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First Love

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Is there a more versatile and prolific director on the planet than Takashi Miike? The Japanese master has lobbed out 100+ films since the early ‘90s and, shockingly, many of them are straight up masterpieces. Don’t believe us? Try Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), Gozu (2003), Thirteen Assassins (2010) and Blade of the Immortal (2017) for just a sampling of the legend’s work. Put simply: any time there’s a Takashi Miike film to be seen, it’s good news. And his latest effort, First Love, continues the trend of excellence.

First Love weaves a twisted tale featuring multiple characters intersecting in interesting and ironic ways. We’ve got Leo (Masataka Kubota) as an expert boxer who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. There’s Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who is forced into drug addiction and prostitution to pay off her father’s debts. Sneakily ambitious Kase (Shota Sometani) who has a plan to rip off his Yakuza bosses, and corrupt cop Ōtomo (Nao Omori) who decides to help him. Naturally nothing goes to plan for anyone, and Miike delights in throwing these disparate plot strands into a pot and boiling up a heaping helping of violent, fast-paced, blackly comedic magic.

In terms of Miike’s other work, First Love is a much more crowd pleasing affair, eschewing the genuinely shocking gore of Audition or Ichi the Killer for slick, but non-gratuitous blood-letting. Tone-wise, the film feels a bit like a Japanese riff on Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance and a bunch of other ‘90s flicks. Performances are rock solid, with the always reliable Masataka Kubota making a solid lead, and Nao Omori providing a deliciously schlubby turn. However, it’s the recording artist known as Becky who has the most fun as the vengeful Julie, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as set it alight and snort the ashes.

First Love is Takashi Miike in full-on crowd-pleasing action/thriller mode. Expect twists, turns, surprises, violence, love and Miike’s wry, knowing wit. If a bloke can make films this fun after directing over one hundred of the bloody things, here’s to Takashi knocking out a hundred more.

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The Rescue

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The Rescue is the capper of what can be considered a thematic trilogy for Chinese director Dante Lam, following up Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea, all fictionalised showcases for the men and women who make the public service personnel of the country. Mekong featured the police force, Red Sea had the Navy, and now Rescue shows members of the China Rescue and Salvage arm of the Ministry Of Transportation. It’s a great big blockbuster feature, but what makes this truly remarkable isn’t what it gets right. Rather, it’s what it gets right that rationally should not work in the first place.

This film looks amazing, to the point where it ends up showing up the Hollywood standard at its own bombastic game. The visual effects work courtesy of Digital Domain and Scanline VFX, who regularly work on Marvel efforts, hit a nice stylistic balance which makes clear why they’re going with CGI to begin with, but without its use being too conspicuous and/or distracting. From the opening oil rig rescue to the nail-biting finale, it all bursts onto the screen. To say nothing of the mind-blowing cinematography from Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Forbidden Kingdom), who utilises multiple points-of-view and incredibly fluid movement to keep every moment engaging. Even on the rescuers’ down time.

Because all work and no play makes for dull cliché, we end up following these heroes in their personal lives as well, primarily Eddie Peng’s Gao Qian, and it’s here where the perplexing part comes in. Going from the intense action scenes to Gao’s son playing romantic matchmaker (that’s a trope that really should have been left in the ‘90s) is the kind of tonal whiplash that usually comes from Bollywood productions, and the effect is about the same.

Hell, the more comedic and even emotional scenes not involving life-saving are so unashamedly goofy, that whiplash can feel all too literal at times. No doubt, the cheesy Western localisation doesn’t help, as kung-fu-style dubbing may be sensible given the visual energy, but still gives this an almost-lotiony sheen.

And yet, even those moments still work. It may feel like being pulled from one emotional reaction to another by the ankles, but it results in a solid hit every time, whether it’s the gut punch from the more tear-jerking moments or just the cheesy grinning at how precious things can get, particularly between Gao and his son. Between the humour and the emergency workers as superheroes, this is basically Playing With Fire done right.

The production values let the caped moments shine like wildfires, and the humanity of their civilian identities may be silly (okay, definitely silly), but it’s a likeable kind of silly. The kind that only works in the realm of blockbuster cinema, where the need to please crowds in droves overrides any semblance of self-awareness and just lets movies be fun. And for the rest of 2020, this is where the ‘fun’ benchmark will sit.

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Only Cloud Knows

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

To term Only Cloud Knows as a wistful romantic drama, is to seriously underestimate the weapons-grade ‘twist’ contained therein. Directed by Chinese filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, whose predominantly been known for a spray of commercially successful comedies and period films (notably Back to 1942 as well as dramas like the box office blockbuster, Youth), his genre hopping efforts of late have also included romantic melodramas.

His latest New Zealand-set story deploys the slick, ‘forever magic hour’ tone of Nicholas Sparks stories (like The Lucky One or The Notebook)) though its sombre plot is firmly intended to hit audiences right in the ‘feels’. Just like those Sparks stories, Only Cloud Knows creates an aesthetically and emotionally pleasing cocktail of style with an authentic emotional charge that significantly increases the stakes in the longing, love and loss department.

It’s told in flashback, as a widower returns to his former home to scatter the ashes of his wife and reminisces about their lives there. Thus begins the tale of Simon, whose Chinese name is Dongfeng Sui (played by Xuan Huang) and his wife Jennifer, whose real name is Yun Luo (played by Caiyu Yang). The film’s title is from the pun in their names, with Yun meaning ‘cloud’ and DongFeng meaning ‘wind’.

After initially meeting in Auckland as new arrivals in New Zealand, the pair later relocate to an almost incomprehensibly beautiful central Otago south-island property, that is so stunningly green and rolling, it’s reasonable to expect a Hobbit to walk past at any moment.

The pair open a Chinese restaurant in the small town of Clyde, using the nearby snow-capped alps as an epic background to the intimacy the story is trying to engender. The almost storybook tone is obvious and plot events are heavily signposted, yet confoundingly, it’s utterly effective.

Through flashbacks, we’re introduced to Melinda (Lydia Peckham), a local Clyde girl looking to work in their newly opened restaurant who becomes a close friend to the couple; we meet their disgustingly adorable rescue dog Blue and we generally envy the idyllic life they enjoy.

Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding’s honey-slicked visuals and Dong Gang’s relentlessly heartstring-tugging score are the coup de grâce to a triangulated filmic headshot. The sheer force of the emotional manipulation on display is so undeniably unassailable, there’s just no option but to submit to its syrupy, sweet sorrow and just have a quiet sob in the cinema toilet stall.

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Dying to Survive

Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

A low-level businessman on the make becomes something of a Big-Pharma Robin Hood in this Chinese box office hit (earning $450 million domestically).

Dying to Survive dramatises true life events, telling the tale of Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng), a Shanghai store owner who struggles to sell his dodgy Indian-imported erection pills to a dissipating clientele. Cheng Yong is engaged in a bitter divorce with his ex-wife Cao Lin (Gong Beibei) who’s looking to move overseas and take their young son, Xiaoshu (Zhu Gengyou) with her. To make matters worse, a routine meeting with divorce attorneys devolves into an aggressive tussle, culminating in Cheng’s Police Detective brother-in-law Cao Bin (Zhou Yiwei) threatening to lay a severe beating on him.

Broke and faced with estrangement from his young son, Cheng Yong discovers a potentially booming underground market for cheap medication to treat Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. He meets the eccentric Lv Shuoyi (Wang Chuanjun), a CML sufferer who inspires him to try and reinvigorate his sagging finances by (illegally) importing a generic brand of CML medication from an Indian Pharmaceutical manufacturer that sells it for a fraction of the cost of its absurdly overpriced counterpart (called Gleevec in the real world, it’s produced by Swiss Pharma company Novartis).

Hitting a wall when he initially attempts to shift the merchandise, Cheng Yong meets exotic dancer Liu Sihui (Tan Zhuo), whose own daughter is sick with CML and is in desperate need of the medication. Soon, with Liu Sihui’s help, Cheng Yong develops a motley network of distributors, who help him distribute the generic medication to the patients who need it.

Many reviewers have reductively termed this ‘a Chinese Dallas Buyers Club’, which although fairly accurate, gives short shrift to a lot of the genuinely enjoyable elements on offer here. Xu Zheng’s hapless and down-on-his-luck Cheng Yong is an appealingly shambolic character who makes taking the journey with him rewarding and at times, even moving.

It’s a testament to the talents of Director Wen Muye and his co-writer’s Han Jianu & Zhong Wei, that Dying to Survive has such a sense of vitality and humanity, coupled with a universally engaging premise in depicting the almost totalitarian stranglehold that big pharmaceutical companies have in most countries and the ethical vacuum in which they conduct their business: by denying the poor and the financially destitute any ability to afford even the most basic forms of life-extending medication.

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Hakuna Matata Macoto

We spoke with Macoto Tezuka, who is nostalgic in the most Japanese way possible, about his cult ‘80s film, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers.