Movie Review – Being 17 (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as good as Girlhood.

REVIEW: This will be my first review from of a few entries for this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and if Being 17 is any indication, the festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 showing at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

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The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes traveling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realize, that this would end up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompanies the genre and it pays off beautifully. Working with less-than-usual dialogue and more reliant on physical expressions, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

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The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and is also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully capture by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether it is hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes them believable that the character would do such a thing.

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But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are present for the sake of foreshadowing, but it leads to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is very questionable and it should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

But overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to emotionally satisfy.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, emotionally satisfying storytelling

Beautiful cinematography

CONS

Morally questionable moments

SCORE: 8/10

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

Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma

Movie Review – Raw (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something fantastic as it is gory.

REVIEW: In the past decade, I have grown an affinity for French film, especially when they venture into the horror genre. With unbearably intense entries like Inside, Martyrs, Frontier(s); or artful entries like Amer, Evolution, Livid; and film classics like Les Diaboliques and Possession, I had an intense itch to satisfy that could only be satiated with another stellar entry.

So when I read about the huge buzz at Cannes and TIFF about a French cannibal horror film, which involves ambulances at screenings and tons of awards, I knew I had to see that film as soon as possible. Now let’s serve this review Raw, with all the sides!

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Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a shy, yet extremely bright young vegetarian who is following his parents’ footsteps (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) as well as her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), by attending vet school. She arrives at the university and immediately gets dragged into a hazing initiation, which shows her a world of thrills and danger.

Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. With sheer amounts of peer pressure, a bunch of alcohol and joints of drugs, Justine soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.

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From reading the synopsis, it may seem like that this film is more of a coming-of-age film, rather than a horror entry. And after seeing the final result, that is actually what it is. The storytelling is surprisingly grounded given its genre trappings and director Julia Ducournau handles the film with such an assured hand, that the film rarely feels heavy-handed, even with its unsubtle metaphors (A vegetarian who is also a virgin?).

The genre execution mixed with the plausible grounding of the story is meshed really well, like how a character eats meat for the first time, which is quite reminiscent of experimentation just to conform. Or how one goes to university to discover who they are and how they fit in the world, which is conveyed in the truly messy fashion it is, that almost anyone can relate to. And it is because of Ducournau‘s direction and storytelling chops, that we have an emotional attachment to the story as well as the characters.

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Speaking of the characters, the actors assembled for the film are all fantastic. Garance Marillier is astounding as Justine, as she handles the arc of her character like a professional, from the shyness to the depravity, to the vulnerability and finally the acceptance. She reminded me of a more daring version of Saoirse Ronan, and I hope she gets more meaty roles in the future. Equally as good is Ella Rumpf, who is a force of nature as Alexia. Her roughness, her rebellious nature and her slight paternal nature towards Justine, are all handled with nuance and the chemistry the two actresses share is believable and quite touching as it develops throughout the film. Seeing Rumpf on screen reminded me of a mix of French horror queen Beatrice Dalle (who stars in horror films like Inside and Among the Living) and American actress Fairuza Balk, whom I have loved since her first role in the cult-classic sequel, Return to Oz.

The cinematography by Ruben Impens extracts a lot of nightmarish, yet beautiful imagery from the university setting, particularly scenes involving animals. Like a scene involving the newcomers crawling through a vast, dark room, like ants following a trail. While the make-up, by Laura Ozier and SFX specialist Olivier Afonso (who has worked on Inside), is skin-crawlingly convincing. There is a scene where we see a person’s leg that is half eaten, and the make-up is so realistic, that I could not stop staring at it despite being repulsed by it.

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With all the gory, nightmarish imagery and the dark story, it would seem that the film would be an arduous experience. But thankfully, it never feels like that and one of the reasons is because of the editing. Under a tight running time of 98 minutes, the editing by Jean Cristophe-Bouzy is intricate, yet free-flowing at times, like during the clubbing sequences. Without the focused editing, the film could have been a lot harder to swallow.

Another reason the film doesn’t feel arduous is because director Ducournau peppers dark humour throughout the film. Like when a character is finished vomiting, a fellow student assumes that she has a eating disorder and quickly shows her how to vomit correctly. Or another scene when Alexis is giving Justine a session of Brazillian wax. It is these moments of mirth that give the film a comedic bite that is similar to the work of Daniel Waters, who has written the classic teen film, Heathers.

And lastly, the musical score by Jim Williams, which not only capably conveys both menacing and entrancing moods very well, but also gives the film a needed dramatic punch in the film’s most intense moments, especially the climax.

Raw was a fantastic experience that had shocked, surprised, thrilled and touched me. I’ll be really surprised if this does not make it to my top 10 by the end of the year. With its assured and professional direction, a fantastic pair of performances, a well-thought out story and a beautiful musical score, Raw is definitely a rewarding meal to savour.

Her film does remind me of David Cronenberg and Daniel Waters, but I will definitely remember her name: Julia Ducournau.

Quickie Review

PROS

Assured direction

Fantastic pair of performances

Focused and tight editing

Wonderful musical score

Nightmarish imagery and cinematography

Marries genre tropes and true-to-life situations cleverly

CONS

The ending is a teeny bit abrupt

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenwriters: Julia Ducournau

Movie Review – The Tenants Downstairs

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EXPECTATIONS: A soft and fluffy version of the Category III Hong Kong films of yore.

REVIEW:

NOTE: This review is for the revised 98 minute version, not for the 110 minute version.

Giddens Ko is well-known in Taiwan for being the author of such hits like The Apple of My Eye, which spawned renewed interest in the young love genre, as well as he comedy hit The Killer Who Never Kills and the romance Cafe, Waiting Love. Whereas Adam Tsuei is well-known for bringing musical stars into the spotlight like Jay Chou and Leehom Wang, as well as producing some of Gidden’s projects as well as the Tiny Times films.

So, when you see the two work together for their latest project, you’d expect them to work on something fluffy and crowd-pleasing. Thankfully, they brought out their latest project, The Tenants Downstairs, a depraved throwback to the Category III Hong Kong films of yore, starring genre stalwart, Simon Yam. But considering their past work, will it be homogenized and watered-down, or will it be hard-hitting and pack a serious punch?

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The film starts off with an unnamed and enigmatic landlord (Simon Yam) sitting in an interrogation room, preparing to tell a story to a police detective (Kai Fung) which is described as “a story out of your imagination”. Then it flashes back to the landlord inheriting the apartment complex and discovering the surveillance room, which has cameras in all of the apartments.

Then over time, a group of tenants reside in the complex and which include Kuo Li (Lee Kang-sheng) and Linghu (Bernard SenJun), a gay couple attempting to hide their relationship; divorced gym instructor Chang (Chuang Kai-hsun) who has a penchant for expired milk and is a ball of repressed rage that would make Adam Sandler blush; depressed single father Wang (Phil Yan) who harbours more than just love for his young daughter (Angel Ho); Miss Chen (Li Xing), an office worker with an insatiable thirst for her work in the horizontal refreshment industry and Boyan (Yan Sheng-yu) is a student who loves video-games and another private game where he always wins.

Last but definitely not least is Yingru (Ivy Shao), a beautiful and seemingly angelic young woman whose apartment is strangely stacked with many suitcases. And there’s also a victim in her bathtub who is being tortured, you know the usual. So after the landlord discovers her secret, he becomes fascinated about the dark side of human nature and decides to prod and push his tenants to embrace their darkest desires and to commit the most depraved acts.

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As you can tell from the synopsis, there really isn’t much of a plot here. And the humour in which is peppered in it is in actuality how the film is presented; humour that is macabre and twisted. And boy, is it twisted. There is a fine line between sadistic and comedic, but director Adam Tsuei and writer Giddens Ko walk on it incredibly well.

Scenes involving dragging bodies has never looked funnier, especially when the magic of “teleportation” is involved. The use of classical music alleviated the effect of the atrocities that happen on-screen with enough dark humour and the cast are wholly committed to the proceedings. Whether they are doing something physically taxing or doing something prurient beyond their sexual realms, the cast are all on their A-game.

Simon Yam shows why he’s fantastic in portraying psychos and insane lunatics back in the 90’s and he is full of life here in the role of the landlord. Whether he is dragging a body, sticking it to the man, dancing majestically or sinking his own submarine to those who are sharpening their power tools, it is a pleasure to see Yam back in a role that will please Category III cinema lovers.

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Tsai Ming-liang’s favourite collaborator Lee Kang-sheng can do any of the stuff he does in the film in his sleep, if films like Rebels of the Neon God is any indication. And even after a stroke he had suffered two years ago, Lee still does well with his performance. Bernard Senjun plays the student/mistress of Kuo Li and he gives a good performance as the gradually lovelorn yang to Kuo Li’s tempered yin.

Chuang Kai-hsun plays his jackass of a role convincingly, as he shows both repressed and expressive rage with ease. He really takes it up a notch when he acts alongside Li Xing, leading to some intense scenes. The latter is fantastic as Miss Chen, even when her character takes part in the more prurient aspects of the film, she never makes her character feel like she has no choice in the life she’s chosen. Li exudes confidence and strength in the role that probably was not present in the script.

Phil Yan is fine as the sexually repressed father, as he definitely looks the part of an average joe, which makes it creepier when he embraces both his inner child and actual child while Angel Ho is likewise fine as the daughter, who acts in scenes that really seem like the film-makers are breaking laws to film.

Yan Sheng-yu is funny as the self-gratifying slacker who believes he has the power of “teleportation”. His physical comedy does lead to some funny moments including “literally” taking one for the team and especially a part in the climax, which results in the best use of a body part since 1993’s wuxia comedy, The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

But the biggest standout of the film is Ivy Shao. Exuding an understated creepiness underneath her angelic smile and bright white wardrobe, she sends chills to the audience every time she shows up. Her performance is quite reminiscent of Eihi Shiina’s performance in Takashi Miike’s cult classic, Audition, and it is a wonder to witness.

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The film is also magnificently well-shot and edited, making the film more prestigious than it really should, but fortunately director Adam Tsuei never tells the story more than it actually is: a series of unsavory events twisted up in a line of insanity, depravity and abnormality.

If Tsuei had taken the film seriously, it would have ended up like one of Hong Kong director Wong Ching-po’s films, which can be incredibly pretentious. The production design by Kei Itsusuji and cinematography by Jimmy Yu make Simon Yam’s house of horrors look strikingly beautiful; even with the shocking events that occur, you cannot take your eyes away.

As for flaws, the film lacks a lot of explanation with its story, although that may have been the result of the shorter cut which was released at NYAFF 2016, because apparently, the full theatrical cut is 110 minutes and has scenes of exposition that further explain the landlord’s backstory, his motives, other backstories of various characters and a sense of logic to the proceedings.

But whether this is a flaw depends on your preference. If you prefer ambiguity and leaving it up to your imagination, the shorter cut certainly does that. But if you want things tied up neatly, the longer cut may do the trick.

Overall, The Tenants Downstairs is a fantastic throwback to the Category III films of the 90’s that will sicken, surprise and amuse many with its sexual deviancy, shocking depravity and sheer lunacy. And with a wonderfully committed cast and its fantastic production values, The Tenants Downstairs is my top guilty pleasure of the year that brought a huge demented smile on my face.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The entire cast are all committed to the insane shenanigans

The production values make the film look and sound fantastic

The fine line between sadism and dark comedy is trodden well

CONS

Lack of explanations of the proceedings

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Simon Yam Tat-wah, Ivy Shao (Shao Yu-wei), Lee Kang-sheng, Chuang Kai-hsun, Phil Yan, Li Xing, Yan Sheng-yu, Bernard SenJun, Angel Ho, Chen Mu-yi, Chou Hsiao-an, Kai Fung
Director: Adam Tsuei
Screenwriters: Giddens Ko, based on his novel of the same name

Movie Review – The Edge of Seventeen

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EXPECTATIONS: A truly special teenage comedy/drama, with a standout performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

REVIEW: Teenage films have been quite a huge staple for me in the past decade. Whether they would be quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything etc.) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), I’ve always found some enjoyment for entertainment reasons as well as nostalgic reasons.

But the past few years, the portrayal of teenagers have gotten a lot more artificial, a lot more fake to the point that it becomes obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue would comprise of many moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, teenage films are more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.

Now we have the latest teenage dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, written/directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring the Oscar-nominated actress of the True Grit remake, Hailee Steinfeld and is produced by the renowned James L. Brooks. Will the film end up fixing the problems of portrayals of teenage life?

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Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a 17 year-old high school junior who is currently living the life of awkwardness as she trudges through high school. Saddled with a dramatic past, a much more successful sibling of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a stressed out mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lack of social skills, her one solid rock in life was always her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s been friends with since childhood.

That is until one day, Nadine’s life is about to take a turn for the worst when she finds out that Darian is dating Krista. Feeling more alone than ever, she again crawls through the excruciating minutiae of high school, with only a huge crush with the handsome boy at school, Nick (Alexander Calvert) to distract from her current situation.

That is until she develops into a relationship with myself a stuttering, yet thoughtful classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and along with having so-called help from her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), does she gradually realize that there might be hope ahead after all.

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When I heard that this film was written and directed by the screenwriter that wrote Post Grad, I have to admit, it did temper my expectations. But I am wholeheartedly happy to report that The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best films I have seen all year. And all of this goes down to Craig‘s grounded direction, her witty and authentic script and the wonderful performances of the entire cast.

What is great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and the storytelling approach is. Most characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which lead to some unapologetic and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty and appropriately, real.

The only time that the film ends up sounding like a movie is whenever Woody Harrelson as the incredibly droll teacher, Mr. Bruner, shows up. But Harrelson slums his role (really, he looks like he’s putting zero effort into the role) so well, that he steals the show with his hilarious interactions with Steinfeld.

Another factor I liked about Craig‘s direction is how she either lends a soft touch or subverts the cliches and tropes of the genre. For example, the supposed jerk of the film is cleverly subverted, since the motivations of the character is actually quite understandable, if not quite respectable. Another example is that some of the conclusions in the final act are executed in the subtlest of ways that rings true, like the arc between Nadine and her mother.

And the best of all is that Craig and Steinfeld never soften the character of Nadine to the point where the character strives to be likable. Nadine is shown warts-and-all and the reasoning for her behaviour is also dealt with subversively, due to the fact that her behaviour was always present, and not suddenly triggered by some dramatic event.

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But none of the storytelling and direction would work if it weren’t for the fantastic performances. Finally having a lead role she can sink her teeth into since True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld nails the role of the highly opinionated, angst-ridden and socially awkward Nadine. Nuanced, genuine and sympathetic, Steinfeld shines whenever she’s on screen, which is awesome because she’s on it 95% of the time.

There’s a scene where Nadine reluctantly goes to a party with Krista and Darian, and when the two leave her to socialize, Steinfeld acts out loneliness and heartbreak without a single word. It also helps that she also works her comedic chops with aplomb, even when saddled with the most abrasive or the lamest insults involving calling someone out with a huge head.

The supporting cast are no slouches in their department. As already mentioned, Woody Harrelson is a hoot at Mr. Bruner, as he has some great interactions with Steinfeld and he does it so effortlessly, you’d have to wonder if he just performed the role in his sleep. The same goes for Kyra Sedgwick, who has played this type of role a thousand times, and is still great as the increasingly stressed out mother.

Haley Lu Richardson makes her role of Krista easy to understand why Nadine care so much for her as her best friend while Blake Jenner is convincing as Darian, particularly during the scenes he shares with Steinfeld. The sibling relationship between the two is nicely developed and it pays off in a emotionally cathartic fashion that honestly made me shed a tear of two.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin. He completely sells the anxiety, awkwardness, the nervous tics and subtle longing, that I thought I was watching myself on screen. It was actually slightly scary, to be honest.

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As for flaws, there aren’t really that much, except for the story being slightly predictable once you see the pieces of the puzzle being set out. But the tropes are all dealt with nuance and subversiveness that the storytelling feels refreshing and new again.

Insightful, thoroughly well-written, amazingly well-acted, deservedly touching and downright hilarious, The Edge of Seventeen needs to be seen if we want to get more movies of this quality. Highly recommended!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Refreshingly honest approach to portraying teenage life

Fantastic performances from the cast, especially Hailee Steinfeld

Earns all of its emotional beats effortlessly

Easily subverts cliches of the teenage comedy genre

Hilariously acerbic and politically correct humour hit their targets

CONS

The story is quite predictable

SCORE: 9.5/10

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

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenwriter: Kelly Fremon Craig

Movie Review – Your Name

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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

PROS

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

CONS

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Quickie Review

PROS

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

CONS

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 – 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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Energetically layered performances

