J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings


The intrepid court investigator had legitimate mysteries to contend with in Tsui Hark’s two previous Detective Dee films, but this time out, you could say he is working on a loss-prevention case. Di Renjie has been tasked with safeguarding the Dragon Taming Mace, a fabled weapon with Excalibur-like powers and vital symbolic importance for the Tang Dynasty. That does not sit well with the Empress Consort Wu Zetian, who covets power (and the mace that represents it) for herself. However, the chancellor-sleuth will have bigger, more spectacular foes to battle in Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Di knows the mace will be trouble, but fortunately he is not about to hide it under his bed or stash it in a closet (but maybe he would, because you would never expect that from someone so clever). That is why the distraction designed to lure him from the Department of Investigations only yields an unlucky murder victim. Wu’s Taoist agents will have to be more direct the next time, but that does not sit well with their ostensive commander, Yuchi Zhenjin, a captain of the Imperial guard, who has sworn his loyalty to Wu and his brotherhood to Di. He had misgivings, even before Wu’s magician-mercenaries start piling up bodies.

Things get rather awkward for all concerned when a shadowy third-party upstages Wu’s assassins with more powerful black magic of their own. Although Di largely stayed a step ahead of Wu’s conspirtors, he is still only a man. To combat the perfect storm of bad mojo approaching, he will need help from a monk who was once the apprentice of Di’s former ally and is now poised on the brink of enlightenment.

Like most of Tsui’s films, Heavenly Kings has some big-time spectacle, including dragons and albino King Kongs. Yet, unlike in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back, none of the huge set pieces veer into kitsch or shtick, nor do they overwhelm the characters.

This time around, Mark Chao is more settled in and comfortable as the iconic investigator. He is at his best playing off William Feng Shaofeng as the conflicted Yuchi. Their strained but genuine friendship is one the most rewarding aspects of Heavenly Kings. On the other hand, a little of Kenny Lin Gengxin as Shatuo Zhong, Di’s bumbling sidekick, goes a long way. At least he does not step on Sandra Ma Sichun, who shines in their scenes together, as a homesick Taoist assassin, who develops a conscience and an unlikely attraction to Shatuo. Nevertheless, the real star is Carina Lau, in all her regal, scheming glory, as the grand Empress Wu.

There are some highly cinematic fight scenes in Heavenly Kings, but perhaps more importantly, it boasts some of the craziest, Earth-shaking Buddhist imagery since Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West, which is saying something. If that kind of thing appeals to you as much as it does to us, then you have to see Heavenly Kings (a subtitle that is somewhat misleading out of context, but so be it). Audiences should also note there are several pseudo-stingers sprinkled throughout the closing credits, including one that effectively ties the two Chao prequels to the original Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Recommended for fans of Tsui’s style of action conducted on a grand scale, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opens this Friday (7/27) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Fantasia ’18: Da Hu Fa


He is short, pear-shaped, and scares the willies out of the Chinese film authorities. Although approved for distribution, the first animated adventures of this rotund royal protector reportedly irked the powers-that-be when it voluntarily imposed a PG-13 rating on itself (presumably, they do not say “thanks for the adversity” in the trailer and one-sheet for nothing). His clashes with a violent and irrational totalitarian regime probably did not help either. Potentially both a cult favorite and a cause célèbre, Busifan (a.k.a. Yang Zhigang)’s thunderbolt-out-of-the-blue debut feature Da Hu Fa (trailer here) screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Da Hu Fa, the Grand Protector of Yiwei (a.k.a. The Guardian), doesn’t look like much, but he is surprisingly lethal with his steely cane. Just ask the wood-cutter ruffians lying dead by the side of the road. He has come to Peanuttown in search of the prince and heir apparent, whom he has sworn to protect. Alas, the absconded prince is wildly irresponsible, making life difficult for Da Hu Fa.

Alas, Peanuttown is no place for the artistically inclined prince. The inhabitants do indeed look like peanuts, but more fundamentally, all signs of individuality seem to have been beaten out of them. Wisely, his royal highness has holed up outside of town, where he has befriended one of the few independent-thinking Peanuts. Eventually, even the prince will agree it would probably be wise to move along, but by that time they attract the attention of the Peanuts’ malevolent oppressors.

It is hard to say whether DHF is more or less subversive than it sounds, judging solely by Western standards. People revolt and rebel all the time in our films, without it meaning very much. China is different. Frankly, it feels like Busifan expects the absurd and arbitrary nature of the repressive regime to resonate with Chinese audiences, more so even than the violence and paranoia.

Regardless of its allegorical intentions, the world is still wildly disconcerting. In many ways, it is like the Chinese analog of Western fantasy realms modeled on Medieval Europe. Peanuttown looks as if it could have come off a centuries old scroll painting, but firearms (and firing squads) are a daily fact of life there. In any event, the terraced roofs provide a nifty setting for chase sequences and fight scenes. Visually, it is often lush and cinematic looking, roly-poly Da Hu Fa notwithstanding.

In fact, DHF works smashingly well when judged merely by the criteria of martial arts movies. Da Hu Fa is the underdog of underdogs, yet he kicks some serious butt. The film might be a protest against oppression and injustice, but it zings along at a full gallop. For a first-time film, it is hugely impressive, because it isn’t merely a pointed cinematic statement with acidic subtext. It is also jolly good fun. Very highly recommended for animation fans, Da Hu Fa screens again tomorrow (7/24), at this year’s Fantasia, in sunny Montreal.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fantasia ’18: A Rough Draft



It turns out Star Trek and DC Comics didn’t lie to us after all. There are alternate universes out there, somehow existing parallel to our own. In point of fact, there are twenty-two such universes, but the mysterious Arkan has been closed to outsiders for decades. Kiril Maksimov has been recruited to serve as a gatekeeper and custom-taker for those traveling between universes. It sounds like dreary TSA kind of work, but apparently it requires a special touch. Regardless, he has a hard time leaving his old earthly life behind in Sergey Mokritskiy’s A Rough Draft (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Maksimov is on the brink of superstar status as a video game designer, when suddenly he turns into Thomas Veil from Nowhere Man. All records of his existence are erased and none of his friends and family recognize him anymore. For good measure, the shadowy cabal also frames him for murder. Then they lead him to a creaky old tower, hiding in plain sight a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. This will be his new home, where he will facilitate travel between the universes, as part of the “functional” class.

One universe is a lovely beach front world. Another is a steampunky analog of Romanoff Russia, which apparently is a charming place for afternoon tea. There is also a Stalinistic Gulag universe, where difficult functionals get sent. The big question is: what is Arkan really like? Supposedly, it is a lot like our world, but a few years ahead, so we could learn from their mistakes. Arkan could be the rough draft for our universe. Unfortunately, Khrushchev had the passage connecting our universe and Arkan destroyed when it looked like “Rightists” were on the verge of taking over there. Now the elites of the multiverse are eager, even desperate to observe current developments in Arkan, so if Maksimov can figure out a way to “open a door” to the lost universe, it will justify all the trouble they took installing him.

Rough Draft is consistently intriguing as an example of Russian science fiction, even though its narrative is patchy and inconsistent. Obviously, the charm of the Czarist universe and the dystopian grimness of the Gulag universe say quite a bit about the last one hundred-plus years of Russian history. Tellingly, Arkan becomes a black box that holds some vastly disparate ideological speculation.

There is no doubt the alternate universes of Rough Draft resonate on an archetypal level. The problem is the rules for interdimensional travel seem to constantly change, as do the powers of the cabal that hold Maksimov in check. The editing is also pretty rough, allowing characters to just magically turn up in places.

As Maksimov, Nikita Volkov is not exactly the second coming of Stanislavski, but he is probably adequately luggish. Likewise, Olga Borovskaya is mostly just serviceable as Anna, the woman Maksimov can’t forget, even though she has been made to forget him. Easily, the most memorable, screen-grabbing work comes from Severija Janušauskaitė as Renata Ivanova, Maksimov’s initial recruiter.

A Russian film that warns of oppression at the hands of oligarchical authority figures is always notable. Frankly, it is a little like warning there could be rain in Seattle. It is probably already too late, but the gesture is still appreciated. Mokritskiy also creates some striking visuals and the special effects are way better than the stuff of other recent Russian sf movies, such as Attraction and particularly the cheesy Guardians. If you are seeing many films at Fantasia than it might worth catching Rough Draft to satisfy whatever curiosity you might have, but as a film considered on its own merits, it just doesn’t hold together. Choose accordingly when A Rough Draft screens again this Friday (7/27), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’18: The Outlaws

You know Ma Seok-do must be a tough cop, because he is played by Ma Dong-seok (Don Lee). Ma has ten days to clean out every last member of the Chinese gang from the Garibong-dong neighborhood. Naturally, he will not have any help from the Chinese authorities and precious little from his own Korean police bureaucracy, but he can handle the task anyway with his crushing face-palm. It is time for Ma to take out the trash in Kang Yun-sung’s The Outlaws (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Ma is not a superman—he has bad knees. Criminals are better off running when they see him, rather trying to go toe-to-toe. In the past, he has informally maintained a truce between the local gangs of Seoul’s Chinatown district, but that went out the window when the savage Black Dragons arrived.

Jang Chen doesn’t respect anything except raw power. He came from Harbin to collect debts for his gang and decided to stay to build an empire. Reluctantly, many henchmen from the Venom Gang defected to his syndicate for reasons of self-preservation, but the only people Jang treats with any respect are his two psycho lieutenants. Of course, the merchants and residents of Garibong get the worst of it. Ma will have to convince them to stand with his ragtag unit if he has any chance of rounding up the Black Dragons before the case is kicked upstairs to the pompous homicide squad.

Ma Dong-seok beats the snot out of Black Dragons. Seriously, what more do you need to know? There is actually a fair amount of inter-gang rivalry and intrigue, but the film is really about Ma putting his foot in their butts. Frankly, the film is a little slow out of the blocks, but Kang uses that time to establish his many characters and the cowed and depressed atmosphere of Garibong-dong. Of course, when Ma hits the streets, the film is all business.

After Train to Busan broke Ma/Lee out in Korea and internationally, The Outlaws and Champion have solidified his status as a crossover action star. In both films, he shows he has the size, chops, and the amiableness to be something like the next vintage Schwarzenegger. Watching him swagger inspires endless confidence in a film. While Ma’s Ma is the drinking buddy you always wanted, Yoon Kye-sang makes Jang Chen one seriously cold-blooded villain. He is the sort of ruthless sociopath the audience will yearn to see crash and burn. Yet, Park Ji-hwan and Jin Seon-kyu manage to periodically upstage him as his chief rival and first lieutenant, each of whom is dangerously erratic.

In fact, Ma’s final fight is the sort of scene that will bring a smile to fans’ faces. Ma exerts his body-slamming authority all over the film, but we’re always comfortable in his presence. There have been plenty of Korean gangster movies, but Ma is still relatively new to being a leading man and former pop star Yoon also ventures outside his rom-com safety zone—and viewers can pick up on how fresh and energizing it all is for them. Recommended without reservation for fans of Ma and Korean crime films, The Outlaws had its Quebec premiere during this year’s Fantasia.

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Fantasia ’18: The Vanished

If Hollywood remakes this Korean thriller, there will be a temptation to call it “Habeas Corpus.” In this case, the National Forensic Service had the body of industrialist Yoon Seol-hee and then lost it. Basket case copper Woo Joong-sik assumes someone stole it, but there are suggestions of something even more sinister afoot in Lee Chang-hee’s The Vanished (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yoon’s body disappeared during a brief blackout, when the night watchman was also knocked out cold. The slovenly, booze-smelling Woo will lead the investigation. That ought to be good news for the prime suspect, Park Jin-han, Yoon’s prenupped, trophy husband, but Woo doesn’t have much left to lose. When he starts uncovering circumstantial and physical evidence linking Park to his wife’s murder, he defies orders from above to release his suspect.

In fact, Park did indeed do it—or so he thought. He conspired with his lover Hye-jin to kill Yoon with one of her company’s own experimental drugs. However, the mysterious calls and texts they both start to receive makes him suspect Yoon was playing him all along. Or maybe option C.

Strictly speaking, Vanished is not a horror movie, but Lee definitely serves up plenty of atmosphere and general foreboding, along with a dark and stormy setting. Throughout most of the film, he plays it coy regarding Yoon’s disappearance, but when the truth comes out, it is rather sly.

Kim Sang-kyung is an absolute fount of entertainment as the rumpled and grizzled Woo, like a bitter, half-drunk Colombo. Kim Kang-woo is all kinds of despicable as Park, but he makes viewers feel for him a little (in spite of ourselves), when his world really starts to implode. Of course, he withers next to Kim Hee-ae, who truly channels her inner Bette Davis as Yoon. As an added bonus, Kim Ji-young lends the film some presence and authority as Dr. Cha of the forensic agency.

Vanished is a dark and twisty thriller that should also appeal to horror fans as well. Lee keeps us off-balance throughout the first two acts. Even when we start to piece together the big secrets during the closing twenty minutes or so, it is still rather fun to watch Lee’s revelations. It is a lean and eerie take-no-prisoners thriller that translates really easily for foreign markets. Highly recommended for genre fans, Vanished had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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Japan Cuts ’18: We Make Antiques!

The tradition of pottery and ceramics dates back to at least 600 BC in Japan, where it remains a vital and respected medium for contemporary artists. You can see that for yourself from the exhibitions the Ippodo Gallery regularly stages in New York. You won’t come across the work of Sasuke Noda there anytime soon. He had that kind of potential, but he was ruined by an unscrupulous dealer. He now gets by on modest forgery scams, but he has a chance for some Sting-style payback in Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques! (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Norio Koike is sort of like Lovejoy, but less ethical. Ever since the smalltime dealer was fooled by a forgery foisted on him by Tadayasu Hiwatashi and his dodgy expert authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi, he forced himself to develop an eye for immediately detecting fakes, regardless of what the provenance might say. Yet, he still fell for Noda’s counterfeit Raku tea bowl.

It turns out Hiwatashi and Tanahashi were also the ones who destroyed Noda’s reputation. Despite their awkward introduction, the two scammers quickly discover they are birds of a feather with mutual enemies. With the older gent’s network and dealer credentials, they can take the con Noda ran on Koike to a much higher level, like something in the neighborhood of 100 million Yen. (Actually, that is a few fingers less than a million dollars US, but it still fills up more than one briefcase.) They just need a more compelling fake Raku bowl.

Yes, the con is on and it is indeed breezy fun. This is an amiable film with some low-key elements of farce. There is some door slamming and hiding under tables, but it never descends into slapstickery. In fact, the film genuinely has a passion for ceramics, which it wants to share. The patrons and staff of the Ippodo would probably get a big kick out of it, but fans of caper movies will also dig the scheming and scamming.

Kiichi Nakai is delightfully roguish as Koike, the charming old rake. Watching him smooth talk his way through the picture is just good clean entertainment. Kuranosuke Sasaki’s Noda is rougher around the edges and more understated, but he nicely compliments Nakai. Kogan Ashiya and Masaomi Kondo make appropriately pompous villains, while a veritable rogue’s gallery of character actors add all kinds of color and energy as Koike and Noda’s assorted bunco accessories.

It all goes down easy and even swings, thanks to the jazzy soundtrack composed by Harumi Fuki, including some epic drum solos worthy of Birdman. It is light and breezy, yet Nakai and Fuki still demonstrate virtuoso mastery of their respective crafts. Highly recommended for fans of con artist films, We Make Antiques! screens tomorrow (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Dream of Illumination


Remember in the 80s and 90s when Dick Gephart and Pat Choate were warning us the Japanese were going to buy everything in America worth having? Their demagoguery seems ridiculous after two or three Japanese financial crises. In fact, the shoe is on the other foot for residents of Rokujo, who have been forced to sell their land to foreign developers. Noboru Ueda is the broker who has facilitated those transactions. His relationship to the people of the community runs deeper and darker than even they realize, but he will reveal everything to his daughter Nana in Thunder Sawada’s Dream of Illumination (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Ueda will soon transfer back to Tokyo, because he is about to package the last really choice parcel of Rokujo land. However, his daughter Nana has decided to stay on her own to finish her senior year of high school. Ueda is further prompted to reflect on the past when he picks up a former client from the train station. Michiko Kajimoto and her husband gave Ueda his first important sale, but they divorced shortly after they left town. She has now returned to observe an important anniversary with the help of her friend Yuko Ikuda and the former mayor, Tomoharu Miyoshi, both of whom think Ueda is lower than pond scum.

Dream is a quiet, moody film, but Sawada keeps it sharply focused. Each relationship has specific meaning within the context of the narrative. There is a real point to it all, but Sawada reveals it with agonizing deliberation. Still, this is not a shallow Rondo-like attempt to show our inter-connectedness. It is an acutely humanistic examination of modern life, in which good people and decent behavior do not always prosper.

Sara Shida is maybe a year or two older than Nana Ueda would be in this film, but she invests the character with maturity well beyond her years. Frankly it is fascinating to watch her work opposite Yuya Takagawa as her world-weary father. Noboru Ueda is not exactly wracked with guilt, but he carries some heavy, exhausting secrets. It is an artfully nuance performance that invites sympathy for the devil. Maho Yamada is absolutely devastating as Kajimoto, but Elen might just be the real discovery of the film as the forceful but sensitive Ikuda.

Although the predatory land development theme is sure to appeal to a lot of critics’ and distributors’ biases, Dream is too subtle and Spartan to suit their aesthetic tastes. Still, those who appreciate film as an artform should definitely be impressed with Mizuki Nishida’s arresting black-and-white cinematography. Thoughtful cineastes had better see it tomorrow, because it is not the kind of film that will come back around many more times. Recommended accordingly, Dream of Illumination screens Saturday afternoon (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Japan Cuts ’18: Born Bone Born


Technically, Okinawa is still part of Japan, but you might understandably start to doubt that on the remote island of Aguni. The bone washing ritual called senkotsu would be one reason why (it is what it sounds like). Four years after the death of their mother, a wildly dysfunctional family reunites to literally wash her bones and pick bones of their own in Toshiyuki Teruya (a.k.a. Gori)’s Born Bone Born (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Since Emiko died, her husband Nobutsuna has become a sad drunk. Their grown son Tsuyoshi bitterly resents being the responsible one, who paid off the family debts. Responsibility has never been his sister Yuko’s strong suit, but when she shows up in an advanced stage of pregnancy with no husband in tow, it totally scandalizes the island. Fortunately, matronly Aunt Nobuko can put gossips in their place, right quick.

Obviously, the awkward homecoming will crescendo during the senkotsu ceremony. In the meantime, the family will air all their grievances, but frankly, they probably need to get everything out in the open before they can start to heal. In fact, their family actually stands to grow, between Yuko’s baby and her lover, who has no idea what kind of buzz saw he is walking into when he follows her out to Aguni.

BBB is a lovely little film that is not unlike Kore-eda’s Still Walking (which also screens at this year’s Japan Cuts, in honor of its 10th anniversary), both in terms of theme and tone, but Teruya/Gori finds considerably more humor in family angst. In fact, the humor nicely counterbalances the sentimentalism of it all.

The ensemble also shows great range and flexibility. Just when they seem to settle into their assigned roles, Ayame Misaki as Yuko, the flaky one; Eiji Okuda as Nobutsuna, the depressive one; and Michitaka Tsutsui as Tsuyoshi, the judgmental one; they start to mellow and evolve.

Aguni makes quite a picturesque backdrop, where it looks like time stands still (which it actually does, according to one character). Kazuya Sahara and Koja Misako also penned a beautifully evocative minimalist soundtrack that also compares favorably with GONTITI’s music for Still Walking. Once again, Teruya proves nobody does domestic drama and dramedy better than Japan—or in this case, Okinawa. Highly recommended for discerning adult viewers, Born Bone Born screens tomorrow at noon (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Blumhouse’s Unfriended: Dark Web

If all you knew about the internet was what you saw in movies, you would think the world would be better off if it rolled back the digital revolution, returning to analog card catalogs and mimeograph machines. Probably the last time something good happened on-screen because of a computer was when Matthew Broderick raised Ally Sheedy’s grades in WarGames—but subsequent events got rather complicated for them. In this case, things go from bad to worse for a group of friends skyping together in Stephen Susco’s Blumhouse-produced Unfriended: Dark Web (trailer here), which opens today in theaters.

After weeks of eyeing a sleek new laptop in his coffee shop’s lost-and-found, Matias, a poor aspiring game-designer finally succumbed to temptation. Obviously, that last sentence has multiple believability issues, but let’s continue anyway. When it starts acting buggy during a skype session friends, the nebbish gamer discovers a cache of hidden violent surveillance videos and an interface for dark web communication modeled after the mythological Styx River.

Matias quickly deduces the previous owner was an agent of “The Circle,” who abducts and murders victims for their viewing pleasure. More ominously, he knows that Matias knows, which puts him and his friends in jeopardy. Soon, he is sending Matias ultimatums, demanding the return of his laptops, or else he and his deaf girlfriend Amaya (not on the group chat), along with the rest of his friends, will suffer the consequences.

Frankly, Unfriended: Dark Web (a loose thematic sequel to the 2014 movie, just plain Unfriended) suffers badly in comparison to Aneesh Chaganty’s forthcoming Searching (known as just plain Search at this year’s Sundance). It too uses the movie-via-digital-screens-and-face-time concept, but its narrative is much more inventive. Chaganty’s protagonist figures out ways to use the technology that very likely contributed to his daughter’s disappearance in his desperate attempt to find her. In contrast, Susco’s Dark Web follows an undeviating line straight to Hell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not give us any hope or build up any real suspense.

Even though Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel is on-board as Nari, the cop fiancé of Matias’s pal Kelly, the cast of skypers are problematically bland and forgettable. Only Stephanie Nogueras registers to any extent as the sensitive Amaya, who has understandably had enough of Matias’s immaturity. Nor is there a really distinctive villain to focus our attention on. The Circle is certainly disturbing as an idea, but whenever the conspirators appear on-screen, they use digital signal distorters, so basically this film reduces down to empty-headed hipsters getting murdered by static. On the plus side (for Blumhouse), this had to be incredibly cheap to produce.

Unfriended: Dark Web is the sort horror film that leaves you feeling angry and used, because it took ninety minutes of time to take viewers someplace so grim and unsatisfying. Take heart, Searching is a good film (that keeps looking better and better), which will redeem this general conceit when it screens at Fantasia and AAIFF before opening theatrically on August 3rd. In the meantime, we have Unfriended: Dark Web to contend with, but you are better off skipping it when it opens today (6/20) in multiple New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

Forget about Egyptian cotton and high thread counts. There are no finer textiles then the Hibiol cloth woven by the legendary Iolph. They might look like teen aged girls, but they live through centuries without aging a whisker. The outside world mistrusts them and the feeling is mutual. However, when a decaying empire tries to harness their genetic longevity, a (comparatively) young Iolph is thrust into a world she is destined to outlive in Mari Okada’s anime feature Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Iolph, Maquia is supposed to feel lonely, but that doesn’t make it any easier. She has resigned herself to a super-long life weaving Hibiol cloth, when the army of Mesate suddenly invades. The cornerstone of the regime’s power were the ancient Renato dragons they successful adapted for military purposes, but the last of the mythical beasts are dying. If the king takes an Iolph as his wife, his successor should in theory live long and prosper. In the process, Maquia is whisked away by a wounded Renato, who crashes into the outskirts of a bucolic human farming community.

Soon thereafter, Maquia discovers a foundling still locked in its dead mother’s arms. Her maternal instincts compel her to adopt the infant she will name Erial, even though she knows she will outlive him by centuries. They spend a few happy years in that rural community, but eventually they must move on, to avoid attracting attention to her fantastical nature. She is sort of like John Oldman in The Man from Earth, but she is also a mother. Indeed, a great deal of Maquia addresses just what it means to be a mom, beyond simple biology.

There is no question Okada set out to make viewers blubber like a baby. This is the mother of all sainted, sacrificing mother films. Yet, Okada also does some highly intriguing fantasy world-building. She could set entire films in the Mesate realm that did not feature Maquia or explore mother-son relationships. Frankly, she could have doubled the time allotted to the Renatos without trying viewer patience. Regardless, when she lowers the emotional boom, it leaves a large indentation.

Visually, Maquia is also a rich, lush spectacle. The fantasy architecture is particularly arresting—so much so, we could easily envision it inspiring builders of the future. Arguably, this is the best-looking, most exotic-feeling animated film since Big Fish & Begonia, but it is as emotionally direct and resonant as Bambi.

The social systems and backstory of Mesate are so compelling, we would have preferred more palace intrigue and less tear-jerking, but it is clear as day Okada fully realized her vision. Even the most aloof hipsters will get choked up at the end. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated anime, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms opens tomorrow (7/20) in New York, at the Village East.

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Fantasia ’18: Room Laundering


Call it karma fraud. Japanese law requires prospective tenants receive notification of a recent death in a rental unit, but it does not stipulate how far back that regulation applies. Goro Ikazuzi provides a work-around. He supplies a short-term resident to establish a buffer between future tenants and the deceased, rendering the flat “laundered.” His niece Mika Yakumo might either be the best or worst person for such a job, because she sees dead people. Usually, Yakumo resolutely resists any form of personal connection, but she will uncharacteristically find herself getting involved with two ghosts and maybe even a living human during the course of Kenji Katagiri’s Room Laundering (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yakumo’s father died when she was five years old and her mother mysteriously vanished a year later. It is now just her and angle-working uncle. He is a bit of a sleaze, but he seems genuinely protective of her. Most of the time, Yakumo easily ignores the ghosts in the apartment she launders, but she rather starts to enjoy the goofy personality of Kimihiko Kasuga, a punk rocker who now regrets committing suicide. In fact, she is somewhat sorry when she is reassigned to her next flat.

This could be her toughest case yet—her first murder site. Yuki Chikamoto was a cosplaying business executive, who was brutally stabbed by an intruder. She would very much like Yakumo to help bring her killer to justice. Kasuga would too. Much to her surprise, he has also moved with Yakumo, because he is attached to an object she removed from his former home. There also happens to be a somewhat geeky but presentable young chap next door who is quite interested in Yakumo—again, much to her surprise.

In many ways, Room Laundering is a dark film, but it also manages to be absolutely charming. Katagiri and co-screenwriter Tatsuya Umemoto never water down Yakumo’s emotional issues and anti-social tendencies, which is why it is so satisfying when she finally starts to come out of her shell. Fundamentally, this is a story about growing up and learning to process pain, but the room laundering premise and the attendant ghost subplots are wickedly clever.

Elaiza Ikeda is terrific as Yakumo. It is a restrained and disciplined performance that never takes the easy way out, but still pays off in a big way. Likewise, Joe Odagiri is endlessly surprising as Ikazuzi. This isn’t his splashiest or most important role, but it is likely to become a fan favorite. Kiyohiko Shibukawa earns all kinds of bittersweet laughter as Kasuga, while former AKB48 member Kaoru Mitsumune is quite poignant as Chikamoto.

First time helmer Katagiri takes his time establishing his characters and the rhythm of their lives, but his third act is an endlessly inventive parade of revelations. This is an undeniably eccentric film, but it should be described as soulful rather than quirky. Very highly recommended, Room Laundering screens again on Saturday (7/21), following its North America premiere at this year’s Fantasia up north.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Occupation: Australian for V


Australians definitely seem to be a freedom loving people, despite their 1996 and 2002 gun laws. Unfortunately, they will regret that legislation when the alien invaders arrive, but at least there are still plenty of hunting rifles out in the rural communities. A rag-tag group of survivors will take the fight to the aliens in director-screenwriter Luke Sparke’s Occupation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The aliens first attack during exhibition Australian Rules football match. It was supposed to be former captain Matt Simmons last hurrah and the current captain’s golden opportunity to be scouted, but it did not end that way at all. They do not get along much, but they will have to work together as charter members of the resistance. It turns out their core group is quite resourceful, thanks to members like Simmons’ girlfriend Amelia Chambers, the grizzled but wiser-than-he-looks farmer Arnold, and Peter Bartlett, an ex-militant and would be family man, who just finished serving his prison sentence for murder.

Sure, we have seen this all several times before, starting with the classic George Pal-produced War of the Worlds and recently in the African-set Revolt, which was also released by Saban Films. There are scores of superior alien invasion films, but Occupation’s nicely drawn characters and game cast keep us hooked anyway.

Temuera Morrison is probably the best known and fans will enjoy watching him seething with rage as Bartlett, the distressed father. Stephany Jacobsen shows real star potential as the forceful, action-oriented Chambers, while Charles Mesure looks and acts like Australia personified as crusty, trusty Arnold. Plus, Jacqueline McKenzie steals a few scenes as the uber-commanding Col. Grant.

There is not much time or thought devoted to the aliens’ backstory. Basically, Sparke cribs here and there from the original V and Independence Day. The two-hour running time is really pushing it for what is essentially a B-movie, but to his credit, he keeps the energy level amped up. It cannot compare to the 1953 War of the Worlds, but it is lightyears better than the Tom Cruise monstrosity. Recommended for science fiction fans who enjoy a straight-up throwback now and then, Occupation opens this Friday (7/20) in New York, at the Village East. So, keep watching the skies everybody.

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Japan Cuts ’18: Violence Voyager

As a blond American boy, Bobby already stood out in rural Japan, even before he got trapped in a sinister amusement park of body horror. Even if it were called Cronenberg Gardens, it still wouldn’t give fair warning of the heinous crimes against nature that happen there. There will be a lot of mutated kids in Ujicha’s unbelievably weird cut-out “geki-mation” animated feature Violence Voyager (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Bobby and his pal Akkun want to visit a former schoolmate who moved to the other side of the mountain, so they head off along a sketchy trail, despite the warnings of responsible adults, like the hermit, Old Man Lucky-Monkey. Alas, they take a fateful detour when they start following the faded signs for the mysterious amusement park, Violence Voyager. Although the park looks abandoned, it is still functioning and the proprietor will even let them in for free.

Initially, they enjoy the role-playing adventure of fighting mutant cyborgs until it gets totally and painfully real. Soon, they connect with other young survivors, some of whom have been badly disfigured by the robot monsters’ noxious secretions. Eventually they learn (the hard way) the real purpose of the park is to either use them as food or convert them into more distorted cyborg creatures.

There are probably more dead or deformed children in VV than any other animated film in the history of recorded civilization, but as the old saying goes: “you can’t make an omelet, without breaking a few twelve-year-olds.” In fact, Ujicha gleefully revels in gore, bad taste, and disregard for propriety. It is so over the top, you cannot take it too seriously. Yet, there is something about the Violence Voyager park that hits us on an archetypal meadow, like it could be nestled in the Hudson Valley of one of Washington Irving’s tales, albeit one that was warmed up in Hell and drizzled with viscous bodily fluids.

Regardless of taste, you have to give Ujicha credit for being the contemporary master of geki-mation—a form of cut-out animation that also utilizes zooms and pan-and-scans for effect, as well as some highly practical effects, like blood and slime. He is sort of like Lotte Reiniger crossed with Tom Six. It sounds crazy, because it is, but there is still something indescribably unsettling about his figures.

Pound for pound, Ujicha’s previous film, Burning Buddha Man was probably more bizarre, but VV will burrow deeper under viewers’ skin, because it is a lot like seeing the kids from Stranger Things get deposited into the Cabin Fever franchise. It’s not for everyone. Frankly, it is the sort of film that separates real cult cineastes from the pretenders. However, if you want to see something truly deranged, it is all that and then some. Recommended accordingly, Violence Voyager screens Friday night (7/20) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: blank 13

If you want to learn a little about the cremation process and have a good cry, then Takumi Saito is your man. The actor’s directorial debut could serve as a graceful coda to the Oscar-winning Departures. Thirteen years after abandoning his wife and two sons, Masato Matsuda dies of cancer. The two brothers grew up bitterly resenting their absent father, but they are shocked to learn how he touched the lives of others during his funeral in Saito’s blank 13 (trailer here), which screens as a selection of the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Matsuda was a degenerate gambler who only ever brought home debt-collectors. However, he managed to eke out a few bonding moments with his younger son Koji over baseball. That is why Koji is the only one who tries to reconnect with Masato when the family hears of his cancer diagnosis. The effort is awkward and ultimately inconclusive.

Nevertheless, the Matsuda Brothers resolve to do their duty at the funeral, but for a while it looks like only Koji’s girlfriend Saori Nishida will be there for moral support. Yet, to their surprise, a Runyonesque assortment of gamblers, bar-workers, and nocturnal dwellers coalesces to paint a picture of their father as the salt of the earth.

Comparisons with Departures will be inevitable, but blank 13 has considerably more humor. There are a number of eccentric and ribald reminiscences at the funeral, but the tonal shift is never as drastic as it sounds. Even at its most outrageous, the film maintains a wistful melancholy. 

Lily Franky is perfectly cast as the sad-eyed but ultimately inscrutable Matsuda. Misuzu Kanno is quietly devastating as Hiroko, while Issei Takahashi openly expresses the pain and confusion Koji never really got over. Initially, Saito seems to have assigned himself a one-note role playing the bitter older brother, Yoshiyuki Matsuda, but he really lowers the emotional boom down the stretch. Plus, about half a dozen Japanese character actors of varying degrees of recognizability combine to a create truly distinctive mosaic portrait of the dearly departed, sort of led by a game Jiro Sato as the unlikely impromptu master of ceremonies.

To its credit, blank 13 does not try to answer every question about Matsuda’s dubious behavior, but it is still wholly satisfying. In fact, this is exactly the sort of foreign film that can go mainstream, even with its relatively short seventy-minute running time. It is a wonderfully humanistic film, but if you want to see it at Japan Cuts, you will have to fly stand-by. Enthusiastically recommended, blank 13 screens this Friday (7/20), at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Fantasia ’18: The Scythian


One thousand years ago, give or take, Russian Slavs had largely displaced the Scythian nomads of Iranian-Assyrian descent along the Eurasian Steppe. The Russian warlords had ambitions of conquering Kiev, so yeah, not much has changed in all this time. However, the stout-hearted Lutobor has more pressing problems than empire building. He must rescue his wife and daughter from a band of assassins known as the “Wolves of Ares” in Rustam Mosafir’s The Scythian (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The Scythians’ days are numbered, but they are not going down without a fight. Making a bold play, they kidnap Lutobor’s family, demanding he assassinate the prince in exchange for their safe return. Lutobor remains loyal, but the Prince’s hatches a scheme to feign his slow death from poison to smoke out the conspirators. Unfortunately, his trusted lieutenant will have to become a fugitive from feudal judgement. His only ally will be Marten, a Scythian warrior betrayed by his own comrades during the raid on Lutobor’s compound.

If you have been craving hack-and-slash action, there is plenty in The Scythian. It is also loaded to the gills with weird pagan imagery. On the other hand, the logic is a little light. It never makes much sense that Marten would so immediately and decisively align himself with Lutobor, but so be it. Don’t bother looking for strong women characters here either, because it is a product of its environment.

As for the guys, there are a lot of them, but only three or four really register. Aleksey Faddev has the brawn and action chops for Lutobor, but Aleksandr Kuznetsov is a much stronger screen-presence as the mongoose-like Marten.

It is hard to miss the significance of the Christian proto-Slavs mastering the wild steppe. Even more fundamentally, that this Russian production would opt to identify with the pillaging hordes is even more telling—whereas in the West, our sword & sandal flicks usually feature heroes of Greek or Roman civilization, instead of rampaging Vandals. Granted, the ending somewhat deconstructs its own heroic Slavic mythmaking, but that probably just left its target domestic audience confused.

So, mind your steppe everybody. Frankly, The Scythian is such an oddball train wreck of symbolism it really is worth seeing. More importantly for most well-adjusted viewers, the fight scenes are definitely staged with gusto. This is a film that would make MSNBC’s talking heads wet their pants, because it combines rampant unchecked testosterone with barbaric Robert Spencer-alt right hair-styles. Recommended for Donald Trump and the curious, The Scythian screens again on Thursday (7/19), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’18: Crisis Jung

If you thought Heavy Metal magazine was insufficiently violent and sexualized than this is the animation you have been pining for. Now please seek professional counseling. The gender-bending might lure in a different class of viewer, but boy will they be sorry. Hopefully all in attendance were prepared for some lurid gore when Baptiste Gaubert & Jeremie Hoarau’s French web-series Crisis Jung (trailer herescreened feature-style during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Jung (now there’s an archetypal name) and Maria are lovingly gamboling in the fields when an army of space demons swoops down, engulfing the world in darkness and installing their leader as the cruel overlord. His name would be Petit Jesus, which should tell you all you need to know about where this film/micro-series is coming from and what its intentions are. Being a cruel bastard, he kills Maria and utilizes her severed head as cornerstone of his temple.

Thanks to his rage, Jung becomes a superhero, but before he can defeat PJ, he must overcome his own mental hang-ups. Each time the evil Jabba’s minions beat him to within an inch of his life, he is sent careening into another surreal therapy session, in which an unseen headshrinker helps him work through his emotional issues.

If Gaubert & Hoarau really wanted to be subversive, they would have made the psychoanalyst a strict Freudian. Be that as it may, the shock value of Crisis Jung quickly grows tiresome. If you have seen one evil henchman with a chainsaw phallus, you have pretty much seen them all. Watching the episodes back-to-back, their opening and closing credit sequences included, also reinforces how much they all follow the same, repetitive template.

Gaubert & Hoarau probably think this is all very edgy, but until they redub their Galactus-like supervillain “Petit Mohammad,” we’re just not impressed. They maybe have the germ of something in the outlandish analysis sessions, but the characterization is stilted and much of the sexual violence is gratuitous and counterproductive. Totally unnecessary, Crisis Jung probably will not leave much of an international footprint after screening at this year’s Fantasia.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia ’18: Aragne—Sign of Vermillion


According to this film’s mythology, people once believed “insects that affected our subconscious lived inside us”—sort of like Scientology, but not as creepy. Unfortunately for Rin, there might be something to that superstition. In fact, it might be part of the perfect storm of bad karma she must weather in Saku Sakamoto’s short-in-length, but long on weirdness Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (trailer here), which premiered during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Poor Rin has a lot more to worry about than just her university exams. She was duped into renting a flat in a truly sinister apartment building. In addition to horrendous Feng Shui, it just might be built over something horrific. As if that were not enough, the neighborhood is also being stalked by a serial killer, who arranges his victims in a highly ritualistic manner. Rather ominously, there were earlier cases of his MO, dating back decades.

Aragne is a wildly eerie film, but we wish Sakamoto had developed the insidiously intriguing backstory more before lighting off into a maelstrom of woo-woo spectacle. Sakamoto did digital effects for Mamoru Ishii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, so it is not surprisingly that we can see a bit of visual kinship between the two films. Sakamoro crafts some wild imagery as well as some extraordinarily atmospheric set pieces. It just seems like he rushes the film too much, because he also created some genuinely inventive narrative elements.

Still, the artistry that went into this film is immediately apparent. He particularly capitalizes on the grotesque nature of the insects to give the film a uniquely textured feel. It is not just style, there are plenty of inventive narrative elements—we just wish there had been more time to explore them. (You won’t hear us say a film should be longer very often, so savor the moment).

Of course, it could very well have been a factor of budget constraints. The fact that Sakamoto independently produced such an ambitious and aesthetically distinctive film is quite a feat. Real animation fans will surely appreciate the accomplishment. Recommended for horror and anime connoisseurs, Aragne: Sign of Vermillion screened as part of this year’s Fantasia, up north.

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Fantasia ’18: Destiny—The Tale of Kamakura

If Orpheus and Eurydice lived in this charming Japanese village instead of ancient Greece, they might have had a better chance at cheating death. In Kamakura humans and spirits (as well as a menagerie of other mythical creatures) openly cohabitate as friends and neighbors. It is a lot for Akiko Isshiki to get her head around when she marries a Kamakura native, mystery novelist and part-time detective Masakazu Isshiki, but she will see even more fantastical things when she is forced to visit the realm of death in Takashi Yamazaki’s Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Viewers get a rather scenic introduction to Kamakura, along with the incredulous Akiko. There are cute little kappas living in their yard and all kinds of spirits selling wares at the night market—not all of them are friendly. In fact, one sinister goblin tries to kill the Isshikis with poisoned mushrooms. However, that brush with death allows Masakazu to temporarily perceive agents of death as they go about their business. They are not bad folks, really. In fact, the agent assigned to his faithful editor Honda is quite personable. Together, they help the distressed man to make arrangements that allow him to continue to watch over his family. In this case, he is forced to reincarnate immediately as a toad spirit.

About midway through, we learn there is a malevolent entity out there that resents the Isshikis’ married bliss. It will do anything to break them up, including divorcing Akiko’s spirit from her body. At this point, Destiny takes a turn towards the territory of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, but it always remains sweet and indomitably optimistic.

Despite being based on Ryohei Saigan’s mid-1980s manga, which doesn’t seem to have much readership here, some hip distributor ought to pick it up, because it could be the geek date movie to end all geek date movies. The Isshikis are a completely winning couple and their story of love reincarnated in successive lives is deeply romantic. It also tops the wonder of Vincent Ward’s vision of the afterlife, which was the best aspect of his Matheson adaptation.

Masato Sakai and Mitsuki Takahata are altogether charming as the Isshikis. Their chemistry develops naturally and they are both refreshingly earnest and even virtuous. Yet, Sakura Ando (probably best known for 100 Yen Love) steals scene after scene as the big-hearted, snappy-dressing grim reaper. In addition, the film is fully loaded with colorful supporting characters, many of whom are played by some of Japan’s most recognizable thesps.

Yamazaki helms with the perfect touch, involving viewers on an emotional level, but never shaking our confidence in his plucky leads. Based on Destiny, as well as previous films, such as the Always Sunset on Third Street trilogy and Space Battleship Yamato, he might just be the best in the business for manga/anime live action adaptations. We would love to see the Japan Society do a retrospective of his work. Destiny will be indispensable to any such surveys. Very highly recommended for fans of romantic fantasy and fantasy world-building, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura screened at this year’s Fantasia, up in Montreal.

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NYAFF ’18: BuyBust

Feeling conflicted about the War on Drugs? Erik Matti is about to raise even more concerns regarding the way it is prosecuted in the Philippines. It is surely no accident his latest film is one of several recent Filipino releases that calls into question the methods used to enforce justice in the Duterte era, but there is no time for politics in this action showcase. It is a kill-or-be-killed struggle to survive in Matti’s BuyBust (trailer here), which had its world premiere at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Nobody is more skeptical of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) top brass than Agent Nina Manigen. She is already the sole survivor of a disastrous operation that wiped out the rest of her previous squad. Even though she is considered a jinx, Bernie Lacson recruits her for his new squad. Unfortunately, their first field op bears a striking similarity to the notorious bust-gone-wrong Manigen barely survived. The idea is to grab the uber-protected drug kingpin Bennie Chen in mid-transaction, using Teban, a reluctantly cooperating narco middle man as bait. The operation needs to be fast and clean, because the entire walled off slum is under the control of the drug lord.

Alas, Lacson’s operation is betrayed by Judas, the same mole in the PDEA responsible for the massacre of Manigen’s first team. Trapped in the slum, Manigen and a handful of colleagues will have to fight pretty much everyone as they search for an escape.

Basically, BuyBust is like The Raid: Redemption, but set in a shanty village instead of a tenement. However, Matti’s film, considered his first straight-up action movie, is far grittier and fiercer. Frankly, the body count here is astronomical and many of the deaths are spectacularly brutal. Arguably, Manigen and her valiant colleague Rico Yatco qualify as heroes, but there is not a lot of heroism in the film. They do some grisly things to survive, but they do not have much choice.

Fans will probably be stunned by Anne Curtis’s steely, hardnosed action-turn as Manigen, but she truly reinvents herself here. It is hard to imagine just about any other glamorous leading lady who could duke it out so convincingly amid all this muck and detritus, including Atomic Blonde’s Charlize Theron (maybe Kim Ok-vin from The Villainess).

Yet, as Yatco, Brandon Vera is right there with her, every step of the way. In fact, they develop some terrific fighting chemistry together (but in a film like this, terms like “relationship” are meaningless). Victor Neri’s Lacson is also a seriously bad cat, while Alex Calleja steals a few scenes as the rather reasonable (and comparatively decent) Teban.

There were some action elements to Matti’s On the Job, but BuyBust is just complete and total mayhem. Yet, we care about Manigen and her colleagues, because Matti invests a full half hour to establish their characters and the dysfunctional system they serve. Still, viewers better be prepared for the relentless havoc he lets loose. As an action beatdown, it totally calls and raises We Will Not Die Tonight. Highly recommended for hardcore action fans, BuyBust premiered at this year’s NYAFF, before screening this Wednesday (7/18) at Fantasia, and opening theatrically in the U.S. on August 10th.

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