Friday, October 26, 2007

Still Catching Up on Pusan

Here are a couple more short reviews from the films I saw in Busan. As I slowly roll these out they will likely get shorter and shorter because in truth they are fading fast from my memory. The final review will probably be down to “I think I liked this”. I do attempt to take a few notes while watching the film, but even in the light my penmanship is a thing of horror – you would need a cryptographer of ancient languages to decipher my writing in the dark.

Kamen Rider: The Next

Director: Ryuta Tasaki

If you had a line-up of the Kamen Rider, Ultraman, Zebraman and the Powder Puff Girls I am not sure I could have picked out the Kamen Rider before seeing this film. The character has been around for ages I believe in a television series and other incarnations but it is just one of those things that skipped under my radar. Still I thought this might be fun and it was in a Saturday morning kiddie TV kind of way and I was half expecting to see pop ups like “Wham”, “Crunch” and “Bang” appear on the screen – though I don’t recall any flashes of naked female breasts or having a woman seductively rub her private parts in any of my childhood morning viewing. If only. The producers assume the viewer has some previous knowledge of this Japanese superhero as well as having seen the first film, Kamen Rider: The Movie. I hadn’t and so it took me a few minutes to realize that the timid and ignored high school teacher Takeshi (Masaya Kikawada) was in fact The Kamen Rider. It also took me a while to understand why these guys in weird insect like costumes kept appearing to try and beat him up. They are the Shockers and seemingly Takeshi was once part of their union and they don’t appreciate the fact that he now wants to teach science to kids who think he is a wimp. The Shockers are also trying to take over the world by spreading minute nano robots among the populace turning them into creatures the Shockers can control. They are led by the very cool and very hot Chainsaw Lizard (Rie Mashiko) who keeps trying to remove various body parts from the Kamen Rider when she isn’t coming on to him like a Mae West wannabe.

In another parallel thread, the female pop singer Chiharu (Erika Mori) isn’t returning the calls of her good friend Kotomi (Miku Ishida) who just happens to be one of Takeshi’s students. He gets involved in Kotomi’s life and if he weren’t a super hero one might suspect that he has more in mind than being a good teacher as she is more than a bit cute. Kotomoi is also surprisingly nonplussed about her teacher suddenly turning into a jumping punching costumed super hero – must happen in Japan all the time. Chiharu is having some issues – a video song that is rumored to kill her fans and a ghost that wants her face – and this is putting her on edge and not acting very sociable. But mainly what the film has going for it is some fairly solid fight scenes with loads of flips and somersaults occurring on a regular basis, the fun insect costumes and a need to have something happen every few minutes to keep the kids from dozing off. I know I didn’t.


Director: Izuru Kumasaka

This small independent Japanese film has a surprisingly quiet life affirming message setting down roots among the melancholy and solitude that permeates it. Revelations about life can happen anywhere it seems – in this case in a rundown old fashioned love motel that is owned by the taciturn middle aged Tsuyako (Lily) who seems to get through each day only as a means to get to the next. The film tracks a few other women who cross her path over a few days. The blonde haired Mika (Hikari Kajiwara) is a thirteen year old girl drifting sullenly through her life unable to deal with the fact that her father left her mother and has now settled down with another woman and had children with her and no time for Mika. She notices the odd sight of young children making their way into the love motel and decides to follow them inside. She goes with them onto the elevator where they tell her they are going to Asyl, a liberated zone in the city. It takes her to the rooftop where she comes upon a garden and playground where anyone is welcome. She decides to stay for the night and later is grumpily invited by Tsuyako to have something to eat.

Thirty-something Tsuki is frantic – she has lost her notebook where she monitors how many steps she has taken each day for the past many years. The loss though serves to liberate her and that day she begins a conversation with her neighbor Tsuyako who she has ignored for many years due to her profession. Tsuki is married but always alone and she asks Tsuyako if she can work for free at the love motel. She too discovers Asyl. The final character to enter the film is Marika (Chiharu Sachi Jinno) a young woman who brings a different man with her to the love motel each day. She is equally annoyed and fascinated by this grim woman who runs the hotel and begins to poke her nose into her background and the past of both of them spills out. Slowly paced and often static – one lengthy conversation takes place entirely in the pitch black – the film takes you into unexpected subtle emotional places with some small wonderful discoveries if you are willing to go with it.

Dai Nipponjin

Director: Hitosi Matumoto

Among my many failings is apparently a lack of appreciation for a type of Japanese comedy that has been breaking out like a small rash over the past couple of years. These totally absurd dead pan parodies are so straight-faced that even Buster Keaton might not realize he is being nudged in the funny bone. Set in the real world they present ludicrous and inherently comical situations with complete seriousness and just expect the audience to get it. A few other films of this ilk are Ski Jumping Pairs, Executive Koala Bear and Calamari Wrestler and I have to admit to not liking any of them (though all of them do have moments of utter hilarity). But that is almost beside the point because all of these films have a loyal fan base and Dai Nipponjin generally received rave reviews when it snuck in under the tent at prestigious festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Pusan. But they are not my cup of soup and I don’t plan on going into rehab to correct that any time soon. So it is almost unfair of me to review this – it would be like me reviewing a vegetarian restaurant where my first line would be “The vegetables would have been so much better next to a big chicken breast”. So I will just give the basics here.

Being a super hero isn’t what it used to be in Japan as this mockumentary points out. Once idolized in the country, they are now considered nuisances with signs around the neighborhood telling them to stop breaking things, to quiet down and to move out – and the occasional rock is thrown through their windows. Even their TV ratings have withered and their battles against the bad guys are shown on the late late show after the Shopping Show. Dai Sato (played by the director who is a famous manzai comic on TV) initially first appears as a poor middle aged schmuck with not much of a social life and it is a mystery as to why a journalist is doing a documentary about him and is following him wherever he goes. He tells the reporter that he makes about $5,000 a month and that he is separated from his wife and misses his little daughter. This goes on for about 10-15 minutes to test the audience’s patience before Dai Sato gets a phone call from the Defense Ministry and tells the reporter that it is time for him to go to work.

Work being a super hero when he is called in to save the country from disaster at the hands and feet of various bizarre gigantic baddies that trod the country and destroy property like Godzilla on a sleepy day. But to battle them he needs to become Dai Nipponjin – a giant in blue underwear with hair that stands straight up and who uses a club to beat down the bad guys. Using electricity to increase his size he goes forth like a bored salaryman to make a paycheck and do battle against bad mannered baddies with various characteristics such as the comb over to hide their bald heads, that smell badly, that have giant heads like Jay Leno and one that throws his eyeball like a lasso. Japan seemingly has an endless supply of baddies. Dai has an agent as well who seems to be living much better than he does and who does her best to get him corporate sponsorship in the forms of their logo’s on his body when he fights. The best part of the film are certainly these many battles set usually among wonderful detailed city landscapes in which model buildings get knocked over – but even these began to tire me after a while. Between these silly fights were endless wry and dry interviews and conversations – much of this just felt like a skit that didn’t know how to die – sort of like Dai Nipponjin.

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