Movie Review – Your Name


EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?


Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?


Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.


As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review


Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending


The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai


Movie Review – I Am Not Madame Bovary


EXPECTATIONS: A comedy/drama that suffers from China censorship with a great performance from Fan Bingbing.

REVIEW: Feng Xiaogang is one of the most popular directors in all of China, but unlike other directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his work is not as well-known overseas. Also unlike the directors mentioned, he was not trained at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, making him a self-taught auteur.

His films are well-known for their comedic timing, skilled storytelling as well as its satirical touch, which has resulted in great films like Cell Phone, a film that made fun of male statuses, technology obsession as well as having astute observations of the middle-class in China; as well as being commercial successes that worked well with audiences like the rom-com films If You Are The One and its sequel, the war film, Assembly and the disaster film/melodrama Aftershock.

In his latest film, he reunites with his collaborators from Cell Phone, superstar actress Fan Bingbing and author/screenwriter Liu Zhenyun for the comedy/drama, I Am Not Madame Bovary, based on a novel by the latter. Will the film be just as good and fruitful as their previous collaboration?


Fan Bingbing stars as Li Xuelian, a village woman, who is scorned by her ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) after being swindled into a divorce. She attempts to sue him but after a ruling is made against her in the divorce proceedings (resulting in a hilarious courtroom scene), she decides to seek justice from people who are higher up in the Chinese legal system.

But when she is ignored, rebuffed and pushed away by the infinite government officials that she seeks help from, she begins an annual trip of demanding reparations to Beijing not only in order to prove that her divorce was a complete sham but also in order to redeem her reputation, and most importantly to sue the Chinese officials who failed her.


For those who have just seen the screenshots and the trailer, you’re probably wondering, does the entire film look like we are peering through a telescope? For the majority of it, it is true. In a recent interview, Feng Xiaogang said that in his current age, he wanted to branch out from his commercial works and into more art-house fare. And seeing his newest film, it’s not hard to see the results.

The circular image can be a bit off-putting at first, but for those accustomed to Chinese art works and literature, it makes sense, visually. It also helps that the compositions and cinematography by Luo Pan looks fantastic, like peering at paintings.

The aspect ratio also changes from the circular image to the 1:1 ratio (simulating an open scroll) during the Beijing scenes until the end of the film, which is the 2.35:1 widescreen image. The reasons for the change in ratios is not just for visual purposes, but it lends a point for symbolism i.e. the circular image being a Chinese symbol for feminism while the ending ratio symbolizes the revelation that Xuelian confesses.

The beautiful cinematography is also an amusing contrast to the frankly ridiculous story, which had me belly-laughing. The same goes for the musical score by Wei Du, which adopts a thrilling and intensive vibe that brought a huge smile on my face.


Feng still has his trademark comedy chops in check like in Cell Phone and his last film, the incredibly esoteric Personal Tailor, and it pays off with dark humour, hard-hitting satire and even some physical comedy. Feng makes sure that every actor plays their role straight-faced without a sense of irony nor self-awareness, and it pays off brilliantly.

But unlike the actors, Feng knows how ridiculous the story is and plays it more like a fable, rather than something factual. And like his previous film Personal Tailor, the Chinese government isn’t seen and portrayed in an admirable light, leading to some very funny blaming games. Between this, Shin Godzilla and the recent election, bureaucracy has turned into a running joke.

Also contributing to the film is Fan Bingbing. In my opinion, she is one of the most underrated actresses out there. Mainly seen as nothing more than a pretty face, she clearly has done great work in her career, like her dramatic turns in her collaborations with director Li Yu or her comedic turns in films by director Eva Jin. Reuniting with director Feng Xiaogang, she gives one of her best performances in her career.

Taking away her glamourous beauty away and the lack of close-up shots in the film, she really inhabits the look of a villager. Ferocious, headstrong and not willing to back away from a fight, Fan pulls off her dramatic scenes with aplomb while also nailing the deadpan tone of the film; displaying her comedic chops. The rest of the all-male supporting cast do fine with their roles, especially Guo Tao as Xuelian’s childhood friend, but Fan is a true force of nature in the role.


Although I enjoyed the film overall aesthetically and humourously, there are some caveats that some will take issue with. The humour of the film is not of the politically correct kind which could irk some; one scene in particular involves rape and another one involves the act of suicide. And the second act does end up in a bit of a lull, and that is mainly because Fan is not on-screen for a certain amount of time, but the pacing overall is fine, though the running time is a bit stretched out.

As for the ending, it can be polarizing to some. While it does earn its dramatic peak and provides much-needed backstory and motivation for the main character, it does make you question what you just saw and it might evoke a sense of guilt; something that one might not want once they leave the theater.

But overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary was a funny, charming, satirical, feminist tale that shows both director Feng Xiaogang and actress Fan Bingbing at their best. How this film was NOT considered as a submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar is baffling beyond belief.


Quickie Review


Dry, satirical and hilarious humour, dealing with themes like infidelity, murder, rape, government bureaucracy

Beautifully surreal cinematography

Fantastic technical values enhance the humour of the ridiculous story

Fan’s fantastic performance as Pan Jinlian Li Xuelian


The ending and humour might polarize some

A slight lull in the second act

Slightly overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi  
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriters: Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband”

Movie Review – Phantom Detective (London Korean Film Festival 2016)


EXPECTATIONS: A silly, half-hearted noir that grates due to its long running time.

REVIEW: Whether if you have noticed or not, Korean cinema has been on a roll lately with their films and they have all been critically acclaimed as well as financially successful. With films like The Wailing, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, The Age of Shadows and others, how could a committed moviegoer cannot be psyched about that?

Enter director Jo Sung-hee, a film-maker that has gone through a blockbuster phase lately. His debut feature-length film, End of Animal, was an independent, gritty drama that both equally impressive as well as frustrating. Then surprisingly, he ventured into the fantasy genre with A Werewolf Boy, which was a box office success and I was entertained, although it was too much like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands for my liking.

And now he has ventured into the neo-noir genre with his latest film, Phantom Detective. Will the film keep up the high-standard winning streak of the recent films that I’ve seen, or will it let it down and become the first black sheep of the flock?


Lee Je-hoon stars as Hong Gil-dong, a talented sleuth who runs an illegal detective agency with the wealthy and vamp President Hwang (Go Ara). Hong is able to track virtually anyone down in record time, except for Kim Byeong-Duk (Park Geun-hyung) who has eluded him for many years. Kim is the man who killed Hong’s mother, although Hong’s memory is quite blurred, rendering it unreliable.

One day, Hong learns of Kim’s location and drives there late at night. Right before he arrives, Kim is kidnapped and only his granddaughters Dong-Yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-Soon (Kim Ha-na) are left. Following his urge for revenge, Hong reluctantly takes the granddaughters to find their grandfather. Soon, Hong finds himself embroiled in more than he bargained for when he uncovers a large conspiracy that could involve the deaths of many innocent people.


First things first, I enjoyed Phantom Detective in the long run. But for the first act, I have to admit, I had huge doubts about whether the film was worth the viewing. Firstly, the main character, Hong Gil-dong, is a dick. And I don’t mean a private dick (short for private detective), I mean, in a derogatory sense, he’s a dick. I didn’t know whether it was Lee’s performance or it was the intentional character portrayal but the smug attitude really bugged me.

Secondly, the child characters were also quite annoying as well. Overly cute to the point of making one’s teeth rot and incredibly intrusive to one’s work, it’s no wonder why Hong gets annoyed with them, let alone that he wants to kill their grandfather for murdering his mother. And lastly, it takes quite a while for one to discover the real plot of the film, so it makes the film drag in its first and partly second act.

But if one is patient enough to make it through all that, it becomes an entertaining film that is ultimately worth your while. The film instantly becomes better as soon as the motivations of the villains come into play. Characters become more human and likable, action scenes become more noteworthy, the drama even packs an extra punch and everything that preceded it becomes more clear. And that is all thanks to Jo Sung-hee’s patient direction.


The visuals and cinematography by Byun Bong-sun give the film a comical, yet nostalgic vibe, reminiscent of film noir and graphic novels, yet it never interferes with the surprisingly dark tone of the film. The action scenes are overall well-conceived, particularly with the use of a fire extinguisher that gave off unexpected tension and suspense. But the hand-to-hand combat sequences are a bit of a letdown, since they suffer from fast-cutting, with hinder the impact of the action.

But the heart of the film are the characters, which the actors truly give their best to their parts. Lee Je-hoon, an underrated actor who has done impressive work in the war film The Front Line and the indie drama Bleak Night, does well in the leading role. He gradually fits into the role of the talented sleuth and he plays the dilemmas of the character quite well, especially in the third act.

The child actors, Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na, are both good in their roles, especially Roh, since she has moments to shine. Park Geun-hyung makes the most out of his integral role as Kim Byeong-duk due to his tenderness with the scenes between him and the child actresses as well as the scene when he is confronted by Hong, which turns the present cliche on to its head.

Go Ara is delightfully vamp in her small role as President Hwang, who is clearly more busy with other tasks than helping Hong out. Jeong Seong-hwa is likable as the comic relief/hotel innkeeper/former crime thug but Kim Sung-kyun is the biggest standout as the villain. With very little backstory on the script, Kim still manages to stand out thanks to his acting. It also helps that his look (the lighting on his glasses) adds to the sheer menace Kim brings to the part.


Alongside the problematic first act, there are other flaws which prevent the film from reaching greatness. There are many genre elements in the film which can work on their own but when mixed together, it can become quite jumbled, if not take you out of the film. When you mix a tortured heroic character with a pair of precocious kids and throw them into a plot that involves a villainous cult, it becomes quite bizarre. Plus, the final act does take a bit too long (suffering from the too-many-endings syndrome) to reach its predictable conclusion.

But overall, Phantom Detective is greater than the sum of its parts, and although it doesn’t reach greatness like the other films of its home country, it is an entertaining diversion that packs committed performances, surprising direction from Jo Sung-hee and an appealing visual style.

Quickie Review


Good performances

Well-thought out action scenes

Character backstories give punch to drama

Cinematography adds to the offbeat feel


Genre elements don’t always mesh

Draggy ending

Problematic first act

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Lee Je-hoon, Kim Sung-kyun, Go Ara, Roh Jeong-eui, Kim Ha-na, Park Geun-hyung, Jung Sung-hwa, Kwang Bo-ra
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Screenwriters: Jo Sung-hee

Movie Review – The Age of Shadows


EXPECTATIONS: A technically masterful and endearingly old-fashioned spy thriller.

REVIEW: Kim Jee-woon is one hell of a versatile film-maker. The first film of his that I saw was on Australian television over 15 years ago. And that was his first feature-length film, the hilarious dark comedy, The Quiet Family. And to think that I assumed that The Quiet Family was a Japanese film (it has a Japanese remake as well) since I thought the first Korean film I saw was My Sassy Girl, it was a film that just kept on giving.

With a fresh cast that will become established stars and character actors (Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-shik and others) and assured direction from Kim, it was more than enough for me to look forward to his other work. Branching from comedy (The Foul King) to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters) to crime (A Bittersweet Life) to westerns (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) to thrillers (I Saw The Devil) to sci-fi (Doomsday Book) and even romance (One Perfect Day), I have enjoyed every project that he has made.

And after his mildly entertaining effort with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand, he has come back to Korea with a bang with this period film/spy thriller, The Age of Shadows, which has gathered critical acclaim from the Venice Film Festival and has been chosen to be the submission for the best foreign film at the Oscars. But does the film live up to the hype?


Set in the 1920’s, Song Kang-ho stars as Lee Jung-chool, a high ranking officer whose allegiance is with Japanese overlords over the Korean people. They have charged him with rooting out members of his country’s resistance movement. With the unenviable reputation of being a sell-out of his own people, none of it compares when a former classmate turned resistance fighter dies in front of him. On the other side of the conflict, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) notices Lee in his dilemma and sees an opportunity to defect him onto their side.

And that commences the development of reeling Lee in, with Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a key figure in the resistance handling the case. His antique shop is a front for a scheme to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul. While Lee could bring down this operation at any moment as well as being forcibly teamed up with the high-tempered Hashimoto (Um Tae-goo), he also has an equal chance to become an ally, thanks in no small part to Kim and his psychological tactics.


If you’ve seen the trailer or any of Kim’s work, you can expect that The Age of Shadows is a technically masterful piece of work. The cinematography by Kim Ji-yong (A Bittersweet Life, Hansel and Gretel) is striking and atmospheric throughout from the thrilling opening set-piece to the 30-minute train sequence that is a masterpiece of sustained suspense and tension.

The musical score by Mowg compliments the film as well, with an understated use of percussion to wonderful music choices like Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” and the best use of Ravel’s “Bolero” since Sion Sono’s Love Exposure. The editing by Yang Jin-mo is tight, ensuring maximum tension, fast pace and minimum fat during the 140 minute run-time.

Kim Jee-woon’s direction is in absolute control throughout the film. Getting us into the film immediately with its opening sequence, establishing the plot and character backstories with extreme efficiency, messing with the audience and their allegiance with playful humour and an assured hand, Kim Jee-woon is at his best.

None of this is affirmed more clearly than in the 30 minute train sequence. Going back and forth between characters, shifting allegiances alongside the expected violence that Kim packs into his films, it is thrilling to behold. Like with I Saw the Devil, there are moments in the film that are stomach-churning, like its interrogative torture sequences but don’t expect them to be with the same intensity of the former.


And let’s not forget the stellar acting from the cast. I don’t usually like to compare foreign actors to Hollywood counterparts, but if it gets Westerners to recognize talent overseas, I’ll have to do it. Song Kang-ho is basically like the Tom Hanks of Korea. Having adept comedy chops, tons of charisma and the capability to pull off compelling understated performances, Song is one of Korea’s finest actors, and in The Age of Shadows, he gives further proof of his reputation. He plays his character’s dilemmas very well, whether it is the questioning of his allegiance to his Japanese superiors and his country or his buried stress of his need to survive.

Gong Yoo is becoming a capable leading man as of late since the shocking true-story drama Silenced and the action flick The Suspect and if the year of 2016 signals anything, this film alongside the blockbuster Train to Busan is a great year for Gong. In The Age of Shadows, Gong mixes star-charisma with a strong sense of determination that makes his character easy to root for.

As for the supporting cast, Han Ji-min makes the most out of her screen-time, making a convincing sorta love-interest. And the same goes for Lee Byung-hun, in an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance. A standout of a villain is Um Tae-goo as Hashimoto. Gloriously over-the-top yet still conveying a sense of menace, Um provides a clear antagonist that we love to hate. His standout moment is when he berates his men and it is the most amusingly violent slapping scene since Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop.


As for nitpicks, the only one that is noticeable is the slightly overlong ending, the mildly convoluted plot and the fact that there is no deep meaning to it all. Korean cinema still keeps up its winning streak with The Age of Shadows; Kim Jee-woon’s long-awaited comeback to Korea. With stellar performances, thrilling setpieces, masterful storytelling and top-notch production values, The Age of Shadows is a must-see for anyone who loves film, particularly period films, spy thrillers and cloak-and-dagger flicks. Highly recommended.

Quickie Review


Stellar acting performances

Top-notch production values

Beautiful cinematography

Tight editing

Kim Jee-woon’s masterful storytelling chops


Slightly overlong ending

Slightly convoluted plot

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Screenwriters: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae, Kim Jee-woon

Movie Review – Under the Fence (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)


EXPECTATIONS: Something pleasant and worthwhile from director Nobuhiro Yamashita. Plus YU AOI!!

REVIEW: Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is a director whose work I have followed recently and all of his work that I have seen so far, I have enjoyed. La La La at Rock Bottom was a fantastic comedy/drama with two stellar lead performances (FUMI NIKAIDO!!), while Linda Linda Linda is a favourite of mine, with its realistic portrayal of high school life, lovable performances, its understated humour and a rocking soundtrack.

So when I heard that Yamashita was making a film that had Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi as the leads, I was psyched beyond belief. So does Over the Fence reach…over the fence?


Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) is dumped by his wife (Yuka) and goes back to his hometown of Hakodate. With nowhere to go in life, he attends at a vocational school, learning carpentry for unemployment benefits. At the vocational school, he meets Kazuhisa (Shota Matsuda) and the two become friends.

One day, Kazuhisa takes him to a nightclub for a business proposal and a night on the town. There, Yoshio meets a hostess, Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Endearingly spirited as well as having a strange affinity for the behaviour of animals, Yoshio gradually becomes attracted to her and the two start a relationship. But with complications like troubled pasts and troublesome events at the school, will Yoshio and Satoshi get together in the end?

From the looks of the synopsis, director Nobuhiro Yamashita is back to what he does best, which is portraying the life of the lower-class like in films like The Drudgery Train and Ramblers. But in the case of Over the Fence, the story is a bit more downbeat and depressing, in terms of its themes. That is most likely due to the source material by Yasushi Sato, who also wrote the source material for The Light Shines Only There.

But unlike that film, Yamashita executes the storytelling with an understated, yet assured touch. The revelations, dramatic beats, the lack of a musical score all point out that the film is aiming for more of a realistic yet contemplative vibe, rather than a melodramatic vibe. Not only does it make the storytelling more immersive, but it also gives the drama a much-needed punch when the conflicts arise.


The actors inhabit their roles really well and adapt their performances with the understated storytelling really well. Joe Odagiri has been playing these type of laid-back characters for years to the point that he could do it in his sleep. In Over the Fence, he does it again, but he still does it well and he makes it easy to believe that his character is a slacker.

As for Yu Aoi, her character is a much more complex role that could have been borderline irritating, but she nails it. Not only does she make her character believable and sympathetic, her star-quality charisma makes her character immensely likable. Her impressions of animal behaviour deliver belly-laughs. Odagiri and Aoi have an endearing chemistry and Yamashita brings out the best out of them in terms of dramatic intensity. With Aoi, it comes to no surprise but for Odagiri, it’s nice to see him being pushed in terms of his acting chops.

The supporting cast all do great with their roles as well, even adding life to their minimal screen-time. Shinnosuke Mitsushima is quietly intense as bullying victim, Mori, while Shota Matsuda does well as the lothario/salesman, Daishima. Yuka makes a big impression as Yoshio’s ex-wife, in her minimal screen-time, conveying the pain of her character convincingly.


Despite the potentially depressing storyline, director Yamashita still has time to fit in his whimsical humour that made his past films enjoyable. Besides the animal impressions that Aoi does, there are some scenes of absurdity like how a child is left on a theme park ride during an argument between the two leads that are quite amusing.

As for flaws, there was a lack of development of Satoshi’s backstory that could’ve been up to par with Yoshio’s backstory and the pacing could have been tightened up a bit, but it is understandable that the story is told this way, seeing that it involves characters slacking through life and its supposedly boring minutiae that people go through. Fortunately, the film ends in a satisfying way that made the film worthwhile.

Over the Fence is another quality hit for director Nobuhiro Yamashita, with great performances from Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi, assured direction from Yamashita, a committed supporting cast and an effective balance of realism and the trademark Yamashita humour. Yu Aoi’s impressions of animals is worth the price of admission.


Quickie Review


Great leading performances

Subtle, understated direction gives revelations a punch

Sprinkled, whimsical humour offsets the potentially grim story


Inconsistent backstories

Lack of action within the plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Shota Matsuda, Yukiya Kitamura, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Takumi Matsuzawa, Tsunekichi Suzuki, Yuka
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriters: Ryo Takada; based on the novel by Yasushi Sato

Movie Review – Anti-Porno (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

EXPECTATIONS: A Sion Sono movie with tropes that are synonymous with Sono.

REVIEW: Whenever you hear of the director Sion Sono, you expect a little controversy, a little surrealism and something a little extreme. And with films like Love Exposure, Suicide Club and Strange Circus to name a few, he has earned the reputation of being a maverick director. But in some of his recent work, he has gotten onto themes which are surprisingly in contrast to his earlier work. Much like in the schoolgirl horror/fantasy Tag, he delves into themes which reflect the faults in present Japanese society. And in his latest film, Anti-Porno, Sono does it again with spectacular results. As part of the five-film saga of the Roman Porno Reboot, Sono certainly makes his mark.


Former gravure idol Ami Tomite stars as Kyoko, a talented young artist and author whose life is in disarray due to her troubled past like the sudden death of her sister and the depraved relation between her parents. Taking inspirations from her life and using it for her novel, she becomes the woman that she is today. Trudging through her day-to-day life of interviews, magazine shoots and creative outlets, she has a dangerously sadistic relationship with her personal assistant, Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui). That is until one day, her life (as well as the story) turns upside-down to the point where the audience will have to re-evaluate what had just happened.

As with all of Sono’s films, the less you know about the story, the better. And Anti-Porno has many surprises and tropes that Sono is capable of pulling off. Like in Tag, Anti-Porno deals with female oppression and objectivity and it is just as sharp. Sono toys with actions that the characters make, which can be seen as exploitative as well as prurient but in retrospect as well as in the final act of the film, it all coalesces to a point and it is a marvel to witness.

The cinematography and production design by Maki Ito and Takashi Matsuzuka is fantastic to look at and really blurs the line between fantasy and reality with ease. Sono again utilizes classical music from Beethoven to great effect, but it can get a little repetitive, while the editing by Junichi Ito keeps the film clear and concise, especially for the film’s short running time.


Sono’s storytelling in Anti-Porno also feels like a greatest hits compilation at times, with many elements picked from Himizu (the use of paint), the fascination of the oppression of femininity (Tag and Guilty of Romance), psycho-sexual horror (Strange Circus), but Sono does one-up the story in one extreme way and it makes all the difference (without spoilers): he goes meta. Not only does it add some much-needed humour (like in a hilariously dark and depraved dinner scene), it also adds a lot of punch to the exploration of its themes, showing what it feels to be looked down on and having warped perceptions about the down-and-out facts of life.

The actors (or mainly two) certainly follow Sono all the way. Having worked with Sono in small roles like in Tag and The Virgin Psychics, Ami Tomite takes the leading role in Anti-Porno and she delivers a whirlwind of a performance. Seemingly one-dimensional in the first act (basically acting hysterical), as the story turns itself on its head, her performance becomes a lot more layered as her character deals with sorrow, desperation and guilt, and Tomite delivers in spades.

Veteran actress Mariko Tsutsui (who has appeared in Sono’s The Land of Hope) also delivers in a similar way, playing her role as one-dimensional (in this case, submissive) to the point where she becomes a force of nature that took me by surprise. The supporting cast are all fine in their performances but the acting highlights are mostly from Tomite and Tsutsui.


As for its flaws, the film does indulge in actions (like sexual violence and prurience) that can turn off audiences, particularly those who are politically correct. Also, the first act does drag a little bit as it seemingly becomes a never-ending array of hysteria and violence with no point to it, but for those who are patient will be guaranteed a pleasant surprise.

Repression will lead to oppression and eventually aggression, and Anti-Porno is not only a big middle finger to the dangerous societal views of women, but also the Roman Porno Reboot brand itself. Sono fulfills the promise of sex scenes every 10 minutes with great inventiveness (like a scene involving paint) and he delivers a gut-punch of a twist in the second act, which in turn changes the promise of the brand to astounding effect. And with energetically layered performances, beautiful cinematography and a surprisingly meta vibe, Anti-Porno is a porno worth looking out for. In the cinema!



Quickie Review


Energetically layered performances

Sono’s fantastically unhinged direction

A great twist in the second act which changes the story

Beautiful cinematography and production design


Will turn off those who are politically correct

Slightly draggy first act

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui, Fujiko, Sayaka Kotani, Tomo Uchino, Hirari Ikeda, Ami, Saki
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriters: Sion Sono

Movie Review – The Frontier


EXPECTATIONS: A film that succeeds as pure entertainment as well as a fun throwback to classic film noir.

REVIEW: I hate to admit that I do not really know a lot about classical film noir, despite watching many films in the neo-noir genre like Brick, Sin City and of course, Veronica Mars. But what I do know are some of the main tropes of film noir: the femme fatale, the dirty cop and the fact that a minor crime is a catalyst to a major plot. And all of these tropes are present in Oren Shai’s directorial film debut, The Frontier. And with a talented ensemble cast and Shai’s knowledge of the genre, this should be a winner. But does it live up to its potential?


Jocelin Donahue stars as Laine, a drifter with a trouble past who stumbles in a desert motel run by a mysterious older woman, Luanne (Kelly Lynch). The two develop a good rapport and Luanne offers Laine a job as a waitress. During her time, she overhears a conversation between a couple (Jamie Harris and Izabella Miko) about a certain heist and that the stolen money is about to be delivered to the thieves at the motel. And assuming that every motel patron (including Jim Beaver and Liam Aiken) is a part of this robbery, Laine hatches a plan to steal the loot for herself.

The plot certainly sounds like it is typical for a film noir, with the tropes all in place. Oren Shai has a lot of affection to the genre and it clearly shows. The Super 16mm cinematography by Jay Kietel looks great and it compliments the production design by Trevor Gates to give off a downtrodden vibe. It also helps that there are many details added to the film that make it a technically proficient throwback to film noir. Details such as how newspapers cost 20 cents, the fact that the TV show The Twilight Zone is mentioned, soft drinks like Coca Cola still served in glass bottles, it certainly gives the film a 60’s feel and it makes the film easy to appreciate.

The actors certainly bring up their end of the bargain. Jocelin Donahue, whom I thought was excellent in The House of the Devil, is again perfectly cast as Laine. Shai cleverly uses her image of innocence to play with the audience on whether she really is one with good intentions and Donahue plays her role with aplomb. With The House of the Devil, Insidous: Chapter Two and The Frontier, I sincerely cannot picture Donahue in anything with a modern context. She fits the classical feel like a glove and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Kelly Lynch, an underrated veteran actress who was great in roles like in Drugstore Cowboy and more known in films like Road House, gives a great performance as Luanne. She makes her character felt, utilizing the much-needed characterization provided by Shai i.e. dead-ends due to career choices. It almost becomes quite touching, since it does (albeit inadvertently) reflect Lynch’s career in a way.

The supporting cast however struggle to give life to their roles, with the exception of AJ Bowen, who plays a charismatic, yet dirty cop. Bring their practiced chemistry built up in The House of the Devil, Bowen and Donahue have great scenes that you wish they had more screentime together.


Despite the committed actors and Shai’s affection to the film noir genre, it is quite disappointing to say that The Frontier is not as good as it could have been. The two main problems are the storytelling and the characterization. Even with a 90 minute run-time, the pacing is quite glacial, but the film does become more involving in its final act, where all the pieces come together. As for the characters, most of them are not that well defined beyond their archetypes, which makes it hard to invest in their plight, despite the best efforts from the actors.

But overall, The Frontier is a good showcase for the actors (especially Donahue) as well as a striking calling card for Shai’s directorial chops. I just wished that the film had a better script.

P.S – Big shout-out to Kino Lorber for providing the opportunity to watch this film. Greatly appreciate it!

Quickie Review


Good performances

Shai’s attentive direction

Real affection towards film noir tropes


Thin characterizations

Glacial pacing

SCORE: 6.5/10


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

Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Izabella Miko, Jamie Harris, AJ Bowen, Liam Aiken, Jim Beaver, Kelly Lynch
Director: Oren Shai
Screenwriter: Webb Wilcoxen, Oren Shai

Movie Review – Wet Woman in the Wind (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)


EXPECTATIONS: Something rather sexy and comedic at the same time.

REVIEW: The film is another entry of the Roman Porno Reboot (out of five) and if the film is as any good as the previous entry that I saw (Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno), then I will be a happy man. Director Akihiko Shiota is famous for his low-key dramas like Moonlight Whispers and Harmful Insect to his effects-driven blockbuster Dororo, but now he makes his mark in the pinku genre with Wet Woman in the Wind. Having already won awards at various film festivals, does the Wet Woman in the Wind live up to her reputation?


Tasuku Nagaoka stars as Kosuke, a playwright who lives in the forest alone by choice, due to him being sick and tired by the company of women. One day, as he pulls his two-wheeled cart, a young woman, Shiori (gravure idol Yuki Mamiya) makes a hell of an entrance as she rides her bicycle into a river, trying to make an impression on Kosuke. She locks onto him like a snake binding onto its prey, but Kosuke is having none of it and tries to fend her off, with little success. And when you factor in Kosuke’s ex-wife, her acting troupe and the cafe owner lusting for Shiori (she works with him as a waitress), the increasingly conflicted Kosuke struggles to get out of his situation set between a rock and a hard one place.

Compared to Sono’s entry in the Roman Porno Reboot, Anti-Porno, Shiota’s entry is a lot more traditional to the pinku genre. But thanks to a game cast and Shiota’s fine-tuned script and direction, Wet Woman in the Wind is a stellar entry. The film is basically a screwball comedy where the sex is the physical comedy and the performers deliver it in spades.

Yuki Mamiya is endearingly spirited as Shiori, as she attempts to call the shots in the depraved game she sets up on Kosuke. Her energy and comedic chops are fantastic to watch; like in a scene where Kosuke directs Shiori to display a range of emotions, which eventually leads the two to involve a wooden staff that gave the scene palpable sexual tension. Tasuku Nagaoka is funny as the increasingly befuddled playwright, Kosuke. His reactions to the antics around him are spot-on and he has a nice chemistry with Mamiya. The rest of the cast are all incredibly game for the story and it certainly adds to the fun.


Director Shiota has not only made a great pinku film, but he also makes fun of tropes with the romance genre. The trope of a soul-searching, sensitive artist is turned into a parody as it is revealed that the character of Kosuke only became that way was because he wanted to be away from women. And in a further reveal, the contrast of who he is compared to who he was is only made even more amusing. The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is even ripped to shreds as Shiori is far from being a pixie, nor being anyone’s dream girl, but she is definitely manic.

Even sexual politics, including male fantasies, are turned on its head with pleasingly pointed effect, although it might understandably turn off some viewers. In a scene where a character confesses her first sexual experience, she says that her P.E teacher forced himself on her but what makes it stand out is Kosuke’s obliviousness to the story (he clearly does the same actions earlier in the film) and how it reflects the hypocrisy of where gender stands.

Even if you don’t agree with the commentary, there are many comedic moments in the film throughout. Even with all the smut and prurience, there’s plenty of wit and intelligence involved. There’s a hilarious scene involving Kosuke seeing Shiori sleep with another man, but rather than getting angry, he not only moves past it with stride, but he offers the two a drink, resulting with an awkwardly funny conversation between the three.

Even the storytelling gets in on the comedy, as the film goes demure for the majority of the run-time as new characters settle in and are hastily given character arcs and are settled in the funniest ways a pinku film knows how: with vigorous sex. The third act of the film is almost wall-to-wall sex and Shiota’s direction makes it easy to be swept up by its energy, its arousal as well as its ridiculousness. Certain jokes early in the film are reversed (and foreshadowed) towards the final act, resulting with great payoffs and even throwaway jokes and lines are delivered well. The quirky, jazzy score by Shunsuke Kida certainly accentuates the humour and the tone of the film.


As for the flaws of the film, there aren’t really any, to be honest. Unless if you aren’t familiar with the pinku genre, it is possible that one may think that the film is quite silly and there isn’t really that much of a plot as well as the fact that the commentary of the sexual politics will irk some people.

But overall, Wet Woman in the Wind is a hugely enjoyable entry in the Roman Porno Reboot with committed performances, a witty script and assured direction from Shiota. Alongside Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, I really hope the other three films by Hideo Nakata, Isao Yukisada and Kazuya Shiraishi are up to par.


Quickie Review


Incredibly game performances (especially from Yuki Mamiya)

A very funny and witty script

Shiota’s storytelling chops and direction

A wall-to-wall sex romp of a final act


Some of its sexual politics may turn people off

The story is quite ridiculous

Not much of a plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuki Mamiya, Tasuku Nagaoka, Ryushin Tei, Michiko Suzuki, Hitomi Nakatani, Takahiro Kato
Director: Akihiko Shiota
Screenwriters: Akihiko Shiota

Movie Review – The Top Secret: Murder in Mind (Japanese Film Festival 2016)


EXPECTATIONS: An intriguing sci-fi mystery that overstays its welcome.

REVIEW: Director Keishi Otomo is perhaps well-known in the West as the director of the acclaimed Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. And while I enjoyed the majority of the trilogy (the end was quite anti-climactic in my opinion), his stand-alone works were quite disappointing.

The sci-fi thriller Platinum Data had a laughable story with inconsistent acting and The Vulture was a sloppily extended TV episode, with all the trimmings. So when I heard that Otomo is doing another sci-fi thriller, I was hesitant. But the intriguing premise and the capable cast were too good to pass up. Will the film upend my low expectations?


Ikko Aoki (Masaki Okada) is a young, talented, rookie crime investigator who is recognized for his skills by the distant and cold Tsuyoshi Maki (Toma Ikuta), the head of Department Nine, a special unit of the Metropolitan Police. What makes the department special is its use of nanotechnology, monitored and implemented by Yukio Miyoshi (Chiaki Kuriyama), to extract memories from the dead.

Never as clear-cut as it is claimed to be, it has its consequences like strong psychological harm to those who undergo the procedure; as well as the ethical complications. Aoki’s first case is to probe into the mind of a man who murdered his entire family. The memories of the man could hold the key to the location of his missing daughter who was absent from the murders but what Aoki discovers is that something more sinister and more evil is out there.


The Top Secret: Murder in Mind, while interesting at times, is unfortunately another disappointing film for director Otomo. To start off, the film certainly looks great and makes the most out of its budget. The production values like its cinematography and the musical score give the film a haunting vibe that all bets are off with the fates of the characters and it works really well.

What is also effective and surprising is Otomo’s lack of restraint towards the execution of violence. The first-person POV’s that the film utilizes is really effective, as it allows the audience the understand the high stakes of the plot as well as giving them a strong sense of chilling foreboding.


The actors try their best with the characters they got and some of them do quite well. Masaki Okada, who hasn’t really impressed me with his acting, is quite good as Aoki; conveying the naivety and commitment of his character convincingly. Toma Ikuta still continues his acting streak after The Mole Song, Prophecy and The Brain Man, as he steals the show as Maki. Ikuta manages to exude a magnetic, yet imposing presence despite his laughable look and make-up.

Nao Omori (Ichi the Killer) has a good role as the down-on-his-luck cop but the film does not give him enough opportunities to him. Lily Franky does really well in a small role as a depraved psychiatrist while Tori Matsuzaka also has a striking and integral cameo.


Like in Otomo’s previous films, the female roles usually get the short end of the stick and unfortunately, that trend continues. Chiaki Kuriyama, who is extremely talented in roles like Exte – Hair Extensions, Kill Bill and others, is utterly wasted as the brain surgeon/former love interest to one of the characters.

Lisa Oda’s performance is wildly inconsistent as she appears to be restrained under the cliched role she inhabits; as well as her unrefined acting chops. She has solid presence and improves over the course of the film, but some of her line delivery does appear annoyingly petulant at times, when it should have more oomph into it.


But what really lets the film down is the storytelling and the script. Mixing too many plot-lines (and not well, I might add), the film ends up being a bit of a mess. The main plot, which is solving the case of the missing daughter/the murders is often interrupted (when it should be smoothly integrated) by another plot-line involving Maki’s tortured past, which involves a dead partner and survivor’s guilt.

It also doesn’t help that it develops potentially compelling themes, like the effects of exposure to on-screen violence and the blurred line between imagination and reality; but ends up being discarded without further insight. Which is quite strange, considering the film’s extended running time. Even some of the motivations of the characters are thrown to the wayside soon after they are mentioned (like Aoki’s motivation for taking the case).


The Top Secret: Murder in Mind could have been a great thriller, due to its interesting premise, production values and nice touches the director implements. But the unfocused script, the extended running time and the inconsistent characterizations/acting lets it down to the point that it becomes another missed opportunity for Keishi Otomo.


Quickie Review


Some good performances

Surprising lack of restraint towards violence

Intriguing premise

Top-notch production values


Overlong running time

Inconsistent characterizations

Messy storytelling

Underused supporting cast

SCORE: 6/10

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: Toma Ikuta, Masaki Okada, Koji Kikkawa, Tori Matsuzaka, Chiaki Kuriyama, Lisa Oda, Lily Franky, Kippei Shiina, Nao Omori
Director: Keishi Otomo
Screenwriters: Izumi Takahashi, Keishi Otomo, Lee Sork Jun, Kim Sun Mee; original story by Reiko Shimizu

Movie Review – American Honey


EXPECTATIONS: A gritty coming-of-age journey through a slice of Americana.

REVIEW: British director Andrea Arnold is probably one of the most distinct British directors working today. Her visual eye, her chops at capturing slice-of-life moments in a compellingly cinematic way and especially her way of extracting fantastic performances out of non-actors; it is those things that really captured my attention. Her films like Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights (2011) are true examples of that and her latest film, American Honey is another sterling example of her talent. But there are notable factors in the film that make it different to her previous work that makes American Honey such a stand-out, that it might actually be her best work yet.


The film starts off with newcomer Sasha Lane as 18 year old Star, scavenging for food out of dumpsters for children she cares for. She then sees a group of overeager teenagers heading into a super-store and is intrigued by their presence. Headed by a charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), they both quickly develop a simmering rapport and he offers her a job opportunity. Since it affords the opportunity of travel, Star accepts the offer, as long as it is away from where she currently resides. She learns that Jake is one of the leaders of the group, who travel the country selling magazines door to door. Earning money while living the life day to day—partying, drinking, and singing their way across Americana.

If people are going to watch the film for the story, they will definitely be disappointed. But if you are looking for a compelling character study as well as a beautifully atmospheric journey with a worthwhile destination, then American Honey is your type of honey film. With all of tropes that Arnold utilizes, she also adds some new ones to her repertoire that add a lot to the film.


American Honey is a lot more fantastical than one would expect. Elements from fables are evident in Star’s journey, that she might as well be a substitute for Dorothy Gale or a princess. The sights of ruby slippers, the candy ring Star wears, the “treasure” that one of the characters saves up for, Star’s interactions with animals, the interactions of the misfits, the knight in shining armor trope; all of these elements convey Star’s sense of naivety convincingly as well as hint the many levels of her character progression. But like all fairy tales (the true ones, anyway), there are moments of darkness afoot.

Star explores new areas of life like sex, freedom, independence and other follies/lessons of youth through her journey and it is all portrayed in fantastical sense. Like in a scene where Star goes along with three cowboys to sell magazine subscriptions, but in order to do that, she has to drink strong liquor and eat a worm inside the liquor that is said (amusingly by Will Patton) to give the consumer good fortune. Or a scene where she goes with a lonely oil worker for a night out. It is scenes like this that convey Star’s independence while also shows how oblivious she is of the outside world.

The big part of youth is that one would think they are indestructible. And everything that is right or wrong, good or bad is magnified to a massive scale. Like if you fail an exam, you’ll end up being a deadbeat for the rest of your life. Or in the case of American Honey, if you fail to make your quota, you’ll end up in a seemingly never-ending fight. And Director Arnold seems to tap in the topic of youth particularly well, like in her earlier film, Fish Tank. The use of the 4:3 ratio is refreshingly not used to convey a sense of claustrophobia (like in her previous films), but to actually make her characters more larger than life, hence giving the characters a sense of invulnerability through various close-up shots.


The soundtrack is a major factor that gives American Honey such a euphoric effect. Songs like We Found Love by Rihanna (used in an amusing fashion if you know the lyrics), and American Honey by Lady Antebellum (used well in conveying a sense of freedom) are well-utilized. But the best thing in American Honey is the cinematography by Robbie Ryan.

There is always a sense of splendor and beauty within settings or locations that divide social statuses, like a scene in the woods where Star and Jake mingle or a scene set at night, where a long-running flame takes flight in the background. Amusingly enough, these images only appear in the settings of the lower status, unlike the settings where the wealthy reside. Even something as simple as a woman’s hair flowing with the wind and into the camera lens is breathtaking to see.


The actors also deserve a lot of credit for their parts. Shia LaBeouf lends a career-best performance as the charismatic and conflicted Jake. Using his innate charisma from his early roles with ease, particularly during the selling scenes, LaBeouf hasn’t been this likable in years. But blending his polarizing celebrity persona into the part, he makes Jake’s limited backstory more substantial than it should be and that is both thanks to LaBeouf and Arnold. He also has great chemistry with Lane and the two are electric when they are together, even when he tries to save Star from her predicaments like a knight in shining armor.

Riley Keough is fantastic as Krystal, the boss of the group of misfits as she commands the screen every time she shows up. There’s a scene where she is berating Star about her work and Jake is applying skin cream on her like a slave and Keough makes it convincing, like she’s the evil stepmother/queen of a fairy tale.

The rest of the actors (including those with no experience), whether the background extras or the small character parts that Star encounters, are all genuine and engaging. The best parts of the film usually belong to them; like in a scene where a little girl who not only is extremely polite to Star, but wants to sing her favourite song, which happens to be I Kill Children by Dead Kennedys’, to her.

But the real star of the film is fittingly Sasha Lane as Star (Duh!). Clearly showing evidence that director Arnold can get fantastic performances from non-actors, Lane is a natural on-screen; easily capturing the camera’s attention and she convincingly shows a hard-edged side to her character as well as a sense of optimism as she ponders her wants and needs in her life as well as who she is. Star is basically an understated American version of the lead character, Mia, in Fish Tank, but Lane adds her own touch to the character that makes her stand on her own.


Much like my review, which is long, rambling and seems to have no end, the film can be seen that way for many viewers since it doesn’t have a plot and it does not help that the film is almost three hours long. But the film’s aimlessness reflects the journey of the characters and even the ending (which can feel a bit rushed to some) is more of a new beginning rather than an actual ending.

American Honey is a hypnotic, optimistic and euphoric experience that certainly deserves the accolades and buzz it got from Cannes onward and it is another cinematic gem from Andrea Arnold. Long story short: American Honey is my type of honey.

Quickie Review


Fantastic performances

Wonderful direction by Andrea Arnold

Beautiful cinematography by Robbie Ryan

Immersive soundtrack

Fairy tale motif adds to the film and the characters


Daunting running time

Not much of a plot

Ending can be a bit rushed

SCORE: 9/10


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

Cast: Sasha Lane, Riley Keough, Shia LaBeouf, Raymond Coalson, Chad McKenzie Cox, Verronikah Ezell, Arielle Holmes, Garry Howell, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi, Shawna Rae Moseley, Dakota Powers, Isaiah Stone, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Christopher David Wright
Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenwriter: Andrea Arnold