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Pompo The Cinephile

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Artistic ideals are difficult to live up to. The belief that art, cinema in particular, has the power to accomplish the wondrous can light a fire in the heart, but it often has to be reconciled with compromise… Sacrifice. Especially of the artist, possibly more than they are willing to give up.

In this latest animated feature from director Takayuki Hirao (Death Note, Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack) and animation studio CLAP, we are given precisely 90 minutes (minus bookending credits) of that dichotomy in action. With the help of a loli-fied Roger Corman, because Japan.

The titular Pompo, a child who inherited her grandfather’s film studio, specialises in producing trashy B-movies that are more interested in sex appeal than any kind of ‘prestige’ status. While her statements on the industry range from glib (“Happiness destroys creativity”) to bracing (“Making a tearjerker moving is easy, but making a silly film moving takes genius”), she embodies the almost-childlike idealism required to keep hold of that spirited perspective of cinema. She keeps the film on a tonal path reminiscent of La La Land or maybe even The Comeback Trail, where the harsh reality of the industry is tinted with a rosy glow only found in the world of dreams.

Not that this is entirely her story, though. More so, it centers on Gene Fini, one of Pompo’s assistants, who she gives the opportunity to direct and edit his first feature film. The visualization of his creative process, from constructing how his film looks to the almost DBZ-style Shonen imagery of him at the editing desk, has Hirao and CLAP doing some serious flexing on-screen. The animation here is simply gorgeous, with highly creative scene transitions to show that the production’s admiration for the editing process is more than skin-deep.

As the audience sees Gene and his baggy eyes dart through all the collected footage, first-time actress Nathalie dealing with her own nerves, and Pompo being the epitome of hyperactive anime girl, the goals of Hirao as director and Gene as director-stand-in align: They want the watcher to find themselves in the art. Amidst the shaky but ultimately resonating depiction of ‘Nyallywood’ and its inner mechanics, auteur theory shines through brightest in the film’s larger understanding of cinema as a deeply personal and self-sacrificing practice. It arguably goes further into romanticisation than even La La Land, but as portrayed by these highly relatable characters, it still manages to win out.

Pompo The Cinephile is a child’s dream of making it in the movie business that highlights just how many artistic dreams are themselves borne from what is too often decried as ‘childish’ thinking. Bolstered by a very personable cast, a tremendously quotable script, and visuals to die for, it’s an animated film that should offer entertainment for filmmaker and audience alike.

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Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

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Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car was the standout success of the 2021 Sydney Film Festival (where it took out the top prize). Despite the fact that its three hour narrative ran at a far from runaway speed, the film engrossed critics and audiences alike. It seemed that here, suddenly, was a mature directorial talent with his own assured style. Not only that but he writes the screenplays too. Hamaguchi is a major talent.

Like his previous film, the new effort Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy takes its time to explore every nuance of character from its small cast. It mostly gets its effect by long dialogue-heavy scenes in which two characters explore a topic while the camera hardly moves. There is no need for swirling camera work or close ups when the script and acting is this subtle and intelligent. Perhaps it would be stereotyping to say that this is very Japanese, but the quality of formality and of polite reserve in tension with repressed strong emotion is a large part of what makes the scenes so involving.

The film has a three-part structure; with three tales that have thematic links between the characters’ dilemmas. As each is really a short feature, the overall running time is around two hours. However, it is a sign of Hamaguchi’s craft that they never feel long or drawn out.

Once you enter the inner world of the characters you want to follow every twist and turn of the conversations. A lot of the film is concerned with sex and desire and, though there is nothing on screen beyond a simple kiss, the sense of erotic energy is often present. In one segment, a lesbian woman tells of the torment she felt at school in not being able to express or act upon her desire. In another, a woman tries to seduce a university teacher as part of an elaborate ‘honey trap’ with unintended consequences.

The work as a whole adds up to a mesmerising collage of lost connections, regrets and sliding door moments. As the film reminds us, most of life is contingent. In love too, we are often plagued by that ‘if only I had done this’ element. Then. perhaps, things might not have been as they are. Any love, or life, contains possible pasts as well as uncertain futures.

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Memoria starts with a locked off, very mundane shot of a curtain with a dark, triangular shape in the foreground. This holds for around a minute until an incredibly loud bang provokes the shape to move. This is the shoulder of Tilda Swinton’s Jessica, and she slowly rises and wanders through her apartment, settling at a table next to some caged mice. Cut to a car park at night, where alarms start sounding and continue for what feels like ages. They eventually die out one by one, all held in a glacial zooming shot. The director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), is deliberately setting out his stall.

