who had been assigned to him as a mentor and goes by the nickname of The King of Counterfeiters (Jun Kunimura), suddenly has some kind of psychotic episode where he goes off on a long monologue about a buried time capsule and the key to the universe before being dragged off somewhere by the guards. Right after that, a little mouse turns up signalling the probability of a mouse hole somewhere in the cell. Master escape artist Shiratori (Mame Yamada) somehow comes up with a plan to use this information in order for everyone to escape, which they do, emerging from a pipe into the blue tinted landscape and making a break for freedom.

Commandeering a camper van from a young man terrified of ghosts, the gang of nine hit the road heading for a primary school where their cellmate’s time capsule promises an untold fortune in counterfeit currency. What they find there is unimpressive except for a strange looking key which they decide to give to Michiru because they’re a bunch of guys who appreciate irony. At a loss again, each begins to think about the circumstances which brought them to this point, wondering if there’s a way back or if anyone is still waiting for them.

Less than a prison break movie, 9 Souls shares more in common with the return to Earth genre in which a recently deceased person is given a second chance to deal with some unfinished business until they are finally able to accept the inevitable. Though the prisoners have each committed heinous, often violent or unforgivable crimes, they each have dreams and aspirations which were previously denied to them but may just be possible now given their extremely unusual circumstances. Sometimes those dreams are heartbreakingly ordinary – falling in love, getting married and opening a small cafe in the countryside, for example, or attending your daughter’s wedding and being able to give her a wedding present in person. Try as they might, the prisoners are only able to gain a small taste of their hopes and dreams before they all come crashing down again, leaving them with only their fellow escapees to rely on.

Looking forward to Toyoda’s next film, The Hanging Garden, 9 Souls also takes a sideways view of that most Japanese of topics – the family. Michiru came from an extremely dysfunctional environment in which his mother abandoned him and he was forced to kill his own father only for his younger brother to then betray him. Veteran prisoner Torakichi (Yoshio Harada) unwillingly becomes the “father” of the group though he was imprisoned for the murder of his son. This perfect symmetry of a fatherless son and sonless father adds to the circularity of Toyoda’s tale as each is forced to reassume their familial roles within the equally forced genesis of the prison cell family. On the outside world, each of the prisoners is searching for only one thing – acceptance, but each finds only that which they feared most, rejection. Once again cast out from mainstream society as they had been all their lives, the prisoners are left with nowhere else to go but the mystical destination offered to them by the counterfeiter’s magic key.

The truck driver’s strange fear of ghosts comes back to haunt us at the end of the film as the van, now painted a peaceful sky blue complete with fluffy clouds as opposed to the hellish red of the ironically named “lucky hole”, begins to fill up with departing spirits each finding their exit in one way or another. A man who helped his son to die will now have to save another, while a boy who locked himself inside his room will have to turn the key and open a door on eternity. Swerving from absurd comedy to deeply melancholic meditations on guilt, redemption, and a failing society, 9 Souls is among the most poetic of Toyoda’s early works swapping the rage which imbued the young of Pornostar for the sorrowful resignation of experience.


Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue (ブルー, Hiroshi Ando, 2003)

blue03Growing up is hard to do. So it is for the teenage protagonists of Hiroshi Ando’s debut mainstream feature, Blue (ブルー), adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan. Like Nananan’s original comic, the cinematic adaptation of Blue is refreshingly angst free in its examination of first love and the burgeoning sexuality of two lonely high school girls. Shot with a chilly stillness which echoes the emptiness of this small town existence, Blue is no nostalgic retreat into cosy teenage dreams but a cold hard look at the messiness and pain of adolescent love.

Kayako’s (Mikako Ichikawa) life changes one day as she sees a fellow pupil at her all girls school being carried into an ambulance and spirited away. Curious yet unknowing, Kayako continues with her day to day existence until she happens to catch sight of another girl from her school, Masami (Manami Konishi), on the local bus. The two become friends after Masami expresses sympathy for Kayako when their teacher humiliates her in class. Masami is repeating the year after completing a long term suspension and has been ostracised by the other girls though no one quite seems to know exactly what happened. Before long Kayako’s feelings for her new acquaintance have transcended friendship but confused and jealous of Masami’s other friends, Kayako is at a loss. Eventually revealing her true feelings she discovers they aren’t unrequited after all, but Masami’s past contains its share of troubles which threaten to place a barrier between the two girls and destroy their growing romance.

Kayako is quiet and a bit of a dreamer. She eats lunch everyday with the same three girls on the rooftop but seems to feel isolated and listless in her small town existence. Masami, by contrast, is chattier and more outgoing but much of the persona she presents to the world is a way of coping with the circumstances which led to her leaving school. Kayako is drawn to Masami because of her outward sophistication – smoking, drinking, listening to foreign music, and reading books about impressionist artists. Later it transpires that at least some of these tastes were acquired from an older man with whom Masami had had an inappropriate relationship and are both a symptom of her desire to import personality traits from others because her own identity is so ill defined, and of wanting to seem much more mature than she really is.

Whilst Kayako is introverted yet solid and growing to be confident in who she really is, Masami, by contrast, appears only half formed but making up for her lack of self esteem with bravado and cheerfulness. It is this lack of certainty which eventually threatens to drive a wedge between the pair as Masami is unable to accept the kind of intimacy that Kayako wants to offer her. Repeating that she is “nothing”, has no future, and is an entirely passive presence simply floating along on the breeze, Masami is unable to make the kind of active choice which Kayako has already made, and may never be in a position to make it entirely of her own volition. Masami is always looking to run away, talking of moving to somewhere like Tokyo with a city’s anonymity, but when it comes down to it she lacks the courage to act.

Ando shoots at a stately pace mostly using static shots and distance takes though his slow pans across empty corridors help to bring out the utter loneliness and emptiness of the girls’ lives. Similarly a mild POV effect takes over panning around school windows as Masami looks for Kayako hoping to make a mends but finds her hurt, conflicted, and unwilling to engage. The two leads each give fantastically nuanced performances despite the plainness of the script and share an intense chemistry lending weight to the emotional resonance of the film. Ando creates a melancholy atmosphere of longing punctuated by fleeting glances and accidental touches, allowing the space and time for the physical performances to come to fruition. A subtly affecting tale of a difficult, yet mutually rewarding, teenage romance Blue has its share of early feature jitters, but makes up for them with an unusual dose of realism perfectly anchored by the strong performances of its leading ladies.


 

COSMIC RESCUE -The moonlight generations- (コスミック・レスキュー ザ・ムーンライト・ジェネレーションズ, Shinsuke Sato, 2003)

Cosmic RescueIt’s often posited that Japan rarely produces “science fiction” literature or movies and some say that’s because, well, they already live there. However, this isn’t quite true, there are just as many science fiction themed projects to be found in Japan as elsewhere you just have to look a little harder to find them. Depending on your point view, if you succeed in tracking down a copy of Cosmic Rescue -The moonlight generations- (コスミック・レスキュー ザ・ムーンライト・ジェネレーションズ), you may feel the quest was not entirely worth the effort.

Starring the younger half of the Johnny’s idol group V6 (referred to as “coming century”), Cosmic Rescue takes place in 2053 when space travel has become easy and commonplace enough to require the presence of galaxy wide emergency services. Cosmic Rescue is the AA of space travel – they float around waiting for disaster to strike whereupon they will swoop in and rescue those in peril among the stars.

However, the three crew members of the rundown rescue ship from the 89th Division of Japanese CR mostly spend their days clearing crash debris and changing batteries. The rookie of the group Sawada (Junichi Okada) longs for a spot of heroism just like in his favourite manga which inspired him to join the CR in the first place, whereas ship’s engineer Eguchi (Ken Miyake) gets on with the day to day work of maintaining the ship while the captain Nanjo (Go Morita) mopes about slumming it with this lowly crew of cleanup artists despite being a CR legend after he was involved in a heroic rescue which cost the life of his best friend. However, when Sawada receives an emergency distress call from a young woman who claims to the be sole survivor of a space crash, the gang find themselves embroiled in a corporate conspiracy.

Directed by a young Shinsuke Sato who would later go on to become one of the most successful directors of mainstream Japanese blockbusters including Gantz and Library Wars among other smash hit franchises, Cosmic Rescue is a very competently made science fiction adventure given its obvious budgetary constraints. It’s fair to say that it’s largely been created as a vehicle for its three (hugely popular) leading men and so falls back on their charisma to plug any holes in the rather generic script and lack of production values but generally acquits itself pretty well.

That said, there are no shoehorned in singing sections and even if a low budget, televisual atmosphere remains there’s still a fun sci-fi adventure underpinning it all. Sawada is the ostensible lead as he longs to prove himself as a real “hero” by saving lives in space just like his captain had done before yet Nanjo’s story becomes equally important as he battles to overcome the guilt and fear he feels after losing his friend in an earlier mission. Engineer Eguchi gets a little sidelined in a technical role but each of the three guys get fairly equal weighting as members of the maverick, underdog space crew who are going to expose this mass conspiracy and save the damsel in distress no matter what the cost.

There is a (fairly trite) message here spelt out in voice over at the end of the film that it’s easy to forget who you are when you’re used to being “tied down” by gravity but if you can’t learn to save yourself you won’t be able to save anyone else. Cosmic Rescue is what it is – it isn’t really pretending to have any kind of deeper message other than showcasing its leading actors in a fun, slightly retro space adventure. Though a fairly low budget, disposable affair aimed squarely at fans of the band, Sato adds some interesting direction plus a vaguely 1960s inspired production design which help to lift the proceedings above the bonus feature category.


The Japanese release of Cosmic Rescue includes English subtitles!

Unsubbed trailer: