Film Noir (殺し, Masahiro Kobayashi, 2000)

Koroshi-2000Existential tales of hitmen and their observations from the shadows have hardly been absent from Japanese cinema yet Masahiro Kobayashi’s Film Noir (AKA Koroshi, 殺し) perhaps owes as much to Fargo as it does to Le Samouraï. Taking place in the frozen, snow covered expanses of Northern Japan, Kobayashi’s story is an absurdist one filled with dispossessed salarymen leading empty, meaningless lives in the wake of late middle age redundancy.

Hamazaki starts us off with a very Film Noir style voice over in which he likens being alive to be trapped on a long coach tour with strangers. You may fight and scream and argue with them right the way through, but in the end you will crave their understanding. Like many men of the era following the recent economic turbulence, he’s lost his job and, being a cowardly if kindly soul, he’s too afraid to tell his wife about it. Consequently he leaves for work everyday as normal but drives to a near by strip mall and wastes the day away playing pachinko. That is until one fateful morning when he finds the entire area deserted only for a mysterious man to climb uninvited into his car.

This unnamed man has a business proposition for Hamazaki – kill a guy, get a lot of money. As anyone would be, Hamazaki is a little shocked, confused and uncertain but eventually accepts. His first hit (like all of his subsequent hits) is on a man just like him – a middle aged loser who’s lost his job and is hiding out in the pachinko parlour hoping to figure something out before he runs out of money. Hamazaki likes his new line of work, it makes him feel like a man again and even helps him rebuild a bond with his wife (or so he thinks) but when he discovers one of his targets is someone he knows it all starts to go wrong.

Amusingly, the mysterious man gives Hamazaki a number of videos to watch as a kind of instructional guide to killing which includes a fair few from Melville including Army of Shadows and other classics of shady French cinema. This is a well worn tale and we know it isn’t going to end well for Hamazaki but we can also see from his voiceover that he’s consistently at odds with the situation as it is almost as if he’s constructing a film noir-esque reality all of his own.

Hamazaki is an unlikely fit for this kind of work – all the way through he’s berated for being “too nice”, notably in an argument with his former boss towards the end and then again by his wife who, it seems, cares more for her social standing and middle class lifestyle than she does for her kindhearted husband. The couple have a teenage daughter whom they’ve sent abroad to study in America (presumably at great expense) and only seems to contact them to ask for more money. Though she’s apparently only in high school, they seem to treat their daughter with a high level of adulthood – sending the money for her to budget with by herself (the implication is that she runs through quite a bit) and her mother even takes care to remind her of the importance of using a condom (not just the pill – America is the AIDS hub of the world, apparently) which is obviously good advice from an enlightened parent but perhaps a surprisingly frank way of talking to a teenage girl.

In many ways Hamazaki is a man without a place. Now he’s lost his job he’s become quite useless to just about everyone. As the mysterious man tells him, everyone is playing a role, in that case “killer” and “prey” but as it transpires Hamazaki was playing a role all along – that of salaryman husband and father. The couple seem happy, but in having sent their daughter overseas the Hamazakis have already broken their happy family in favour of increasing their social status. Kazuko is perhaps only playing the role of the middle class housewife and may have little use for a man who proves too soft hearted to get ahead. After Hamazaki tragically declares he wants to give up the life of a contract killer because he’s realised the importance of family, he may find that “family” had long ago abandoned him.

In this deserted, snow covered town the hearts of men are as cold as the wind that blows through the depressingly empty expanses. A man’s worth is measured by the money he makes and status he can claim, a man with no job is worth nothing at all. No love, no family, no morality – this is the archetypal film noir world filled with nothing but eternal darkness despite the bright sunshine which bounces lightly off the crisp white snow. As much about the death of the spirit as it is about the taking of life, Film Noir paints an eerily bleak picture of modern society with its rigid social codes which prize only the acquisition of money and status rather than the contents of a man’s soul.


Unsubtitled trailer:

The Mermaid (美人鱼, Stephen Chow, 2016)

MermaidStephen Chow unexpectedly became a mini phenomenon with that rarest of beasts – a foreign language comedy that proved a mainstream crossover hit, in the form of the double punch that was Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. However, his once ascendant star has been in retrograde ever since when it comes to screens outside of Asia. The surprise worldwide theatrical release of this latest film, The Mermaid (美人鱼, Mei Ren Yu), might be about to change all that.

Loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, Chow paints a world of consumerism in overdrive as heartless capitalists fall over themselves to destroy the beauty of the natural world to buy even more flashy status symbols even though they only make them even more miserable. After opening with some newsreel footage of mass deforestation and a bloody dolphin massacre, Chow shows us the natural world exploited in a different way as a group of visitors visit an “exotic animal show” which includes such wonders as a live tiger (actually a pet dog with stripes pained on its fur), a “Batman” (with fried chicken for ears), and, crucially a “Mermaid” (a fried fish with a doll’s head on the top).

We’re then introduced to rich playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) who lives life large in a giant western style estate surrounded by gold digging dollybirds. He’s bought some “surprisingly well priced land” to use in a reclamation project, only the problem is it’s technically a nature reserve. His underlings have come up with a scheme to frighten away the wildlife with sonar devices so they can destroy the area of outstanding natural beauty in peace. However, they didn’t know about the colony of Merpeople hiding out there who have a serious problem with Liu and have dispatched one of their number, Shan (Jelly Lin), to assassinate him!

Predictably, the assassination plot does not all go to plan with often hilarious results. Like Chow’s other movies, the main spine of the narrative is a romantic comedy in which a foolish and arrogant man is made to realise his own weaknesses through finally noticing a woman he previously had no interest in. This time Shan turns up looking like a crazy lady with her bizarre makeup and fake mermaid outfit which gets her instantly thrown out of Liu’s place though she does succeed in giving him her phone number. Usually, Liu isn’t the type to call back but he gets goaded into it by mistake and then his henchman actually bring Shan to his office where she fails at assassinating him first with poison and then with sea urchins. By this time the course is set as the pair bond during their macabre meet-cute with Liu becoming attracted to Shan’s otherworldliness and she to the goodness that might be buried inside him.

Liu, it seems, experienced extreme poverty in his childhood and so now cares only about making money. Or says he does, his depressing solo karaoke dances to a hit pop song with the chorus “no one understands my loneliness” might tell a different story. Being super rich is actually kind of boring and everyone he meets only cares about his money so meeting Shan (who is predominantly interested in killing him) proves refreshing. Nevertheless, money also becomes an anchor dragging you down, even if Liu starts to come over to the Merpeople’s point of view (particularly after testing out those sonar devices on his own ears) his associates aren’t likely to agree.

It all goes a bit dark towards the end – wildlife massacres and kidnappings for “scientific research” which seems to include things like vivisection and live experimentation not to mention the intentional eradication of the entire living environment of these hitherto hidden creatures all the while preaching about scientific progress and a desire for understanding. Chow is many things but subtle has never been one of them so he lays his environmental message on with a trowel but the rest of the movie is so big anyway that he gets away with it (and in style).

Light and bright and colourful, The Mermaid is another characteristically madcap effort from Chow who packs in all the absurdist humour one could wish for plus a decent dose of sight gags and good old fashioned slapstick. It has to be said that the quality of the CGI (of which there is an awful lot in the film) is, on the whole, woeful, though somehow this just ends up adding to its charms as another facet of its self effacing wackiness. A hilarious return to form from Chow who has been away for far too long, The Mermaid looks set to continue its enormous box office success by becoming one of the director’s most fondly remembered efforts.


The Mermaid is currently in UK cinemas but the distributors have gone down the Bollywood route of chasing the diaspora audience only (as RogerEbert.com discovered during the US release) and not engaging with the regular film press in any way, shape, or form. Therefore there has been almost no coverage of the cinema screenings in the non-Chinese media. Here’s a list of the surprisingly high number of UK cinemas screening the film courtesy of my friends at Eastern Kicks so check it out because it very likely could be playing at a cinema near you!

 

Human Bullet

Human Bullet (Nikudan) is a powerfully absurd antiwar satire. Set in the very last days of the second world war, when most can see the writing on the wall but don’t want to admit  that their situation is hopeless, the film attempts to capture the bewilderment and confusion as people start to comprehend the situation. An unnamed soldier of about twenty years old is training to be an officer and is repeatedly subjected to ridiculous tasks and ideas sent from high command.

Whilst in charge of the food store, it’s discovered that three packets of biscuits have gone missing. Whilst being question about this the soldier remarks that himself and the other men have become cows, that is they’ve learnt to ruminate – a skill which he then demonstrates to the non plussed superior officer. They stole the biscuits because their rations are pitiful and they lack the strength for their training. Pointing out the obvious that this warehouse is full of food whilst the men are collapsing from malnutrition,  the superior angrily tells him the food is for the final battle. Pointing out that there won’t be a final battle if they’ve all died of starvation further annoys the officer and our hero is reprimanded for his defeatist attitude by being forbidden to wear any clothing until further notice.

