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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 (T˘ri 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 (Nijir˘ 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 (Ry˘hei Suzuki). Also starring Sh˘ 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 vÚritÚ 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 ša 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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