Cafe Isobe 純喫茶磯辺 (Jun kissa Isobe) [2008] • Japan

This is a funny film built on fine performances and skilled direction. Yujiro Isobe (Hiroyuki Miyasako) acts like a guy who has accidentally dropped his cards face-up on the poker table and thinks he can still bluff. Sometimes he's a little pitiful and some times a little creepy but he never goes over the edge—he just hints at it. He lives with his teenage daughter Sakiko (Riisa Naka). Mature beyond her years, Sakiko puts up with him but doesn't like him very much ... well, until the end when everything gets happy ... but she doesn't hate him. She treats him with the amount of respect he deserves, which is a cautious little. Sakiko's been abandoned by her mother but doesn't hate her either. Her mother didn't fight for her custody because, as she tells Sakiko, "It seemed like your father cared for you more than I did." Ouch!

Yujiro inherits some money and quits his job. After a bit of time doing nothing he decides to open a cafe. When he informs Sakiko of his plans she asks him if he has any service experience; or a business plan; or if he knows anything about food. He says he will work hard at it. Sakiko tells him, rightfully, that he doesn't even know what he's supposed to work hard at. His response is, "You're annoying. So annoying." He's going to bluff.

Yujiro opens the cafe and Sakiko agrees to help out part-time but she's so appalled by the decor her father has chosen she refuses to tell any of her friends where it is for fear they will come visit and laugh. Life at the cafe, and the father daughter relationship, gets complicated when an attractive young woman, Motoko (Kumiko Aso) begins working there. She wears a short-skirted uniform to attract customers, and Yujiro becomes attracted to her as well. Motoko is a strange character, with a lot of baggage. Sakiko is immediately suspicious and doesn't want her father to have anything to do with Motoko, professionally or personally. Yujiro begins dating Motoko and an emotional comedy of errors ensues.

Kumiko Aso is fabulous here. The three main characters are all good, really good actually, but Aso is a favorite actress of mine and she's wonderful in most everything she does, so I'm singling her out. She makes the film funny in a "funny-strange" way more than a "funny-haha" way, but there are many moments that will likely make you laugh out loud. A lot of the laughs are the result of the director's skill in editing for comic timing. This is a well put together film, and it has a heart, too. It's a comedy, and while it gets goofy from time to time, it brings itself together as a mildly touching, chuckle filled, human drama.

Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Starring: Hiroyuki Miyasako, Riisa Naka, Kumiko Aso

Girlfriend • Someone Please Stop the World [2004] • Japan

More Ryuichi Hiroki. This one is love story between a young woman photographer, Kyoko, who gets an assignment to pick a woman off the street and take nude photos of her for a men's magazine, and the woman who turns up as the subject of that assignment, Miho. Kiyoko's professional ethos is one of getting to know her subject deeply, be it a fruit plate or a human being, and as she does this she finds her interest in this particular subject, Miho, turning into fondness. The feeling is mutual, but this isn't a gay-themed film per se. There are just no barriers in the way that might prevent these two wandering souls from exploring each other, trying to find a positive relationship in a world they feel disconnected from, saddened by. The two performances are good enough, but not great, while the underlying drama and psychological trauma seem less satisfying.

I'm never quite happy with films that explore a lesbian liaison by setting up one of the participants as frustrated by bad relationships with jerkball men. It doesn't have to be that way. In this case it's Kyoko, but she has the personality of being frustrated by more than her bad boyfriends. She's a bit frustrated with herself and is trying to find a comfortable compromise between photography as art and photography as commerce. She's idealistic and a bit peculiar. When she meets Miho, who is angry about her father who left her family years ago and hasn't been in contact since, she meets someone who's more bummed out with life than she is so she's able to feel a little bit better about herself, and seems genuinely interested in, listening to Miho's stories. It's not unusual to become attracted to someone that makes you feel better about yourself.

Miho agrees to pose nude for Kyoko partly, well, mostly, as a means of getting back at, and getting the attention of, her father. I'm not sure about that as a method or as a solution but she's hurt and angry and she wants her father's attention. Kyoko and Miho are both presented as empathetic outsiders. Following them is a reasonably enjoyable romp in indie ennui but it doesn't wrap itself up into a grand story.

