Movie Review – Dawn of the Felines (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more melancholic and realistic than the average fare.

REVIEW: Three down, two to go. The fourth entry (for my viewing pleasure) in the Roman Porno Reboot is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines. No, it is not a cat zombie film, but a melancholic and de-mystified drama that provides a look into the lives of three stranded women, whom we see go through their daily lives as Tokyo sex workers.

Whilst the other entries went for either comedic, arthouse and the serene approach, Dawn of the Felines goes for the realistic approach, and with Kazuya Shiraishi at the helm (whom last did the crime film The Devil’s Path and crime/comedy Twisted Justice), we can be certain this film will hit hard with its subject matter. But will the film succeed in entertaining the audience by living up to the Roman Porno name as well as conveying the director’s distinct touch?

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The film follows the lives of three women in present Tokyo and how they feel stranded due to the circumstances of life, with all three of them being led by the weaselly Nonaka (Takuma Otoo). Juri Ihata plays the homeless Masako, who develops an awkward romance with a reclusive client (Tomihiro Kaku) who hasn’t left his own building in 10 years.

We also have Rie (Michie), who is unhappily married and finds solace in the company of an old man drowning in guilt over his wife’s recent death; and we have single mother Yui (Satsuki Maue), who casually leaves behind her abused son just so she can date an obnoxious comedian (Hideaki Murata).

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First off, the positives. The performances from the cast are all uniformly good, thankfully due to the three leads. Juri Ihata, who is known primarily for being a voice actress, performs well in her first leading role as Masako, as she conveys the weariness, the laid-back attitude and especially the anger of her character very well. There is a scene where she confronts Tomohiro Kaku’s character on top of a building and she expresses her feelings, and it is clearly representative of her talents.

Michie is good as the sorrowful Rie; so much so that she makes her unbelievable subplot quite watchable. The interactions between her character and the old man character are compelling and even shocking at times. The lesser of the three is Satsuki Maue as Yui. Although she plays the selfishness and impulsiveness of her character well, she tends to overact at times, which can take audiences out of the film.

The supporting cast are all fine, with Tomohiro Kaku (best known as the boyfriend in Hana and Alice) proving he can be both enigmatic and inhumane; Hideaki Murata is a pure scumbag as the supposedly funny comedian that Yui cavorts with and Ken Yoshizawa lends presence as the suffering senior who interacts with Rie.

But the biggest standout is Takuma Otoo as Nonaka. Providing some much-needed humour to offset the downbeat story, he perfects the way of the weasel by making him likable as well as repulsive. The facial expressions he comes up with, especially during a scene where he is confronted with the police, are priceless.

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As for the direction, it is well-done, particularly how Shiraishi focuses more on the characters, rather than the story. The sex scenes are executed in a matter-of-fact fashion, rather than aiming for prurience. And for the most part, they signal the stage where the characters are in their development or reveal more of who they are. Like in a scene where Yui sleeps with Murata’s character and she finally becomes intimate with him, leading to a confrontation.

And although the film is well-edited and well-told, the film could use a bit more effort in the lighting, as the badly lit look makes it look unappealing at times. Although, the focus on character pays off in the climax, as the leads do reach their foregone conclusions in a satisfying manner (particularly the subplot of Masako), the film could have used more of a social commentary bent since the story is ripe with potential for it i.e. providing more concrete views on how the leads ended up in the situation in the first place. For example, Masako mentions that she is a university graduate but could not obtain a decent job, leading her to prostitution.

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Overall, Dawn of the Felines is a mostly compelling piece of work that has a much more humane story than one would expect. Saddled with good performances, assured direction and ample explorations into loneliness, the film may be the worst entry in the Roman Porno Reboot I’ve seen thus far, but it is still a worthwhile endeavour.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good acting from the cast

Focus on character pays off in a satisfying fashion

CONS

Lacks a certain something to make it truly stand out

Inconsistent lighting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Juri Ihata, Satsuki Maue, Michie, Takuma Otoo, Tomohiro Kaku, Hideaki Murata, Ken Yoshizawa, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kaito Yoshimura, Ryotaro Yonemura, Takaki Uda, Takamitsu Nonaka
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Kazuya Shiraishi

Movie Review – Aroused by Gymnopedies (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more poignant and sombre than the usual Roman Porno.

REVIEW: Now we are off to the third entry of the Roman Porno Reboot. Previous entries seen by myself were Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, which was a surreal, daring and transcendent surprise; and Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, which was a hilarious and traditional entry.

And now we have Aroused by Gymnopedies, directed by Isao Yukisada. Yukisada is well-known for his soulful dramatic works like the blockbuster romance Crying Out Love in the Center of the World and queer drama Pink and Gray; and coming-of-age films like Parade and Go!

So when you apply his filmmaking chops to a project such as this, it does sound like it could result in a typical Roman Porno entry. But this is not back in the 70’s and 80’s anymore. We are in the 10’s now and political correctness (whether people like it or not) is in front and center. Considering the above, will Aroused by Gymnopedies be both a good film as well as a representative entry of the Roman Porno Reboot?

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The film follows Shinji (Itsuji Itao), a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation was once sterling until his star came crashing down to the point where he ends up making quickie porno films. But when Anri (Izumi Okamura), his lead actress quits, the production stalls indefinitely and Shinji wanders from one supposedly misjudged sexual encounter to the next, pleading for money along the way to get his life back on track.

His actions border on repulsive, sleeping with students, nurses, even his leading actress, for any sign of relief or denial of his current existence. And just when he cannot sink any lower, he relies on his ex-wife to prostitute herself for money to lend to him. But is the money really for the stalled film project, or is it for something else?

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First off, the synopsis does make the film seem as sleazy as one would expect. But Yukisada and his screenwriter, Anne Horizumi, aim for more of a sensitive and sombre tone and for a long while, the tone does seem to be quite jarring in comparison to the prurient feel of the film. Particularly when the piano piece(s) by Erik Satie (referenced in the title) plays over the sex scenes.

But when the film gradually reaches into the final act, Yukisada’s sensitive direction makes perfect sense to what preceded it and the music hits hard thematically and emotionally in the film’s conclusion by becoming an ode to love and loneliness.

The jarring feel also applies to the lead character. Played brilliantly by Itsuji Itao (who’s known for comedic roles), the majority of the audience will be repulsed by him. But Yukisada and Horizumi gradually hint the audience with much-needed backstory, making the audience question what they just witnessed. Without attempting to excuse or change the lead character, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji empathetic (if not sympathetic), despite his heartless actions.

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If the film does seem to be a bit of a depressing slog, Yukisada and Horizumi thankfully sprinkle much-needed humour to the proceedings, which includes a setpiece involving a film retrospective gone wrong, that involves the majority of the characters in conflict with each other. The musical score, which comprises of jazz, is a complete and pleasing throwback to the classic examples of the genre, and it adds comic zing.

The female characters, all well-acted by the actresses (particularly Sumire Ashina as rich student, Yuka), are all surprisingly independent and self-sufficient, when compared to the counterparts of the 70’s and 80’s Roman Porno entries. Whether it is to reflect the times or it is the involvement of co-writer Anne Horizumi, it is a step in the right direction.

Case in point, during a climactic sex scene where it seems to involve Shinji, Yuka decides he is no longer needed. A scene like this would never happen back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the fact that it happened in this day of age, it is quite notable.

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As for its flaws, Shinji’s actions may be too repulsive one can take. And the deliberate pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers and those who are expecting exploitation and titillation will definitely come out disappointed.

Overall, Aroused by Gymnopedies is a strange, yet compelling mix of softcore sex and sensitive emotion, which pays off in a rewarding fashion for those who are patient enough for its unorthodox ambitions. Let’s hope the Roman Porno Reboot keeps it up with the remaining two entries, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines and Hideo Nakata’s White Lily.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Itsuji Itao gives a great performance as the pitiable, repulsive lead

Yukisada’s direction and Horizuma’s screenwriting lend a certain poignancy that correlates with the prurience quite well

The musical score is entertaining in a throwback sort of way

The final act rewards greatly

CONS

The pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers

The lead character may be too unsympathetic for some

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Itsuji Itao, Sumire Ashina, Izumi Okamura, Yuki Tayama, Mayumi Tajima, Noriko Kijima, Sho Nishino
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriters: Isao Yukisada, Anne Horizumi

Movie Review – Japanese Girls Never Die (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun, anarchic story about obsession and media scrutiny. And of course, YU AOI!

REVIEW: For those who have read my reviews, it is well known that I am a huge fan of Japanese actress Yu Aoi. Ever since I saw her in Hana and Alice (which was my first Japanese film I ever saw), I have been a huge fan of her work; particularly with how soulful and precise her performances are, without any reliance on overacting or histrionics.

But funnily enough, she was just one selling point of this film. Another selling point were the themes of sexual discrimination and misogyny and how it is explored and defined in present-day Japan. Some of my favourite or memorable films of recent years happen to be films set in Japan and were about the same themes i.e. Pun Homchuen & Onusa Donsawai’s Grace and Sion Sono’s Tag and Anti-Porno.

So when I heard about the film, Japanese Girls Never Die, was going to have both Yu Aoi and the same thematic material as the films mentioned earlier, it was just too exciting to pass up. So does the film live up to my expectations? Or will it just end up being in a dark alley, beaten to a bloody pulp?

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The film starts off with a bunch of misfits causing havoc by spray painting stencils of a missing posters. The film also features a gang of high school girls who are infamous for beating up men with baseball bats (A Clockwork Pink? Okay, I’ll stop.). The face on the missing poster is 27-year old Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), an office worker who is unhappy at work, at home, and with her unrequited yearning for her childhood pal turned neighbour (Huey Ishizaki), who just happens to be beaten up by the same gang of girls.

A typical day of Haruko is filled with misogynistic and perverted male bosses making inappropriate comments about the age, appearance and relationship status of their female employees, all while trying to hire another female employee. By night, she navigates the stresses of living with her family of three generations, with her stressed mother and her aging grandmother.

We also have 20-year old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a spirited and bubbly girl who thrives on fun and excitement. She thinks she has found it in a form of a potential boyfriend, Yukio (Taiga) and the two apparently hit it off. But Yukio has other ideas with Aina, but on the side, he starts off a grafitti team with his friend, the shy Manabu (Shono Hayama) and starts tagging the city. As Aina spots the two, she joins in and they all get inspired by a missing poster that happens to feature Haruko, and a viral sensation is born.

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So basically there are two stories going on and the film is played out in a non-linear fashion, which admittedly  takes quite a bit to get used to the storytelling technique. But when you consider the unbelievable sides (including fantasy and wish-fulfillment plots)  and realistic sides of the story (loneliness, ennui and sexual discrimination) are blurred together, it actually becomes very effective, as it conveys the themes of the story in an entertaining and distinct manner.

And we got through a lot of themes here. Whether its office politics, family dynamics, portrayals of art, gender politics, Japanese pop culture, capitalism and many more, the film is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, with surprising replay value.

A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Hiroki Shioya and editor Satoko Ohara, whom give the film a distinct look and feel, which applies to all three acts (and stories), leaving them easy to discern.

Even the use of pop culture, which director Matsui uses a lot in his prior films like Wonderful World End, (which is completely evident of perpetuating sexual objectification) is used in a satirical and metaphorical fashion.

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Even with all of the hard work going on display from behind-the-scenes, the film also packs an amazing performance from Yu Aoi. Showing subtlety, restraint and even a certain sense of cool whilst hinting a sense of anger, resentment and hostility, Aoi totally inhabits the character to the point that her screentime has a larger impact than expected. And yes, even with the expected posters and grafitti plastered throughout the film.

