A Snake of June ((六月の蛇, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002)

Mr9TSdN - ImgurOne day, I will add some new content to this blog! Today is not that day. Nor is tomorrow, or the day after or the day after that (probably) but someday soon and for the rest of my life! Sorry, carried away there. Anyway, review of the newly restored HD blu-ray release of Shinya Tsukamoto’s masterpiece A Snake of June up at UK Anime Network. It’s very weird and I love it a lot.

Shinya Tsukamoto made his name with body horror infused, pulsing cult hits such as Tetsuo the Iron Man, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet (all of which are also available in the UK on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films). He’s no stranger to the avant-garde, the surreal or the troubling but even then Snake of June takes things one step further than even his generally intense filmmaking would usually go. A literal “blue movie”, Snake of June is the story of one woman’s sexual awakening, her husband’s release from OCD and the final fulfilment of the couple’s relationship set against the backdrop of a cold and unfeeling city.

Rinko is an attractive, if slightly mousy, young woman who works a telephone counsellor at a Samaritans-like call centre. As for her homelife, she lives in an upscale Tokyo apartment with her salaryman husband Shigehiko. It’s unkind to say, but the couple are a total mismatch – Rinko, young and pretty even if a little shy, is obviously way out her slightly overweight, balding middleaged husband’s league. Though they seem to have a pleasant enough relationship, there’s no spark between them and they live more like friends or roommates than a married couple. Shigehiko also has an extreme love of cleaning and a touch of OCD that sees him more often caressing the bathtub rather than his wife.

All that changes however when Rinko receives a mysterious envelope full of voyeuristic photos of her masturbating and looking up erotic material on the internet. Soon enough, it turns out these are a “gift” from a troubled photographer, Iguchi, who had planned to commit suicide before talking to Rinko on the helpline. Now he wants to help her by encouraging her to embrace her sexuality and her deepest, darkest desires. Iguchi sets her several tasks to set her on her way such as buying sex toys and walking through town in revealing outfits in an attempt to make her more comfortable with her own sexuality. However, having watched Rinko blossom, Iguchi eventually turns his attention to her husband and events take a decided turn for the surreal.

Erotic – yes, in some senses of the word, but never exploitative. Shot in a melancholy blue designed to mimic the color of the falling rainwater that stains a rainy season June in Tokyo, A Snake of June is a neon inflected journey into urban isolation where the demands of city life drown out the inner fire of those who live in it. Shy and repressed Rinko makes her first foray into town wearing the ridiculously short skirt her blackmailer has “prescribed” for her nervously, clutching a long umbrella in front of her like a shield. Making the same journey sometime later Rinko walks with a swagger, almost dancingly flirtatious she owns herself – her former shield is now a sword. Her “awakening” has nothing to do with her husband or with Iguchi, it’s something she’s achieved for herself and by herself and has left her a happier and more complete person than she’s previously been allowed to be.

Her husband, Shigehiko, by contrast hasn’t quite come to terms with this new version of his wife and even when graphically confronted with it responds in an entirely passive, selfish way. Cracking Shigehiko’s shell will require a little more than gentle coaxing, manipulation and blackmail and thus begins the nightmarish second volume of the film which becomes increasingly bizarre from here on out. Strange drowning themed sex shows where a woman bangs a drum and you have to wear a funny cone on your face which only lets you view everything through a tiny circle like the iris of a an old silent movie? It’s certainly an unorthodox solution.

Like all of Tsukamoto’s work, A Snake of June is exquisitely shot with its blue tint only adding to its native beauty. This new blu-ray edition from Third Window Films remastered from the original negative and supervised by Tsukamoto himself is a pristine presentation of the film which reveals all the tiny details that were rendered invisible by previous transfers. Strange and surreal, A Snake of June is a richly multilayered film dripping with symbolism, not to mention urban melancholy, that has lost none of its power in the intervening years since its shocking debut.

Stuck on Tsukamoto? Here are some more reviews by me:

Also, look out for a review of his latest movie Fires on the Plain which is ready to go some time soon!

The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福, Takashi Miike, 2002)

This new cover art from Arrow is actually really great, isn’t it?

Arrow Films are really spoiling us lately when it comes to amazing Japanese cinema – they’ve given us some cool ’60s classics and forgotten gems like Lady Snowblood, The Stray Cat Rock movies, Branded to Kill, Massacre Gun and Retaliation but now they’ve zapped back to the more recent past and brought us one of Takashi Miike’s zaniest and best loved efforts, The Happiness of the Katakuris. You don’t need me to tell you what this crazy, zombie and murderous inn keeper themed musical psychedelic masterpiece is about but you can read my review of the film and Arrow’s new HD effort over at UK Anime Network. (Spoiler, it’s pretty great).


Ah, Takashi Miike – that unpredictable Japanese auteur who’s equally at home with bloody yakuza dramas, gore soaked satire and strange fever dream experiments. There’s no denying his out put is decidedly patchy, which given his prolific career isn’t particularly surprising, but there’s really nothing he won’t at least try. Such is the joy of a Takashi Miike movie. The Happiness of the Katakuri’s wasn’t the first time he made use of musical sequences in his films and it wasn’t the last, but it is one of the craziest. Inspired by the 1998 Korean film The Quiet Family (debut movie of Kim Jee-woon) The Happiness of the Katakuris is, essentially, a family drama which incorporates shady goings on at a guest house, singing zombies, volcanoes and weird stop motion creatures appearing in people’s soup only to fly off with their uvulas (dangly bit between your tonsils).

The film begins with a young girl finding a weird looking creature in her soup which then rips out her uvula and flies off with it before before being snatched by a crow which is then hit with a log by an old man with surprisingly good log throwing game. The old guy is the grandpa of a family which runs a small hotel in the middle of nowhere. Family patriarch Masao used to be a shoe salesman but after losing his job was convinced to buy a hotel after a tip off that a road was supposed to be built nearby which would likely mean lots of customers. Predictably, the road has not materialised and the fledgling inn isn’t exactly packing them in. Besides grandpa, Masao is helped out by his long suffering wife, grown up daughter with a little daughter of her own and a grown up yet seemingly feckless son.