Girlfriend is part of the Love Collection, a loose series of DV shot features from 2004 with the common theme of love. Other entries include Kihatsusei no onna (A Volatile Woman) by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, OLDK by Masahiro Hara, Nejirin bou by Tadashi Tomioka, Moon and Cherry by Yuki Tanada and Kokoro to karada by Hiroshi Ando.


Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Starring: Aoba Kawai, Tomorowo Taguchi, Kinuwo Yamada, Kazuhiro Suzuki, Jason Gray, Aya Sugimoto

Jack Goes Boating [2010] • USA

Phillip Seymour Hoffman fans should be happy with this, his directorial debut. Hoffman is the king of uncomfortable and he directs to his strength here. Beyond directing himself well, a couple other things struck me as far as the direction goes. He uses a lot of music and knows how to pick tunes. The soundtrack is full of Grizzly Bear with a little Evan Lurie sprinkled about. "Rivers of Babylon", by The Melodians serves as a sort of theme song, being played at the beginning, the end, and during a climatic scene in the middle. A couple songs that stand out as beautiful in and of themselves, and at really nailing the mood, are Goldfrapp's "Eat Yourself" and DeVotchKa's "Dearly Departed". You can listen to these tracks at IFC's web page for the film.

I don't want to give the impression that this film is some kind of music video collage, because it's not. Far from it. The other thing that strikes me about the direction is the tendency, reminiscent of John Cassavetes, to let scenes go on for just a little bit longer than you think they should, allowing for moments of tension or discomfort to linger and echo. And there are a lot of moments of tension and discomfort in the film. The silences contrast beautifully with the more musical moments.

The film is adapted from a play about the intermingling relationships of two couples. One is beginning, the other is established and endured, if not enduring. The established couple, Clyde and Lucy (John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega), set up their friend Jack (Hoffman) with Lucy's co-worker Connie (Amy Ryan). The use of contrast at work again. One relationship is about to bloom, while the other fights a season of wither. Hoffman, Ortiz, and Ruben-Vega starred in the stage version and reprise their respective roles here. Needless to say they know their parts inside and out. The film has a playful and slow pace and is filled with sharp dialog, a lot of which seems to jump in from out of nowhere. Half the stuff that comes out of Connie's mouth made me chuckle and think 'Where did that come from? Did she really just say that?' Amy Ryan is fabulous here, as are all the players.

The only weakness is that the climactic scene sort of fails, but it doesn't kill the film. It's just one scene you might wish had been done better or different. Or maybe not. Jack Goes Boating is a wonderful character play with a strong script, great acting, and a moving soundtrack. It's kind of brutal and it's pure Philip.

Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Amy Ryan


I Am an S+M Writer 不貞の季節 (Futei no kisetsu) [2000] • Japan

Ryuichi Hiroki released this film and Tokyo Trash Baby on the same weekend!

Kurosaki (Ren Osugi) is an erotic novelist who uses his editor and a hired model to act out scenarios in his living room he will use for inspiration in his writing. His wife Shizuko (Yôko Hoshi) calls him a pervert but we soon learn that what bothers her is that she feels her husband has intellectualized his carnal desires and she feels physically neglected. Shizuko tries to make him jealous, or simply goes after what she desires with someone else. At first she brings home an Caucasian English teacher but soon zeros in on her husband's editor after witnessing his accomplished S&M rope tying technique. Kurosaki's first response is anger, then forgiveness, then he decides to use the affair as inspiration for his current work in progress. He demands that his editor continue the affair and recount all the sordid details to him. He slaps his editor upside the head, then forgives him and offers him a drink each time before they get to work.

I don't think this would be funny if it were an English language film. Part of its charm is feeling like a foreigner watching a Japanese film. Much of the humor is surely lost in translation but some of the translations take on a humor of their own. Often it feels like the words are too blunt and some subtlety of language is being missed, while other times it seems words are forced together into strange combinations to try and convey different shades of something not literally translatable. "Go anal". It's all played very sincerely, if somewhat surreal. 

Speaking of surreal, one thing that puzzled me throughout this film was the house where most of the action takes place. The layout seems inscrutable, a labyrinth of hallways and doors. A character will walk down a hall, turn down another, and then open a sliding door to apparently go into a room. Then the camera is in the supposedly entered room but the door has hinges and no relation to a hallway. Kurosaki will serve his assistant a beer from one direction and then deliver a second one from a different location. There's one scene that appears to have no plot value where the maid exits a door, removes her shoes and plunges off the porch a couple feet to the ground, as if she expected a step of some kind to be present. I assume this scene is meant to convey that even the characters are a bit befuddled by the structure and layout of the house. Maybe I just missed something but this kind of scene does fit in with the overall strangeness of the film.

While this comes off as a small and amusing film, I think it was a big film for Ryuichi Hiroki, somewhat autobiographical, incorporating way more Japanese history and culture than I am privy to, and most importantly served as a great transition for him from a director of pinku films to more mainstream fare, albeit a little arthousey.

Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Starring: Ren Osugi, Yôko Hoshi, Jun Murakami, Eri Yamazaki, Kiriko Shimizu

Japan Times
Midnight Eye

Asako in Ruby Shoes 순애보 (Sunaebo) [2000] • South Korea, Japan

This one seems a bit of an art-house diversion for director Je-yong Lee. A mildly bizarre, slow moving film that's half Japanese and half Korean. It aims at just the right level and ends up as a nice compromise between indie indulgence and commercial fare.

On the Korean side, Lee Jung-Jae stars as U-in, a bored, anti-social civil servant who passes time surfing porn on the Internet and silently stalking a young punkish girl with fiery red hair. While playing around on the Internet U-in clicks on a link that asks him to describe his ideal woman. He describes the punky girl.

On the Japanese side Misato Tachibana stars as Aya, a young woman who has decided to commit suicide with a twist: she wants to confuse the date of her impending death by holding her breath and suffocating as she crosses the International Date Line. She also desperately wants a pair of Ruby colored shoes. One thing leads to another and Aya is contracted by Internet porn purveyors to play the punkish girl, as described by their client U-in, on one of their webcam sites. Thus the persona of Asako is born.

The two disparate lives meet and wind the film up in a somewhat unbelievable fairy-tale style ending but it's been a strange ride getting there so no giant complaints. It's interesting to see a film that is half in Japanese and half in Korean. Much of the film deals with the theme of belonging and it allows for stretching that theme to something larger than just one culture.

The performances are all pretty solid. Fashionista superstar Kim Min-hee plays the punky girl. It's a small role, as she serves only as the inspiration for Asako, but it's catchy. Lee Jung-jae is spot on as the nerdball stalker. This is a better role for him than the studly type he played in Je-yong Lee's debut film An Affair. He's much better at nerdy innocence with a sense of creepy just below the surface than as a macho guy who is supposed to drive girls wild. Misato Tachibana brings just the right amount of cuteness and individual longing to Aya/Asako. She doesn't seem to have pursued her acting career ambitiously after this film but did well here.

The film has a slow pace and treats some of the edgier elements with a gentle touch. It never becomes darkly uncomfortable and that's it's charm. It's got quirky characters and a subtle, light sense of humor. Not completely art-house fair but certainly not mainstream. Recommended for those who like films slightly off the beaten path.

Director: Je-yong Lee
Starring: Misato Tachibana, Jung-Jae Lee, Urara Awata, Min-hie Kim, Ju-bong Gi

Glasses めがね (Megane) [2007] • Japan

Serenity now. This lovely gem can be dismissed as a new-age tourist brochure for Okinawa (although the locale remains unnamed in the film) if one is feeling rambunctious, or it can be consumed like one of the many bowls of magical shaved ice presented in the film, a spoonful at a time without surprises, savoring the moments that celebrate the simple in life.

The story that will unfold is obvious from the beginning. A harried young city dweller, Taeko, takes a much needed vacation to a remote island inn, meets a few laid back and strange locals which she at first tries to keep her distance from but eventually succumbs to the rhythm of the place and its people. Happiness is attained.