Mitsuki Takahata, whom I last saw in Jossy’s, is bubbly and energetic as Aina, and although she might seem a bit petulant at first, she provides a fine contrast to Aoi’s performance, as the two make it easier to see both generations shown offsetting each other very well.

The supporting cast are all good, with the men (including Taiga, Shono Hayama and Huey Ishizaki) giving relatable, yet pathetic performances, while the women (including Akiko Kikuchi and Maho Yamada) make the most out their small roles. Particularly Yamada, who has some of the best and incisive lines of the film.

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As for its flaws, not all of the ideas in the film are explored equally due to there being so many; the storytelling can be a bit off-putting in its intent in its non-linear fashion and the ending is a bit overdone, although it features a great animated cut-scene by Ryo Hirano.

But the message is loud and clear and Japanese Girls Never Die delivers that message in an exuberant, vibrant and even slightly poignant fashion. And with Yu Aoi as the face (and the heart) of its message, the film will linger in one’s mind for quite a while.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Yu Aoi

Good supporting cast

Exuberant direction, vibrant cinematography and precise editing

Much thoroughly explored thematic material to mull through

CONS

Overworked ending

Polarizing storytelling

Not all ideas are explored equally

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Taiga, Shono Hayama, Huwie Ishizaki, Ryo Kase, Akiko Kikuchi, Maho Yamada, Motoki Ochiai, Serina
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Misaki Setoyama, based on the novel “Azumi Haruko wa yukue fumei” by Mariko Yamauchi

Movie Review – The Villainess

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EXPECTATIONS: A career-defining role for Kim Ok-bin. And also, kick-ass action scenes!

REVIEW: Kim Ok-bin is a South Korean actress that I have been following for a long time (not literally!) and I have always found her to be very talented in a variety of roles, like her dramatic film debut in the horror Voice, to her charming and adorable role in the sex comedy/musical Dasepo Naughty Girls and her comedic role in The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan.

But it was when she worked with Park Chan-wook for the dark comedy/vampire film Thirst that she started having an acting emergence. Nailing both dramatic parts, comedic parts and especially the femme fatale parts like a pro, she won many awards for her performance. Ever since then, her roles have gotten a bit smaller than expected, with small roles like The Front Line and Actresses; and she ended up in box office flops like 11 A.M.

Now, after eight years since her role in Thirst, she finally has a leading role in The Villainess, an action extravaganza from Jung Byung-gil, the director from the action/crime flick Confession of Murder. Gathering great buzz from Cannes, including garnering a 4-minute standing ovation, people have been highly anticipating this. Is the film worth the buzz?

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The film starts off with a spectacular 10-minute action scene, entirely shot in POV, as the main character takes down like 40 people through hallways, staircases and even a personal gym, leading to the title card. So it is advised that audiences should not come late to the screenings, as this takes place straight away after the opening credits.

The film is about the story of a ruthless female assassin named Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), who from an early age (residing in China, with her father) has been taught to kill. She becomes a sleeper agent for South Korea’s intelligence agency after being caught, which they promise her freedom after 10 years of service. But it’s not all that easy when two men (Shin Ha-Kyun and Bang Sung-jun) from her past and present make an unexpected appearance in her life, bringing out her deep, dark secrets.

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Let’s get to the good and bad already. The good? Kim Ok-bin herself. As seen in The Villainess, she has finally acquired a leading role that is worthy of her talents. Having capable martial arts training before tackling the role, she displays grace and capable physical prowess in her action scenes. Whether she is riding a motorcycle, scaling buildings, firing guns and throwing axes, she easily convinces as Sook-hee, the assassin.

As Sook-hee, the woman within, Kim nails the role with gusto. Lending depth and even a bit of insanity (like her character in Thirst) to her soulful, yet vengeful archetype of a character, she again shows why she made such a fuss back in 2009. If she doesn’t get better roles after this, then something seriously is wrong out there.

As for the supporting cast, they are all fine in the archetypal roles. Shin Ha-kyun (who plays an adversary to Kim Ok-bin for the third time since Thirst and The Front Line) is great as Joong-sang, as he conveys menace in a scary, yet understated manner. Bang Sung-jun is likable and brash as Hyun-soo, a love interest to Sook-hee who is more than he seems. But besting both of the men is Kim Seo-hyung. Playing a mentor character to Kim Ok-bin once again since Voice, she just nails the part of the ice cold personae, as Kwon-sook.

Now, let’s get to the action scenes. Overall, they are fantastic. Apart from the opening scene, there are scenes on motorbikes, buses, edges of buildings, restaurants and other settings, and they are all shot with so much energy and verve that it becomes almost surreal. There’s a scene where Sook-hee tries to escape from a training facility and the way the world uncovers (with smooth editing and long takes) is just so dream-like, it becomes almost enchanting. Some may find it disorienting due to the style utilized i.e. handheld camera shots, so those who suffer with motion sickness be warned.

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Now let’s get to the bad. Or a better word, mixed. The story itself is nothing new; basically an amalgam of prior assassin films like La Femme Nikita and others, but the storytelling is refreshingly free from spoon-feeding and pandering towards the audience, unlike Hollywood blockbusters, which would have characters stand to point at something and explain the plot. But the plot is told with lots of flashbacks that it does tend to get convoluted at times. Thankfully, the story is told with three distinct acts that makes it clear enough for the audience to latch on to.

Also, the drama in the film tends to be quite cheesy at times. Although some of the cheesiness makes sense due to the events of the plot but when it becomes more sincere, some of the drama becomes so melodramatic, that it can be quite laughable. And another flaw (which may be laughable itself) is the level of violence. With the amount of weapons involved including guns, knives, hammers, axes, ropes, cars, hairpins etc; it is bloody, gory and uncompromising, which will both thrill and befuddle, so be warned.

