Movie Review – Shin Godzilla

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EXPECTATIONS: One of the best Godzilla films.

REVIEW: It is incredibly hard to believe that there are THIRTY ONE Godzilla films in existence. And the premise of all of these films is about a giant creature roaming through large cities, causing havoc and destruction. How can you stretch that to 31 films? James Bond hasn’t even reached 25 films yet! What makes Godzilla so special? A lot of people say it’s what Godzilla represents. Sometimes, he represents the mistakes that Japan has done like in the original film that involved nuclear bomb testing that brought back memories of Hiroshima; a parable of the mistakes of humanity.

While others love Godzilla so much because the franchise delivers exactly what it promises. Mindless chaos and destruction that must be seen on a cinematic scale. Or getting drunk off your ass due to its cheesy execution, it all depends on the entry. Throughout the years, the Godzilla entries have changed the perception of Godzilla to the point that it became campy and made the star an anti-hero that fought other creatures, therefore saving the world.

In the case of the latest entry, the film goes back to the roots of the original by bringing back memories of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. And to add to that, we have Hideaki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion and director of camp classic Cutie Honey) and Shinji Higuchi (director of Attack on Titan films) co-directing and you got a lot of talent lined up. Does Shin Godzilla live up to the massive expectations?

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The film starts off in a day like every other day, until a strange body of water moves within the bay, which causes some panic with the locals. With government officials assuming that the occurrence was caused due to volcanic activity, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), a young deputy believes that a large creature is the cause. But before the officials could come up with a conclusion, Yaguchi’s predictions come to life as a giant creature rampages through the city, causing havoc and destruction within its path. As the government declares a state of emergency and tries desperately to save the citizens, Yaguchi hires a team of supposed “nerds” and “outcasts” to study the creature’s weaknesses and formulate a plan to stop it. But with very little time and a high amount of democratic red tape to sift through, the chance of chaos is becoming more and more imminent.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis, it seems that Shin Godzilla will play out almost exactly like every other Godzilla film: Godzilla appears, massive panic, people formulate plan to stop Godzilla, plan succeeds, end credits. But with Hideki Anno at the helm, you can expect something different and I am happy to report that Shin Godzilla succeeds wholeheartedly. The film surprised me in more ways than one and as soon as I left the cinema, I wanted to watch it again.

First off, Godzilla itself is a grand sight to behold. The film goes backs to the basics to make it scary and menacing again, unlike the campy entries. The minimal screen-time, the less-is-more approach, it’s all here. But unlike the 2014 entry which short-changed Godzilla to the point of being in a supporting role (thanks to the direction and the major focus on the other creatures), Anno makes Godzilla the main focus of the film.

Anno changes the origins of Godzilla and it is quite inventive to witness. I cannot wait to see ideas of it to be explored further if a sequel ever happens. I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film but prepare to be surprised when you see Godzilla for the first time. The portrayal of Godzilla is also a nice change, as it is portrayed as a force of nature than an actual antagonist. Even the characters in the film admire the creature just as much as they fear it. There are some nice touches to Godzilla that adds to the portrayal like when it “attacks”, it never feels like an attack, but an act of fear i.e. the atomic breath.

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As for the city-wide destruction scenes, they are beautifully orchestrated and will definitely send a chill to one’s spine. No doubt, scenes of the destruction that are reminiscent of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami will stir up some people. A scene at night with Godzilla executing his iconic action after provocation from outside forces is still tattooed into my brain. Speaking of tattooed images, the final shot of the film is also an image that I would never have thought to see and it just has me psyched for a sequel to see the themes and ideas more developed and thoroughly realized. It is just that haunting.

As with many Godzilla films, characterizations of the humans are in short-supply but in the case of Shin Godzilla, it seems that the filmmakers know of this flaw, so they just jam-pack the film with a boatload of stars/character actors and it is a lot of fun to spot them, if you are familiar with the Japanese media. I have to admit seeing director Shinya Tsukamoto (who directed the cult classic Tetsuo franchise) playing a character who admires Godzilla got a big smile out of me.

As much of the bounty of actors that we see, there are only two actors that stand out: Hiroki Hasegawa and Satomi Ishihara. Hasegawa has always been a dependable actor who is very versatile (like playing a crazed director in Why Don’t You Play In Hell; to playing a revered soldier in Attack on Titan) and he makes an impression in Shin Godzilla. Emblematic of perseverance and strong will, Hasegawa portrays Yaguchi with utter seriousness that it makes it easy to support and sympathize with his character.

In the case of Ishihara, she stands out due to the fact that her character is essentially a dry joke. Playing Kayoko Ann Patterson, the “American” of the film, she seems to be having a lot of fun with her performance. The way she moves (in comparison to the stiff government officials), the way she talks (the stilted English delivery and dialogue), her motivations (she wants to become President of the United States) and even the way she dresses (There’s a joke about her choice of wardrobe when we first meet her), her character comes across as a joke and I think Anno intended it to be that way. There are much better Japanese actresses who can play the role, especially with the English language (like Yoshino Kimura) but would she had stood out as much as Ishihara did? I doubt it. She’s basically the Raymond Burr of Shin Godzilla, and it delighted me to no end.

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Speaking of delight, a big surprise of the film was the amusing satire of the government. its bureaucracy and even its foreign relations. Meetings are held over and over for decision approvals and sometimes decisions are reneged and therefore, another meeting must be held to approve the reneging. It may sound tedious and repetitive, but the way Anno executes it, it comes across as dryly amusing, especially when you encounter the over-seriousness of the actors’ performances. There’s even a scene Anno also employs musical scores from Neon Genesis Evangelion (thanks to Shiro Sagisu and Akira Ifukube) to a thrilling effect that makes the deliberating scenes more swift as well as gives a punch to the action scenes. He even films the deliberating scenes in strange ways (like a shot seen through a chair that is being pushed) that reminded me of his live-action film debut, Love & Pop.

The subtitles (which has come an annoyance for many) explicitly state the occupations/ranks of the characters that appear on-screen as well as their names during dialogue scenes. They also apply to the locations of the film as well. As for the locations, the film cuts to many to show the spanning destruction that Godzilla causes, but funnily enough, there’s a part where Anno cuts to a location where nothing happens and stays there for about ten seconds then cuts to the government officials. I don’t understand why it’s there, but it did make chuckle due to the perfect timing of it, as the tension of the preceding scene is meant to dissipate at that point.

In the case of the ranks, they are never meant to be of importance to the story, but it can be seen to convey the amusingly sharp obliviousness of the government and its hierarchy and who to rely on for a sense of authority and well as autonomy. There’s even a character whose name and rank is shown, yet we never see his face! In an odd fashion, there’s a cameo of actress Hairi Katagiri as a janitor whose character’s name and rank never shows up, despite the fact that her few lines of dialogue make a bigger impression than the others do. There was a nice touch with the ranks as the character of Yaguchi has his rank shown a few times throughout the film until the final act, where it is seen that he has achieved a promotion. One hilarious throwaway joke involves the Americans and the name of Godzilla that had me laughing out loud.

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Shin Godzilla lived up to the buzz and exceeded my expectations in every single way. Just as I was afraid of the overly talky scenes, Anno punches it up with a much-needed satirical and topical humour. Just when I thought Godzilla wasn’t going to live up to its reputation, Anno executes its presence spectacularly. And just when I thought successful reboots were a dime a dozen, Anno proves me wrong. I absolutely enjoyed this film.

P.S – Here are some advertisements of Satomi Ishihara promoting the school (Aeon) that she attends to learn the English language. If that doesn’t prove her “American” character is a joke, I don’t know what will.

Quickie Review

PROS

Godzilla itself

A sharp and amusingly satirical look towards governments and bureaucracy

The musical score and cinematography

Anno’s fantastic direction

Performances were perfectly on point

CONS

Some shoddy CGI

May be too talky at times

The overcrowded subtitles

SCORE: 9.5/10

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara and a boatload of cameos
Director: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Screenwriters: Hideaki Anno

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Movie Review – Destruction Babies (Japanese Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something extremely violent and with an actual meaning.

REVIEW: After the genre-bending and genuinely surprising romantic thriller Hime-anole, I did not think that there will be a film that can shock me with its execution and portrayal of violence on screen. That is until I watched a small-scale film with a blunt-force title, Destruction Babies. I am not familiar with the work of Tetsuya Mariko but if his earlier work is as hard-hitting and impacting as Destruction Babies is, you can bet I’ll be looking forward to it.

