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Hi, Mom

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

Chinese co-writer/director and star Ling Jia has crafted a heartfelt film about a mother and daughter that uses elements of fantasy, slapstick comedy and drama to express the meaningful bond that is created between parent and child.

A huge commercial success in China (which has inspired many to share the stories of their own relationships with their mother in online forums), Ling Jia used elements of her own biography to create the story, and the authentic nature of what she achieves here shines through even when the film veers occasionally into the absurd.

Jia Xio Ling (Ling Ja) isn’t what anyone would call a typically desirable daughter; she’s not attractive, her grades are average at best, and she feels that she has let her mother down by not fitting into the perfect ideal of young womanhood. She goes as far as to have her university acceptance faked to make her mother proud of her. After a particularly disastrous party where Jia Xio Ling’s deception is uncovered, her mother has a terrible accident. Whilst in the hospital, a strange occurrence sends the daughter from the present (2001) back to 1981 where she meets her mother as a young woman.

Ling’s mother, Li Huan Ying (Xiaofei Zhang) meets the strange young woman and immediately recognises her as a ‘cousin.’ The two become fast friends, with Ling intervening more than once on Ying’s behalf with her rival Wang Qin. Firstly, she arranges through somewhat absurd subterfuge, to ensure that Ying is the first person to bring a television to the factory in which she works.

Determined to make her mother happy, Ling undertakes to arrange a more profitable life for the young woman by ensuring that she is given a life changing opportunity. This opportunity comes in the form of Ying playing in a volleyball game that Ling’s aunt had assured her in 2001, would have set her on the path to something special – a path that was eventually taken by Wang Qin, a wealthy doyenne of their social group in 2001.

Ling begins to understand that the missed opportunity was a chance for Ying to meet and eventually fall in love with Shen Guang Lin, the son of the factory owner and soon to be senior Party member. Ling tries everything from arranging boating expeditions to appearing in amateur dramatics to help the budding romance take flight. Not only is she trying to change her mother’s future, she is also trying to change her own. Instead of the clumsy and average young woman she sees herself as, with a new and more successful father, she too may amount to something greater in the future.

At times, the escapades seem drawn out and reliant on humour that doesn’t always translate. However, the bond between Ling and Ying is strengthened at every turn. Ling makes Ying happy, just not in the way she expected. Failing to secure a new future for her mother leaves Ling devastated until she begins to understand Ying’s desires aren’t for a grand life. A final twist in the plot reveals an emotional core to the film which will leave many deeply moved.

Ling Ja’s performance is warm and funny, but it is Xiaofei Zhang who is the true star of the film. Ying is a delightful character and by the time the audience has spent time with her and Ling, the bond between the two women is deeply felt. The ensemble cast works a treat in elevating some of the extended comic sequences.

It isn’t surprising that Hi, Mom has been met with acclaim in China, because it is a touching and well realised family dramedy. The film has a broad appeal and audiences should be prepared to laugh and cry as it takes them on a journey through the pure love between a mother and her daughter.

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Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train

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

Anime films of this nature have an immediate barrier to entry: an audience’s potential unfamiliarity with the franchise. As this is not only the cinematic continuation of a 26-episode series, but has also become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time (knocking the classic Spirited Away off the throne in the process), it could end up drawing animation junkies in who might not entirely know what they’re getting themselves into. Will newbies understand how breathing techniques are meant to make someone summon flame tigers and water dragons, or what that guy is doing running around with a boar’s mask on his head?

Fortunately, while it may not be the most beginner-friendly feature out there, it does well enough at getting the audience up to speed regardless.

Set in a world of demons and Demon Hunters, the film follows brave Tanjiro, sheepish Zenitsu, and the aforementioned boar-mask berserker Inosuke, as they board a train regularly beset by demons. The voice acting is great across the board, from Natsuki Hanae’s tragic strength as Tanjiro, Yoshisugu Matsuoka imbuing Inosuke with a relentless bestial spirit, Satoshi Hino as veteran Demon Hunter Rengoku – memetic from his first word, and Daisuke Hirakawa as the main demon Enmu is spine-chilling in his delivery.

And all those voices are backed up by spectacular presentation, courtesy of animation studio Ufotable, who not only worked on the original series, but more adventurous anime-heads may recognise their work on the Junji Ito nightmare Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack. They bring a similar sense of visceral terror to the proceedings here, from the copious amounts of blood (and the gleefully energetic fight scenes that spill them) to the grotesque visualisation of Enmu’s powers, turning an ordinary train into the realm of an eldritch incubus.

All that, while still engaging in more traditional Shonen hyperactivity, where it seems like everyone has their quirk settings stuck on 11 and will randomly break out into dialogue seemingly designed to be repeated in Internet forums worldwide. With that in mind, the film’s juggling of tones is rather impressive, shifting quickly from confronting psychological territory to light-hearted banter at the drop of a hat… yet without that hat dropping on the floor in the process.

It may not be the most open to newcomers, and its final act can feel like a sudden track switch into a completely different story, but it serves as a decent introduction into the world of Demon Slayer.

The characters are fun, the action is exciting, the horror is both profound and profoundly gross, and within its main demographic, it harkens back to the days when Bleach was in its youthful prime and Fullmetal Alchemist could be incredibly silly and heartbreaking all at once. It’s not the smoothest ride, but still one worth taking, no matter where you get on from.

Photos: ©Koyoharu Gotoge / SHUEISHA, Aniplex, ufotable

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Earwig and the Witch

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The latest film from Studio Ghibli, their first since 2014’s When Marnie Was There, could be mistaken, from the title alone, as a riff on John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There’s even a rock band featured prominently that could have walked straight out of a drag club. However, Earwig and the Witch couldn’t really be any further from that 2001 cult film.

For the first time, Ghibli utilise computer animation, adapting Diana Wynne Jones’s 2011 book about Earwig, a wily young girl brought up in an orphanage until she is adopted by witch Bella Yagga and sorcerer The Mandrake. Now, you’d assume that witches and sorcerers living together would mean all sorts of bad news, however, these guys are all about coming up with spells to win dog showing contests and writing novels, rather than cursing their enemies – which they can also do, it’s just not their priority right now. Instead, they adopt Earwig to help them with chores, like picking out spell ingredients from the yard or crushing rat bones; but she is keen to know more… Things open up for her when she teams up with Thomas, Bella Yagga’s black cat.

It’s a simple tale, easily understood by children of most ages, and the message around accepting difference, even when there are preconceptions, is something to savour. However, viewers expecting the usual flights of fancy of most Ghibli films, including the other Diana Wynne Jones adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle, will most likely be disappointed by Earwig’s simplicity and episodic nature. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) and supervised by his famous father Hayao, there’s a lot to admire here, but it’s also quite slight in the end.

You don’t get swept away by Earwig as much as appreciate the Ghiblian character design and world building, and the juxtaposition between the macabre and the cute. The Japanese twist on an English story is also refreshing, bringing a nice balance between the harsh and the soft, but it really doesn’t reach beyond the surface. It’s ultimately a welcome, if not outstanding, addition to the Studio Ghibli canon and nothing like John Cameron Mitchell’s groundbreaking Hedwig, but in the words of another classic movie, ‘you know, for kids.’

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Lupin the Third: The First

animation, Asian Cinema, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Remember when an action-adventure film would actually deliver a fun, entertaining romp without the existential angst or deadpan violence? Well, thankfully Lupin the Third: The First has landed to remind us of what good old fashion action-adventure movies can be.

The latest big screen adventure of the titular Monkey Punch creation, Lupin the Third: The First marks the first time the franchise has received full CGI treatment, delivering a beautifully rendered world where its cast of rogues feel completely at home within some remarkable action sequences, exotic locales and an impressive English language dub.

For those unfamiliar with Lupin III, pronounced as a solid French Lu-Pon, the Japanese series has been running since 1967 across a number of mediums including print, animation and live action Japanese films. Created by manga artist Kazuhiko Kato aka Monkey Punch, the story follows the illegal machinations of the grandson of famed French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, made famous in a series of French novels by Maurice Leblanc. And while the licensing rights, and subsequent lawsuits to the characters are something of legend in Japanese publishing, The First offers newcomers a relaxed, enjoyable introduction to the franchise’s key cast of characters while managing to pay reverence to long time fans, and the Parisian origins of the series.

Set during the 1960s, The First is at heart a heist film, setting our anti-hero Lupin III against his nemesis Detective Zenigata, a naive young officer with a hidden agenda named Laetitia, and a cult of Nazi zealots, all seeking to possess the fabled Bresson Diary; a heavily booby-trapped mechanical book thought to reveal the location of an ancient Aztec weapon known as The Eclipse.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, whose credits include the Always: Sunset of Third Street trilogy and Parasyte films, The First plays like an authentic ‘80s action-adventure film, offering fans of the genre a familiar cocktail of Indiana Jones, Connery era James Bond and Spielbergian adventure. All of which is complimented by a strong English dub helmed by professional voice actors Tony Oliver (Lupin III) and Laurie Hymes (Laetitia) who imbue their characters with charm, humour and when necessary a perfectly balanced sense of gravitas.

Visually, Lupin the Third: The First delivers a solid CGI experience; while not completely on par with the likes of The Adventures of Tintin, the final product is none-the-less entirely absorbing, crafting a fun urgency to the many raucous chase scenes while the cataclysmic effects of the film’s ultimate McGuffin, The Eclipse are brilliantly effective.

While it may not have the exposure that a Pixar or Disney film might attract, Lupin the Third: The First certainly deserves a look. It goes without saying that it’s been an exhausting year, and if you’re looking to indulge your nostalgia of more relaxed times, or simply looking to educate your kids on what movies use to feel like, then embrace a little cinematic self-love and take yourself, and the family, to the see Lupin the Third: The First in cinemas.

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Raising the Net in Leap

We speak with the director and star of China’s official selection for the International Feature Oscar, Leap, a sports drama about the rise, fall and resurrection of the country’s feted women’s volleyball team.