The source of the loud bang is the nominal thrust of the film, as Jessica, almost half-heartedly, investigates the cause. But the noise is just a pretext for Weerasethakul to explore ideas of displacement, disconnection, memory, and the weight of history. Jessica is an English botanist, working in Colombia, where her sister and sister’s family also live.

This is an elliptical film, most of the decisions are made off-screen, and the setting suits its cryptic nature. Jessica is alien to this place, and her discombobulation affects the audience as well. She visits a sound mixer called Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) to try to pinpoint the exact noise. This is a great scene, maybe the most technical of the film, the rest hang somewhere between the oblique and the spiritual.

Audio is an important touchstone in Memoria. The soundtrack is filled with noises, from a creaking chair, incessant bug chirping, running water, to the recurring bang. The whole thing plays out like a mild psychological horror film. There’s a scene in a restaurant where the bang happens a few times, each one cranking up the tension, as Jessica’s sister and family react to her reaction, and it’s oddly mesmerising. Incidentally, the bang Jessica hears is actually a phenomenon called ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’. Yep, really. Anyway, the constancy of sound is highlighted near the end when Jessica puts her hands to her head and ALL sound disappears from the film for a moment – it’s a neat trick by the director.

The look of Memoria is simple, even perfunctory at times, yet comfortingly rich at others. The aforementioned long takes are there throughout, and though ponderous (and sometimes boring), they suit the feel of the film. At one point, Salvador Dalí is mentioned by a doctor and the events following this moment would certainly fit Surrealism, though some of the shots border on Abstract Expressionism or maybe Suprematism, in their near rejection of art.

Jessica’s search takes her to the jungle, accompanying an archaeologist friend, where she meets another Hernán (Elkin Díaz), who helps her ‘discover’ the source of the bang. The film does something strange here. It slows down dramatically, while also speeding up the resolution. It’s maddening, unsettling, almost close to a joke at times, but if you can go with it, there are enough enigmatic touches to maintain curiosity levels.

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Jujutsu Kaisen 0

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It’s time once again for some shōnen shenanigans, where angst-riddled teenagers are pitted against spiritual manifestations of people’s bad vibes in a battle to save the world. What’s more, this is something of a rarity within that anime demographic, as this is a prequel to a larger series that is actually accessible to new viewers.

Yes, those who haven’t been introduced to the story of one kid’s quest to find and swallow rotten fingers can safely enter and only be mildly confused by what’s going on. Although that’s not necessarily because of pre-existing canon, but more a result of the film’s… idiosyncrasies, let’s say.

When Gege Akutami initially wrote and drew the manga that this is based on, his focus was aimed more towards Rule Of Cool than anything thematically deep. That M.O. ends up showing through in this adaptation, as it follows a rather loose early-Bleach formula that emphasises the action scenes and creature designs over emotional engagement. What good luck, then, that studio MAPPA manage to keep that intact with some fun set pieces.

The Curses that main character Yuta Okkotsu and his classmates encounter are suitably grotesque and unnerving, and the acrobatic ways they are dispatched make for good eye candy.

That, and some supreme mind fuel, where it feels like at least two diametrically opposed emotional reactions are fighting for room in the audience’s heads at any given moment.

With its flipping back and forth between twee high school melodrama and edgy dark fantasy material, there are numerous instances where what is shown is somehow cute, disturbing, and second-hand embarrassing all at the same time.

Whether it’s the giant sentient stuffed Panda trying to play matchmaker out of nowhere, teacher Satoru Gojo and his aloof Captain Hindsight routine, or Yuta’s relationship with his own Curse Rika (a combination of a Death Note Shinigami and Judge Death), there’s a lot of weird going on here.

As digressional and aimless as it can get for a decent amount of the time, what holds it all together is that latter addition: The core relationship between Yuta and Rika. It’s where the film’s more morbid sensibilities and its capacity for genuine tenderness find a healthy balance, bringing an unerringly personal dimension to an otherwise standard battle against supremacist evil. It’s the kind of messed-up love story, told from a specifically precocious perspective, that resonates on a number of levels, not the least of which is the mantra of making something positive of your life.

Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is an entertaining feature both because of and in spite of its own design, given its sporadic shifts in mood and narrative focus throughout. Those familiar with the series will get a kick out of seeing supporting faces get fleshed out, while newcomers can safely get lost in a world that is equal parts preciously goofy and darkly heartbreaking, without needing to think too hard about sorcerers who speak only in ingredients for meat bun recipes.

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Escape from Mogadishu

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With the onslaught of distressing imagery of a war-torn Ukraine being splashed across every conceivable news medium at present, it’s difficult to watch Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu without being reminded of the tragedy playing out in real time.

Depicting the genesis of the Somali Civil War in 1991, the film eerily echoes many of the stories that confront us today, from heart-wrenching moments of families being ripped apart to scenes of all-out destruction.

Escape from Mogadishu views the overthrowing of Siad Barre’s military junta through the eyes of both the foreign UN delegates attempting to flee the carnage and the Somalian natives trying to survive it.

Specifically, the film uses the politically fraught relationship between South and North Korea (represented by Kim Yoon-seok and Heo Joon-ho playing their respective ambassadors) as a microcosm of the rivalries that must be overcome to escape the greater, more imminent threat. Initially framing the two countries’ antagonism through the lens of a relatively petty dispute over a suitcase of diplomatic gifts, the film’s emotional arc hinges on whether these leaders can eventually reconcile their troubled history.

Mileage will vary as to the success of the film in this sense — as an historical re-enactment — based on each viewer’s familiarity with the nations’ complicated affiliation. However, irrespective of the plot’s realism, it works exceptionally well as a thriller.

The possibility of one side having to defect to the other before they collaborate presents a seemingly insurmountable political hurdle obstructing their desperation to return home. It becomes a battle of wills, with neither ambassador ready to bend to the other.

The film’s ultimate achievement is hinted at in its title. Despite its admirable heart and advocacy of reconciliation, Ryoo Seung-wan has, above all, crafted a startlingly brutal and gripping action film. Once the rebel United Somali Congress makes their presence known, the tone shifts completely. The sequences of violence on the streets are unrelenting, confronting, and bloody. Nothing about this film shies away from the reality of its inspiration. More upsetting still are the scenes involving children — not the violence inflicted upon them, but rather how the USC has recruited them as pawns in their coup.

The jewel in the film’s battered and bruised crown is the climactic convoy chase sequence — the ambassadors’ rudimentarily reinforced cars run the gauntlet of Mogadishu on their way to freedom, under heavy fire from the USC. The camerawork here is breathtaking as our POV scuttles from one car to the next in frantic single takes.

It is little wonder that this was the highest grossing Korean film of 2021. While it may fall slightly flat in terms of its aspiration to be a searing political drama, those seeking a meticulously choreographed and strikingly shot action thriller will find little to complain about.

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Her Love Boils Bathwater

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There is a lot to unpack with the latest film from rising Japanese filmmaker Ryōta Nakano (The Long Goodbye). Selected as Japan’s official entry for best international film at the 90th Academy Awards, the drama is essentially the story of Futaba Sachino, diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, leaving her with only a few months to live.

As a result, Futaba decides to face her complicated past in order to reunite those who have shaped her life with the hope that they will support each other once she has passed. It’s a goal which initially includes her estranged deadbeat husband who simply vanished overnight forcing the closure of their bathhouse business; but which quickly expands to Futaba having to reconcile her emotions toward her own parents; exposing uncomfortable truths about her own daughter’s past, dealing with the repercussions of her husband’s infidelity and embracing a number of unexpected players in the final act of her life. All the while fighting the physical ravages of the cancer.

While the film delves into heavy subject matter, Nakano’s ability to weave the various threads into a cohesive tapestry delivers a hopeful, moving, and humorous tale, advocating forgiveness and celebrating connection over loss.

Its success relies on the talents of the film’s lead Rie Miyazawa (Pale Moon, The Naked Director), who once again manages to command the screen with a multifaceted performance, at once heartbreaking and utterly compelling. Her abandoned wife, struggling mother and mentor is essential to the film’s gravity and heart, elevating the performance of each actor she shares the screen with.

There are very Japanese elements to Her Love Boils Bathwater, which might be considered melodramatic, and occasionally odd, but as the story edges toward its affecting apex, Nakano and Miyazawa never waiver from the anchor of the film’s central premise; that life is messy, complicated and beautiful, and much better served with an open heart, forgiveness and love without agenda.