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The film starts off at a port town where we first see 18-year old Taira (Yuya Yagira, looking nothing like an 18-year old) getting beat up by a local gang. Looking for a hell of a beating (his own and others’) is Taira’s form of excitement and ecstasy, and the film follows him to a nearby town where he goes through a series of fights that leave an impression to everyone who watches. Taira is always left down-and-out and into a bloody pulp but he always comes back from rock bottom and, if anything, becomes even stronger and more resilient as the night goes on.

Things take a strange turn when a snot-nosed little brat Yuya (Masaki Suda) tags along with Taira. While Taira is a force of nature whose livelihood is dedicated to violence adhering to his own principles, Yuya is an embodiment of chaos and destruction.  Eventually a young club hostess and shoplifter, Nana (Nana Komatsu), gets kidnapped by the duo which then culminates into something even shocking and even transcendent.

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The way I describe this film is that it is a cross between Takashi Miike’s polarizing Izo and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist. Both films are exhaustively ultra-violent, involve commentary on Japanese society and they both involve characters that are almost impenetrable to understand or empathize. But unlike those films, Destruction Babies is a lot more controlled and restrained in its execution. And it is because of that, there is a gradual build-up in the proceedings that pays off in the climax; not just in terms of tension and suspense but in its character portrayals that might make you reevaluate what you just saw.

Mariko’s direction also hews towards a bit of a surrealistic feel, as if when you witness the fights, you almost can’t believe that it is happening, yet you cannot look away. Funnily enough, the feeling goes away when the audience is hit with harsh reality when some of the events make Taira an online phenomenon, with some inventive moments involving found footage.

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The actors certainly hold up their end of the bargain. With a fantastic presence as well as a committed physical stamina, Yuya Yagira has come a very long way since his first role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, Nobody Knows. He handles the fight scenes with ease and glee but his performance is always controlled and never over-the-top. His presence is so striking that there’s a scene in the film where he wears a pair of sunglasses, and he looks eerily similar to veteran actor Jo Shishido, who starred in films like Seijun Suzuki’s psychedelic film noir Branded to Kill.

Masaki Suda, who’s been in probably over 1000 films over the past 2 years, plays such a despicable figure here as Yuya. With absolutely no regard to human decency (or anything human really) as well as having an untapped anger that is unleashed when he encounters Taira, Suda becomes unhinged with his performance and it becomes shocking to watch, particularly during a scene set in a train station.

And last but not least, there’s Nana Komatsu. After making such a big impression in Tetsuya Nakashima’s kaleidoscopic thriller, The World of Kanako, her role at first seems like a wasted opportunity, playing a hostess as well as a hostage between the two male leads. But thankfully, her role becomes clear and even surprising when the film reaches the final act and Komatsu plays it out really well. Her role is reminiscent of Kaori Fujii’s role in Tokyo Fist, which is also a role that seemingly is a victim but turns out to be very different.

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The supporting cast are all fine with their roles, but none of them stand out as truly as the three leads, with the possible exception of Nijiro Murakami as Shota, Taira’s brother. Although he is much more passive and does not admit to it, he is a lot like his brother and Murakami excels in his performance. It is also great that he eerily looks a lot like Yagira, that they could actually pass as brothers.

With such violence (which can border on repetition) and reprehensible characters, does the film have a point for all of its events? It does, but it is delivered in the transcendent ending with restraint that it might fly over the heads of the audience; particularly for those who are expecting a gut-punch conclusion. But the ending can be seen as quite satisfying, especially when you factor the backdrop of the film, which is a coming-of-age shrine festival and the characters together. Also, there are also very few revelations for the character’s actions and backstories, which will definitely disappoint some.

But overall, Destruction Babies is a brutal, exhausting and challenging piece of work with fantastic performances, some sharp moments about Japanese society as well as some moments that are guaranteed to shock. And to think that this is director Tetsuya Mariko’s most commercial effort, it makes me want to check out his prior work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances

Surprisingly controlled direction from Tetsuya Mariko

Many moments of shocking brutality

CONS

Polarizing ending

Very few revelations about the characters

SCORE: 7.5/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2016! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Yuya Yagira, Masaki Suda, Nana Komatsu, Nijiro Murakami, Denden
Director: Tetsuya Mariko
Screenwriters: Tetsuya Mariko, Kohei Kiyasu

 

Movie Review – Inferno (2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Hopefully an improvement just like Angels and Demons was to The Da Vinci Code.

REVIEW: I remember when I first heard of The Da Vinci Code novel by Dan Brown, I couldn’t really understand the hype of it all and how it became a best-seller. The story felt like it was a more mature version of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, since they both involve going on a quest to obtain the Holy Grail. But having watch the movie, I thought it was a ridiculous, dull and overly serious bore.

However, the sequel, Angels and Demons, was a nice improvement over Code mainly due to the actors being more engaged and the swift pacing, which makes the story more engaging as well as entertaining. The story was still ridiculous but it never felt serious enough for it to be insulting.

So when I heard that Inferno was being released, my expectations were actually positive, as I was hoping for the film to be an improvement over Demons. And when you have a cast with such talents like Felicity Jones, Irrfan Kahn, Omar Sy and others, I was mildly excited. Will it offer a Hell-acious experience or will it offer a time in Hell?

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The film starts off with transhumanist scientist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) running way from authorities from the World Health Organization, led by Bruder (Omar Sy). Zobrist then commits suicide which sets off a series of events which could lead to death of billions.

Meanwhile, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of what has transpired over the last few days. Relating to the death of Zobrist and the events that are being set, Langdon finds himself becoming a major target.

With the help of Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) and his knowledge of symbology, Langdon will try to regain his lost memories as well as face the biggest imminent threat he has ever come across.

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As ridiculous and outlandish as these stories are, they all have their moments of schlocky fun and Inferno has it in spades. Retaining the fast pace and the ticking-clock type of storytelling of Angels and Demons while rarely going in to dull territory of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno entertains once again. The plot unravels in a couple of days unlike Code, which spans a lot more, which lacked some much-needed urgency.

It also helps that there are more improvements as these films continues on. For example, Robert Langdon is portrayed as vulnerable and his mind (known as his sharpest weapon) has been majorly compromised. Not only does this give Hanks more to do with his performance, but it also adds tension to the story, knowing that his character can easily be compromised. Tom Hanks, as always, is dependable and seems to be just as engaged like he was in Demons, which is a plus.

Another improvement are the supporting characters. Usually the characters in the previous films, they were portrayed more as plot devices and causes for artificial tension i.e. they always screw up at narrative cues to force-feed tension to the audience. But in Inferno, the supporting actors add life to their characters and they all are active to the plot.

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Felicity Jones is endearingly spirited as the knowledgeable Sienna Brooks, and provides a nice compliment to Hanks. The film is at its best when the two are together, solving riddles and anagrams. And due to Langdon’s injury, it provides Jones the role of being the superior one, and it pays off with some lightly comical moments.

Irrfan Khan is a hoot as the slimy Harry Sims, showing class and superiority to an obscene amount. He even gets in on the action scenes and comes across as a bad-ass. I wish there was more of him on-screen. Omar Sy was well-chosen as Bruder, since he has an inherent likability to him, it makes his character hard to decipher where his allegiance is.

Even smaller roles are more distinct than usual. Ben Foster always has a knack for playing off-kilter characters and it hasn’t wavered a bit for his small role as Zobrist. Sidse Babett Knudsen (so good in After the Wedding) makes the most out of her small role as the head of the World Health Organization. The arc she shares with Hanks is contrived and a bit superfluous, but it does affect and that is mainly due to Knudsen. And last but not least, Ana Ularu makes an impression as the tough-as-nails enforcer, Vayentha.

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And as much goofy fun as I had with Inferno, there are some glaring flaws that will definitely be an issue to audiences. The story can come across as ridiculous and there are many plot-holes (Like how does Langdon remember his e-mail address and his password so quickly?). Even some of the dialogue comes off as unintentionally hilarious at times (Freeze! World Health Organization! – one bellows with authority).

Themes such as overpopulation and curing the world have been used many times in films/TV (i.e. Kingsman – The Secret Service, Utopia [UK series] and even Grimsby!), but for a half-serious film like Inferno, the themes become underdeveloped and adds nothing new to the story.

There are also some issues with the story that comes across as needlessly forgotten like in the ending, why was there no mention of Irrfan Khan’s character? Or how is it that Langdon can get away for what he did earlier in the film when in the ending, it shows that he did without any consequences?

But other than those flaws, Inferno is a fun time at the movies if you don’t take it seriously. With enthusiastic supporting actors, the fast pace and its ridiculously straight-faced story, I hope to see one more of these films in this unlikely franchise.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Better supporting characters, thanks to the actors

Fast pace and location scouting

Moments of ridiculously schlocky fun

CONS

Numerous plot holes

Telegraphs its twists too early

Unintentionally funny moments and dialogue

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu, Jon Donahue
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: David Koepp, based on the novel “Inferno” by Dan Brown

Movie Review – Hime-anole (Japanese Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another pleasantly entertaining film from Keisuke Yoshida.

REVIEW: To be perfectly honest, I actually didn’t want to review Hime-anole. Not because it’s bad, as it is far from it. I didn’t want to review Hime-anole because I didn’t want to spoil any of its major events. Because revealing said plot points can rob such films of their power. Having said that, this film is such a surprise that it could end up being on of my 2016 top 10 list.

Keisuke Yoshida has been a director that has, for the most part, made films that can be seen as pleasant as well as quite powerful. Films like the slice-of-life drama Cafe Isobe (2008), his tragic-comedy My Little Sweet Pea (2013), and even the manga adaptation Silver Spoon (2010) are entertaining pieces, although some are quite forgettable. His first feature, however, was a pinku film called Raw Summer (2005) with former AV star Sora Aoi. Despite its exploitation trappings, the film ended up transcending its origins with substantial character explorations within its voyeuristic plot. Having recalled the latter, it did make me wonder if Yoshida would ever go back to those types of films that delved into darker subject matter. Now, we have Hime-anole, a live-action adaptation of a manga by Minoru Furuya, whose Himizu (2001-2002) was filmed by Sion Sono in 2011.

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The film starts off uneventfully with the barely present Okada (Gaku Hamada) an assistant cleaner making a mistake during his work task and being criticized by his superior. This is when the straightforward Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), his work colleague backs him up and the two become better acquainted. Ando then tells Okada about his strong love for Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), a waitress at a coffee shop, despite the fact that he has never said a word to her. Because of Ando supporting him earlier, Okada feels obligated to help Ando get the girl of his dreams. But things get a little slippery when they find that a stranger is apparently stalking Yuka, so the two help Yuka out to avoid the stalker whilst Ando having ulterior motives to woo and pursue Yuka. But as feelings develop into something more intimate and motivations become a little clearer, the characters soon end up into something a little more than they bargained for…

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The directing by Keisuke Yoshida is incredibly assured, considering his past films, which never felt that they had a tight rein on its film-making. Scenes in the first act all have a sense of warmth that makes its humour and characters stand out, even with Go Morita in the background. When the story gradually enters the second act, the film ends up being more substantial as the characters are gradually explored, like in a scene where a friend of Yuka’s rudely and insistently judges Okada and Ando as a pair of losers. But as the second act starts, the genre Hime-anole adheres to gets turn on its head and gets beaten to a bloody pulp. Characters start to get more depraved with their emotions; motivations become more crystal clear and this is when Go Morita steals the film.

The acting from the cast is top-notch. Gaku Hamada can play his hang-dog sympathy act in his sleep and it’d still entertain me. In this film, he does play a character with a little bit more inner conflict and he portrays that well, particularly when the film enters its second act. Tsuyoshi Muro is surprisingly sympathetic, despite the character’s actions towards achieving his version of true love. His stern honesty and chemistry with Hamada make him endearingly likable. Aimi Satsukawa does the cute and quiet act with ease that it makes it easy for the audience to understand why Ando would fall for her. As for Go Morita as the stalker, this is his film, that’s all I will say about him. The supporting cast are all fine and give their roles the much-needed sympathy to stand out.

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The production values of the film are great, like the musical score and the editing. There’s a scene that starts the second act that is fantastically edited that it makes the audience more anticipated of what’s to come. The cinematography is also interesting to see, as the shots of the film starts off as static until they gradually become more hand-held when the depravity sets in. The film is also refreshingly free of CGI, which is becoming a major hindrance in cinematic storytelling. How can you get into the story if you notice something extremely fake? Hime-anole has very little of that, and it is immersive in its intent from the get-go.

To say any more about the film will be a discredit to it so I’ll just say that Hime-anole was one of the biggest surprises for me in 2016 and I highly recommend this film to those who are adventurous in the unexpected. With fantastic performances, the subtly unhinged direction from Keisuke Yoshida and a refreshing lack of adherence towards mainstream storytelling, Hime-anole is a cult classic in the making.

P.S – Did I note that the film was rated R-15 in Japan? I probably should’ve mentioned it earlier.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances (especially from Go Morita)

Assured direction and unhinged storytelling chops from Keisuke Yoshida

Surprising twists in the story

CONS

Some moments which could take the audience out of the film

Those expect anything mainstream will be concerned and even shocked

SCORE: 9/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2016! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Go Morita, Gaku Hamada, Tsuyoshi Muro, Aimi Satsukawa
Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Screenwriters: Keisuke Yoshida, based on the manga “Hime-anole” by Minoru Furuya

Movie Review – Top Knot Detective

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EXPECTATIONS: Some amusing one-joke premise that would run out of steam by the film’s end.

REVIEW: For those who live in Australia, the 90’s were a great time to watch the weird and wonderful culture of Australian programming. Consisting of surreal shows and films like Eat Carpet from SBS to the Journey to the West series Monkey on ABC, I’ll always be thankful to them for providing the huge amount of enjoyment that make us nostalgic for similar programs.

And now we have Top Knot Detective, a mockumentary about an incredibly bad TV show of the same name and its creator/mastermind Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki) who is director, lead actor, writer and editor…well, self-proclaimed anyway. Will it succeed in evoking the same feels that people have had back in the past?

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The TV show Top Knot Detective (also known as Ronin Suirai Tantei) revolved around a samurai seeking vengeance on the shadowy conspiracy that murdered his master. With his swords, and the power of deductive reasoning (one of the many great catchphrases), he wanders through feudal Japan, killing ninjas, robots, aliens, penis monsters, you know, the typical creatures one can find in feudal Japan.

While behind the scenes, the show is actually a tension-filled back and forth between its ego-maniacal and unruly star, Takashi Takimoto, his co-stars (most of them having negative feedback) and their corporate masters at Sutaffu.

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The story takes us through the development of the show and the story is so surrealistic and random, that it comes off more endearing rather than grating. The filmmakers’ enthusiasm and knowledge is seething throughout and it is very infectious. The over-the-top violence, the crazy characters, the catchphrases, the random occurrences, the shoddy film-making provide lots of laughs.

The research in Japanese culture is also well-done, as directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce explore other TV shows, the tokusatsu genre, J-Pop, cosplay and other themes that it adds a lot of verisimilitude to the story. There is a cameo from a particular Japanese musician that people will certainly appreciate. The actors all plays their roles (behind the scenes) so straight that not only does it make the film funnier, but it also adds a surprisingly emotional core that few would expect. Pathos is the last thing that you would expect from Top Knot Detective, but it is there and it works.

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The directors genuinely want to tell a story as well as create an homage/deconstruction of Japanese media genres and thankfully, it succeeds in both parts. It certainly helps that the filmmakers try to make it as realistic as possible, that it could’ve been an actual show. The VHS-look, the notable people like Des Mangan and Lee Chin-chin (associated to SBS [Special Broadcasting Service]) as well as Danger 5 Director Dario Russo making contributions, the trademark yellow subtitles, it’s all here and it adds an air of nostalgia as well as authenticity.

I really enjoyed Top Knot Detective not only as a comedy, but as an homage and surprisingly, even as a drama. It made me feel exactly how I felt back in the early 90’s of watching the surreal late-night programming that it, quite honestly, almost made me shed a tear. Definitely one of the biggest surprises I have seen so far this year and it surely deserves a wider audience. Highly recommended.

P.S – There is an after-credits sequence that had me so pumped that I wanted to see a mockumentary of it immediately.

Quickie Review

PROS

Deadpan approach to the insane premise of a TV show works wonders

The amazingly committed actors engender sympathy more than the script allows

The world-building (in this case, TV show building) is so well-realized that you would wish the show actually existed

Incredibly well-researched and articulated in its details of Japanese culture

CONS

Does drag a little bit in the second act

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Toshi Okuzaki, Denis Mangan, Mayu Iwasaki
Director: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
Screenwriters: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

Movie Review – Soul Mate

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EXPECTATIONS: Sappy melodramatic trash that sucks up to the China market or an understated and touching drama featuring two standout performances from its leads.

REVIEW: Mainland China films have, quite frankly, been terrible lately. No point in sugarcoating it. No point in dulling the blade. I had to rip the bandage off as fast as I could. Either sucking up to the customs of the China market (i.e. the rampant product placement/whoring in Patrick Kong’s Mr and Mrs Single) to being severely compromised and cut to shreds (i.e. Alan Mak’s Lady Cop and Papa Crook) to overseas films getting in on the action (i.e. Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even films with content that should not be anywhere near children being compromised for children (i.e. the overstated and childish humour in Shin Tae-ra’s Bounty Hunters and many others), my mood on China films have soured immensely.

So when I heard about a film produced by acclaimed filmmaker Peter Chan Ho-sun and directed by rising director Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung and starring star actress Zhou Dongyu and rising talent Ma Sichun, I was both hesitant and hopeful. So did the film succeed even with my low expectations?

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Based on the web-novel Qiyue and Ansheng by Li Jie, the film follows the lives of the title characters (played by Ma Sichun and Zhou Dongyu respectively) through their 20-year friendship from how they met during lessons of Chinese patriotism in middle school, finding young love, trudging through to university life drifting through the real world to the eventual outcome of the completion of the web-novel.

The synopsis I provided is brief, but I don’t want to provide any details about it because I am happy to report that this film is fantastic. Everyone from the cast and crew are on point with their roles and it might make it one of the best Chinese films of the year. Derek Tsang (son of Eric Tsang) always had talent and has shown it in many acclaimed films like co-writing Pang Ho-cheung films like Dream Home and Isabella, and has gone onto co-directing understated romances like Lover’s Discourse and Lacuna.

Now going into solo directing, Tsang has done a great job handling the film through its potential maudlin moments and finds actual integrity within the film’s scope as well as developing a sincere understanding of the characters. The beginning of the film reminded me of Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, with its use of text overlays being typed to present the story and it gives the film a sort of meta-vibe to what is actually being seen and what is being written and how it contrasts.

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Tsang and his fellow screenwriters also take the melodrama genre tropes and thankfully turn it on its head. Character identities change at times, plot twists which change our view of the film almost completely, montages that strangely span longer than usual; all of these moments add a certain unpredictability to the proceedings that will definitely surprise some. The conflicts in the film involve little passive-aggressiveness; meaning that the characters say how they really feel about each other with sharp intent. Even the love triangle component of the film only ends up more of a catalyst of something problematic towards the women that had been seething beneath them long before the triangle even starts, which is quite refreshing to witness.

But none of it will work as effectively as it should without the two superlative performances of the lead actresses. Zhou Dongyu has come a very long way since her debut role in Under the Hawthorn Tree as the timid schoolgirl and has become a much more confident actress here in Soul Mate. It takes some getting used to seeing her play such a brash and upbeat person but she does it really well and it never overrides her inner emotions that she conveys.

Ma Sichun has been fine in good films like the Taiwanese drama The Left Ear and Ding Sheng’s true-story thriller Saving Mr. Wu, but she’s also been in stinkers like the execrable Time Raiders. But here, she gives a very understated performance that works really well alongside Dongyu’s spirited performance. Her reserved attitude pays off in the more climactic points of the film where her explosive anger brings her character to life and it is quite scary and thrilling to watch. And with director Tsang’s direction, the moments of conflict will keep the audience on edge at times. Toby Lee’s performance as the boyfriend in the love triangle is fine, considering what he has been given, but it looks amateurish when compared to the other two leads.

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The film also has great production values, with fantastic cinematography from Jake Pollock and Jing Ping-yu and a stirring musical score (with soundtrack choices consisting of Faye Wong), although the score can be a bit intrusive at times, which can irk some. And even though the storytelling is refreshingly different, the outcomes of the story can also put some off due to how maudlin they can become, but the characters are so wonderfully portrayed and well-realized that it shouldn’t bother as much as it could have. There’s not even a noticeable China market flaw in the film either. Except maybe the milk product placement (although it was on a website the character was looking at) or the fact that the relationship between the two women was strictly platonic (I never read the source material, so I cannot be sure), but those can’t even qualify as nitpicks.

Overall, Soul Mate is a fantastic time-spanning drama and an endearing love-letter to friendship with two excellent performances from Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun; and assured direction from Derek Tsang that is sure to make the audience shed a few tears.

P.S- As of writing this review, Soul Mate is being nominated for 7 awards at the 2016 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, including Best Actress nominations for both Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun as well as Best Director for Derek Tsang. All are well-deserved.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Two fantastic lead performances

Assured direction from Derek Tsang

Fantastic trope-reversals in the genre

Surprising third-act and ending

CONS

Musical score can be a bit intrusive

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Zhou Dongyu, Ma Sichun, Toby Lee
Director: Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung
Screenwriters: Lam Wing-sum, Wu Nan, Xu Yimeng, Li Yuan, based on the web-novel “Qiyue and Ansheng” by Li Jie