This further notice only comes when the squad is abruptly designated an anti-tank suicide squad, they will basically run into tanks whilst carrying explosives. Given one day of freedom before being expected to make the ultimate  sacrifice, the soldier finds love after a few wrong turns and a strange meeting with an armless bookseller (a noticeably odd late performance from Chisu Ryu). He also develops a strange friendship with some orphaned children and ‘saves’ a suicidal woman.

Alas his orders are abruptly changed again and having failed to meet up with his unit he ends up, in the most absurd image of the film, a man in a barrel strapped to a torpedo. When you hear about lost Japanese soldiers years later not knowing the war is over and you wonder how that can happen, well it’s because of things like this. Aimlessly drifting and bemoaning the ridiculousness of his situation, his feelings of helplessness and bewilderment perfectly sum up the events of the summer of 1945.

Okamoto’s trademark dark humour prevent this from being as bleak as the subject matter might suggest, although the finality of its ending is still incredibly powerful. Like Catch-22 or Dr Strangelove the film beautifully sends up the absurdity of war, and especially of an authoritarian win at all costs philosophy. It’s a shame this film isn’t currently available on DVD anywhere with English subtitles as it’s a very unusual film even by the standards of the Japanese Wave. Human Bullet is unforgettable and really deserves to be better known in the West.

Our Day Will Come + Q&A at the ICA

Our Day Will Come is the sort of polarising film that will upset a lot of people. It’s essentially an absurd road movie in which two red headed men take revenge for all the confusion and disappointments in their lives by exploiting racial prejudice and trying to con their way out of Northern France. This is in itself quite funny as neither of the men actually have very red hair, the boy’s is a fake looking reddish brown (very dark), and the older man’s a greying pepperish colour. Nevertheless they seem to believe they’ve found a common bond and a persecuted minority to claim them as their own, even going so far as developing the desire to go to Ireland so they can be among their people. However, after things come to a crisis point for Patrick (Vincent Cassel), the older man and possibly the worst guidance counselor ever (if he ever really was one), events take a definite turn for the worse.

The humour here is really very dark, a lot of people probably won’t quite get it or its absurd tone. For those who do though this is likely to be a very enjoyable film with a lot of interesting things going on. It’s a film that perhaps doesn’t have a direct message, is it a film about persecution? about violence and alienation? about French society, or more specifically Northern French society? All these elements are in the movie but as for which of any of them the films means to express in point, it can’t be said. The absurdity is perhaps the point itself. Cassel and Barthelemy both turn in astonishing performances as the conflicted leads with good support from the unfortunate people they encounter during their pointless quest, notably the sullen little girl in the red jacket. Romain Gavras has made a very strong feature debut and is definitely a voice to look out for in the future. It’s certainly a film that many will find offensive or fail to engage with but also one that will find its own audience.

Vincent Cassel and Romain Gavras  kindly came to the stage after the film to answer some questions, of which there were undoubtedly a few. They first explained how the film got made, that Cassel had known the younger Gavras and the film’s producer for many years and after seeing Gavras’ last music video had come to the conclusion that Gavras was now ready to direct a feature and so decided to produce and possibly star in it. Gavras and the creative team then set about writing the script which went through many iterations, it did not originally feature red hair as a plot element but Gavras liked the idea of these two men who didn’t really have red hair banding together as red heads and convincing themselves they’d been unfairly persecuted for this reason. The completely pointless quest to find and liberate their people then became the driving force of the film. However Gavras was quick to say he himself doesn’t really know the point of the film or if it has one. Apparently they did test dye Barthelemy’s hair bright red but it looked too odd and Cassel added that after that he would have himself refused a full red dye. Someone asked if Cassel actively sought out these more extreme parts or was it just that it’s what he’s offered to which he answered he’d tried playing nice guys but it wasn’t very interesting and anyway he doesn’t find the nice guy archetype very true true to life. The same person then asked how he’d been influenced by his father Jean-Pierre Cassel which he found he couldn’t possibly answer other than in ways he couldn’t tell, but pointed out also that he’d ended up making very different films from his father. The same question was put to Romain which he answered in a similar way but added he hadn’t really had any choice about becoming a director and that all his siblings had entered the same field. The Q&A session then ended with a slightly odd (and a bit redundant) question about the Irish tourism board which was answered with a fairly flat ‘yes they approved’ style answer but all in all a very interesting conversation about this film that defies explanation.