Island of Light ゴーヤーちゃんぷるー (Goya-champuru) [2006] • Japan

The least one can say about this film is that it won't hurt you. It's a bit thin, borderline trite, in it's I love the magic that is Okinawa message, but it's not offensive. There's this sixteen year old Tokyo girl whose mother abandoned her when she was two; her photographer father died mysteriously a month ago ("No body, so we prayed to his camera instead. That was quite weird to see"); she's bullied at school but jumps at the first chance to join the gang by targeting her best friend as the new scapegoat (she slaps her for no reason as an initiation rite); she quits school and secludes herself in her room because she can't relate to her guardian grandparents; she joins an online sort of hikikomori group, starts texting some guy (who befriends kids in the group because he feels superior to them) and tells him she wants to die. He says "might as well, it beats living ... but why don't you come visit me in Okinawa instead". All that's in the first ten minutes or so.

The girl isn't even off the ferry to the Island of Light before she is taken under the wing of a sweet old lady, the first of the fabulous Okinawans we'll meet as the film progresses. The old lady is a delivery driver which makes it convenient for quickly introducing the young girl to the community of wonderful people who will change her life. On one of their stops a man with terminal cancer has collapsed on his front porch so the girl gets a chance to be a hero by running to the clinic to fetch a doctor (on the way there she stops to ask directions of someone who is gardening and just happens to be the collapsed man's wife). She makes it to the clinic and delivers the message but collapses herself from all the running, and it just so happens that she collapses into the arms of a woman who, well ... if you haven't figured it out by now I won't spoil it.

Ordinarily a film like this would gross me out but this one gets a pass because it never gets melodramatic or histrionic. Most of the performers come off as non-actors (but most aren't) so maybe they lacked the chops to take it to that level. Even the coincidence heavy plot didn't roll my eyes too much because it unfolds in a "country" way, just like you'd expect on the Island of Light, not by building each scene to a crescendo, which is the "city" way. The scenery of Okinawa is soothing, too. In the end just remember: the film won't hurt you.

Director: Tetsuya Matsushima
Starring: Mikako Tabe, Jun Fubuki, Kôhei Takeda, Misako Ôshiro


Story of Qiu Ju 秋菊打官司 (Qiu Ju da guan si) Qiu Ju Goes to Court [1992] • China, Hong Kong

If you have any interest in learning about or experiencing a foreign country (assuming China is a foreign country to you), you'll get a lot from this film. Roger Ebert, although not a great resource when it comes to East Asian cinema, wrote "we absorb more information about the lives of ordinary people in everyday China than in any other film I've seen". Ebert hasn't seen a lot of Chinese films but his observation is still to the point. The Story of Qiu Ju seems like it is utterly realistic and revealing and that's what is magical about it. Much of the film, most of it in fact, that involves people surrounding the main characters is captured with a hidden camera and is quite candid and authentic. The scenes focused on the main characters are also shot (and performed) in such a way as to suggest they aren't staged in any way. But don't be fooled. This is the genius trickery of director Zhang Yimou's sweet homage to the days of yore.

A very pregnant Qiu Ju and her young husband are chili farmers and want to build a storage shed for their over-productive crop. They go to the village chief to ask permission and are denied on the grounds that the land is for farming, and that if everyone built a building there would be nothing to eat. Qiu Ju's husband points out that the chief isn't a farmer, doesn't understand farming, and is only raising hens. The chief hears the final remark as a humiliating insult about the fact he has only four daughters—and no sons to carry on his family name—so he kicks Qiu Ju's husband in the balls.

Qiu Ju's story is a journey for justice as she perceives it. She is worried at first that her husband's injury may leave them condemned to the one child policy for good, but her husband soon recovers and the film then chronicles her efforts to get the village chief to apologise. That is the only justice she wants. The chief offers to let Qiu Ju's husband kick him in the balls but he won't apologise. Qiu Ju takes her case up the hierarchy to the district administrators, the county, the city, and the party, with the result always being the same: The village chief will pay for medical bills and loss of work and Qiu Ju and the chief are instructed to engage in some self-criticism in order to regain harmony. And by harmony they mean Qiu Ju should drop the case. Everyone, all the way to the top, is sympathetic to her but they won't ask the chief to apologise because he is the chief and he would lose face and his ability to keep chiefing would be compromised. It's a subtle but huge point in Chinese culture.

This film is so good on so many levels it's crazy. One of the head-scratching wonders of the film is it's portrait of harmonious village life while this minor conflict is going on. The first reaction most people will have to this film is "Are people really that nice and polite to one another"? It's almost a documentary capturing rural Chinese life in the 1990's in all its humble and honest simplicity. It's also an insightful observation on the changing bureaucracy in China, both vertically and horizontally over time. It's a parable which ponders whether the law, the wisdom of elders, or common courtesy offers the best solution to disputes. Zhang Yimou is fascinated, and maybe discouraged (maybe not), by the changing Chinese culture and weaves a grand metaphorical tale for viewers to consider from many angles.

Gong Li's performance is amazing. One of the most beautiful women in the world, she plays this role very down to earth and understated, not to mention pregnant, dressed in peasant clothing, and with a scarf wrapped around her neck and much of her face most of the time. It's not a glamorous role. She is one of only a few professional actors in the film and does a remarkable job melting in among all the real people.

The Story of Qiu Ju is a slow paced, somewhat repetitive film but it's all the better for it. Viewers are treated to a heart-warmimg world of relationships which are themselves slow-paced and repetitive. It would be a shame to rush through it.

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Li Gong, Peiqi Liu, Liuchun Yang, Kesheng Lei, Zhijun Ge


Viewfinder 경 (Kyung) [2010] • South Korea

Hooray for the new wave of women directors coming up in South Korea. This film, the feature film debut of director Kim Jeong isn't quite the caliber of last year's A Blind River, directed by newcomer Ahn Seon-kyeon, but it's got some fine moments and the overall vision is pretty solid. It shares the same general theme of searching, of someone searching for a lost family member, and also shares the notion that the search is really for the self and that the person searched for isn't really lost as much as not being seen.

I watched both films not knowing anything about them, nor anything about who directed them, and felt pretty strongly that both of them were directed by a woman. These are not chick-flicks, though. Both films are propelled by an almost surreal emotional logic which makes them seem a little difficult at first. Not that men don't make films like this and not that all women do. There's just something peculiarly right-brained and double x-chromosoned at work. This kind of approach doesn't replace traditional linear narrative technique. It accompanies it, fuels it, and might require the viewer to relax their expectations and look at the film from a different perspective.

The two films are also quite different. Ahn Seon-kyeon is a musician and scriptwriter and A Blind River is a more artful film. Kim Jeong teaches at a University and Viewfinder is a bit academic. She has also directed several short films and a documentary trilogy on women's history. Not to slight Kim's artistic credentials, though. Viewfinder is a low budget film but it looks very good and is full of creative photography, capturing both the heavily industrialised and the naturally scenic character of South Korea. And it's got a fantastic soundtrack. I wish I could read Korean so I'd know who performs the songs that sound like Chet Baker meets Lhasa de Sela.

I'm going to cheat here and quote the synopsis from the web site for the International Women's Film Festival in Seoul where Viewfinder premiered:
Viewfinder showcases moments in the lives of several people who meet by accident at the Namgang Rest Stop off a highway in southern South Korea. Kyung is in search of her younger runaway sister. Chang is a computer whiz who had recently lost his job, Kim Vac is a reporter-photographer who frequents the place, and Ona is an orphan media artist who works there, dreaming of New Asia Highway. These four form a loose network of loss and negotiate that loss in the digital age.
That's all fine and good. The film does spend a good amount of time observing people using computers. What's remarkable about it, besides the quantity, or rather, what's remarkable about it in spite of the quantity, is that it all seems very natural. Yes, we live in a digital age but this film isn't about negotiating anything that's peculiar to it. The tools are different than they were a decade or two ago but I think it's a disservice to the film to make it sound like it might be nerdy, or SMS messaging trendy. It's more weird and poetic and the focus is on people and their emotions.

If only it weren't for this program note which follows the synopsis, I wouldn't be concerned:
[...] Following her previous documentary "Koryu", director Kim Jeong tries to catch the motions of people staying and leaving, or the space of constant motion. The camera often follows the people from behind rather than watching them from the front and looks around the scenes, passing outside from the driver’s seat, which gives the audience the feeling of being inside the film. Viewfinder is an independent film with a low production budget. It tells about the communication, loneliness, and the emptiness of people living in the digital environment. The traces of people’s views and the results of their motions are delivered through digital texts. The internal emotions are expressed not on the human faces but on the virtual space generated by a computer window. The camera seems to be attracted to the new scenes created by digital technology and concurrently dreams of the space it cannot reach. Viewfinder is a cinematic exploration about the primal scene in the digital age considerately brought by director Kim Jeong.

I like the bit about catching people in the space of constant motion but the rest of it sends my bullshit detector through the roof. I don't care if its a direct quote from the director's commentary track. "The camera ... dreams of the space it cannot reach". Help! I need a class in contemporary film deconstruction.

Viewfinder is a film about people, not the plague of the digital age. It's about people living their lives, dreaming their dreams, and doing their jobs ... and one of the characters is trying to figure out why everything got a little fucked-up. She gives the film its emotional center. Films have been doing this for a long time. All four characters are portrayed well and are engaging. Choi Hee-Jin, as the photographer is a blast. She's sweet and kind and thoughtful but often makes you wonder if she understands other people's personal space. Photographers are like that. Lee Ho-Young is also good as the guy who finds people without ever leaving his computer and he kind of explains the movie through his philosophical poetry. Newcomer and unknown Moon Ha-in, as the popular Internet blogger who works the night shift at the rest stop where most of the action takes place, is the most intriguing, and probably the most together. She also looks a lot like Lee Yeon-Hee. At first I felt like Yang Eun-Yong, who plays Kyung and is more or less the lead, gave a rather flat performance but her character is supposed to be a little flat. There is a moment near the end which fleshes things out.

This is a film about characters, not tools. It's slow-paced and low-key with a few quirky bits thrown in for spice. There's some surreal dialog, some animation, a breaking of the fourth wall, and a supernatural scene where the subject of a photograph doesn't appear in the picture. It's slightly bizarre but also very down home and it's got a great soundtrack. It's not going to play well at the mall but if you like art films with real emotion it's worth seeking out. 

Director: Jeong Kim
Starring: Eun-yong Yang, Hui-jin Choe, Ho-young Lee, Moon Ha-in

12 International Film Festival in Seoul  

The Most Distant Course 最遥远的距离 (Zui yao yuan de ju li) (2007) • Taiwan

This is one of those slow and dreamy ones. The story of three different people, each on their own journey, whose lives overlap may be a familiar one but this version has its own unique angles  and just enough depth of character to keep the viewer engaged. All three characters are wonderfully portrayed.

Tang (Tz-yi Mo) is on a road trip capturing sounds and recording them onto cassette tapes from all the places he had hoped to visit with his girlfriend before she broke up with him. He sends the tapes to the last known address he has for her but she has already moved on. Xiaoyun (Lunmei Kwai) now lives at the address and receives the mysterious and unidentified tapes. Unhappy with her present conditions in life, Xiaoyun sets out to find and visit all the places the sounds are coming from with the outside hope of maybe meeting the guy who is sending them.

Tang meets up on his travels with a psychiatrist, played charismatically, if a bit larger than the rest of the film's characters, by Siao-guo Jia, who is also suffering a broken heart and doing some soul searching of his own. The two of them share some odd experiences and some moments of sad humor while Xiaoyun's parallel journey is filled with many beautiful sights along the Taiwan countryside. Everything comes together in a very bittersweet ending that's neither happy nor sad but wide open to possibility.

Director: Jing-Jie Lin
Starring: Tz-yi Mo, Siao-guo Jia, Lunmei Kwai

Love HK Film
Taipei Times

A Good Rain Knows 호우시절 (Ho woo shi jul) aka Season of Good Rain [2009] • South Korea, China

It would be a spoiler if I were to state one of the main reasons I love this movie. I can say, however, that the film is very much about a Chinese experience, and the fact that it is directed by a Korean is what makes it interesting. There are other good things about the movie so I'll work with them and save the spoiler.

A Good Rain Knows is nice to look at. It's photographed in crisp and bright colors and makes great use of it's locale, Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. It's got dancing in a downtown square, bamboo groves, even a scene with a panda bear. Gao Yuanyuan as Mei, a tourist guide in a Chengdu park, has never looked more radiant. Jung Woo-sung is a South Korean heartthrob but his acting ability is curious. He always seems nervous. He plays an architect, Dongha, who travels to Chengdu on assignment and runs into Mei, an old and dear friend. There is no plot to speak of, just the unfolding of their past and present relationship that gives the film its purpose.

Dongha, a Korean, and Mei, a Chinese, communicate almost exclusively in English. Since their relationship is presented as fragile and tentative, and since Jung is a nervous actor anyway, having them communicate in broken but understandable English is a stroke of genius from director Hur. If you're bothered or unmoved by the stilted verbiage the film won't work.

In typical Hur fashion, and this film sees him in perfect stride, not much happens. We're presented with a couple characters testing the water to see if, when, and how love will factor into their relationship. The lens slowly gets closer, revealing inner layers, until a small explosion occurs. And in typical Hur fashion this explosion takes place far beneath the surface. We know it's a big one but all we see are the rippling aftershocks (hint) on the surface.

Hur is a fascinating director. In some ways his films are just cheesy romances with questionable soundtracks, but he possesses an emotional intelligence and an eye for subtle soul-searching details that make his films powerful when he gets it right. He gets it right this time. A good rain knows when to fall.

Director: Jin-ho Hur
Starring: Woo-sung Jung, Yuanyuan Gao, Byung-seo Kim

Beyond Hollywood

Wanee and Junah 와니와 준하 (Wanee wa Junah) [2001] • Korea

In an angsty romance there's got to be something in the way. Koreans usually toss in a terminal disease as roadblock. Wanee and Junah employs something different. Let me get the accolades out of the way before I spoil the hell out of the movie so you can stop reading when it's appropriate for your needs.