Overall, The Villainess is a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of action films, female-led films, Kim Ok-bin and South Korean cinema. I hope that after this film, both Kim Ok-bin and director Jung Byung-gil will be appreciated for their efforts and move on to do more ambitious work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kim Ok-bin gives a fantastic performance

Good supporting cast

Spectacular action sequences

Storytelling is refreshing due to lack of spoonfeeding

The editing and camerawork create a surreal feel

CONS

Cheesiness in the storytelling

The story can be quite convoluted

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun. Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyun, Jung Hae-kyun
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Screenwriters: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik

Movie Review – Okja (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another fantastic entry into Bong Joon Ho’s filmography.

REVIEW: Okja is a film involving a giant mutated pig. What more do you want? But seriously, in order to understand the hype of the film, you have to know the filmmaker Bong Joon Ho.

Bong Joon Ho is an acclaimed Korean filmmaker who has made some incredible films. And the reason he is so acclaimed is his assured directorial hand in mixing genres that usually do not associate with each other and executes them brilliantly. And he also adds a sense of humour, regardless of how inappropriate the tone of the film is.

His impressive resume so far includes films like the strikingly dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, the comic-confronting crime thriller Memories of Murder, the blockbuster monster film The Host (not the film starring Saoirse Ronan, thank goodness), the old-fashioned mystery-noir Mother and the dystopian epic Snowpiercer.

Considering the critical acclaim that Bong has received, having expectations reaching levels other than high is an understandable reaction. Seeing how this was the closing film of Sydney Film Fest 2017, it was likely that Okja would end it with a bang. Does it?

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An Seo Hyun stars as Mija, a young girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather (Byun Heebong) and is a caretaker and loving companion to Okja, a giant super pig. Life seems simple enough but that eventually changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend.

With no plan and only her sheer focus, Mija vows to get her back but the journey will be hard going, going through many obstacles like capitalists, fat cats, greedy consumers, demonstrators (led by Paul Dano). Will Mija succeed in bringing her best friend home?

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Just like his earlier films, director Bong deals with a lot of issues and ideas like consumerism, animal rights, the environment and capitalism; all while forming an action-adventure film and a political satire at the same time. Even with all that baggage, it’s a miracle that Okja works as well as it does.

Even though the issues are serious, Bong never backs out from adding a touch of humour into the mix, as he places the targets both the characters and themes and satirizes them with verve. For example, the characters Bostick and Henshall play, who foolishly contribute to their cause by starving themselves to leave a minimal environmental footprint.

But this does not mean Bong doesn’t get straight to the point, as he steers the film into very dark territory, particularly in the final act. This may be the first film that I praise due to the fact that it almost made me throw up.

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All the themes pack a thematic punch as well as an emotional punch, as it adds to the heart of the film, which is the bond between Mija and Okja. The peaceful scenes between the two are executed very well (complete with references to the anime film, My Neighbour Totoro), without being overstated or sappy. There’s even a scene where the family are gathering together to eat and it is reminiscent to one of the scenes in The Host.

There’s a scene where the two take a shortcut back home and it ends up being more than they bargained for. The scene is thrilling, action-packed and skillfully foreshadows what is to come between their relationship.

Speaking of action scenes, they are all gleefully manic, yet intricately composed. There is a scene where Mija arrives in Seoul and single-handedly shakes the corporation, resulting in a fantastic car chase, leading to a shopping center that reaches its beautifully realized climax with the use of “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.

But none of it would be as good as it looks without the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who is clearly embracing the resources of what digital filmmaking can do. The CGI modelling of the creature itself is quite impressive, considering the budget, which is only $50 million.

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The acting from the ensemble cast are all either fun, unhinged or thankfully, genuine. An Seo Hyun, who impressed in the 2010 remake The Housemaid, is the solid rock of the film that keeps the film grounded, as she convincingly conveys both the tough, determined side and the paternal side of her character. The former is shown perfectly during a funny scene where Mija tries to enter the government floor entrance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jake Gyllenhaal gleefully hams it up figuratively as well as literally. Tilda Swinton vamps it up as well as camps it up as the primary antagonist, Lucy Mirando, and she nails it, as usual while Paul Dano, in an example of off-kilter casting as with Gyllenhaal, is surprisingly cool as the leader of the animal rights group.

The smaller roles from the conflicted Steven Yeun, the fiery Lily Collins, the comically dedicated duo of Devon Bostick and Daniel Henshall, the fatherly Byun Heebong, the weaselly Choi Woo Shik, the subtly menacing, scheming Giancarlo Esposito and the overworked and nasally Shirley Henderson all immensely contribute to the fun.

Like Okja itself, the film tends to lumber a lot, veering in many directions and tones, sometimes going on-the-snout with its themes, and like Gyllenhaal’s character, its rebellious and off-kilter filmmaking may turn people off. But like a roller-coaster, it is exhilarating stuff, and it rarely ever abides to filmmaking conventions and tropes. Okja was a film that had everything I hoped for and I wish more films like this would get made, regardless of where it comes from.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastically rebellious direction from Bong Joon Ho

Mixing of genres and ideas is done really well

The ensemble cast is great

Action scenes are very thrilling

CONS

The filmmaking and Gyllenhaal’s performance will polarize

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: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo Shik
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson

Movie Review – Kung Fu Yoga

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EXPECTATIONS: An insufferable experience from the once-great Jackie Chan.

REVIEW: Before I get into this review, let’s get the b-word out of the way. I am a fan of Jackie Chan. Ever since I saw one of his films on SBS, I became a huge fan of his due to his incredible dexterity, his creative fight choreography, his amazing stuntwork and his likable aw-shucks persona.

But like every action hero, the thing that defeats them is age, but Chan has always compensated with more creative fight choreography, a sharper focus on acting and and branching out from his likable persona.

But ever since 2009, he’s hit a major snag that has rendered his reputation from being extremely likable to something a lot more polarizing i.e. he became a supporter of Communist China.

