Review: Premika (NYAFF 2018)

by Matthew Hawkins

Time for the second New York Asian Film Festival 2018 review for today! If you missed the first one, here ya go. And this particular summation, as previously noted, is also centered upon the subject of revenge as administered by a very angry young woman…

Whereas the aforementioned Liverleaf‘s premise is cookie cutter, Premika‘s premise is most definitely not: there’s a ghost, whom the movie is named after, and she haunts… a karaoke machine. And as one might expect, Premika’s dishes out justice, which in this case involves hapless victims being forced to sing songs, chosen at random. If the performance is poor, the singer dies. Believe it or not, underneath this wacky concept is a surprising degree of nuance, even logic. Though surrounding it is a movie that is not quite accessible.

Any horror flick is off to a good start if the killer’s actually original, and if the same could be said about those will be killed, that’s a bonus, right? Well… the karaoke machine resides at a countryside retreat and, after meeting the two cops investigating a young woman’s dismembered corpse who form the narrative spine, we’re then introduced to an exceptionally colorful cast of characters, VIP guests for the hotel. You’ve got two pop divas, plus their manager, as well as an entire boy band, though one that’s a bit dysfunctional. Also, the aforementioned manager of the two women once turned down the chance to rep the two ugly guys in the band, before they hooked up with the two pretty boys (and eventually found success, via association). Don’t forget the reporters plus a couple, two regular folk; naturally the gal is impressed by the famous faces but the guy not so much.

There’s a LOT going on, or so one would expect, though only a few of interesting character dynamics are actually presented and explored, despite the fact that no one dies in the first 30 minutes. It becomes quickly apparent that Premika is the effort of a first-time filmmaker, one with plenty of great ideas, plus an eye for style (visually, the film feels like a curious combination of a K-pop music vid, a J-horror flick, and The Grand Budapest Hotel), but who does not have a firm grasp of the basics, such as the ability to pace things out. True, it often takes a while before blood is finally shed, but with so many personalities types that are capitalized upon, it becomes a real slog. Not helping is the director’s affinity for kooky sound effects to really drive the humor home, which gets old quick. Some might say that the humor is simply geared towards Thai audience, hence why it didn’t get with me… meaning it may not with you either.

I haven’t even touched upon the portrayal of the one gender bending character, which will definitely make some uncomfortable; Asian cinema, especially outside of Japan and Korea, regularly reminds one of how LGBT related matters are viewed quite… differently on the other side of the world. Oh, and there’s a bunch of Thai pop culture references that went completely over my head. Yet, despite it all, is a legitimately intriguing concept once again. Spirits of vengeance will often remind those who are about to be killed of the sins that they’ve hidden deep within their souls… which are often brought to light when singing some emotional ballad in a karaoke booth. Call me crazy, but I find that kinda genius. A genius idea that’s worth the rough edges, hence why I can’t help but recommend Premika as well; it’s playing Friday July 13, 8:15pm at the SVA Theatre.

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Review: Liverleaf (NYAFF 2018)

by Matthew Hawkins

OMG, it’s time for the 17th New York Asian Film Festival! Cue the trailer…

That also means it’s time to populate this blog with reviews from the fest! I’ll be posting two posts a day, for the next few. And today’s pairing centers upon young women with one single thing in common: revenge. Though that’s where the similarities end…

When it comes to movies about high school kids maiming & murdering each other, no ones does it quite like the Japanese. And Liverleaf represents a new benchmark, worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Battle Royale and World of Kanako (I actually believe Liverleaf is in some ways superior to both). Based on a cult hit manga, the story is simple enough: Nozaki’s the new girl from the big city, stuck in small town. Nozaki’s also the target of bullying by the popular kids in her class, all followers of Taeko.

The reason given for the aforementioned harassment is the third part of the love triangle; Nozaki (supposedly) stole Aiba… who’s quite the dreamy dude… away from Taeko, which the aforementioned devotees find absolutely outrageous. Despite the fact that their glorious leader doesn’t seem particularly interested in the guy, nor is she seemingly invested in torturing the other gal. At any rate, Nozaki’s parents are made painfully aware of the situation and suggest that their daughter spend the rest of the school year at home. So with no target of their ire in sight, they send a previous victim of theirs, Rumi, to somehow convince Nozaki to come back to class. Upon failing her mission, Rumi fears that she’ll return to being a target again, hence her adopting the “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality, by suggesting that they kill Nozaki.

In the end, its Nozaki’s mom & dad who end up murdered, via arson; kid sister would have perished as well, but the dreamy Aiba risked his life to save hers. Almost immediately the popular kids start to panic, and for good reason. Cuz when Nozaki’s suspicions are confirmed, she immediately gets to work by seeking revenge. The level of violence on display is over the top, yet the quality of the performances are anything but, with nuanced characterizations that are practically foreign to the genre. The film truly hits its stride when we witness members of the guilty party who were not part of the first wave getting ready for impact. No one’s willing to go down without a fight, in particular the brainchild of the playing with fire idea, Rumi, who at this point has become totally unhinged. Then there’s the final boss, Taeko, who again seems curiously nonchalant about it all. Once more, the acting is sharp, as is the direction; the killer combo takes a premise that’s perhaps not the most original (supposedly the source material is nothing brilliant either) and makes it truly gripping.

I’ve said it before… with each & every New York Asian Film Festival round-up, in fact… so I’m saying it again: movies from Japan are either a massive disappointment or shockingly pleasurable. There’s no in-between. Also, if you expect one thing, you often get the other. Case in point: my very first NYAFF 2018 review appeared over at Attract Mode and… given all that I just said… maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked by the discovery that someone partly responsible for a few of my all time fave video games (Persona 3/4/5) made such a stinker of a flick. Then you have the director of Liverleaf, Naito Eisuke, who also made Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club, which I did not like one bit. Hence why I’m motivated to finally check out Puzzle and Raichi Hikari kurabu (both of which I’ve heard great things about). Back on topic: Liverleaf is, thus far, the best film I’ve seen of NYAFF 2018 thus far! Check it out for yourself on Sunday July 8, 7:00pm at the Walter Reade Theater.

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As odd as it might seem, please allow me the opportunity to wax philosophical about a movie that is entirely comprised of wacky dash cam footage from Russia (some of which you may have already seen online).

There are few things that is as quintessentially American as the road trip. Exploration is in this country’s DNA, and while heading west is no longer the dangerous affair that it once was, there’s still a sense of mystery, danger, and excitement that comes to travelling, regardless of direction. I love being on the road, like most Americans. I’m also a New Yorker to be exact, which means I’m rarely on the road, so it’s a rare treat. And when I do find myself inside an automobile, it’s never as a driver (again, as a New Yorker, I lack the necessary license) but instead a passenger. A helpless passenger.

It’s either a blessing or a curse to be free of the responsibility of control, to therefore just sit back and simply brace for impact, literally or metaphorically. And that’s what The Road Movie is all about. It’s a highlight reel of every crazy car ride you’ve ever been on… provided if you were Russia. The timing of this film could not be any better; it’s funny how I grew up with the Russians being the bad guys, then they became the good guys, and now according to the news (well, the news that they’re not apparently controlling, at least), they’re back to being the bad guys again. Yet despite all the time that has passed, that country and its denizens are a total mystery.

You learn a lot being on the road. About the land, and its people, from the comfort of speeding vehicle. Or one that’s just sitting there. You also learn about the person behind the wheel, primarily their reaction to what you’re seeing. Sometimes it’s the total opposite. Sometimes it’s similar… yet still very much foreign. There are two things I learned while being in countless Russian seats, during the hour & half or so run time: 1. Russian cars are seemingly very light. They have a tendency to roll very easily. And 2. if one ever decides to visit and explore the country, by renting a car and driving around, under no condition should one overtake and pass another driver. Because there’s a very good chance you’ll piss someone off. And that person may also have an ax or a hatchet.

The most intriguing part is the matter of fact reactions from the drivers and the actual passengers, to the wacky sights and sounds (at least they might be considered as such, to non-Russians). Which are mostly cars and trucks colliding and crumpling. But then you have a group of men who look like they’re cops, who have stopped and surrounded the car… but as it turns out, they’re not actually cops. Or rolling into a car wash, only to be cut off… by a tank. Or driving through a forest… one engulfed in flames… which also appears to be on another planet, by the way. Actually, there are fairly strong reactions from those inside the car, yet they’re far less animated that what you or someone here in the States might produce. It’s definitely more nihilistic.

As noted, you’ve probably seen some of these clips online before. But just imagine watching said clips on the large screen, with an audience. It’s not often that such an opportunity presents itself… to chance to not share with others how you’d react if you were going down a dark road at night, with a bear running right in front of you, one that also decides to take a crap while running… but also to see how they react to the driver’s deadpan reaction. Hence why, if The Road Movie is playing near you, do yourself a favor this weekend and catch it.

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