For a film like this to work it needs to look nice, have engaging characters, and not take itself too seriously. It's filmed on Yoron Island, Okinawa, Japan, so director Naoko Ogigami has the aesthetics of location covered. There are plenty of shots of crystal clear waters washing up on pristine beaches that look nice and help set the slow rolling pace of the film. Ogigami has written a witty and sparse script, which drifts along alternating between surreal and a Zen koan, and assembled a wonderful and talented cast to deliver it. Ken Mitsuishi, who's been in 136 films, plays the inn-keeper Yuji with such calm assurance you might think you're watching his biography. Ogigami also brings along two actresses who made an impression in her previous film, Kamome Shokudo (Seagull Diner). Masako Motai plays a mysterious visiting matriarch of the island, Sakura, who makes magical kaki-gori, a dessert made of shaved ice and syrup, and leads the locals in weird morning calisthenic exercises on the beach. Satomi Kobayashi plays Taeko, the vacationing visitor to the island. She seems well suited to Ogigami's style, having played a similar fish-out-of-water character in Kamome Shokudo, a Japanese woman who opens a restaurant serving rice balls in Helsinki. Her performance here shows a slow and subtle transformation that reflects the pace of life on the island. The cast is rounded out with celebrated young actors Mikako Ichikawa and Ryo Kase.

If you enjoy slow, amusing, meditative films with quirky characters this is a winner. If you're looking for slapstick, this is a loser. It's whimsical and slightly bizarre but thoroughly understated. Moments that might seem a little new age tree-huggerish aren't annoying because the tone is not preachy or precious. It's very light-hearted and doesn't take itself seriously.


Director: Naoko Ogigami
Starring: Satomi Kobayashi, Mikako Ichikawa, Ryo Kase, Ken Mitsuishi, Masako Motai
Japan Times
Time Out (an opposing view)

Top Ten Most Enjoyable Films of 2010

A few of these had a 2009 festival (or local) release but were 2010 films for me. Mother, Air Doll, Be Sure to Share, and Night and Fog were on my Best of 2009 list.
  1. The Social Network • USA
  2. Confessions • Japan**
  3. Aftershock • China
  4. Scott Pilgrim vs the World • USA
  5. Greenberg • USA
  6. Catfish • USA
  7. Season of Good Rain • China, South Korea
  8. Hear Me • Taiwan
  9. Closer to Heaven • South Korea
  10. One Day • Taiwan
Two films I'm confident would be on this list if I had seen them are Sono Shion's Cold Fish and Nakashima Tetsuya's Confessions. Most surprising is that four USA films ranked so high, Taiwan has two spots, and there is nothing from Japan, yet.

**[UPDATE] Saw Confessions, and there it is at #2. Wow. What a film.

There are, of course, many films I haven't seen. A handful that I have seen, and that have shown up on many top tens around the Internet, that deserve mention, although not always honorable, are: True Grit, Black Swan, Inception, Shutter Island, Jack Goes Boating, Animal Kingdom, The Ghost Writer, The Fighter, The Town, The American, Please Give, Poetry, Never Let Me Go, I Saw the Devil, Dogtooth, and Enter the Void.

Bedevilled 김복남 살인사건의 전말 / 김복남 살인 사건의 전말 Kim Bok-nam Salinsageonui Jeonmal [2010] • South Korea

This is the stupidest, most puerile piece of crap I think I've ever seen. Whoever made this film should be arrested for crimes against film making. There's nothing but infantile cliches piled up pretending to be character development. There's no acting, just people playing stupid. Nothing is the least bit believable, or stomach-able, at the suspension of disbelief level. There is no evil in this film, just assholes.

There are a few good kills and lots of messy blood at the end but I suggest fast-forwarding to get to them. There is nothing worthwhile at all to learn or enjoy before them. It's impossible to gather up anger at the bad people, in order to get on the revenge bandwagon, because the bad people are so bluntly impossible to take seriously the viewer reels in disgust at how badly they are drawn and how immaturely the film is conceived, instead of wanting them killed. It's not a question of moral outrage. This film doesn't push buttons by pushing any ethical envelopes. It's just low-rent, poorly done, unimaginative, middle-school-dropout-level acting and scripting. The director's vision is childish.

I'm dismayed that this is the kind of slop South Korea is going to pump out for the world stage. This film isn't even good enough for a straight-to-video release here in the USA. The problem is, it's got typically solid South Korean production values so some folks may be fooled.

If you want to see something recent in this genre from South Korea that's good, watch 2009's Missing. Heck, the first Death Bell is better than this sophomoric pile of fecal matter. Of course, so is I Saw the Devil (at least marginally) because it, along with Missing and to some extent Death Bell, employed professional actors, i.e., actors who would have turned down any chance at being part of this film.


[UPDATE] To be clear, I'm not against what this film tried to do. I'm against the fact that it did it so poorly. To test my resolve, I watched the remake of I Spit on Your Grave after watching Bedevilled. It's not a good film either but it's a lot better than this. They are pretty much the same film: rape and abuse a woman and then watch her get revenge. The notion that this film has any social commentary value is bullshit. It's nothing but cheap exploitation cinema written and executed poorly.

Director: Some no-talent punk named Jang Cheol-so
Starring: Nobody

Dread Central and Brutal as Hell (think it's a masterpiece)

Ex 前度 (Chin do) [2010] • Hong Kong

This film is just way too over-directed for my taste. Young director Heiward Mak seems to possess an intelligent and observant mind, can write insightful snippets of dialog and show us that she gets a certain segment of contemporary Hong Kong youth culture, but those skills and ingredients don't mean a good film is going to emerge. She co-scripted last year's wonderfully biting Love in a Puff but that film was assembled by an experienced director, Pang Ho-Cheung.

I don't want to rain on this young director's parade too much. She's obviously smart, and a major talent (more so in some areas than others), and she's going to be a major player in Hong Kong's film industry. I like what I took to be the main theme of this film, we are our histories, but the story is interrupted by an over zealous directorial hand. I wanted to settle into the hearts and minds of the characters but the MTV generation style camerawork and editing (and I don't mean that as insult or insinuation, necessarily) wouldn't let me.

Gillian Chung does a fine job as the film's protagonist, Zhou Yi, a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, or is about to break up with him as the film begins. An ex, Ping, is at the next table with his current girlfriend, Cee, and witnesses said breakup. A whole bunch of coincidental circumstances are packed together in the film's opening scenes so that we can get to the scenario where Zhou Yi moves in with Ping and Cee. Flashbacks and memories abound, infuse, and confuse, as a portrait of a young woman in the throes of a recent break-up collides with a portrait of a young man who happens to be an ex and whose life may or may not be anything more than his next break-up waiting to happen. It's got the makings of some juicy plot opportunities, some of which are realized, but it never relaxes enough into the story for an inviting overall picture to come to the surface and take over. Also, antagonism is too often demonstrated through volume in the film. I understand that this is a twenty-something reality but listening to a lot of fighting and whining in high decibel Cantonese isn't the most pleasant experience. I knew from the opening scene's musical soundtrack that my audible wavelength was not in tune with the director's. And things didn't change. The whole soundtrack sucks.

Honestly, if I had seen this film in a theater full of like-generational people to the film's players—in Hong Kong, no less—my watching energy might have ramped up to the director's style and I might have found myself swimming along joyously, but such was not the case. I'm going to keep an eye on Heiward Mak but Ex was not a fulfilling film experience. The director has brains and chops but maturity hasn't kicked in yet.

Director: Heiward Mak
Starring: Gillian Chung, William Chan Wai-Ting, Michelle Wai, Lawrence Chou, Jacky Heung


Catfish [2010] • USA

The other Facebook movie. The most surprisingly thoughtful little film of the year. That's all I'm saying.

Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Starring: Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Ariel Schulman, Yaniv Schulman

Twitchfilm (Ben Umstead)
Twitchfilm (Todd Brown and the reason that's all I'm saying.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010] • USA

A total blast. This film has about a dozen principle players and they are all great. Michael Cera does his Michael Cera thing but since I've only seen him do it once before I'm not sick of it. This is a good film for him. He gets to rock out on bass guitar and do a lot of ninja fighting. It's all way over the top and executed very well. Whoever edited this film deserves an Oscar for it. It's amazing. This is easily the most fun I've had watching a movie all year. But it's not trash fun. It's witty. I was smiling from start to finish and LOL'd many times. Not a weak or bad character in the bunch.