Sono’s fantastically unhinged direction

A great twist in the second act which changes the story

Beautiful cinematography and production design

CONS

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 – Shin Godzilla

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EXPECTATIONS: One of the best Godzilla films.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quickie Review

PROS

Godzilla itself

A sharp and amusingly satirical look towards governments and bureaucracy

The musical score and cinematography

Anno’s fantastic direction

Performances were perfectly on point

CONS

Some shoddy CGI

May be too talky at times

The overcrowded subtitles

SCORE: 9.5/10

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

Movie Review – Soul Mate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quickie Review

PROS

Two fantastic lead performances

Assured direction from Derek Tsang

Fantastic trope-reversals in the genre

Surprising third-act and ending

CONS

Musical score can be a bit intrusive

SCORE: 9/10

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

Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautifully realized fantasy adventure from Laika.

REVIEW: Laika Studios is an animation studio that I am not fully familiar with. Now put your pitchforks away, it’s not due to bad expectations. I honestly don’t know why I am not more into their work although without knowing, I have enjoyed their first studio film, Coraline, immensely. And reading about their other works like The Boxtrolls and Paranorman, I was interested of what they have cooked up for their latest film. An Asian-influenced fantasy film with the use of stop-motion that adapts the art of origami? And it also stars Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as a monkey and a beetle samurai? This honestly sounds like a film I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid. Hell, it sounds incredibly appealing at my current age. So does the film live up to its studio’s sterling reputation or will it rank alongside mediocre animated films like The Angry Birds Movie and the latest Ice age sequel?

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In Ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) turns Kubo’s life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, Hanzo a legendary Samurai warrior. On his journey, he also gains some allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and he realizes he also has more demons on his way, like his twin aunts, whom are also phantoms (both played by Rooney Mara).

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As you can see by the pictures (or the trailer), the animation is absolutely spectacular. The sheer commitment to the animation is just mind-blowing to the point that everything you question on-screen about whether it is CGI or practical effects, trust me, it is all practical. Even the water! And the character designs are all distinct while retaining the Asian influence. I especially loved the character design of the twin aunts, particularly when the first appear in the night. It was reminiscent of ghost stories in Japan i.e Kwaidan stories. And the stop-motion animation of the monsters are endearingly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen films, which will please adults as much as children.

Speaking of pleasing adults, the story is surprisingly thematic and mature. Venturing towards themes such as death and autonomously determining your fate with minimal sugar-coating or being patronizing to children, it fits into the story in terms of its character development like a glove, which helps the audience relate to Kubo. Even if the themes go over the minds of children, the film still provides a rollicking fantasy adventure. The action scenes are thrilling to watch, particularly the martial arts scenes. Planning and executing them had to be a pain to do, but it pays off really well, particularly in a scene where Monkey fights one of the twins on the ship out in the ocean.

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And what would it be without the characters? With such a strange Hollywood cast chosen for these fantasy characters, it’s a wonder that they work as well as they should. Art Parkinson (known for his appearances in Game of Thrones) is endearing and convincingly conflicted as Kubo, as he not only has to deal with this quest involving family conflict, but he is also going through adolescence and owning up to his destiny, and Parkinson portrays that well. Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as Beetle, a former samurai who worked under Hanzo yet his memory isn’t quite what it used to be, leading to some very funny situations.

Ralph Feinnes can play the villainous role in his sleep and with his small role as the Moon King, he suffices. Rooney Mara seems to be relishing playing the twin villains, as she seems to be quite animated (not a pun) and delightfully acidic, when you compare it to her other live-action performances. But the big standout is Charlize Theron as Monkey. Authoritative, strong and paternal to an amusing degree, she steals every scene she is in and the chemistry between her and McConaughey is surprisingly sweet despite the two never working together in the same vicinity. And it was great to hear veteran actress Brenda Vaccaro again, who delights in her small role as Kameyo.

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As for its flaws, the story may be a little bit too simple for some and the motivation for some of the villains are not really clear, hindering the ending a little bit. Also, although the character of Beetle is very funny, his comic relief antics can intrude with the dramatic through-line at times.

But overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it. With its spectacular animation, thrilling action scenes, likable characters and a great message, Laika Studios has gotten me interested to watch their other work.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Likable characters

Resonant themes

Fantastic action scenes

CONS

Motivations of villains a bit unclear

Intrusive comic relief

Overly simplistic story

SCORE: 9/10

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

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle