Monday, July 15, 2013

At The Crossroads of the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts

This weekend, taking in some of the selection screened at the crossroads of the New York Asian Festival and Japan Cuts, feels like a survey of a year’s worth of the best indie and repertory Japanese releases condensed into a couple of days. Although a desire to be there in Japan consuming these films at a casual pace definitely arises, it wouldn’t include the luxury of subtitles. Plus, as even some of the individual screenings have proven, there is something to be said for occasional excessive indulgences in visual stimulation.

I’ve written about the opening night party screening of I’M FLASH! here and Miike Takashi’s saucy hor d'oeuvre THE LESSON OF EVIL here, as it was shown at an earlier screening at the Walter Reade Theater.

Friday was a double feature powerhouse of Sono Sion’s 199- stillbirth debut wrenched back into life BAD FILM, and hilarious comic sendup HENTAI KAMEN.  Saturday would find me watching 3 of the day’s films: DREAMS FOR SALE, IT’S ME IT’S ME, and HELTER SKELTER. On Sunday, things would let up a bit with me taking in only 1 screening – THE KIRISHIMA THING. Here is a brief look at each.

BAD FILM (Sono Sion) is a roughly shot behemoth populated by amateur stage actors and assorted ‘characters’ that is s crudely compelling…not in spite of but because of its incessantly brash and offensive dialogue. It’s  a Shakespearian melodrama set in the near future pitting warring gangs of nationalistic Japanese and immigrant Chinese against one another, whose biggest target is pigheaded intolerance in the name of nationalism. There are ridiculous characterizations of the Japanese gang members, the leader of which has an intimate relationship with an actual pig head. This diamond in the rough does not have to be so long, but a large part of the auteur Sono’s appeal is his insistence on presenting his madcap visions undiluted…which here includes baseball games between he ethnic gangs, a laundromat debate of civilly spoken yet thoroughly racist epithets timed so that the participants switch from Japanese to Mandarin every 3 minutes, and gangs using old school propaganda vans equipped with microphones to preach on the detrimental effects foreigners’ penises pose to Japanese females’ equivalent anatomy. A bigger mess of such high intrigue is unlikely to exist.

HENTAI KAMEN (Yuichi Fukuda) is a pitch perfect hilarious manga adaptation of a comic story that sends up superhero stories and Japan’s notorious fetish subculture all in one shot. A junior high school student, born of diametrically opposed fetishes (his dominatrix mom and the latent submissive cop dad whom she ensnared), finds superhuman strength in presence of one of Japan’s most notorious and shameful fetishes: a preoccupation with used underwear. Whereas some superhero parodies put an audacious wrapping on an otherwise straightforward story – to stick with a Japanese example, Yatterman has pitch perfect costumes but a no surprise good vanquishing evil progression – HENTAI KAMEN keeps a sly and cheeky face throughout.  

DREAMS FOR SALE (Miwa Nishikawa) set Saturday afternoon ablaze with a slow-burning brushfire. It’s not the first Japanese film to explore he notion of people escaping harsh reality by deluding themselves with fantasty, and those who help  expand on those fantasies for their own selfish gain – past Japan Cuts alumni Motel 66 comes most readily to mind – but it is by far the best. A hot and cold couple working various temp restaurant jobs become emotional grifters with the end goal of earning enough money to build their own restaurant and hence financial security. Kanya reluctantly plays the foreground when it is realized that women are attracted to a sense of ease and security he gives them. Satoko finds sadomasochistic pleasure in brokering him out, taking pleasure in the way they part money from the insecure and desperate marks, but wounded by the attention Kanya pays them instead of her.

The drama is pillared by two strong female forces in Japan’s film industry: director Miwa Nishikawa (who has paved the way for this film with other restrained and slowly revealing moral dilemma dramas Sway and Dear Doctor), and Takako Matsu who plays Satoko, known for her near legendary performance of a revenge driven teacher in Confessions. In contrast to Matsu’s ice cold portrayal in that film, here she plays her character burning hot. Notable is the all too natural sudden flashes of violence she is capable of – whether brandishing a glass or literally cooking Kanya in a bath of hot water while pressuring him to carry out their scams. The facades hold up all too well until a final slippery mess brings illusions crashing down.

IT’S ME IT’S Me (Satoshi Miki) is a rambling, colorful, absurdist dream brought to life. Wrought with quirky exchanges of dialogue set to an even quirkier bleeping electronic score, it follows the path of Hitoshi an electronics store employee and photography enthusiast, who on a whim, grabs another person’s cell phone and engages in some mischievous exchanges with people at the other end of the line. A matter of steps finds Hitoshi in an alternate reality populated by numerous Hitoshi’s all with their own personas that seem to be different shades of the one true one.  While it’s an interesting riff on the idea of seeking out one’s true self, it is only occasionally engaging. At it’s best, images come to life to create a cubist fantasy of towering angular structures and a final movement that is filled with panicked escape through claustrophobic spaces. Far too often, though, conversations are more confusing than anything. It’s enough so that I have become growingly wary of films built around the presence of a pop idol, even one as offbeat as this. Although I could hang with it and appreciated its uniqueness, it’s the sort of film that if I’d brought a friend along, I’d probably feel compelled to apologize for it afterwards.

HELTER SKELTER directed by designer Mika Ninagawa is pure blissful visual anarchy. A hundred thousand pop art projects strung together and animated in sequence. Despite talk of it being a plastic surgery horror film, it’s more about a fame monster destroying everything in its path before eventually devouring itself. Forget story and just let the visuals stun you into submission. Starting with an opening sequence with swirling red and white stripes reminiscent of the work of Yayoi Kasuma and building too a an all out animatronic bad acid trip.

About a year ago I read about this film online and in an instance of life seeming to imitate art, found news of lead actress Erika Swajiri missing appearances and behaving erratically. Her onscreen counterpart, fashion model Lilico, is an embodiment of celebrity behavior out of control, holding a personal assistant and her boyfriend hostage sexually when not destroying herself with overdoses of pills.  Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein-like plastic surgeons vindictively slash up their patients.

Its extravagance makes HELTER SKELTER arguably the closest thing to a Japanese equivalent to The Great Gatsby.  And thinking about the excess of both HELTER SKELTER and BAD FILM, not too mention Sono’s more recent work, a grandiose collaboration between the two is the stuff of wishful fantasizing.

THE KIRISHIMA THING (Daihachi Yoshida) is a subtle film that took Japan by surprise. Focusing on the interactions of students in a typical high school, we watch events of a few days unfold from multiple perspectives. Much is shown about how students’ every word and move is an integral part of forming their identities and navigating relationships. A very prominent aspect of KIRISHIMA is a film club’s endeavor to make a b-movie; their pursuit of movie magic is a delightful reflexive aspect of the film. Much appreciated is the nod to Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which is shown with a wink and a nudge as a symbol of movie geekdom.

As the New York Asian Film Festival closes its iron clad doors for another year, Japan Cuts continues for another week of vibrant, challenging films. Stay tuned for a few more reviews of what’s to come.  

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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