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
Japan
2007

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.

Mukhsin

Director: Yasmin Ahmad
Malaysia
2007

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
Japan
2007

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.

1 comment:

YTSL said...

Brian

Love those last lines in your "Mukhsin" review. More re Yasmin Ahmad: Have to say that she's my favorite Malaysian director but I also like Ho Yuhang's "Rain Dogs" (in which Yasmin appears on screen). Have you checked that film out yet?