Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Japan Cuts 2011- Four Capsule Reviews

We’ve been talking about little else other than the New York Asian Film Festival and we’ve almost completely ignored the sister series at the Japan Society, Japan Cuts. Japan Cuts is the more straight laced sister of the NYAFF and once the wildness of the co-presentations is over it settles down to more normal and less way out fare. It’s an excellent look at current Japanese cinema and definitely worth investigating.

In addition to the ten films that are co-presented with the NYAFF they are running an additional 22 films for a total of 32 films. We at Unseen will be seeing all of the co presentations and approximately another ten films. Since we’ve already done reviews of some of the co-presentations, it’s time to get a jump on some of the Japan Cuts films and give you a taste of what they are presenting exclusively.

Shot in English in Canada, the film has less in common with what you think of as Japanese film. It’s the sort of film that had you not been told was made by a Japanese director and studio you would have sworn the film was actually the work of an American independent director…

…this to me is the problem with the film, its cut from the same cloth as any number of other quirky inde comedies.

The film follows what happens in wake of the death of the mother of Ray, Lisa, and Maury . Ray is a 30 year old scientist who wants everything to go as planned, he hates change and takes comfort in Gundam TV episodes and toys. His brother is a reclusive concert pianist who hasn’t left the house in four years. Their sister is a college student who looks down on everyone. They are saddled with their grandmother from Japan. She had been brought to the US just prior to their mothers death and she speaks no English. How they interact is the film.

I’ve read some glowing reviews on line about the film and I’m sure if you like quirky (in the extreme) inde comedies you’re going to love this. For me the film is good but it’s annoying in it’s effort to fit into the typical inde mold. It’s very arch, very knowing, very rib jabbing in making you notice the silly people on the screen. Basically the quirkiness is forced.

It’s not a bad film, it’s just..well unremarkable. Frankly if it wasn’t for it’s pedigree-an English language comedy made by Japanese director, this film would completely get lost into the void.

If you like inde comedy give it a shot, on the other hand if you have a low tolerance for quirky things steer clear.

(By the way the title refers to an effort to determine why the grandmother sighs loudly before leaving the bathroom)

My desire to see this film was forged by an image of the import DVD cover at Yes Asia of two boys sitting in a rail truck in the woods. Its a simple and unremarkable image that haunted me until I got the chance to see the film.

The plot of the film has a Japanese widow and her two sons going to Taiwan to bring her in-laws her husband's ashes. It charts the struggle of the various family members both Japanese and Chinese to come together and form a real family in the wake of a shared loss. It also deals with the the struggle of trying to find a place to belong to culturally.

A haunting score and magnificent photography help to sell a simple story. It's a seemingly familiar tale that often kicks you to the curb with its combination of sound and image. I dare you not to be moved to stupid smiles or tears by the beauty of much of the rail truck sequence.

I liked this film a great deal. I like I went in expecting one thing (something based upon the image I had seen) had it confounded by what the film really is (a slightly cliche family story) only to be surprised in the end by it going beyond the cliche into a place of really beauty and emotion.

Is it the best film at Japan Cuts? probably not, but it's definitely worth seeing .

Vengeance Can Wait (2010)
I haven’t seen a super number of the Japan Cuts films yet but along with Ninja Kids and Milocroze: A Love Story, this is one of the gems of the series.

Based on a play that has been produced across the United States (including one at PS 122 here in New York) this is a manga and anime influenced black comedy about vengeance and waiting (which is the literal translation of the title).

The plot of the film has a couple moving to municipal housing on the out skirts of a city. Banjo is unemployed, his wife,Azusa, runs a bar and is expecting their first child. As Banjo makes the rounds introducing himself to his new neighbors, he encounters Nanase, a strange young girl who is living with her brother, Hidenori…or maybe he’s not. Despite being married Banjo’s smitten with the young lady. Things get weirder when it’s discovered that the two women know each other and that there is bad blood between them going back to high school…but wait theirs more….However I’ll leave that for you to find out.

I really liked this. It made me laugh. It made me smile. It made me wonder who the hell were this crazy people? I really liked that it didn’t follow all of the quirky paths that many comedies of this sort normally would have taken (one review I read of the film said this is actually better than the play since it fixes the rough spots). It’s a wonderful inde comedy that doesn’t feel like everything else out there (See Toilet above- actually don’t, see this instead).

I freely admit that the film isn't perfect. there were a couple of times that you had to take things on faith, but I was too busy being carried along to care and the problems only bothered me in retrospect.

For me it’s the sort of film that pisses me off in that I had one shot at seeing it and because I was having such a good time I wanted to be able to see it again right now (as of right now there is no official English release and I want this in my collection). I had to twist an arm to see it the one time.

Go see this film. It’s playing the 21st at the Japan Society and worth the trek out there. Seriously I liked it enough to consider rearranging my schedule so that I can actually see a proper screening of the film.

Wandering Home(2010)
Non-judgemental look at alcoholism, the destruction that happens in it's wake and how things flow out from their, including the (dark) humor.

The film is the story of Yasuyuki, a once great photographer who is now fighting to get into good health. As the film open he's finishing up a binge that will leave him hospitalized. Over the course of the film we watch as Yasuyuki tries get better and to reconnect with his estranged family even as the disease destroys his body.

Atypical from almost every look at alcoholism I've ever seen in that the tone isn't overly doom and gloom. No, it is not a happy story, and no it doesn't pull any punches but the film kind of sees it simply as life. These aren't the grand cinematic drunks of Barfly or Leaving Las Vegas, but the people who live down the street from all of us. In it's way it's a more devastating look at the disease than any other simply because it doesn't gloss over anything or shy away from what happens. We see what the drinking does to the drinker and his family. We also see how the drinker sees the world which makes for a few odd and darkly funny moments as we experience the delusions and zone outs.

When the film was done I was left feeling very odd. One some level there was a great sadness, the final sequence left me feeling incredibly sad... But at the same time there is a life to it all, that kind of makes it all... okay. I can't explain it. I'm not saying that it makes drinking one's self to death okay, but at the same time there is more to it than operatic tragedy.

Sitting here, not long after having seen the film, I find I'm completely bewildered. What sort of film did I see and why do I feel this way?

Yes, I'm feeling slightly kicked to the curb, but at the same time the film has made me ponder so many other things.

As the write up for Japan Cuts said, it's a powerful film. I'm going to be contemplating this for days. I'm going to have to revisit this one after Japan Cuts ends.(Thank you import DVD)

I reserve judgement as to how good the film is until a later time, but it's definitely one of the must see films of the series, if for no other reason that it looks at it's subject in a truly unique way and makes you feel something.

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