TIFF 2015 Review: Our Little Sister

I want to bundle this movie up and hug it. Tightly. For a long time.

That was my first thought after seeing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (also known as Umimachi Diary or “Diary Of A Seaside Town”) due to its joy, charm and humanity. I simply wanted to extend my experience with it and let all of its wonder continue to wash over me.

Don’t take that as indication that the film is slight or sickly sweet though. It’s neither. The emotions, reactions and behaviours are all very real and relatable (regardless of your cultural background) and the story of 3 sisters discovering they have a 14 year-old half-sister gets to core aspects of family – what we share, how we relate to each other and how we make assumptions about our family members. The film drifts in and out of gentle melodrama at times with musical cues denoting the prevalent emotion of the scene, but none of these moments felt forced or constructed purposely to tell the viewer what to feel. Kore-eda’s style is always there to support the story and characters. And what wonderful characters…

The three sisters (ranging from early 20s to early 30s) all live together in the old family home and have different personalities and approaches to life. Though they all fit certain templates – eldest is the maternal responsible one, middle child has bad taste in men and drinks to excess, youngest is a bit goofy – they each have fully-fleshed out characteristics that make them endearing, interesting and a bit frustrating. Kind of like everyone’s own family…Though their Dad is on his third wife by the time they attend (with little emotion) his funeral, their half-sister Suzu was actually the daughter of his second wife (who had passed away previously). This clues the older siblings into realizing that she won’t get any attention or love at all in her remaining non-blood family. Even though they have just met her, Sachi impulsively invites Suzu to live with them and the household brightens considerably with the teenager’s arrival. They share the house with their Great Aunt and the mid-section of the film is chock full of wonderful family dynamics scenes – ranging from cute to passive aggressive. Behind all of this is the spectre of the mother (Dad’s first wife) of the three adult sisters, how she fits into their lives and what might transpire when a larger family gathering will take place.

I will readily admit that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Kore-eda fanboy, so my biases are clear. I adore pretty much everything I’ve seen by him because he builds characters with whom you not only want to spend time, but also desire to discover more fully and who stay with you long afterwards. In the case of Our Little Sister, the screenplay was actually adapted from a manga by the original author Akimi Yoshida so I can’t give full credit to Kore-eda. But his ability to extract wonderfully natural performances from his actors continues here and makes the film feel “lived in”. Especially when it clearly revels in the small details of family life and traditions as the story winds its way through all the seasons of a full year. You can almost taste the plum wine they make from the fruits of their property’s trees and its oh-so-sweet. Not saccharine, but sweet.

A Month of Horror 2014 – Chapter 1

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Skeptical about yet another set of October horror reviews? Can’t says I blame you, but I’m doing it anyway…My first 4 of the month: The Comedy Of Terrors, Pieces, Society and A Page Of Madness.

 

The Comedy Of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur – 1963)
A less than auspicious start. You would think that with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff all being directed by Jacques Tourneur (Jacques freakin’ Tourneur!) that you might end up with a bit more than warmed over gags, broad dull humour and an uninteresting story with staid visuals. But that’s exactly what you get here. Price and Lorre are occasionally entertaining just by their sheer presence as undertakers that need to create a market for their services, but it all becomes old pretty quickly. The musical score is possibly the worst part of the whole affair – it’s overbearing as it continually tries to tell you what’s funny with little whistles, blorps, xylophone runs and all manner of recycled generic bad kiddie TV show music. Painful at times.

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TIFF Review: Like Father, Like Son

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If you know any 6 year olds, you know that responding “It doesn’t matter” when they ask “Why?” is pretty pointless. Regardless of any context, the comeback is bound to be circular in nature. So it says a lot about the parental experience of Ryota (one of the fathers in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film Like Father, Like Son) when he does just such a thing. After learning that his 6 year-old son was switched at birth, he, his wife and the other two parents decide to try exchanging the boys for a few weekends to judge whether they should make the swap permanent. When little Ryusei (his weekend guest) pesters him with a barrage of questions, you’d think Ryota would have had enough experience to properly handle them. The fact that he doesn’t is how Kore-eda enters into his exploration of what it means to be a father.

In the director’s honest Q&A following the screening, he admits that he based the rarely-home and work-focused Ryota on himself. As he realized that he had missed some crucial moments in his own daughter’s life, he began to work out the details of this affecting story of these two families. Ryota is a man driven by success, status and money. He feels that if one cannot be the best at something, well, why bother even doing it. To reinforce this point with his son Keita, Ryota sends him to cram school solely in order to pass an interview for private school. Though diligently following the rules of the household, Keita never quite measures up to Ryota’s expectations, so when he and his wife learn of what happened six years ago, he mutters “Now it all makes sense…”. It’s almost a relief to him to hear that Keita isn’t his true flesh and blood. If there was any doubt that Ryota has a warped view of fatherhood, it’s dispelled in that moment. The movie doesn’t necessarily brand him as a terrible person though – after all, he’s surrounded by male role models (his father, his boss, the strongly patriarchal society) that believe in the preservation of status roles and the importance of respect while also discouraging emotion and kindness. Ryota’s own father even counsels him to quickly make the exchange of the boys and then never to see that other family again.

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DVD Review: Ozu – Three Melodramas

Ozu – Three Melodramas is, you guessed it, a DVD collection containing three fine examples of Yasujiro Ozu’s work within the genre he was most synonymous with, melodrama. I use that term lightly, as his subtle touch doesn’t seem to fit the mould, more just the subject matter of much of his work. Included in the set is an early silent film, Woman of Tokyo (1933), and the two films he made after Tokyo Story, Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957). Below I give brief reviews of each feature and look at the set as a whole.

Woman of Tokyo

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Tadao Ikeda
Starring: Yoshiko Okada, Ureo Egawa and Kinuyo Tanaka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 45 min
Year: 1933


Produced not long after Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth, Woman of Tokyo is one of Ozu’s later silent films and, like the former, isn’t quite as refined and perfect as his later, more popular work, but is nonetheless beautifully made and can be recommended to fans of the director.

Woman of Tokyo tells the story of Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa) and Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) who are brother and sister and share an apartment in Tokyo. Ryoichi is a student and relies on Chikako to pay his way with her office job. Ryoichi’s girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) however, hears a rumour through her policeman brother that Chikako actually moonlights at night as a prostitute to make ends meet. When Ryoichi finds out he doesn’t know how to react to this shocking revelation.

Being a short ‘semi-feature’ at only 45 minutes and having actually been produced very quickly (in 8 days), Woman of Tokyo does feel quite rushed when compared to Ozu’s more well known work. It has many early examples of his great use of cutaways, but here they are often used over scenes playing out rather than to break things up. There are some wonderful match cuts though, such as when a scene of Chikako heading off on her latest ‘job’ ends on a street lamp then cuts to Ryoichi’s room light to signify that he’s been waiting up all night for her. Of course it looks fantastic too as Ozu had settled into his signature style by this point.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: Insect Woman & Nishi-Ginza Station

Insect Woman (a.k.a. Nippon Konchûki)

Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Sachiko Hidari, Kazuo Kitamura, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Masumi Harukawa
Producers: Kano Otsuka, Jirô Tomoda
Country: Japan
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 1963
BBFC Certificate: 15

Masters of Cinema continue to release the early work of the Japanese New Wave pioneer Shôhei Imamura, with a dual format Blu-Ray & DVD edition of Insect Woman, considered one of his earliest masterpieces (alongside Pigs and Battleships from 1961). The film is also packaged with an earlier studio comedy, Nishi-Ginza Station (see below for a full review).

Insect Woman is a clear step, or rather leap, towards the work Imamura would produce later in his career. As he is famous for stating, he has always been “interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure… I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals.” Insect Woman makes this question clear from the outset by opening on a shot of an insect struggling up a hill in some sort of fruitless journey it seems programmed to do. The ensuing film mirrors this fruitless existence with the life story of Tome (Sachiko Hidari), the bastard child of a poor family. Shunned by her ineffectual mother and treated like livestock by most of her family, her only source of love comes from her simple-minded father/step-father Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura), with whom she shares a creepy relationship that veers on the incestuous. After having a bastard child of her own, Tome leaves for Tokyo to earn a living to pay for the child, who lives back home with Chuji. She soon moves from the factories to prostitution though and her downtrodden innocence gradually turns her into a hardened old woman who tries to manipulate others to her advantage but ends up causing her own undoing. In the end the film comes full circle as her daughter Nobuko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) succumbs to some of the same vices as her mother and gets pregnant with possibly another bastard child. In the final shot we see Tome struggling up a dirt path on her way to see her, mimicking the insect’s struggle we opened with.

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DVD Review: The Ozu Collection: The Student Comedies

The Student Comedies is a DVD collection of some of Yasujiro Ozu’s earliest feature films, all part of the ‘student-comedy’ genre, popular in Japan at the time (the late 20’s and early 30’s). The films include Days of Youth (Wakaki Hi), I Flunked, But… (Rakudai Wa Shita Keredo), The Lady and the Beard (Shukujo To Hige), and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (Seishun No Yume Ima Izuko). Below I give brief reviews of each feature and look at the set as a whole.

Days of Youth

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Akira Fushimi
Starring: Ichiro Yuki, Tatsuo Saito, Junko Matsui
Country: Japan
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1929


Ozu’s earliest surviving film and his first feature length film as director, Days of Youth follows two student friends as they (at first unknowingly) chase the same girl. One is a glasses-wearing bookworm, the other a cheeky prankster who will pull any dirty trick he can to get the girl. These come to a head when the three of them take a skiing trip together.

Like most of the films in this collection, Days of Youth strikes an odd but successful balance between gag-comedy influenced by the Hollywood comedies Ozu loved and mildly melancholic drama which suggests the direction he would take in his later years. The film isn’t one of his masterpieces it must be said. The artistry and subtlety the director is famous for is in it’s fledgling years, but nonetheless there are signs of future genius in the film. Although not nearly as funny as the silent comedies of Lloyd, Keaton or Chaplin (Ozu’s cast don’t have the charisma or comedic prowess of these legends), the film does have a human and naturalistic element that most cinema of the time lacked. Visually there are a couple of nice touches too, with some early use of his famous low angled static wides and signs of his careful framing, although there are a fair amount of conventional Hollywood techniques on show too.

So it’s an interesting glimpse into how the great master started out, but taken on it’s own is not much more than a simple yet charming diversion.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Guilty of Romance

Director: Sion Sono
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Starring: Megumi Kagurazaka, Miki Mizuno, Makoto Togashi
Producers: Yoshinori Chiba & Nobuhiro Iizuka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 144/112 min (112 min version reviewed)
Year: 2011
BBFC Certificate: 18

Sion Sono draws his ‘hate trilogy’ to a close with Guilty of Romance. From what I’ve heard there is little in common between the three films (Love Exposure and Cold Fish are the first two – neither of which I’ve actually seen so I can’t comment), but nonetheless Guilty of Romance is clearly the work of the maverick Japanese director behind oddities such as Suicide Club and Exte. This is more serious in tone than those two films, but retains the dark, twisted and occasionally baffling take on it’s subject matter.

Guilty of Romance opens with a female police detective arriving at the scene of a brutal murder where the body parts of a woman have been attached to those of mannequins to create two creepy human dolls, and neon pink paint has been splashed around the seedy surroundings. Body parts that could be used to identify the victim (head, hands and feet) as well as the sexual organs are missing though so the detective heads off to investigate. This classic murder mystery aspect is pretty much left there other than a few glimpses in the version I saw. The film has two cuts, the original 144 minute Japanese one and a shorter international version. This 112 minute cut pretty much removes the detective story whereas the longer one retains it. Both cuts have been endorsed by Sono, so I can’t see a need to get too worked up at the UK release being shorter. In fact what little we see of the detective story is bland and fairly unnecessary in my eyes anyway so I’m actually pleased I got to see the international version.

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Blu-Ray/DVD Review: The Ballad of Narayama

Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Shôhei Imamura
Based on a novel by: Shichirô Fukazawa
Starring: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejô
Producer: Shôhei Imamura
Country: Japan
Running Time: 130 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: 15

And so we reach the final entry in my triple bill of Shôhei Imamura films and probably my favourite. Winner of the Palme D’Or in 1983, beating films by Robert Bresson, Martin Scorsese and Andrei Tarkovsky, I would describe The Ballad of Narayama as the best entry point to Imamura’s work (from the four of his films that I’ve seen). Although it shares similarities to Profound Desires of the Gods, it’s more accessible in terms of plotting and contains a fair dose of humour that can be quite broad but is balanced effectively enough to not detract from the power of the drama.

Adapted from the novel of the same name (which had been made into a film previously), with added scenes from The Jinmus of Tôhoku (both written by Fukazawa Shichirô), The Ballad of Narayama is set in a small remote village, high up in a mountain, away from any trace of society. We aren’t told in what period the film is set, my guess would be around 100 years ago, but it’s not clear. The inhabitants live a difficult life, toiling the fields to grow enough food to keep their families alive. They live by a strict code that includes the tradition that once you reach the ripe old age of 70, you should climb the treacherous mountain, giving your life to it’s God that sees over the village. The film centres around grandmother Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) and her family. She has just about reached that magic number and once she accepts her fate she busies herself in tying up all of her children and grandchildren’s loose ends, ensuring the family remains strong and happy after she has gone.

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DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Profound Desires of the Gods

Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe & Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Rentarô Mikuni, Chôichirô Kawarazaki, Kazuo Kitamura, Kazuko Okiyama
Producer: Masanori Yamanoi
Country: Japan
Running Time: 173 min
Year: 1968
BBFC Certification: 15

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series are releasing three films from Shôhei Imamura on October 24th, A Man Vanishes (1967), The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and this, Profound Desires of the Gods (1968). After catching Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine recently then working through most of these (I’m still to watch Narayama), he’s fast moving up my list of favourite directors. His films aren’t instantly gratifying or easy to watch, but they’re fascinating, rich and experimental without being totally unfathomable. Saying that, I’m having trouble expressing my feelings towards Profound Desires of the Gods. I wrote five pages of notes whilst watching the film (a personal record), yet these mostly concern the actions on screen I felt were important rather than thoughts on it’s quality or success. My reviews tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of why a film works (or doesn’t) in my eyes, probably due to my technical filmmaking background, but it’s not as straightforward as that this time, so bear with me as I try to channel my inner film-theorist.

Profound Desires of the Gods marked the end of an era for Imamura. It was the last film he made for Nikkatsu due to it spiralling over budget (the film took a whole year longer to shoot than expected) and it’s subsequent failure at the box-office. It was also the last cinematic feature film he made for around ten years, instead working on documentaries for television. With it’s epic length (close to three hours), persistent use of real locations and erratic storytelling, it’s not hard to see why it was so difficult a production for those involved and unpopular with a regular cinema-going audience. Nonetheless it makes for fascinating viewing now, for those with a taste for it.

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AFI Fest 2010: Outrage

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Here’s my thing with Yakuza films, or really any mafia-style gangster films: I can never, ever manage to keep track of who everybody is, what side they’re on, or why they do what they do to the people they do it to (I mean why specifically in each case; the why generally is fairly obvious). I know that’s partially the point, as loyalties shift and everyone usually has multiple agendas and power plays going on, but I still usually find myself just having to go with it and enjoy it for each moment, at least for the first time viewing. My usual state of mind is something like “okay, I’m not sure who these guys are, but they’re going to rough up that guy, not sure why, but there must be a reason, and OH YEAH VIOLENCE.” Takeshi Kitano’s latest Yakuza film Outrage is pretty much the same, but with even more outrageous kill scenes and bodily injury than I’ve seen before, so I quite enjoyed seeing what new and shocking ways he’d come up each time, even if I was unclear on the details of the shifting familial alliances.

I won’t even bother trying to synopsize the story, even if I could, because really, that’s not the draw here. It’s a bunch of aging Yakuza bosses getting into petty squabbles that escalate over and over until basically, everybody’s dead. Not a spoiler, because what else would you expect to happen? But even though the film is largely men in suits talking or yelling at each other punctuated by bursts of flamboyant and stylishly shot ultraviolence, I found myself quite engaged and entertained throughout. And by the end, the basics of the families’ relationships to each other was starting to become clearer and with a second viewing, I think I would be able to keep everything straight (especially knowing who’s left standing at the end).

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Shinsedai 2010 Review: The Red Spot

Director: Marie Miyayama
Writer: Marie Miyayama, Christoph Tomkewitsch
Producers: Martin Blankemeyer, Miyako Sonoki
Starring: Yuki Inomata, Hans Kremer, Orlando Klaus, Imke Büchel, Zora Thiessen
Running time: 82 min.

Global networking has become a more prominent and widely carried out activity in recent years than ever before. With the rise of internet culture and web sites like Facebook, Skype and even Chatroulette, it has become incredibly easy to make and maintain relationships with people all over the world. I myself have been privileged to form many such connections over the past year with people living in different parts of Canada , the U.S. and even Europe, either through my own travels or them coming to Toronto. Consequently, concepts of global community and cultural interaction are being touched upon in a number of ways in more and more films, one of which being Marie Miyayama’s debut feature The Red Spot.

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