Last Train Home 归途列车 [2009] • China, Canada

I recommend this "documentary" to everyone. There are glowing and heartfelt reviews of it aplenty, and I don't object to any of the ones I've read. The film made me cry and it stayed with me for a long time, but there is one thing that bothered me about it: its complete lack of any joy whatsoever. 

Last Train Home is nominally about the largest human migration on earth, that of 130,000,000 Chinese migrant workers who travel from the cities they work in back to the villages they came from for the Lunar New Year Holidays—a huge cultural event in China. One hundred and thirty million people, and no joy? I'm not suggesting the film makers had an obligation to assemble a tourist brochure and show shiny happy people everywhere. Many films use cultural events as backdrop to a story without commenting directly on the event itself, but I felt Last Train Home did comment by omission, and I was frustrated by it.

Documentary film makers always make choices about how best to tell a story, and they almost always hedge their bets a little on the fine line between creating and simply observing a story. Not to mention the Observer Effect. On the other hand, Last Train Home isn't about the New Year Celebration much at all. It's about generation gap and changing times in China exemplified by the enormity of hell people go through during the New Year, and it's frighteningly good at telling that story.

Speaking of frightening, there is a moment in the film where the whole thing breaks down, something which would ordinarily be left on the cutting room floor or assigned to the "Making of ..." section of a DVD, but the director left it in, and it will give you a jolt. I promise.

★★★★

Director: Lixin Fan
Starring: Suqin Chen, Changhua Zhan, Qin Zhang, Yang Zhang, Lixin Fan

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M/Other [1999] • Japan

Suwa Nobuhiro's follow up to the marvelous 2/Duo. This is another mostly improvised, watching-paint-dry indie flick—although it's more mature in content and character. Makiko Watanabe is superb as Aki, a young woman who's shacked up with an older guy, Tetsuro, who brings his eight year old son to live with them while his wife recuperates from a car accident. At first Aki resents the idea, mainly because she wasn't consulted. She knows she will be tasked with most of the chores related to caring for the child, but soon comes to like her new role and is conflicted when it's coming to an end.

M/Other is a subtle film. Competing, confused emotions and transformation of character are observed, and executed, at a very high level.


★★★★★

Director: Nobuhiro Suwa
Starring: Tomokazu Miura, Makiko Watanabe, Ryudai Takahashi, Hiroo Fuseya

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Buddha Mountain 观音山 (Guan Yin Shan) [2010] • China

By-the-numbers indie. I didn't believe any of the actors made contact with the feelings the characters were supposed to be feeling because everything comes off as an impression, rather than anything of substance. Li Yu, who directed 2007's wonderful Lost in Beijing, doesn't seem to have a story to tell here, as much as simply having a desire to make a film in this style, and feature disillusionment as a theme. The hand-held camera-work didn't bother me, but the framing and composition of shots did. They seemed forced and almost precious, and the actors merely vogued their way through scenes.

Fan Bingbing, who was so good in Lost in Beijing, her first film with director Li, seems to treat this one like it's automatic art-house street cred. The story is uninspired: Three young drifters meet a single mom who is still mourning the death of her only son, and they all have an angst competition. That should be indie grill; it's not in this case. It's just shots of people pensively staring off into space, and scenes of people pensively walking around aimlessly while the fog rolls by and the music meanders. Indie film school 101. It was very hard to finish this film because I didn't care about any of the characters. Caring about characters may not be necessary, although the director clearly hoped for it, so I'm going to make up a word to describe my experience, to differentiate it from not caring. I discared  the characters.

Director: Yu Li
Starring: Sylvia Chang, Bo-lin Chen, Bingbing Fan, Helong Wang

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Resurrection 黄泉がえり (Yomigaeri) [2002] • Japan

It's hard to believe this is a Shiota Akihiko film; it's so mainstream sentimental. Compared to the two very independent flavored films about lost teenagers he made just before and after this one—the brutal Harmful Insect and the ennui filled Canary, not to mention his twisted psycho-sexual drama debut Moonlight WhispersResurrection is mall fodder. It's not bad as far as these things go. It just surprised me. The film stars adults instead of teenagers, but in the end it is very much a teen film.

People start returning from the dead. Children to parents, husbands to wives, wives to husbands, and so on. Each of these resurrections gets its own postcard-style short story and they are all meant to pull the heartstrings, nothing more. They have almost nothing to do with one another and they don't build to any big party for the dead. The film is a loosely knit series of vignettes held together by a government bureaucrat who returns to the little town where the events are happening, which also happens to be the town where he was born, to investigate the occurrences. Of course there is a girl there whom he pined for but lost contact with when he moved away. She serves as a love interest and sceptic. There's a twist and then you're supposed to cry.

It's all good. The film is so harmless it's hard to object to anything about it, except maybe the government bureaucrat's haircut. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, as the bureaucrat, is an odd looking fellow. He'd been a member of the pop group SMAP, which lends more to the mall fodder aspect of the film, and he approaches the role with a sincere earnestness. He has a few well done moments of emotional outburst but is overall pretty flat, although not disagreeable, as an actor. Yuko Takeuchi is wonderful as the tomboyish love interest.

There is, actually, a big party for the dead at the end, but not really. It's a concert, which at first seems to serve only to highlight a couple songs, in their entirety, by pop singer Kou Shibasaki. Then you remember, "oh yeah, that's the girl from the beginning of the movie". It's not that this film is hard to follow, it's just structured in a way which favors feeling over narrative. The vignettes don't come together Altman style. They are all pretty much self-contained units.

This movie was a big hit in Japan when it came out, back when SMAP and Shibasaki were at the top of the charts, and was probably a lot more fun than it is now. What's interesting to me about it is seeing it in the context of Akihiko Shiota's other work. I haven't seen his two most recent films, Dororo and A Heartful of Love, but if this one is any indication, it suggests he is fully capable of making mainstream commercial films if he wants to. I don't know if that is good or bad.

★★★
Director: Akihiko Shiota
Starring: Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Yuko Takeuchi, Yuriko Ishida, Sho Aikawa, Keiichi Yamamoto

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Red Cliff 赤壁 (Chi bi) [2008+2009] • China

A five hour holiday marathon. Period pieces, costume dramas, and films about fighting (physically or with weapons other than the heart) are a few of my least favorite film genres so I don't know how it happened but I loved every minute of this monster. If I had watched the condensed version I wouldn't have liked it. There are two 30 minute fight scenes, and since the cut version is aimed at Western audiences I doubt they would have suffered any loss, which would have then made them be half the movie and I would have been bored silly.

I love the Art of War, men of honor, tea ceremony languid pace of it which allows for fleshing out the characters and slowly developing the gravity of the situation. Sure, it's a little over-the-top at times—it's John Woo—but it's really easy to get into the film's depiction of historically important events and forgive a few personal excesses. The film is remarkably understated for the most part. All the performances are good. All the actors bring you into their world and make you care for them and their concerns. I even rooted for these guys when they went ONE against ONE THOUSAND ... something so silly I've never understood the prevalence nor appeal of it in film.

This film ignited an interest in Chinese historical epics I never thought I would develop. It prompted me to watch The Emperor and the Assassin, and that one is awesome. I've got a couple more in my queue. I think the key is picking the ones that are made for a Chinese rather than a Western audience. The long version of Red Cliff seems to be one of those films. It's slower and more poetic, which is what I like. If it's what you like and you've been keeping this one at bay for fear it's just another big, dumb Chinese historical videogame, give it a shot—and be sure to give it the long shot.

★★★★★
Director: John Woo
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Fengyi Zhang, Shido Nakamura, Jun Hu, Yong You

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Moonlight Whispers 月光の囁き (Gekkô no sasayaki) [1999] • Japan

One of those "only from Japan" psycho-sexual dramas which explores adult themes of desire, domination, and twisted mind-fuck games and perversion ... acted out by teenagers. No comment on this peculiar film tradition.

Boy with fetishes meets girl with Dom proclivities. At first the girl, played exquisitely by Tsugumi, thinks the boy's over-zealous displays of desire are perverted, but then she realizes his fetishistic personality gives her great power over him so she makes him do pretty much anything degrading she can think of, from licking her feet, nay, her entire leg clean, to locking him in a closet while she has sex with another guy. He goes along with all of it because he is also madly, sadly, and pathetically in love with her. It's a little harder to tell what her motivation is because, well, she's a girl. Depending on the viewer's orientation to things, the film might seem erotic, but no matter which way the wind blows there's no escaping the film's ominous, eerie, and sad emptiness (in an indie good way). This film just broods along beautifully.

This is Akihiko Shiota's directorial debut and probably his strongest film. The focus is clear and concise. The powerful but flawed Harmful Insect would have benefited from such focus. It was the first one of his films I had seen and it pissed me off for days. Then I saw Canary and wasn't sure what to think. There wasn't much new to it and it seemed less well done. Now that I've seen Moonlight Whispers I have to go back and watch those two films again, and I will be seeking out all of his films. Funny how that works.

★★★★★
Director: Akihiko Shiota
Starring: Kenji Mizuhashi, Tsugumi

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Hot Summer Days 全城熱戀 (Chuen sing yit luen - yit lat lat) [2010] • Hong Kong, China

I laughed, I cried. This is a very fun, good looking, popcorn/date flick. Beneath its light-hearted surface there are some teary eyed love happenings. If you like star-studded Hong Kong romantic comedies and sugar-coated sentimentality, look no further.

Hot Summer Days tries to be cross-cultural by setting two of its four main story lines on the mainland but it's more in the tradition of Hong Kong rom-coms than mainland fare. Most of the actors are native Cantonese speakers. I watched this twice, once with the Mandarin audio and once with the Cantonese audio. There is some dubbing in both versions but the Cantonese version has less of it.

The eye candy comes in both flavors: boy and girl. They perspire a lot which leads to some clingy clothing, glistening skin, and probably the PG (or its Chinese equivalent) rating. Vivian Hsu has never been more freakishly cute and Barbie Hsu has never been more tattooed. The most heartwarming and intricate tale is that between Jacky Cheung, as an out of work truck driver cum ice cream salesman, and Rene Liu, as a concert pianist doing foot massage (because it's a job requiring skilled hands), which gets its start from a text message sent to the wrong number. The one that anchors the film and produces the most tears is the one, not given top billing on the poster, between newcomer Xinbo Fu, as an innocent country boy and Angela Baby (that's right, her name is Angela Baby), as a factory worker assembling teddy bears. Daniel Wu, as Master Soy Sauce, and Vivian Hsu, as Wasabi, have the cutest nicknames. Nicholas Tse and Barbie Hsu's story is the most hip and tragic.

There are cameos galore, the highlight being a weepy-eyed monologue from Maggie Cheung spilling her guts to Master Soy Sauce. Blah blah blah. If this is your cup of tea, drink it. It's good (except for some well intentioned CGI maybe). I hope I got all the links right.

★★★★
Director: Tony Chan, Wing Shya
Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jacky Cheung, Rene Liu, Vivian Hsu, Barbie Hsu, Angela Baby, Daniel Wu

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A Blue Automobile (Aoi kuruma) [2004] • Japan

This film has three things going for it: Aoi Miyazaki, Kumiko Aso, and a great soundtrack. Miyazaki and Aso are two of Japan's most talented and popular young actresses, and I'm always happy when a director shows good taste in music and uses it well—although the hip and evocative soundtrack used here sometimes seems a bit at odds with the slow paced art-house stylings of the film.

A Blue Automobile is a good looking film, very bleak, all stark and concrete, and there are a number of creative and interesting directorial choices made by Okuhara but the overall vision of the film left me wanting. That isn't always a problem but this film plays like it wants to be a film with a vision to talk about, an exploration of a heavy theme: pain, as a game changer. Indie actor cool dude Arata does a fine job as a young man who doesn't think much of living because of an accident as a child that has left him scarred around the eyes. He plays an introverted danger-punk guy, and we all know that fetching, young, good-hearted women are attracted to the type, so that's what plays out.

I was intrigued, fascinated even, by the characters as discreet units but wasn't able to engage or be moved by the exposition of the characters' motivations toward one another. It's basically another story about a guy who gets two women. And this time they are sisters, which adds to the oh-so-intense nature of the angst. That there's a big theme of immense suffering lurking in the background all the time doesn't make it much more than that, except it does make it "alternative".

