Film-momatic Flashback – Hana & Alice

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EXPECTATIONS: I had none whatsoever.

REVIEW: I knew this review had to be written sooner or later. To clarify this statement into detail, this is the very first live-action Japanese film that I witnessed without intent. It was a time when I was in high school and I was basically discovering who I am and after a long day of school, I was watching afternoon television; obviously the perfect time for top A-grade programming. Skimming through channels, I switch to SBS and I see two schoolgirls walking in an early cloudy morning. Sounds uneventful and boring but what really captured me was the cinematography and how clean it was. Little did I know, it was a Japanese film, especially when the title of the film was shown in English. Ever since, I was hooked and I have never looked back. Until now. Hana and Alice is definitely a Shunji Iwai film through and through. But is it worth a viewing for the uninitiated or will be a long-trudging slog?

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Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi star as the titular characters; junior high school classmates, ballet students and they are the best of friends. Hana is the closed book who conforms with others like a passenger while Alice is the free spirit who acts on her impulses. On one morning, Alice leads Hana on a trip to a strange train station, where they begin to spy on a tall foreign man and someone they presume to be his Japanese younger brother. While an incredibly random conversation about Hannibal Lecter abruptly and amusingly ends Alice’s schoolgirl crush, Hana serendipitously encounters the young Japanese man, named Miyamoto (Tomohiro Kaku), again when she joins the Japanese comedy club in high school. Instantly taking a liking to Miyamoto, she begins to follow him after school when he accidentally hits his head against a metal gate. Hana immediately seizes the opportunity and tells Miyamoto that he has not only suffered amnesia, but also that he is dating her.

Miyamoto plays along with despite his skepticism, until he discovers the pictures Hana took months earlier during her stalking sessions with Alice. Suddenly, Hana has turned Alice into Miyamoto’s ex-girlfriend, whom he has also supposedly forgotten, thanks to his supposed amnesia. As Miyamoto tries to put together his “lost” past with Alice, Alice realizes that she, too, has started to like him. However, Alice has issues of her own: her divorced mother (Shoko Aida) would rather spend more time dating than parenting; her father (Sei Hiraizumi) treats her well, but rarely sees her; and she gets scouted by a talent agency, even though her acting skill is amusingly next to nil.

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The story sounds like a sappy love triangle that would be right at home for a sappy Nicholas Sparks film, but fortunately, it is anything but. The story has a lot of fascinating details and odd quirks that gives the film good replay value, like the Hannibal Lecter reference or the barbed commentary on the Japanese entertainment industry or the use of snails or how the leads subtly practice their ballet stances while waiting for the train to arrive. Just in the recent viewing of the film, I realized that despite Hana’s persistence in her fabrication of a relationship with Miyamoto, the film gradually features the presence of flowers throughout. There might not be a growth of a relationship, but there is growth of Hana as a person. The film-making is absolutely stellar, with magnificent production values considering the budget. The cinematography by Noboru Shinoda (R.I.P) is done on digital cameras, but it preserves Iwai’s feel for soft-lighting that gives the film a magical atmosphere that is usually reserved for fantasy films. The music, the editing and the directing, all done by Iwai, is above reproach. The music in particular is a piano-melodic delight to hear and accentuates the breezy magical feel of the film.

But we all know the real reason why the film works: the two leads. The film just comes to life spectacularly whenever they share the screen together and their chemistry is fantastic to witness. Like I said in my The Case of Hana and Alice review, the two have such a good chemistry, it is incredibly hard to believe that they weren’t friends before filming. Don’t get me wrong, the film does not fall apart when the leads are apart; they are just as good when they are separate. Anne Suzuki (who is famous for her role in Initial D) is a joy as the lovestruck Hana (which is Japanese for flower) who causes quite a bit of trouble to get the love she desperately strives for. Her character isn’t the most developed out of the two, but her role in the story is the most important and although her methods almost endanger her to become a bit unsympathetic (she gets Alice into her deceptive ways), her character is quite relatable and Suzuki sells it with conviction, particularly in a scene when she is in a confrontation with Miyamoto backstage.  The standout of the two is Yu Aoi, as Alice (short for Arisugawa) who plays the high-spirited side of her character perfectly. Her character has the best moments in terms of scenes (her ballet dance is a highlight) as well as her character development (her scenes with her mother and father exemplify that).

