Best and Worst of 2015 (Asian Films)

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DONNIE YEN CONGRATS JUMP! I cannot believe that 2015 is almost over. I have seen many Asian films this year thanks to film festivals (like Japanese Film Festival 2015 and Korean Film Festival in Australia 2015, Sydney Film Festival 2015 etc.) and Blu-Ray/DVD releases and according to my findings, Japan is by far the leading country in great films this year.

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Three of Japanese maverick director Sion Sono’s films I’ve seen this year, are all fantastic in their own ways (there was one exception), but Tag (aka Real Onigokko) was, in my opinion, his best film of the lot. The film does everything in its power to consistently surprise, shock, thrill, ridicule and provoke the audience all at once in a short running time. A film that comes close to Tag would be Tetsuya Nakashima’s kaleidoscopic and nihilistically insane The World of Kanako, which has a knockout performance from Koji Yakusho. Sono’s other film; Tokyo Tribe was pure anarchic, chaotic and unruly fun, with fantastically unhinged performances, catchy songs, enthralling set/costume design and many laugh-out-loud moments. For a 180 degree turn in tone, Sono’s family film, Love & Peace was a pleasant surprise that, despite the problematic first act, has likable characters, (again) catchy songs, an endearingly kitschy low-fi fantasy world and in my opinion, the cutest turtle that has ever appeared on screen, animated or otherwise.

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Another Japanese film I watched was Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Prophecy. Having the same touch with his storytelling as his previous films (which is more about character than plot), Prophecy is great dramatic viewing, if not as good as his previous film, The Snow White Murder Case. But the Japanese films that surprised me were 100 Yen Love and When the Curtain Rises. Although I knew that Sakura Ando would give a typically glorious performance, the execution of what the film essentially is (a boxing movie) is what transcends it from a typical boxing film to a special underdog story. As for Rises, I thought it would be a terrible film due to irritatingly cutesy acting and clumsy direction from the man that made Shaolin Girl. But thankfully, I was wrong. The acting was surprisingly good from idol group Momoiro Clover Z and Katsuyuki Motohiro’s direction was surprisingly subtle, which makes every achievement from the characters earned without feeling phony or contrived.

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As for animated films, The Case of Hana and Alice was a pure delight (particularly for a fan of the first film) but newcomers can equally enjoy the prequel of a blossoming of a beautiful friendship. When Marnie Was There (the newest and possibly the last Studio Ghibli film) was also a beautifully realized fantasy that shows that love transcends all, and is a suitable swan song for the acclaimed animation studio.

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As for Chinese cinema, the newest film from Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, The Assassin was dreamy and refreshing in the best way, even for a wuxia film. The way it strips the Chinese swordplay genre to its bare essentials while still adding a sense of haunting realism works well within Hou’s direction. Another Taiwanese film I enjoyed was Murmur of the Hearts by Sylvia Chang (who’s last film was 2008’s Run Papa Run). The drama was very well-handled without being manipulative; with fantastic acting (it was so good seeing Isabella Leong back on screen) and it is even more effective if you watch it as a character study. Speaking of Sylvia Chang, her work (acting/screenwriting) of Office, directed by Johnnie To was also a great watch, a fine musical but an even better drama. Shame about Chow Yun-fat not singing though.

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The Taking of Tiger Mountain, by Tsui Hark, was loads of fun to watch (even without the 3D) and it still surprises me of how he took a true story and turned it into what is on screen and got away with it from Chinese censors. Full Strike, a HK sports comedy, was also a lot of fun that harkened back to 90’s HK comedies in the best way, while also combining anime-style antics to the sports genre that is reminiscent of Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. Andrew Lam steals the show as the master, who is eerily like Stephen Chow’s frequent co-star, Ng Man Tat.

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For Korean cinema, Han Gong-ju was a masterclass of acting (if not storytelling) and so was A Girl at My Door, with Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron. The latter gave a fantastic performance especially when you consider how much of a challenge her role was. A Hard Day was a near-perfect piece of entertainment that combined thrills and black comedy really well. My Ordinary Love Story lives up to its title but something happens in the film that makes it one of the most surprising things I’ve witnessed. No spoilers, but it must be seen to be believed. The Beauty Inside was also an entertaining film, although it could’ve mined more food for thought given its compelling premise. Coinlocker Girl shows Kim Go-eun as a force to be reckoned with and Kim Hye-soo giving her best performances in a long time, although the story drags a bit too long to its finish.

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For disappointments, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences was one of them due to its incredibly contrived and laughable script. (Message by emoji? Please.) Strayer’s Chronicle, a sci-fi film by Takahisa Zeze was surprisingly dull considering the source material, the cast and the director himself. Shinjuku Swan was also a big disappointment that goes to show that even a director like Sion Sono gets his talent diluted for a commercial film. Memories of the Sword was also a big disappointment due to the laboured and plodding storytelling, although the actors try their best. But the biggest one was Ghost Theater. Once hailed a master of horror, director Hideo Nakata completely blows it all with a film so laughably bad, it had to be intentional as a horror parody.

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That’s my view on Asian films in 2015. I wish I could’ve seen more (films like Bakuman, He Remembers She Forgets and Madonna I just missed out) but hey, good things come to those who wait. And I hope in 2016, great things happen all at once.

Anyway, gotta jet! See ya next year!

Film-momatic

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Movie Review – R100

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EXPECTATIONS: Something funny, I guess. It’s a Hitoshi Matsumoto film so, who the hell knows?

REVIEW: Hitoshi Matsumoto is one hell of a talented man with an even bizarre sense of humour. Although I’ve seen little of his comedic work and shorts, I’ve seen all his films and they could not be any more different from each other, besides from the fact that they are Japanese comedies. One of them is a kaiju mockumentary, another is a Kubrickian surrealist tale, another one is a off-kilter Samurai tale and his latest film, R100 is a BDSM comedy that explores sexual fantasies and how destructive they can be when overindulged. Now you’re probably wondering, how is it that these films with such themes can get such comedic mileage? That’s where Matsumoto’s bizarre sense of humour come into play and it works wonders in his latest film.

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Nao Omori (who plays the titular character in Ichi the Killer) plays Katayama, a lowly, ordinary salaryman whose life feels like an extended period of boredom, ennui and depression, since his wife (You) is now in the hospital and he has become a single dad to his son. During his day-to-day life, he encounters a woman who is dressed in a sexy, fashionable bondage garb and she beats him up in a profuse fashion to the point where Katayama becomes aroused. The next day, he is invited to a strange building which is revealed to be a BDSM club with many dominatrixes, each with their special talents. Impressed with what he sees, Katayama signs on for a one-year contract, which will involve him being humiliated and attacked in public, which will guarantee with full sexual arousal. At first, he is satisfied with the results, but when the dominatrixes interfere with his personal life, including his wife, Katayama decides he has to stop the contract to protect his family. But the dominatrixes have more than talents of humiliation and bondage up their panties to dish out on Katayama.

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You think the story sounds weird from the synopsis, you’re in for a surprise because it gets much weirder. I wouldn’t want to spoil what happens but then again, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Let’s just say that just when you think the Japanese couldn’t get any crazier, out comes R100. I can tell you that director Matsumoto’s sense of humour definitely remains intact, and it pays off in wonderful ways. The jokes come in various types, whether its meta (a scene involving a test screening of the film itself is hilarious), deadpan (the first scene where Katayama meets one of the dominatrixes sets the tone of the movie really well), silent (a scene involving sushi will shock you into hysterics) or physical (many of the beatings Katayama goes through) as well as just plain weird (the climax must be seen to be believed), Matsumoto knows comedy and he accomplishes it in ways that it transcends genre conventions. Even the use of music in scenes adds to the surreal feel, like the use of Friday Night by Arabesque. You will never hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy the same way again when you hear its use in R100.

It helps Matsumoto has an incredibly game cast to go along for the ride. Nao Omori can play the role of the timid salaryman in his sleep but the reactions to the weirdness around him pay off in amusing ways. But it is the dominatrixes that stand out. Ai Tominaga stood out brilliantly in her first scene that it would make you spit your drink. Eriko Sato plays out her role in one of the best scenes involving sushi. The scene plays out silently, but her facial expressions, as well as Omori’s, makes the scene that much funnier. Shinobu Terajima and Hairi Katagiri are good sports in their roles, especially Katagiri, who you can say is quite a mouthful. But Naomi Watanabe steals the show. An accomplished comedienne herself, she plays her role as the Saliva Queen without restraint and her physical comedic chops are a delight to see, even if it is revolting to experience.

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As for the storytelling, the pacing can throw people off, especially those expecting for a wall-to-wall crazy experience a la Nobuhiko Obayashi’s cult horror classic, Hausu. The film unravels, for a lack of a better metaphor, like a handjob. The film starts off slow and seemingly uneventful and just when you think it goes off-track, it gets better and better to the point where just when you think it is all over, it shocks you into submission with its sublime climax. On a serious note, the pacing is similar to David Fincher’s The Game, which also involves a character getting out of a contract he signed up for.

The color scheme of the film is interesting as it is similar to the colours of the bondage costumed gear, implying that the film would be full of sex, but the colour scheme is also intentionally dull, playing off audience expectations. Speaking of audience expectations, the meta humour plays off of that to hilarious heights, especially when the film producers are asked questions about the various oddities and illogical circumstances in the film. But it is these oddities and circumstances that will definitely throw off people as well. Some will say the film is trash and it makes no sense at all. Some will say that it is a joke. It definitely is, but it might only be understood by Matsumoto himself. Funnily enough, that point is referenced in the ending of the film as a joke itself.

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Now do I understand what the film is really about? Most of it, surprisingly. But the film implies that you have to be 100 years old to get the full experience. Or being in Matsumoto’s shoes. Who the hell knows? But what I do know that this was a hilarious, bizarre and hypnotic ride that I will never forget and I hope to pay for an experience just as good as this, if Matsumoto keeps showing us the goods. Okay, no more innuendos.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give their absolute best (Nao Omori’s reactions to the world around him is spot-on, all the bondage queens are magnificently well realized, especially Naomi Watanabe and Shinobu Terajima)

Humour of all types (meta, satire, physical, raunchy, B-movie) are well-executed and hit hard (I absolutely loved the scene at the sushi bar)

The pacing is similar to a handjob (it starts off slow, then it progressively gets better and just when you think it goes off-track, it climaxes big time in the end)

So unpredictable that it is refreshing to see, even for a Japanese film (You will never feel the same way about Beethoven’s Ode to Joy ever again)

CONS

The pacing may throw people off (it is unlike prior Matsumoto films)

The humour and execution of the plot will not appeal to everyone

SCORE: 8/10 (The best film about S&M ever made. It’s like a comedic version of Eyes Wide Shut mixed with The Game, by David Fincher.)

Cast: Nao Omori, Mao Daichi, Shinobu Terajima, Eriko Sato, Ai Tominaga, Naomi Watanabe, Hairi Katagiri, You, Haruki Nishimura, Gin Maeda, Suzuki Matsuo, Atsuro Watabe, Lindsay Hayward
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Screenwriter: Hitoshi Matsumoto