Hee-seon Kim, as Wanee, is fabulous. I'm not familiar with her work outside Wanee and Junah but apparently this "first beauty of South Korea" hadn't received many high marks in the thespian department before this. She is a natural and simple beauty but that's not important. She brings an incredible amount of restraint and depth to the role here, and when it comes time to cry she does it just right. Jin-mo Ju, also a looker, as Junah, is very sympathetic and brings more to his role than just being a kind and supportive puppy dog.

These two very genuine performances allow for Wanee and Junah to reach some peaks of emotional sadness on the level of One Fine Spring Day—one of the best films ever made about love evaporating for no reason (or for so many reasons it's too complicated to parse), just like it does in real life. This is the kind of sadness that doesn't make you cry, it makes you mad. It makes you want to rebel against it because it seems so unfair, so not right. So with all this goodness going for it why don't I love this film? Maybe I do. Maybe I'll come around to accepting it, warts and all. One thing I love about it is that it has stayed with me and scrambled my brain for days after watching it.

The director uses a handful of jump edits in the first act of the film. This technique is often utilized to let ten seconds of screen time signify a much greater span of real time. I thought they were unnecessary and gave it an amateurish feel. The film jumps back and forth in time, from the present day to Wanee's high school days, so there is an inherent non-linearity to it. Since the film is about Wanee coming to terms with her past, and Junah discovering it, this is necessary. All of the transitions between time zones are expertly and creatively done but the substance of them often feels oblique, like the director is toying with the viewer's ability to file each of them away for later explanation. This is the kind of thing film snobs champion, saying "The film makes you think!". But good films should make you think about their content not their structural deployment.

Here come the ***SPOILERS***

It ends happily. In a way it comes as relief because ten minutes before it ends you're likely to be coiled up in disbelief at the level of sadness. But something about a happy ending makes for a less powerful film. It becomes just a movie at that point. Wanee and Junah is not just another movie, though. The roadblock to romance is Wanee's first love. A love left unconsummated and full of prickly details, one of which is that it kills her mother's husband, who is the father of said first love, which makes the guy her half-brother, not to mention also her best friend's first true love. At first, all of this thorniness seemed cheap to me, especially the way it is not made clear from the beginning. I felt deliberately mislead even though I knew from the overall wholesome tone of the film it wasn't going to go very far into dark places. It could have. And it could have chopped off the happy ending and it would have been killer. And I would have criticized the film for being unrealistic and exploiting taboos for the sake of making me unnecessarily unhappy. End ***SPOILERS***

Wanee and Junah is a pretty remarkable film. Good performances, good cinematography and score compliment the ambitious, if not always successful, directorial choices in both structure and content. I was frustrated many times along the way but not too many films can tie your guts up into a knot the way this one does. Color me impressed with that.

I'm posting this one with four stars, which is a compromise between Your Mileage May Vary and A Great Success. I've given it three, four, and five stars in the tags because I really can't decide. Wanee and Junah, like the aforementioned One Fine Spring Day, is a film that depends a lot on what you bring to it, what your own experiences are, and where you sit with regards to some of the delicate circumstances it operates in.
Director: Yong-gyun Kim
Starring: Hee-seon Kim, Jin-mo Ju, Seung-woo Cho, Kang-hee Choi

Love HK Film

One Day (You yi tian) [2010] aka As I Walked Out One Evening • Taiwan

This is a strange one, in a good way, for the most part. It's a lovely and meditative story of blossoming and innocent young love that jumps back and forth in time and in and out of dreams. It gets a little weird, then a little confusing, and then almost shoots itself in the foot by hinting at some plot to get in the way of the story. I'm not sure that it happened but it seems to have, and it appears to relate to the melodramatic question a young woman asks her mother: "If you could go back to the past and meet dad again, would you still marry him ... but you know that he would have an accident later?"

Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh, looking a lot like Zhou Xun from certain angles, plays the young woman with the beautiful name, Singing. She works on a ferry that shuttles recruits between the port of Kaohsiung and the military base of Kinmen Island. One night during the trip all the lights go out on the ferry and Singing appears to be alone. Then an Indian man with an axe, screaming without subtitles, chases her. She's rescued by a young soldier and the loopy dream logic begins. The soldier tells her that they are not in the real world. A horse walks by. Singing's hair is shorter and she's in a study hall in Taipei sitting next to the soldier only now he's a student. They fall in love but keep waking up together, or falling asleep and dreaming together, on the ferry. The future, the past, what's a dream and what's reality blur to the point that it doesn't matter. Until that little plot point rears it's head. There's a little crying and some running, two things that suggest melodrama, but this is a mood piece much more than a drama. The dreamlike quality is emphasized by the fact that almost all the scenes take place on or near the water. The cinematography is often muted and the soundtrack mostly noodling piano.

I think it's a mistake to try and discover meaning in a film like this, as the director or as a viewer, even though it's filled with innumerable possible symbolisms. This is not a commercial love story. It's far too down tempo and poetic. But it is a love story and these kinds of films require a nice couple for us to love, and the two leads provide that here, with extra credit given to the ever watchable Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh in her film debut.

The beautiful theme song that plays as the end credits roll is sung by Tarcy Su, a singer and actress I just discovered in the remarkable film Blue Cha Cha.

Director: Chi-Jan Hou
Starring: Bryan Shu-Hao Chang, Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh, Gwen Yao


The Last Lioness [2009] • National Geographic

I'm always suspicious about how much of the "story" is manufactured in some of these animal documentaries. This one focuses on a single lioness, Lady Liuwa, who is the sole survivor after massive poaching wiped out most of the wildlife in Zambia's Liuwa Plain, a 3,000 square mile reserve. Cameraman Herbert Brauer goes there to photograph hyenas and becomes the object of Lady Liuwa's affection. The lioness hangs out by his jeep and does playful ktty-rolls, sleeps close to his tent at night, follows him around like a well trained dog and rips the seat of his jeep to shreds trying to get at a little of his man smell (I guess).

Lady Liuwa has been alone for five years. The African Parks Conservation team hatches a plan to bring in a male lion to give Lady Liuwa some companionship and the possibility of mating and creating a new pride of lions in the park. The first male they bring in chokes to death on his own vomit after waking up from the ten hour sedation needed to transport him to Liuwa from wherever he used to live. They don't show that part, though, and don't really explain why it's so difficult to find and translocate some stud, or even some other girl lions, for Lady Liuwa to play with.

Eight months later the African Parks Conservation team finds a couple lion brothers and translocates them to Liuwa. Five days later they are hanging out with Lady Liuwa and she's doing kitty-rolls for them.

There better be a sequel.


Starring: Lady Liuwa the Lioness

NatGeoTV site

Fine, Totally Fine 全然大丈夫 (完全没问题) (Zenzen daijobu) [2008] • Japan

This is a subtle, almost surreal comedy that wanders along at a slow pace, punctuated with bits of low-brow humor to keep it alive. It's also an odd little romance and a root-for-the-losers character drama, but there's never any high drama, as the film never gets out of lazy Sunday afternoon mode. The comedy and romance are spices in the mix of everyday people turning thirty, going nowhere fast, who end up going from not so good to not so bad after all. When the humor is subtle or sad it's great, but not so good when it resorts to the juvenile, like when a booger flies across the room and lands in someone's eye. Comedy is tough and everyone has a style that suits them. I could have done without the more broad-based physical bits but they do serve a purpose as little alarms for those who don't appreciate two hours of deadpan, no matter how funny it is. The director demonstrates a good amount of skill in using editing for comic timing, and he was wise to cast YosiYosi Arakawa as the guy to do the heavy lifting when it comes to the “Life’s more fun when you’re an idiot” bits.

I recommend this film to those who like slow comedies, but also to those who like whatever you call these uplifting films about everyday people who don't become rock stars or win the Olympics but just get along and find happiness in everyday life. I love the way the film ends and anti-resolves a love triangle we weren't sure was going to turn out to be much of a plot point. I wanted to reach through my screen and hug the crap out of Yoshino Kimura. Her performance really surprised me. What a pleasure to see her do comedy, albeit of the low-key and clumsy kind.

And even though her part is very small, any film with Noriko Eguchi gets points just for having her.

Director: Yosuke Fujita
Starring: YosiYosi Arakawa, Yoshino Kimura, Yoshinori Okada, Noriko Eguchi, Shima Ise


Be Sure to Share ちゃんと伝え (Chanto tsutaeru) [2009] • Japan

"I love you, man".

Sion Sono has made some strange films. This is not one of them unless you consider it strange for him to make such a normal film. Be Sure to Share is a small, simple, and sentimental film, not typically Sono-esque. There's no blood and there's no running around with a handheld camera. There's plenty of emotional desperation but it's of the uplifting kind. The film is about a twenty-seven year old young man who wants to find a moment of bonding, a way of saying thank you, "I love you, man" to his dying father. The title says it all. It's not too mushy, though. The film works because of it's simplicity. There is the big scene that sort of stretches credulity but we could see it coming and Sono follows it up with one of the more hilarious uses of the line "didn't see that one coming" I've ever heard. It's off-camera and sort of eavesdropped upon and it made me laugh out loud.

The film is beautifully cast. Everyone is lovable. Idol-boy Akira does a very credible job playing a normal guy who all of a sudden must deal with mortality, in more ways than one. Ayumi Ito is adorable as his girlfriend and has one of the best crying scenes I've seen in a film. Keiko Takahash is pure mom incarnate, an immaculate performance. Eiji Okuda is good as the father when he's lovable and nice but he also has to play the predictably strict father who's tough to love, in flashbacks, so we get a sense of whatever it is that that film cliché gives us. That's the only weak part of the film but it's not enough to spoil it.

Director: Sion Sono
Starring: Akira, Eiji Okuda, Shogo Ueno, Ayumi Ito, Keiko Takahash


Secret Reunion (Ui-hyeong-je) [2010] • South Korea

This is a Hollywood style cat and mouse buddy flick with good action sequences, good acting, and a thick plot with international intrigue which ends happily ever after. It stars a couple of South Korea's top box office attractions in Kang-ho Song and Dong-won Kang. Song plays his usual bumbling yet lovable and competent self, and Kang ups his acting ante from stud muffin to scary good hit-man. They have great chemistry together. It's gritty and bloody and, because it seems to follow Song wherever he goes, it's sprinkled with bits of humor throughout.

So what went wrong? Nothing, really, until the deus ex machina at the end. It's probably never been more true than it is with Secret Reunion that a bad ending can ruin a film (for some people). It seems to have bothered critics more than audiences, as Secret Reunion is South Korea's highest grossing film of the year so far. But it also seems to have disappointed one of its actors. As Song put it in an interview "If I were the director, I would have chosen an ending for "Secret Reunion" in which the pain lasts longer". In other words, no living happily ever after. South Korea has a tradition of ending films a little differently than most Hollywood films. People usually die instead of flying off into the sunset. I say it's no big deal and there is a lot f fun to be had with Secret Reunion. Just close your eyes, stop the DVD Player, or walk out a few minutes early f you don't want any cheese in your omelet.

Director: Hun Jang
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Dong-won Kang, Kyeong-min Go, Seung-do Han, Su-ho Ha


Yuriko's Aroma ユリ子のアロマ (Yuriko no aroma) [2010] • Japan

Oh, the expectations. Noriko Eguchi stars as aromatherapist Yuriko, who finds herself uncontrollably aroused by the sweaty scent of a seventeen year old boy. Oh, the possibilities. The boy happens to be the niece of the woman who owns the salon where Yuriko works. That's the story and pretty much the whole plot.

The film gives itself away early, letting on that it's going to be safe and good-humored. Oh, the let down. The moment things hint towards any tension, or that things might get sexy or erotic, the soundtrack rears its ugly head and plays goofy and light-hearted. And then the scene cuts away. The technique of cutting a scene before it finishes can be effective in moderation but here it's so overused it seems to reinforce a suspicion that the director doesn't know how to let a scene form its own conclusion. The film is sprinkled with innumerable scenes that have no beginning nor end, just a shallow, usually brief, middle period. Most of them add nothing and could have just been eliminated.

The film's runtime is only 79 minutes and it could have easily been shorter. It doesn't explore anything in any depth and there are a whole lot of scenes of "opening the door slowly, inch by inch" that could have been tightened up to make room for something else except there's nothing here. A couple off camera handjobs and an embarrassingly out of place scene with a topless air-head girl giving Yuriko a massage don't add any adult or erotic content.

I love Noriko Eguchi so I'm going to write off her Quaalude inspired performance as the result of bad direction. It's a gutsy role, in theory anyway, which calls for her to do a lot of aroused sniffing of a young boy's body and licking of his head. She does those parts very well. Few people could. Too bad they are the only interesting moments in the film.

Director: Kôta Yoshida
Starring: Noriko Eguchi, Shota Sometani, Noriko Kijima, Jun Miho, Saori Hara

Midnight Eye
Official Site

There are snippets in this official trailer (which probably won't last long on YouTube because of the boobage) that aren't in the movie and the dialog is cut up and mismatched to create something that doesn't exist in the final product.

Maborosi 幻の光 (Maboroshi no hikari) Illusion [1995] • Japan

Continuing my exploration of Hirokazu Koreeda. This is another sad and gentle, lyrical film dealing with the themes of loss, death, and the soul. You have to be in the mood to let a film just float by, or wash over you in lilting waves to appreciate Maborosi. A couple of art house film techniques Koreeda employs might frustrate some viewers. One is the use of extremely long shots, in terms of time to a degree but mostly in terms of distance. His camera doesn't always foreground the focus of a scene but instead pulls back and observes it from afar. Sometimes very far. The second thing is that, with only a few exceptions, you never get a really good look at the faces of the actors, an aspect all the more remarkable given Koreeda's casting a fashion model in her film debut as the main protagonist. There is no vanity in this film. It's all bare naked emotion and gorgeous photography.

The film centers on Yumiko, played by Makiko Esumi the fashion model, whose husband apparently commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train three months after their first child is born. Koreeda establishes quickly, and beautifully, at the beginning of the film a very genuine and loving relationship between the couple so the viewer shares in Yumiko's confusion and pain in not knowing why he would kill himself. After a period of mourning Yumiko agrees to an arranged marriage and moves from Osaka with her son to a small fishing village where her new husband, a widower with a young daughter, has lived all his life. There are a few scenes which suggest Yumiko might have found happiness again but it doesn't last. The haunting inexplicability of her first husband's death is too strong for her to escape. The scene where Yumiko finally and completely breaks downs is framed and captured perfectly, but it's shot from about three hundred yards away.

The whole thing is more like a painting than a narrative film. The camera hardly ever moves. People don't say much and plot isn't really part of the equation. One thing I usually insist on when watching these slow-burn character studies with minimal dialog is access to the character's interior. What are they thinking and feeling? The most expressive entrance to someone's interior is their eyes, but as I've mentioned Koreeda shoots the film in such away we hardly know what the characters look like, let alone are we able to look into their eyes. Something else happens. We may not get a sense of what Yumiko is thinking or feeling but we have great sympathy for her. Her despair and inconsolable suffering are clearly shown.

Maborosi is the work of an artist, not someone with an interest in selling theater tickets. Koreeda's passion is exploring light and color and composition, and in exploring the themes of loss, death, and the nature of the soul. Yes, that's a polite way of saying a lot of people will find the film boring. So be warned. For those who like this kind of thing, and you know who you are, this is one of the good ones. It is so full of magnificently composed photography it will take your breath away.

Maboroshi is a Japanese term for illusion or mirage, and is often used in the tales of fishermen to describe a light that tempts them, without explanation, further out to sea. Maboroshi is the explanation given to Yumiko as to why her husband may have walked into the path of an oncoming train.

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Makiko Esumi, Takashi Naitô, Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe

Roger Ebert

Nowhere to Turn 여기보다 어딘가에 (Yeogiboda Eodingae) Somewhere Over Here [2007] • South Korea

This is a film that went nowhere beyond a couple festival screenings. There's nothing earth shattering about it but it's not bad. Typical slacker-with-dream storyline about a girl who wants to go abroad and study music. What drew my attention to it was the lead actress Su-yeon Cha.

Cha made three films in 2007: Beautiful, For Eternal Hearts, and Nowhere to Turn. I had seen Beautiful, a film about a woman whose life is hell because of her incredible beauty. That's quite a role to fill. Cha is attractive in a sleepy, natural sort of way, but not typical of today's Korean starlets. Her performance in Beautiful showed promise, exuding poise and confidence, but the film was so scrambled script-wise it was hard to make much of her acting ability. Then I saw For Eternal Hearts, a supernatural thriller, and Cha performed reasonably well in a supporting role, so I took a chance on this one.

Nowhere to Turn follows Su-yeon (that's also her character's name) as she tries to earn enough money to go to England and study music. She has no support from her parents so she runs away from home in protest. She ends up at the flat of a male friend who has a big crush on her but she keeps the relationship platonic. She tries giving piano lessons to earn money but doesn't have the patience. She meets a successful musician and thinks he might be able to help her but all he wants to do is sleep with her. She returns to the puppy dog boyfriend and does something creepy. She discovers another woman is interested in her friend so she tells the woman that he has AIDS. One thing leads to another and she and her boy friend form a musical duo to perform in a contest that offers a cash prize big enough to send her to England. Bummer she didn't sleep with that other musician guy, as he turns up as one of the judges for the contest.

Cha's performance in the film is OK but, as mentioned she has a sleepy sort of beauty, and judging from this film she appears to also have a sleepy sort of acting style. Her role as a drifter we are supposed to root for requires a little more spunk than she brings to it. She does do a very good job of fitting in as a member of the local indie music scene, so there's that going for her. She seems quirky hip, if a little low-key.

All in all there's not a lot to recommend about Nowhere to Turn. It's not a bad film but it doesn't offer much that's new and the performances are only adequate. I liked it a bit more than I think most people will because I find Cha to be an intriguing young actress and I like films about people pursuing a musical dream. It's worth a rental if either of those things appeal to you.

Director: Seung-yeong Lee
Starring: Su-yeon Cha, Ha-joon Yoo, Jun-suk Bang, Oei Lee, Won-sang Park



Out of the Wind 風の外側 (Kaze no sotogawa) (2007) • Japan

This is Sakura Ando's feature film debut. It's written and directed by her father, Eiji Okuda. These are the facts. It's a confused film. It starts off being about a young girl, Mariko, who has a dream of becoming a diva in the world of opera. It's funny seeing Sakura Ando do that elongated mouth opera singing thing, but I digress. There has to be some conflict so a soft-spoken tough guy is introduced. He becomes Mariko's bodyguard and remains nameless for a while. This is a Japanese film. There are perverts targeting young girls in school uniforms.

The boy and girl enter into a typical movie relationship. It starts off distant and rocky but love slowly swirls. Then the focus of the film drifts to the guy who has a dream of becoming a big time Yakuza. Problem is, he's Korean, so he has to prove himself on his way up the ladder by doing all the icky jobs. One of which turns out to be killing a Korean businessman who ... drum-roll, please ... turns out to be Mariko's father. That would mean, you guessed it, Mariko is half Korean. Now the film drifts into an exploration of identity and we're given an excuse to up the ante in the love relationship between Mariko and her bodyguard. The life of Koreans and the discrimination they endure living in Japan is also explored.

It's not that a film can't grow and expand on the themes it explores but it has to be well-written and executed or it will fail. The amount of suspension of disbelief required to get from A to B to C in this film is huge. I didn't have the power to suspend my disbelief that a director would have his young daughter do a nude scene in her film debut, seems creepy, nor was I able to get through the scene where the bodyguard stumbles into the opera house and stabs Mariko's father while she watches the whole thing, albeit with a wrinkled forehead, but never stops singing.

This film is pretty awful, and it's too bad because Sakura Ando's performance is pretty good. It's a real sign of talent when you can be good in a bad film.

Director: Eiji Okuda
Starring: Sakura Ando, Takao Sasaki, Kazu Andô, Yasuhiro Arai, Megumi Araki


Blue Cha Cha 深海 (Shen hai) [2005] • Taiwan

It's a great pleasure when watching a film you're enjoying and knew nothing about to recognize that beyond being a good film you are also experiencing the work of a skilled director. The upside to this is that there's a good chance you'll have at least a few more good films in your future. Such is the case with Blue Cha Cha.

The film begins with Ah Yu, played by Taiwanese singer Tarcy Su, being released from prison. We aren't told why she was there or how long she was in for. She makes her way to the home of a weathered motherly woman named An-an, played by veteran actress Yi-Ching Lu, whom she had come to know in prison. An-an takes her in and gives her job at the hostess bar she operates. After an arranged date doesn't pan out the way Ah Yu expected it to, she quits the bar and takes a job at a computer factory. Her relationship with a young supervisor she meets there, along with her ongoing and anchoring relationship with An-an, is the meat of this film.

Blue Cha Cha requires patience, and yes, that's code for it being an art house type film that moves slowly and doesn't offer a lot of detail as to why things are happening. Beyond a somewhat ambiguous statement near the end of the film revealing why Ah Yu was in prison we never learn anything about her past, and throughout the film it is clear that she has no idea nor concrete desires for her future. She just drifts along, medicated, mentally unstable yet always trying to be nice, hoping each day will offer some measure of fulfillment. Blue Cha Cha isn't a low-budget indie film, though. It has excellent production values and looks very good. The direction is fluid and creative and the cinematography is great.

As I always say, these kinds of films need good characters and good performances in order to succeed. Blue Cha Cha delivers them. Yi-Ching Lu, who has been in a number of films by Ming-liang Tsai, is always reliable. She's tough and unafraid to do almost anything as an actress. But the real highlight here is Tarcy Su. She is able to make us care for a character we never learn much about. We're not always clear about what is going on inside her head but we're always sure she is experiencing something. It's very surprising to me how well she is able to articulate a confused yet committed mind without offering any insight as to the details of the matter. There's a scene where she is laying in bed with a man, staring at him face to face as he drifts in and out of sleep. There is a frightening authenticity to her gaze which offers no explanation as to its genesis.

The ending is peculiar, and depending on how you interpret a couple of things ambiguously discussed and stated it could actually result in a big blunder. I don't care. I'm not a fan of films which attempt an explanation for the mental instability of their characters. I appreciate that Cheng leaves it as a lingering issue until the very end of the film, and I doubly appreciate that he leaves it ambiguous enough to ignore if it is something we find questionable.

Director: Wen-Tang Cheng
Starring: Tarcy Su, Yi-Ching Lu, Leon Dai, Wei Lee, Cheung-Ying Lin

Asia Pacific Arts 

My Dear Enemy 멋진 하루 (Meotjin haru) [2008] • South Korea

This film belongs to Jung-woo Ha. He is engaging and funny playing one of those guys who can spin even the worst of interactions into something that makes him seem likable. Seen in isolation, his character's charms might seem to not add up but the film manages to paint a convincing portrait of a guy you just can't say no to.

Do-yeon Jeon, in heavy eye make-up, pretty much pouts her way through the film playing an old girlfriend of his who wants to collect some money he owes her. She tracks him down and demands he repay her by day's end. She knows him well enough to know that promises of repaying her later will never be kept. He's vulnerable and in the dog-house but he's still in charge of things as he sets out to borrow money from a series of other old girlfriends and lovers in order to repay her. She follows him around while he does it. It's an interesting scenario which produces many storied and funny moments.

With lesser actors this film probably wouldn't work. It's a Yoon-ki Lee film—which means it's low-key, slice of life, simple story stuff. Don't expect high drama or excitement. What you'll get are two fine performances and, in typical Lee fashion, two characters who reveal themselves to one another not through mutual interaction but by observing the subtle interactions they have with other people.

Director: Yoon-ki Lee
Starring: Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-woo Ha, Il-hwa Choi, Ju-bong Gi, Hyo-ju Han


Taipei Exchanges 第36個故事 [2010] • Taiwan

Taipei Exchanges stars one of Taiwan's most promising and popular young actresses, Lunmei Kwai, who I like quite a bit, but it's disappointing to see her in such a manufactured and saccharin product. Taipei Exchanges has the narrative structure and impact of a pop music promotional video. Everything is so shiny and polished nothing sticks. Everything floats by meaninglessly, accompanied by what sounds like schmaltzy canned piano doodling from someone trained in writing jingles for laundry detergent commercials. In between doodles there will actually be a music video while we watch Lunmei Kwai think about an éclair or something equally fascinating.

Kwai plays Doris who's opened a café with her sister Josie, played by newcomer Zaizai Lin. Lin looks a lot like Kwai except with a curve to her nose, and she looks good in high-top sneakers and tights. We know the type: cute slacker with cool hair and hip t-shirts. Doris is all business and Josie is a dreamer. Josie wins in the end by turning Doris into a dreamer who learns there is more to value in life than making money selling a cup of coffee.

The title, Taipei Exchanges, plays on two aspects of the film. One has to do with the exchange of goods or services and the other is the exchange of stories that often accompany the goods or services exchanged. When Doris first opens the café a bunch of her friends bring her junk from their attics as housewarming gifts. Most of it is recognized as junk and thrown away but a few things that didn't even catch their attention enough to be thrown away turn out to be of interest to some of their customers. And thus begins the shtick. Since they didn't pay for any of the stuff they won't sell it but will take something in exchange for it. The bartering always follows the same routine. The first proposal is rejected as thoughtless and the comeback is appreciated for its sappy wonderfulness.

The film is narrated by an anonymous voice because the characters aren't thick enough to hang a story on. The café used in the film was built specifically for the film, reportedly backed by Taipei's tourism authorities, and is now open for business as a real coffee shop and tourist attraction. Taipei Exchanges is the feature film directing debut of television ad director Ya-chuan Hsiao. That about sums it up.

Director: Ya-chuan Hsiao
Starring: Lunmei Kwai, Zaizai Lin


Topless トップ (Toppuresu) [2008] • Japan

There's zero nudity in this very sweet film about being lesbian in contemporary Tokyo. Someone is going to argue that the title metaphorically refers to being emotionally topless, i.e., baring your soul, because the film takes the risky approach, like millions of films do, of being about being human. Even though the film focuses on the loves and lives of its central lesbian characters it really speaks a universal language that heterosexual viewers can relate to as well—like having to deny your identity for the sake of marrying a man for security. Uh-huh. No. This film is about being lesbian.

Topless is refreshing and all that. Its themes of love and fear and politics and sadness are universal. Some of its plot points are a little diversitiste though, like the young girl who comes to Tokyo with an anti-lesbian chip on her shoulder to look for her mother who abandoned her several years ago to be with a lesbian lover, meets the film's protagonist who helps her, comes to recognize that lesbians can be good people too. OK. Characters learn from other characters all the time in movies.

The film might appear a little fluffy when you stand back from it, but the journey through it is filled with a number of poignant moments. One is the film's only sex scene, a non-explicit one between the film's central lesbian character and her male roommate. She's lost her true love to a man, is full of turmoil and wants to see what sex with a man is like. The scene is done very well and handled delicately.

My take on the title and the poster depicting two young women about to engage in a passionate kiss is this: the opening moments of the film are a little warm. The two women, as depicted on the poster, are engaged in some very passionate kissing and roaming of hands. And then pop! The top, the attitude many viewers stereotypically enter with, and desire from, a film about lesbians—two chicks going at it will be hot—comes off. The scene makes an abrupt change in tone and direction. All of a sudden the film is about people with personalities and it never looks back. Yes, it keeps saying "my desire to love and be loved as a lesbian is just like yours (as a straight person) except it's a little complicated by all this societal buildup of crud." That's the point.

My biggest takeaway from the film is Mina Shimizu. She's one of those actresses like Noriko Eguchi, except she's very upbeat and not moody and darkish like Eguchi, who owns the screen and everyone else in it every time she appears. I predict big things ahead for her.

Director: Eiji Uchida
Starring: Mina Shimizu, Ryûnosuke Kawai, Aya Ohyama, Erika Okuda, Aya Oomasa


Still Walking 歩いても 歩いても (Aruitemo aruitemo) Even If You Walk and Walk [2008] • Japan

I liked Air Doll so much I decided to seek out more films made by its director Hirokazu Kore'eda. Imagine you have a new friend in life, someone you have a fondness and respect for, and they invite you along to meet the family of one of their best friends. You'll probably attend with an optimistic attitude, thinking the old adage "friends of yours are friends of mine." Such was my approach to seeing this film.

There is a rich tradition of the family drama in Japanese cinema and this is a worthy addition to it. Still Walking observes and reveals the humor, history, and hidden emotions of an extended family over the course of twenty-four hours. A brother and sister, their spouses and children, attend a yearly gathering at the home of their parents to commemorate the death of their older brother, the pride of the parents, who died accidentally fifteen years ago while attempting to save a young boy, a stranger, from drowning.

The film has a languid pace and a subtle sense of humor. There is a stereotypical grouchy and reserved father who has a stereotypically antagonistic relationship with his second son, a doting and good-humored mother, a loving and amiable sister. It seems like there may not be anything new here. There really isn't, and not much happens until another annual guest to the gathering shows up. He is the boy the older brother saved from drowning. He's an overweight, fidgety, perspiring loser. He is extremely uncomfortable and we can sense the parent's resentment that it was not him who died instead of their son.

There was something about Air Doll that bothered me. There is a scene where the Air Doll meets, literally, her maker. The man basically essays to her on the meaning of the film: aren't human beings just empty vessels too, desiring and needing to be filled up? I've come to think that Kore'eda didn't trust his audience, or perhaps himself, enough to let the film speak for itself. He felt the need to explain it. There is a similar scene in Still Walking. After the ill-at-ease boy leaves the family's home the son observes to his mother that it seems almost cruel to invite him as he seems so uncomfortable, almost tortured by it. The mother acknowledges this and says "That's why we invite him." The scene should have cut right there but Kore'eda has the mother discourse on the necessity of this sadism.

Even with that flaw, and the fact that Still Walking doesn't present an original scenario, I still loved it. I enjoyed meeting this family. Kore'eda and the cast bring a freshness to the family drama  staple of Japanese cinema. The photography is beautiful, the direction is fluid and accomplished, the performances superb, and there is a surprisingly good amount of subtle humor throughout the film. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the slow-paced and thoughtful.

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka, Kirin Kiki

Aftershock 唐山大地震 (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen) [2010] • China

This isn't a perfect film but its story is so moving that any shortcomings in the telling can easily be overlooked. When an earthquake hits Tangshan in the Hebei Province, China, in 1976 at about 3:30 in the morning, a married couple is ... well, they are having sex in the back of their truck, but that's not important. The couple rush home to rescue their sleeping children. When the mother attempts to run into the collapsing building the father throws her aside and rushes in and the building falls on him and kills him. The children are alive but buried beneath the rubble in such a way that saving one of them would crush the other. The mother has to make a choice. After much weeping and wringing of hands she chooses to save her son. Her daughter hears her mother make the choice. Ouch! The daughter is left for dead but miraculously survives. She's so hurt by her mother's decision she refuses to identify herself and is taken to an orphanage where she is eventually adopted by a young couple who were part of the People's Liberation Army's rescue team.

The first twenty minutes of the film are all about the earthquake and CGI. After that it becomes pure drama, spanning thirty two years, with some haphazard scenes cutting in from time to time. The young boy grows up to be a successful businessman and the young girl grows up to almost be a doctor but marries a foreigner and moves to Canada instead. The  boy doesn't know his sister is alive and the girl, despite the urgings of her foster father, has no intention of reuniting with her brother, or her mother. But the film is less about them and more about the mother. She is the film's emotional centerpiece.

The mother suffers long and hard for the decision she made and for the loss of her husband. She refuses to leave Tangshan because she wants to be there when the deceased return to her. She lives in a tent for a while and moves into a modest apartment when the family home is not rebuilt. Every year she visits a ceremonial site of mourning and gives her husband and daughter directions to her new place of residence.

The film builds to a crescendo culminating in 2008 with the earthquake in Sichuan. The brother and sister both go there and join the Tangshan Rescue Team as volunteers. The film drops into a low gear and downplays the moments when they meet each other and the daughter goes home to see her mother. Then there's all this tension about who should be more sorry, the mother for her decision, or the daughter for condemning and causing her mother to suffer thirty two years for that decision.

All of the performances, except the guy who plays the daughter's foreigner husband, are top notch, especially Xu Fan (the director's real life wife) as the mother. There are all kinds of wonderful and heartbreaking scenarios touching on the nature and loyalties of family. The boy's paternal grandmother wants to take custody of him because now that her own son is dead he is her last bit of male family blood. When the boy becomes a successful businessman he wants to move his mother into a nice new apartment, partly for his own notion of her happiness and partly for not wanting to be perceived as someone who is not taking care of his mother. What loyalties and affections should the daughter have towards her foster parents when she becomes an adult? And, of course, what about the daughter's decision to not let her blood family know she survived the earthquake?

I was moved to tears several times during the film but more from just thinking about the material than from any melodramatic presentation of it. Aftershock has a disjointed narrative from time to time and could probably be improved with a second round of editing. Several scenes appear to be part of something larger that got cut out, and a few scenes seem irrelevant. The director's decision to downplay the climax as long as he can is a little disappointing but it fits with the repressed emotional level of the rest of the film after the initial earthquake sequence which, as we are reminded of in a slightly awkward memorial ending that closes the film, is supposed to be its heart.

Aftershock is the first iMax film produced in China and I have no response to that fact. It has structural weaknesses but it's a magnificent and heart-rending story with a lot of legs. Highly recommended to those who like that kind of thing.

Director: Xiaogang Feng
Starring: Jingchu Zhang, Fan Xu, Chen Li


The Eel うなぎ (Unagi) [1997] • Japan

I like films with a relaxed pace but this one is slow to the point of boring and its poetic undertones are silly. The story is trite: jealous man kills his wife, goes to prison, opens a barber shop in a small village when he gets out, saves a woman from suicide, she falls in love with him, people gossip, his affection remains towards his pet eel, her baggage causes him to defend her, he goes back to jail. We've seen it all before. Nothing wrong with that, per se. There are a handful of cinematically attractive moments but not enough to make the film worthwhile.

Misa Shimizu is fetching in her high-wasted slacks but never shines. Kôji Yakusho isn't given enough script or the proper direction to make his signature introspective style come alive. All of the acting seems very stilted, about the level of Tomorowo Taguchi.

And there's something very excuse-making and just plain wrong with a film that ends several times for about a half hour. Geez.