I understand that this film had a hard time defining its target audience. Who cares? It is sort of a middle school level cartoon with subtlety more mature humor. I don't care that many of the video game references are dated and I don't think the film is "I'm so smugly and ironically hip." I wasn't interested in seeing this film until I noticed it showing up on a few year end top tens. Yes, the film's marketing escaped me too. I was immediately hooked. Try it. If you aren't smiling and laughing in the first ten minutes unplug it and move on. It's at Netflix.

Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Ellen Wong

Twitchfilm (Todd Brown)
Twitchfilm (Jim Tudor)

Stolen Life 生死劫 (Sheng si jie) [2005] • China

This is one of those films that exposes a segment of Chinese life that will likely make you recoil in despair—ever more when you know the particulars of the film are based on a true story. There's subtle and deep social commentary embracing this extremely sad tale of family, love, and one woman's struggle to survive in modern China. I was very surprised by the script, surprised by the brutality of its story.

Yan'ni (Zhou Xun) is a young woman whose parents, intellectuals from the previous generation, have abandoned her for the most part, shuffling her off to live in near poverty with her uncaring granny and aunt. She secretly gets accepted into university, raising her class status momentarily and giving her hope for a better life, but when she falls in love with a truck driver and gets pregnant, her life unravels.

It might seem like a giant spoiler to reveal that the man Yan'ni falls in love with, Muyu, isn't in love with her. He has a business plan in which Yan'ni has an important role. Muyu seduces young women, impregnates them, and then sells their babies. The film isn't structured in such a way that it leads up to this as a revelation. We are made aware early on of the impending doom Yan'ni will experience and our experience as a viewer is centered on how Yan'ni will deal with it. The film is not an expose as much as a character study.

Zhou Xun is one of the most compelling actresses working today and she delivers right from the start. I don't think a lesser actress could have made this film work as well as it does. It's powerful, frightening stuff.

Director: Li Shaohong
Starring: Zhou Xun, Wu Jun, Cai Ming, Su Xiaoming, Zhao Chengshun

Austin Film Society
The Evening Class

Black Swan [2010] • USA

Natalie Portman gives a career performance but I don't think it's good enough to make this a great film. The transformation scene near the end is a little too little too late. None of the actual ballet is that exciting or well-executed, and it's only slightly an edgy drama ... inner demons and all that. Nothing is that interesting or played out too intensely. Vincent Cassel is great, of course, but it's not about him. Mila Kunis is refreshing as a "dancer from San Francisco". I enjoyed that she seemed to get what that means.

Good but not great. Natalie Portman is no Mickey Rourke. 

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Janet Montgomery, Barbara Hershey


No Mercy 용서는 없다 (Yongseoneun Eupda) [2010] • South Korea

Pretty standard cop versus killer thriller which is elevated quite a bit by a few good performances and a spectacular ending. It would be a tosser if it weren't for the ending. I didn't see it coming and it is SPECTACULAR (except for the missed opportunity of showing the girl sit there and not do anything when she could have been used to great effect instead of looking like an error).

This film plays out more like a pitch for a movie than a movie. Everything about it and all the characters are formulaic been there, done thats. The script is an eye-roller a lot of time. Bumbling cops and a rouge character on a singular mission who constantly does the impossible because his daughter is in danger. How many times has that been pitched to, and made, by a studio?

However, No Mercy is redeemed by some good performances. Kyung-gu Sol is a very fine actor. The guy who plays the funny pain-in-the-ass cop cliche is also good. Very appealing is Han Hye-Jin. She's one of those spunky young adorable Korean starlets, for sure. Reminded me of Gyu-ri Kim (aka Min-Sun Kim) in Rainbow Eyes.

So if you don't mind run of the mill cop versus killer thrillers, this one is totally worth it for the ending. There is a comparison to be made, to a very famous film with a very famous ending, but it would spoil this film to make that comparison. No Mercy also has some of the more graphic autopsy scenes I've seen in a film. If this is your genre give it a watch. I'm sure you will like it more than I did.