Since then, the quality of his films have dropped massively, with very little effort involved from everyone including fight choreography, ill-disciplined use of the high budget and the incredibly childish sense of humour that seems to be present to pander to the China market.

And last but not least, the jingoism and xenophobia is incredibly blatant that it is quite easy to be thrown out of the film. Cases in point: Skiptrace, Shinjuku Incident, Chinese Zodiac, Dragon Blade, Railroad Tigers; the list goes on.

And now, we have Kung Fu Yoga, an action/adventure that seems to be a throwback to the Armour of God films, with all the globetrotting and action you would expect. But can this film break the negative trend or will it sink into it?

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Jackie Chan plays Jack (who else?), a world-renowned archaeology professor, and his team are on a grand quest to locate a lost ancient Indian treasure when they are ambushed by a team of mercenaries and left for dead. Using his vast knowledge of history and kung fu (what else?), Jack leads his team on a race around the world to beat the mercenaries to the treasure and save an ancient culture.

Now that is a simple enough plot that is easy to follow. But boy, is it terribly told. The introduction to the film is incredibly emblematic of this flaw. It involves a five-minute backstory all told in terribly rendered CGI that could have only come from a PS2 game but what is bewildering is that it has absolutely no effect or relevance to the plot whatsoever!

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But hey, who cares about the plot in a Jackie Chan film? All we want is the action! Is the action good in Kung Fu Yoga? Nope, not at all. The choreography looks sloppy, uninspired and worst of all, boring. The stunts obviously look wire-assisted, the CGI implemented looks absolutely atrocious and the sets look incredibly cheap. Nothing in the action scenes thrill or amuse and it just ends up being tedious. When a major highlight in an action scene involves a horrific looking CGI lion in a car, believe me, you’re in trouble.

So, when you have terrible action scenes in a Jackie Chan film, all you have is, well, a whiff of something you’re sure not to like. There’s the xenophobia and jingoism present throughout i.e. how there are no Indians that can find an Indian artifact in India, and can solve the puzzle inscribed on the artifact. In Indian. Or how the film actually has the guts to provide a ham-fisted moral lesson from the Chinese to Indians, about something they read from an Indian artifact! And the character actually says “Stop teaching me about my own country!”

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And there’s also the blatant plagiarism that the film steals from eg. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Fast and the Furious films, Tomb Raider and the James Bond films. And there are many details that took me off guard. Like, why is there the use of bells in a university? How do you distract wolves with kung fu stances and snowball throwing? Why is it that a gunshot does not echo throughout the ice cave to signal that someone is in the cave? How is it that the ice cave, which is believed to be in the middle of nowhere, have two people come out of the cave through a staircase? With handrails?

Asking all of these, and many other questions, just made me realize that the film didn’t entertain or distract me from any of those flaws. The actors are no great shakes in their performances and most of them were clearly hired for market appeal rather than thespian chops. Or even charisma.

Even for those who are talented, like Eric Tsang, they disappear faster than Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hong Kong. And the tone is all over the place; the film is clearly aiming for family-friendly (or so it says) humour, and yet there are instances of adult language and violence involving deadly animals.

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Now the end credits is actually the best part of the film. And not because it meant the film was over. I personally hated the way they remixed the original song, but the dance number looked very nice and is well choreographed, by Farah Khan no less.

Kung Fu Yoga is a massive disappointment for fans of Jackie Chan, fans of cinema, Indian fans, Indian people in general and is just a complete embarrassment for all involved. Even the Indians didn’t like the film when the film was released there. That tells you what you need to know.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Okay dance number in the end

Eric Tsang in a very small role

CONS

Everything else

SCORE: 2/10

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

Cast: Jackie Chan, Disha Patani, Aarif Lee Rahman, Sonu Sood, Lay Zhang, Mu Qimiya, Zhang Guoli, Eric Tsang, Amyra Dastur, Coco Jiang
Director: Stanley Tong
Screenwriter: Stanley Tong

Movie Review – Happy End (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Haven’t seen enough Haneke films to have any.

REVIEW: Michael Haneke is a bit of a misanthrope, isn’t he? Granted, I haven’t seen all of his films, but the few that I have seen, he seems to have a very critical view on society and human nature. And compared to mainstream fare, he makes films where there is plenty of space for the audience to contemplate and ponder what is happening on-screen with little to no spoon-feeding whatsoever.

Knowing this, it becomes clear that Haneke makes films that can be quite frustrating, yet intricate pieces of work that one admires more than enjoys. But thankfully, he does have a very dark sense of humour that provides a nice counterbalance to the gloomy mood he goes for.

Case in point, his latest film, Happy End. With all of his frequent collaborators in place like Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, cinematographer Christian Berger and others; and coming back to familiar thematic territory, will the film conclude like the title suggests? For the audience, I mean?

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The film starts off with a series of Snapchat videos, detailing scenes of playfulness and lingering dread; involving acts such as animal cruelty, voyeurism, talks of suicide and bouts of self-loathing. Awkward laughs ensue.

From there, we follow a rich family, whom all have several problems lingering on their minds. Isabelle Huppert plays Anne Laurent (a name that pops ups in a lot of Haneke’s films), who has been handed the responsibility of managing a family construction business, previously owned by her aging father, Georges (again, in a lot of Haneke’s films), who is suffering from dementia. She is also getting engaged to a British lawyer, Lawrence.

Her son, Pierre, sets off a catastrophic incident at the construction site due to negligence and it sets off a huge lawsuit. Anne is worried of his deadbeat attitude and tries to straighten him up and fly right so he can take over the family business. Her brother, Thomas has problems of his own and must now look after the 13-year-old daughter, Eve,  of his previous marriage and accept her into their creepy, problematic family.

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For those who are both new and familiar to Haneke’s work, Happy End is an encapsulation of all of Haneke’s tropes: euthanasia, voyeurism, psychosexuality, creepy children, misanthropy, it’s all here. And even though, Haneke going through his old bag of tricks may signal a sign of self-parody, it never feels that way mainly because, it still feels uniquely his film.

Static wide shots, courtesy of cinematographer Christian Berger, are put to great use that either give off a sense of dread or pay off in amusing ways. Like a scene that seems to tip off Cache, it involves Pierre trying to apologize to the family of the worker who was struck by the work accident, leading to a violent conclusion. Faces of the characters aren’t always seen, even during long takes, which implies that even very little is shown in face value.

Scenes with the use of Snapchat and FaceBook (which are eerily similar to scenes in Mike NicholsCloser) also give off a glimpse of human nature that is ironically more revealing than seeing a person face to face, and again, it yields surprising laughs and bouts of tension. And even when the characters gradually reveal their feelings, it never feels heartwarming nor emotionally satisfying. It just feels creepy and awkward, in a good way.

Revelations and feelings are revealed in either the most matter-of-fact manner (one of them is an amusing twist on the occurrences in Amour); or in a blatant and sudden fashion, like a scene involving drunken/gymnastic karaoke or a scene involving a quick jolt of violence that quite honestly, had me gasping during the screening. And it shows that the characters all feel like they’re owed something, despite living the wealthy life. And that may be the scariest thing in the film.

And like most of Haneke’s films, Happy End intentionally does not end like the title implies, but with a few shocks, twists and sudden bouts of violence. And an incredible final shot that blew the minds of the audience into hysterics.

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The ensemble cast all give typically stellar performances, from Isabelle Huppert, who is solid as the daughter who tries to keep the family in control to Matthieu Kassovitz, who is refreshingly understated as the brother who tries to be fatherly while keeping a dark secret. And of course there’s Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays Georges. Racist, rude and going on dementia, Jean-Louis seems to be having a ball in the role.

But best of all, praise must go to Fantine Harduin, who plays Eve, the 13-year old daughter of Kassovitz’s character from another marriage. Scarily knowledgeable with computer technology and filled with understated resentment (much like the film), Harduin is a new talent worth looking out for.

As for its flaws, there’s nothing truly new or groundbreaking from Haneke here. And the story involving Huppert’s character is oddly the least interesting subplot in the film, in comparison to the subplot involving Trintignant’s character and Harduin’s character.

Also, the pacing in the first and second act may be a bit too glacial, even by Haneke standards, but when most of the pieces (some are loose, like Pierre’s fascination with African migrants) come together in the final act, it delivers a great pay-off that will fester in one’s mind for a long time.

Yes, the film does feel like a greatest hits album for Haneke, but with his incredibly assured direction, fine performances, grounded storytelling and a great sense of dark humour, Happy End may not end like the title implies, but for the audience, it defini– well, that’s another story.

Who knew that the scariest thing in Happy End is not voyeurism, not euthanasia, not psychosexuality, not animal cruelty but white privilege?

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Quickie Review

PROS

Haneke’s assured, static direction

Great performances

Great sense of humour

CONS

Nothing new or truly noteworthy

Storytelling is a bit off

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: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Mathieu Kassovitz, Fantine Harduin, Franz Rogowski, Laura Verlinden, Aurelia Petit, Toby Jones, Hille Perl, Hassam Ghancy, Nabiha Akkari, Joud Geistlich
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke

Movie Review – The Forest of Lost Souls (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Artistically fulfilling, yet cinematically unrewarding.

REVIEW: Out of all the genres in cinema, horror is, in my opinion, is the best outlet for creativity within storytelling. Whether in a metaphorical sense, a symbolic sense or just nuts-and-bolts mainstream filmmaking, horror can engage, thrill, scare and surprise, regardless of what it looks like on the outside.

Case in point, David Cronenberg‘s The Fly. With a Cronenberg film involving a mutant fly, you expect the body horror and blood and gore. But underneath all of that is a tragic love story and the ramifications that one would face when a loved one is going through terminal sickness and how it affects the relationship. The best horror films tend to be symbolic of great importance and that is the reason they earn their status.

In the case of The Forest of Lost Souls,  it does feels very similar to the other Portuguese horror film, The Eyes of My Mother, due to the same slight running time, the black and white cinematography and the fact that they both combine grindhouse tropes with an arthouse aesthetic. Whereas The Eyes of My Mother deals with themes of loss and loneliness, The Forest of Lost Souls deals with coming-of-age, finding one’s place in the world and differing views of death.

With all of that in mind, will The Forest of Lost Souls succeed in both providing sufficient entertainment for horror fans as well as giving some food for thought for those looking for something different?

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A young woman, Carolina, and an old man, Ricardo, fatefully meet in a forest, which is famous for being a place where people decide to commit suicide. They decide to briefly postpone killing themselves in order to explore the forest and also to continue talking to one another, as Ricardo and Carolina find themselves intrigued by one another.

However as they go further into the forest it becomes clear that one of the pair has other reasons for being in the forest and is not who they would have the other believe them to be and is actually more than meets the eye.

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The Forest of Lost Souls is thankfully a very distinct, brisk, unconventional horror film that delivers a huge impact despite the limited resources and short running time would lead you to believe.

The obvious draw of the film is the black and white cinematography by Francisco Lobo and it is a fantastic complement to the surreal and dreamlike world that director Jose Pedro Lopes was going for. Similar to the black and white sequences in Lars Von Trier‘s Antichrist, it adds a surprising amount of tension and weirdness that it can easily put the audience at unease.

The element of surrealism is also counterbalance by the grounded nature of the story, which is a major factor of what makes the film scary. Based on a real place called Aokigahara (aka The Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees), people venture into the forest to commit suicide. But in the case of The Forest of Lost Souls, it serves as a eerie backdrop for what is essentially an origin story for the antagonist of the film. And it is executed so well that it feels grounded and it could possibly happen in real life. The fact that the film doesn’t cop out in its conclusion makes it linger disturbingly in one’s mind.

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The use of modern technology and social media is also dealt with rather well; especially with how it is incredibly easy to interact (which is a nice way of putting it) with other people as well as how we present ourselves to the world. It is the kind of effort that Lopes commits to his film that makes it more substantial that one would surmise, even with the short running time.

But does the meat-and-potatoes tropes of horror pack a punch? Yes, it certainly does. The violence and kills are sudden, understated and tastefully done; and that is thanks to the tension wrung from the cinematography, the bizarrely retro score by Emanuel Gracio and the assured direction by Lopes. Some of the shots where the antagonist is lurking behind people or in the background is reminiscent of John Carpenter‘s Halloween.

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The acting is also noteworthy with the subtlety and ingenuity of the performances. Daniela Love is great as the impulsive and knowledgeable teen, Carolina, while Jorge Mota is compelling as the conflicted family man, Ricardo. The two share an understated and natural chemistry with one another and it makes the first act of the film very serene. But of course, there’s more lurking beneath the surface when one of them has more than a few demons up their sleeve. The supporting cast are all fine but it is Love that stands out from the rest (no pun intended).

As for its flaws, the first act may be a bit slow and the abrupt change in tone in the second act may turn off viewers, as it almost turns into an entirely different film. But considering the flaws, The Forest of Lost Souls is a worthwhile horror experience thanks to its grounded story, Lopes‘ assured direction, Lobo‘s beautifully surreal cinematography, Gracio‘s retro creepy musical score and Love‘s standout lead performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances (especially from Daniella Love)

Assured direction from Lopes

A creepy retro score from Gracio

Beautifully surreal cinematography from Lobos

Grounded storytelling adds to the tension

CONS

Slow pacing in the first act

Abrupt tone change in the second act

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: Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Ligia Roque, Lilia Lopes, Tiago Jacome
Director: Jose Pedro Lopes
Screenwriter: Jose Pedro Lopes

Movie Review – Dead or Alive

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EXPECTATIONS: Something downright gonzo from maverick director Takashi Miike.

REVIEW: Takashi Miike, back in the V-cinema era, was a complete madman. Not in a human state, but in his creative state, the images and ideas he comes up with can only come from a man who is completely bonkers.

This is the man who directed a film which had to have barf bags in some of the cinema screenings. This is the man who filmed a TV episode for a horror anthology that had been banned for being too disturbing. This is the man who filmed the most amazing cockfight ever seen on screen. Okay, the last one is debatable but the point is, this is a man whose filmography cannot be seen without one thinking with befuddlement and interest.

With a man who has made so many gonzo works (including Fudoh: The Next Generation, Audition, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q etc.) Dead or Alive would rank somewhere near the middle in the gonzo scale. With V-cinema stalwarts Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi as the leads in an old-school cop vs. criminal story, you know Miike has got something up his sleeve.

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Dead or Alive starts off with the most energetic and craziest 10 minutes that few have rivaled to this day. Already, we see people getting blown to bits, a woman jumping to her death, corrupt cops snorting a LONG line of cocaine, sex scenes of a homosexual nature and more gonzo goodness.

That basically is the litmus level telling whether the film is right for you. But despite all of the bizarre flourishes, the story is surprisingly reserved, consisting of your typical cops and robbers conflict, with themes like loyalty, brotherhood and justice.

One of the best touches of the film is the bizarre sense of humour towards genre tropes. Films of this type usually glamourizes the criminals in favour of sympathy or empathy toward the characters. But in the case of Dead or Alive, criminals are portrayed as they are: scums of the earth.

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There’s a stupefying scene where Aikawa’s character asks one of his informants for information, but as the scene plays out, the informant is getting ready for a bestiality shoot, including the actress and dog. And one other scene that is even more graphic, a mob boss is seen torturing a woman by forcing her to swim in a pool of her own feces. It is scenes like this (including the introduction and the ending) that makes the film a cult-classic pleasure.

But is there substance to back the film up? Surprisingly, there is ample evidence of it. The lead characters, Ryuuichi and Jojima, are given plenty of backstory; like how one is trying to save his terminally ill daughter while the other is trying to reconcile with his estranged brother. They both have clearly defined motives and are thankfully portrayed with enough sympathy and empathy by Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuichi. They are both clearly aware of the film’s intentions and are clearly having fun with their archetypal roles, elevating them with both charisma and acting chops.

The supporting cast are all film with Miike collaborators like Ren Osugi, Renji Ishibashi and others are all great with their roles, as they both honour and turn their roles on its head with gusto.

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In the case of flaws, there are many that need to be mentioned and considered. Firstly, the film’s pacing is quite haphazard, considering the frenetic nature of the introduction and conclusion. For some, the film’s second act is a slow crawl compared to all of its madness.

Secondly, the treatment of women in the film is quite disturbing and will definitely turn people off. It can be seen as a commentary towards Miike fans who enjoy his brand of bonkers gonzo violence or it can be seen as a commentary on misogyny. Either way, the message is clear: misogyny is an unspeakable and irredeemable evil. And lastly, the humour can be quite polarizing. For some, it can be seen as hilarious while others will see it as either silly and even offensive.

But if one were to describe Dead of Alive in singular words, it would be as it goes: Gonzo. Unforgettable. Crazy. Silly. Bizarre. And those words encapsulate what Dead or Alive is, in a nutshell. For those who are daring, this is the film that will blow you away, whether you’ll like it or not. I guarantee it.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great leading performances

Fantastically bizarre sense of humour

Enough substance towards the characters

CONS

Irregular pacing

Humour will turn some people off

Treatment towards women

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Riki Takeuchi, Sho Aikawa, Renji Ishibashi, Susume Terajima, Ren Osugi
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriters: Ichiro Ryu

Movie Review – Girl’s Blood

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EXPECTATIONS: A trashy, sexy and fun experience.

REVIEW: For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the basis of the story in the film, Girl’s Blood. It involves women kicking ass in cages, with ridiculously tragic backstories of most of the characters and a lesbian love story. Now for the kicker: this is all set and wrapped up in a backdrop of female empowerment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A film with a story such as this could only possibly be seen as a trashy and prurient experience that would feel right at home back in the 1980’s. But this film came out in 2014 and it is actually based on a novel, written by Kazuki Sakuraba, the author who also wrote My Man, which was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, starring Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano.

So you would now expect the film to be more conservative. BUT, the screenwriter of Girl’s Blood is Takehiko Minato, who’s responsible for many pinku films such as Be My Slave, What’s Going On With My Sister, Flower and Snake: Zero and of course, Legend of Siren XXX. But he has also written the screenplay of Bitter Honey, which is basically an adult version of Ponyo.

Moreover, the film is directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who’s famous for directing tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider, Power Rangers and specializes in fight stunt-work. So potentially, we have a film that is directed by a former stuntman, which has a story that could have a tone of both equal prurience and puritanism (sort of), based on source material from a critically-acclaimed female author, written for the screen by a screenwriter who specializes in pinku films. Will this film be a trainwreck or will it somehow transcend its origins to be more than the sum of its parts?

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The story starts by introducing four of our main characters. The first one is Satsuki (Yuria Haga), a woman who has a sexual identity crisis. The other character is Miko (Ayame Misaki), who is a S&M queen who has a haunted backstory involving being estranged from her family. The third character is Mayu (Rina Koike), a young woman who has psychological problems due to her youthful image and lastly, Chinatsu (Asami Tada), a fighter who, through numerous attempts, tries to run away from her abusive husband (Hideo Sakaki).

All four women are competing in a cage fight tournament after a martial arts faction threatens to take over the territory of Girl’s Blood. But their differences make them more like foils rather than comrades.  To make matters worse is the fact that the faction is run none other by Chinatsu’s husband. Bonds will be made, minds will be tested, demons will be unleashed; will the women overcome all obstacles and win?

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First off, it is really quite a miracle to say that this type of story actually has a sizable budget and it shows. The production values, the cinematography, the music are all well-done. Special credit goes to the sound design, which is quite striking and adds to the brutality of the fight scenes.

And now the cast. All of the main actresses acquit themselves to their roles with such sincerity and straight-faced conviction, that they give the story a lot more credibility that it ever requires. Yuria Haga is convincingly tough and conflicted as Satsuki and it must be said that she deserves credit for her brave decision to go nude for her love scenes.

Ditto to Asami Tada, who plays Chinatsu as a interesting, enigmatic presence and is quite a good sport in the fight scenes. The chemistry between the two is subtly present as they make glances and eventually become intimate with each other. Ayame Misaki is very charismatic as Miko, as she certainly has a fun presence about her; while Rina Koike is cute, but almost to a fault. Few stand out of the supporting cast, including Misaki Momose (who stood out in Gothic Lolita Psycho) who again combines cuteness and sadism in an entertaining fashion.

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As for the men, they all go over-the-top to the point that bounces between cartoony and pantomime. Hideo Sakaki is beyond sickening (in a good way) as Chinatsu’s husband while Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi is a hoot as the manager of Girl’s Blood, whenever he shows up.

It’s a credit to the above that it is as stellar as it is, since the story is incredibly ridiculous, bizarre and blatantly empowering/exploitative to the female gender. The backstories of the characters are so outlandish (one of them is haunted by her past involving cosplay while another is haunted due to confinement and, ahem, spillage) that it is a minor miracle that the film manages to become mildly poignant and affecting in the final act.

And it is because that every aspect of the film plays it out as sincere as they can. The story is told completely straight, without a sense of irony or any amount of winking from the actors. It also helps that the characters have clear motives as to why they choose to fight in the ring and they all pay off in a satisfyingly cathartic fashion.

Or the film can be seen as the ridiculous story that it is and can be unintentionally laughable when it passes its plot points and backstories as a source of drama. Fittingly, that type of shoddiness is expected from the pinku genre, but it stands out more due to its sizable budget. Either way, entertainment is still entertainment.

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And best of all, the fight scenes. Director Koichi Sakamoto knows his way around filming action and the fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, considering the numerous stunt doubles on display. The approach to the fight scenes focuses more on brutality and grappling, rather than grace and fluidity, as the editing and sound design clearly dictate, and they are thrilling to watch.

And now with the flaws. With a running time that is close to two hours, the film is overlong and could use some trimming during the character moments. Also, as much as the film is sincere in its storytelling, the tone shifts can be quite abrupt at times i.e. a scene of brutal violence can lead up to a comedic scene involving BDSM.

Also, it is quite leery and exploitative, although it is expected from the genre it inhabits. We see the women participating in mud wrestling, cosplay, shower sessions, lesbian sex scenes, training montages, BDSM sessions, sex dreams and of course the congratulatory moments that involve the use of the garden hose. If the film had a pillow fight, it wouldn’t be out of place at all, to be honest. But despite all of that, the film never goes into vulgar territory, despite a scene of sexual violence that fortunately the filmmakers convey as just that: a sickening display.

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Overall, Girl’s Blood is a bizarre mix of prurient pinku tropes and conventions told in an ultra-sincere manner that somehow makes it better than it should have been. With committed performances, brutal fight scenes, fun exploitation and outlandish characters, the film certainly earns its reputation as a guilty pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Committed performances from its female leads

Well-executed fight scenes

Ultra-sincere approach to its story is surprisingly cathartic

CONS

Quite exploitative

May engender unintentional laughs

Overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Rina Koike, Misaki Momose, Hideo Sasaki, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi
Director: Koichi Sakamoto
Screenwriters: Takehito Minato, based on the novel “Red x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba