Movie Review – The (Murder) Case of Hana and Alice (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A film as charming and beautiful as its live-action predecessor.

REVIEW: In my previous review of April Story, I’ve mentioned that the first live-action Japanese film that I saw was Hana and Alice, so you can probably assume that I had high expectations for this animated prequel. And to hear that all of the original cast had returned for the film had me excited (although one actor plays a different role). Even more so is the type of film-making for the prequel (rotoscope animation, like in A Scanner Darkly), which is an ingenious way of sidestepping the age of the actors as well as still filming in real environments and sets. But I was afraid that Shunji Iwai would not be able to capture the magic of the original as well as not conveying his visual film-making to his bet to the media of animation. Well guys, I am happy to report that this film is not only a fantastic story about lost love and what it can do to a person but it is also a charming, beautiful and oddly weird story about the beginning of a delightful friendship.

Set in the year 2000 (as evident by the flip mobile phones), three years before the events of the live-action film, were are introducted to Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi), a 14 year old girl who moves into a new town, Fujiko, with her recently divorced mother (Shoko Aida). The people there aren’t exactly the helpful kind, with many weird and eccentric characters that you think it might not get any weirder, until Alice is swept into a case that involves ghosts and a murder of a student, Yuda (a playful way of saying Judas). Through her investigations, she is led to meet with a shut-in, Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), who not only is an integral part of the case but she is also a neighbour of Alice. The two work together in solving the case but what they might end up with in the end is more than a solved case.

Now you’re probably wondering (especially for people who have seen the live-action film) is why in the world would the prequel involve ghosts and murder? It turns out it is a lot of fun, similar to cases that Scooby-Doo or Nancy Drew would investigate, but this is a Shunji Iwai film. His films were always more about details than story so if people are reading this review and/or are planning to watch this film expecting a true mystery will be quite disappointed. Fortunately, Iwai succeeds in making the film a character study about two girls who forge a friendship that made the live-action film so compelling. The rotoscope animation does take a bit of time to adjust at first but the movements of the characters look surprisingly natural and the scenery and locations such as Hana’s flower garden to the playground gymboree where Alice plays look breathtaking. One of the things that make the film such a great thematic follow-up to the live-action original is how the film is so naturalistic, you forget that you’re watching an animated film but a fairy tale come to life, and the cinematography and music of both films really capture that feel.

Another thing that makes the film a resounding success is the cast. The only way the film would work is that the two leads can make you believe that they could be the best of friends and they clearly are up to the task. Yu Aoi is still the goofy, playful and strong Alice and has plenty of opportunities to show it, like investigating a lead who may or may not be the right person or hysterically pleading her mother to move out of their new house because it might be inhabited by ghosts. Anne Suzuki is still the timid, lovesick instigator, who may or may not have been responsible for the murder, that you can’t help but want to give her a hug. The actresses still have the lovely chemistry that again makes you question why the two weren’t friends in the first place. There’s a scene later in the film where they lay snugly under a car for warmth and the two bond that I really enjoyed, and it is one of the many scenes in the film that bring it to life. Even the scene when the two first meet played out exactly the way I wanted it to be, with amusingly bad first impressions. What makes their interactions even more joyful is the fact that the two are playing 14 year olds, yet the actresses are double their age, so whenever they act out the character’s youthfulness, it comes off as hilarious.

I also loved that Iwai got every actor from the original film and have them reprise their roles. Like a scene with Alice and her father (Sei Hiraizumi) who visits every month is very touching due to the restrained sadness of Hiraizumi’s performance. Or how Alice’s mother is beginning to flirt with men, trying to regain her lost youth is amusingly portrayed by Shoko Aida. There’s a scene when Alice joins her childhood friend to a ballet studio, with Tae Kimura reprising her role as the ballet teacher. Even Tomohiro Kaku comes back, but in a different role as a teacher, who has a passion for snails (a visual joke that appears in the live-action film). It is callbacks to the original film like these that the initiated will definitely appreciate. The callbacks don’t just come from the reprising cast, but from the costumes (Hana wears the same sweater from the earlier film, as well as Alice in another scene), duplicated shots and even the live-action film’s origins (the presence of Kit Kat, which was integral to having the short films of Hana and Alice that lead to the live-action film).

But the uninitiated do not need to be hesitant to watch this film since the final product is so endearing and wonderfully realized that it will make you nostalgic for the friendships and times at school. A truly beautiful story about a blossoming friendship by Shunji Iwai.

Quickie Review

PROS

The move from live-action to rotoscope animation has not dulled Shunji Iwai’s visual film-making

The chemistry from the two leads has not dulled over the past 11 years

Shunji Iwai’s weird and quirky humour is still apparent

Many small and amusing callbacks to the original live-action film

The original supporting cast reprise their roles with great effect

CONS

Some of the animation looks jerky at times

Those looking for an actual mystery will be disappointed

SCORE: 9/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Ryo Katsuji, Haru Kuroki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Ranran Suzuki, Tomohiro Kaku, Midoriko Kimura
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai

Movie Review – The Visit

EXPECTATIONS: A small comeback for M. Night Shyamalan.

REVIEW: An M. Night Shyamalan film that is a found-footage film? Sounds like a recipe for disaster since neither of the two have not been through a lot of successful endeavours lately. I don’t need to go through the movies by Shyamalan that were seen as terrible (although I enjoyed The Village, thought The Happening was hilarious and Lady in the Water was so pretty daringly original that I just had to admire it) and the less said about found-footage films like The Gallows, the better. So when I heard that this was Shyamalan’s return to horror with a film that he funded entirely by himself, I was nervous but after seeing it, I had a lot of fun with the film. And unlike The Happening, the fun was intentional! It has been too long since I’ve seen a Shyamalan film with great acting, good scares and nicely constructed storytelling, but what makes this film different was that it had a great sense of humour that I never knew Shyamalan was capable of. Intentionally, anyway.

After seeing their grief-stricken mother (Kathryn Hahn) off, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a 15 year old aspiring film-maker and her 13 year old aspiring rapper-brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are on a trip to Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) for the first time. Becca is filming the entire trip for her documentary about her family and apart from some signs of awkwardness like the grandparents not knowing who One Direction is or the signs of old age like bouts of forgetfulness, the trip seemed pleasant enough. Then the elderly couple start to act strange increasingly throughout the week until Becca and Tyler discover a secret that immediately sends them into escaping for their lives.

I remember watching two of Shyamalan’s last misfires, The Last Airbender and After Earth and I was shocked at how bad the performances were. Notice that I mentioned those two films because I am specifically referring to the child actors. Shyamalan used to elicit fantastic performances from child actors such as Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), Spencer Treat Clark (Unbreakable) and Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin (Signs), but in the two disasters I mentioned, Shyamalan became blind. But here in The Visit, his eye for talent has come back with two fantastic leads. Olivia DeJonge is great as Becca, who reminds me of Wendy from Peter Pan. A girl who acts beyond her age to cover up her many demons and fears, and she DeJonge does it really well, especially in an interview scene between her and Oxenbould. Speaking of Oxenbould, he was a hilarious presence in film that provided much of the humour that Shyamalan was going for and he shares a tender filial chemistry between DeJonge and Hahn. The way he “acts” of children playing really made me laugh. But he also has great dramatic chops, especially in the climax. It is the two performances that makes the characters likable and makes it much easier for the audience care for their fate.

As for the supporting cast, Kathryn Hahn makes the most out of her small role as the mother with even the very minuscule action that she does like running alongside the train, seeing her children off, she conveys the perfect mix of love, goofiness and sadness. But the standouts were the grandparents, Nana and Pop-Pop. They both conveyed the perfect balance of senility and insanity, especially in the later stages of the film. Deanna Dunagan really immersed herself into the role with reckless abandon (she goes disturbingly nude at some points) that one of her best moments in the film is one I’ll imitate for a very long time. As for McRobbie, he’s more subtle and quite funny at times but he also has a crazy moment that I will always remember. Not only will I never look at old people the same again, I don’t think I can look at my 2 year old niece the same again.

The story seems simple enough in horror films, but the fear of senior citizens is one that rings true with us all (particularly when we were children), especially if the audience does not understand what senior people go through. Shyamalan tweaks the premise with many levels of misdirection and many moments of endearingly weird comedy. For example, he grounds the senior’s senility problems with actual science but twists our expectations of senility and almost certain insanity. He also tells his story as rendering it as a Grimm fairy tale (the Hansel and Gretel influence is apparent on the posters), a domestic horror film and a dark comedy and he pulls it off quite well. There are some tonal issues that could induce emotional whiplash, but I think it makes sense since when kids usually experience scary moments, they play it off with their own brand of humour.

Shyamalan also has his foreshadowing skills back too, which he used perfectly for Signs. Every little moment that is seen as a joke (like a simple I-Spy like game) turns into a threat or something that adds to the storytelling (like a joke on a policeman) as the film goes on and its fantastic to see, even moments that are childish and puerile. One joke I really liked in particular was a story that Nana tells Becca that involves extraterrestrials. Not only was it a joke on Shyamalan’s films (especially Lady in the Water), it adds to the climax in a great way. Some of the humour is definitely self-referential to Shyamalan as if Becca, the filmmaker is a surrogate of him. Like a scene of where she would put music that her mother likes in a supposedly touching moment, but it is in fact foreshadowing a later scene. It is those factors in the storytelling that makes Shyamalan a fantastic storyteller, reminiscent of his first three films. Shyamalan even adheres his storytelling to the found-footage format really well too, even making fun of it in some ways. Like when the kids would play hide-and-seek under the house or the inclusion of music in the film.

I am glad that this film was enjoyable as it was and I can’t wait to see what Shyamalan does next. One of the film’s major themes is forgiveness and end the review on a touching coda, I think we can let go of our angers and frustrations and forgive Shyamalan for his past films.

Quickie Review

PROS

The performances from the cast are fantastic

The storytelling from Shyamalan is assured like his old films (even in the found-footage format)

The scares are fun and haunting at the same time

The humour is surprisingly well-realized

CONS

Tone shifts are quite jarring

The timing of the humour can be a bit off

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriters: M. Night Shyamalan

Movie Review – When the Curtain Rises (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: An overly sappy and melodramatic high school drama about girls pining for boys. *shudder*

REVIEW: This film is a high school drama/slice-of-life film that stars a popular J-Pop idol group, Momoiro Clover Z as the leads and directed by the filmmaker that made Summer Time Machine Blues. But he also made the wretched piece of filth known as Shaolin Girl. I have seen Momoiro Clover Z in a film before, a very funny horror mockumentary called Shirome, which revolved around following the idol group exploring a seemingly haunted place. But the group were playing themselves and they made me question my humanity since they were so damn sweet, it made my teeth rot. So obviously, I expected this film to be quite crappy and I had my expectations low. But almost miraculously, my fears were entirely unfounded. When the Curtain Rises is a subtle and understated high school drama with good performances from Momoiro Clover Z and surprisingly understated direction from Katsuyuki Motohiro.

Saori (Kanako Momota) is a talented high school student who is stuck in a rut after having gone through, with her acting troupe (Shiroi Tamai, Reni Takagi, Ayaka Sasaki and others) another loss in a drama competition. After the arrival of a talented new teacher (Haru Kuroki) as an inspiration, she and her troupe are ecstatic to prepare as they again compete in another drama competition. The troupe go through many arduous mental and emotional journeys as they train and hone their skills, but with their immensely talented teacher and their will to succeed, will they ever reach their far-reaching goal?

Having expectations for things can be a blessing or a curse. In this case, it was a bit of a burden since knowing what the idol group Momoiro Clover Z can be like, it can be hard to really get into their acting skills. Oddly, it was really easy. First off, I found it funny to see the group in a film playing high school students learning how to act. Seeing that this is their acting debut, I can’t help but laugh a little. But the story gives ample opportunities for the actresses and they do quite well with what they got. Kanako Momota is a great lead as Saori as she conveys the perfect balance between determination, cheerfulness and nervousness. She is the best performer out of the group, which is fitting since she is the lead. Momoka Ariyasu is quite magnetic as Etsuko, the newcomer of the acting troupe and the scene she has with Momota on the train station is one of the film’s best scenes, when they reveal their dreams and ambitions as well as what they went through. The rest of the cast are funny and amusing in their own right (Reni Takagi is a bit of a hoot as Grr) but the best actor in the entire film is Haru Kuroki, who plays Ms. Yoshioka. the new drama teacher. Continuing on from her great performance in The Little House, her performance in Rises is surprisingly authoritative and maternal, especially when you consider her age (She was 24 while filming).

The acting was surprisingly good but what was even more surprising was how subtle and understated the storytelling was. As I said before, this film was directed by the man that made Shaolin Girl. Most of Motohiro’s work are not paragons of subtlety (except maybe Go Find a Psychic!), but his directorial work here works wonders for the story. Having an understated touch ensures that the events of the story never feels faked or obviously scripted that it becomes laughable. Every moment that the characters are victorious or need to be motivated feels earned and it definitely adds to the ending, which I was surprised with the execution of it. The ending is clearly showing that it is the journey the characters go through, not the destination. His understated touch also has an effect on the actors, since they are all reined in of their cuteness (until the end credits, that is), as well as the quiet musical score and the beautiful cinematography that exudes nostalgia, except for the brief scene when Saori and her acting troupe are buckling under the pressure, which shows vivid bright colours, POV shots, dutch angles and shaky-cam. All the actors are overacting, and it comes off as funny, and I thank Motohiro for not having this type of acting present throughout the film. I also loved the fact that despite the fact that the film is all about high school girls, miraculously, there’s no story about liking or pining a guy whatsoever.

The understated feel can be a bit of a problem though. At times, the film does run longer than it should and some of the story could be cut out with nil effect. For example, a subplot involving Yukko’s jealousy towards Etsuko hanging out with Saori. Also, the pop music (which probably is contractual) feels out of place with the film and slightly hinders the ending due to the timing of it all. The ending should have held out on the music for a bit to make the climax more satisfying.

But despite its flaws, the acting from Momoiro Clover Z is likable, charming and refreshingly genuine, with supporting actress Haru Kuroki standing out as Ms. Yoshioka; nothing in the film feels fake or obviously scripted (every moment feels earned) and the direction is subtle, yet affecting (the score and the cinematography are beautiful). “When the Curtain Rises” is a very good film and a great acting platform for Momoiro Clover Z that surprised me from my very low expectations.

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting debuts of Momoiro Clover Z are surprisingly natural and genuine (Kanako Momota is great as Saori, the drama director; Momoka Ariyasu is compellingly enigmatic as Etsuko; the rest are amusing and fun in their own right)

The acting standout is from Haru Kuroki, who displays authority and care as Ms. Yoshioka

The direction is simple, understated and never feels fake (every accomplishment of the characters feels earned; no forced crying or overly dramatic moments)

The ending is perfect, signifying that it is more about the journey than the destination (unlike the execution, which is mentioned below)

CONS

The running time is a bit too long (scenes about the jealousy between Yukko towards Etsuko could’ve been cut out)

The pop songs are very jarring to the film, particularly the ending (I wished the song appeared 5 seconds later after a fade-out)

SCORE: 7.5/10 (Although the film is long and the pop song inclusions are intrusive, “When the Curtain Rises is a good understated high school drama and a great acting platform for Momoiro Clover Z.)

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Kanako Momota, Shiori Tamai, Reni Takagi, Momoka Ariyasu, Ayaka Sasaki, Haru Kuroki
Director: Katsuyuki Motohiro
Screenwriters: Oriza Hirata (novel), Kohei Kiyasu

Movie Review – 100 Yen Love (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A typical boxing movie with a knockout performance by Sakura Ando.

REVIEW: Another day, another 100 yen. Every time I read about a film and it has Sakura Ando starring in it, I know I have to see it. Ever since I saw her as the shocking villain in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, I was hooked by how talented she is. Then I saw her in other roles like the understated Petal Dance, the critically acclaimed TV series (which became a 4 1/2 hour film) Penance or the incredibly joyful For Love’s Sake and I noticed how versatile she can be. Yet in 100 Yen Love, I believe she gives her best performance in her entire career. But does the film stand up alongside its female lead? Thankfully, the film almost matches up in stature to Ando’s performance due to its hyper-realistic world, boxing genre deconstructions, quirky yet genuine characters and a diligence to not travel into well-worn cliches.

Ichiko (Sakura Ando) is a 32 year old shut-in who lives with her parents (Yozaburo Ito and Miyoko Inagawa) and (barely) helps out with her mother’s bento (lunchbox) shop when she’s not constantly playing video games, reading manga (comic books) and and eating junk food. After going through a big argument too many with her recently divorced sister moving back in (Saori), Ichiko moves into a flat (with financial help from her mother) and applies to work at a 100 yen store (equivalent to a 99c store). Going through work training with various quirky co-workers, she strolls pass a boxing gym and sees Yuji (Hirofumi Arai), a boxer known as “Banana Man” who regularly visits the store she works in, buying bananas. The two develop a relationship but sooner or later, it goes rocky and worse, her life itself comes to a halting standstill after she goes through many traumatic hardships. Her only outlet left that could make her feel more substantial in her life is boxing.

Reading the synopsis back to myself, I realized that the story sounds just as predictable as the 2015 American boxing film, Southpaw. But funnily enough, it constantly never plays out that way. The film deconstructs most of the boxing film cliches to wonderful effect and it keeps the film unpredictable at times. For example, the film feels like Rocky due to its romance, but the relationship never plays out as romantic or even platonic. It plays out as non-existent to distant to almost respectful, almost like Ichiko’s character development itself. Another example is how Ichiko is drawn into the world of boxing. She’s not drawn into it because she likes the sporting concept, nor is it an outlet for her simmering anger of her position in life, nor is it a revenge story against the opponent or due to a shocking scene in the middle of the film. She’s drawn into it due to something else entirely and for me to see it culminate in the climax, it’s a heartwarming moment that got to me.

Even the score for the most part, is not the usual triumphant or rousing music the audience usually hears, but a melancholic blues-like riff that comes off as funny and pathetic in equal measure. The music gets more energetic as it comes into the third act and it adds to the emotional payoff that the audience waits for, but the music that I remember the most is the music in the 100 yen store. The song is a repetitive, catchy and intentionally annoying riff that would drive anyone crazy. Come to think of it, every character that works in the store does come off a bit crazy, so it makes total narrative sense. Speaking about the store, the cinematography and lighting of the store is bright and lively, yet everywhere else is a dull grey wash, conveying the world as hyper-realistic, making it seem like the store is what the real world is meant to be, but it most definitely isn’t.

But the film would not have been half as good as it is without Sakura Ando’s performance. Her portrayal of her character’s development from slacker to boxer is magnificent to behold, even without a lot of dialogue. She plays a slacker with no effort (especially since she played one in the TV series, Penance), looking the part with butt-scratching included, but when she reaches the stage of boxing, she genuinely looks like she knows what she’s doing, with the filmmakers capturing every punch, every stance, every sign of footwork and every glance she gives. According to interviews, she used to train in boxing back in junior high school, and it clearly shows. Her performance is so subtle that it’s very hard to know what exactly sets her off to take boxing, but it is clearly the intent of the filmmakers since it makes it compellingly ambiguous, yet still gets us to really care for Ichiko. Thanks to her performance and the filmmakers, the film comes off as more than a boxing film and becomes an immersive character study and a slice-of-life tale. The supporting cast are all good in their roles, like Hirofumi Arai as Yuji who has a similar character arc to Ichiko and the incredibly hateful Shohei Uno as Numa and the strange ex-employee Toshie Negishi as Ikeuchi, who keeps stealing overdue food from the 100 yen store.

The boxing scenes are gritty and no-holds-barred, much like the journey of Ichiko and the climax is so rousing that I haven’t felt like cheering in a Japanese film since Linda Linda Linda. Come to think of it, the character of Ichiko could easily fit in a Nobuhiro Yamashita film, similar to the former and Tamako in Moratorium. But some things need to be addressed. There is an event in the middle of the film that can throw audiences off at how seemingly out of place it is. But credit to the filmmakers for making it more subtle than it should be and for not making it an obvious route for Ichiko’s commencement of her journey as it is another one of her hardships she goes through, but audiences should prepare for that scene, since it kinda shocked me.

100 Yen Love is worth a lot more than its supposedly cliche-driven story indicates and Sakura Ando provides her best performance in her career in a film that shouldn’t be just known as a boxing film just like how Ichiko shouldn’t be just known as a 100 yen girl.