At last, a guest arrives but unfortunately dies soon afterwards. Bearing in mind the declining state of their new business, Masao makes the decision to quickly bury the body in the woods rather than report the death and suffer the negative publicity. Just when things were looking up, another two guests arrive and then promptly die too (in somewhat embarrassing circumstances). As if that weren’t enough, love sick daughter Shizue has fallen in love…again! With “Richard” the secret Japanese love child of the British royal family who’s also some kind of sailor which is why it’s difficult to get in touch with him. All told through the child’s eye view of the youngest member of the family, Shizue’s daughter Yurie, this was one crazy summer in the life of this strange family.

It would be wrong to call The Happiness of the Katakuris a musical, there’s no real musical through line so much as a collection of musical sequences inserted at points of high tension. The musical numbers themselves often act as parodies of other genres with their traditional ballads, karaoke video style sequences and the bonkers Sound of Music-esque field frolicking. Then there’s the singing corpses – who knew zombies were so jolly?

It all undeniably gets a bit grim as the family have to contend with burying the bodies of their unfortunate customers all the while waiting for someone to finally build this long promised road so their business can take off. Each of them is chasing a different kind of “happiness” the father in looking for success in business which will lead to financial security for the family, the daughter in looking for love (in all the wrong places) but it takes the totally bizarre death filled adventure of demons, corpses and escaped murderers to make them realise that they had what they needed to be happy all along – each other. The Katakuris may not be a model family, but everything runs better when they work as a team and they are very happy together no matter what strange adventures befall them. Despite all the trappings of weirdness, The Happiness of the Katakuris maybe Miike’s most subversively conservative film as it ultimately fulfils the role of that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, in which the traditional family is reformed and everything in the world is right again.

Available for the first time in HD, Arrow’s new set is nothing short of a wonder. Shot near the beginning of the digital age before the cameras where anywhere near as good as they are now, you wouldn’t assume The Happiness of the Katakuris would look this good and even if it does show its age here and there the presentation is pretty much top notch and the best it’s ever going to look. The set also comes with a host of special features, some ported over from the original release but also adds a Takashi Miike commentary with critic, Miike champion and sometime actor Toshitoki Shiota in Japanese with English subtitles but also, in an appropriately strange and surreal option, a dubbed version with actors “playing” Miike and Shiota speaking their lines in English too. You also get an entirely new commentary from Japanese film scholar and Miike expert Tom Mes of the recently deceased Midnight Eye plus a short video essay about Miike’s career and a couple of new Miike interviews too.

Almost 15 years on, The Happiness of the Katakuris remains as endearingly bizarre as it did on its first release and is truly worthy of its status as a beloved cult movie that continues to be the go-to weird Japan choice for the genre savvy cinephile. Back and better than ever, this new set from Arrow breathes new life into the film and is a great excuse for another stay at the White Lover’s Inn.


Here’s a trailer for the film:

If Takashi Miike x musical madness is your thing you also need to see Ai to Makoto (AKA For Love’s Sake) – available in the UK from Third Window Films.

Also a mini reminder for Miike fans that Over Your Dead Body is going to be at Frightfest and is apparently going to receive a UK release from Yume Pictures (the same people who released A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, now available on UK DVD). Miike madness is back! In more ways than one.

Over Your Dead Body trailer:

Concrete Clouds (ภวังค์รัก, Lee Chatametikool, 2014)

Concrete CloudsI reviewed this flawed yet interesting film, Concrete Clouds, for UK Anime Network. Probably I think I liked it a bit more than the score suggests but it does have its problems. Also ’90s (or maybe ’80s?) Thai pop is kind of amazing.

Up to now Lee Chatametikool has been best known as the regular editor on the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) but with Concrete Clouds he’s finally stepped out of the edit suite and behind the camera to direct his very first feature film. However, Concrete Clouds owes less to Apichatpong Weerasethakul or any of the other well known Thai directors he’s been working with over the last decade than it does to early period Tsai Ming-Liang and the Taiwanese new wave. A mood piece heavy on directorial flair but light on detail, Concrete Clouds never quite comes together but still manages to offer a few rewards for the patient viewer.

Set in 1997 just as the Asian Economic crisis begins to take hold, long time emigré Mutt (Ananda Everingham) gets a late night phone call from his high school age brother to say their father has just jumped off the roof. Mutt goes home for the first time in a long time aiming to lay a few ghosts – less that of his father than that of his teenage self and half forgotten love. Meanwhile, younger brother Nic has formed a tentative romance with a girl from the next building who appears to be living more or less alone and has just begun working in a hostess club. Just like his brother he’ll have to decide whether to abandon his love in Thailand to seek new dreams overseas or chase an ever elusive future in the land of his birth.

To be frank, the somewhat shocking and early death of the father retains little impact after the fact as neither of the now orphaned sons seems to dwell very long on the loss of their only parental figure and there’s no real soul searching over why he did what he did. The blueprints for new buildings he was looking at right before and the constant financial concern on the news screens seem to be evidence enough of his ultimate motives. Neither is much mention made of the absent mother who, one assumes, has been absent for a relatively long time. The age gap between the brothers also means that their relationship is not as close as you might assume brothers to be as Mutt must have left for America when Nic was little more than a toddler. Nevertheless, both boys are cast adrift by the older man’s decision, taken alone and with seemingly little concern for those around him.

The historical context is fairly key to the film though may be impenetrable for those less versed in recent history. In setting the story in 1997, the director intends both to imply that many of Thailand’s present social and economic problems stem back to the Asian Financial Crisis and the new Thai constitution which was created around that time but also to deal with the fragile nature of memory and our own tendencies to over romanticise our pasts by falling in love with a fantasy of our own creation. Mutt has dreamed of his high school girlfriend, Sai, ever since leaving her to go to college in America. He lives with a woman in New York but their relationship doesn’t seem particularly serious and she has not accompanied him to Thailand for his father’s funeral. Even though years have passed he’s remained faithful to the image of Sai he has in his mind and however much he tells himself nothing has changed it’s his own self created image that he’s wedded to, rather than the flesh and blood Sai who’s been busy getting on with her own life in the intervening ten years.