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The supporting cast are just as good in their roles, with Sei Hiraizumi providing a subtle sadness as Alice’s father, due to their disconnect (the scene he has with Yu Aoi is a very touching scene) and Shoko Aida as Alice’s mother, who is busy focusing on dating rather than parenting. She has a scene where she comes out in her underwear, which leads to a  shock for Miyamoto, and it is awkwardly hilarious as you expect. As for Tomohiro Kaku, it took quite a bit to me to warm up to but his quirks (including his well-timed hiccups) shy attitude got to me. His character is not so much a fully-formed person, but is essentially a catalyst of what obstacles the two leads will end up going through. Who knows, if two pubescent girls were yearning for an average guy like myself in my high-school days, I’d probably react the exact same way. There are some surprising cameos that all amuse; from Sadao Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, even Hiroshi Abe, who plays a suitor of Alice’s mother.

As much as I can rave on and on about this film, there are some flaws that stick out to me like a sore thumb. For one, at 135 minutes, the film is quite long for a simple story such as this. Secondly, the film tends to focus more on details and character and not enough on the storytelling. Those who want their films focused and plot-driven will definitely be irked.

But overall, with an odd, yet amusing sense of humour, a plot that dwells more on details than actual storytelling, beautifully melodic music, captivating female characters and immersive cinematography, Hana and Alice is a great starter for those who love slice-of-life films as well as getting into Shunji Iwai’s work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The leads have such fantastic chemistry, it’s hard to think that they weren’t acquainted before the film

Many minute details add to the joy of the film (like how the leads stand on the train platform, subtly practicing their ballet)

Cinematography looks great, especially when it was filmed on HD digital video

CONS

Not much of a plot (reliance on minute details and character than plot, like many Iwai films)

Overlong running time

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Tomohiro Kaku, Takao Osawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroshi Abe
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai

Film-momatic Flashback – Future Cops

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EXPECTATIONS: The poster above says it all.

REVIEW: Wong Jing is one hell of a filmmaker, who has thrived on more crowd-pleasing films than films that were more inclined to artistic fare. Back in the nineties, he had always made films on genres that were in at the time, whether it was the martial arts genre (i.e. High Risk), the erotic thriller genre (i.e. Naked Killer), the gangster genre (i.e. Young and Dangerous) and of course, the broad comedy genre (too many to count). Sometimes, he mashes all of these genres all at once in quick succession, with no care in cohesion. But what is also notable of Wong Jing is that he created the gambling genre, started with the ultra-popular film, God of Gamblers, starring superstars Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau. And, he made many films with superstar Stephen Chow, that were box-office hits (i.e. Royal Tramp 1 & 2, Hail the Judge!, The Tricky Master and others). But in Future Cops, he has gone all out in terms of star-power and insane genre mash-ups that would easily make it a cult classic, but does it qualify as a film?

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Future Cops starts off in a futuristic world of 2043, where Stephen Chow’s Fight Back to School franchise has reached its 42nd sequel. Seriously, I didn’t make this up; that’s a joke in the movie. We see a megalomaniacal madman with a strange resemblance to Street Fighter’s M. Bison, known as The General (Ken Lo), who is in a high-tech prison, due to some evil deeds. Around that time, The General’s cronies, known as The Future Rascals consisting of Thai King (Billy Chow), Toyota (Tuan Wai-lun) and Kent (Ekin Cheng), create a time machine to use to travel back to 1993 to kill the judge, Yu Ti hung, who sentenced The General to imprisonment. As they are attempting to turn on the machine, The Future Cops, consisting of Ti Man (Andy Lau), Broom Man (Jacky Cheung), Sing (Simon Yam) and Lung (Aaron Kwok), attack them with full force, but unfortunately, the time travel was successful. To save the judge, The Future Cops will go back in time to find Yu Ti Hung before The Future Rascals do or else The General will be free and chaos reigns and blah, blah, blah. In 1993, we meet Tai Hung (Dicky Cheung) a 24 year-old schoolboy loser who gets bullied at school by the school gangster Kei On (Andy Hui) and at home by his sister Chun May (Chingmy Yau). The only thing that keeps his sanity in check is his best friend, Choi Nei (Charlie Young). He then, by some strange coincidence, meets The Future Cops and they all team up to find Yu Ti Hung.

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Judging from the screenshots, this is a movie that is not meant to be taken seriously. If you do, you will possibly get an aneurysm. And also by the screenshots, you can see the characters are obviously inspired by either characters from Street Fighter, Dragonball and even Doraemon. Wong Jing’s love of videogames was evident in City Hunter and My Schoolmate, The Barbarian, but none more than in Future Cops. Originally, the film was meant to be an adaptation of Street Fighter, but the film company couldn’t get the rights, therefore Wong Jing basically compiled new characters and chucked them in a story that is a rip-off of Fight Back to School and The Terminator. And boy, does the slipshod feel of the story show. Story details do not make any sense (What is the point of the electric lying chips?), plot holes are everywhere (Why doesn’t Lung join the Future Cops? How can the characters lie profusely even when they have the chips?) and the performances are dialed up to 11…thousand (I’m looking at you, Dicky Cheung!). Whoa, almost felt the aneurysm coming there. So what is it that makes the film such a cult classic if it breaks all the rules of film-making? The cast, for one thing.

Boy, does this film have star-power! And they are committed to Wong’s direction from beginning to end, which brings out a lot of fun. Andy Lau is pretty much playing another version of himself (complete with dancing) but his performance hews more on charm rather than smarm. Jacky Cheung overacts in such a charming way (or maybe it was his hair) that you  want him to succeed in getting the girl as well as completing the mission. Simon Yam unfortunately is just there, looking glum and probably waiting for another Category III film to overact in. Ekin Cheng (in one of his early roles) exudes some of the cool charisma that is reminiscent of his role as Chan Ho-nam in Young and Dangerous and alongside Aaron Kwok, provide an unintentional teaser for Storm Riders, as they briefly duke it out. The rest of the supporting cast are amusing (i.e. Richard Ng, Kingdom Yuen, Andy Hui) but the female cast members (excluding Kingdom Yuen and Chingmy Yau) are relegated to flower vase roles, like Charlie Young, in her first film role. But the litmus test on enjoying the film depends on how much you can tolerate Dicky Cheung. I like the actor and I thought he was fantastic in his portrayal of Sun Wukong in the Journey to the West HK series, but in a lot of his 90’s movies, he can be infuriatingly hyperactive like in Black Panther Warriors or Holy Weapon and others. In Future Cops, he’s a little mellowed but still, he can definitely put off some people, I guarantee it.

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Another plus to the film is the sheer energy and pacing Wong brings to the table. If a joke does not work, ten more will follow and the audience will get to see if it sticks. A lot of them work due to its visual absurdity and the mimicry of Japanese media, like when Andy Lau and Chingmy Yau are suddenly transported into an arcade game of Super Mario Bros. Guess which of the two plays Luigi? Other jokes work mainly because of the involvement of the stars. There’s a whole music video dedicated to Jacky Cheung singing one of his hit songs, and the video references films like the Patrick Swayze classic, Ghost. Some of the jokes work due to Cantonese wordplay, however esoteric they may be; and of course, there are references to other films that are just random in their inclusion. Also adding to the frenetic feel is Ching Siu-tung’s action choreography. While it may not offset all of the budget problems, the speed and ingenuity of the choreography is a sight to behold. So much so, his videogame style of choreography will be used again in City Hunter and My Schoolmate, The Barbarian. It’s just a shame that there’s very little in terms of fight scenes apart from the beginning and the final act.

To summarize (before I go on a hell of a lot longer), the cast and sheer chutzpah alone makes Future Cops a cult classic that will reward the adventurous film viewers out there. As much as I hate to say it, I do wish they would make more films like this these days. And no, Future X-Cops definitely does not count.

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Quickie Review

PROS

All-star cast give their all

Fight scenes capture the video-game/anime spirit

The pacing is relentless

Incredibly fun tone and random HK humour add to the so-bad-it’s-good insanity

CONS

Performances can be quite annoying (especially from Dicky Cheung)

The low budget really shows

No Leon Lai (although it leads to a funny out-of-nowhere replacement)

Despite the insanity, the story is predictable

Too little amount of fight scenes

Lack of screen-time from Aaron Kwok

SCORE: My heart and my brain are still in conflict about it…

Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, Dicky Cheung Wai-Kin, Andy Hui Chi-On, Charlie Young Choi-Nei, Yuen King-Tan, Winnie Lau Siu-Wai, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing, Chan Bak-Cheung, Billy Chow Bei-Lei, Ken Lo Wai-Kwong, Dennis Chan Kwok-San, Lee Siu-Kei, Tuan Wai-Lun
Director: Wong Jing
Screenwriter: Wong Jing

Film-momatic Flashback – Magic Cop

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EXPECTATIONS: A kick-ass martial arts film…with some magic.

