So, what’s next? Why, a pair of films that each has sun in their titles…

Meeting Dr. Sun

It’s a coming of age flick. It’s a heist movie. It’s both! Meeting Dr. Sun’s central character is a Taiwanese high school student with a nickname, Lefty (Zhan Huai-yun), as well as money problems. As in, he doesn’t have any to pay the class bully his monthly “class fees”. One day Lefty discovers a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China and a figure that both the Communists (who currently rule China) and the Nationalists (who fled to Taiwan near the end of the Chinese Civil War) revere, collecting dust in a gymnasium storage room. Lefty then concocts a plan to steal the statue, so it can be sold for scrap metal, for him and his three somewhat dimwitted pals to execute. Things are looking great until they stumble upon some other kid’s notebook, containing the same exact idea. Eventually Lefty is able to track down its owner (Wei Han-ting), who has similar reasons for stealing the statue: he too is dirt poor, so both kids engage in a dueling banjos-style stand off to see who is more destitute. In the end, it would seem as if the other kid is indeed the poorest, so instead of sleeping in the streets, Lefty invites him to crash at his group’s HQ where all their gear for the upcoming heist is stored, and even offers the chance to join his gang. Which doesn’t sit too well with the others, and their skepticism ends up being completely justified when it’s discovered that all their tools have been stolen by the other kid and his buddies. Oops.

A new plan is then conceived; once the other kids’s crew has unloaded the statue in the back of their getaway vehicle, Lefty’s posse will simply swoop in and drive off for themselves. But when they discover that this other band of robbers are unable to load the super heavy cargo onto the moving cart, Lefty and his company must lend a hand. Which they don’t realize is even happening because everyone’s wearing the same crappy anime masks (which were only chosen upon because it was the cheapest disguise possible). Yes, they also don’t realize that their numbers have doubled; these kids are that dumb, which is why the movie works so well believe it or not. Meeting Dr. Sun is oozing with commentary, as it relates to modern day Taiwanese politics; for starters, you have a statue representing the revolutionary who inspired many to leave mainland China for Taiwan and whose teaching once represented the key to China’s better tomorrow, locked away in a school closet. Not only that, but these kids are trying to sell the man (and perhaps his ideals) for a few measly dollars (granted, they really need the money); I also read somewhere that the Chinese word for scrap metal sounds a lot like the term for “abandonment of reunification” (and the goal of a unified China has long been the underpinning of most political dogma). But in lieu of bashing the viewer on the noggin with such heavy-duty topics, the film let’s the actions of dopey high schoolers do all the talking, proving that even bold faced stupidity can have nuance.

Instead of reciting eloquent soliloquies that are a bit too movie magic, Lefty and friends behave in manner that’s to be expected when one lives in a society in which you’re told at a very young age that you’re destined to be poor for the rest of your life, so deal with it. Because when the world tells you are a loser, you’re going to act like a loser, even when you’re not. And much like many John Hughes films, Meeting Dr. Sun is all about kids trying to better themselves, despite themselves, with a decent dose of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rockets-grade antics as a cherry on top. If all that sounds good to you, Meeting Dr. Sun plays Tuesday June 30, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

The Man Who Stole the Sun

The Man Who Stole the Sun is part of NYAFF15’s Last Men In Japanese Film, and aside from being a somewhat lesser known vehicle for Bunta Sugawara, one of the two keys focal points for the aforementioned program, it’s also a cult classic in its homeland that has the potential to become one in America, thanks to the New York Asian Film Festival’s seal of approval (not saying it’s in the same league as Hausu or Miami Connection, but it’s a piece of work nonetheless). Anyhow, the official star of the show is Kenji Sawada who plays Makoto Kido, a high school science teacher with long hair and an affinity for bubble gum, plus sleeping on the job, so his students think he’s cool. He’s also way into atomic bombs, but more on that in sec. Early into the picture, Kido accompanies a bunch of students on a field trip, which is hijacked by a crazy old guy sporting WWII era military fatigues and weaponry. He demands to see the Emperor and once outside the palace, a showdown ensues with the police, led by Sugawara as Inspector Yamashita. It’s immediately apparent that Yamashita is a total bad ass, who is able to subdue the crazy old man in a total bad ass manner. Kido is hailed a hero as well, who also makes a new friend in Yamashita. Not long after this episode, it’s back to life as normal for the too cool for school (and society as a whole) chemist, which is creating a homemade atomic bomb. The sequence in which Kido infiltrates a nuclear plant to steal the most vital ingredient, plutonium, is particularly noteworthy for being a most excellent showcase of the wild, avant garde spirit that had swept up Japanese filmmakers during the 70s (specifically the use of still frames to heighten the action, like we’re looking at panels of a live-action manga, along with the use of sound effects from Space Invaders).

