06/24/2008

“BABY OR DIE!!!”: The New York Asian Film Festival 2008 Part 1

by Matthew Hawkins

Well the New York Asian Film Fest just got underway, and thus far its been, not surprisingly, pretty damn awesome. So without wasting any more time, let’s take it from the top…

The Shadow Spirit

The very first offering from this year’s festival is already the clear winner of the show in my book (yes, even more so than Big Man Japan), as well as one of the finest films I’ve seen all year. So explaining why is gonna be a real bitch since, as the clich? goes, it’s just one of those “impossible to describe” kind of deals.

The setting is post WWII Tokyo, and things kick off innocently enough: an ex soldier turned private dick, who also happens to have psychic abilities, is hired by the head of a movie studio to aide his star actress… her daughter has gone missing and is feared kidnapped, due to a vast inheritance she holds the key to. Cut to… a box filled with four severed arms, all originally belonging to different girls, found in the offices of a pulp magazine, and left by the killer that the rag has been exploiting, which is no doubt a message of some sort. One that a crime investigator/budding writer, along with his editor from the aforementioned rag and another writer from another publication, the requisite gal friday of the movie, all decide to investigate, leading them all to a religious cult that interestingly enough holds much reverence towards a box. Next, onto…. a pair of detectives, one of whom is obsessed with the actress and who pretty much spends every waking moment in a movie theater, re-watching her celluloid glory, with every single line clearly memorized. Making his duty later on, which happens to be cross-examining the woman he admires so much after her daughter is run over by a train under bizarre circumstances, all the more difficult. Who also apparently lives in a large box shaped complex! And the person that helps tie everything together? Why, the book-keeping exorcist that’s best buds with the psychic detective and the reporter/wrtier? Did I forget to mention the creepy dude sporting the trench-coat, leather gloves, and bad teeth, who’s also a budding author?

The film does retain a few of the traditional qualities that make a classic, old Hollywood style whodunit, such as how it begins with a seemingly open and shut case that steadily becomes bigger and stranger, with fresh faces and wacky circumstances constantly thrown in the mix. There’s even a few staples, such as the tried and true “oh great, now what?” back to square one moment around the 70% mark, but for the most part, the movie is refreshingly honest and straightforward for a whodunit. It doesn’t play dumb little tricks, like when the prime suspect is introduced in the very beginning; there’s no stupid attempts at psyching out the audience. Instead of coming up with “clever” who’s, it instead spends it’s time and energy wisely on genuinely clever why’s. Granted, even I was scratching my head when things shifted gears from traditional detective yarn to a vaguely sci-fi set-up, but instead of it being totally ridiculous, I simply sat back and let director Masato Harada take me where he wanted. Which wasn’t exactly a chore thanks to the absolutely stellar cast and the ultra sharp and going at a hundred miles and hour script, with snappy dialogue that more than keeps up. But the real star is the direction and the editing; the camera never stops moving, and the before you can even stop to think about what you’ve just seen, we move onto the next subject or discussion at hand, yet its all done so gracefully and flawlessly that it never becomes tiresome or confusing, which is quite the feat considering how long and jam-packed the movie is. The camerawork is also quite simply stunning, with brilliant composed shots, and the soundtrack that is equally amazing. Though best of all is the rich sense of atmosphere, which really can’t be explained, though I guess I’ve been trying to for the past whatever odd words. I just can’t say enough good things about this movie, and it’s unfortunate that this movie is only playing once more, and during the daytime yet again. Everyone absolutely NEEDS to see this movie, period.

Adrift In Tokyo

The one thing I love about Japanese cinema is their take on film conventions from the West. The Shadow Spirits is your typical old fashioned Hollywood detective tale turned upside down, and Adrift In Tokyo is your standard buddy flick/road movie, al la Hope and Crosby, deconstructed and reconstructed.

The movie centers around Takemura, a down and out, as well as dead broke, college student that’s been a shit magnet his entire life, and Fukuhara, a hard boiled Yakuza whose assigned to collect the large sum of money that Takemura owes to the mob (and which the poor kid simply does not have). When all seems lost, the gangster makes an offer that seems too good to be true; simply accompany him as he walks around Japan, and in the end, Takemura will receive more than enough money to appease the mob. So what’s the deal here? Fukuhara is on his way to turn himself in. How come? Because he killed his wife. So along the way, Fukuhara wants to take a last stroll through all the familiar haunts that him and his now deceased wife used to frequent and love (they used to just walk and walk around the city, with no place in particular to go). What follows is, as one might guess, more than just a simple walk but a journey of self-discovery for both people. Naturally, when one travels with another, especially a person they don’t know all that well, you start asking questions, and mixed with the backdrop of Japan, wackiness ensues! Like when Fukuhara asks who the first girl Takemura ever kissed was, which leads to them tracking her down… to a cosplay party, where the once heart breaking 7 year old girl is now all grown up, as a chain smoking Rei Ayanami wannabe. Another highlight is the anxiety Takemura goes through when he suspects the one older woman he almost had sex with might be Fukuhara’s wife, when she was being unfaithful, and how Fukuhara still seeks to find and kill that man, who because nothing happened, lingered in her mind till the very end.

Thankfully, the film spares the audience with coincidental nonsense, such as how Takemura’s parents abandoned him in his youth, and how Fukuhara slowly appears more alike than dislike the kid as things progress, but it’s made quite clear that the old man and the young kid are not related (we actually discover that Fukuhara and his wife tried to have a child, though things did not turn out so well). But a father and son relation does being to develop, and as expected, things become quite sentimental and rather mushy, yet it all works thanks to the two lead actors who are quite believable and charming.

The Beauty Chanbara & Retro Game Master Episode 1

I’ve actually already written about both over at GameSetWatch, which can be found here. But once again, re: the Onechanbara flick, just as Mooney sez, “Four boners, way up!” If you love zombies, tits, and swords, than this movie is for you! And re: Retro Game Master, once more, I’d much rather watch some nice and friendly older dude play NES games from my youth, and struggle, than some snot-nosed punk calling himself Hadoken316 waltz through today’s hardcore next gen titles, thank you very much G4!

Arch Angels

The folks at Subway Cinema describe it as a mix of Harry Potter and Charlie’s Angels, which is pretty apt, but I was mostly reminded of the stuff produced by pleix to be honest. Anyway, there’s this all girls Catholic school in Japan run by white people, and Fumio is it’s newest pupil. The place is hardly her first choice, thought that’s where her rich brother chose for her (I think) now that he’s in charge, with mom being dead and all. He clearly believes in the finer things in life, and figures his sis will get a much needed does of culture at the place, St. Michael?s Academy. Since, you know, nothing sets a woman straight more than Jesus!

Early on, Fumio manages to endear herself to quite a few of her fellow classmates, despite her believing that they’re all uptight squares and not having anything in common. At one point she says “screw this” and disappears in the woods, to take a break for the monotony, the conformity, and God, for some alone time, as well as to cook up some ramen. Two girls, Yazuko the class president, and Kazune, the star athlete go hunting for her, and right after Fumio is discovered, the fire that was started goes out of control. So… and I’m still not sure about this part, but I think… they put the fire out with some kind of magical dust or whatever, causing a big explosion which ends up granting each girl super powers! But instead of immediately going out and kicking ass, they just go along with their regular lives (their families don’t want them getting into any trouble). But duty calls when their classmates are kidnapped… I forgot to mention how all throughout, you hear about pretty young rich girls are going missing… and the three rush to the rescue. Eventually, after much punching, kicking, and shooting of electric bolts, it’s a one on one showdown between Fumio and the criminal mastermind behind it all, one of the nuns at the school, some Romanian broad that’s always been eying students in a funny way all throughout (and you just think she’s gay or something), and who is the second character to do the Go Go Yubari shtick thus far at the fest (and only two days into things no less).

Not to give anything away, but the highlight is how Fumio ends up doing the Jesus thing near the end, meaning she bites the dust but comes back again to save the girls…. though despite not being all that familiar with the Bible, I’m pretty sure when he did rise from the dead, Christ didn’t return 50 feet taller. Anyhow, it’s just a cute, goofy little young chick flick that was directed by a music video director, and it clearly shows. I guess my only complaint is that, shockingly, the garb that they make girls wear in Japanese Catholic schools can’t hold a candle to what they were around here.

Big Man Japan/Dainipponjin

I had been dying to check this one out for weeks, and man, did it ever deliver; Big Man Japan tells a story, mockumentary style, of Dai-Sato, a 40 year old loser that everyone simply cannot stand. Not only has his wife left him, taking their daughter in tow, but the entire nation of Japan is more or less sick of the guy. Why? Because of his job, and how he’s not so good at it. Early on we simply witness him sitting around his messy apartment or wandering around town (always with an umbrella, despite the clear skies), and living a life of loneliness and constant complaining, regarding how little he makes and how his family, who all did the same things as does now, had it better back in the day. Until he gets that call, to come to a power plant, to get jolted with 40,000 watts of electricity, making him grow super big, as to face off some big bad threat that’s tearing up Japan!

The main problem is that the Dainipponjin is yesterday’s news; folks could care less about his exploits, which is televised, but relegated to late, late night schedule. They’re also annoyed with how he tears shit up makes too much noise. His manager who is supposed to help does nothing more than remind him of how much the ratings suck and broker deals with various companies that buy ad space on his body while he’s at work. The movie splits its time between Dai-Sato as he struggles with everyday life, like attempting to spend quality time with his disaffected daughter or dealing with the increasingly negative press, and his exploits as a gigantic warrior, which includes facing off with a line-up of ever increasingly ridiculous monsters, all of whom are not called monsters really but “baddies” since most of them do not appear to be ugly or all that evil, though they don’t exactly do stuff that’s good either. Basically, they’re all just huge pains in the ass, like the stink baddie who simply stands in the middle of the city, tying up traffic, and letting off her noxious fumes, as to attract a mate. When the Dainipponjin asks her to move it, instead of a some big Kaiju fight, we get a silly Kaiju argument, that only ends when some other baddie, a horny one, pushes aside the Dainipponjin and next thing you know, monsters are having sex right in the middle of public, much to the horror of the citizens of Tokyo, especially those with children. Though the public backlash from that pales in comparison to when the Dainipponjin comes across a baby baddie and accidentally drops it, eliciting mass fury across the countryside. Poor dude just can’t win… but worst of all is how ratings only increase when some bigheaded red devil baddie shows up and kicks the Dainipponjin’s ass. People simply love seeing their protector get the shit beat out of him. But at the end the day, who shows up to help lend a hand? Why America’s greatest protectors, that’s who! Setting up, and I’m dead serious here, the absolute greatest big monster fight scene in cinematic history.

Dainipponjin is written, directed, and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, who is Japan’s highest paid comic, and the film shows why. Not only is Matsumoto awesome, but the rest of the cast is equally strong, and I believe most of the monsters are portrayed by other famous Japanese comic actors. The special effects is top-notch… especially the ending, and big monster fans in general are sure to eat this shit up like cotton candy, no doubt. The film is often compared to This Spinal Tap in terms of presentation, but it?s also just as damn good.

The Mad Detective

Moving from Japan to Hong Kong… The crazy cop genre has been pretty much done to death, especially here in the States, so leave it up to Johnny To (as noted last year, I still have no idea why To is still a relative unknown on these shores, when directors such as John Woo and Ringo Lam regularly recognized, despite To’s output being, to be honest, stronger and more consistent at this point, and this coming from a diehard Woo fan) along with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai (who helmed the absolutely brilliant Too Many Ways To Be Number One, which also stars Mad Detective’s star) to inject fresh blood into things. For example, instead of wasting the first thirty minutes with one dumb little bit after another to show the audience “look, this guy is nuts!” or “look, this cop is a genius!”, To and Ka-fai manages to drive the point how in a little less than five minutes; to get into the mind of killer, detective Bun (played by Lau Ching-wan, who is seriously one of the finest actors working in Hong Kong today) basically goes through the same motions that one victim, who was found dead, stuffed into a suitcase, went through… which is stuffing himself into one and asking the new guy Ho to push him down the stairs. Next thing you know, the killer’s id comes to him instantly, and Bun solves yet another unsolvable case. Cut to a going away party for a senior officer, and what does Ho present as a parting gift? His right ear.

Which is why, five years later, we find Bun unemployed and cranky. Meanwhile, Ho is trying to crack a case involving two cops who went into the woods to pursue a suspect, with only one coming out, and now there’s a crime spree going with the missing cop’s gun in the center of it all. But Ho is totally stumped as to how to proceed; hence why he visits the man he admires the most for some help. And Bun is more than happy to assist, though his wife is less than thrilled, hence an argument breaks out between the two. Thing is, watches on as… Bun argues with himself! Dude’s got no wife! We later discover that Bun is able to see and hear people’s inner voice, and the prime suspect behind the crime is, not surprisingly, Wai, the missing cop’s partner who has… multiple personalities! So we see what Bun sees; seven different people representing the various facets of Wai ‘s inner mind, whether it be a cowardly fat guy, headstrong and temperamental tough dude, or the calm, cool, and calculating woman that acts as ringleader. And given that he has the gift, Bun is able to interact with each personality independently, which naturally leads to the film’s most interesting moments, though things really get interesting when Bun’s wife, whom everyone assumes is a figment of his imagination, turns out to be a very real person, one that dumped his ass years back due to all those voices in his head, and is not happy that her ex-hubby hasn’t been taking his medicine….

While not the complete, epic package that Exiled was, it’s still Johnny To plus Lau Ching-wan, which should already be good enough for most people, but along with an interesting spin of a somewhat tired convention, even if it does kinda peter out in the end. Now, for whatever reason, there was only one screening of the film at the fest, which has obviously passed, but it was mentioned how the IFC will be brining it back themselves later in July, though in what fashion (whether it be a one week only limited engagement, or for midnight Friday/Saturday screenings) is still unknown.

Sasori

Ever hear of Female Convict Scorpion? It’s considered the quintessential prison chick flick from the 70s, and one of the prime influential forces behind Kill Bill. Well, Sasori is the remake, a crazy combo or arty farty and pure exploitation, both going at around 2000%.

Nami is your average ordinary girl, engaged to an absolutely wonderful guy, a cop, and everything just seems totally perfect. And it is, until the cop’s enemies decide to use the love of his life to destroy him emotionally, but forcing her to kill the cop’s sister and confess to the murder of his dad (which is all a set-up, of course). Nami is then sent to a tough as nails woman’s prison where she’s slapped around by primarily the big bad bitch that runs the asylum, who goes by the name Dieyou. Nami does her best to stay alive and sane, which includes trying to befriend the crazy fat girl with a metal plate in her head. While watching various girls fight each other in the mud, all over a shot of whiskey, fat girl explains to Nami that to survive, she’s gonna have to learn to fight back, so she begins to observe all the dirty girl’s dirties tricks. Eventually, she begins to take each girl down, one by one, culminating in an absolutely insane fight scene in the showers against Dieyou, where yes, there is nipples among bones breaking and blood spilling. With the winning weapon being, naturally, said fat girl’s severed metal plate!

The once docile, now deadly Nami is literally hung out to die by the prison officials, and she presumably does. That’s when the corpse collector comes into play; he takes Nami’s body and several others back to his place to wait for one of them to rise from the dead. Why? Because his theory is that those who return from the other side apparently brings with them deadly kung fu skills. Which Nami ends up proving true! Though the corpse collector certainly helps her refine those skills, and when the time is right, Nami heads back to the city to extract her revenge. One by one, the chumps set her up go falling down… though things become very complicated when her ex re-enters the picture (who tried strangling her prison last time she saw him, over the murder of his family which he obviously believed to be true). Turns out, he was so torn up over all the shit that went down that he sought out hypnotherapy to literally forget his woes… hence why he’s no longer a cop and instead is a guitarist for some shitty bar band? Anyhow, him and Nami end up hooking up, we later discover that the hypnotherapist is actually one of the bad guys (a reason is given, but I’ll be damn if I could understand it), and even more ultra stylish swordplay goes down. No joking: you will simply not see prettier trash on the big screen anywhere. Catch it if you can!