The film has many bright moments and solid acting. It's not mainstream fare by a long shot, but fans of any of the three leads should enjoy watching them do their stuff. The film wants to be more than it is but it really doesn't matter. I enjoyed the experience of the film. It's one of those where you give more points to journey than goal.

★★★
Director: Hiroshi Okuhara
Starring: Arata, Aoi Miyazaki, Kumiko Aso, Tomorowo Taguchi, Kenji Mizuhashi

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Norwegian Wood ノルウェイの森 (Noruwei no mori) [2010] • Japan

I let myself get over-hyped about this one: Director Anh Hung Tran's The Vertical Ray of the Sun is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen; Cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, one of my favorites; Jonny Greenwood doing the soundtrack. Almost every publicity blurb about this movie starts off with "Upon hearing the song "Norwegian Wood," Toru remembers back to his life in the 1960s ..."

Well ... that blurb may describe the book but it has nothing to do with this film. I'm not a Beatles fan but I do carry a bunch of love for that song and it does bring with it a great sense of nostalgia. Somebody paid somebody a bunch of money to play that song over the end credits, all for naught. There isn't any real sense of nostalgia in the film except for some of the fashion and the big telephones. I let myself be mislead.

Greenwood's soundtrack might be interesting to listen to by itself but in the film all the lilting strings manage to seem bombastic. I literally muted the film several times it annoyed me so much. I don't think this is Greenwood's issue, though. Tran has been known to over-saturate a film or two with torturing soundtracks (The Scent of Green Papaya). Ping Bin Lee did come through. There are many breathtakingly beautiful scenes in the film, a few of which played silently for me because of the aforementioned soundtrack's habit of shitting all over the film.

I do not like Rinko Kikuchi's acting. I've seen her in a handful of films and while she gets some moments right, she often brings too much of her blonding international star self to roles (even before she had it) and I struggle to see a character beyond her personality. She whispers a lot which is a phony way to be dramatic done by people, strangely, desirous of attention. If they have your attention a little bit they can force you to double it by whispering. Fortunately she is only half the focus of the film. Texas born Kiko Mizuhara is awesome as the main "other" girl, Midori, in Toru's life. She's cute, spunky, forward, sexually confident, and blunt, but comes off as merely an outline of a character. I wish the whole film were about her. Ken'ichi Matsuyama, as Toru, is serviceable as the supposedly nostalgic one but hardly awesome enough to be a guy that three different girls just have to fuck. Gorgeous Eriko Hatsune has a nearly film-stealing scene but that's about all we see of her.

The film contains some rather bold, and funny at the same time, sexual dialog, although it's a little sore-thumbish because the film is only punctuated with it. I loved it, and laughed, when Midori calls up Toru and says "My dad died. Will you take me to a porno film? The most perverse one." She also has a few moments describing to Toru how she'd like to be bedded by him which are entertaining. Kikuchi's Naoko, after letting Toru know that she's too crazy with despair to sleep with him asks him if it's torture to have an unserviced erection: "I can help with that", she then offers. There is a good bit of sadness and mixed up desire in the film but the characters and the story aren't developed enough to see it as more than immature angst.

I think this film will appeal to teenagers and twenty-somethings who've read the Haruki Murakami novel it's based upon because most of the holes in the film will be filled in and the sense of nostalgia might be there. Not that teenagers have a lot of nostalgia for the sixties but the film is about loss, and it is fairly good at presenting that—except the adolescent level of it is pretty thin. The film is NOT about the way things were—the last few wonderful lines of the film and a Beatles tune can't save it. It's just a young-love story which lacks the depth to appeal to those not feeling the same way, i.e., older folks. Young people experiencing the whirlwind of sexual awakening, and or those who've had a friend commit suicide, might love it.

Norwegian Wood is a great looking film but not well written or acted, and since it is also quite slow moving I don't think it will engage general audiences who haven't read the book. It's not sexy enough nor smart enough.

★★★
Director: Anh Hung Tran
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Tetsuji Tamayama, Kiko Mizuhara, Reika Kirishima, Eriko Hatsune

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