Quickie Review

PROS

Sakura Ando’s incredibly physical and sincere performance

Weird yet realistic supporting characters are well-portrayed

Deconstructs the boxing film genre and goes on its own path

The entire climax will get you fist-pumping

The storytelling is surprisingly coherent, even with its changes in tone

CONS

Slow pacing may throw people off

There are some disturbing moments that may seem out of place for some

SCORE: 8/10 (A character study revolving around a personal journey through adversity and purpose that evolves into a boxing film.)

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Sakura Ando, Hirofumi Arai, Miyoko Inagawa, Saori, Shohei Uno, Tadashi Sakata, Yuki Okita, Kaito Yoshimura, Shinichiro Matsuura, Yozaburo Ito, Osamu Shigematsu, Toshie Negishi.
Director: Masaharu Take
Screenwriters: Shin Adachi

Movie Review – Assassination Classroom (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: An live-action manga/anime adaptation that would leave me surprised or befuddled.

REVIEW: To be perfectly honest with you, I’m surprised that this type of story even exists. With all the true stories (especially from America), there are stories that students/teachers that would go berserk in schools and kill people, but in Japan, there are many movies that would have plots that would reflect these types of events. And many of them are great cinema like Battle Royale, Confessions, Lesson of the Evil, The World of Kanako and Let’s-Make-The-Teacher-Have-A-Miscarriage-Club (Yes, the movie exists.). But here comes Assassination Classroom, a sci-fi fantasy film that involves students attempting to kill their teacher to save the world that surprisingly ends up being one of the most sweetest films this year. I am not joking.

A unknown extraterrestrial creature has destroyed 70% of the moon and is holding the Earth hostage until the end of the school year. But the demands and deals of the creature are the most befuddling. At Kunugigaoka Junior High School the delinquents of classroom 3-E, nicknamed the End, will be the ones assigned to assassinate this creature. If any of the students in 3-E can kill it they will save the planet and also win 10 billion yen. He will be their teacher for the school year, teaching regular subjects, and will also teach them about killing with firearms and hand-to-hand combat. But if the class fails, the creature will destroy the Earth on graduation day.

Oh, man, where do I start? First off, this isn’t some violent Battle Royale face-off, just to get out of the way. And if you think the set-up is completely absurd, the film goes off into more entertainingly absurd ways. Second of all, I have no prior knowledge to the manga or anime so I cannot compare, but if the film succeeds on its own merits, then familiarity to the source material should be redundant. Thankfully, well-told visual exposition about the film’s world is expunged in the first five minutes and and it takes just as long to become immersed into the film. The cast of young talent do well enough in their roles (Masaki Suda is the stand-out being the wannabe hero, Kang Ji-young does what she can with her underwritten role) that we care enough about them, but the real star is UT (or Koro-sensei). Voiced enthusiastically and sincerely by Kazunari Ninomiya, UT is an entertaining and enigmatic presence. Its position itself as a teacher and captor yet it clearly cares about the students more than the teachers do as well as themselves but considering the position it puts the world in, it is quite an interesting conundrum, similar to the Stockholm Syndrome. There are some flashbacks that hint a dark past about why UT is who it is and I hope it grows into something more, since it is the best thing in the film.

But the film is nowhere near as dark or brooding as I described about UT, as it has a great sense of fun and energy through most of the running time. The action scenes are fun to watch and there actually is a surprising sense of tension and suspense since we gain sympathy for UT as well as what the students come up against like a similar creature/human who is a match to UT or a scumbag teacher Takaoka (played annoyingly without restraint by Masanobu Takashima). There are also some very funny scenes that either come just from the premise or, of course, UT and his training classes. There’s a scene involving a slumber party that is a definite highlight of hilarity. And the jokes never get beaten to the ground over and over since the pacing is so fast and exhilarating.

But what really stood out for me was how much I was emotionally invested. The film’s message is common in many films (become the best that you can be), but in Assassination Classroom, it is told with such an odd way, that you can’t help but admire its chutzpah. To become invested in such characters going through such hijinks is a huge bet, but it pays off really well. Every single time these students are closer to their goal of killing UT leaves an uncomfortable feeling on the audience and its refreshing to see a film that achieves a feel such as this, particularly from a blockbuster.

But there are some storytelling problems. Condensing a vast source material into a film is always an immense challenge and Assassination Classroom is no exception in evading the problems that comes with it. Some subplots are obviously shoehorned in (like Nagisa’s childhood friend that isn’t in Class 3-E), unnecessary characters (like Ayaka, a girl who Nagisa has a inkling for) not only toy with the pacing, but it also veers away from the fun tone. Though other subplots are underdeveloped or unresolved due to its open ending, I’m hoping that these will be taken into account in the sequel, which is coming out later next year.

I love a film that can surprise me and Assassination Classroom is one of those films. Having an emotional touch that works a film with such an insane premise is…insane. But the film pulls it off and I’m eagerly waiting for the sequel, Assassination Classroom: Graduation.

Quickie Review

PROS

The fast pacing and well-told exposition

Surprisingly sweet and heartfelt at times

The action and comedy are well-executed and meld together well

The world is beautifully realized (especially UT [or Koro-sensei])

CONS

Inconsistent performances and storytelling (a sequel is coming soon)

The ending can be frustrating for some

SCORE: 7.5/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Ryosuke Yamada, Masaki Suda, Maika Yamamoto, Seika Taketomi, Mio Yuki, Miku Uehara, Kanna Hashimoto, Seishiro Kato, Kang Ji-young, Masanobu Takashima, Kippei Shiina, Kazunari Ninomiya (voice of Koro-sensei)
Director: Eiichiro Hasumi
Screenwriters: Yusei Matsui (manga), Tatsuya Kanazawa

Film-momatic Flashback – April Story

EXPECTATIONS: A nice-looking slice-of-life film. Takako Matsu is always a big plus.

REVIEW: Shunji Iwai, oh my. I remember my very first viewing of a Shunji Iwai film. I was sick from school and I was just watching daytime television. Switching to the SBS channel, I saw the beginning of a film that involved two schoolgirls on a playful through the streets and a park to the train station, with a nice piano score in the background. There was something about it that had me entranced like the digital video cinematography or the musical score, but I realized that it was the two female leads and their wonderful, genuine chemistry. That film was Hana and Alice, starring Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki (A film that I’ll review later). You’re probably wondering, why am I talking about Hana and Alice instead of the film I’m meant to be reviewing, which is April Story? Hana and Alice was my first live-action film that I’ve seen from Japan, ever. It wasn’t some sex film that I saw at late night SBS or videotape nor did I confuse it with a film I saw in another language, but it was the first film that got me hooked into Japanese film-making, and I will always be thankful to SBS and this film for knowing and nurturing the passion for film that I have today. Now today, I have chosen April Story because I have recently graduated from university and I do kind of miss those times of stress, fun times and socializing in the areas and I thought this would be the perfect film that could satiate my mood.

