Sunday, November 18, 2007

Japanese Posters

I had forgotten that I had scanned these images in a while back, but came across them the other day - so here are 5 pages of Japanese posters from long long ago.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Two from Hibari

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s Hibari Misora was perhaps Japan’s biggest entertainer with her presence in film, radio, TV and stage. In the USA during these same decades we had giant stars like Crosby, Astaire, Kaye and others who fit this bill - able to dance, sing, act and tell a joke and were loved by the country. For some reason these bigger than life entertainers have become an extinct species and now most celebrities are safely cocooned in their respective art and have little appeal on a broad level. Hibari began as a child star helping to boost the morale of Japan in the post WWII era and continued in show business until her death at 52 in 1989. Not a particularly beautiful woman, Hibari won the audience over with spunk, charm and talent – a great singer and an appealing actress. Off the stage her life was rather a lonely sad one – married for a short while to actor Akira Kobayashi (Black Tight Killers) - she spent most of her life alone, but she radiated when the lights were turned on. She once said "I always sang about love, but I don't know if I ever knew what it truly was". In some ways her life mirrored that of another child star, Judy Garland, who never really found happiness as an adult and both took a bit much to alcohol to ease the loneliness.
Here are brief summaries of two of her films that I came across. Neither is likely rated very high up in her filmography – fairly ordinary bits of entertainment that were made simply to fill the need for her fans at the time and in truth her presence is all that is needed.

Before that though, here are some pictures of Hibari from a photo book of her.

Hibari 1

Hibari 2

Hibari 3

Hibari’s Tale of Pathos

Director: Watanabe Kunio
Year: 1962
Duration: 86 minutes

On the rural island of Sado, which lies west of Niigata, is a legend of two lovers named Omitsu and Gosaku. Gosaku was an outsider who had landed ashore on the island nearly dead and been nursed back to health by Omitsu and her father, but locals were not suppose to fall in love with those from outside and Omitsu sings “Don’t love a man from another land. You’ll end up crying like the crow.” According to legend, once Gosaku returned to the mainland a heartbroken Omitsu paddled the 60 kilometers from the island to Kashiwazaki in an open tub boat to be with her lover. On occasion people today still take up this challenge to see if they can do it. From this quick foreword, the film jumps into the present (1962) and a reenactment of the legend happens once again.

Kimie (Hibari Misora) is a tour guide in a jaunty cap who takes visitors to the island’s most scenic places (though likely skipping the mines where I read Japan used slave labor during WWII and felons before that) and often would break into song to entertain the guests. A big shot businessman Mr. Akiyama from Tokyo is on the island to consider building a big resort and vacation spot on the island and the local yakuza very much want him to as they are buying up land in hopes that they can make a financial killing. Akiyama leaves his son Shinje behind to check things out, but Shinje primarily wants to check out Kimie who he falls for instantly. Complications intrude their ugly heads into this simple love story as the head of the Ono gang also has his eye on Kimie and has a hold as well – Kimie’s unfilial brother has joined the gang and her father is deeply in debt to them. They urge her strongly to persuade Shinje to buy their land to build the resort and when this doesn’t go according to plan Kimie needs to escape them by boarding a small boat in a raging storm to make it to the mainland. This was an enjoyable little film primarily for Hibari, but also for good side characters such as Otaki the mistress of Ono and the brother who eventually of course is brought back into the family fold.

The Prickly Mouthed Geisha (Beranme Geisha)

Director: Koishi Eiichi
Duration: 86 minutes

In this one Hibari Misora plays a modern day geisha who has a reputation among the clientele for not liking men very much and refusing to provide any of the “extras” they so want to get from the women in this profession. The viewer is introduced to the character when she stops three bullies from harassing a woman by smacking them and declaring to them “I am Koharu from Yanagibashi. Don’t take me lightly”. Forced into the profession because of the debts her father has piled up, she isn’t thrilled to spend her life entertaining trashy men.

Her father is a master carpenter but much too stubborn and surly to keep a job very long though she does her best to continuously find him one. One customer gives her a tip and she takes dad to interview for the job, but discovers that the President is her father’s old drinking buddy from years ago and the two immediately begin arguing over rank and status and nothing comes of it. But the President has an eligible son who needs a carpenter and he joins up with Koharu’s father to work on a project – and not at all surprisingly Koharu and Kenichi begin to fall in love – but of course his father objects to him marrying a geisha.

There isn’t too much to hang your hat on in this one but it provides a few small delights – playing pachinko for canned food goods, bowling and of course the songs that Hibari sings in every film it seems.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Thai Posters

World Film Festival of Bangkok

The World Film Festival of Bangkok drew to a close this past Sunday still in search of much of an identity in this tough movie going town. It ran for ten days and showed about 70 films from all around the world. At least from my small sampling they were generally excellent films though not always very audience friendly as the programmers seem to have a bent for slow going serious arty fare with many of them having won awards at other festivals. The festival moved to a new venue this year, but it was a bit out of the way for many and the audience numbers were quite slim at my screenings with only one film (4M3W2D) having a near sell out. Of course the main issue with the festival is that none of the films had Thai subtitles – something of a tough sell to a Thai audience and by default it really becomes a festival for the ex-pats who live here – though many of whom I chatted with were very appreciative of having the opportunity to see these films. The venue was the Esplanade Mall which gave moviegoers an opportunity to ice skate, skateboard or bowl between films – and a choice of Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or Chinese food. And let me not forget KFC and Famous Amos!

Here is a quick rundown of the films I saw other than Dream of the Red Chamber and 20:30:40 which I wrote about in a previous post. Only one of these falls into the category of Asian cinema, but hopefully some of these will land up in a friendly festival near you.

Egg (Yumurta), Turkey, 2007 – directed by Semih Kaplanoglu

Yusef receives a phone call in his tiny used bookstore in Istanbul informing him that his mother has died and that he must return to the small town where he grew up for the funeral. The film is covered by a sheen of melancholy, memory and silence in which very little occurs, very little is explained and the dialogue is as sparse as people in some of the barren landscapes. We are witnesses and yet never taken into the confidence of the characters and so have to grasp at the small nuances, the expressions, the stares and the body language to understand that everything emotional here is happening beneath the surface.

Once at his mother’s house Yusef meets his young distant cousin Alya who has been his mother’s companion and housekeeper for the past few years and she explains to him that his mother’s wish was to have a goat sacrificed. He only wants to get back to Istanbul but something almost mystical keeps him from leaving. Clearly there is a complex uneasy back story between him and his dead mother and perhaps a future romantic story between him and Alya but it is left primarily to the audience to guess at. This is a marvelously moody introspective tone poem with near pitch perfect performances from Saadet Isil Aksoy as the hopeful Alya and Nejat Isler as the taciturn Yusef. Its reflective mood slowly and almost unnoticeably seeps into your unconsciousness and stays there long after the film ends. This is the first of three films in what the director terms the Trilogy of Yusef but in an intriguing decision the director filmed the final part of it first – so one assumes that much of what was left unexplained in this film is revealed as we backtrack in the next two. The director won the Best Director prize at the festival.

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, Romania, 2007 – directed by Cristian Mungiu

Horror comes in all forms. Here it is presented in a spiritually barren world where the banality and indifference of society is more frightening than anything that comes in the form of the supernatural because it feels all too real, all too possible. Set in communist Romania in 1987 the title refers to the length of the life of the baby that Gabita is carrying. She is a university student and along with her loyal friend Otilia, they have made plans to abort it. This is a red cruel slice of life as it depicts one brutal frantic day in their lives in perhaps more realistic fashion than many of us can stomach. This is a dysfunctional society where everything is up for barter – either in the black market or under the table with bribes. Or with sex. With Gabita in a helpless state, Otilia sets about organizing everything from borrowing the money, to reserving a hotel room to contacting the illegal abortionist. Using primarily a handheld camera the director gives everything a sense of urgency, a sense of instability, a sense of loss. It is often hard to watch because it is presented so matter of factly with not an ounce of compassion - yet with understanding. It is also very nonjudgmental about a very sensitive subject that will make some squirm. Truly gut wrenching and startlingly powerful, it will stick to you long after Otilia’s final exhausted stare into the camera has faded away.

Love Songs (Chansons d’amour, Les), France, 2007 – directed by Christophe Honore

This is a rather nifty throwback to the musicals of Jacque Demy with the characters walking through the streets of Paris constantly breaking into song about the city and about love. Though much more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than The Girls of Rochefort with its progression from romanticism to deep melancholy, it tackles the sharp cutting angles of love as only the French can in film. Times though have changed since the early 1960's and this time love begins with a m̩nage a trois and ends in a passionate gay embrace. Broken into three chapters the film goes into some unexpected places of the heart. The songs are those of Alex Beaupain and sung by the actors Рlilting and charming with very simple arrangements.

Ismael is in a threesome with his girlfriend Julie and his co-worker Alice and the three of them share nights out and a small bed together. The three way relationship is clearly a temporary one of experimentation and curiosity and edges of jealousy work there way around them. But when one of them shockingly dies of a heart attack, the film leaves its expected path and romantic moorings into a period of despondency and guilt as the other two deal with their grief and how to escape it.

The Band’s Visit, Israel, 2007 – directed by Eran Kolirin

This small very simple film has received loads of praise and prizes at various film festivals and every bit of it is deserved. It begins in a state of sublime droll comedy and evolves from there to something that pierces the soul and uplifts it at the same time. Eight members of the Egyptian Alexandria Police Orchestra land in Israel for a concert they are to give, but no one has bothered to meet them at the airport. They are led by the rigid, somber and stuffy Tawfiq (Sasson Gabal in as marvelous a performance as I’ve seen in years) who adamantly refuses to ask the embassy for help. Instead they decide to get to the town on their own but after Saleh the band’s lothario sings Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” to the female clerk, he gets the wrong information and they end up on the roadside of a desolate isolated settlement all adorned in their best dress uniforms with only Egyptian money in their pockets. They are taken in by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the earthy sensual proprietress of a small restaurant for the night and in the ensuing hours their sad lonely lives quietly leak out through conversation, silences, remembrances and music in a pool of common humanity. This is one of my favorite films of the year.

Gardens in Autumn, France, 2007 – directed by Otar Iosseliani

If this passes for French irony and satire I expect I could go a long time without another piece of it. The charms of this film eluded me like a dying quail. Fanciful and absurd to a fault, this presents a fable of the transitory illusion of power in modern day France but it is so haphazard and jumbled that I soon lost patience with it. Vincent is a Minister of Culture and spends his time accepting tacky gifts from his constituents and berating his mistress for buying expensive even tackier statues. In his office resides a group of nameless flunkies that come and go with pointless papers to sign. As well as a tame leopard that lies about waiting to be petted. Vincent is blamed for some large protests and without much remorse hands in his resignation. Now a free man, he spends the next few days drinking, getting shit dumped on him, talking with his elderly mother (played by actor Michel Piccoli for some odd reason) and consorting with prostitutes and old mistresses. It is all done though with no particular narrative drive – just odd whimsical lazy shaggy dog sketches that add up to nothing as far as I could see.

Tokyo Tower, Japan, 2007 – directed by Matsuoka Joji

Nostalgia is awash in Japan these days with films and TV shows that hearken back to simpler days. Japan cinema is also awash in films made from TV shows and Tokyo Tower is both of these. A successful TV show, this film adaptation was a big box office hit with its sentimental and rosy portrayal of a relationship between a mother and her son. In fact, the film is really just a loving valentine to good moms everywhere (hi mom!), and though more than a bit overdrawn at 140 minutes it is certainly a very effective one that will elicit tears from most unless your mother was Joan Crawford. I am not sure what the Japanese equivalent of apple pie is, but this film is all mom and apple pie. Dad is strictly a side dish.

It begins in the present with Ma (Jo Odagiri) sitting by the bedside of his mother (Kiki Kirin) in the hospital as she fights cancer and he awaits the word whether it is curable. The film then bounces back and forth between the past and her progress in the present. With a husband (Kobayashi Kaoru) who liked his late night struggles with the bottle a bit much, mom (portrayed as the younger version by the real life daughter of Kiki, Uchida Yayako, which explains the eerie likeness) decides to leave with her small son and go live with her irascible mother in a small poor mining town. Over the years times are tough and money is slim but mom always manages to take care of her son (played by various child actors all adorned with Odagiri’s famous chin mole!). Eventually to her great pride he goes off to Tokyo to university where he decides to live a bohemian life and do little but drink and play cards. He still eventually graduates, pays off his debts and begins to make his way in the world as a graphic artist and a radio personality where he has mastered smut talk. But he cares for his mother dearly and feels pangs of guilt at having taken advantage of her love for him and so invites her to come live with him in Tokyo where she becomes the center of his group of friends. Humorous at times, poignant at many turns, the film wraps its soppy tentacles around you and won’t quit until you tattoo “Mom” over your heart.

Opapatika - Thai Film Review

Director: Thanakorn Pongsuwan

There are films like this in which they should hand over a pair of aspirin with the ticket. Or maybe just a brain transplant. Or electroshock. Loud, pointless and witless, this has a body count that could fill a football stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, but not one of these myriad of corpses would evince even a slight care from you – just fodder for the threshing machine of CGI death. Before the film begins the producers are kind enough to put up a place card that informs the audience that the filmmakers in no way advocate suicide as a form of recreation – but how about as a way to stop watching this film? Unfortunately, my shoe laces were not long enough.