REVIEW: Boyi Bolomi! For people that don’t know what that means, it is a term that Wu Ma uses in the classic HK fantasy film, A Chinese Ghost Story, while exploiting his Taoist magic against fantasy creatures. Why am I saying it? Because the same Taoist fantasy genre (which is apparent in other HK fantasy films like Rigor Mortis or Encounters of the Spooky Kind) apply to Stephen Tung Wai’s film, Magic Cop. A spiritual sequel to the popular Mr. Vampire films and starring mainstay Lam Ching-ying, Magic Cop adds a fresh coat of paint to the Taoist fantasy genre by placing it in a modern setting and adds a lot of different humour from the fish-out-of-water situations to create an insanely frenetic, yet incredibly fun HK film, that would be perfect for neophytes of early HK cinema.

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Lam Ching-ying stars as himself Uncle Feng, a cop/ghostbuster whose specialty is solving the more fantastical cases, which involves ghosts and demons of the like. One day, an old lady comes to ask him to go to Hong Kong Island to return the body of her daughter, a stewardess killed by the police after being suspected of being a drug smuggler. But what was strange is that the stewardess was killed before her return to Hong Kong, which Feng finds out that the stewardess was used as a living corpse, controlled by a drug smuggler who also specializes in magic. Enlisted by Ma (Wu Man, in a cameo), with the help of the skeptical Detective Lam (Wilson Lam Chun-yin), Sergeant 2237 (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) and Feng’s niece, Lin (Wong Mei-wah), Feng is on the case to catch the Japanese drug smuggler (Michiko Nishiwaki).

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As for the story, Magic Cop has a plot that has been done countless times, but thanks to Stephen Tung Wai’s direction, the imagination on the Taoist monk scenes and the supporting cast, the film is fun from beginning to end. Wai’s film direction is good, with good pacing (although it takes quite a bit to really begin) that adds energy to the film, but it is Wai’s action direction that stand out. Wai’s action direction has always been about efficiency rather than flash (see the Jet Li film Hitman and his choreography in films like Reign of Assassins) and it shows in Magic Cop. The martial arts scenes are brief, concise and thrilling, but they are not the highlight of the film. The highlight of the film is the Taoist monk scenes that are integral to Feng’s detective work. Not willing to spoil all of them, here’s a hint of one. There’s a scene where Feng uses a henchman as a string puppet via Sergeant 2237 and as the Japanese drug smuggler finds out, she uses henchman as a string puppet via the henchman, culminating in a entertainingly off-kilter sequence that will have audiences laughing and surprised at its audaciousness. The supporting cast are all playing stereotypes (the skeptic, the believer, the damsel-in-distress) but they are all game in their roles, although Wilson Chin can be quite annoying at times, especially when he flirts with with Feng’s niece, Lin, sometimes IN FRONT of Feng.

As for the lead, Lam Ching-ying, he has been typecast in roles like in Magic Cop for many years, thanks to the Mr. Vampire franchise and while it is known that he did not want to be just known for these types of roles at around the nineties, fortunately, he does not seem to be tired out in Magic Cop. Still amazingly authoritative, tough and charismatic, Lam still grounds the film (and its many fantasy antics) so that it makes the film immersive enough for the audience to get into. One unfortunate flaw about his performance is that he does not do much of his martial arts stunt work, as it is quite obvious that he had stunt doubles for most of the stunts. Whether it was age or his fatigue towards his typecasting, it still affects the film quite a bit.

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But Magic Cop is not just a martial arts film; it’s also a fantasy film, a horror film, a mystery and a comedy. And it’s pretty damn good at all of those genres. The comedy can be sometimes sophomoric (there’s a scene involving a fart joke), but there are many scenes of fantastic physical comedy. It is quite apparent, especially in the climax where the team simultaneously screws up/advances towards defeating the villain. Props involving pincushions and fire extinguishers are used to hilarious effect. What also adds to the humour of the film, perhaps quite unintentionally, is how out-of-date the film is. Detective Lam’s apartment screams the Eighties and it feels like going into a time capsule.

