exit 1This is kind of another link post, but bear with me! First up Ang Lee’s first three films finally became available on DVD in the UK. Cunningly titled The Ang Lee Trilogy, you can now feast your eyes on Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman for the first time. Feast is the right word too as all the movies feature food in a very prominent way so make sure you have the proper supplies arranged before you sit down to watch them. You can read my review of the trilogy over at UK Anime Network. They’re all great, but I particularly like The Wedding Banquet because it’s just so funny!

Here’s an awful old school trailer for The Wedding Banquet (the film is better than this, I promise).

OK, moving on you can also pick up the award winning debut from Chienn Hsiang EXIT on DVD and VOD courtesy of Facet Films. I reviewed the film when it played at the Glasgow Film Festival and you can read that at UK Anime Network too. I also had the opportunity to interview the film’s star Chen Shiang-Chyi while she’s over here shooting The Receptionist. Contrary to expectations, Chen Shiang-Chyi was actually very chatty and super nice so the only reason the interview seems a little short is because she gave very long and detailed answers! You can checkout the interview over at UK Anime Network.

Which brings me on to the upcoming Hou Hsiao-Hsien season at the BFI which begins tomorrow. Pretty much everyone is expecting his new movie The Assassin starring his regular muse Shu Qi to appear in the film festival (it would be really strange if it didn’t right?) and I for one am really looking forward to seeing it.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien will be appearing in conversation at the BFI on 14th September (tickets apparently still available) ahead of a screening of one of his greatest films, The Time to Live and the Time to Die. I was lucky enough to see this one during the BFI’s extended season of Chinese films last year and though it’s not always an easy watch, Hou’s biographical tale of mainland refugees and their Taiwanese offspring is nevertheless a moving and fairly universal coming of age tale.

I’d also recommend Dust in the Wind 

and A City of Sadness

but I just have to post this scene from Three Times again because I love it so much

They’re also showing Hou’s Ozu tribute and Japanese set Café Lumière starring Tadanobu Asano if that’s more your speed.

That’s a lot of Taiwanese cinema all of a sudden right? It’s a good thing though! If you still want more I’ll direct you to the films of Edward Yang as mentioned in Chen Shiang-Chyi’s interview:

Yi Yi: A One and a Two

No trailers for a Confucian Confusion or A Brighter Summer Day though – both are a little more difficult to get hold of but worth the effort. A Confucian Confusion has a great Rom-Com style ending (though not as good as Comrades: Almost a Love a Story which has the best ending of any film, ever, but I digress) and A Brighter Summer Day which is an epic at four hours long but a total heartbreaker.

 

siawasenoWhen you hear the name Yoji Yamada, you pretty much know what you’re getting. A little laughter, a few tears and a reassuring if sometimes sad ending. You’ll get all that and more with the Yellow Handkerchief although, to allow a minor spoiler, the ending is anything other than sad even if it provokes a few tears. Yes it’s sort of syrupy and it’s not as if it breaks any new cinematic ground but once again Yamada has been able to work his magic to turn this romantic melodrama into a warm, funny and ultimately affecting tale.

Kin-chan, nursing the pain of unrequited love buys a garish red car and goes north where he attempts to pick up girls in fairly cack handed ways. Finally he hooks one outside of a station as she’s too shy and polite to tell him to buzz off. Things get decidedly awkward until the pair bond over a shared hatred of miso noodles at which point Akemi becomes a little more lively. A short way into their road trip, they meet the forlorn figure of Yusaku (Ken Takakura) who ends up joining them on their random road trip around Hokkaido. However, Yusaku’s brooding nature raises a few questions – where has he been, where is he going and why does he both very much want to go and not want to go at all?

Given that it’s Ken Takakura playing Yusaku, you might have a few ideas and you wouldn’t be *entirely* wrong but Takakura amply proves there’s more to his talents than playing a yakuza badass in series of extremely popular but by then out of fashion gangster movies. Suffering from an excess of nobility, Yusaku is a man who’s made a series of poor life choices and is slowing building up the courage to find out if a particular bridge he tried to burn is still salvageable.

Kin-chan and Akemi by contrast turn out to be a pair of live wire odd balls with Kin-chan desperately chasing Akemi and Akemi blithely ignoring him. Despite various attempts to shake Kin-chan off he generally ends up coming back (one time with a giant crab dinner) and getting himself into all kinds of hilarious trouble. They may be the film’s comic relief but in their story proves strangely moving too.

The Yellow Handkerchief won the very first Best Picture award at the Japanese Academy Prize ceremony back in 1978 as well as a host of other awards from Kinema Junpo and other critical bodies and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a prestige picture, and a pretty saccharine one at that, but Yamada makes it all work and comes out with a genuinely affecting piece of cinema. Filmed against the gorgeous backdrop of the island of Hokkaido, The Yellow Handkerchief is the ideal rainy day movie and though it may all end in tears they are far from tears of sadness.

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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).

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:

44ea2aa088e78643f1ee584fde4e3d2eQuirky comedy Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats is released on UK DVD today by Third Window Films. I reviewed the film for UK Anime Network back when it was screened at Raindance last year and I also had the opportunity to interview the director Yosuke Fujita while he was over here doing promotion.

Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats UK Anime Network Review (previous link post)

Yosuke Fujita Interview also for UK Anime Network (previous link post)

I also reviewed the portmanteau movie Quirky Guys and Gals which Fujita directed a segment of (the “Cheer Girls” bit with the overly helpful cheerleaders) and the movie also contains a short film by Mipo O (The Light Shines Only There) about a woman who’s neglected to pay her electricity bill so it’s well worth a look (also released in the UK by Third Window Films).

Here’s a trailer for Fukuchan

Anyway I completely loved this movie. It also has an amazing song (with thanks again to Genkina Hito who tracked it down).

You should all go and watch this very funny film right now because I want to see more movies by Fujita (and I’m selfish like that).

P.S.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is also out today and you can read a review of that over here . ‘Tis very good though you likely knew that already ;)

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.

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?)

The FuneralThe Funeral is the debut film from actor and director Juzo Itami, probably best known for his crazy food odyssey Tampopo. Like all of Itami’s films, The Funeral is, essentially, a social satire and though not as raucous as the later Tampopo it does a fine job of mixing a traditional comedy of manners with a poignant examination of end of life rituals. Full of naturalistic details, The Funeral is a surprisingly warm film that’s much more about laughter than tears.

Successful actress Chizuko suddenly gets a phonecall in the middle of a shoot to say that her father has died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her mother would appreciate it if they could hold the funeral her house and if Chizuko and her actor husband Wabisuke would take charge of the funeral arrangements. Wabisuke is extremely reluctant but eventually agrees letting himself in for a whole new world of complications as the couple find themselves negotiating on the price of coffins, organising food for a wake and trying to work out what the most appropriate “donation” for a priest is. That’s not to mention trying to accommodate the wishes of all the relatives who will also be descending on them for the duration of the funeral which will last three whole days….

Funerary customs are the sort of thing you just assume everybody knows to the point that it can be a little embarrassing if you find yourself in the situation of having to ask. Luckily there are trained professionals available to help organise the main structure of events but when it comes down to the small details – what you should say, where you should stand and for how long, who’s invited and who isn’t, things can get tricky. In one hilarious moment, Chizuko and Wabisuke find themselves watching a VHS tape entitled “The ABCs of Funerals” and taking notes furiously as if learning lines for a new play.

Suddenly everything is a complicated decision and everyone seems to have their own opinion on matters. Having successfully got hold of a coffin, the couple need to decide whether to take the body home first or transport it in the coffin as advised by their very helpful funeral director. The majority of the family are in favour of the comparatively simpler option of putting the body into the coffin now and leaving it that way but an older uncle seems quite distressed by this new fangled business and laments that they don’t do it like this back home.

Said older uncle and business tycoon continues to find fault with various things including the direction of North which he insists the deceased’s head should be facing causing him to stare at the coffin and walk around the house waving his arms trying to work out, literally, which way is up. However, he’s also responsible for one of the more shocking breaks with appropriate behaviour as he starts trying to stage direct the final goodbyes so he can get a good photo, at one point asking the grieving widow to just “hold it a second” and “maybe get a little closer to his face” while he snaps away trying to capture the moment. Mind you, he’s not the only one to throw the book of etiquette out of the window as most people would probably list inviting your mistress to the funeral of your wife’s father as one of the top ten things you should never do.

However, these moments of everyday lapses in morality are just one of the film’s charmingly naturalistic elements like the priest (played by veteran actor Chishu Ryu) arriving in a very expensive car and obsessing over a series of French tiles. From a collection of shoes in different sizes scattered outside the family home to the children’s morbid curiosity in checking out the furnace at the crematorium the film is shot through with the tiny details of everyday life that are likely to find recognition everywhere. In fact the brief period of time with the whole family assembled together before the funeral really begins could easily be any other springtime celebration rather than the solemn occasion that has brought them all together this time. Even the artsy black and white video shot by a friend of Wabesuki’s to document the event shows the family laughing together and the children playing happily even as they learn the proper way to light funerary incense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of sorrows too – the film is called The Funeral after all and the final funeral oration given by the grieving widow is likely to leave many viewers complaining of something in their eye (especially given the couple’s rather strained relationship in the early part of the film). However, as usual Itami successfully manages to avoid sticky sentimentality in favour of a warm, natural and most importantly funny exploration of family dynamics and social customs. Not as madcap or laugh out loud funny as some of Itami’s later work, The Funeral is nevertheless a wry and witty comedy that knows how to play a merry tune on your heartstrings.

cinemawakuwaku-img600x438-1408793455juxypw5028A very late entry into Art Theatre Guild’s catalogue of Japanese art movies, Did you See the Barefoot God? (Kimi wa Hadashi no Kami wo Mitaka – English title is a literal translation of the original Japanese) marked the feature length debut of Korean-Japanese director Kim Soo-gil who, though he remains active in many fields up to the present day, sadly did not go on to built up an extensive filmography after the film’s release. Like many ATG films, Did You See the Barefoot God is a “seishun eiga” or youth film with a contemporary setting which looks at the internal difficulties of adolescence running the gamut from romantic difficulties to familial responsibilities and decision of whether to give up the dreams of youth in favour of the calm and ordered adulthood that the older world wants for them.

Shinji and Shigeru are two best friends currently approaching the end of high school in a small rural backwater town. Both boys currently have a crush on, thankfully, different girls but each is too shy to do anything. Shigeru is a painter and has restricted himself to painting the object of his affection as a special project that he intends to enter in a national competition. Shinji is also an artist, a poet in fact, but is much quieter about it. He’s got a crush on a girl who goes to the local girls’ Christian school and goes to great lengths to stalk her though he hasn’t spoken to her since they both attended the same middle school. As it turns out, Shigeru remembers Shinji’s girl, Hitomi, quite well as they shared a (strange) bonding experience during their middle school years. Shigeru then decides to contact Hitomi and convince her to date Shinji to help his sensitive friend out. Little does he know this will set in motion a tragic series of events which will change all of their lives forever.

Anybody can see where this story is going – it’s the oldest story in history. Boys A and B are friends, boy B likes girl C who prefers boy A, A & C eventually get together behind B’s back but feel so bad about it that the hot acid venom of their betrayal burns straight through everything in sight. Yes, this film is no different though its somewhat overwrought and melodramatic subject matter manages to feel oddly realistic. Intense painter Shigeru takes the leading role in many ways with his “complicated” personality and tortured artist dreams whereas the gentle and sensitive poet Shinji ends up just as much on the sidelines as he would be in real life. The girl who comes between them, Hitomi, is in truth a little under developed and is largely defined by her religiosity (which is never quite fully explored).

Shigeru wants to be an artist but his father wants him to take over the family construction business – even his school advisor recommends he consider architecture. Shinji lives alone with his mother who runs a small bicycle store that she doesn’t particularly want to pass on to him but eventually Shinji, in a surprisingly mature fashion, decides that a quiet life as the proprietor of a bicycle store who writes poetry on the side might suit him (and perhaps a wife?) better than that of a starving urban poet. Headstrong Shigeru doesn’t waver under the constant pressure to conform to a “normal” life though fear and resentment conspire to fuel his already fraught nerves to near breaking point. Shinji looks at the sort of life he might have and makes his decision accordingly. Hitomi, alas, has far less personal agency to decide her own fate and seems destined for a life as a missionary nurse in some far off land in need of relief. Each is caught in the difficult liminal space of adolescence where they’re still trying to decide which parts of their childhood selves they’re going to keep, and which discard.

That’s without the added romantic complications which, again, leave Hitomi stranded in the middle like some kind of damaged prize. Both boys look down on a poor, Saraghina-like figure who dances madly in the graveyard and makes untoward advances to young boys – even the more understanding Shinji is reluctant to sympathise because she’s “prostituted” herself. Hitomi, as the nice kind of religious person, pities the woman and explains that it’s only because she’s been betrayed by so many men over the years that she’s ended up like this – if Shinji won’t sympathise he’d better take his place on the guilty side with the rest of the menfolk. Ultimately, Hitomi fears ending up this way herself, betrayed by faithless men and slighted by her own faith as a “fallen woman”. The boys can mourn their pride, throw a few punches and forget about it but for Hitomi, it’s not so easy.

Well, this being a seishun eiga it doesn’t end particularly well for the boys either. Everything’s ruined, dreams are shattered, hearts are broken and lives are ruptured beyond repair. In the end, it may be Hitomi who’s best placed to pick up and move on as a running subplot regarding the changing economic environment offers her another opportunity but for Shigeru he’s left with nothing but the pain of realising how many lives he’s ruined with his self centred lack of consideration. Typical seishun eiga stuff, but well done. Director Kim Soo-gil handles the epic scope of the material with assurance and a good deal of directorial flair and it’s a shame he didn’t continue directing feature films to a greater extent. Not without its flaws, Did You See the Barefoot God is nevertheless another interesting effort from the later ATG catalogue.

 

 

Tamako in Moratorium

We’ve all been here.

Nobuhiro Yamashita is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the best Japanese directors working today. Probably best known for the girl band high school comedy drama Linda, Linda, Linda, Yamashita has made gentle character studies infused with wry humour and occasional social comment a speciality. Tamako in Moratorium is a slight diversion in his career so far as it had a slightly unorthodox genesis beginning as a series of TV shorts intended as a vehicle for ex AKB48 star Atsuko Maeda (who also starred in Yamashita’s previous film, Drudgery Train). Its TV origins bring both an episodic structure plus a slightly different shooting style and aesthetic than we’ve previously seen from Yamashita yet given these constrained circumstances, he’s been able to craft yet another nuanced and charming character drama that is perhaps his quietest yet.

23 year old Tamako has returned home after graduating university but has failed to find a regular job and is content to have returned to the days of blissful adolescence where she rejects all adult responsibilities in favour of hanging out at home reading manga and playing video games while her father cooks, cleans and does her washing for her. We follow her through four seasons as various things change or don’t and really nothing much happens but that’s the beauty of the tale. Tamako has called a moratorium on being herself, as for when or why it might be lifted? Only time will tell.

It would be easy to read Tamako a symptomatic of a larger cultural malaise and a growing class of young people who have, quite literally, lost the will to live were it not for the fact that most of Tamako’s contemporaries seem to be doing OK (“seem” being the operative word seeing as one late scene in the film would suggest it’s not all as hunky-dory as it looks). We’re given plenty of possible reasons for Tamako’s lack of enthusiasm for life though no one great explanation for her refusal to engage. “Japan’s rubbish” she’s fond of shouting at the TV as if to blame her current lack of success on an entire nation, “No it isn’t” counters her dad “You are”. A fact which Tamako doesn’t seek to refute.

Her lack of self esteem also prevents her completing her current CV where she can’t  come up with any personal hobbies or skills and ends by saying that she doesn’t quite feel herself right now, as if everyone’s just expected to play several different roles throughout a lifetime. A realisation which sees her set her sights on a rather improbable career opportunity which nevertheless cheers her father up and leads to her forming a slightly strange friendship with a young teenage boy. Indeed, Tamako avoids most of her old friends in town, preferring to stay at home out of sight, and only really communicates with her father (and then barely).

Her father by contrast, though perturbed and worried about what’s to become of this listless child who’s sinking like a stone, is nevertheless content to try and give her the space to figure out how to get herself out of this mess that seems to be of her own making. However, paradoxically, this may actually be the exact opposite of what she wants and it’s only when the bond with her father looks as if it’s about to be disrupted that something begins to reawaken inside Tamako’s soul. Like an odd subversion of Ozu’s Late Spring, father and daughter must one day part – it is the natural way of things after all, but this time it feels like a much more positive thing.

Tamako in Moratorium began on TV and unsurprisingly has a televisual quality that’s difficult to escape from. Shot with a largely static camera and shallow depth of field, it also feels oddly formalist relying as it does on classical compositions and close-ups with the added effect of making the world seem claustrophobic, as if some invisible pressure is pressing down on Tamako and keeping her sleepily imprisoned within the frame. Aesthetically, the film has a much more HD video look than Yamashita’s other work with a hyperreal sharpness that paradoxically makes everything look unreal  and is occasionally distracting but not detrimentally so.

“The feelings just naturally disappeared”. Sometimes it’s like that, no grand event or epiphany just a gradual process of things working themselves out, almost unseen in the background. Has the moratorium been lifted by the end? Not sure, but something has changed, shifted into gear. Uneventful on the surface, Tamako in Moratorium is a wry and nuanced character study that is full of incidental details begging to be unpacked and reassembled by the attentive viewer and is another well crafted effort from Yamashita.

Forgot to link to the other two interviews I conducted at Raindance last year for UK Anime Network.

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And the Mud Ship Sails Away

Hirobumi Watanabe – Director of And the Mudship Sails Away

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Buy Bling Get One Free

Kosuke Takaya – Director of Buy Bling Get One Free.

Both of these films are available in Third Window Films’ New Directors From Japan box set alongside Nagisa Isogai’s The Lust of Angels whom I also interviewed at the festival.

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The Lust of Angels

Um, maybe don’t read them all though or you’ll figure out that I mostly just asked everyone the same questions without quite realising at the time….

I’d like to think I’m getting better at this but perhaps not, judge for yourselves!

 

Director-YEE-Chih-Yen-300dpiI had the opportunity to interview Blue Gate Crossing director Yee Chih-Yen on behalf of UK Anime Network when he was over here promoting his latest film, Salute! Sun Yat-Sen which was featured as the closing night Gala of the Chinese Visual Festival 2015. You can also read my review of the film which I liked very much and be sure to catch Salute! Sun Yat-Sen when it receives a UK DVD and VOD release courtesy of Facet Film Distribution on 27th July 2015.

Trailer and a few more images from the film below.


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