In a another cloud based film, Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds, the title refers to the the central characters who are unable to re-root themselves after the disruption caused to their lives firstly in failed Manchurian expedition and then by the after effects of the war. They float aimlessly trying to find something they can cling on to that will allow them to move forward with their lives and ultimately never find it. In Concrete Clouds it’s almost the opposite problem, the characters are weighed down by their dreams, almost crushed by them and unable to move. Their dreams will never lift off the ground because they can’t bear to let go of the past, of the people they once were and things they once thought they wanted.

The most notable element of Concrete Clouds is its unusual shooting style which incorporates everything from snatches of archival footage to long stretches of fantasy sequences played out as karaoke videos to late ‘90s Thai pop songs. The film has an interesting aesthetic which appropriately matches its melancholy and slightly wistful tone though it fails to capture the exact emotional ache that it seems to be going for. Ultimately its disparate elements never quite seem to coalesce into something more and though Concrete Clouds has plenty to admire it stops short of capturing the heart. Nevertheless it’s an impressive debut from Lee Chatametikool who has marked himself out as new talent to look out for in Thai cinema.

This is getting a release from Day For Night in the UK and here’s the trailer

And here’s a clip of one of the karaoke sequences

And another from the OST

(I don’t know any Thai at all, what is this music?)

Massacre Gun / Retaliation (UK Anime Network Reviews)

Arrow double whammy up at UK Anime Network as I review both of Arrow’s recent Yasuharu Hasebe releases – Massacre Gun and Retaliation!

Massacre Gun
Tatsuya Fuji tests his gun out in Massacre Gun (and looks cool in the process)

Arrow have been turning up some hidden gems and neglected classics as they trawl through the world of the populist cinema from the Japanese golden age of the 1960s and 70s – they’ve already brought us the iconic Lady Snow Blood, the lesser known Blind Woman’s Curse, the anarchic Stray Cat Rock series and now, following on from their release of Seijun Suzuki’s famously crazy Branded to Kill they’ve turned their attention back to Nikkatsu Noir with Massacre Gun. The first of two releases from director Yasuhiro Hasebe who also directed three films in the Stray Cat Rock series (Retaliation will follow next month), Massacre Gun has everything any genre fan could wish for – depressed hit men, warring gangs, jazz bars, boxing clubs, stylish monochrome photography and the melancholic ennui that permeates all the best noir movies. Perhaps not quite as impressive as the greatest hits of Nikkatsu Noir such as the afore mentioned Branded to Kill or Nikkatsu’s other offerings like A Colt is My Passport, Massacre Gun is nevertheless another impressive entry in the studio’s short lived action output.

As the film begins, thoroughly dejected Kuroda has just been asked to carry out a hit on a woman who is in love with him – feelings which he may have have reciprocated but, but like any good lackey, Kuroda chose his boss over his heart and sent the love sick girl into a lake with a bullet in her chest. When Kuroda’s two younger brothers find out they do not approve and hot headed youngest brother Saburo who trains at a yakuza run gym hoping to become a a pro-boxer, decides to have a word with Kuroda’s boss, Akazawa. As might be expected things don’t go Saburo’s way and he’s brutally beaten to the extent his hands are all but crushed leaving him unlikely to box again. At this point, Kuroda wants out of the game – but for a yakuza hit man there is no out. His only option is to take down Akazawa’s empire and build one of his own.

Like most of Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s action output which would later retroactively become known as Nikkatsu Noir, Massacre Gun is heavily indebted to the American B-movie and particularly to the film noir. Its settings are those of “low culture”, Western bars and cafes where people drink expensive whiskey and wear sharp suits and sunglasses. In fact, the Kuroda brothers’ side business involves running a jazz bar with a half Japanese-half African American jazz singer playing piano in the corner and a pair of Western dancers doing some sort of scantily clad, artistic ballroom dancing routine in the middle. Most importantly it’s full of the classic Film Noir feeling of spiritual emptiness and existential ennui with the very depressed contract killer Kuroda at its centre.

A very male affair (perhaps the key missing element from a Film Noir is a femme fatale), the bulk of the film is the opposition between Kuroda on the one side and his former boss on the other. Other than the closeness with his two younger brothers and to a lesser extent the other workers at the club, Kuroda’s other most notable relationship is with his old friend Shirasaka who coincidentally married another woman Kuroda may have had feelings for. Though the two have enjoyed a close friendship up until now, Kuroda’s decision to leave Akazawa’s employ has meant Shirasaka has had to make a choice and he’s chosen Akazawa. The two are are now mortal enemies on opposing sides of a war – a fact which causes them both pain but which, nevertheless, cannot be otherwise.

Hasebe is best known for his striking use of colour which makes Massacre Gun a notable entry in his filmography as it’s the only one he made in black and white. Other than the perverse habit of sticking colours into the names of his leading characters and locations (the “Kuro” in Kuroda means “black”, the “Shira” in Shirasaka means “white” and the “Aka” in “Akazawa” means red making this one very complicated game of checkers), Hasebe still manages to make an oddly “colourful” film even in monochrome. Taking a cue from Suzuki, Hasebe has come up with a fair few arty and unusual compositions of his own though not quite to Suzuki’s absurd extremities and neatly retained the classic Nikkatsu Noir aesthetic in his superbly crisp black and white colour palate.

Coming as a late addition to the genre, Massacre Gun also takes a fairly unusual approach to violence with a far more explicit representation than would be expected from this period. Simply put – lots of people die in this film, many of them in quite exciting ways. Blood is everywhere and there are so many bullets fired you start to wonder if some one in the yakuza equivalent of the administration department isn’t having some kind of heart attack behind the scenes. Massacre Gun might not be the best entry in the Nikkatsu Noir series, but it is perhaps one of the most typical. Edgy and arty, exquisitely framed and perfectly photographed it brings out the effortless cool that came to symbolise Nikkatsu’s late ‘60s output. Aside from all that – it’s just fun as most of these films are. Another welcome release from Arrow who continue to root out these lesser known genre movies, Massacre Gun is a must see for fans of classic ‘60s action movies.

Jo Shishido smokes a cigarette in Retaliation (and looks cool in the process)

Arrow are back with another neglected classic of Japanese action cinema produced by Nikkatsu – Retaliation, a slightly later film from Yasuharu Hasebe director of Massacre Gun and three out of five of the Stray Cat Rock series. Unlike Massacre Gun (but like every other film Hasebe ever made), Retaliation is shot in colour and features Hasebe’s trademark use of it. Retaliation is very typical of its genre in someways and very not in others. It stands on something of a borderline seemingly symptomatic of Nikkatsu’s eventual slide into a producer of soft core pornography as their Roman Porno line of sex and violence based movies took over as their main production style. Not as strong as some of the other entries from around this time, Retaliation nevertheless marks itself out as an interesting addition to the genre.

Not one of the most exciting plots in yakuza movie history, Retaliation’s main mcguffin centres around trying to persuade some farming families to sell their ancestral land to developers who want to build a factory there. Having just been released from prison after taking the fall for gang murder, Jiro is offered the chance to head up his own group, however his patch is between two rivals and his best bet is to play the two off against each other as they both vie for this disputed farmland. One group is super old school and the other is the more modern type of thug who’ll do pretty much anything to get what they want – including abducting one of the farmer’s daughters and molesting her in the back of a car as a way to threaten her father. Jiro is given his own mini team to help out on his mission including an out of work actor and card shark, and another top yakuza guy who just happens to be the brother of the man he went to prison for killing and who has already vowed to killed Jiro in revenge. Jiro sometimes dreams of going straight and leading a different kind of life but gang loyalty still means something to him and those outside of the life aren’t always so understanding. Retaliation is the only way to stay alive in this new, empty yakuza world.

Retaliation starred three of Nikkatsu’s famed “Diamond Line” stars – Akira Kobayashi is the film’s lead leaving Jo Shishido playing second fiddle (his star had fallen a little at Nikkatsu and they didn’t see him as an actor who could carry a colour film as the leading man), and Hideki Nitani coming in third. Tatsuya Fuji and Meiko Kaji round out the almost famous section of the cast and each would soon find fame (or notoriety) in the new landscape of ‘70s Japanese cinema. There’s undoubtedly an air of everybody just doing what they do – it is after all what they’ve been employed for but at the same time no one’s really pushing themselves to do anything very notable. That said, you do have five of the biggest (or soon to be biggest) names of the time in one movie which gives it a feeling of a prestige project. However, in another move that anticipates the direction in which Nikkatsu was headed, the sex and violence quotient has been significantly upped.

Nikkatsu action films could already be shockingly violent for the time period, but Retaliation unfortunately adds a layer of sexualised violence against women which is undoubtedly being offered up as something for the viewer to enjoy. The early scene in which Meiko Kaji’s farmgirl is molested by a gang of thugs before being dumped at her parents’ house is unsettling on one level, but is shot with such a voyeuristic camera style that it’s difficult to not feel complicit in this fairly horrific act. There’s even another such sequence later in the film when one yakuza is forced to give up a girl he’s with so all his yakuza mates can have a go first which is again shot with a lingering camera often cutting back to the salivating gangsters. Of their time in one sense, these sadly salacious scenes of sexual violence against women filmed with an encouraging eye give the film an unwelcome sleazy quality from which it is hard to bounce back.

The other notable theme of the film is that it positions itself between the glamorous, modern samurai, gangster movies of the past and the grittier tales of modern thugs that were about to become the mainstream narrative. Jiro has been away for a long time, the yakuza world has moved on and his old clan would have died out if weren’t for another gang’s generosity. Jiro is the last of the honourable men who place loyalty above personal gain and seek to protect women and the put upon rather than exploiting them. Unfortunately, modern yakuza think differently and it’s no small irony that it’s a group of farmers they’re falling over themselves to ruin given that farmers are the very people old school yakuza, as the receivers of samurai values, would be expected to protect. Jiro and some of his cohorts still believe in these “old fashioned” ideas and are thought brave and noble. The other gangs who rape and torture women whilst forcing farmers off the land they’ve worked for centuries are not.

Again, it’s a fairly manly affair with women becoming little more than props to be used and abused throughout the film but the relationship between the two central guys Jiro and Hino takes on an oddly homoerotic context even ending with Shishido’s character getting rid of his girlfriend because he apparently falls in love too easily before telling Jiro that this is the first time it’s been with a guy. Considering their relationship began with Hino determined to kill Jiro, to end it with a quasi declaration of love (even half in jest) is a pretty steep character arc but one of the better things about the film.

Retaliation isn’t a perfect film, and it might not have the most exciting basis for its plot machinations but it certainly has its moments. Entertaining enough, the film is marred by its unpleasant treatment of women and takes a few dramatic missteps towards the end. The action is good however, as are the performances and production values. Perhaps not an essential Nikkatsu action movie but nevertheless a very interesting one from several different perspectives, Retaliation deserves a view from the genre’s committed fans.

Both available now in the UK on DVD & blu-ray from Arrow Films!

Au revoir l’été ほとりの朔子 (ほとりの朔子 Koji Fukada, 2013)

sakuko_mainReview of this kind of cute French new wave influenced Japanese indie up at UK Anime Network. I kind of liked this one – it’s getting another screening at The Proud Archivist on Tuesday if you couldn’t make it today. Alternatively you can watch it online via FilmDoo!

It’s generally a mistake to judge a film by its title, but catching sight of  “Au revoir l’été” on the poster or DVD cover is going to tell you several things about the film you’re about to see. First of all it’s obviously in French – a bold choice for a Japanese film, set entirely in Japan, for release in English speaking territories. Loosely translated it means “Goodbye, Summer” and closely channels the film’s obvious inspiration point Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’été (A Summer’s Tale). If you’re thinking a bit French new wave, stories filled with youthful ennui and complicated romances – well, you’re not far wrong. Indie director Koji Fukada brings the new wave’s characteristic existential angst and romantic yearnings to the Japanese small, seaside town in this unexpectedly engaging odyssey into summer themed nostalgia.

Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido) is a slightly lost young girl who finds herself on an unexpected summer trip with her aunt to house sit for another of her aunts in a small, seaside town where she can get down to studying for a second go at her university entrance exams. Summers being what they are, she finds herself less studying than getting to know her aunts’ home town and their strange collection of childhood friends including old flame of one (or maybe all) of the sisters, former thug and current “hotel” manager Ukichi (Kanji Furutachi). Rounding out the band are Ukichi’s college age daughter Tatsuko and Fukushima refugee nephew Takashi (Taiga). Matters become even more complicated when another professor and sometime lover of Sakuko’s aunt Makie, Nishida, turns up to drip sleaze all over our lovely summer vacation. Like the “hotel” that Ukichi runs which turns out to be strictly a rent by the hour affair, Nishida may look presentable and spout a lot of fine talk but underneath he’s anything but genteel. Idyllic as summer holidays can be, there’s always a lesson to be learned somewhere even if you don’t quite see it at the time.

If you had to come up with a one word descriptor for Au revoir l’été, the one you’d go for would be “wistful”. It’s full of nostalgia for those long languid summers that you only experience at a certain time of life (or perhaps never even actually experienced other than in films and books) where days of listless possibility stretch out in front of you as if the summer really will go on forever. Until, of course, it ends abruptly and rudely just you started to feel it was getting started. Walks by the beach, coffee shops, birthday parties for new friends and a tentative romance with a wounded and clueless local boy – it’s the classic French new wave summer holiday.

Perhaps deliberately, it all has the feeling of a dream, as if its charms are born of the wilful ignoring of painful truths. The sun maybe shining (well, mostly), the river water’s warm and the birds are singing but – there’s always a looming shadow of something less pleasant lurking in the background. In a fairly ordinary way, it has to be said – not in a David Lynch sort of way, just in the sort of way you forget that mean thing your boss said to you last week because “you’re on holiday!” and you’ll think about it later. The “hotel” is a love hotel, the famous professor is a jealous womaniser and Takashi is a Fukushima refugee who’s almost glad about the disaster because it got him out of a bad family situation he has no desire to return to. You can have a really great time right now by not thinking about any of these things, but sooner or later you’ll have to leave the beautiful summer beaches for the muddy path back to reality. No one can live “on holiday” forever.

Nothing really happens, no grand life changing events but somehow things have progressed by the end and everyone seems to have reached a new clarity about themselves and their lives for better or worse. If the film has a major fault it’s that it loses more than it gains by casting the net a little wide and trying to deal with everybody’s stories all at once rather than focusing Sakuko’s viewpoint and radiating out from there. The heart of the film is with its younger protagonists, but it doesn’t  shy away from showing us what might become of them with the unhappy grown ups always in the background. Mikie and Ukichi, who’ve both had their share of disappointments in life, seem weighed down by regrets and compromises that even the summer air can’t ameliorate. The most clued up character is the almost cynical Tatsuko who seems immune’s to summer’s charms and is willing to see things as they are and exploit them to her own advantage.

Like many summers, Au revoir l’été is really far too long by the end but it’s so whimsically charming that you don’t quite mind. Another standout performance from Fumi Nikaido anchors the film through her fairly passive, though perceptively gifted, Sakuko and each of her summer companions is so engagingly drawn that there’s always plenty to think about. Which is just as well because this isn’t the sort of film to offer many answers so much as be content in observation. Charming, intriguing and at times beguiling Au revoir l’été may not set the world alight but it does bathe it in a warm summer glow.

The Grandmaster (UK Release) (UK Anime Network Review)

background_46481“Once upon a time in Kung Fu”? Really? “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master”? Yeah, this poster tells you everything you need to know. 1000+ word rant Review of the Weinstein cut of Wong Kar Wai’s latest up at UK Anime Network.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more internationally well loved Chinese director than the achingly cool Wong Kar-wai. When it was revealed that Wong was going to tackle the story of legendary martial arts practitioner Ip Man with frequent collaborator Tony Leung along for the ride, excitement levels were obviously dangerously high and only set to rise. However, the project never quite seemed to get off the ground and, in fact, several other Ip Man movies were made in the meantime including the hugely successful series starring Donnie Yen the third of which is currently in development. The film finally found its way to the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and received a brief cinema run in the UK last year but is only now reaching UK homes courtesy of Metrodome.

As usual with Wong who’s never quite managed to find the “save & quit” button, The Grandmaster exists in three different versions – the first being the original “Chinese cut” which runs 130 minutes, the second the “Berlin Cut” which runs 123 minutes and then there’s the “Weinstein Cut” which is 108 minutes long. If alarm bells are already ringing on hearing the name Weinstein, you are unfortunately correct – the UK release is limited to the shorter Weinstein cut. Not only is the film 18 minutes shorter than the longest version, it is an entirely different movie. Subplots have been streamlined or removed altogether, scenes have been reordered and rearranged and crucially additional voice over and explanatory title cards have been added for the “benefit” of an international audience. Seeing as few people will have the opportunity to see either of the other cuts of the film, there’s little point in explicating every last difference but suffice to say if you do have the opportunity to view the 130 minute Chinese version of the film it is a much better option than this overly accommodating “Ladybird Book” style international offering.

As for the plot of this Weinstein version, it runs more like a traditional martial arts thriller with Ip Man as the challenger who must fight various bosses to become the king of martial artists with some stuff about not kowtowing to the Japanese thrown in. The film has been “refocused” to centre more definitely on Ip Man himself as THE Grandmaster whereas the Chinese cut of the film situates him slightly to one side of things – almost an impassive observer of the chaotic events which over took Chinese society from the mid 1930s through to the early 1950s as seen through the mirror of the popularism of the kung-fu world both real and imaginary. In fact, in the Chinese  version the real story is arguably that of Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er whose tragic life story serves as a metaphor for the dangers of a stubborn adherence to traditional values. Left with little to reflect on, this Ip Man’s story is relegated to a martial arts serial style retelling of the early adventures of the man who went on to train Bruce Lee which is both reductive and actually a little insulting.

The Chinese cut of the film is a sweeping, operatic epic rich with restrained emotions and barely suppressed personal, and implied national, tragedies. Most obviously the subtleties of the central love story between Ip Man and Gong Er are all but lost in this version as the scenes which allowed them to build up the necessarily emotional resonance have either ended up on the cutting room floor or been rearranged ruining the careful rhythms of their relationship and robbing the film of its beating heart in the process. Adding to the zombified feeling are the various title cards interspersed throughout the film which simply display a a few stage directions in an extremely ugly white font, almost like the kind you might see in the restoration of a rare film in which some reels are missing and the only way to fill in the blanks for the audience is to provide a scene synopsis for the intervening action. To put it bluntly, this is an extremely amateurish solution which both takes you out of the ongoing action of the film and adds to the feeling that one is being talked down to.

However, it isn’t all bad. The beautifully balletic fight sequences and often stunning cinematography have both made it through largely unscathed. The film has an undeniable aesthetic appeal and those action scenes are just as exciting as they are good to look at. Likewise, the central performances, though often frustrated by the problems raised by this new edit, are universally strong though it’s shame that Zhang Ziyi’s quite extraordinary work here is being unfairly disrupted by the butchering of her character arc. Coming to the film cold entirely unaware that another version exists, you may feel it’s a so so art house kung-fu movie with a bit too much talking, not enough fighting and altogether too much too much distance between the two but perhaps not find it altogether unenjoyable.

It’s a shame that the UK will likely never see the longer cut of The Grandmaster. Though apparently Wong Kar-wai worked closely with Harvey Weinstein to create a version that was more accessible to non Chinese viewers, it’s difficult to believe this extremely dumbed down approach could really be what he was looking for. After all, there is no dubbed track here – viewers opting to watch a subtitled film most likely aren’t looking for something familiar, they’ve chosen it because they’re interested enough in another culture to spend two hours exploring it. They almost certainly don’t need the kind of bald explanatory text offered here (though, really, who would?) and will most likely feel insulted at having been treated like children who need every last little thing explained in painful detail. Nevertheless, if this is the only way to see the latest film from Wong Kar-wai, there is still a fair amount to enjoy but be aware that it’s far from the true version of The Grandmaster and it may be worth your while to seek out the 130 minute Chinese cut to see Wong’s complete vision.


Coming Home (UK Anime Network Review)

coming-home-film-decembre-2014-sortieZhang Yimou’s latest reviewed at UK Anime Network

Dealing with the recent past in mainstream Chinese film can be a difficult business. While you may be able to get away with making a comment on the present through looking at the pre-communist past, raising the spectres of some of the darker episodes in the post Mao Zedong China is, at best, taboo. That Zhang Yimou, more recently moving into the mainstream as one of China’s most bankable directors both abroad and domestically, has been able to make a film about the suffering endured by countless citizens during The Cultural Revolution is therefore a little surprising. However, Coming Home is far from an examination of the period’s horrors but rather a metaphor for modern China reframed as a melodrama of deep love and marital happiness frustrated by historical circumstance.

Based on The Criminal Lu Yanshi a book by Yan Geling, the central story focuses on the trio of Lu – a professor sent for “re-education” at the beginning of The Cultural Revolution, his wife Feng and their daughter Dandan. The first part of the film sees Dandan attending a ballet school and hoping to gain the lead in the upcoming propaganda ballet Red Detachment of Women. However, despite being the most talented dancer she learns she will not be chosen for a leading role because of her father’s disgrace – a situation further complicated because it transpires her father has escaped from the camp and may be trying to return home. Despite the warnings and the obvious danger, Feng is desperate to see her husband again though Dandan, who was just an infant when her father was taken away, is angry and resentful. Lu’s attempt to return ends in recapture and it’s not until the end of The Cultural Revoltion years later that he’s finally able to come home. However, Feng now suffers from mild dementia and refuses to recognise this much older version of the man she’s been waiting for all this time. Every fifth day of the month she goes to the station to wait for her husband completely unaware that he has already returned.

It’s the second half of the story that occupies the bulk of the running time as Lu’s original escape attempt becomes more or less a prologue to the main story. Having returned home, Lu tries to reawaken his wife’s dormant memories by reminding her of their shared past. Feng can take care of herself day to day though she forgets things and muddles up timescales, but is unable to acknowledge Lu as her husband. Along with the remorseful Dandan who only now understands exactly what her parents have been through, he tries to remind her of happier times by reading her letters or playing the piano as he used to do. In someways the political circumstances take a back seat here as Feng’s dementia could easily be solely of natural causes (though the film strongly suggests a blow to the head during Lu’s escape attempt and subsequent traumas maybe a partial cause of her memory loss) and Lu the loving husband trying to keep their past alive. However, the situation is further complicated as the couple have now been separated for over twenty years with no contact at all. There was immense suffering on both sides with Lu desperate to see his wife and daughter again but never knowing if he would, and his wife making great sacrifices to try and protect him in the hope that he would survive and one day return home.

The film never really goes into what Lu did, other than his having been a professor which might have been enough on its own, or probe into very much detail about his life being re-educated. Bar a final reveal and a general feeling of melancholy, it doesn’t much delve into Feng’s life other than her devotion in waiting for Lu. In fact, it sort of leaves The Cultural Revolution to one side as much as it can. However, its ambiguity is almost an analogy for the way modern China wishes to think about its past – both remembering and not at the same time. Lu endures all, suffers all only to return to a world where he doesn’t quite exist. Patiently, he tries to undo this painful knot of memory that has paralysed his wife’s brain so that he might regain something of what he’s lost but the more he tries to show her the less she seems to see. She can only recognise him as the man he is now, a kindly neighbour, and not as the man that was taken from her all those years ago and for whom she still waits. There are those like Lu who are desperately trying to reconcile the past with the present so they can move forward but there are also those like Feng who are unable to come to terms with everything they’ve suffered and accept the now for what is. The result being a kind of numb limbo which leaves everybody waiting at the station for a train which will never arrive.

Coming Home probably goes as far it’s allowed to go, but that still isn’t terribly far. As a film about China’s turbulent recent history, it’s a start but doesn’t begin to approach some of those darker themes with any kind of depth. That said, it’s really much more of an old fashioned melodrama about a faithful husband who comes home to his devoted wife after many years of enforced separation only to find that, far from having “forgotten” him, she can’t forget the him that was taken away long enough to recognise that he’s come home. Fans of romantic drama will find a lot more to like than those hoping for a hard hitting examination of horrors The Cultural Revolution but Coming Home does do what it promises in a typically polished style. A little bit stuffy and noticeably restrained, Coming Home is not exactly a late career masterpiece from the director of Raise the Red Lantern, but it does at least open a few doors.

Spring in a Small Town (小城之春, Fei Mu, 1948)

spring-in-a-small-town-1948-001-two-couples-in-the-householdReview of this Chinese lost classic up at UK Anime Network

Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is often regarded as one of the great lost masterpieces of Chinese cinema. Completed in 1948, it stands on the borderline of China’s transformation into a communist state and ultimately paid the price for its “questionable” politics (or, indeed, lack of them). Fei like many at the time relocated to Hong Kong where he set up a production company but sadly died not long after at just 44 years of age and Spring in a Small Town became his final film. Based on a short story by Li Tianji, the film is a complex portrait of frustrated hopes and failed marriages against the backdrop of a society in rapid change.

Yuwen is a married woman who lives for her daily errands which take her out of the decaying house she shares with her invalid husband and his school aged younger sister. Her one pleasure in life is the solitary walk she’s accustomed to take along the ruined wall which leads into town. Her husband, Liyan, believes himself to be suffering from tuberculosis and confines himself to what remains of their estate and its once fine garden. The house is little more than rubble in places and bears the heavy scars of the war years on its un-repaired exteriors. One day, an old friend of Liyan’s, Zhang – a doctor, comes to visit. Unbeknownst to anyone, Zhang and Yuwen grew up in the same village and were, in fact, childhood sweethearts until time and circumstance forced them apart.

Shot through with Chekhovian melancholy resignation (but perhaps without his trademark sense of humour), Spring in a Small Town is a tightly wound character drama which uses the plight of its characters to deliver a much wider message. Yuwen narrates her inner life for us (a stylish device which anticipates the technique coming into its prime nearly twenty years later in the French New Wave), giving voice to thoughts that could never be expressed directly. Her unhappiness is the first thing that strikes the viewer along with the decayed grandeur of her surroundings. Having become more nurse than wife to a husband that she never loved, Yuwen has resigned herself to a life of morning walks and embroidery devoid of all stimulation. Zhang’s unexpected re-entry into her life spells both doom and salvation. Liyan suspects nothing and even sees Zhang as a potential match for his sixteen year old sister, Xiang! Zhang’s arrival threatens to throw a hand grenade into this delicately balanced yet unhappy household with long buried emotions slowly working their way to the surface.

Fei keeps the tension up by keeping a tight lid on the repressed emotions of the time. What could so easily have become an overwrought melodrama retains its emotional power precisely because of its naturalistic restraint. Spring in a Small Town has been described as “the Chinese Brief Encounter” and it certainly shares something of that film’s powerful emotional manoeuvring pushed through with a level of reserve many would consider typically British. Both films also resolutely reinforce the prevailing social order of the day where duty conquers all and properness comes before personal happiness. However, where Brief Encounter ends on a note of melancholic restoration, Spring in a Small Town dares to be a little more upbeat (if still just as melancholic) with a sense that spring may really have returned to these four people after a long and hard winter. The frost has finally thawed and new life can begin again.

It’s not completely clear what exactly the new regime found problematic about Spring in a Small Town though it’s certainly a long way from socialist realist cinema. The world it depicts is an upper class one with not a little sorrow over the decline of this once noble house and fretting about its legacy neither of which gel very well with communist party guidelines. Otherwise the film is fairly apolitical which would render it a little frivolous from their point of view but far from trivial in ours. Enormously influential since its rediscovery by the Fifth Generation filmmakers in 1980s, Spring in a Small Town is a gloriously melancholic character study that deserves to finally take its rightful place alongside finest romantic dramas the golden age of cinema has to offer.

Back to 1942 (一九四二, Feng Xiaogang, 2012)

back-to-1942-poster08Review of this (slightly stodgy) war time starvation drama up at UK Anime Network.

Feng Xiaogang might not exactly be a household name in the West but at home he’s one of China’s most bankable directors. Dubbed the Chinese Spielberg (perhaps a little reductively) he made his name with a series of crowd pleasing comedy films that had audiences queuing ‘round the block in expectation. In recent years, he’s moved away from the comedy genre in favour of big budget, Hollywood style dramas centred around historical events like the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake in Aftershock or the Civil War themed Assembly. Back to 1942 sees him step back even further in time to one of China’s great hidden tragedies, the great Henan famine of 1942.

In 1942 China was in a precarious political position as it faced the ongoing Japanese incursion and came under increasing pressure to align itself with Japan’s enemies as part of the wider global conflict. A serious drought could not have come at a worse time as ever dwindling resources were pulled in several directions at once. The story here concerns the landlord, Fan, who had originally a sizeable grain store set aside to feed his family and retainers. However, after his village is raided by bandits he too is forced to travel westwards in hope of finding better supplies. Along with his wife, pregnant daughter-in-law, daughter and servant as well as another family from the village he faces increasing hardship as he tries to find food to survive. Meanwhile an American journalist employed by TIME magazine has got wind of the story and is trying to get something done about it but to no avail. The government has the war effort as its top priority – what does it matter if a few peasants die as long as the army remains well fed.

Politically speaking, you can get away with talking about ‘unpleasant’ historical events assuming that they happened before the communist revolution. The finger here is pointed quite squarely at Chang Kai-shek and his nationalist government who are portrayed not only as unfeeling and self interested but also as ineffectual when it comes to the business of conducting war with the Japanese. Indeed, at once point Chang suggests simply ceding Henan to the Japanese rather go to the expense of defending this barren stretch of land. Though it is clear he is aware of the extent of the famine, he does little about it until eventually sending “emergency supplies” to “the disaster area” to try and alleviate the damage to his reputation and diplomatic relations with other powers when news of the famine finally reaches them after the conflict. Though the local governor appears genuinely concerned and does his best to get help for the starving people (even if it’s only to alleviate the ridiculous burdens placed on them to supply grain for the army even though there is none) he is hamstrung by the top heavy hierarchical system.

No help is going to come from the government for Fan and his family. They might have been bigwigs once but now they’re in the same boat as everyone else – forced on a virtual death march through the arid land desperately trying to find anywhere that will yield to them the resources to survive. Bodies litter the landscape as the weaker succumb to starvation, donkeys and pack horses are eaten and finally wives and children are bought and sold in the hope of surviving a few hours more. Make no bones about it, Back to 1942 is almost two and a half hours of pure misery as one tragic yet inevitable event follows on the next. Unfortunately, Feng has laid the gloom on a little thick in this understandably bleak tale. The tone never wavers and somehow the constant nature of its sorrows fail to engage as they take on a sadly predictable air. Despite the obvious potential of the story, there’s precious little actual drama and the performances fail to capture the audience’s sympathies as Fan & Co. forced into increasingly degrading acts trying to ensure their own survival.

However, Back to 1942 was an expensive production and you can see all of that money on screen as the battle and action sequences rival those of any Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever reservations there may be with the plotting, it always looks good and you could never accuse it of skimping out on its production design. The only minor criticism may be that the performances of non-Chinese actors feel significantly under rehearsed with Tim Robbins’ priest being the obvious example as he struggles with a strange accent and unclear position in the narrative. Adrien Brody fares better as the idealistic reporter but still fails to convince. The film doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself when it comes both to the role of religion and of other powers active in China at this time and though neither of those ideas are at the forefront of this film, they muddy the waters in ways other than intended by the filmmaker.
An often beautifully photographed film Back to 1942 is also a cold one and given its depressing subject matter something of a chore. The famine that struck the Henan region in 1942 and subsequent (non) reaction to it from the powers at be is indeed something that should be addressed and brought to light in the modern world but perhaps it doesn’t need to be in such a blunt fashion. The film is long, and wearing but ultimately fails to connect with the viewer in a non cynical way making its drawn out proceedings a little on the tedious side for most viewers. Those with a taste for sentimental melodramas with high production values may find a lot to enjoy with Back to 1942 but those who prefer a more nuanced drama will likely leave disappointed.


Exit (迴光奏鳴曲, Chienn Hsiang, 2014)

exit 1Review of this existential character drama from Taiwan up at UK Anime Network. This one was screened at BFI London Film Festival but now it’s at Glasgow too and will be getting a further UK release courtesy of relatively new distributor Facet Films in April!

Sometimes it’s the little things that wear you out; stretching over years, becoming almost invisible until a surge of troubles washes over you and leaves you gasping for air in stormy seas. So it is for Ling, an ordinary, middle aged Taiwanese woman who finds herself alone with her husband working in Shanghai (constantly incommunicado even via telephone) and a teenage daughter, Mei Mei, who’s not very interested in spending quality time with her mother when she’s suddenly made redundant from her job as a seamstress at a factory and also discovers she’s heading into the menopause. Ling has also become the de facto carer for her mother-in-law who’s in hospital (not that her mother-in-law seems to appreciate it very much) where she becomes increasingly fascinated by a badly injured man in the bed opposite who has no family to visit him or take care of his daily needs. In a gesture of kindness, Ling begins by trying to ease some of his discomfort by mopping his brow and dripping water on his parched lips but soon transitions to bed baths. This purely physical relationship with a blinded stranger begins to reawaken something in Ling but will it be enough to save her from life’s disappointments?

Exit is the feature debut from director Chienn Hsiang, an award winning Taiwanese cinematographer (Blue Gate Crossing) and stars frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Chen Shiang-Chyi in the leading role. Unfolding slowly with minimal, naturalistic dialogue the shadow of Tsai looms large (not that that’s ever a bad thing) but Chienn handles this extended moment of existential crisis with a steady hand and interesting compositional choices. Occasionally, his metaphors feel a little overplayed – the sticking lock on Ling’s front door for example and her general trouble with blocked exits are nice ideas but call attention to themselves a little too readily. That said, Chen’s central performance keeps the film well anchored in its everyday mundanity and ordinary despair whilst also ensuring Ling maintains the audience’s sympathies.

At heart, Exit is an intense character study of one woman’s struggles in modern Taiwan as she finds herself caught between several different transitionary moments. Everybody in Taiwan, it seems, is on their way to China. Ling has already lost her husband who never takes her calls any more, she’s just lost her job because the factory owner’s sons are all obsessed with the idea of the mainland – all everyone ever seems to talk about is leaving, there’s no more work here. She lives alone in a pretty run down apartment where the wallpaper is peeling off the walls (she reseals it with sellotape) and she’s plagued by amorous noisy neighbours next door. Her only ray of sunshine is the dance club run by a former work colleague which, aside from also providing a bit of income in the form of costuming and repairs, is the only thing that seems to catch Ling’s attention.

That and the mysterious stranger in the hospital with his strange and terrible injuries. Ling’s encounters with the blind man take on an oddly intimate, sensual quality but as soon as his eye bandages come off she becomes shy or possibly ashamed. Likewise, having made herself a nice new dress and wearing the new shoes suggested by her dance club owning friend Ling goes for a rare night out only to catch sight of her daughter. Once again conflicted, Ling removes her make-up in haste ready to confront Mei Mei (who also rejects her telephone calls) only to discover the girl and her boyfriend have already left leaving only a vague air of shame and discontent behind them.

Exit is a nuanced and engaging snapshot of a moment of crisis in an ordinary woman’s life. It may be true that we all lead lives of quiet desperation but Ling’s troubles are, sadly, of the relatable kind. Trapped in a rapidly changing city and isolated by its social circumstances and cultural constraints it isn’t surprising that Ling’s frustrations finally come to a head but like everyone else Ling has to find a way to go on living and watching her getting back to herself becomes an intensely moving experience.