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Thread: NY ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL Aug. 6-22. 6, 2021

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    OVER THE TOWN 街の上で (Rikiya Imaizumi 2020)

    RIKIYA IMAZUMI: OVER THE TOWN 街の上で (2020)



    Shimokita boy and the ladies

    I see that Imaizumi is a specialist in youthful romantic comedies and in addition to several TV series, this is about his 16th feature film. If I'd seen anything else by him it would have helped to get more quickly on the wavelength, and this is something of an acquired taste. His protagonist this time, Ao Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), is one of a group of slacker millennials who hang out or work in Tokyo's punk Shimokitazawa district. I find in Asian Movie Pulse the further note,
    Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita, is a hip cultural quarter with a lingering old-Tokyo vibe. Narrow, mural-painted lanes are lined with stylish stores for vintage clothes and vinyl. Craft cafes and brewpubs host art shows and live bands, while bakeries and bistros serve inventive pastries and veggie curries. Edgy new plays debut at Honda Gekijo Theater, and young directors screen short movies at Tollywood cinema. Rikiya Imaizumi directs a film that aims at transferring the overall atmosphere of the area through a number of youths that inhabit it, while playing with the term moteki, which refers to a period in people’s lives when they become increasingly popular with the opposite sex.
    Ao's relation to moteki is indicated by the fact that his girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), dumps him, but comes back to him at the end; that the female dynamo of the piece, a young woman who makes a movie (Minori Hagiwara), seems to be 'hitting on' him, and he has a long, nice conversation with a new woman (Seina Nakata) and stays overnight at her roomy Shimokitazawa pad. All in all four women come his way; and though he may not know what to do with them, he isn't running away either.

    Imaizumi achieves an almost Beckettian stasis with his twenty-somethings: a lot of time is devoted to the drollery of casting someone for the film who will only sit reading a book. Indeed this is found not to be as easy as it sounds: Ao, though all he does in the tiny secondhand clothing store where he works days is sit reading, where the fledgling director has found and probably been admiring him, he proves quite unable to seem natural doing this on camera. This despite having practiced it while a girl friend filmed him over and over and he painstakingly studied his technique: every time at the film shoot he clutches up and is "stiff as a board" and his scene winds up being cut, though he is eased out without this being revealed to him.

    The film reads as a series of interrelated vignettes, some very brief, one Ao's lengthy chat with a new female acquaintance where they both open up about their love lives, freely spun out. A thing that appeals is Imaizumi's ability to draw out random dialogue, as when a policeman stops Ao and they each keep on batting the conversational ball back and forth: is Tokyo so friendly? Maybe Shimokitazawa is.

    What is an actor? That's one question raised here. Another is what is a celebrity? A young actor in a TV series who's consented to play in the film school final film turns out to arouses all sorts of different feelings in other cast members; and his girlfriend dumps him because he makes her uncomfortable; maybe he can't act natural in real life.

    There are a lot of characters, a lot of young people's relationship issues, and a lot of ideas brought to bear in Over the Town. In fact Imaizumi might have done better to pare down a bit, especially since the two-hour run-time is a lot of this kind of material, where lightness is the rule - though one appreciates that for farce there's a need to juggle a lot of characters. Reviewing some of his other features reveals that he routinely goes for two hours, so it must work for him and his audience. Bring a sandwich. There is more here than meets the eye.

    Over the Town 街の上で (lit., "On the Street"), 130 mins., Golden Rooster Festival. Theatrical release in Japan Apr. 9, 2021. Aug. 8 (internet) NY Asian Film FEstival.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-14-2021 at 01:25 AM.

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    LAST OF THE WOLVES (Kazuya Shiraishi 2018)

    KAZUYA SHIRAISHI: LAST OF THE WOLVES aka BLOOD OF THE WOLVES II 孤狼の血 LEVEL2 (2018)


    MATSUZAKI; SUZUKI

    For genre fans, a satisfyingly cruel and violent yakuza sequel

    This latest in the "Wolves" yakuza vs. police series, also known as "Level II" or "The Blood of Wolves II," features "dirty" cop Detective Shiguchi Hioka (Tôri Matsuzaka), who takes over after Shogo Ogami’s death in Hiroshima and successfully imipliements Shogo Ogami’s plan to subdue the gangs, prevent further gang wars and save innocent people from getting harmed. That doesn't mean people don't get harmed, and this episode is reportedly more violent than previous ones. I can attest to the abuse of women, the keeping of a man's parents in cages and their execution, forced chopping off of fingers, gouging out of eyes, forced addiction to meth --one could go on.

    The time is the late '80's and the place is Hiroshima. Clarence Tsui points out in his Hollywood Reporter review of the previous segment, The Blood of Wolves, this was a period of general bad behavior in Japan when the yakuza abandoned all their moral codes, and here in a traditional yakuza flick - a rarity nowadays - as in the 1973-76 "Battles Without Honor," also set in Hiroshima, Shiraishi dials up "the melodrama and viseral gore, while offering characters who are motivated by a real sense of justice and empathy toward others and society in general." But it gets ugly.

    Another notable character is the youthful Sal Mineo type Chika (Nijirô Murakami), released from prison, who stays with the gang but as Hioka's agent ("spy"), but is found out. As the scariest of the gansters and Hioka's main and final adversary we have Shigehiro Uebayashi (Ryôhei Suzuki). Also starring Shô Aoyagi, Miwako Kakei, Rino Katase. As before, screenplay by Junya Ikegami based on the novels of Yuko Yuzuki. True to genre, this is punishing stuff, and under the circumstances the run time was more than one needed; almost more than one could take.

    This made me long for Takeshi Kitano's minimal, conceptualist approach to yakuza as seen in his 2013 Beyond Outrage. When there is ultra-violence, I like the mitigation of formal elegance.

    But "telonefive" is an example of a Letterboxd genre fan: they were generally pleased: "i think this is ultimately Shitaishi’s most significant achievement with this film: he shakes things up, introduces a different modality to the narrative, really ramps up the intensity, but crucially keeps it as focused as the first film, still commanding the flow of the film with a great deal of finesse and gives the characters all the time they need to develop and feel like a crucial part of the story. this is a complex narrative and Shiraishi handles it expertly. and that ending, ooph, couldn’t wrap it up better."

    Last of the Wolves 孤狼の血 LEVEL2, 139 mins., release date Aug. 20, 2021. Screened as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-12-2021 at 12:26 AM.

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    THE BOOK OF FISH 자산어보 (Lee Joon-ik 2021)

    LEE JOON-IK: THE BOOK OF FISH 자산어보 (2021)


    SOL KYUNG-GU IN THE BOOK OF FISH

    Meeting of minds and crossing of social boundaries in period Korea

    This South Korean black and white historical film set in the early 1800's, which has a clean, handsome look, provides cozy uplift and a a nice break from contemporary urban Asian angst or violent '80's-period yakuza movies. Its picture of the bonding between an upperclass intellectual and an illegitimate island fisherman who wants to master the classics is almost too good to be true, and each beat can be anticipated, but is nonetheless satisfying. It's like a YA novel for adults. It is sometimes marred by ridiculously rude, vernacular, expletive and F-word intense subtitles. Even if some of the dialogue is that slangy and vulgar, which would seem highly inappropriate for a Korean island two centuries ago, it would be even more wrong to render it in valley girl-rapper slang. But the subtitles occasionally also painstakingly transliterate some Korean phrases when poetry is composed.

    This is the last century of the 500-year Joseon era, which encouraged the entrenchment of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society. As part of this the king has sequestered three brothers, one, Jung (or Chung) Yak-jeong (Sol Kyung-gu), a Christian convert, he sends to remote Heuksando island as a dangerous influence. Exile is the best place for the lonely intellectual to study and write books. The loneliness is mitigated for Jung by the solid single lady (the excellent Lee Jeong-eun) who takes him in. She finds him handsome; he finds her earthy truth-telling provides its own kind of wisdom not in books.

    At first the hunky, slightly scruffy young fisherman, Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), scorns Jung, as the authorities have told the islanders to do. Illegitimate son of a nobleman and a concubine, he is a would-be intellectual himself, thinking that sophisticated learning will convince his father to legitimize him. (It will take a while.) On the island, Chang-dae and Jung are constantly running crossing paths, and they soon learn how much they need each other. The knowledge of Chinese characters that reading Korean required at this time makes being self-taught not really possible, and Jung finds out that the brilliant Chang-dae has a detailed knowledge of sea creatures not found in any book. Jung wants to write a piscine encyclopedia (Jasaneobo; the film title), going out in the boat with Chang-dae and making notes, and in exchange elucidating the classical texts for his pupil.

    Material like this can only be brought to life through the clash of personalities, which becomes the real subject - with Jung's hostess mellowing out the macho head-butting. The two men's efforts lead to a local school where Jung designates Chang-dae as the apostle of literacy to the island children. Things end happily, with a hint of sadness: Chang-dae's venture into being an aristocrat ends badly because he is too upright to be a cynical bureaucrat as is expected, and after a long association, he misses his master's final years..

    Lee Jook-ik is a director who specializes in history laced with fiction and while the exiled Christian book author is historical, Chang-dae appears to be an invention. The ideas are real and engaging. It's not every day that intellectual endeavor and book-writing are so successfully brought to life and Lee deserves credit even if the movie, penned by Kim Se-Gyeom, is a bit simplistic and sentimental at times. A local critic commented that the two leads are fine (they are), the black and white makes the images look "like a Joseon Dynasty ink painting," and the Heuksando Island scenery makes the movie a pleasure. Dp Lee Eui-tae creates images that are elegant and soothing, even if the sense of the period is marred by a slight blandness, too many cute kids, and a too-sweet rapport among the sexes.

    The Book of the Fish 자산어보, 126 mins., Mar. 31, 2021 in S.KOrea. i]The Book of the Fish [/i] 자산어보, 126 mins., Mar. 31, 2021 in South Korea. The film won the Grand Prize at 57th Baeksang Arts Awards in May 2021. Aug. 21, 2021 it is released as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22). Aug. 21, 2021 it is released as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-12-2021 at 10:56 PM.

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    JOINT (Oudai Kojima 2020)

    OUDAI KOJIMA: JOINT (2020)


    RECRUITING IN JOINT

    TRAILER [without subtitles]

    Reaching for the straight life through a crime gone tech

    In his first feature, reportedly made for only $50,000, the very young director Oudai Kojima (he was born in 1994 and grew up in New York City till age 13) has subtly revolutionized Japanese yakuza movies. This is a picture unlikely to be shown in American theaters, though it might turn up in more adventurous Parisian ones. Kojima's new approach is twofold, style and content, though when that works you can't easily separate the two. There's a distinctive vérité shaky cam look in the cinematography of Shintaro Teramoto, with the camera up close on faces at different angles; there are regular on-screen explanations of terms that act as minor chapter headings and the action is informed by a researched documentary realism. There are quiet voiceovers by the main character and a few other explanatory voiceovers. The effect is fresh and nimble and personal. It starts out noirish, and when there is a shift to gang war, the intimate, stylish feel is still maintained, with a keen sense of the varied, sometimes very downbeat, digs and meeting places battling clan members pass through.

    The point of view is of Takeshi Ishigami (Ikken Yamamoto), whose extralegal activities got him two years in prison. We don't see that. We only glimpse the end of the two more years next spent at a construction job saving up capital to restart his life. As we pick up with him, he gets help from his best friend Yasu in moving bak to Tokyo. Takeshi was never a hard core gangster type but a smooth operator, a scam artist, an extortionist (one gathers), who's good with money. (This of ourse however fits with the new fous of Japanese organized crime, which is also to fous on legitimate business.)

    This is a world of new, cyber-supported crime. The cops have more access to information but so do the criminals. Thumb drives, data mining, and digital startups play key roles. Takeshi starts out buying a fake business. He returns to his previous "list business" - harvesting information that he resells for fraud schemes.

    We don't know how Takeshi all his new money but he's soon making a lot of it and enlisting the aid of an old pal who's rich to add to investments that include buildings and, to launder cash, a startup that becomes so successful the big yakuza clan buys it.

    The yakuza is different, though it will revert to type before long. It has banished its most violent members, but they start their own clan, which starts on horning in on the businesses the "polite" clan controls. Takeshi wants to be "clean," to get out of crime. But before he can do that, to raise funds, he wants to do just a bit of thoroughly illegal scamming and enlists his Korean friend Jung-hi(Kim Jin-cheol)and starts a business selling data for phone fraud to his Yakuza friend Yuki.

    The scammers, to avoid police detection, phone from cars. All very new and soft core. There's a new generation of lean, rangy young yakuza or would be yakuza crooks who don't smoke, don't wear suits, and have floppy hair. They look rather like punks sometimes and at others like Japanese versions of Silicon Valley geniuses. In fact, after amassing funds, some of which we have no idea how he gets, and which include buying a whole building, Takeshi buys into a startup data app company and when he accompanies the scrawny geeks at the presentation for an powerful and rich firm, he becomes the more powerful and influential presenter.

    Ikken Yamamoto, who plays Takeshi, is a tallish, handsome dude. He doesn't look extremely Japanese, though there is at least one other gangster whose face is totally Caucasian, and he's not like that; but he's neutrally movie-star handsome. After Takeshi goes into successful operation, he starts looking posh, and one gangster wants to mimic his long elegant leather coat. Unfortunately, he has a criminal record, which includes jail time. This is one bar to his leaving crime behind or being accepted as trustworthy in business. It sticks to him. The other is that the ruling clan wants him. They have no intention of his being so successful and not getting a cut, and a mysterious organization headed by "J" gets involved in his business plan. Once the needle goes in it never comes out. Plus ça change. . . All the film's themes are neatly embodied in its central character.

    Unfortunately like nearly any yakuza movie - except that other Takeshi's, Takeshi Kitano's - the simple English-titled Joint eventually becomes a bit overcomplicated when it gets involved in gang war. There is torture, there is assassination, and there is even a clan elder executing a disloyal reprobate up close with a long knife. There is also more fruit of the director's research: the social commentary of how immigrants are forced to engage in crime in Japan because legitimate breadwinning methods are often barred to them. One may be a bit confused by all the Korean that is spoken, with Japanese subtitles, seemingly as a secret language. It seems that at the end the clan has decided to "save" Takeshi by exiling him, providing him with a "clean" passport and packing him off to Korea - a cool new way of practicing the yakuza movie ritual of setting up for a sequel. Despite its more conventional latter half, Joint is an atmospheric, stylish, and original variation on the yakuza film by an interesting new director with an authoritative new star.

    INTERVIEW with Oudai Kojima

    Joint ジョイント (Jointo),118 mins., opened limited Nov. 15, 2020 in Tokyo. It was also shown and reviewed at the Osaka Asian Film FEstival, Mar. 7, 2021. It was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-13-2021 at 04:14 PM.

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    BLUE ブルー ( Keisuke Yoshida 2021)

    KEISUKE YOSHIDA: BLUE ブルー (2021)


    KENICHI MATSUYAMA, MASAHIRO HIGASHIDE IN BLUE

    Losers' tribute

    Blue is he color of the challenger's corner in Japanese championship boxing matches. The defender's is red. This film about boxing underdogs may teach you something about the sport. It goes into details analyzing matches more than any drama I've seen. You won't learn much about filmmaking. It's quite conventional in that area. But it celebrates a sport so compulsive you stick with it in the face of battering and loss.

    The focus is a scruffy gym with the usual old beat-up coach and regular "stars." One, the handsome Kazuki Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide) has a chance. The unfortunate thing is that he may be suffering brain damage. The other, handsome, soulful Nobuto Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama) just keeps on losing every time. The only thing damaged may be his ego; but he always smiles, good humored in the face of a downbeat life. Both these actors almost seem chosen more for their good looks than their physiques: they seem a bit scrawny for boxers, even super welterweight ones. Nonetheless they perform well in detailed competition matches that are carefully analyzed.

    Change enters this situation in the person of a restaurant employee, Tsuyoshi Narazaki (Tokio Emoto). He gets trounced at work by a middle school boy he confronts for smoking while under eighteen. He's so humiliated he decides to take boxing lessons - but only to learn how to move like a boxer. He has no intention of doing the deep training. This changes when he turns out to show talent and beats a cocky young guy who starts training at the same time, gets his professional accreditation, and may succeed in beating a tough ex-kick boxer who humiliated Kazuki. This is your surprise, come-from-behind story-line. Emoto is sort of homely looking and his condescending character has no charm. But as he discovers his talent and finds purpose in life through sport, he begins to grow on us, while Urita and Kazuki are relatively static. Their trajectory is simply accepting different kinds of defeat.

    The film's unique angle isn't so much the outsider who finds a place in the gym, but the fact hat both its two "star" in-house boxers are both losers, Nobuto, the main character, literally losing every time, and Kazuki suffering increasing mental incapacity. Tsuyoshi's first in-house opponent, whom he beats on style and correct technique, is also a serious casualty, hospitalized later by a head injury and forced to stop boxing. Thus Keisuke Yoshida's movie, for all its loving detail about the sport, stands as a serious warning about its dangers.

    James Hadfield, the veteran Japan Times film critic, has published a review . As he points out, Nobuto spends his time giving fitness lessons to middle-aged ladies. The other guy, Kazuki, was a longtime school friend whom he persuaded to enter boxing, and who has now not only eclipsed him in the sport, but taken over his childhood sweetheart, Chika (Fumino Kimura). Chika makes this also a wistful love triangle.

    The haunting image is of the soulfully handsome Nobuto, aging yet youthful, smiling in defeat, meticulously analyzing fights but unable ever to put his knowledge into successful practice.

    Hadfield calls Blue "a standout film that exceeds the time-honored genre’s usual tropes." Certainly it does show the fruits of what he reveals, that Keisuke Yoshiida, the director, is "a longtime boxing enthusiast in his own right" who "delivers a fantastic homage" to the "sport where individual transcendence results from the most grueling of consummate personal challenges." Blue indeed has these solid qualities. It still isn't a film that's very original in style. It's hard to show originality in such a familiar genre. This feature is, nonetheless, very watchable.

    Blue is available in the FLC Virtual Cinema beginning August 9. Get tickets here.

    Blue ブルー, 107 mins., opened in Japan Apr. 9, 2021. Its international festival debut was Jun. 5 online at Toronto Japanese Film Festival; also Shanghai Jun. 13, Udine Jun. 25. It was screened for this review as part of the NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 9) and will show Aug. 21 at Hong Kong (Summer International Festival).


    MASAHIRO HIGASHIDE IN BLUE
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-14-2021 at 11:35 AM.

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    TIME 殺出個黃昏 (Ricky Ko, 2021)

    RICKY KO: TIME 殺出個黃昏 (2021)


    PATRICK TSE IN TIME

    Once more with vigor

    Chau (Patrick Tse), once-legendary hitman from the sixties, today is reduced to working as a noodle chef - and then he gets laid off from that, replaced by a high speed noodle-making machine. His two partners in crime from earlier days are similarly in lowered stations. Mrs. Fung (Bo Bo Fung, once the "Shirley Temple of Hong Kong") performs in a cabaret that she runs with her no-account son (Sam Lee); but her family want to take over her Hong Kong apartment and put her in a retirement home. The very large Chung (Lam Suet), once the best getaway driver, is now at best a security guard; he constantly visits a beautiful young prostitute he wants to marry; she is fond of him, but has quite other plans. These are three aging Hong Kong stars (of different ages, Tse being a steely 84, Fung a feisty, stylish 66, and Suet an imposing, wheezing 57) are united for a comedy that is partly about how hard it is to grow old when you were a hotshot, partly about how ill-served the elderly are by Hong Kong society and government. The film opens with a nostalgic flashback "hit" sequence from time past.

    Patrick Tse dominates with his lean, erect elegance and his basilisk stare. He is like some Native American chieftain turned Asian and urban, and his character has a tough-love grandfatherly romance with Tsz-Ying (Suet-Ying Chung), a feisty, pretty schoolgirl who takes him on as her substitute family. (In real life Tse is known for his much, much younger wives and girlfriends, to this day.) When Tsz-Ying's high school beau gets her pregnant and is doing nothing about it, the three hitmen join forces and lower the boom, capturing the boy and torturing him till he promises to do the right thing. This is one of the central sequences in a modest budget but polished film full of deliberately absurd and classically cinematic episodes. As Chung, Lam Suet's sheer bulk, and how he can move it around, are memorable in themselves. Bo Bo Fung is magnificent as an aging lady unwilling to give up her legendary glamour. Her cabaret performances go on a bit long, perhaps, but they are still impressive - and she looks great all dolled up.

    In a thread I'm glad isn't pursued very far though it's a good, if extreme, way of showcasing the ills of senior citizens, the trio team up for the "Elderly’s Angel" squad, with with Mrs Fung organizing, Chung driving, and Chau acting as the "guardian angel" to "serve" older persons requesting euthanasia. This means slitting their throats for a fee; Chau is famous for his small curved dagger, which he still wields with skill and aplomb. This program is unpredictable, and it's derailed when one of the clients turns out to be the adolescent girl Tsz-Ying, despondent because rejected by her parents and ignored by her boyfriend who got her pregnant. Her attachment to Chau gives her a new connection to life, even though he feigns indifference - at first, anyway.

    The film is an interesting combination of Hong Kong acton movie nostalgia, comedy, and social commentary. It may be more appealing to aging Hongkongers than anybody else though, but younger local viewers have been known to find it side-splitting.

    Time 殺出個黃昏 ("Burst into the dusk"), 99 mins., debuted at Hong Kong Apr 4, 2021. It showed at Nepal May 10 (internet), at Rotterdam Jun. 4 and at Udine Jun. 30. Screened for this review as part of the NY Asian Film Festival (Aig 6-22, 2021).


    TSE, SUET AND FUNG IN TIME
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-14-2021 at 01:06 PM.

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    A BALANCE 由宇子の天秤 (Yujiro Harumoto 2020)

    YUJIRO HARUMOTO: A BALANCE 由宇子の天秤 (2020)


    KUMI TAKEUCHI (RIGHT) IN A BALANCE


    TRAILER


    Suppose what you're making a documentary about happens to you

    Asghar Farhadi has been mentioned and the ending struck me as having the stunning unresolved finality of Michael Haneke. This is to say Yujiro Harumoto's sophomore feature marks him as a significant talent, the kind who takes on big issues in complex ways. The linear narrative, weaving through several threads, starts with protagonist Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi), a very serious, quietly determined, and rather beautiful documentary filmmaker interviewing a man after he plays a flute by an urban-side river (the opening music is diegetic, and the rest is so austere there is no score). The parallelism that develops as the story line proceeds is a little gratuitous, and the whole film, which could have worked well as a miniseries, is pretty long. But A Balance has the excitement and the fascination of an investigative thriller with profound moral and social overtones. It moves at a measured pace but it's compulsive and propulsive.

    Yuko is the final stages of shooting her documentary about a school scandal that led to two suicides - first of a schoolgirl, HIromi, accused of having sex with her teacher, which he denied, then of Mr. Yano, the teacher, who left a note saying his death is his protest against the injustice of the accusation against him. The flautist, Mr. Hasebe (Yuya Matsuura), was the girl's aggrieved father. Yuko seeks to tell the whole story, without taking sides, and also chronicle the repercussions from sensationalist media coverage that has left waves of ruined lives all around this scandal. The result is to be broadcast on television. Her stern encounters with her photographer and her producer (Yota Kawase) by the riverside in that first sequence show how principled and intense she is. But this is Japan and voices are never raised. There will be many telling little debates between Yuko and her producer, the latter a kind of middle man between idealistic filmmaker and business-savvy television executives.

    Bureaucratic controls are strong, though, and we immediately see Yuko's desire to tell a complex story thwarted when in a meeting the suits of the TV station excise and rearrange lines of a the filmed interview to simplify scenes and make this simply a story about bullying: Mr. Hasebe's criticisms of mass media won't do.

    Yuko seems wedded to her work, but her subtly hennaed hair has an elegant sweep and her no-nonsense clothes, if they're a hair shirt, look very good on her. But she's no movie-glamorous crusading journalist whose project is window dressing: the whole focus is on the unfolding information. on doing the work.

    Yuko has other work as well, however, because she helps out as a tutor at the cram school of her father. Mr. Kinoshita (the meek-looking Ken Mitsuishi). One day she helps a girl student, Mei (Yumi Kawai), who's having a "heavy period." (Yumi Kawai, as Mei, is a quiet and subdued bombshell with dreamy eyes and bee-sting lips, a diminutive Asian Léa Seydoux.) It turns out Mei is pregnant, and she tells Yuko it's Mr. Kinoshita, her father, who is responsible. This could be the end of everything, the school, her father's livelihood, her career.

    Yuko is still deep in her documentary. We've seen her do several very tricky and dramatic interviews with Mr. Yano's mother, Toshiko (Mitsuko Oka), who is now on the run, forced to move from one clandestine flat to another as her whereabouts are revealed on the internet. Yuko's reaction to the Mei situation is a reversal. Of course she gets her father to confess to his guilt. And whenever she faces someone in a compromising situation, her recording device comes out, and that habit remains. But of course she does not want to reveal Mei's situation to anyone, with "a balance" or otherwise.

    Mei wants no one to know, least of all her father (Masahiro Umeda), a flaky young man who went to art school and sells contact lenses. Yuko embarks on damage control, consulting with a doctor friend - in his car - about the possibility of obtaining an illegal abortion drug used by immigrants that would keep Mei's pregnancy completely off the record. She also roundly rejects her father's pondered decision to confess his guilt. This idea, she sees at once, is both naive and egotistical on his part. Yuko and Mei become strange allies; and she she even starts being at Mei's flat and knowing her father. The flat is a mess, and he has been no kind of father, but he seems at a loss rather then evil.

    Yuko's main goal here isn't to help her father or Mei, but to protect her documentary. In the end, doing that becomes more and more complicated, not because of personal matters but her unwillingness to compromise and the station's desire both to protect individuals and to tell a predigested story. The thrilling, unfinished ending shows Harumoto's flair for drama and his ability to hold us in the palm of his hand to the very last instant: brilliant. I hope it's not long before there's another film from this very talented writer-director.

    A Balance由宇子の天秤, 153 mins., debuted at Pingyao, Oct. 11, 2020, and showed Oct. 25 at Busan (sharing the New Currents award with Three by Pak Ruslan); at Tokyo (FILMX) Nov. 2020; at Singapore Dec., at Macao (internet) Dec., at the Berlinale Mar. 2021 (Panorama section), at Tehran (the Fajr Festival) Mar. 2021, at Pyeongchang Jun. 2021, at Fribourg (Switzerland) Jul. 2021; it was screened for this review as part of the NY Asian Film Festival where it was shown Aug. 12, 2021.


    KUMI TAKUCHI, KEN MITSUISHI IN A BALANCE`
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-15-2021 at 02:06 AM.

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    SENSEI, WOULD YOU SIT BESIDE ME? 先生0、私の隣に座っていただけませんか?(Takahiro Horie 2021)

    TAKAHIRO HORIE: SENSEI, WOULD YOU SIT BESIDE ME? 先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか? (2021)


    HARU KUROKI (TOP), TASUKU EMOTO (BOTTOM) IN SENSEI...

    Living for manga

    In his recent review of Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me?, Reuben Baron reveals a much more detailed knowledge of Japanese manga than I have. This ins't difficult, since I know next to nothing. Mr. Baron may be right that speculations into the interface between the actual lives and the manga fantasies of real life "manga-kas," might be more interesting than the somewhat bland fantasy that unfolds in this new film. But if I may make bold to say so, he's a bit hard on this charming imagining of such an interface. The film is a bit long, a weakness of many of the NYFF Japanese crop this year. But it's quite engaging - and after the stern solemnity of Yujiro Harumoto's impressive A Balance, made a wonderful palate cleanser.

    Toshio (Tasuku Emoto) and Sawako (Haru Kuroki) are what Baron cals a manga "power couple" whose creative and relationship difficulties overlap and combine to, at least, the eminent success of their careers. Toshio appears to be in a long period of creative dryness. Once a good while ago he as Sawako's teacher - hence the "sensei..." line, which has a playful double application. Now it appears they're been married five years, and Toshio has been having an affair with their editor, Chika (Nao Honda). One of the weaknesses of the film is we never see real signs of this affair or any chemistry between the actors playing Toshio and Chika. Rather like manga as seen depicted here, this film seems to be being made up in short spurts.

    Emoto, who plays Toshio, is he best actor, with a range of gestures both comic and serious, which is a good thing because Toshio is the character whom we see the most and get the closest to. Toshio and Sawako go to the country to visit Sawako's mother (Jun Fubuki) - in her picture-perfect Japanese country house, whose ample summer coziness one relishes. Everything has a doll-like niftiness in this film, which is one of its charms: it's half-way a manga itself, and that's the point. In fact Haru Kuroki, who plays Sawako, has a doll-like sweetness that verges on the cloying. Not surprisingly, she turns out to have venom in her heart.

    The trip to the country is meant to be distraction from the writer's block; Sawako too has it for the moment. She has finished a series, and can't think of a new one. The sojourn soon becomes a solution, after Sawako - somewhat oddly, at such a time and place - begins taking formal driving lessons. At first she reveals a phobia against driving, and can't seem to release the brake and step on the gas. But she perseveres, and soon starts spending all day away at the lessons, where Toshio must leave her and pick her up, and all evening drawing a new manga story. Toshio can't help sneaking peeks at each new sheaf of drawings, which Sawako conveniently leaves on a desk upstairs. Is Sawako making up what is happening, or is it really happening?

    I have another question: does manga always consist of these saccharine, cutesy drawings of bland, spiky-haired youths? Does its content ever have any depth? I think the answer is yes, but that's not the kind of manga referenced here. Why is it, though, that the Japanese, who are so known for their historical epics like Kurosawa's Ran or films of sadness and profound redemption like his Ikiru, have such a love of cuteness and fey young men like Yuzuru Hanyu? (I admit I can never get enough of Yuzuru Hanu; but the manga drawings, ick.)

    The fun of this film is the way once it gets going it runs back and forth between reality and the manga version, and the new sheaf of manga drawings Toshio peeks at turn into reenactments that may or may not be true. One really does get a sense of how some storytellers, old and new, may fray the line between their own lives and their creative mining of them. The depiction of this state of flux is enabled and made appealing by the gifted acting of Tasuku Emoto as Toshio. With limited material, he delivers a tragicomic range that is a real pleasure to watch.

    Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? 先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか?, 118 mins., premiered at the NY Asian Film Festival today, Aug. 15, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-16-2021 at 10:50 AM.

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    ZOKKI (Takumi Saitoh, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada 2020)

    TAKUMI SAITOH, NAOTO TAKENAKA, TAKAYUKI YAMADA: ZOKKI (2020)



    A manga tale collaboration

    No, manga isn't all cute spiky-haired boys and girls like we see in Takahiro Horie's Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me?, also in this year's NYAFF. This manga adaptation shows a far darker, gnarlier world with a whole panoply of people who aren't pretty like Horie's manga power couple..

    Aki Kaurismäki comes to mind in this seamless anthology film blending two books by a celebrated manga artist in which humor teeters on the edge of drear. It is a comedy based on Hiroyuki Ohashi's manga Zokki A and Zokki B directed with different actors by three of Japan's leading actors and filmmakers. They blend together, but they don't. There are no clear-cut chapter divisions, and sometimes characters from one story briefly run into characters from another, all encountering each other in Ohashi's "obscure corner of the world" (an unbeautiful rural-urban part of Japan). But does it all blend together into some kind of unified whole? Not really. The project is the narrative equivalent of a surrealist "exquisite corpse," where artists connect their drawings to other artists' without seeing them. The title "Zokki" allegedly refers to the way paperbacks are bundled for sale in used bookshops. There you go.

    And there is one young man - he looks too young to be working around porno - who repeatedly clocks in and out of a video rental shop, where there is a porn film featuring Mayumi Yusuda,,a star admiringly mentioned in segments, her tape first held by a nondescript guy who leaves home on his bike for points unknown in the film's first sustained scene. Later this gentleman is invited by an old fisherman to his shack, where he (the fisherman) gets a surprise birthday celebration. Later a friend of the fisherman turns up at the party hitherto unseen for some years, who has been in jail and can't go to his wife because they've had a fight. The fisherman begs the wandering cyclist, who's from the same town, to stop by some time and make peace with the ex-con's wife. Someone is moving the post-it notes to himself the video story boy is leaving overnight. Who is it?

    These are the kinds of connections and threads the film works with. The most intense and memorable segment concerns two uniformed middle school boys. Makita, an ordinary, lonely boy and Ban, a tall, eccentric, shaven-headed, bespectacled one are the only friends each other has. As their friendship grows, Ban stops writing "I want to die" everywhere when that bent is replaced by an obsession with Makita's elder sister, whom he can never see because she doesn't exist; Makita has invented her to make himself more interesting to Ban. Makita uses a photo of Honda, a girl he was keen on in lower school as an object of worship for his crazy pal Ban. Later Ban seeks out the real Honda and asks her for a date. She rejects him but he is so persistent they eventually get married. Things go well he says, except she gets angry sometimes. The message of this seems to be that people who seem unbalanced when they are young may turn out to have normal lives.

    Another sequence that gains some traction for a while focuses on a man and his little boy. The boy begs to be taken to an amusement park but his father refuses; he hasn't the money. Interchanges between father and son are vivid and amusing. The father instead takes his little boy on a jaunt where he breaks into his old school and steals a large punching bag from the boys locker room. The boy is well aware of the wrongness and danger of this exploit and is frightened, all the more so when his father temporarily runs off and the boy is approached by a mannequin that comes to life. Later the boy asks his father if she was a good or a bad spirit, and he says "That's a very good question." The story picks things up years later when the boy is grown up and the father, who still has the punching bag in his backyard, apologizes for his irresponsible parenting.

    Makita, the nondescript schoolboy whose only friend is a deranged depressive; the numb, silent man who leaves home on a bike with nowhere to go; and the youthful drone working at the dreary job in the video store; even, though he has some flair, the irresponsible father, together build a sense that men are unimpressive and life contains little hope. This theme is alluded to also by a brief scene that opens the film between a girl and her aging grandfather, who declares that in life the happy moments are immediately followed by sad ones, and that the cycle grows closer and closer together with age so at last you cannot tell them apart.

    This is a fascinating project, the three directors obviously have talent and the casting is excellent. The beauty is not in the generalizations but in the details. If it doesn't all hang together, perhaps that is the point. This would not be appealing to the more conventional moviegoer, of course. One wonders, if Hiroyuki Ohashi, the manga artist, had sset out to design his own film, from scratch, how he would have done it differently. Another filmmaker, also Scandinavian with whom this has much in common is Roy Andersson, of About Endlessness. But this doesn't reach for the sweet irony of Kaurismäki or the beauty and poetry of Andersson.

    Zokki, 113 mins., premiered at Tokyo, also featured at Taipei (Golden Horse), both Nov. 2020; Shanghai Jun. 2021; screened for this review as shown on the internet as part of the NY Asian Film Festival Aug. 16, 2021.


    THE VIDEO SHOP IN ZOKKI
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-16-2021 at 04:13 PM.

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    NINJA GIRLシュシュシュの娘(こ) (Yu Irie 2021)

    YU IRIE: NINJA GIRL シュシュシュの娘 (2021)


    SAKI FUKUDA IN NINJA GIRL

    Practical heroism

    Revelations from Goro (Shôhei Uno), her crusading journalist grandfather (now bedridden), to shy 25-year-old Fukuya City Hall employee Miu Komaru (Saki Rukuda): fellow employee Koji Mano (Arata Iura), who has just jumped off the roof of city hall, did so because he had been forced to falsify documents to enable the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance to be rapidly passed. Goro, like Mano, passionately opposed this racist law, which if passed will legalize the expulsion of all immigrants from Fukuya City. So begins Ninja Girl.

    Because the cinema industry of Japan was shut down in 2020 due to the devastation of the corona virus, Yu Irie chose to make an independent film dear to his own heart on a political subject to release in small local theaters. His unglamorous subjects are local government corruption and racism. Shot in composition-enhancing 1:33:1 aspect ratio, with delicate color, mixing handsome traditional interiors in wooded settings with bland office spaces and drab rural urban landscapes, this is a thoroughly oddball film, which cannot be taken seriously in every specific detail or its trajectory would be self-contradictory, making a crusader wind up looking more transgressive than the corrupt, bigoted local officials she opposes. The idea, I guess, is that contemporary Japanese should look to the honor and tradition of their ancestors and have the same courage they did in facing modern wrongs.

    As the quiet bedroom discussion continues, their family has always had secrets, Goro murmurs. "We were a family of ninjas." The Karasumas (their family) were courtly dancers in the Muromachi era, Goro says, and then in the Edo period were spies for the shogunate. But since the Meiji era "our bloodline has faded." He was afraid it would die out when Miu's parents divorced, he says; that secrets would die with him. But now he wants to tell her. He has her take down some papers from the kitchen. "Don't open them!" he says of a package. "They're books I bought on Amazon." A touch of humor: but Goro gives Miu a serious ninja mission. She must now track down the video Mano secretly made of himself being coerced at city hall, so local government corruption in promoting the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance can be exposed. As Goro speaks now, his murmur begins to sound like the ritual chant of Noh drama.

    Irie continues to build drama. Exaggeratedly meek at city hall, Miu will become bold when she dons the costume of a ninja. Going fabric shopping with her colorful lunch-mate Hitomi (Mayumi Kanetani), she buys a handsome roll of black cloth and at home sews up for herself a traditional masked ninja outfit, practices using a blow gun, which she used to play with as a teen, and goes hunting Mano's video against city hall enemies who are also tracking it, and confounds them. Getting the hang of the blow gun will take a while.

    Another site she visits is a headquarters of opposition to the anti-immigrant ordinance, Takamine Scrap, the local place where many foreigners work, and Mano, an ally, was a frequent visitor. Mr. Takamine (Kirian Jou), however, sternly rebuffs Miu, associating her with city hall enemies. She comes back there and sees green-shirted vigilantes attack Takamine. Returning to their traditional Japanese house with its delicate wood and paper, Miu finds it has been attacked and defaced by the vigilantes, the data stolen, Goro terrorized.

    The plot thickens. Miu is caught here and for the second time confronted by city hall officials, and now the mayor. She gets into personal trouble too. She has been wooed by Tsukasa, a local delivery person who keeps giving her rides, and finally bedded in his van at Sengen Shrine. Hitomi finds out about this and parts with Miu in great anger for this because she was "seeing" him.

    Miu ramps up her ninja skills. The Ordinance gets passed. But jingoistic haters suffer a terrible toll in a climactic sequence that is a lot of fun - and not to be taken literally. One realizes that everything, Goro's hushed explanations to Miu from his bed, the ninja outfit, the Kafkaesque confrontations of Miu by city hall officials, as well as her final dramatic revenge, is all a little bit tongue in cheek and more than a little bit droll. The officials have been unpleasant buffoons, and watching their downfall is cathartic. When the final shots pull back to show the rural-urban landscape, we know we've penetrated just a little bit further into the wonderful complexity that is Japanese geography, history, and culture.

    Ninja Girl シュシュシュの娘 ("Shu Shu Shu," the sound of a spinning ninja blade), 88 mins., debuted at Shibuya Euro Space Aug. 11, 2021; screened for this review as part of the Aug. 6-22, 2021 NY Asian Film Festival, shown for its international debut Aug. 15, 2021.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-17-2021 at 10:16 AM.

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    UNDER THE OPEN SKY すばらしき世界 (Miwa Nishikawa 2020)

    MIWA NISHIKAWA: UNDER THE OPEN SKY すばらしき世界 (2020)


    KOJI YAKUSHO IN UNDER AN OPEN SKY

    Saga of an ex-con who tries to go straight

    For her prisoner's tale director Miwa Nishikawa, a longtime associate of Hirakasu Koreeda, departed from her practice and adapted someone else's text, the 1993 Naoki-prizewinning novel Mibuncho (Identity Book) by Ryozo Saki. A formidable choice: the novelist's Vengeance Is Mine became Imamura's masterpiece. (Saki acknowledged the influence on his work of Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel" form, and this new movie teams with material.) Another valuable asset, by a good margin the most valuable, was the choice of the great Koji Yakusho to play the lead. The performance has won prizes and been called his career best. This film has much to teach us. But for all that, it seems somehow to lack a center and to be marred by excesses, too much detail, too little structure, moments of sentimentality, and a finale that gives way to melodrama. It's always a vivid, memorable film, one that takes us into a weary, suffering life as vividly as Bresson. But artistically it lacks finesse. That doesn't keep it, though, from being memorable.

    What we learn are the specific details of something we already know: rehabilitation ain't easy, and assimilation is well-nigh impossible, especially in conformist, judgmental, legally rigorous Japan. The prisoner, Masao Mikami (Yakusho), has just served thirteen years for murder. He goose-steps and shouts out replies to officials obediently. He chooses to discard an expensive watch among his stored belongings that has gotten rusty. He mumbles "Screw you" and gets on the bus. He tells himself this time he will go straight.

    As time goes on we learn that he was a driver for the yakuza (not strictly a member), that he was abandoned to an orphanage at age four by his geisha mother. His involvement in crime started early and he has spent 28 years in prison (nearly half his life). He also has a violent temper, and high blood pressure - a dangerous combination.

    Once he's moved into a small flat, which he keeps very neat, Mikami tries to embark on a straight life. It doesn't work well. To renew his long-expired driver's license he must take lessons, and perhaps strangely, given his former job, he's terrible at driving. There are barriers at every step. The society does not want convicted felons. He has learned to be skillful at sewing leather in prison, but if that's where he learned it, a firm won't hire him. Identity Book, the name of Ryozo Saki's novel, refers to a peculiar Japanese institution, a collection of complete details about a prisoner that becomes available to people on the outside, which goes far toward making "a clean slate" impossible.

    Mikami is surrounded by people he did not know who want to help him and several of whom become his friend. Souji (Isao Hashizune) is a lawyer who likes to help former prisoners, and he and his wife spend time with him early on. Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) and his producer Yoshiawa (Misami Nagasawa), are TV people who film Mikami, thinking to make a show. They promise to help him find his mother, and this becomes a sustaining dream, a hope. A regular on the scene is the welfare officer Iguchi (Yukiya Kitamura), who is humbled by Mikami's rejection of handouts. Nearly as important as Tsunoda, who after being terrified by Mikami, begins to love him, is a local supermarket manager, Matsumoto (Seiji Rokkaku), who atones for wrongly accusing Mikami of shoplifting by giving him gifts and becoming a friend and advisor.

    Mikami was in prison for killing a yakuza man who was menacing him and his wife with a sword. The film goes into too much detail about this, and introduces it in a gratuitous manner, even adding a courtroom scene; but what we learn is that it could have been considered justifiable homicide. Mikami is a man of violence and anger, and the many times he stabbed the assailant led to the murder charge and conviction. His violence is often in a good cause. Such is the case when he is with Tsunoda and his partner Yoshiawa and attacks two young punks bullying a helpless person. Tsunoda films this eagerly: a great scene for the series! But then Mikami becomes so violent it terrifies Tsunoda and he runs away. Yoshiawa chases and mocks him as a coward. She's finished with him, and apparently the filming for TV is over, and Tsunoda, estranged from Yoshiawa, begins following Mikami alone, without a camera, focusing on his original plan of writing a novel.

    There is much more that will happen, including a vivid return to Mikami's hometown, Kyushu, to see his old yakuza buddy, Shimoinaba (Hakuryû), and his wife Masuko (Midoriko Kimura) and, on the way a very kind and lovely sex worker. As David Ehrlich says in his somewhat cruel IndieWire review, Koji Yakusho "knocks every scene" he's given to play in this film "out of the park," but one may indeed wonder if after a while "the movie around him" may begin "to feel like batting practice." (But see also Maggie Lee's extremely favorable Variety review, which also feels valid.)

    As I watched Under the Open Sky (which fits the final shot of the film; but the Japanese title is the ironic one, "Wonderful World") in the back of my mind I compared it with 26-year-old Oudai Kojima's debut feature, Joint, another film in this year's NYAFF about an ex-con with yakuza connections finding his way on the outside. I was thinking not about Joint's conventional (but very contemporary) yakuza details, but about how the protagonist, a younger man, sets himself up after prison by working for two years far from Tokyo in construction and saving up enough money to set himself up in business. It's hard, and he only did two years in prison, but relatively, it goes so much easier - because he is not trying to go straight - quite. What emerges from Under the Open Sky - in fact it is repeated to us explicitly more than once (another weakness of the film that it spells everything out so much) - is that society pushes criminals to stay criminals, in Japan, anyway. Isn't that the life they have chosen?

    Under the Open Sky すばらしき世界 (Subarashiki Sekai, "Wonderful World"), 126 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 10, 2020; it was also shown Oct. 23, 2020 at San Diego Asian Film Festival;at Chicago Oct. 2020 Koji Yakusho received the best actor award; Nov. 25, 2020 at Warsaw (Five Flavors); Dec. 5, Macao; Japan theatraical release Feb. 11, 2021; festivals in 2021 at Seattle, Jeonju, San Francisco, Barcelona, Tokyo IFF (internet), Frankfurt, Toronto Japanese Fest. (internet) Jun., Shanghai (Jun.), Pyeongchang (Jun.), Montreal (Fantasia, Aug.), and it was screened for this review as part of the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-18-2021 at 12:28 AM.

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    HOLD ME BACK ( Akiko Ohku 2020)

    AKIKO OHKU: HOLD ME BACK 私をくいとめて(2020)


    NON, KENTO HAYASHI IN HOLD ME BACK

    TRAILER

    Taking it slow

    Adapted from the novel by Risa Wataya, this movie is about a young Tokyo woman on the far side of her twenties called Mitsuko (Nun) who has not been dating for a while. She talks to an imaginary man she calls A for "answer." Below her apartment lives someone who practices Khoomei, or Tuvan throat singing. She has a best friend at work, Nozomu San (Asami Usuda), and a childhood friend, Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), who she goes to visit in Rome. And she has Tada (Kento Hayashi), a shy, lonely single of the opposite sex she knows from work. "Tada kun," as she addresses him, like a pal, starts to come over once a week, but only to collect a dinner she makes for him, without coming in, the only connection they have so far been able to arrange. One evening he finally comes in to consume the meal, only to leave immediately after doing so. (I was bothered by the fact that Hayashi is three years older than Nun and looks it, while Tada is supposed to be two years younger. Since they made an issue of it, it might have been better to find an actor who looked younger, not older, than Nun.)

    The film is a quirky, sometimes fantastic, look at the phenomenon of singularity and loneliness among Japanese young people who may sometimes lack, or feel they lack, the wherewithal or even the courage to date, let alone to marry. Mark Shilling, of The Japan Times, compares the star, Nun (Rena Nounen), to Marilyn Monroe, because she seems to have a childlike, spontaneous femininity. For ten seconds I thought of Diane Keaton. Mitsuko doesn't have as many options. She plans spa visits and restaurant dinners to do on her own. And she goes to Rome to see that old friend, Satsuki, by herself: we see her through a somewhat troublous flight, with much turbulence and little sleep. It's really Rome, and Satsuki's Italian in-laws are there, all speaking Italian.

    When Mitsuko and Satsuki have some quiet time together they share memories and nostalgia of younger days. Satsuki, who is pregnant, assures Mitsuko that despite her supposed bravery in marrying an Italian and moving to Rome, her world is even more confined than Mitsuko's. As Satsuki, Ai Hashimoto makes her appear an extraordinarily poised and beautiful woman, but she makes it clear that keeping it together is not that easy. In the trip to Rome one has the strongest sense of Mitsuko actually doing something, and this is the segment of the film that seems most real. However, it is an elaborate way of developing the usual rom-com "girlfriends" thread, taking the actual rom-com nowhere. Perhaps this explains why this film with so few characters and events runs to over two hours.

    In the event, back in Tokyo Mitsuko texts her way to renewed contact with Tada, though whether he or "A" matters most to her remains somewhat uncertain. She is afraid of being abandoned by her imaginary friend, in case her boyfriend doesn't become that. But on a double date for a Valentine's Day climb of the Tokyo Tower with Nozomu San and her crush, the colorfully dressed Carter (Japanese-American actor Takuya Wakabayashi), who she's finally landed a date with, Tada proposes that he and Mitsuko officially date. Later they go to a hotel with a double bed but - spoiler alert - don't kiss, and don't undress: Tada wants to "take it slow."

    They sure do. This reminded me of Emmanuel Moiret's 2007 Un baiser, si'l vous plaît? (R-V 2008), a French rom-com where a lot of discussion takes place about whether to kiss. This concern seemed amusingly old-fashioned. In Japan perhaps circumstances predetermine shyness to a greater extent.

    Hold Me Back 私をくいとめて, 133 mins., debuted at Tokyo Nov. 5, 2020 (Audience Award); Japan theatrical release Dec. 18; Helsinki Apr. 2021, Taiwan theatrical release Apr. 2021; Toronto (Japanese Film Festival, internet), Jun. 2021; Shanghai, Udine, Jun.; Montreal (Fantasia) Aug. 5; screened for this review as part of NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-18-2021 at 12:38 AM.

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    A SONG FOR YOU 他与罗耶戴尔 (Dukar Tserang 2020)

    DUKAR TSERANG; A SONG FOR YOU 他与罗耶戴尔(2020)

    TRAILER


    DAMTIN TSERANG IN A SONG FOR YOU

    Rural Tibetan singer seeks pop marketability

    A Song for You, Tibetan version, starts out with a swashbuckling swagger from its great-looking young protagonist Ngawang (Damtin Tserang) a nomad and shepherd-singer's son from the high Tibetan plateau part of southwestern China, riding in on a motorcycle with a black helmet, which he neglects to take off when he enters a room. Ngawang is going forth with his long-stringed mandolin and the intention of conquering the world. He wears his long sheepskin coat like a royal robe, his skin is olive and glows, his wide mouth has a sensuous twist, his almond eyes are soulful, and his hair is glossy and long. In his rural Tibetan way he's a readymade rock star. He will be tamed and commodified before the end, though we're spared the details, just shown the video disc album he gets made and some quick clips of him performing.

    My hopes ran high when I saw that Jia Zhangke was a co-producer of this film, whose first-time director is known already as a sound and musical composition man. Marko Stojiljković of Asian Movie Pulse says he's "one of the most influential score composers and sound guys (handling everything, from design, via recording, to mixing) of the Tibetan cinema scene." So the tech side, both heard and shown, is authentic as can be. Music and sound design throughout by Dukar Tserang, of course. The drama side seems a little harder for him to keep going.

    The thought that this rural Chinese setting might evoke the unpredictable complexity and cultural strangeness of Jia's early films was like a shot of adrenalin. But that doesn't happen. Tserang isn't as adventurous or gifted a director, the "star is born" theme is too hackneyed, and the milieu is mostly so rural (or invented and detached from the available reality) that its cultural content stays relatively thin.

    Young Ngagwng doesn't conquer the world when he comes in from the bled, of course. He enters a little song contest and wins no prizes. It teaches him he's not the star he thinks he is and he learns he needs to get a record out before the public will pay attention to him. He meets a beautiful young woman singer who likes him, and they connect. Back home, he curses the big amulet he wears around his neck from his father, thinking it's lost its power. But the old picture inside it resembles the girl, and he starts to think she is the incarnation of what he calls Loyiter: Saraswati, the goddess of song and music. His father, to whom he is close and who encourages him, persuades him to keep the amulet. Good thing: it's an essential part of the "look."

    Damtin Tserang never stops looking good, but he hasn't much to do in the rest of the film but be deflated and remain determined, and sometimes combative, whether against highway bandits or commercial studio nitwits, till finally he gets a studio gig and the poster and album out there. As a presence Tseramg can be a little zoned out-seeming, and the action doesn't necessarily pop when he's onscreen, nor the movie fully command its 93-minute run-time - short though, by the standards of this year's NYAFF roster, that may be. At one point the car Ngagwng is in out on the mountainous plain crashes and rolls down a hill; he soon recovers. The girl reappears; a pal (Pema Jyad) does too. His father he stays with by cell phone keeps supporting him - but he can never see him again.

    When Ngawang gets to Xining to make his record, the big town of the Tibetan plateau (whose skyline we repeatedly gaze upon), he has raised money helped by friends. The traditional story line falters here: the album gets made; there are some hitches; so what? It's as if the first few sequences were as far as director Tserang had the filming planned, and inspiration faltered a bit. Lovely milieu and cast here, true details of the Tibetan music biz, but the structure gets in the way.

    (Not sure where this narrative fits into the "free Tibet" story; but the protagonist sacrifices his native folk flavor to become a marketable, video-delivered pop singer, for sure.).

    A Song for You 他与罗耶戴尔, 93 mins., debuted at Pingyao (the fest co-created by Jia Zhangke in 2017), Oct. 2020, also shown at Osaka Mar. 2021, at Rotterdam Jun. 2021 (internet). Shown Aug. 14, 2021 at the NY Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22), screened as part of that event for this review.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-23-2021 at 06:22 PM.

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    SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS 삼진그룹 영어토익반 (Lee Jong-pil 2020)

    LEE JONG-PIL: SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS 삼진그룹 영어토익반 (2020)


    GO AH-SUNG, ESOM, PARK HYE-SOO IN SAMJIN COMPANY ENGLISH CLASS

    Women crusading against corporate corruption (sort of)

    Samjin Company English Class adopts an entertaining style to present an edifying story. Given the enthusiastic audience response and the enjoyable ensemble performances, it may seem ill humored to point out that its charm undercuts the movie's intended serious message. Erin Brockovich, which has been mentioned as a comparison, has a light side too, but it's pretty serious, and its focus on a single person's intensive crusade is different, because Samjin's crusaders are three low-level women employees. One focus is how a company corruptly covers up pollution that's killing people. Another is on the repression of women workers in Korea. The setting, accordingly, is 1995. The implication is that things have gotten better.

    Personality-plus Lee Ja-young (Go Ah-sung), Jung Yoo-na (Esom) and little math whiz Sim Bo-ram (Park Hye-soo) are friends and co-workers at Samjin Company. They are (only) high school graduates, and, putatively for that reason, after eight years they're underlings in the office, still buying cigarettes, making coffee, and helping men find their files or fire up their computers. They wear matching outfits, by the way, like schoolgirls. Probably they know more than the men who treat them like servants, but they're stuck. An opening has appeared, because it's been announced that a score of 600 on the Toeic English test will get them a promotion to assistant manager.

    Somebody has been gifted a tropical fish in a bowl. Lee Ja-young takes it out to the country to release it into a stream - and then sees the stream is full of dead fish, and a large pipe is emitting waste into the water. All the action follows from here. An investigation; agreements signed by locals to accept nominal compensation; falsification of the report; shredding of the original report (by a low-ranking man) is ordered. Eventually, nonetheless, the ladies win. There's a plot twist to accomplish this. The whole catastrophe has been used as a way to enable purchase and incorporation of the company by an international firm. This is the trio's wedge, because they organize the shareholders against the corrupt administration.

    A small cadre of evil Americans make up the baddies of the piece, by the way, which leads to a typically spicy "Letterboxd" comment (from Júlia Falcão): "the way Koreans always hire the worst ever white actors to play all the white characters... iconic." The English teacher (Tyler Rasch) is loud and specific in his constant off-the-wall instruction consisting of company slogans or alleged sayings included on previous Toeic Tests. He is sad because he is an illustration of how bad English classes can be; and whenever the women say something in English, I can't make out a word (Koreans would get subtitles, but we don't). More inexplicable is the unxious, tall, allegedly "handsome" company "President" Billy (David Lee McInnis, an actor living and working in South Korea), who understands Korean but replies nearly always in English. Two Americans are nondescript, thuggish heavies in the background manipulating things for upper management. There is also John D. Michaels, apparently another American actor living in Korea, as the "MIT" Global Capital Executive.

    All this is part of a needlessly complicated plot that provides many evil high company officials when one or two would have done better. Likewise the hurried scheme to undermine global capital's effort to take over the company substitutes complication for believability. Erin Brockovich, with Julia Roberts' gratuitous cleavage and Steven Soderbergh's disappointingly (after all the hype) merely workmanlike direction, is hardly a model of filmmaking subtlety and complexity, but it does give the sense of depicting real events, whereas Samjin Company English Class is more an eye-popping, momentarily distracting cinematic twittering machine, which leaves one unsatisfied and perhaps a little confused. It is slick, entertaining, and in parts, in its way, well acted. The three central ladies never cease to be watchable and charming. But this is not a good movie. Maybe the younger Korean audience learns something from it about women at the workplace before they were born. Let's hope so. And let's hope it's better now.

    Samjin Company English Class 삼진그룹 영어토익반, 110 mins., has released between Oct. 2020 and July 2021 in South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. Screened for this review as part of the Aug. 6-22, 2021 NY Asian Film Festival (shceduled for Aug. 14, 2021).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-20-2021 at 03:34 AM.

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