Despite the nit-picks in the pacing, minor annoyances in the characters, the stunt doubling and the obvious gaffes in the low budget, all of the positives add up to a fantastic time at the movies. Magic Cop is an imaginative thrill ride that makes me kind of sad that due to current Hong Kong films losing their local identity (due to China co-productions), there are very few films like it.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The Taoist techniques are a blast to watch
Lam Ching-ying fits this role like a glove
Action scenes are incredibly fun, fast-paced and hilarious
Supporting cast are good sports, with a cameo from Wu Ma
Combines genres (cop thriller, black comedy and fantasy) incredibly well to make a fun experience, just as good as the original Mr. Vampire

CONS

Those expecting hardcore martial arts will be a bit disappointed
Wilson Lam’s performance can be a little annoying
Obvious stunt doubles for Lam Ching-ying
The low budget can really show at times

SCORE: 9/10 (One of my personal favourite films from Hong Kong. A HK fantasy classic alongside A Chinese Ghost Story and Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain.)

Cast: Lam Ching-Ying, Wilson Lam Chun-Yin, Miu Kiu-Wai, Wong Mei-Wah, Michiko Nishiwaka, Wu Ma, Billy Chow Bei-Lei, Chan Chi-Leung, Wong Yuk-Hang, Sung Yat-Lin
Director: Stephen Tung Wai
Screenwriter: Tsang Kan-cheung

Film-momatic Flashback – Hausu

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REVIEW: What do you get when you cross Scooby-Doo, House on Haunted Hill and–wait, that’s no good. What do you get when you cross Evil Dead, Suspiria and–that’s no good either. What about changing Pee Wee’s Playhouse into a horror? You know what, none of these analogies work. The film (if you can even call it that) that I am about to review is indescribable. And I mean that in the pitch perfect sense of the word. There’s nothing else like it or anything that even comes close to the cult appeal of it. I remember hearing about it for the first time when I was bragging that no horror movie would scare me and I was looking for some that would. Many have failed (like supposed snuff films like Niku Daruma or The Guinea Pig films) but I came across the trailer for Hausu. It really puzzled me out. I had so many questions I had to answer after I watched it. Was that really a horror movie? Why was this highly regarded? Then I started to read about the film without going into spoiler territory, and some of the information was even more puzzling. One mind-boggling example that I read was that Hausu was made due to the popularity of Jaws. This is the movie Japanese filmmakers came up with to counteract Jaws? How can this be? It was the compelling production stories, the trailer and the melange of genres and tones that disturbed, thrilled and seduced me into buying the film. Now was it worth it? That’s questionable to many, but I’m willing to bet bananas to watermelons that once you’ve seen it, you can definitely say there’s nothing else like it.

The drug trip story starts off with Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who is planning to spend her summer vacation with her father (Saho Sasazawa), who is a famous composer (amusingly praised as better than Ennio Morricone). But unfortunately, he makes the announcement that he has found a new wife, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) and she’ll be joining in on their summer vacation. Feeling resentment towards her father, she mourns about her deceased mother which eventually leads her to think about her auntie (Yoko Minamida), who has a tragic backstory about losing her husband during World War II. Wanting to see her, she plans her summer vacation to go at her aunt’s house in the countryside. Through an air of serendipity, her six friends’ plans for summer vacation have fallen apart, so they all join Gorgeous on her vacation, hoping for a wonderful time. Little do they know, Auntie is more than she shows and funnily enough, seems to be more sprightly every time a girl goes missing. That leaves Gorgeous, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet and Mac (Mieko Sato) in a horrific time that could end in a drug trip deadly consequences.

There are some points of fascination that I just have to make. According to an interview, the director took inspiration from his daughter’s nightmares and what scared her and incorporated it into the film. Watching it in retrospect, it makes perfect sense in terms of tone and style. This is what a nightmare looks like in the eyes of a child. Their power of imagination can make the most mundane astoundingly fun or eerily scary. There’s a scene involving someone about to be eaten by futons. It reminded me of my childhood, when I would be scared if my bed had swallowed me and no one would be able to find my body. It’s one of the many moments in the film that feels paradoxically human and surreal. Another scene in the film involves one getting her fingers eaten by a piano that she was playing. That scene and the former also explores how the character’s strengths (hinted by their names) become their burdens to the point of their downfall. In the same interview, the director stated that he was a child during the Second World War, and it affected him and it shows in Hausu. These are children who lived after the war, so when Gorgeous recounts the backstory of her Auntie, they are oblivious to the massive ramifications that the war had on Japan, and it pays off with some deliciously dark humour as well as some compelling visual metaphors that amp up the scares as well as the surrealism.

There are also other elements of the film that made it far ahead of its time. For example, there’s a “cast” commentary over Gorgeous’ telling of Auntie’s backstory that earns laughs, particularly in terms of dark humour (i.e. a character sees an atomic bomb explosion shown pink and compares it to cotton candy). There are scenes in the film that are so random and unfathomable (like a scene with a cat on a piano), that they can be compared to Youtube Poop; something that was definitely not known back in 1977. Even the character’s names can be seen as a amusing meta-commentary on female character representations in horror films. There are so many scary moments that can be seen as inspirations to modern horror films. For example, long locks of hair creeping up to someone which is an influence to Ju-On and The Grudge films to excessive spraying blood from walls which could be an influence to The Evil Dead films and even the stop-motion techniques could be an apparent influence to the Tetsuo films. There is so much visual chutzpah in its style that it will be looked upon in film schools for decades. All of the effects are on-camera, no excessive CGI, just practical effects and a vivid imagination from Nobuhiko Obayashi and his daughter.

The amateur cast along for the ride are all game to Obayashi’s vision and they are up for it, every step of the way. From the making-of video, some of the actress even went nude, and all of it wasn’t even for prurient purposes; meaning that some of them had to be painted blue so their bodies can not be seen in blue screen, to make it seem like they are beheaded or missing a limb. That’s a lot of commitment from them, and it is very appreciable. All the actresses live up to their namesakes, but my personal favourite is Kung Fu. Not only is she convincing in her action chops, she show a lot of charisma that makes us like her almost immediately, and I think Obayashi knows that too. Hell, he even gave the character her own theme song, which appears whenever she is about to throw a kick or a punch, and it’s great.

Speaking of the music, Godiego (who is most known for the Monkey TV show theme song) provide the soundtrack. Apparently, the music for the film was made before the film was even in production, so for the songs to even come together and coalesce is nothing short of a miracle. The joyous music comes across as exactly so, but over time, the repetition and joy becomes genuinely haunting at times. The film-making style comes across the same way. It all seems like fun and games at first, with the stop-motion, under-cranking, matte paintings but over time, it really comes off as disturbing. There’s a scene where Gorgeous is about to leave the house and she leaves the other girls behind and while she walks out, the frame rate of the scene is minimized to the point that it looks stilted, off-kilter that adds to the eerie atmosphere. Everything in the film, from the sets to the music to the special effects to the directorial style should create a train-wreck, but miraculously, it all comes together and even the story is told in a linear fashion. Even the ending can be seen as pure bittersweet since it shows both sweetness, fantasy and horror, all with a Godiego soundtrack.

I could go on and on forever about Hausu, but if the review were any longer, my brain would probably explode. And that goes the same for the film, which thankfully is only 88 minutes. Hausu is one kaleidoscopic experience that must be seen to be believed and if you can, purchase the Blu-Ray from Criterion Collection. It’s totally worth it. I absolutely loved this film.

Quickie Review

PROS

Perfectly resembles a true nightmare
Old-school film techniques and imagination add to an incredibly surreal experience
Fantastically inspirational and meta, filled with bizarre humour ( “Looks like a cotton candy!” )
So many mind-boggling, psychedelic experiences that it may trigger a seizure (and that’s including moments BEFORE they go in the haunted house!)

CONS

May be way too weird for audiences

SCORE: 9/10 (No matter how positive or negative your view is on the film, you can definitely say that there’s nothing else like it.)

Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Eriko Tanaka, Kumiko Oda, Ai Matsubara, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Sato, Miki Jinbo, Yoko Minamida, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenwriters: Chigumi Obayashi, Chiho Katsura

Film-momatic Flashback – April Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Takako Matsu’s performance

Shunji Iwai’s direction and storytelling

The cinematography and music

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

CONS

Details in the film may leave people puzzled

Those looking for an actual plot may be disappointed

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

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

Film-momatic Flashback – Tenebrae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

The leads give good performances

The kills are intense and the tension is impressive

Self-referential humour gives it a humourous edge

The plentiful twists are effective

CONS

Crappy English dubbing

Acting is very inconsistent

Some plot holes

SCORE: 8/10

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

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

Director: Dario Argento

Screenwriter: Dario Argento