Director: Kim Hyeong-Jun
Starring: Hye-jin Han, Seung-beom Ryu, Kyung-gu Sol, Ji-ru Sung, Woo-hyung Kim


May Story 순지 (Soon-ji) [2010] • South Korea

This one is odd. Something of a cross between Kim Ki-duk's Seom (The Isle) and Lou Ye's Summer Palace, though not the caliber of either of those films, it's got several art-house styled sequences which are executed very well but they're undercut by exposition, character development, regular drama, and some poor acting while ambiguous, or unclear political essaying goes on in the background. It's a dense package.

In 2008, the city of Gwangju staged a re-enactment of the events of May 18, 1980 known as the Gwangju Uprising, a demonstration against South Korea's military dictatorship which is seen as a pivotal moment in the country's march to democracy. The re-enactment is used as a backdrop to a character study of a young woman, Soon-ji, and a twisted romance she gets involved in. At first I thought the title of the film referred to the May uprising but in a nice duality move it simply refers to the title character.

Ambiguous duality is a prime plot mover in the film. Soon-ji's object of affection has come to participate in the re-enactment but has a few screws loose and thinks it's the real thing. I think the guy is just supposed to be good looking but it's his passion for the cause that's attractive to Soon-ji who lost her father during the real uprising. Soon-ji is being courted by a police officer whom she uses to help her lover get some real weapons for the re-enactment. The director seems to be illuminating an essay on the different meanings and memories the uprising, and its re-enactment, might have for different people. I like that he simply explores the idea without insisting on making any definitive political or social declarations.

The film starts out developing Soon-ji's character as a loner, someone who was ridiculed and ostracized when she was younger. That part, and some of the standard drama of the ensuing romance are the weaker parts of the film from most angles—acting, storytelling, direction. I may give this film another chance. My initial reaction was that overall the film is weak. The vision is not fully realized or consistent. There's some standard drama, reaching almost melodramatic levels, and some standard storytelling that seem at odds with the more surreal elements that are introduced throughout. The latter are quite effective and a second viewing might flesh them out a little more. I'm happy to enjoy a film for it's stylistic methods as much as its content but the two things seem to fight one another here.

I can't begin to pronounce on how this film plays to a Korean audience, how much more would be gleaned from it. For example a couple characters in the film are wearing period costumes from 1980. I'm not sure many western audiences would recognize that. But for non-Koreans interested in Korean history and culture I do recommend this film, both for it's content and its style, though not as an introduction to Korean cinema. I also recommend a brief review of the events of the Gwangju Uprising before watching this if you are not familiar with them.

Director: Kwang-man Park
Starring: Se-yoon Jang, Yoon-seong Kim, Im-ho Yang, Dae-sung Choi, jeong-ho Yoo, Seol-goo Lee


2/Duo (2/dyuo) 2 Duo [1997] • Japan

This is a rare gem. The feature film debut of director Nobuhiro Suwa. It's a no-budget, mostly improvised slice of emotionally repressed life which observes a young couple for a short period of time as they struggle to communicate. I wouldn't say things are going badly for them at this particular point in their lives, they seem very much in love, but the relationship is uncomfortable.

Kei (Nishijima) is a struggling actor, freeloading off Yu (Eri Yu) which makes him impulsive and insecure resulting in unpredictable behavior, fits of anger, and a proposal of marriage. Yu works in a boutique as a shop assistant and seems to be playing the archetype of the abused and unappreciated Japanese woman who tackles her fate with a Zen determinism. Her habit of laughing during the most tense and awkward moments makes her appear a little unstable but also very real, almost surreal.

Even without a handful of scenes where the characters (the actors?) are interviewed about their feelings by an off-screen voice, the film has a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel. 2 Duo is a quietly disturbing character study and the blurring of fiction with documentary might serve to enhance the impact but I'm not interested in critiquing the film from that angle. This is a film which lets us observe the surface interactions of a couple characters that clearly have immense depth. With its crisp vision, assured direction, and most of all its fine acting we really don't need any meta-narrative in order to be fully engaged. I'll leave it to film school students to comment on the ramifications of the documentary style interviews if such a critical look is needed.

This is a small, quiet film with characters that seem overflowing with histories right when we meet them. It's a little sad and painful but it's executed so well there's an uplifting quality to it. This is mostly due to the performance of Eri Yu, who went on to make a few more films but then seems to have disappeared from the industry. Nishijima's performance isn't quite the caliber of Yu's, or perhaps his character isn't as interesting. Being a jerk isn't as complex as being someone who bes with that jerk with their head held high, slightly wobbling.

Director: Nobuhiro Suwa
Starring: Eri Yu, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Makiko Watanabe


Tokyo Trash Baby 東京ゴミ女 (Tokyo gomi onna) [2000] • Japan

Mami Nakamura's performance makes this one a big winner. She's engaging, endearing, amusing, and sympathetic from start to finish. That's what it takes for a small film like this to succeed, a film which says: "Here's an offbeat character, do you like her? Does she draw you into her life, entertain you, and invite you to wonder what will happen to her?" It takes a clever script and a good performance. Tokyo Trash Baby delivers on both accounts.

Miyuki (Nakamura) is a girl in love with her upstairs neighbor, a musician. Instead of trying to meet him she is content with stealing his garbage and foraging through it to find things that will give her insight into his personality. She collects many things, like empty cereal boxes, cigarette butts, love letters, discarded musical scores, and creates a shrine to her love in her apartment. She discards a used condom. The story falls a little flat after she does eventually meet him face to face, but Miyuki is still fun to spend time with. As are the few peripheral characters in the film.

Tomorowo Taguchi plays the manager at the cafe where Miyuki works and is typical Taguchi odd but doesn't have much impact on the story. Two other characters do, though: Kô Shibasaki plays co-worker, Kyoko, whose screen time is devoted almost exclusively to telling Miyuki stories of her sexual conquests, dreams, and dilemmas ... and bumming smokes. Masahiro Toda plays a customer trying desperately to get Miyuki to go out with him but he's too boring to make an impact on her. His attempts at realizing love are face to face but his loneliness prevents him from catching a clue. Both characters serve as juxtaposition to Miyuki and highlight my favorite theme of the film: loneliness. Kyoko has a very active social life but seems unfulfilled and lost. Miyuki (contrary to most observations on the film) doesn't seem lonely. She seems content and happy with her life. That's what makes her interesting. Director Hiroki gives her the respect she deserves.

Tokyo Trash Baby is part of the Love Cinema series of six straight-to-video releases which also includes Takashi Miike's Visitor Q. It's a low-budget affair shot on Digital Video. It's uses all natural lighting and sometimes the glare from an open window distracts but never gets in the way. It's testament to the strength of the story and performance that technical limitations do not derail the project at all.

Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Starring: Mami Nakamura, Kazuma Suzuki, Kô Shibasaki, Sayuri Oyamada, Tomorowo Taguchi


Buried [2010] • USA, Spain, France

I thought I'd give this one a chance. I like Ryan Reynolds and figured anybody with the kohones to release a film which consists of 95 minutes of a man in a box, a coffin to be exact, might have something interesting to show. But alas, it didn't pan out. Nothing about the film is plausible or interesting.

Reynolds' character has been kidnapped and buried alive by ne'er-do-wells in Iraq. His backstory is revealed through a series of phone calls from within the coffin. There are no flashbacks, nothing to get viewers out of the box. We're in the box with him for the entire run time. His money and papers have been taken from him but he's got a cell phone and a Zippo lighter. He keeps the lighter lit for most of the film so that we can see him—maybe not a good idea when oxygen is in short supply but the thing that kept bugging me is that he hangs onto the lighter most of the time and it should have burnt his fingers. He looks around the coffin for a possible escape hatch but doesn't notice a bag with instructions for making a hostage video until one of his kidnappers calls him and tells him where it's located—"it's by your left foot".

Then a snake shows up. Reynolds lights a fire which causes the snake to make a hasty exit. He's been making phone calls the whole time and eventually gets a call back from the Head of Human Resources at the place which had contracted him to drive a truck in Iraq. The HR guy gives him an exit interview and has him agree that the company shall not be responsible for anything that happens to him, and will not honor his life insurance policy, because he was fired earlier that morning for being too friendly with another employee. The satire of that scene was so broad it bombed.

The film does have a tension filled sad ending which I liked. The director's kohones showed up then, but the rest of the film is ridiculous.

Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Ryan Reynolds