Dripping in self-absorbed melancholy and ennui, the Opapatika live among us humans. The only way to differentiate them from us is that they all dress really well, look like pretty boys and seem to be clinically depressed (o.k. so that might describe much of Hollywood as well). Oh, they also have various types of superpowers and are really hard to kill. That’s not too surprising since they already are dead. Or perhaps somewhere between life and death. Or perhaps somewhere between bad acting and bad writing. You, like them can join the Opapatika by simply committing suicide and as far as I could tell no membership fees are required. By doing so it brings out the hidden powers within you – telepathy in the case of Techit who has been investigating the Opapatika and decided to join them because it looked like so much darn fun. He is mentored by another Opapatika, Sadok, who requests that he track down the other Opapatika’s in the world and turn them over to his right hand man Thuvathit, who will then use his million man private army to kill them. Good luck.

Among the Opapatika is one who is immortal and bored, another who kills at night and feels guilty during the day, another Bruce Banner type who can project a monster like the Hulk, another who can foretell the death spot of his victims which seems a bit unfair if you are an assassin. Thuvathit constantly unleashes his endless army on them, but one can only hope they have lots of life insurance because before you can blink most of them are dead. You would think it might have dawned on a few that there were better ways to make a living and that the chances of killing a dead man aren’t good. So the film basically turns into a number of set pieces in which the Opapatikas are surrounded by the army and then easily kill them all. In between set pieces they brood a lot and dally with a mysterious woman in white who flits in and out of their lives like a bad dream - or a bad movie.

Note to Readers: I in no way advocate suicide as a manner of discovering what your inner super powers are – though I do wonder what mine might be – hopefully sleeping through films like this.

Monday, November 05, 2007

More Thai Posters

I never get tired of seeing these old posters and never get tired of putting them up! Just looking at them gives you some idea of what an interesting film industry Thailand must have had back in the 70's which I think is the period these are from - from beach movies to horror and everything else in between. Here are 30 of them with another 30 to come.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pusan Put to Rest

Here are short reviews of the last three films from Pusan. Finally!

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!

Director: Daihachi Yoshida

With a mouthful of a title, this film refuses to be defined by genre as it gleefully stirs absurdist comedy, sexual dysfunction, sisterly psychosis, prostitution, manga revenge, fear of cats, minor miracles and sly vindictiveness into a delicious low key oddball brew. At times it flirts with a mirage of sweetness, but then pulls back the curtains to reveal lovely spite and malice clinging all around this family like spider webs that took years to take form. Dysfunctional families don’t happen overnight.

In the opening scene an elderly couple gets run over while trying to help a cat get out of the way – the lengthy red streaks in the road speaks of their demise as does the horrified look on the face of their gloomy looking eighteen year old daughter, Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa). Afterwards, Kiyomi moves in to live with her step-brother Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase) and his perpetually smiling new wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku). Kiyomi’s sister Sumika comes back from Tokyo purportedly for the funeral but in truth because she is broke and in hiding from debt collectors. Sumika (Eriko Sato – Cutie Honey) is everything that Kiyomi is not – glamorous, sexy and sexually experienced – and when she brings Kiyomi a gift of a stuffed cat you sense that this is done not with affection but with a sharp dagger. Years previously Sumika went to Tokyo to make it as an actress but so far her only success was as a victim in a serial killer movie. Now at loose ends she needs to come up with money and a job but mainly she wants to torture her younger sister for having put her private life into a popular manga and making her a laughing stock in the town. Dear brother Shinji tries to cool things down but Sumika may have a hold on him – right between his legs. Behind her spectacles and cringes, Kiyomi looks very much the victim, but you don’t grow up in this family without having the sting of a scorpion. Set in the middle of nowhere, the film almost comes across as the evil cousin of Taste of Tea – but though mean spirited it still suggests in the end that your family is always family – sometimes though with sharp fingernails greeting you.


Director: Yasmin Ahmad

Yasmin Ahmad is something of an anomaly in Malaysian cinema where most films seem to fall into two very distinct camps – crass commercial fare directed primarily by the Malays and arty static box office poison directed usually by members of the Chinese community. The trilogy of Orked films directed by Yasmin straddles these two camps with its slow quiet reflective narratives that are amusing, poignant, romantic but above all optimistically humanistic in their depiction of the multicultural Malaysian society. And they do quite well at the box office. At a time when there is a widening global antagonism and distrust between the Islamic world and the Western world, Mukhsin is a perfect oasis of needed sanity in which Islamic culture is given an immensely normal, gentle and humane face. Whether this was the main intent of the director isn’t clear to me since this is not so much the gist of the film but what surrounds it, what permeates, what gives the film a powerful underlying resonance. Yet I don’t think this message is primarily meant for outside consumption, but is in fact directed at her fellow Muslim countrymen. There has been a growing rift between the Muslim majority in Malaysia and the large Chinese and Indian communities due to some Muslims pushing for laws and customs that more reflect a conservative interpretation of the Koran – and Yasmin appears to be quietly crying out for a return to their liberal tradition of tolerance in which a girl and her mother can dance together in the rain, women can attend a soccer game (something which a recent Iranian film pointed out can not happen there) and a boy and girl can fly a kite together.

This is the third film in the Orked trilogy – the other two being the wonderful Sepet and Gubra – but this one goes back in time to 1993 when Orked was 10 years old and living in a small village called Kuala Selangor. This is the story of her first crush. Orked (Sharifah Aryana) is a no nonsense little tom boy who prefers playing rough with the boys to being with the girls. Her mom (Sharifah Aleya – real life sister of Aryana) and dad (Irwan Iskandar) are extremely indulgent of their little girl and the family along with their maid (Adibah Noor) are as close knit and lovable as a nest of chipmunks. During a school holiday, the 12-year old Mukhsin (Mohd Syafie Naswip) comes to the village to stay with his old housekeeper since his parents have split up. After Orked passes his test of toughness, he allows her to join the boy’s games and the two become fast friends over the lazy warm days and cicada filled nights that follow. Scenes slowly melt into one another with poetic flashes of home life, friendship and faith on display – dancing, riding a bike, reciting the Koran and flying a kite are lovely moments of harmony and beauty. Very little of any dramatic purpose takes place in the film – it is just a nostalgic look back at innocence when somehow the world seemed so much simpler and kinder. It is a wonderful film that very quietly grabs hold of your emotions and is only weakened by an unnecessary side story involving Mukhsin’s older angry brother. When I took this film out at the Viewing Room in Pusan, a fellow who I had met a few days previously saw what my film choice was and just said “Mukhsin! God I love that film”. And now so do I.

Sukiyaki Western Django

Director: Takeshi Miike

A lone cowboy wanders into the desolate dusty town upon a horse and witnesses two armed camps of men at war with one another. He offers his services to the highest bidder and one of the men shouts out to him “Don’t plan on doing a Yojimbo here”, but in fact that is exactly what happens as this film follows in those footsteps though to be more precise it follows in the tracks of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars which was of course based on Yojimbo. Thinking about the cross-cultural influences of this film could give you whiplash. In this part sly parody, part affectionate homage to the Spaghetti Western of Italy, director Takeshi Miike takes the basic elements of many of those films and piles on his own unique style and bizarre vision as only Miike can. With its familiar plot set in place it allows Miike to give full vent to his creative urges and he does so in a very playful manner - occasionally drenching the screen in gaudy surrealistic colors and putting together various stunning set pieces that will have you often chuckling at his warped imagination and the absurdity of what passes before your eyes. It only takes a minute before you have passed through the world of Leone to that of Miike when one man is shot through the stomach and a hole the size of grapefruit results and with him still standing upright trying to figure exactly what happened various of his cohorts take turns looking through the gaping hole to the other side. Other influences run through the film as well and I couldn’t help wonder how much Quentin Tarentino who appears in cameos at the beginning and near the end contributed to this film – the terse pithy dialogue certainly sounded like it had his fingerprints all over it and some of his Kill Bill style seems evident such as the final duel in the suddenly snowy landscape – but then was that Kill Bill or Lady Snowblood that Miike was referencing?

This film is clearly a case of overwhelming style over substance and for some I expect it may just not click as the constant bag of flourishes may get tiresome and some emotional undertones may be wanting (a few people at Pusan told me they hated the film), but you have to give Miike credit for continuously trying something new and different and rarely feeling stale. The film received much of its advance hype because Miike has the Japanese actors speaking in English and I have read of people who found it cumbersome to listen to – but perhaps because I spend so much of my time overseas these days it truthfully didn’t bother me in the least bit and after only a few minutes I stopped reading the English subs and had no problem understanding them and actually found their readings very well done. I won’t go into the plot because if you haven’t seen either Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars I recommend you do so immediately.