Tuesday, April 24, 2007

And another three short reviews for your viewing pleasure

Nana 2 (Japan, 2005), Directed by Kentaro Otani

The first Nana was a sneak attack on my happy glands – a warm sweet story of female friendship that struck a perfect balance between sentiment, comedy and drama. It was that rare feel good film that didn’t make you feel like a complete sap for falling for it. The film can almost be used as a litmus test for prospective partners – if they don’t like the film the chances are they kick animals when no one is looking and will become abusive alcoholics over time. Stay away from these people. That is because Nana is a giant two hour communal hug that reaches all of our soft vulnerable places that we shield so diligently. And in the middle of that group hug is Aoi Miyazaki, who plays the cute Nana or Hachi as she becomes known as. Aoi Miyazaki is a candidate for the cutest actress in the known world and she can bring out every paternal, maternal or protective instinct that humans have – and all with one little flustered pout. She is like a fluffy stuffed toy and I am surprised that Japan hasn’t created a holiday for her called Kawaii Day when everyone has to be nice to each other. Off setting her Kawaii qualities in the film is the other Nana, a tough but tender hearted punk rocker played by singer Mika Nakashima (who’s CD The End I am listening to now). Perhaps in the real world this odd pairing of friends may seem close to fantasy but in the celluloid world it is like chocolate ice cream and almonds – just right. Through all the things that the cold world throws at them, it is their friendship that holds their heads above water and keeps them going.

The success of that film demanded a sequel and so it arrived like a Japanese Bullet Train right on schedule, but unfortunately Aoi was unavailable for her part and it went to actress, Yui Ichikawa, who toils mightily to imitate Aoi as the adorable Hachi but just can’t quite pull it off. The film didn’t meet expectations at the box office and I expect that part of the reason was this cast switch (as well as a few others) but may also have much to do with the uncomfortable turn that the narrative takes in the film. If you recall the first film ends with Hachi having overcome heartbreak to stand on her own, Nana coming to an understanding in her relationship with fellow musician Ren from the band Trapnest and Nana’s band The Black Stones still looking for commercial success. Perhaps it should have ended there as there is really no where for it to go. The beauty of the first film was how simple and unadorned the emotional aspects were, but with the basics already set in place the new film loses the fine balance it had and goes head first into unkempt melodrama in which our little Hachi goes through emotional grownup hell. Did anyone really want to see Hachi fall into a suicidal depression and become a serial killer who first seduces her targets before stabbing them in the eye? OK – not really but not so far either as Hachi finds herself in a messy love triangle, makes bad relationship decisions, ignores her true friends, gets knocked up and in a sense finds herself back where she started – dependent on a man. In the midst of this wreckage are some fine scenes, some fine songs and a friendship that still holds together – but it never manages the warm magic of the first and there are no group hugs here. It certainly does set up another sequel though, but with the so-so box office of this one I don’t know if one is planned – but they can’t leave Hachi where she ends up can they?

My Rating for Nana 1: 9.0
My Rating for Nana 2: 7.0

Nana 1 Viewed on DVD
Nana 2 Viewed in a theater

Mika's songs in Nana 1 and 2 and live here and musical video here

Nana 1 Trailer here

Nana 2 Trailer here

Nana 2 theater promo

Heavenly Forest (Japan, 2006), Directed by Takehiko Shinjo

Apparently, this is the film that Aoi Miyazaki skipped out on Nana 2 for. Hmmm? Perhaps that wasn’t the greatest decision she could have made. Not that this is a terrible film, but it is such a conventional romantic tearjerker that it seems rather a waste of her talents and though the film revolves around her character, her screen time is limited. The main character is Makoto (Hiroshi Tamaki) a sweet, shy young man who is just entering university to study but has aspirations to be a photographer. On his first day he runs into Shizuru (Aoi) a nerdy little creature who is as cute as pecan pie behind her eye glasses and oddball fashion sense. They become pals over time and he takes her into the nearby forest where he shares and imparts his love for photography to her. She clearly has a crush on him, but he only has eyes for the lovely and sophisticated Miyuki (Meisa Kuroki) who he also becomes friends with – but is too shy to try and take it further. Time passes but nothing much happens even though Shizuru moves in with him – but still they remain only buddies though she tells him that she is still growing and will have enormous breasts someday and he will be sorry for not taking advantage of her while he has the chance. The audience of course all knows that she is the right girl for him – we have seen this same scenario many times – but just as he comes to this obvious realization she disappears on him with no explanation. Years later (but actually where the film starts), he receives a letter from her that she has a photo exhibition in New York City and invites him to come see it. It is a very genial film for the most part, but has the edge of a butter knife even when it takes a sudden dip into tearjerk territory. Whenever Aoi is on the screen it does take on a charming quality that can navigate you through this film with a certain amount of pleasure, but she disappears too often and for too long – but for her fans this is probably still worth a look.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Short trailer here on Youtube

Woman Transformation (Japan, 2006), Directed by Tôru Kamei

Thank goodness there is still a place in the world that makes films like this – strange little curiosities for which there is no grand marketing plan whatsoever – just a desire to be weird and original. While Asian cinema has generally gone very mainstream, Japanese films can still surprise and delight you with their off the wall content. I have been watching Asian films for around 10 years now and I can’t help but think that globalization has affected them in terms of smoothing down the edges and partially removing their distinct cultural flavor. When was the last time Hong Kong came out with a truly crazy film that made little sense but was entertaining as hell? There used to be loads of them that Hong Kong audiences ate up with relish, but now their films more and more fall into strict genre based categories that can be remade in Hollywood or sold to foreign distributors. Korea makes films with wonderful production values and smart well thought out scripts, but they rarely surprise you any more other than a few mavericks like Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. But a very profitable straight to video market in Japan allows directors to experiment with small personal films or ones that are just so peculiar that it makes you shake your head with a big fat grin on your face. This would be one of the latter. When you are finished watching it you sort of go huh? What exactly was the point of this film – it’s not a horror film or drama or comedy – it is just fun and a little bit freaky.

This feels like a cousin to another low budget film I just saw – Unholy Women, which contains three tales on the dark side of women (as if they had one!), while Woman Transformation has the stories of three women – slightly connected – who are going through drastic and unexplainable physical transformations. The Japanese title of Yokai Kidan is more to the point if you have seen the Great Yokai War – as these women mutate into monsters – Yokai - but for no discernable reason – it just happens and can’t be stopped and their lives fall apart. That sounds kind of depressing perhaps, but in fact much of the film is filled with sharp black humor because the situations are just so silly, surreal and absurd. One young woman discovers that her neck is beginning to hurt and when she goes to the doctor he tells her after x-rays that her spine is like a snake’s. And soon she is able to stretch her neck to extreme lengths – which her hospital roommate can’t help but notice – but she has her own problems as her face is getting like moldy bread. Finally another woman who is a bit of an airhead who dresses in a cowboy hat and hands out leaflets discovers that her fingernails are growing at incredible rates – and are very very sharp. In here I suppose are some observations about women in today’s society where they are often judged so superficially on appearance – but though I found this rather purposeless, it was wonderfully peculiar – a real treat that only Japan is serving these days.

My rating for this film: 7.5

A trailer for the film can be found here.

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