Director: Shohei Imamura
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Mitsuko Baisho, Akira Emoto, Fujio Tsuneta, Tomorowo Taguchi


The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (Les Filles du botaniste) [2006] • France, China

There has to be a million movies made which ask us to sit through watching some man be a complete asshole so that we can witness the long suffering of the women around him. Often there is a subtext or symbolic undercurrent that the characters and their relationships are meant to represent. This is one such movie.

The asshole in this film is the Chinese botanist and he represents a tyrannical and repressive society. He makes ancient herbal remedies in a botanical paradise he has constructed on an island that is supposed to be somewhere in Yunnan Province, China. The long suffering woman in the film is his twenty year old daughter. She waits on him hand and foot. She cuts his toenails. She represents all that is good and new and wonderful yet shackled in the modern world.

The film has good intentions and attempts to expose some of the lingering absurdities of Chinese traditional values in general and those of the Cultural Revolution in particular. One day another young woman arrives on the island to intern with the botanist. She brings a talking bird that squawks "Long live Chairman Mao" all the time. The two women fall in love, the father sees this forbidden love in the flesh and dies of a heart attack. Really. The two young women are put to death for the crime of the disease of homosexuality that caused the death of a prized botanist.

The director wants to make a point of how fucked up the situation is but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme, much like the film's soundtrack of crescendoing choruses and violins. It's too bad because the film has a strong and very sensual visual appeal. As mentioned, the film's location is supposed to be somewhere in Yunnan, one of the most beautiful places in the world, but because of the homosexual content Chinese authorities prohibited the director from filming there. The irony. So it's filmed in Vietnam where it's green and lush and dripping wet. If all the scenes of the father being an idiot were removed The Chinese Botanist's Daughters would be a gorgeous film.

Sijie Dai, the film's writer and director, was sent to a reeducation camp as a young man during the Cultural Revolution. He's clearly exorcising demons and I would like to applaud his efforts but while the theme of The Chinese Botanist's Daughters is worthwhile the particulars are schmaltzy, unpleasant, and far too melodramatic. Dai's earlier film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a much better film dealing with the Cultural Revolution.

Mylène Jampanoï, who stars as the woman with the talking bird, went on to star in the French extreme horror film Martyrs.

Director: Sijie Dai
Starring: Mylène Jampanoï, Xiao Ran Li, Ling Dong Fu, Wei-chang Wang

Japan Times

The Isle 섬 (Seom) [2000] • South Korea

Pain is the most sincere emotion. Kim Ki-duk likes pain. He likes showing us pain. We don't question the motivation when its genesis is pain. When people speak about pain there is always room for a misunderstanding made possible by the distracting literalness of the communication. The characters in many Kim Ki-duk films never speak at all, navigating and exposing their pain with silent clarity.

This is one of the films that got me interested in East Asian cinema. I had previously seen Kim's Bad Guy and thought it was interesting, if not a great film, but it sure made me want to see more from the guy who made it.

I've gone on to see most of Kim's films and this one still stands as my favorite. I think Jung Suh's performance as the caretaker of a remote fishing village who doesn't say a word in the entire film is the strongest performance in all of Kim's films, and I think her character is one of the strongest characters that Kim has given us. Of course it's a symbiotic relationship where a good actor can make a character come alive and where a well-written character allows a good actor a chance to shine. Suh (sometimes romanized as Seo) plays the caretaker Hee-jin with a frightening intensity, and is all the more enigmatic because she never speaks. I also think this is Kim's best looking film. His background as a painter is obvious in the color composition and framing. The misty lake with the little colored cottages floating about are beautifully photographed.

As for the pain quotient, it's a toss up between this and Address Unknown. I'm not sure why Kim abuses animals in his films. I don't like it but it's not enough for me to ignore his work. And it's not really where the pain comes from in this film. The infamous fishhook scenes are obviously a source of physical pain but there's also the emotional pain we witness between Hee-jin and the man who killed his girlfriend and has come to her fishing village to hide, or die if that doesn't work out. There's murder, rape, and multiple suicide attempts and I'm not sure that Kim's isn't presenting all of this with a little bit of tongue in his cheek. Kim is someone who works in the extreme, that's for sure.

The ending of the film, where the man swims into the weeds which in turn become the pubic hair of Hee-jin lying naked in the boat, suggesting a metaphorical attempt to return to the womb, is a little silly. Many see this as tacked on for some crazy reason and would have preferred the film end with the two of them floating downstream together. I don't think the extra, symbolic, ending is necessary but I also don't think it ruins the film. Great films succeed in spite of their weaknesses. The ending may be weak but this is a great film.

Director: Ki-duk Kim
Starring: Jung Suh, Yoosuk Kim, Sung-hee Park, Jae-hyeon Jo, Hang-Seon Jang


Go Lala Go! (Du Lala sheng zhi ji) [2010] • China

I enjoy Xu Jinglei as an actress and think her move to behind the camera has shown lots of promise. I wish I didn't have to report that her latest film is a disappointment. To be fair, it's a disappointment because it's not what I expected from her. Go Lala Go!, in which she stars and directs, has none of the depth or artistry of Letter From an Unknown Woman or My Father and I. Go Lala Go! is about promotion hungry corporate trash, and it's pure popcorn fluff, hyper-kinetic and full of fashionable costuming, hairstyles, and product placement.

But is it good popcorn fluff? I'm not sure but I'm inclined to say no. It did very well at the box office (in China, in case that's not clear) and there's probably a reason. First of all, it's solidly within the constraints of the Chinese Film Bureau's guidelines of what kinds of stories should be told and what kinds of messages are permitted. Specifically, with regards to rewarding foul play, there's none of that. Lala's rise up the corporate ladder is entirely the result of good honest hard work. Yes, she sleeps with a high level big shot Director of Sales but it's for love, not strategy, and the film shows it as problematic. In fact, inter-office relationships are a major theme in the movie. A blind eye is sometimes turned but for the most part they are considered not a good or acceptable idea.

Another reason for its success may be that it puts on display all the name brands and fashionable accessories many millions of Chinese feel they are fairly close to partying with. Even though us educated capitalists are hip to that myth, there's a younger generation of Chinese that is probably tired of, or uninterested in films that wallow in a prideful past and they want to dream about a possible future instead. That's all fine and good, and maybe I shouldn't rush to judgement. Xu Jinglei has given the masses what they want. Good for her. She made some money, hopefully.

There's some cultural interest for non-Chinese in Go Lala Go!, but as a film it's thin and a little too chaotic. The chaotic part seems intentional. It's almost as if Xu discovered downloadable iMovie Transitions and went nuts. The direction is strong, consistent, and assured, but it's a style I don't fancy even if it serves its content well. There are some decent comedic bits, Xu possessing a courageous inclination for the self-deprecating, and some of the love geometry is OK, but it's all stirred in very quickly, giving the sense that it's not important. Scenes just sort of smash into one another. Karen Mok is fun and she still has great legs but the American-Taiwanese pop star Stanley Huang as Lala's love interest didn't do much for me. There's some nice scenery when they all vacation on the beaches of Thailand, but not much to the story.

I still can't wait to see what she does next.

Director: Jinglei Xu
Starring: Jinglei Xu, Stanley Huang, Karen Mok