Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Happy Cleaners (2019) closes the Asian American International Film Festival August 3

I’m not going to give a full review to Happy Cleaners. I’m doing this not because there is anything wrong with it, there isn’t. Rather I am going to keep this short and sweet because there was a point where I suddenly realized that this film was speaking to a greater truth outside of my experience. Yes, I could appreciate the story, and the acting and the technical aspects of the film, but the greater truth, about the generational divide of the immigrant experience in America was outside of my reach. I could see it and understand it but I could not connect to it the way I would have had I been the son of immigrants who struggled to make a life in a new country.

Happy Cleaners is the story of the Korean family living in Flushing Queens. Mom and Dad, immigrants from Korea, run a dry cleaning service which is faltering through no real fault of their own. The kids are trying to make their way in America, the only country they know. The clashing of old and new worlds leads to loving conflict in the family.

A sweet, at times bittersweet, family drama Happy Cleaners has been bouncing around the festival schedules for a couple of months and I completely understand why. A loving portrait of the struggles within a family that loves each other but whose members have differing view points. This is a film that has a glorious lived in quality. It’s a quality that comes not just from the people behind the cameras having lived the story but those in front . Everything in his film is nigh on perfect with the result is a film that will leave you moved.

Highly recommended Happy Cleaners is the Closing Night film of the Asian American International Film Festival.

Dachra (2018) Fantasia 2019

Trio of journalism students make their assignment to produce a piece of reporting that is unique by investigating the story of a supposed witch found wandering the road with her throat slit 25 years before. This leads them first to an asylum and later to hidden village where the people have weird habits. Of course it all goes horribly wrong for everyone concerned.

By the time I saw DACHRA I had been chasing after it for several months. I had run across it at a couple of film festivals but never managed to see it, with scheduling and ticket availability working against me. Finally after a couple of well-timed emails I managed to see the film I at the Fantasia Film Festival and I am both thrilled and slightly disappointed.

Either the first or one of the first horror films to be produced by the Tusnisian film industry DACHRA has a look and feel all its own. We are not in Kansas or anywhere really familiar any longer and we are better for it. Nothing seems normal or as expected. This is not a horror film world we are used o seeing on the big screen and as a result we are on edge. Yes it looks like something we might see say in Eastern Europe but there is a decidedly different flavor to it.

The cast is first rate. They sell the fear and confusion putting us deeply on edge.

Also putting us on edge are a series of sequences that draw out the raw horror and nightmare quality of what we are seeing on screen. From the opening murder of a little boy, to the mad eyes of a little girl eating a crow to clothes line full of entrails to the chilling conclusion we are kept off balance. Director Abdelhamid Bouchnak has a keen sense of how to instill terror with a mix of sound and image. The images and sequences that he has put together and make up Dachra are among the best in any horror films of recent vintage. They are so good that left to their own devices they chill the blood. The image of the little girl below for example unnerves me to such a degree that I had to see the complete film.

Unfortunately it’s the complete film where the film kind of stumbles.

Say what you will, the plot of interlopes coming upon a hidden village with bad results is one that horror film lovers have seen many times before. Most directors try and cover over the sameness with some sort of twist in the proceedings, unfortunately Bouchnak doesn’t do that and as a result the film as a whole clunks in and out of cliche, even though the pieces are sterling. While well told, the lack of any sort of twist or road block drains the excitement out of the proceedings because we’ve already worked out how it is going to go. While the clichés don’t kill the film entirely, they simply make what could have and should have been an all-time classic just a good little horror film. (It also allows us time to ponder a couple of narrative WTF moments we shouldn’t notice)

Taken on its own terms, and my disappointment aside, Dachra is recommended. While good on its own terms, the excellent pieces make this a film to search out.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Kingdom

This is a film that could make the heads of the “Own Voices” cultural segregationists’ heads explode. It is a Japanese film, adapting a Japanese manga, starring Japanese actors, portraying Chinese warriors during the Warring States period. Let us dispense with issues of so-called authenticity and deal with the film’s cinematic merits, because they are considerable. A slave find himself caught up in a palace coup, but that also means opportunities for freedom and social advancement, if he can survive that long in Shinsuke Sato’s Kingdom, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Li Xin and Piao were born into slavery and slaves they shall remain, unless they can hack and slash their way to freedom. All their free time is devoted to fencing training, but it appears to pay off when they catch the eye of Lord Chang Wen Jun. Alas, it is only Piao he is interested in—for a very particularly reason. It turns out, he bears a striking resemblance to the King, for whom he was to act as a double.

Unfortunately, Li learns this when Piao returns to the farm mortally wounded. The King of Qin, Ying Zheng, was usurped by his serpent-like younger brother, with the backing of the generals and ministers at court. Reluctantly, Li takes Piao’s place protecting the king, even though he (not unfairly) blames the deposed monarch for his sworn-brother’s death. However, the more he and the king fight together, the more they will come to respect each other.

Kingdom has just about everything you could ask for in a historical costume drama. There is gritty, blood-drawing action, both on an epic scope and at a one-on-one level. There are all kinds of betrayals and scheming going on. Plus, there are a number of outlandish looking Dick Tracy-esque villains. Yet, above all, the characters display the sort of tragic heroism of the best wuxia and Chanbara films.

Sato has become Japan’s blockbuster director of the decade thanks to movies like I Am a Hero, Inuyashiki, Gantz, and Bleach, but Kingdom is his most sweeping film yet. He is working on a big canvas, but he still gets some good work out of his cast. Kento Yamazaki is bug-eyed and hyper-active as Li, but not to the level of shtickiness. Ryo Yoshizawa plays a nicely differentiated double role as Piao and the King, but it is Masahiro Takashima who really commands the screen as Lord Chang. Yet, the surprise star might be Masami Nagasawa, who steals scenes and shows off impressive action chops as Yang Duan He, the chieftain of the Hill People.

Even in Japanese wuxia movies like Kingdom, we still get a triumphant celebration of the forcible unification of China, which seems rather unnecessary. Nevertheless, the whole point of the film is the fight scenes and action coordinator Yuji Shimomura does not disappoint. This is exactly the kind of film that made action fans fall in love with martial arts cinema in the first place. Very highly recommended, Kingdom opens August 16th in the U.S. and Canada, following its screening at this year’s Fantasia.

Illuminated: The True Story of the Illuminati (2019) hits VOD and theaters today

Illuminated: The True Story of the Illuminati is a look at the history of the Illuminati from its founding in 1776 to its demise a few years later. It covers the history of the order and it’s connection to other organizations like the Masons.

A constantly moving camera can’t hide the fact that this is the sort of thing that the History Channel runs in hour with commercials but stretched to 75 over long minutes. Full of long quiet passages that fill the time between the interviews segments there is a lot of filler. Everything is linked by an almost monotone narration that is delivered in a very deliberate and mannered style with the result is a large amount of disinterest…

…which is a shame since the film does a great service by effectively killing the notion of a grand conspiracy run by the organization. Additionally the interviews lay out a wonderful history of the secret organizations that flourished in the 18th century and whose social connections helped to shape the world as we know it.

While dull and not really recommended in its current form for anyone other than a history buff, should someone recut the film to a more manageable 45 minute run time and redid the narration this would be an excellent primer on a subject everyone knows of but no one knows.

When We Walk plays the Asian American International Film Festival August 3rd

Follow up to Jason DaSilva's When I Walk, the film follows DaSilva's struggle to remain in contact with his son after his ex takes the boy and moves to Austin Texas. DaSilva is suffering from MS and can not move to Texas without losing the health care he needs to remain alive.

This is heartfelt and moving portrait of what one man has to do in order to not only remain alive but also remain connected to the one person who means anything to him, his young son.

Definitely worth a look.

WHEN WE WALK plays the Asian American International Film Festival August 3

Monday, July 29, 2019

Luce (2019) opens Friday. Here is Ariela Rubin's Tribeca review

Luce is a movie about high school senior Luce, who was a child soldier in Eritrea, and was adopted by two white parents. They mention that they all went through years of therapy and recovery. He is now a track star, valedictorian, popular, and everyone loves him. Except one of his teachers, Ms. Wilson (played by the always great Octavia Spencer).

One day Ms. Wilson wants to see Luce's mom after school. She tells her that she was disturbed by a paper he wrote, that for his paper, he wrote about a leader who felt violence was necessary. She becomes concerned, given his childhood. She tells Luce's mom that she searched his locker (Luce is unaware), and finds illegal fireworks. (We later find out this isn't the first time she searched a students is she able to do this?). Luce's mom tells her husband about the paper and fireworks, and they are unsure of how to handle the situation. Do they confront him? or act as though nothing happened? They decide on the second, why? I am not sure.

The rest of the film, is basically a battle of sorts between Ms. Wilson and Luce. We don't know if she is for some reason out to get him, or if she is authentically concerned. Do the parents believe her, or trust their son? Luce constantly feels that he has to live up to everyone's expectations of him. Who is his true self? Is he the all American perfect student everyone thinks he is, or is he hiding something?

The film deals with many topics; race, class, mental health, sexual assault, but it only touches on all of these topics briefly. I kept expecting something big to happen or come out of it. It seems like the director leaves it up to the audience to decide.

I had high expectations going into this film, I heard praise of it from pre-screenings, and it already has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, however, I'm not really sure how I felt about it. I think I was underwhelmed. I didn't hate it, but I expected more. However, it is the kind of movie that I am still pondering hours later.

Moon In The Hidden Woods (2019) Fantasia 2019

In a world where the moon has gone missing a princess who is the heir to a great power flees the castle into the city where she meets a young musician who rescues her from her pursuers and takes her back to his village. Pursued by the creepy older guy who wants to marry her so an evil force can take over the world conflict soon occurs.

Visually impressive but narratively  unremarkable (hence the bland telling) MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.

I loved att the strange creatures that wander through the film. I also really loved the sense of place the world creates. All of the differing locations feel well thought out. Everything integrates and makes sense both together and separately. That may not sound like much but most films have cool things that make no sense when put together. 

The Korean folktale vibe is also really well done. While I suspect it could be argued that the folktale basis of things is the reason for the story's twists and turns, I don't think the slow middle section is the fault of basing the film on the structure. Indeed the fact the film begins and ends like gangbusters gives and indication of what the film could have been had it not wanted to stall and show so much of village life. Because the film slows down we can use the folktale plotting to work out how this is going to go and it takes an edge off the excitement.

Regardless the film looks great and when the film is firing on all cylinders it can't be beat. Recommended for those who love cool animated worlds.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Nate Hood on The Chaplain (2018) Japan Cuts 2019

There’s a wonderful moment in Dai Sako’s The Chaplain where the titular prison chaplain Saeki is asked an unexpected question by one of the Death Row prisoners he makes a career ministering to. They ask if God—or “Kami-sama” in Japanese—would be angry at them for “dabbling in other religions.” It’s a simple question that nonetheless pierces to the heart of Japanese religious experience.

For millennia Japan has been happily syncretistic, picking and choosing bits and pieces of Confucianism, Buddhism, and their own native Shinto wherever it suits them best. (For example, the Japanese traditionally celebrate births with Shinto ceremonies and deaths with Buddhist funerals.) The arrival of Christianity in the sixteenth century introduced their religiously pluralistic society to the new and uncomfortable concept of monotheism wherein only one religion was right and the veneration of other faiths was blasphemous. Skip a few hundred years into the future and now a chaplain, ministering to a prisoner whose life will end in a few days, is confronted with this uneasy contradiction. But Saeki smiles and answers: “People go to shrines, chant sutras, celebrate Christmas, right? He’d have to be mad at everyone.”

This year’s JAPAN CUTS festival has featured some truly intriguing explorations of Japanese Christianity, from Hiroshi Okuyama’s frustrated Jesus to Atsushi Kasezawa’s A Step Forward. But both do little to examine Christian theology within a Japanese context, the former focusing on a boyish misunderstanding of the faith and the latter on societal praxis, almost entirely ignoring what its piously devout subjects actually believe.

Not so for The Chaplain, a reserved yet powerful chamber drama comprised almost entirely of conversations between Saeki and Death Row prisoners. Each confronts him with a different theological conundrum: Mr. Takamiya, a serial killer of seventeen mentally handicapped victims, accuses Christianity of being a numbers racket concerned only with gaining converts; Mr. Shoichi, an elderly, illiterate recent convert asks what good his faith is if it won’t bring his victims back to life; Ms. Noguchi, an award-winning beautician who took a fall for her criminal friends, asks why she should care about Kami-sama if it won’t help her get out of prison. Sako gives Saeki and Christianity no wiggle room with these philosophical attacks, yet miraculously they emerge intact. And how? By embracing the same darkness, doubt, and uncertainty so many other lesser religious films twist themselves into pretzels to avoid.

Rating: 8/10

Joe Bendel on The Lodge (2019) Fantasia 2019

Step-parenting is always a tricky proposition, but it is especially so for Grace. As the sole survivor of a suicidal death cult, she has sort of already lost one “family.” Her prospective stepson and stepdaughter are less than thrilled to welcome her into their family. It is hard to form a conclusive judge about them or her in Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala’s The Lodge, which screens during the Fantasia.

Grace’s father was the charismatic leader of an apocalyptic Christian cult that committed mass-suicide Hale-Bopp-style. She was left behind to tell their tale, like the characters left standing at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Should that make us trust her more or less?

Regardless, Richard fell for her hard while writing a retrospective piece on the cult. Aidan and Mia were already seriously unhappy with his decision to take up with Grace, but when their mother Laura is suddenly ushered out of the movie, Grace becomes the focus of their hard feelings. Hoping to bring peace to their awkward family unit, Richard books a getaway vacation at an isolated mountain lodge. Right, what could go wrong—aside from Richard getting called back to work just before a severe storm cuts off Grace and the two resentful children from the outside world?

Maybe Grace is a victim in all this, or maybe not, but either way, her cult backstory is massively creepy. Franz & Fiala frequently return to images of the mass suicide, which are especially disturbing, because they deliberately emulate news footage of the Heaven’s Gate cult. It is arguably exploitative, but undeniably effective.

In fact, The Lodge is consistently unsettling because of its uncertainties, starting first and foremost with the true nature of Grace’s character. Riley Keough’s subtle, ambiguous performance gives viewer plenty to support any interpretation. Likewise, as Aidan and Mia, Jaeden Lieberher and Lia McHugh make two of the most suspicious and intense kids to appear on film since the off-the-rails twins in Franz & Fiala’s Goodnight Mother.

If you want to get technical, there are probably some serious logical issues within The Lodge, but Franz & Fiala’s command of mood and atmosphere is so strong, we don’t even notice in the moment. The chills are further heightened by Thimios Bakatakis’s appropriately icy cinematography. However, the recurring use of a dollhouse motif is probably a mistake, because it automatically brings to mind comparisons to Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Recommended for fans of high-end horror, The Lodge screens July 31 at Fantasia.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

AAIFF ’19: Baliko (short)

You could see photos of the Abominable Snowman every week in the Weekly World News and there is still grainy video of him and Bigfoot on A&E and the History Channel all the time. Nevertheless, a reputable professional photographer is convinced a clear, unimpeachable shot of a mythical Himalayan monster will jump-start her stalling career. More than a thousand words, a picture is worth everything in Chris Chung’s short film Baliko, which screens during the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival.

When an editor tells Mara her photos are pretty but dull, it stings bitterly. Resolved to show him and every other obnoxious jerk differently, she becomes obsessed with the idea of photographing Baliko, a legendary beast that only shows itself at particular times during the lunar cycle. According to folklore, his coming demands a sacrifice from local villagers, to atone for their collective guilt. They do not like talking about him much, even in this day and age.

Whether he believes or not, Mara’s Bertie Wooster-ish British boyfriend James will accompany her on the trek. She knew from the start he wouldn’t be much help, but she is still surprised how much his chatter bothers her. In contrast, their weathered Sherpa guide hardly says a word. Perhaps that is why he inspires confidence.

Baliko is sort of a survival story, sort of a monster film, and definitely a close cousin to the vintage tales off irony once seen on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Yet, the frosty setting is not so very different from Game of Thrones, which notably featured Baliko’s star and screenwriter, Jessica Henwick. She is also a Marvel alumnus, having played Coleen Wing in Iron Fist and The Defenders, so Baliko ought to have major fanboy appeal.

Henwick is also really terrific as Mara, showing considerable range while completely upending many of our assumptions. Jonathan Howard’s James might be too much of a twit for the film’s own good, but Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes from Marco Polo) is steely as ever as their silent guide.

Some viewers might guess the film’s twist, but it still has bite because of the shrewdly clever ways Chung frames the closing scenes. Frankly, this film ought to be a hot ticket, considering its three primary cast-members have all appeared in big, moderately large, or minor roles in some of the largest film franchises going (including Marvel, James Bond, and Godzilla). More importantly, it is smart and chilling (but maybe not in the way viewers will expect). Very highly recommended, Baliko screens tomorrow (7/28), as part of the Shorts: Otherly Worlds program at this year’s AAIFF.


RITUALS OF RESISTANCE is a look at resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet from the stand point of former monk tuned resistance fighter, a woman who was raised out side of Tibet but whose siblings still live there and a young man who feels stateless and turns to suicide as a form of protest. It is tied together by the ponderings of the director.

Meditative film about a lost home is by turns fascinating, kind of dull and rather thoughtful. Covering a wide variety of positions it makes us think about the notion of  a place that is supposed to be home when in one case we haven't been there in decades and in another not really at all. It is a film that makes clear the enormity of the task of protesting a huge injustice which is not really being paid attention to since the protests are barely noticed by the Chinese government.

I love that the film tells the story of the variety of the protests that have been taking place over the last almost 70 years. Lobsing Tendar's tale of a monk becoming a warrior shines light on those who chose to fight. It is a tale most people don't know but should. I love how the the film makes real this longing for a place that very few refugees really know as an actual place. Tsekyi Dolma had been there in decades when she went back and snuck into the country to see her family, while Lhakpa Tsering only knows of it from his home in India and yet they both long to return. There is a physicality to their longing that is heartbreaking.

At the same time the films structure can be a little too meditative. The mix of sound and image, of rolling country sides had me drifting off.  While I understand the film is a kind of prayer it is a little too reflective. Its not fatal but it kept me from fully remaining engaged. I mention this more as a warning then as a flaw.

My only real complaint about the film is its final image of the director running through the desert on fire. While the image is a correct one to end on, the handling of the digital effects is jarring and I found myself breaking with the film as if awoken from a dream. it broke the spell the film had crafted in the previous hour.

Regardless if you want to know about the state of Tibetan protests of China this film is a must.

RITUALS OF RESISTANCE plays July 28th 209 at the Asia Society. For tickets go here

Depraved (2019) Fantasia 2019

DEPRAVED frustrates me. It is so damn close to being a great film I want to scream. It is at times one of the most thoughtful riffs on Frankenstein you'll run across and at others its just an okay inde film.

A young man leaves his girlfriend after a fight. As he walks the streets he is set upon by an unknown person and stabbed to death. Waking up in a new body and unsure of who he is Adam has to relearn what it is to be human as well as deal with Henry his creator and the madness of Polidori his "assistant". As Adam learns more about who he is and how he came to be the stage is set for a grand tragedy.

Writer director Larry Fessenden has made a intriguing film. Updating Mary Shelley's tale to modern day Brooklyn, he shades it  not just with a mad genius trying to usurp god but with thoughts of trying to help those left broken by war. Henry's trying to heal those killed and hurt in our current wars. In doing so he truly makes us debate the notion of what Henry is doing on a more practical level than almost any other version of the tale.

This being a  Frankenstein film we also get the requisite riffs on what it means to be human and the struggle to truly discover who we really are. Fessenden's takes have unexpected resonances and get the mind working in ways that most of us haven't considered before.

This is also a film that is often visually delightful. There are short montages and overlays that  add a sense of what Adam is thinking. Adams look is also incredible. While I'm uncertain about how or why some of the scars are there it still looks impressive.

As much as I like the film there are things that bother me.

While I appreciate Fessenden treating the proceedings almost as if it is a drama, the tone of the film never quite feels right. There is a strange lack of suspense because on some level we know how this is going to go. As a result there is a lack of engagement as I was intellectually invested but not emotionally.

I'm also not sure about the Polidori character. The dark soul pushing Henry and events, he is the one character who seems out of place.Where pretty much everyone else seems, for the most part, to be or could be a real person (and I am including Adam) Polidori feels out of place. I don't know if it is the performance or the role, but he feels like he exists simply to push events along. It weakens things more than it should.

The film also has a problem with pacing. The film feels every one of it's 115 minutes with some bits feeling a little too long. There was a point around the half way point when I realized that there was still another hour to go. It's never fatal but it gave me time to think about some of the problems of the film instead of being carried past them by the momentum of events.

Don't think I hate the film, I don't, but I am frustrated because what is here is good enough that I should have loved it instead of just liking it.

Worth a look for fans of thoughtful rethinks of classic tales

Friday, July 26, 2019

Shinya Tsukamoto receives the Cut Above Award at Japan Cuts 2019 and the post KILLING screening Q&A

On July 24th before the Japan Cuts screening of his film KILLING director Shinya Tsukamoto received the Cut Above Award. Given by the Japan Society to a filmmaker whose work changed cinema.  There is no doubt that Tsukamoto's TETSUO THE IRON MAN changed everything after it as his work influenced a generation of filmmakers who were moved to make movies by his work.

Of course Tsukamoto was not a one hit wonder as films such as GEMINI, SNAKE OF JUNE, the NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE films and FIRES ON THE PLAIN made people think and feel things they never felt before.

Here is the ceremony where Tsukamoto received his well deserved award. It was a lovely evening and the master was genuinely  thrilled to be getting the award, which I think is clear in how he jokes.

After the ceremony Tsukamoto's film the KILLING was screened. It is a gut punch. (Nate Hood's review is here) The film is a meditation on violence and its cost and  it had the audience at the Japan Society, gasping, moaning and not looking at the screen.

After the film Tsukamoto sat down for an extended Q&A.  Because of the length of the talk the Q&A is in two parts. The question at the end of the first part is answered on  the second.

I should also war you the sound is a bit hissy, for which apologize, I was in the middle of the audience so it was an unfortunate result. Please bear with it because what is said is very informative about not only KILLING but also his other films as well.

Nate Hood's 400 words on A Step Forward (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

On the coasts of Shirahama, a small town in western Japan, there runs a gigantic cliff overlooking the ocean. Towering over 150 feet tall and stretching well over a mile, this shelf of rock and sand is a major tourist attraction for the sleepy beachside community. But it’s pictorial beauty masks a horrifying reality—every year untold numbers of people come to the cliffs to commit suicide. But in recent years, many potential victims have been saved by a curious white sign standing on the cliffside with a telephone number and a message in bright red: “Please call before making the final decision.” The phone number goes right to the desk of Yoichi Fujiyabu, pastor of the nearby Shirahama Baptist Christ Church. Within minutes he’s there at the cliffside to save the caller from themselves. If he succeeds in talking them down, he takes them to his church which doubles as a rehabilitation center for potential suicides, supported in part by their non-profit restaurant staffed by rescues rebuilding their lives. The work gives these desperate people purpose, community, and hope. Many times it’s enough. Sometimes it’s not—rescues will leave without warning and disappear. But despite the failures, Fujiyabu’s ministry continues. It’s estimated that he’s rescued over 900 people during his time as a pastor, and the years of toil and emotional duress have eaten away at him.

This is the man at the center of Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward, not some smiling savior with superhuman stamina, but a living, breathing human doggedly driven by his faith to save his fellow man. After so many years he’s tired, he’s stressed, he’s become so disillusioned with his work that he even questions its worth with his wife. In a sense the film feels reminiscent of a Catholic hagiography of the medieval European mystics who struggled with doubt and disbelief. Kasezawa’s curiously detached direction underscores this, giving Fujiyabu’s Christian faith only cursory glances before zeroing in on his day-to-day personal struggles. But perhaps Kasezawa is too detached: the film feels overlong for 99 minutes, aided in no small part by inconsistent pacing which might veer off-topic for a five-minute montage of Fujiyabu silently walking through a neighborhood festival watching fireworks. Still, it’s emotional impact is undeniable and the film stands as one of the precious few impartial examinations of Japanese Christianity in recent Japanese cinema.

Rating: 6/10

Bei Bei (2018) Asian American International Film Festival 2019

Unhappy and despondent at being pregnant and no longer wanted by her boyfriend Bei Bei took rat poison in the hope of killing herself. She survived while her baby did not. Prosecutors used the note she left behind to charge her with murder claiming intent.

Chilling tale about how various jurisdictions are seeking to limit a woman’s reproductive rights via laws that seek to protect the fetus at all costs. This is an very good film that should act as a warning to women about how jurisdictions are taking steps to control the reproductive rights of women.


BEI BEI plays the Asian American International Film Festival and the Festival of Cinema NYC

The Slows (2018) Fantasia 2019

Nicole Perlman’s THE SLOWS is a good science fiction film.

Set in a future where normal reproduction has been replaced with a scientific method where children are accelerated to adulthood, THE SLOWS follows an reporter who goes to the last place where people reproduce naturally. Once there she is forced to ponder what we have lost by not doing it in the old fashioned way.

While THE SLOWS is a solid little film, it breaks no real new ground. odds are any scifi fan worth their salt will have run across any number of similar post-apocalyptic tales  or ones that ponder what it is to be human. Despite not breaking new ground it is an entertaining short film that tells it’s story compellingly.

Worth a look.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Night Cruising (2018) Japan Cuts 2019

Night Cruising is a one of a kind film. It is probably not for all audiences but it is a film that I find I have to recommend to anyone willing to try it simply because it has gotten me thinking about film, life and how we experience both in ways I never expected.

The feature documentary called Night Cruising is a making of film that also contains the short film Night Cruising as well. The short that is the subject of the feature documentary is one that was made by director Hideyuki Kato who is blind. It is a science fiction film which we first hear (the first twelve minutes of the film is a black screen with just sound effects and dialog) before seeing the completed film at the end. In between we watch as Kato and his team put the film together and bridge the gap between a blind director and a sighted crew.

I’m not going to lie and say Night Cruising is the best of films. While it has truly magical moments (the opening where blind people explain what it is like to watch a movie haunts me) the film sometimes goes on too long. It could probably be trimmed by at least half an hour. It also is a little too straightforward…

…on the other hand the film kicks up all sorts of thoughts that will rattle around in your head for days afterward. First and foremost it will force you to rethink how we experience film and television. While most of us think about how deaf people would experience a film, say needing subtitles, I doubt very few of us consider how a blind person would experience it. I'm guessing most people would say blind people don't watch movies but that isn't true.

Think about it, how does a person experience something that tells a story visually when they can’t see the visuals? It’s not something we think about every day, if ever. Additionally the film shows us the difficulty of how does a blind person direct a film. How does he get across the images he want on a screen when he really doesn’t have a point of reference? How do you explain the sensations to someone who doesn’t share your points of reference?

A couple weeks on I’m still pondering what it all means. I know it has altered what I think of as film or what film does. That the film has engaged me to such a degree kind of took me by surprise. It is so rare that a film hangs with me as long as this one has, and even rarer that it has changed the way I see storytelling and even the world.

Yes, I do recommend the film to anyone who wants to try it. But at the same time, as I said above, it isn’t for everyone. The film has a point and shoot quality to it, which while perfect for covering the events and interviews as they happen, are so lacking in style it becomes kind of bland over almost two and a half hours. Also the film is almost two and a half hours and feels it.

If you want a heady exploration of film and our perception Night Cruising is highly recommended . for anyone else it’s optional.

Why Don't You just Die (2019) Fantasia 2019

This blood soaked black comedy is an insane cartoon that will make you wonder what the hell is going on. I mean that in a good way because this is a one of a kind poisoned confection that will make you laugh even as it makes you wince.

The film opens with a twenty something young man arriving at the home of his girlfriends parents. We know he is there for an evil purpose by the way he grips the hammer he is hiding behind his back. The purpose is to kill his girlfriend's father, a large evil police detective that no one much likes. However things go wrong from the outset and before long blood is flowing.

If this had been played straight this would have been a totally unbearable film. The gruesomeness and the dark turns would have made for an ugly film that would be well into the realm of torture porn. However director Kirill Sokolov manages to hit the sweet spot tone wise with the result the film plays more like a blood soaked Roadrunner cartoon or a live action Itchy and Scratchy comic. I went into the film expecting to be hiding my eyes instead I was simply tense with anticipation that was often released by the laughter.

This film is a happy little trip into the heart of mankind's darkness and we are better for it.

While absolutely not for all tastes WHY DON'T YOU JUST DIE is highly recommended for anyone who likes sick and twisted comedies and doesn't mind the blood.


Deadpan comedy crime drama romance has a slacker getting a job at local bath house, only to stumble upon its use as a yakuza murder house. Instead of saying anything he takes a job of cleaning up after the hits. How you react to this dry comedy will depend upon whether or not you click with its off kilter sense of humor and its characters. I liked the film to a point but I never warmed to the slacker at the center of things. Regardless the film has its moments and is worth a look for those interested.

One of the best films at Japan Cuts is a look at corruption in the Japanese government surrounding a new school. The plot has reporter who is carrying the guilt of her father who was a run out of the journalistic profession and a mid-level official who is on the fast track to great things forming an uneasy alliance in order to get to the bottom of things, which potentially could end both their careers. Playing like one of the great journalistic thrillers of the 70’s and early 80’s, The Journalist grabs us early and sucks us in and drags us along from the opening moments to the final image. While I need to see it again because I think I missed little bits, I want to see it again because it it just so damn good.
Highly recommended.

For tickets and more information go here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Blue Hour (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

The Closing Night film of this year's Japan Cuts concerns a young filmmaker who is really good at turning out the by the numbers commercials and industrial films that pay her bills. As her endless drinking and really bad romantic choices leave her wondering about her life, she grabs he best friend and they head off on a road trip to her home town where she collides with her family, friends and her life.

Small gem of a film about trying to find ourselves and come to terms with the past so we can go on is sure to delight. This is a beautifully acted film with a real heart and sense of life radiating from it. It has a lived in feel and closeness to reality that many similar films don't really have. Watching the film I kept wondering if director Yuko Hakota lived this as either one of the friends at the center.

You will forgive me for being brief in discussing this film, but to be honest this is a film you need to see more than read about. This is a film that makes you feel and go "ah ha" and has small moments of recognition that hit you emotionally that you really need to experience instead of hearing about.

Highly recommended. 

Thank you to the Japan Society for a great closing film.

Lucky Grandma Asian American International Film Festival

Told she is going to be lucky on a certain day Grandma heads to the casinos in Connecticut and wins a fortune, until she loses it. Slinking home on the bus the guy sitting next to her drops dead. Discovering that he has an even bigger fortune in his bag, and knowing he won't need it, she takes it and heads off...only to find that one of the gangs in Chinatown wants their money back.

Imagine an off kilter comedy from Hong Kong or Taiwan made and set in New York City and you'll have some idea of what's in store. A potent mix of comedy, drama and social commentary, LUCKY GRANDMA keeps us chuckling as we sit on the edge of our seats waiting to see how it all plays out. Where it goes and how it goes is often unexpected since things take a dark turn and even the "happy" outcome reveals an unhappy truth about how children see their older parents.

That the film works as well as it does is due entirely to Tsai Chin as Grandma. A seemingly tough as nails cookie who always has a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she is no one you really want to come up against. Chin also manages to break our hearts when the stern mask drops and you realized that inside she isn't as tough as she seems. Chin's ability to balance both sides should win her enough acclaim that she can get the leads deserving of an actress who has been working steadily for six decades.

One of the unexpected joys of 2019

LUCKY GRANDMA plays Sunday at AAIFF and is highly recommended. For tickets and more information go here.

Nate Hood's 400 words on Night Cruising (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

If you’ve never seen Hideyuki Kato's Ghost Vision, rest assured that it’s one of the strangest sci-fi shorts ever made. Only 12 minutes long, it features a bizarro plot starring a blind martial artist, an interplanetary telekinetic soldier, spectral hackers, and a Dadaist ending where the action comes screeching to a halt for a final shot of a two-dimensional cat flipping on its side and scurrying under a cabinet. It careens from live-action to CGI on a whim, almost as if every scene were made by different filmmakers, and has a soundtrack that veers from chip-tune techno to free-form jazz drumming. It’s a truly bizarre, almost unwatchable experience.

It might come as little surprise, then, that Kato never did actually see it since he’s been totally blind since birth. Makoto Sasaki’s brain-bending documentary Night Cruising charts the creation of Ghost Vision from its inception through its screenwriting, casting, production design, shooting, and post-production all while meditating on the struggles of blind creatives navigating a world so dependent on sight. Kato, a professional musician, was inspired to make a sci-fi short partly due to his love of movies, particularly the Star Wars franchise which he would watch growing up with his family who’d narrate the action onscreen as it happened.

The bulk of the documentary feels like an unwritten Oliver Sacks book come to life as he travels to various museums, laboratories, and tech offices to learn the fundamentals of visual storytelling as a blind man. A museum of natural history gives him skulls and forensic reconstructions of their faces to learn what “beautiful” and “plain” people look like through touch. Elsewhere he visits a color scientist who explains what colors are and how they should be used, eventually giving him a touch-palette with colors arranged on a circle so he can use them to create a consistent color palette. Costumed actors are scanned into miniature 3D models so he can get a feel for their look with his hands, programmers record his movements using special sensors so he can choreograph his fight scenes, and he builds custom set dioramas with Legos and clay with his cinematographer so they can plan shots. By the end we’re so enamored with Katz’s tenacity and ingenuity that when we finally see Ghost Vision we can’t help but regard it as a masterpiece, warts and all.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Shooting the Mafia (2019) Fantasia 2019

When I ask “what is SHOOTING THE MAFIA doing at Fantasia?” I don’t mean it as a slap. It is more a question of what is a film that belongs at festivals such as New York, Toronto or DOC NYC doing at a genre festival? I’ll be hard pressed to know but I really don’t care because it put the film on my radar and yours as well.

The film is a portrait of photographer Letizia Battaglia who over the last several decades has chronicled life in and around her town in Italy and whose photos became a means of chronicling the death and destruction that the Mafia was doing to all levels of society. A fighter for social justice she became a recognizable presence at various protests with her bright red hair.

Transcending being just a film about a photographer and her work, SHOOTING THE MAFIA is in reality a history of Italy during the life and career of Letizia Battaglia. Through her photographs and her memories we are walked through history for the last three or four decades. Its an eye opening journey that makes this a truly great film.

If you are at Fantasia and want something that is a kind of palate cleanse from all the genre madness this is a must. If you are not at Fantasia this is a film to put on your must see list since I’m guessing that this is going to end up at many of the big late year festivals and even possibly in the mix for the Oscar.

SHOOTING THE MAFIA played earlier tonight and replays July 25th. for tickets and more information go here

Nate Hood on JESUS (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

Historically speaking, Japan has always had a, shall we say, tenuous relationship with Christianity. The strange foreign faith of the strange foreign peoples they spent several centuries trying to keep off their islands, Christianity has been at best a bizarre cultural curiosity and at worst a grotesque arm of Western imperialism. Hiroshi Okuyama’s Boku wa Iesu-sama Ga Kirai—literally translated as “I hate Mr. Jesus” but tactfully localized for Western release as Jesus—falls somewhere in the middle.

The film follows Yura Hoshino, a shy fifth grader who moves from Tokyo into the countryside when his family relocates to support their aging grandmother following her husband’s death. The nearest elementary school is a Catholic one run partially by priests whose daily itinerary for students includes bible study and morning worship. Yura initially treats this strange faith with suspicion, but after some warming up he prays to “Iesu-sama” to help him make friends. Immediately—as the anonymous author of Mark’s Gospel might say—a six-inch white-skinned Jesus appears before him and grants his request: he quickly befriends another boy named Kazuma who invites him to play soccer after school. Next Yura asks his pint-sized prophet for some money. And lo, his grandmother discovers her husband’s hidden stash of cash and gives Yura a cut. Iesu-sama becomes his newfound companion and personal wish-fulfilling genie. At least until Kazuma is unexpectedly hit by a car. And dies. And like that, Yura is crushed by the weight of a crisis of faith.

Jesus is an autobiographical film based on an actual incident in Okuyama’s life, but perhaps he told this particular story too soon; at only 22 years old, he’s interested less in philosophical or theological ideas than exploring his own childhood trauma. The film’s a spasm of rage and hurt towards the faith that failed him, but his understanding of Christianity seems not to have matured or deepened any in the decades since his childhood. And that too would be fine if the movie was interesting. But besides the 6-inch white Jesus (played by famous Australian comedian Chad Mullane), the film is almost defiantly blasé, padding out maybe twenty minutes worth of story into an overstretched seventy-six. If Okuyama had made this a short film, it would’ve been devastating. But in trying to make a proper “art film” he demonstrates his own artistic immaturity.

Rating: 5/10

Fantasia ’19: Extreme Job

Being a small businessman is not so different from being a cop. Both have a tough time making ends meet and the bottom-feeding media is only too happy to score cheap points against either. At least independent proprietors can be their own boss. That is why narcotics team leader Go will be tempted to make it permanent when he goes undercover as a purveyor of fried chicken in Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job, which screens again during the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Go’s team made a real hash of their last case, so if they do not rack up some high-profile collars quickly, they are likely to be disbanded. The five misfit cops decide to follow a rival squad leader’s tip, staking out long-suspected drug kingpin Lee Moo-bae’s new hideout. There is definitely illegal business going on behind closed doors, but the chicken shop they have been using to monitor Lee’s gang is about to go out of business. In the spirit of all or nothing, Go uses his pension fund to buy it out.

Of course, they will have to sell some chicken to keep up appearances. Oddly enough, Det. Ma, the compulsive gambler and general foul-up, happens to have a knack with chicken. In fact, his chicken with rib marinade becomes a foodie sensation. Suddenly, Go and his team are too busy filling orders to do much police work, which frustrates the hard-charging veteran and the idealistic newbie. However, things take a surprise turn when the media starts nosing around.

Extreme Job is one of the relatively rare South Korean comedies that translates quite well for American audiences. Of course, it does not hurt that there is quite a bit of action, including a massive beatdown climax. However, it really works because Lee Byeong-heon and screenwriter Bae Se-young take a clever premise and fully develop it. They do not simply milk a few chuckles out of the prospect of cops distracted by their own chicken-slinging cover. This Macguffin takes on a life of its own.

It is also amusing to see Ryu Seung-ryong, the grizzled star of films like The Target, The War of the Arrows, and The Front Line, playing such a sad-eyed, snake-bit underdog. He still shows off plenty of action chops down the stretch. Although he is more than a bit annoying at first, rubber-faced Jin Seon-kyu also develops some roguish charm as the culinary-skilled Ma.

Thanks to the game cast (Go’s Fab Five), Extreme Job has quite a bit of genial charm. It is easy to see why it broke Korean box office records and has Kevin Hart kicking the tires of a potential American remake. It is just a lot of easy-going fun, somewhat in the spirit of the original Beverly Hills Cop and Stakeout movies. Recommended for fans of cop comedies, Extreme Job screens again next Wednesday (7/31), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Ariela Rubin on House of Hummingbird (2019) Fantasia 2019

This film takes place in 1994 in Seoul. It is a story about a 14 year old girl named Eun-hee. Her family is quite dysfunctional. Both parents are so cold and absent. Her mom seems to be in a daze more than half the time. Her brother is violent towards her, and the parents don’t care. Her sister has somewhat rebelled and isn’t around much. Her teacher calls the kids idiots. Kids in school laugh, and make fun of her. She loves drawing comics. She does have a best friend from a different school. She spends time with her by going to karaoke and roaming around. Eun-hee winds up having a health scare and has to go to the hospital.

Eun-hee is looking for love. She has an on again, off again boyfriend, and then meets a girl who has a crush on her.

Eun-hee doesn’t really have anyone to talk to, until a new understanding teacher arrives. The scenes with the two of them were sweet.

The writer and director wrote this film based on her own experiences of growing up in Seoul in the 90’s.

I enjoyed this sort of coming of age film. The girl who played Eun-hee was sweet, and cute. This film was also sad, it seemed as though nothing could go right for her.

House of Hummingbird is 2 hrs and 18 minutes, and while I enjoyed it, I definitely think it could have been a little shorter. It’s a slow paced film, that really spends time showing the daily life of Eun-hee.

I recommend it!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Nate Hood on The Legend of The Stardust Brothers (1985) Japan Cuts 2019

Gather round, little children, and let me tell you the story of the cult Japanese rock musical that could. In 1985 Macoto Tezka—the son of Osamu Tezuka, affectionately known in Japan as the “God of Manga”—met a young musician and TV actor named Haruo Chicada with a unique problem: he had a movie soundtrack but no movie. Inspired the rock operas of The Who, Chicada released an album entitled “The Legend of the Stardust Brothers” about the rise and fall two rival musicians who join forces, become overnight sensations, and imploded almost as quickly.

Tezka, only 23 years old with a handful of 8mm shorts under his belt, immediately agreed to make Chicada’s missing movie. The result was a breathtaking, senses-assaulting blitzkrieg of low-fi DIY filmmaking equally inspired by Brian De Palma’s camp classic Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and early 80s music videos á la Michael Jackson and the Talking Heads. His two lead actors Shingo Kubota and Kan Takagi could sing, but they couldn’t necessarily act, forcing Tezka to rely heavily on montage and rapid-fire editing to direct around their short-comings. “Even if they couldn’t act, as long as they could express themselves in a unique way,” Tezka explained in an interview with The Japan Times, “I knew I could put something together in the cutting room afterward.” The result feels like something storyboarded by his mangaka father with characters bouncing around a plasticine reality—one moment they might dance up a flight of piano key stairs ripped from a 1930s Hollywood musical, the next get into a Looney Tunes chase sequence where falling down a flight of stairs transforms them into anthropomorphized boulders, and the next cower in a record executive’s office lit and shot like it was in the basement of the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters in Blade Runner (1982).

Here is a film that indulges in every gaudy excess, every obnoxious fashion trend, and every ridiculous hair style of mid 80s pre-economic bubble Japan, complete with a murderer’s row of cameos of iconic Japanese artists like Lupin the 3rd mangaka Monkey Punch, film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and puroresu legend Akira Maeda. And it bombed. Spectacularly. Largely forgotten until now with an upcoming Blu-ray release courtesy Third Window Films, the film is an irresistible time capsule of mid-80s Japanese weirdness with a soundtrack that still rocks even today.

Rating: 8/10

Nate Hood on Bullet Ballet (1998) Japan Cuts 2019

There’s a haunting scene in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet where two gangs confront each other in an industrial complex late at night. As they fall upon each other, stabbing and smashing, cutting and clubbing, a faulty light somewhere nearby starts flashing wildly, creating a disorienting strobe effect on the carnage. The source of this flicker is never shown, neither is the reason why it suddenly started malfunctioning. It simply exists as a stylistic underlining of the chaos. It is, to use an overly abused phrase, pure cinema. But then, Tsukamoto’s films have always veered towards the unapologetically expressionistic—like the silent directors of the Weimar Republic, he uses images to reflect interior mental states while completely disregarding realism.

Bullet Ballet, then, sees the gradual self-destruction of a commercial director named Goda (Tsukamoto) after discovering his girlfriend unexpectedly killed herself with a gun. Grief-stricken, he embarks on a back alley odyssey through Tokyo’s gang-infested slums seeking a gun of his own with which to end his life. (American audiences unfamiliar with Japan’s strict gun laws might chortle at this premise, but the reality is that firearms, legal or illegal, are nearly impossible for Japanese civilians to own.) His search for a firearm leads him through a host of con artists and criminals until he finally falls into the orbit of a street gang embroiled in a vicious turf war. But by the time he gets his pistol, he’s firmly off the deep end, his psychological fetishism so advanced that he partakes in savage self-flagellating rituals, beating himself with his gun while burning his arms with burning irons to relieve mental stress. Yet in an unique twist inspired by a real life Japanese phenomenon involving “teamsters”—young people with respectable careers leading double lives as violent criminals during the night—Goda compartmentalizes his psychosis during the day, acting the perfect salaryman while visions of bloodshed haunt his thoughts, swelling and festering until they’re ready to pop.

Like Tsukamoto’s best films—Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Tokyo Fist (1995)—Bullet Ballet is both cultural polemic and gruesome Scorsesian criminal Bildungsroman. But stripped of Scorsese’s Catholicism, all Bullet Ballet sees as it looks upon modern Japan is an abattoir of the soul, sticky with blood, caked with gunpowder. Only a lackluster script juggling too many characters and storylines at once keeps it from standing as one of Tsukamoto’s greatest.

Rating: 7/10

Bullet Ballet plays Thursday as part of Japan Cuts celebration of the work and career of  Shinya Tsukamoto.  For more information and tickets go here

BLISS (2019) Fantasia 2019

This is a repost of a review that ran during Tribeca

A painter of some note has stalled on her commissions and has them pulled from her. As the landlord comes calling she retreats into a series of drug fueled parties. After one wild outing she finds herself craving blood.

Alternately brilliant and annoying BLISS is a film that confounded me. While possessing some wonderfully off-kilter and disturbing moments and a great central killer performance by Dora Madison the film would seem to be poised to be a horror classic. However the shrill soundtrack, annoying characters and a sense we've been here before prevents the film from truly flying. Yes the carnage, when it comes is well handled but it takes a while before it comes and we are left to cope with some annoying hipster characters we really don't like doing things we don't care about.

If that sounds like I don't know what I feel about the film you would be right, I don't. The film is really too all over the spectrum to really get a handle on.

Should you see it?  I'm not sure, so I guess you're on your own.

Nate Hood on Shinya Tsukamoto's KILLING (2019) Japan Cuts 2019

Viewers familiar with Shinya Tsukamoto only for his earlier work in transgressive art-house horror and ultra-stylized, hyper-violent social dramas might find his latest film Killing quite the oddity. For one, it’s a chanbara film set in the late Meiji era, a setting Tsukamoto has only utilized once before in his 1999 film Gemini. Secondly, there’s precious little of the frantic pacing and ultra-kinetic editing that made his work so distinctive—there are even moments in this film that could be accurately described as staid and meditative. But the film is no less a product of his fevered mind than his breakout cult hit Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) or his nihilistic manifesto of masculine self-destruction Bullet Ballet (1998).

As with many of his other films, Killing sees a young man whose life is radically disturbed and redefined by a sudden exposure to violence. In this case, the young man is Mokunoshin Tsuzuki, a young ronin lodging with a village of rice farmers. When he’s not helping with the harvest, he’s practicing his swordsmanship with Ichisuke, a young farmer who dreams of transcending his class and becoming a proper samurai like Mokunoshin. However, their peaceful lives are shattered when an older traveling samurai named Jirozaemon Sawamura—played by Tsukamoto himself—comes to recruit the two into his group of fighters sworn to protect the shogun. When a nearby group of thugs roughs up Ichisuke, Jirozaemon takes it as a personal affront to one of his soldiers and slaughters them—all save one who escapes, gathers a new band of outlaws, and murders Ichisuke and his family in their sleep. Honor-bound to avenge his friend’s death, Mokunoshin realizes he’s incapable of killing, setting the stage for a horrific confrontation with the bandits where his future as a samurai will be decided forever.

I’ve read some reviewers complain that the actual swordplay is choreographed and shot almost as an after-thought with jittery shaky-cam coverage obscuring much of the fighting. But that’s the point: Tsukamoto is more interested in the rituals surrounding violence and the psychological aftermath of combat. The result is a decidedly minor key film in his oeuvre that’s nevertheless equally as nihilistic and nasty as anything he’s ever directed, though one can’t help but roll one’s eyes at the sexual violence directed towards Ichisuke’s doomed sister Yu that’s added almost as an afterthought.

Rating: 7/10

Killing plays Wednesday July 24 at the Japan Society's Japan Cuts.  Director Shinya Tsukamoto will be in attendance and will be receiving the festival's Cut Above Award. For more information on the screening (such as the possible release of tickets for the sold out event) go here.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Money (2019) Fantasia 2019

Super little thriller played around the US earlier this year and now is playing at Fantasia concerns a young stockbroker who make a deal with a shadowy source called The Ticket for tips. When the regulators come calling The Ticket decides to close up shop and take care of loose ends.

Beautifully acted by some of the best actors in Korea MONEY is a smart little film that grabs you and drags you along. The cast works perfectly with the script so that the technical talk never over whelms the drama. We are invested in what is happening.

How good is MONEY? The fact that the film is being picked up by festivals like Fantasia and NYAFF even after it's run earlier this year is a good indication of a fan base that wants to have this film get the recognition it deserves. I couldn't agree more.

Highly recommended.

Sabu at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019

On June 8th, right before the New York Asian Film Festival’s Sabu double feature I got a chance to sit down with the director one on one and talk to him about his career. This was my third meeting with the director who is one of most favorite filmmakers in the world. The first time was a passing encounter at the Japan Society where I confused him with an autograph request. The second time was interview I tag teamed with Nobu Hosoki of Yahoo Japan when he was here for the NYAFF screening Chasuke’s Journey. This time I had the man to myself and I could ask him anything I wanted.

What follows is pretty much what happened. Since Sabu’s English is not good we spoke through a translator, Kana Hatakeyama who is also a kick ass filmmaker in her own right.

I want to thank Stevie Wong of the New York Asian Film Festival for setting this up. I need to thank Ms Hatakeyama for her excellent translation and mostly I want to thank one of my cinematic heroes, actor, writer and director Sabu for taking the time to speak to a crazy fan boy about his body of work.

Steve: Thank you for taking the time. Please excuse me, I may have to do this from the notes because you've made too many movies.


Steve: I want to begin with the film you're in but only because I was thrilled to see you in it Martin Scorsese's SILENCE. I'm just curious how did that come about? Is Scorsese a fan? Did he come to you?

Sabu: I actually auditioned for this. The auditions were in Tokyo. And right now, I'm living in Okinawa so I couldn't make the auditions in Tokyo, but they asked me to send a video so I had my wife and children help me with the recording, and the lights, and stuff and then I sent them the video.

And he had also watched my films. He really liked MISS ZOMBIE."

Steve: Speaking of MISS ZOMBIE, you mix up genres when you when you make films MISS ZOMBIE was promoted here as a horror film, but it’s more complex than that. Other of your films also defy genre. Do you try to do films that are a certain type of film, or do you just make the film that you want?

Sabu: I'm really not thinking about genre at all when I'm making films. You know, it really depends on the cast I have, my instinct and what I want to be seeing in that moment.

Steve: When you make a film do you come in, "Oh, this is a great idea," or do you just start writing?

Sabu: It's actually really both. You know, sometimes I start with an idea and then I write it, but sometimes as I'm writing the idea comes, becomes more crystallized. But I think a lot of my earlier works were, started more with an idea like with MONDAY, DRIVE  and like, you know, like the memories coming back so I started more with the concept for a lot of the earlier works.

Steve: On the train ride in, I was looking over a list of your films again ad I was wondering if you see your films as connected? 'Cause you could almost say like,MONDAY DRIVE," and THE BLESSING BELL almost tied together. Are they tied together or are they all completely separate entities that stand on their own?

Sabu:  I think early on it was connected you know. Uh, one idea would kind of lead to another idea, but more recently there's been kind of other projects in-between. And I'm finally understanding what it is to make a film. So, my works in the future might be a little bit different in how that manifests.

Steve: When you do a film from a novel as opposed to just writing it, do you attack adapting it differently if it is something based on your novel different than somebody else's novel? Or do just look for what's gonna be the best way to do this? I'm thinking specifically of  CHASUKE'S JOURNEY which you wrote  the novel of and  KANIKOSEN which you didn't.

Sabu:  I think when I'm working based on a novel and if it's not based on my novel, I really do try to not let my sensibility and my style interfere too much. When it's based on other people's work I try to stay as true as I can to the source material.

But there's a movie coming out next year that's also based on a novel. And the people who have seen  have told me it is my movie [laughs] and it's in my style.

Steve: Your films tend to be about the journey of through life either physically or spiritually. You've got the early films like DRIVE, the more recent CHASUSKE'S JOURNEY. And then you, in the middle of these you have KANIKOSEN which is a political film.

Looking at your range of films  it's the one that doesn't fit

What made you make a film that seems so radically different than, um, everything else you've done?

Sabu: With KANIKOSEN, the novel is really popular in Japan. And it was offered to me. And , I was a bit like "Should I be the one doing this?" But I did it. However  I infused a bit too much of comedy into it and so I got into a bit of trouble with the political party. [laughs]

Steve: That's crazy. I think of it as a very political film. I don't understand why there would be a problem with that. Then again I only know the novel by reputation.

Sabu: Well, originally it's a really old story, so I just did a lot of modernizing a bit. So, for example,  the boat that was getting the crabs was a little too chic. Things like that.

Steve: Could you do a film that was a straight drama? Because all of your films have humor. That's one of the things I absolutely love about your films is that, no matter what's happening there's always a sense of, "Yes these are, this is tragedy and yes this is whatever," but you still see the humor of, of things. You know it's heartbreaking as say, "MISS ZOMBIE" is. But there's still ridiculousness to some of it. However I was wondering could you do a film with no humor?

Sabu:  I could work on a serious drama. If I come up with the right idea, maybe. The next film that's being released next year, is also based on a novel but that one is quite serious. Although you might still laugh a little.

Steve: It's the George Bernard Shaw quote, "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh".

Sabu: Yeah. It makes me really happy that, you'd be viewing it this way, that you can cry but also laugh.

Steve: That's what I love about your films. [Looks at Notes]The one thing I don't think you've done... But could you do say, a period drama? Say a, samurai film or something deep in history.

Sabu: I would really love to. It's just hard because those tend to be more expensive. Um, but if I get theright script, yes. But I actually do have a lot of ideas back from in the day so it's something I would really like to do.

Steve: Well, cool.

Sabu: , I think maybe it might be easier and faster to write a novel. Like a historical period novel. kind of like a CHASUKE'S JOURNEY as opposed to just having a screenplay. In Japan right now I think without  it existing a different medium, it's kind of hard to get made. So that might be the path.

Steve: .How do you feel about  the way people watch films now? Do you have a preference?  Everybody's watching them on phones. Um, you know, a big screen. Would you prefer big screen? .

Sabu: Of course I would rather people see it in theaters 'cause I spent so much time on the sound and color. And so than to have people watch it on such a small screen, that's kind of well, yeah. But you know, I do think it's not bad that it's become more easy, more accessible to watch films.

Steve: Why aren't you in more of your movies?I don't think you're in many of them at all. Is it too hard to act and direct or...?

Sabu: I just...I can't focus. And so I appeared in up until my third film as a director. But since then, I haven't.

Steve:  I thought it was you were more expensive as an actor than a director.


Sabu: Yeah, I was in Silence so I'm not expensive as an actor [laughs] .

Steve: Is there like any dream projects that you have? Is there any film that you'd love to do? That you simply, you know...

Sabu: There's a project I've been wanting to make for a very long time. And I haven't quite got been able to get it made. Although, it might finally go through. But uh, it's a project that I would make in Europe.

The screenplay is all done. Um, I would cast it over there in Europe. It'd probably be in English but you know, we'd shoot somewhere like Berlin or Venice. So that's something that I'd like to make happen.

Steve: That's cool. That's really cool.

Sabu: Good.