With the bomb complete, Kido starts getting down to business: first he plants a dummy bomb in a government building, containing only a minuscule amount of plutonium, enough to let the authorities know that he is indeed the person behind the nuclear plant break in. Next comes the first real demand: to stop the evening news from interrupting the final innings of televised baseball games. He also insists on only speaking with Yamashita, who kinda recognizes the bomber’s voice, but can’t put his finger on it exactly (mostly due to Kido’s use of a voice modulator). Though the next demand is even more peculiar; Kido… who identifies himself as No. 9, because there are eight superpowers, nations who have access to the bomb, and he’s the ninth… calls in on a live radio show hosted by Zero Sawai (Kimiko Ikegami, best known to American audiences as Gorgeous from Hausu). He proudly announces to all that he has an a-bomb and can have anything in world, yet can’t think of anything, so he asks Zero to poll her audience and see what they’d wish for the most. Naturally, this causes a buzz among Zero’s listeners, though Kido mostly ends up caring what the DJ wants. Which is to have the Rolling Stones perform live in Japan; Zero even mentions how she had tickets from six years prior, before they were banned by the Japanese government (which is true; they were scheduled to play in 73 until officials, not happy with Keith Richards’ arrest for drug possession, cancelled their Budokan dates, as if they were going to sell drugs at their show or something). Kido then calls up Yamashita demanding there to be a Rolling Stones concert within three weeks or the bomb goes boom. And wouldn’t you know, the Stones are indeed coming back to Japan! As such, Zero starts to become infatuated with Nine and even manages to track him down, where they share a kiss. Here we witness the true heights of Kido’s narcissism, along with his genuine disdain for all human beings, as he casually throws her into the ocean after their intimate moment (though during, Zero is able to get herself a nice clump of Nine/Kido’s hair, which is falling out due to radiation).

As expected, Kido’s cockiness eventually leads to sloppiness, plus the cops manage to finally figure out a means of tracing his calls (which had been the one thing that’s tripped them up the most). Kido’s third demand, cold hard cash (to pay back the yakuza the money he borrowed, to help pay for necessary equipment earlier on) goes completely haywire, resulting in his precious bomb falling into the hands of authorities. Thus we witness Kido’s attempt at getting it back, in which he’s aided by Zero, who also broadcasts the escape live for the listening audience. With the resulting car chase echoing Blues Brothers a tad bit, as well as additional reminders of why the NYAFF decided to fashion an entire program around Bunta Sugawara. It just gets more and more ridiculous from there, like all cult classics. The Man Who Stole the Sun tries hard to cover all the bases… comedy, action, romance, political satire… and largely succeeds! It’s often difficult recommending something that’s so off the beaten path, as well as something that’s so long (at close to two hours and thirty minutes, it’s quite the commitment), but for those wanting something different finally have something different. If you feel like giving it a shot, you’ve got it thus Wednesday July 1, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

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The countdown to the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival continues! And here comes a pair of movies from Japan; one is about the healing power of music, whereas the other is about the damage that manga has ability to cause…

Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!

In a small town, located deep in the boonies, an elderly woman runs into the middle of traffic to protect a cat just sitting there. The husband runs after her, and in the blink of any eye, both become comically large bloodstains on the road. Best of all, their deaths happen right in front of the painfully meek Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa), the youngest of two daughters. At the funeral service we’re introduced to the son, Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase), aka Kiyomi’s stepbrother; his stoicism is immediately made apparent, along with a few important facts. Like how the patriarch had quite the drinking and gambling problem, the latter of which has resulted in debts that our new head of the household must now pay off. Shinji also has a wife, Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku), whose wide-eyed optimism is insanely charming. Unfortunately, the only time in which Shinji displays any emotion is when he treats Machiko like utter dogsh*t; maybe it’s his way of dealing stress of keeping the family afloat, not that it’s a valid excuse. Anyhow the real hot mess of the family is Sumika (Eriko Sato; last seen in R100), the eldest daughter, who shows up late for the actual funeral itself. She’s the only child who made it out of town, to pursue a career in acting, one that’s more or less nonexistent due to her horrible attitude and even worse acting chops. And Sumika is more than willing to admit that she’s not getting any roles, but places the blame squarely on Kiyomi’s shoulders. Why?

Well, a few years back, Kiyomi decided to not only draw a manga about her insane older sister (which detailed the time she got angry at dad for not giving her money, to the point that she tried brandished a knife, along with her screwing a bunch of dudes across town, again for money). Kiyomi then submitted it to horror publication for a contest they were running, and guess what? She won and it got published! Which brought great shame to the family, in particular Sumika. Though the comic being a curse, hence why she can’t get any acting gigs, is total BS of course. Anyhow, it becomes clear that Sumika is only back home to confront her brother, who can no longer afford the monthly stipend that dad used to provide. And because there’s nothing for her in Tokyo, Sumika basically lounges around and does absolutely nothing, other than write letters to some up and coming director in hopes of buttering him up, so he’ll cast her in his next flick (though, funny enough, he actually responds) and torture poor Kiyomi (at one point she shows up while lil sis is taking a bath and pours in scolding hot water, with camera in hand, to take nudie pics when Kiyomi finally runs out, to then spread all over the place). But the thing is, Kiyomi feels legit guilty about causing Sumika so much heartache, since some of it is real. Guilty enough to put the pen and paper away. Well, initially. Oh, I should maybe also mention how Sumika and Shinji, because they’re not blood related, are involved in an incestuous relationship. So yeah, the family is all kinds of mess up.

Japan has a penchant for dark comedies, but oh man, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is about as dark as they come. Speaking as a fan of the genre, even I found myself feeling uncomfortable in spots, and whenever that happens during any movie, I usually cannot find it in me to recommend to others (not bragging, just stating; I simply have a higher threshold than most other folks). Not this time; I cannot recommend Funuke enough. In fact, it gets my strongest recommendation thus far, though to be fair, I’ve only scratched the surface of this year’s NYAFF. For you hardcore Japanese cinephiles out there, try imagining the absolute perfect blend of Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea and Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q. At the very least, it was actually refreshing to see a film about a person detailing one’s oddball family via manga… which I’d refrain from flat out calling it a trope, but I’ve seen my fair share of something similar (not sure if you’ve heard, but comics books are kinda popular in Japan, literally everyone reads them)… yet have it completely blow up in the face of its creator, and leading to serious consequences. That alone is why I’ll be pushing this movie hard to all my cartoonist buddies. So if that’s maybe you, and you’re able to take a break from getting ready for San Diego Comic Con, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! plays Monday, June 29, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

La La La at Rock Bottom

Am pretty sure La La La at Rock Bottom will be one of the hottest tickets of NYAFF 2015 due to its director’s pedigree, who previously helmed one of the biggest hits of NYAFF 2006: Linda, Linda, Linda. We first meet Shigeo (Subaru Shibutani, who’s mostly known as the front man for the boy band Kanjani Eight, though he’s an accomplished actor as well) just as he sets foot out of jail after a stint. Some no good for nothing friends pick him up and provide transport, so they’re not so bad after all, maybe; almost immediately after he’s dropped off, some other thugs appear and beat the ever living piss out of him. To the point that he suffers memory loss. So completely dazed and confused and covered in blood, Shigeo stumbles around town until he stumbles across a band, one performing modern enka, to mostly families in a park. Then, for whatever reason, he pushes the singer aside, grabs the mic and starts singing, before promptly passing out. He’s taken back to the band’s stomping grounds, a recording studio that doubles as a karaoke joint on the side, run by Kasumi (Fumi Nikaido), who is also the ensemble’s manager. Kasumi takes pity on Shigeo, though he has no idea that’s his name, cuz of amnesia, so she starts referring to him as Pochi, like the stray dog she once took care off. Until it ran away. Yet as kind as the gesture may sound, she puts him to work around the studio, doing mostly odd jobs. Kasumi also exhibits a touch as nails demeanor, which should come to no surprise, along with the underlining reasons that are revealed a bit later on.

Kasumi tries her best to help Pochi jog his memory, but her methods prove ineffective. Though every once in a while, some ever so slight glimmer of the past pops up randomly, like a particular dish he happens to be adept at making, which she makes sure to catalog in a notebook. At a certain point, the band’s official front man gets into an accident and a replacement is needed. Well, it so happens that the crowd at the park really dug Shigeo/Pochi’s outburst, so he agrees to be the guest vocalist at their next gig. Mid performance is when the first real echo of the past is heard (that being his voice, singing the same song, recorded in the past and on audio cassette), but Pochi has zero idea what to make of it at this point. Not long after, Pochi crosses paths with a homeless guy wearing a jacket that had stolen from him, back when he was unconscious and bloody in the middle of the street. The item of clothing contains clues regarding Pochi’s identity, and not only does Kasumi find out that this quite and gentle soul was once rather soulless, but was also a sh*tty father. Shen then realizes that maybe it’s for the best to let the past remain in the past. Alas, one of Shigeo’s former cohorts discovers his new life and things come crashing down, right before the big show no less. And much of what happens is somewhat on the predictable side, along with most of the characters; it’s also not quite the shocker to discover that Kasumi’s parents passed away, leaving her the recording studio, which she has to keep running in their memory, plus how the band is the only family she has.

But that’s the thing; it’s not so much what La La La at Rock Bottom has to say, it’s how it’s being told. And instead of telling you something, the movie largely just shows it; this is a movie that will make you go “Gee, maybe the reason why I find most romantic comedies in the US so dumb is how everyone says they love each other but never actually expresses it.” You can thank the director for respecting the audience and knowing they’re not dumb, along with the phenomenal acting chops of the leading man, who is able to take the rather clichéd “touch guy jerk who grows a heart of gold thanks to the power of music” archetype and make it legitimately engaging and convincing. Subaru Shibutani is so good that you actually won’t mind hear him singing the same song over and over and over again (as with Linda, Linda, Linda, though at least there you went in expecting to have the title song beaten into your head, much like how Shigeo gets pummeled). Yet the best parts are the quiet, intimate moments between Pochi and Kasumi, which largely come out of the blue. I especially love how one illustrates a little known fact about Japanese people, and that’s how they LOVE Burger King. They’re almost good enough to let one really stupid and silly part at the conclusion slide. Hey, it’s a movie from Japan, and there’s a 50/50 chance that the ending will be hella dumb. Anyhow, if you’re the type who is impervious to feel good movies, let La La La at Rock Bottom see if that’s true or not; you’ve got two chances, either Thursday, July 2, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets for that screening here) or Saturday July 11, at the SVA Theatre (nab tickets for that showing here).

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Previously I gave the rundown on one of the most influential films in the history of Hong Kong cinema, one that set the standard that virtually all movies involving cops and criminals would follow (City on Fire). Then I detailed a movie that typifies the golden age of Hong Kong cinema, which the first movie helped to pave (Full Alert).

What’s next? An example of the genre as it stands today, basically what the machine churns out today, that which constitutes the norm, mainstream entertainment in Hong Kong. As well as something that represents the other end of the spectrum. Not only in terms of audience but production values…

Cold War

Cold War in many ways is prime representative of Hong Kong’s cinematic landscape as it stands today. K, it’s a couple years old, but not by much; the original release date was 2012. Basically, things are a bit different since Full Alert hit the scene in 1997. Back in the day, HK filmmakers sought to create Hollywood-caliber thrills at the fraction of the cost, which it turn led to the need for ingenuity, along with tapping into one’s cultural ethos for added flavor. With the end result being motion pictures that overshot their targets and were in many ways superior to what was being imitated. Whereas nowadays increased budgets and resources have led to, not surprisingly, a certain degree of creative stagnation. The end results are films that could be mistaken for stuff hailing from the States, and that’s not a good thing. A more specific example: it’s hard to argue that Cold War is nothing more than yet the latest attempt at another Infernal Affairs, ten years after the fact. Make no mistake; City on Fire had tons of copycats also, but it wasn’t long before new takes to the formula were developed. Hence why once Full Alert arrived, also ten years later, standards had changed dramatically.

Though movies made in Hong Kong aren’t the only things that have changed; the location itself, as depicted through the lens of its filmmakers, feels like an entirely different place as well. And not just due to shift from film stock to digital, which has given a once raw and dirty looking metropolis a safe and shiny coat of paint (not a fan of that either, btw). So what used to be depicted as the playground for nefarious characters is now deemed “Asia’s Safest City”, at least on the walls of police HQ, where much of Cold War takes place. While the person most responsible for upholding such a decree, aka the police commissioner, is overseas on official business, a van filled with five officers plus a ton of gear all go missing. Which immediately leads to the various leads in the movie (which there are loads of; Cold War is very much the star studded affair) to bark at each other (plus scowl a whole lot). Anyhow, acting commissioner MB Lee, portrayed by Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, best known for co-starring in John Woo’s Hard Boiled and a number of Wong Kar-wai flicks) decides to go after the suspects with guns a blazin’, use waterboarding to get answers, and break even more rules to cover his ass among members of the press. This causes the by the books deputy commissioner Sean Lau, portrayed by Aaron Kwok, to demand Lee step aside. Especially when it’s discovered that the main reason for such hotheadedness is due to the fact that Lee’s son is one of the snatched patrolmen. Lau even manages to get Albert Kwong, aka Lee’s right hand man, portrayed by Gordon Lam (who as far as I’m concerned is the real star of the show) to begrudgingly agree and have the deputy’s back.

Well, the coup d’état works, prompting Lau to employ cutting edge technology as his means of nabbing the bad guys; he guesstimates how much money the kidnappers will want and goes about procuring that exact amount. But they end up asking for considerably less, and the drop off results in a chase scene that is both predictable and spectacular. But it was all a distraction, as the remainder of the ransom money gets nicked as it was being taken back to the bank. Also, Lau’s right hand man bites it, and that sucks too. At least the kidnapped law enforcers are recovered and Lee shows up expressing no hard feelings towards Lau, which is kinda cool of him. Though there’s still the matter of the missing money, along with how it would appear that perhaps Lau purposefully made certain decisions (like asking for such a large sum of money for the kidnappers in the first place) in order to cash in himself, according to police corruption investigator Billy Cheung, played by Cold War‘s token pop singer turned actor Aarif Rahman (described as the hottest actor in HK at the moment; the first thing I found when Googling him was the headline: Aarif Rahman takes a break from playing a Chinese emperor to show off his hot abs, so there ya go). Anyhow, this is the part of the movie in which all the analogies linking the internal turmoil within the police force with the identity crisis that the citizens of Hong Kong are still going through, post the handover to China, are driven way too hard and heavy. More dramatic showdowns between the principles occur, and we all learn that the jerks are not bad guys after all, yet the good guys aren’t so great sometimes either.