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The film starts off with Uzuki Nireno (Takako Matsu) on a train, which is about to depart from Hokkaido to Tokyo. Her parents are outside to farewell her off, wishing her a safe and happy time as she starts off a new chapter of her life in Musashino University. There we see her chronicles, obstacles and revelations a part of her of university life that develop her as a person as well as our involvement and immersion of the character and the film.

A slice-of-life film is, in my definition, a film that depicts an true-to-life event in a character’s life that defines the lead character or foreshadows a path that the character will truly become. April Story is exactly that. And clocking at 64 minutes, it accomplishes so much that you alternately feel completely satisfied AND wanting more by the time the film ends. One of the best things that propels the film is Iwai’s storytelling. Like most of his films (except his dark films like All About Lily Chou-Chou and Swallowtail Butterfly), his films have beautiful cinematography that can only be described as magical. The lighting, compositions, even the wind gives a soothing effect that makes the transition between home life and university life convincing. Like a scene in the beginning of the film, where a moving truck is arriving at its destination with the many sakura (cherry blossom) falling off the trees. It is such a beautiful metaphor for the beginning of a new chapter in Nireno’s life. The gentle musical score also accentuates that kind of mood that it makes the film become some type of a fairy tale.

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Iwai also really captures the haunting solitude and loneliness by having his character some seemingly weird characters to have weird exchanges with and having her complete her main activities of daily university life in such a mundane manner, such as joining a club or introducing herself to the students. But he never wrings the story for heart-wrenching drama, but an approach as a character study. The film has quite a few touches of humour (mostly fish-out-of-water) that not only amuse, but also shows more about the character. Some examples are Nireno naming the wrong Brad Pitt film that involves fly-fishing to some students resulting in embarrassment or a scene where Nireno would constantly try to help the movers with her own luggage but constantly gets ignored. What I also noticed about Iwai’s storytelling is that his films are more about details than actual plot and while it is most unfortunate in some of his films due to dragging the running time (like Hana and Alice and Swallowtail), it never affects April Story, but rather enhances it.

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But none of the above would work as effectively as it does without the female lead, Takako Matsu. Iwai always chose the perfect actresses for his roles, whether it is acting veterans (Miho Nakayama, fantastic in dual roles in Love Letter) or acting newcomers (Yu Aoi in All About Lily Chou-Chou, who will become Iwai’s muse) and Takako Matsu is no exception. She shows remarkable restraint and subtlety in her performance that when she finally opens up a little more about her intentions and feelings in the second half of the film, it satisfyingly pays off. There’s a scene in the bookstore where she meets a male clerk at the counter. The scene itself lasts for like 30 seconds, but the acting from Matsu, shown by her looks, her trembling lips and her hand gestures as she gets her change shows so much about her character that many would say that this point in the film would be the point where the film actually starts to come together, literally and figuratively. The supporting actors all do their parts sufficiently, with Rumi standing out as the weird “friend”, Saeko Sono, who drags Nireno to join the fly-fishing club.

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As for its flaws, and there aren’t that many considering its running time, is that there are some details that could befuddle viewers (like a elongated scene set in a cinema) and the film ends as soon as the revelations are revealed, but as the slice-of-life film/character study it is, it’s a miracle that the film has such an impact that it achieves. There aren’t many films this quiet that has given me such a still-growing appreciation in my mind and a warm feeling in my heart.

Quickie Review

PROS

Takako Matsu’s performance

Shunji Iwai’s direction and storytelling

The cinematography and music

The ending is incredibly satisfying as a conclusion as well as a new beginning

CONS

Details in the film may leave people puzzled

Those looking for an actual plot may be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10 (Accomplishes more than films twice its length)

Cast: Takako Matsu, Seiichi Tanabe, Kazuhiko Kato, Kahori Fujii, Rumi, Kanji Tsuda
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai

So-Bad-It’s-Rad Review – Knock Off

EXPECTATIONS: A laughably unmitigated disaster that could end JCVD’s career.

REVIEW: Man, where do I start off with this movie? First off, I am a huge Van Damme fan. From the humble beginnings of Breakin’ to his awesome leading role in Bloodsport to his biggest box-office hit, Timecop, his big legs (and karate) showed he could do the splits, no problem. (Hope someone gets that reference). But after Timecop, his films started to dwindle from flop after flop to the point he went to the straight-to-video hell (which it was back then, not as reviled as it is now). But there was one film that always fascinated me of how much it stood out in his entire filmography due to its surrealism, energy and style. Plus, it’s also hilariously bad, but I swear, some of its supposedly bad moments had to be intentional. That film is Knock Off, by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. Is it unfairly reviled? Pfft, hell no. But if you see it as a knock off of a Hong Kong film aping a Hollywood film, then it can be seen as downright hilarious, if unintentional, entertainment.

Set in 1997 Hong Kong before the Handover, Marcus Ray (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Tommy Hendricks (Rob Schneider) are business partners of the Hong Kong division of V-Six Jeans. Marcus used to be the number one guy in selling knock offs in Hong Kong and Tommy is actually a CIA agent set on bringing down arms dealers. The two are later embroiled and mixed up in a ongoing war between the Chinese, the Russians and the Americans involving global terrorism that can be set off using a new weapon of mass destruction the size of a watch battery, which can be concealed in household products, even children’s toys.

Yes, the story sounds hilariously ridiculous. Rob Schneider as a CIA agent? Jean-Claude Van Damme as a knock-off artist? How can you take this film seriously? Thankfully, director Tsui Hark doesn’t and he compensates for the crummy and convoluted story A LOT with energy, surrealism and style. The pacing is incredibly fast, getting into the action almost immediately. Even the dialogue scenes are imbued with weird angles and shots (dutch, POV, extreme close ups, jump cuts), that it makes the film seem like a dream. And the action scenes are set up in such a unfamiliar manner, it is refreshing and thrilling to watch. Like a fight scene in a parking lot. It could have been easily a generic one-against-many fight scene, but Tsui makes Van Damme seem more like a horror villain chasing its victims than an action hero defeating his enemies. The blurs, the under-cranking, the music, the camera angles are just so unorthodox, it’s a thrill to watch. He’s also aware that he’s making a “knock off” film, so he subverts action cliches like the CIA agent is the comic relief whilst the knock-off artist is the action star and how there are no damsels-in-distress and many more.

Now you’re probably wondering from reading the above is that I’m legitimately praising the film. So where’s the bad? First of all, there’s Van Damme’s performance. It’s a well-known fact that during the 90’s, Van Damme was going through a drug phase, mainly cocaine and in 1998, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Does this come through in his performance? You bet it does. From the first scene his character appears, I was laughing my ass off. Singing a very famous Hong Kong song, driving a car, being so animated and carefree, I knew that Van Damme was not going to give a typical heroic performance. His portrayal of Marcus Ray suits the surrealistic direction of Tsui Hark that they compliment each other really well, particularly in terms of the action scenes. But his performance can be so embarrassing at times, with the lines of dialogue he spouts out with glee like “We are locked to win, my buddy!” or “I like to keep my reputation intact. I always like to make a quality piece of crap!” that never fails to make me laugh, considering the latter line, Van Damme’s reputation is still intact.

The supporting cast are also hysterically awful. Rob Schneider is Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon is like a pornstar trying to play a Bond girl (and it’s as bad as it sounds) and Paul Sorvino is slumming it big time. But funnily enough, their performances are not entirely their fault. First of all, this is definitely a Hong Kong film, despite the predominantly American cast and crew. So, for some weird reason, 95% of the dialogue in the film is dubbed via ADR. In the early Hong Kong films through the 90’s, films were predominantly dubbed, not shot in sync-sound. So in the film Knock Off, Tsui Hark decided to replicate that feel and again, it makes the performances hilariously off-kilter, particularly the Hong Kong actors. Usually, in Hong Kong films, it’s the foreign actors (or gweilos) that come off as hilariously bad in their films. But in Knock Off, Tsui Hark reverses that and makes the Hong Kong actors seem like they had head injuries with horrific dubbing, especially the performance from Wyman Wong as Eddie. His last scene made me spit my drink in hysterics.

Speaking of hysterics, there are many fantastically hilarious or strange moments that I just have to bring up. One action scene is a rickshaw race. And it is in this race, there’s a POV shot from a knock-off shoe Van Damme is wearing that happens to break up during the race. I have no idea why, but again it adds to the surrealism. Another shot during the race is when a car runs over a miniature rickshaw. I get why it is there, but again, it’s just so strange. At one point, Rob Schneider whips Van Damme’s ass with an eel to make him go faster. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. But wait, there’s more! One person hysterically (and it’s meant to be tragic) dies via missile. Ever wonder what it’s like to see a scared fat guy run in slow motion? It’s as funny as it sounds. There’s even a POV shot off a person’s neck being cut by a knife. Like, wow! They really thought of everything. There’s a laughable villain death in the climax that makes it look like he’s having an orgasm before he dies in an explosion. There’s also a villain who uses his lenses from his glasses (knock-off?) as a weapon!

I don’t want to reveal anymore, but if you are an adventurous person who wants to watch a different type of action film or just want to laugh at hilariously bad or weird shit going on, Knock Off is definitely not a Wrong Bet. Get that reference? Okay, it’s not funny, but maybe this will convince you…

Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rob Schneider, Lela Rochon, Paul Sorvino, Carmen Lee, Wyman Wong, Glen Chin, Michael Fitzgerald Wong, Moses Chan
Director: Tsui Hark
Screenwriters: Steven E. De Souza

Movie Review – Fantastic Four (2015)

EXPECTATIONS: Not as bad as the buzz claims it to be.

REVIEW: Another day, another reboot. And this time, the reboot is for Marvel’s first superhero family, the Fantastic Four. Adapted into a film produced by Roger Corman back in the 90’s in a spectacularly campy fashion, it was then adapted into a Hollywood film (and a sequel) in 2005, starring Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. While I haven’t seen the Roger Corman version, I have seen the Hollywood versions, and while I never liked them, I never really hated them like other superhero fans. Sure, it was goofy, lighthearted and downright fluffy, but at least it felt warm, inviting and I really enjoyed the chemistry between Evans and Chiklis, as the two provide many amusing moments. Which is unfortunately more than I can say for the reboot, which is by far, in my eyes, the most boring superhero film I have ever seen. At least films like Batman and Robin and Catwoman go by on a fast clip and/or are so hilariously campy, they become fun to laugh at. This reboot has none of that slapdash charm and is just a slog to get through.

Five highly intelligent people (Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell) are hired to embark on a science project of transporting into an alternate universe, but the experiment backfires, leading one of them to their supposed death and the remaining four stricken with shocking abnormalities that make them superhuman. Learning to adapt their abnormalities and embracing them into gifts, they are thrown into a battle between a super-villain which could lead to the end of Earth.

I have never written any spoilers in my reviews before but to be honest, I have completely revealed the entire plot in the synopsis. And this is one of the many problems of the film. Nothing actually happens in the film. 80% of the film’s running time is set in a lab. That’s an approximate 80 minutes of the film. Watching this movie in the cinema a few months back, I remember wondering what was strange about this film and I realized that there is no complication in this film. Every story must have an orientation, a complication and a conclusion. In other words, three acts. But in Fantastic Four, there is no second act. The first act is 80 minutes and the final act is a middling 10 minutes. So the film is all exposition, very little to no build-up and a so-called climax. And boy, the climax is the most problematic part of the film. The green-screen is glaringly obvious, the dialogue is embarrassing, the fight is incredibly anti-climactic and there is no sense of danger or tension for anyone in this scene, despite the best efforts of the actors at hand.

Speaking of the actors, every single one of them are completely wasted. Nothing in the film helps them whatsoever and they just end up looking like they just had their souls sucked away. Miles Teller looks like he needed a drink (like in his earlier film The Spectacular Now) while making the film. Very little of his charisma (or any person, for that matter) is shown and it makes the supposed camaraderie with his supporting cast look incredibly awkward. Michael B. Jordan looks like he should be in a Fast and Furious movie whilst Kate Mara barely makes any impression and Jamie Bell is absent for long periods of time, making one think that he should have been the invisible one. He makes no impression underneath the Thing persona, that they could’ve cast anyone to play Ben Grimm. But as for Toby Kebbell, I feel sorry for him the most because the way the film-makers portray Dr Doom, it is more embarrassing than the 2005’s portrayal. He looks like a horrible version of an egghead Silver Surfer with glow-in-the-dark jizz all over him and he can apparently blow people’s heads up, but he never attempts to do that on the Fantastic Four themselves, especially at Planet Zero, where he is strongest.

Which leads me to the so-called script-writing and editing of the film. Oh boy, here we go. One of the most iconic quotes spouted by kids and adults everywhere is apparently borne out of a child abuser who happens to be Ben Grimm’s brother. Why does Reed disappear for a year that is shown in a title card? Why doesn’t Reed let Ben tag along for the earned scholarship since they BOTH worked on the teleporter together? Why would Johnny Storm’s father hire his rebellious deadbeat of a son to work on a once-in-a-lifetime science project when he could easily hire someone more equipped for the job? How does Dr Doom get a torn-up rag as a cape when he was stuck in Planet Zero for a year? How is it that Reed can change his appearance as well as his voice? If the blast that came from the teleporter made Susan earn the powers to become invisible, why doesn’t anyone in the blast radius have that power too? There’s a hell of a lot more, but clearly someone was on something when they made this film. Even worse was the dialogue, which suffers from what I call the George Lucas syndrome. Where EVERYTHING is spelt out for us. Every human emotion or action is spelt out for the audience like they are mindless idiots. This happens particularly in the third act, when Reed would explicitly spell out what the audience is seeing. Even the mood of the film is so gloomy that there is no fun to be had out of the experience.

I would’ve went more in to the infinite errors of the film (I haven’t even started on the CGI/green-screen of Miles Teller yet) but I feel like I’m bagging out the film. I really don’t want to but there aren’t that many good things in the film to really point out. Just some good ideas that are not properly explored enough like the use of body horror in portraying the abnormalities of the characters (except Susan, which was just lame) and the music from Marco Beltrami and Phillip Glass. This film was just a disaster to begin with that just goes to show that not every superhero film needs a gritty treatment, but they need an actual script. So in conclusion, I think this film is pure dog–

Quickie Review

PROS

Some good ideas (incorporation of body horror)

The musical score mildly affects

CONS

The writing is atrocious (i.e the origin of one of the comic’s catchphrases is hilariously misguided)

Dr Doom is a fucking joke (not only does he look wrong, his motivations are almost non-existent)

The green screen/CGI is laughable (Miles Teller is clearly green-screened in the forest scene)

The whole movie is a set-up, leading to nothing

The entire talented cast is wasted

SCORE: 2/10 (Doesn’t even qualify as so-bad-it’s-good entertainment)

Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Heidecker
Director: Josh Trank
Screenwriters: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, Josh Trank

Film-momatic Flashback – Tenebrae

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EXPECTATIONS: A run-of-the-mill slasher film that shows that Argento has run out of ideas.

REVIEW: Three days ago, it was Dario Argento’s 75th birthday, and to celebrate, here comes a Film-momatic Flashback review of the 1982 giallo film, Tenebrae (or Tenebre). His work in the giallo genre going back in the 70’s was incredibly influential (particularly to John Carpenter and his film, Halloween), shocking (his films’ plot twists still work today, particularly in Deep Red) and stylish (no horror film is more visually stylish than Suspiria). Unfortunately, after his film The Stendhal Syndrome back in 1996, his films onwards have been very middling, if not downright shocking in how inept they are. And you’re probably wondering, why am I reviewing Tenebrae instead of Deep Red or Suspiria, his two best well-known works? It is because I believe this film encapsulates everything that’s fantastic about Argento and everything that’s also detrimental about Argento.

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The film’s story is about Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) an established author who is in Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, Tenebre, until a series of murders occur that happen to be inspired by Neal’s novel. The killer then sends Neal a letter informing that his books had inspired him to go on a killing spree. Neal then becomes embroiled and drawn in on the murders and with the help of his agent (John Saxon), his assistant (Daria Nicolodi) and two detectives (Giuliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro), they start a thrilling chase to stop the killer from striking again.

The synopsis makes the film seem like a typical mystery film but it is Argento’s film-making prowess that makes it stand out as one of his best films. First of all, there’s are some differences between this film and his earlier films. One, this film has a strong sexual element. His previous films have it with the deaths of women being overly stylized and Argento was criticized for his supposed misogynist attitude. But in Tenebrae, the notion of women is played around with with the killer and his motives. The first woman that is killed is a promiscuous shoplifter, which is a typical Argento kill. But the next woman is a liberated person who happens to be a lesbian. It’s as if Argento has gone self-referential and it adds a nice touch of meta-humour to the proceedings. There’s even a conversation between a reporter criticizing Neal’s book as being sexist, which mirrors the criticism against Argento. The sexual element also goes into the story that adds to the characters, particularly the killer. His or her motives are expressed gradually through flashbacks of a erotically violent nature that explores another trope of Argento, the trope of the killer’s point of view. One of the victims is bullied orally by a woman with a red shoe whilst in another flashback, the woman is penetrated repeatedly with a knife for revenge, pointing out the hatred of women. It makes the kills in the film stand out more distinctly, but in each half of the film, the kills are more distinct of each other. The first half, the kills are surprisingly more understated while in the second half, the kills are more gruesome. Almost like a split personality within the killer and the film itself. The film-making techniques are even different in each half. The editing in the second half is more frenetic, whilst in the first half, the editing and shots are more composed, particularly with the kills of the second and third women that includes a long voyeuristic crane shot exploring the victims’ rooms. Even the music from Goblin is differentiated between each half of the film with the former also being understated and the latter more intensified and fast-paced.

The acting in Tenebrae is at its best and its worst, although none of it is the actors’ fault. Anthony Franciosa is a great lead as Peter Neal, mainly because he’s genuine, likable, smart and he plays the facades of his character quite well, especially in the second half.His character is one of the best protagonists in an Argento film alongside Jessica Harper and David Hemmings. John Saxon is amusing as the slightly slimy agent and he has a fun chemistry with Franciosa. As for the rest of the actors, their performances are heavily flawed with atrocious dubbing. Although the dubbing of Daria Nicolodi is fine, particularly at the end of the film, the dubbing of Giuliano Gemma is laughable to the point that it adds to the character, adding to the chemistry between him and Franciosa, whereas the dubbing of Christian Borromeo is just plain laughable.

The storytelling is also flawed, yet well-done. The flashbacks give the film a surreal feel that makes the film dream-like. Even the settings like the architecture and the sculptures in the film seem more abstract than realistic, adding to the dream-like feel. Another Argento trope that is present in the film is the protagonists’ memory lapses. Like in Deep Red, there would be a key moment that a protagonist would have difficulty in remembering yet in retrospect, it would pay off with a very integral plot point or character reveal. In Tenebrae, it is the moment that places the line between the two halves of the film stated earlier, and it pays off wonderfully by the film’s end, making sense of the flashbacks. This element of storytelling is even referenced in the movie between Franciosa’s character and Gemma’s character, as they discuss the killer’s motives through comparisons of Agatha Christie and Ed McBain (I loved the film High and Low by Akira Kurosawa, which is based on a novel by Ed McBain).

vlcsnap-2015-09-10-12h14m03s8As for the flaws in the storytelling, there are some major plot holes like how a victim in a serendipitous fashion literally stumble in the killer’s hideout, but apart from that flaw and all the other flaws stated, Tenebrae is, in my opinion, his most self-referential giallo.

Quickie Review

PROS

The leads give good performances

The kills are intense and the tension is impressive

Self-referential humour gives it a humourous edge

The plentiful twists are effective

CONS

Crappy English dubbing

Acting is very inconsistent

Some plot holes

SCORE: 8/10

NOTE: Thanks to Arrow Video for releasing it on DVD/BluRay!

Cast: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliana Gemma, Mirella D’Angelo, John Steiner, Veronica Lario, Christian Borromeo, Lara Wendel, Ania Pieroni, Mirella Banti, Carola Stagnaro, Eva Robin’s

Director: Dario Argento

Screenwriter: Dario Argento

Movie Review – Tokyo Tribe

EXPECTATIONS: A crazy Sion Sono film with a little bit more than meets the eye.

REVIEW: Sion Sono’s film-making career is the most outrageous over these past few years since the juggernaut known as Takashi Miike. From heart-wrenching drama (Himizu) to satirical teen drama mystery revolving around suicide (Suicide Club) to a spoof/mystery to Yakuza films that is also a ode to 35mm film (Why Don’t You Play in Hell) and of course, his 4 hour epic film about love and religion and many more insane stuff (Love Exposure), there’s always an element of surprise and energy to Sion Sono’s film that is, quite frankly, almost unattainable. And now he’s making a rap/hip-hop musical with his biggest budget to date (until Shinjuku Swan), adapted from a manga by Santa Inoue? Is this Sion Sono compromising his film-making or is he going to live up to its crazy premise? Thankfully, he doesn’t hold back. Not one iota.

Set in a dystopian future, five years after the Shibuya riots, there are many tribes in Tokyo that live in their idea of peace. But one day, a gang member of Musashino Saru is killed by a rival tribe, Bukuro Wu-RONZ. Since the former is standing for pacifism whilst the latter is for violence, a tragic event sets off a war between tribes. During the war, god-like figures are looking for a girl who is in hiding in Tokyo and asks Bukuro Wu-RONZ for their help in exchange for taking over Japan. This synopsis is brief yet necessary, since I do not want to put in spoilers that the trailer may spoil (like a death of a certain character).

First things first, there is a theme in the film that needs to be addressed that might irk some viewers. And that is sexism. I kind of find it funny that when people hear the word “sexism”, people think that it only applies to women. But in this film, both genders are equally skewed and satirized. And yes, it’s exaggerated to the point of hilarity. There’s a scene in the film where it is implied that Riki Takeuchi’s character eats women. Are people really meant to take that seriously?  Most, if not all hip-hop has that kind of sexist mentality (Bitches and hos!). There’s a female character that goes nude from the waist above and takes charge of the situation she’s in and there’s a male character who pounces around in his Speedos despite having a problem with his supposed small penis. Both characters take charge of their own problems but both expand on it in different ways. Some ways are constructive but some are destructive. At least in the film, the female characters’ problems don’t revolve around crying over men. If anything, the strongest characters in the film are the female leads. Besides, every person who commits any misogynistic behaviour get their comeuppance by either being defeated and/or killed. If anything, most men look bad because they are portrayed like raving self-centred nutjobs who get into wars over something so little. Figuratively AND literally. The funny thing is that there is a good male character (Yon) played by a female (Makoto Sakaguchi) who’s probably the toughest character in the film. Whereas there’s a bad male character (Nkoi) who dresses up like a woman who treats people (both men and women) like furniture. He’s probably the only asexual character in the film. Seems like equal treatment, as skewered and over-the-top as it is.

But enough about that, let’s see how the movie succeeds. First of all, it’s the easily immersive world building. The sets and locations look spectacular on screen from Buppa’s lair to Pennys’ and the streets of dystopian Tokyo; it’s all gritty and colourful at the same time. Even the camerawork and cinematography is above reproach, sometimes capturing the sets and locations in impressively long takes. All tribes look incredibly distinct from the black-hooded gang Waru to thet tight and gritty Gira Gira Girlz and the boasting and whimsical Nerimuthafuckaz to the subtle and warm Musashino Saru and of course, the glam glitz yet trashy Bukuro Wu-RONZ. I haven’t seen gangs like this in such a way since the 80’s cult classic “The Warriors”. The songs in the film are incredibly catchy and are sung well, considering that most of them singing the songs are actual rappers. Although the singing from the non-rappers are considerably mixed, they don’t embarrass themselves. Amusingly enough, the lyrics on the English subtitles are done in rhyme, which add to the fun. What I also liked about the music is that there are no truly show-stopping moments that interfere with the pacing. Entire scenes of dialogue are sung/rapped and it adds to the immersive feel of the film. A similar approach to this type of singing would be the 2007 musical film, Sweeney Todd.

The characters are, like the tribes, also incredibly distinct and acted out to the hilt. Almost all the characters are hammy, over-the-top and comical, you kinda feel sorry for Young Dais as Kai, who plays his role as quite grounded and idealistic. Ryohei Suzuki is a blast as Mera as he hilariously hides his insecurities with a tough facade.I absolutely loved the back-story between Kai and Mera, and the reason for their conflict. Let’s just say, it is so hilariously stupid, complete with credits sequence, that it actually makes perfect sense in retrospect and is a perfect commentary on real-life, how people go into conflicts over something so little. Riki Takeuchi as Lord Buppa is Riki Takeuchi on speed, and he EATS as well as demeans women. Yosuke Kubozuka as Nkoi was a hoot as Buppa’s son, who has a bedroom that’s right out of A Clockwork Orange. But the standout character for me was Cyborg Kaori. I won’t spoil what she does, but she made me choke in laughter. Searching her up would be a start, but it would spoil the surprise. Sono always makes strong female characters in his films and Tokyo Tribe is no exception. With Nana Seino as Sunmi and Makoto Sakaguchi as Yon, they kick ass, and never get scared, even at the threat of rape. Nana Seino didn’t impress me with her previous film, Danger Dolls, due to her obvious inability to do stunts alongside her more athletic co-stars. But here, she’s improved immensely, clearly doing all of her own stunts and choreography with aplomb (courtesy of martial artist/actor Tak Sakaguchi, under a pseudonym). And having seen her latest films like Nowhere Girl and The Ninja War of Torakage, she’s a force to be reckoned with. That’s not to say Makoto Sakaguchi is no slouch since she’s better than Seino due to the fact that she’s an actual martial artist. Speaking of martial artists, Bernard Ackah and Joey Beni are show-stealers as kung-fu assassins sent to capture someone. Their introduction is one of the best scenes in the film, taking place in a nightclub, filmed with a pink filter.

I would discuss more about the characters like Kesha, MC Show and The High Priest, but that would take way too long. As for the negatives of the film, some of the story elements remain unresolved and the CGI is very shoddy, like a scene involving a tank rampaging through a city is obviously green-screen. But none of that really bothered me. I had so much fun with this film, on my first screening at the Japanese Film Festival 2014 (JFF 2014) not even the crappy seating I was assigned with bothered me. Actually, I think it helped because I could see the entire screen without moving my head, and I could catch so much details within the environments. I wanted to see it again as soon it was over, which I did thanks to the Eureka UK BluRay. Although it’s not as emotionally satisfying as Love Exposure or as affectionate as Why Don’t You Play in Hell, it matches its peers due to its ferocity and sense of chaos and fun. It’s like The Warriors meets Idiocracy, set in a hip-hopera!

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast are all fantastic and committed in their warped characters

The songs are catchy and never feel like showstoppers

The world building is immersive and eye-catching

Subversiveness of sexism in hip-hop/rap culture is sharp

The energy of the film is sustained throughout

CONS

May be too sexist for some

Some loose ends in the story

Shoddy CGI

SCORE: 9/10

NOTE: Thanks to Eureka Entertainment for the BluRay and thanks to Japanese Film Festival 2014 and Madman for screening the film in Australia.

Cast: Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais, Shota Sometani, Nana Seino, Makoto Sakaguchi, Riki Takeuchi, Ryuta Sato, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shoko Nakagawa, Yui Ichikawa

Director: Sion Sono

Screenwriter: Sion Sono, based on the manga “Tokyo Tribe2” by Santa Inoue