Dororo

Sasori wasn’t the only big screen adaptation of a comic from last night; Dororo is based on a manga by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, though I’m actually familiar with the story via the vide game from Sega (called Blood Will Tell, which was kinda decent). The story goes something like this: there’s this Japanese warlord who simply cannot hang with the competition, so he begs some demons for some help. 48 of them to be exact. They agree to give him all the power and strength he would ever need, in exchange for his son, which he is more than happy to offer up. But since there’s 48 demons and just one kid, each ends up taking a part of his body, leaving nothing more than a blind, deaf, mute, limbless hunk of flesh. Which his mother sends down the river, presumably off to oblivion. Instead, a herb doctor recovers the poor thing and decides to make him as human as possible, by crafting for him legs, arms, eyes, vocal chords, a heart, the whole shebang, from the remains of dead children, all victims of the reign of terror brought upon the kid’s dad, who apparently ended up on-top, vanquishing all foes and becoming ruler supreme. One thing of note is how the good doctor decided to place blades where the kid’s forearms would be… one of which is a special blade forged out of vengeance (the creator’s family was wiped out by goblins, with the sword’s creation being a result), placed on his left side. And on top of them are fake appendages that act as sheaths that can done away with if the need for battle arises.

Anyhow the kid, Hyakkimaru, grows up and scours the land in search of the demons that have what belongs to him and to get them back. Though everyone is pretty much freaked out by his less than human attributes, which includes damn near invulnerability, and is therefore identified as a demon by the populace at large. Though that doesn’t stop a spunky young female thief from tagging along (who is basically wants the goblin blade when Hyakkimaru finally drops it), and the adventure begins! Hyakkimaru and Dorororo…. which is actually a term that villagers call the wandering demon hunter originally, but since she refuses to reveal her real name, she simply steals one of his… go around, vanquishing demon after demon, and helping poor villagers in the process. It’s a fantastic tale, the kind that’s somewhat standard fare in Japanese cinema, but after the 60% mark something happens… all of sudden we discover that Hyakkimaru’s dad (btw, he has no idea who his real father his, let alone how he’s responsible for all his trouble) has fathered another son, Tahomaru, and not only do sparks fly when him and his long lost brother meet (though they have no idea that they’re related at first), but when Hyakkimaru is reunited with his mother. Things slowly become surprisingly complex and emotionally deep, which for me is usually not the case; perhaps its’ a cultural thing, but I’ve never been able to get into the climaxes of most Japanese fantasy flicks. Then again, most (or at least the ones I’ve seen) do not deal with issues dealing abandonment and the sins of the father, which is something that transcends all cultures. But the fantasy elements are not the least bit a distraction, but a perfect compliment. It should also be noted that the special effects are pretty top-notch, and the interesting use of color helps to further paint a gorgeous picture. A most definite and very pleasant surprise.

… And I guess that’s it for now! There’s still plenty of movies on my must see list, and I’ll be writing about each and every one of them, of course! And I haven’t even talked about the rest of the past couple of days, which admittedly is all that much, since I’ve been mostly at the movies. Though I’ve been playing plenty of Space Invaders Extreme, and is completely AMAZING… First Pac Man Championship Edition, and now this! All of a sudden people are finally updated older games the proper way! I also started playing Rock Band for the Wii… got the entire set-up last week, but Harmonix forgot to include the game! Oops. Apparently some poor intern’s head is gonna roll for that one. But thus far, it’s pretty ace… at this very moment, Katie is playing it, via the drums, right behind me. Oh, and on a semi-related note, I’ve got an appointment with Activision tomorrow regarding their next iteration of Guitar Hero, plus I’m homing they’ll have the DS version, which I haven’t had a chance to check out yet. And finally… earlier today i saw something that I’m not supposed to talk about, but I was say that it’s also related to music, and it’s gonna be huge. Stay tuned!

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