Oh, and things culminate in a showdown at a fireworks factory, in which roman candles are used to blow cops to bits to a comical degree. And that’s the thing, no matter how good Hong Kong has gotten at emulating Hollywood, there’s one department where they always fall short, and it’s CGI; it’s especially bad here. In the end, it’s hard to really recommend Cold War, and is only really worthwhile if you’re serious about getting the full spectrum of contemporary HK cinema (alas, it plays before City on Fire and Full Alert). It’s just perplexing how super successful it ended up being, both at the box office and among critics alike (even those on this side outside of HK have been positive). Enough to [SPOILERS, MAYBE] to warrant a possible sequel or follow-up, hence another reason to maybe watch what might be part 1. If you’re interested, Cold War plays Saturday, June 27, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong

I’m really not into romantic comedies, but decided to give It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong a shot anyway, for two reasons. First, I needed something to get the taste of three hard-boiled action thrillers, seen all in a row, out of my mouth. Though aside from the 180 in tone, there’s also the 180 in terms of production; while I’m not 100% certain, It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong definitely feels like an independent effort, quite the stark contrast to the zillions of dollars behind the previous movie. As for the second reason; I caught the numerous comparisons to Before Sunrise (never seen it, but know what it’s about, and It’s Already Tomorrow is definitely in the same mold), though the one that grabbed me the most were the comparison to Lost in Translation. Aside from Tokyo, which I’ve thankfully been to, the next city on my bucket list is Hong Kong (can you tell?). So I figured, even if I’m bored to tears, I’ll get an intimate portrayal of a city I’ve long been fascinated with (just like Sofia Coppola, the director of It’s Already Tomorrow also drew from her experiences living in HK).

The plot is paper thin, which after Cold War was actually welcomed: Josh (Bryan Greenberg; appeared in One Tree Hill, which I’ve also never seen) is a white dude, an expat businessman to be exact, having a smoke outside a bar when he encounters Ruby (Jamie Chung; am familiar with her role as Go Go Tomago in Big Hero 6 at least), the daughter of Chinese immigrants, one who’s way into her hometown of LA and is only in HK for a brief visit. Because Ruby has no idea where the bar her friends are at is located, and because Josh’s directions are somewhat complicated (thanks to GPS, all our senses of direction are official crap, which ain’t working on her phone, fyi), he ends up escorting her. Along the way they learn about each other, via small talk, like how Ruby’s occupation is toy design. Let’s just say that whoever came up with that has zero familiarity with the profession. In fact, it solely exists as the punch line for a gag an hour later, which is fairly lame. Anyway, Josh does his best to educate Ruby in all the wondrous sights and sounds they encounter, that which makes Hong Kong such a special and amazing place, as I had hoped for. And thus we have my primary beef with the movie: the camerawork simply isn’t up to snuff and we basically have to take Josh’s word on in many cases. Maybe certain shots were not possible? Though, for the most part, much of what we see just feels like a TLC special; I don’t expect every film shot in Hong Kong to look as if it was helmed by Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer of choice), but I expect something along those lines, given It’s Already Tomorrow’s intent.

Anyhow, by the time they reach Ruby’s destination, she’s way more interested in having a drink with Josh. Too bad he already has a girlfriend, so they say their good byes awkwardly. One year later, Josh happens to run into Ruby a second time, who we discover has been living there for a little while now. Again, Ruby needs to go somewhere and again Josh offers to tag along, though this time she makes it clear upfront that she now has a boyfriend. Once more, they spend the whole night walking the streets of Hong Kong, and the second stroll is admittedly a tad bit more interesting than the first. Mostly due to the fact that Ruby’s questions and comments are not for the perspective of a total outsider; apparently Mexican food is just as bad in Hong Kong as it is in Tokyo! Yet it’s still filled with the sam inane chit-chat you hear from couples on their first date, if you happen to find yourself sitting next to at the bar or a restaurant, the kind that makes your quietly gag. Inevitably Josh and Ruby ask themselves if they’re with the right people after all; again, despite having relatively zero familiarity with the genre, the ending certainly feels to me like the finale to almost every romantic comedy out there. Hence why it’s hard for me to say much else, since It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong was clearly not made for me. Though I will say that the age-old truism appears to remain fact: when on vacation, often it’s not where you go but who you are with. Still, if It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong does seem like up your alley, check it out on Sunday, June 28, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).

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