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Oh Lucy!

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

Japanese Office worker Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) leaves her tiny flat – where she appears to live as a hoarder – and makes her way to work. Whilst she avoids her overbearing sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), she loves her niece Mika Ogawa (Australian born Shioli Kutsuna, who recently appeared in Deadpool 2) even though both see her as a doormat. Standing at the train station, Setsuko witnesses a man throw himself in front of a train. In another film, witnessing such an event would spur on our hero to seek out excitement, but in writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! it just means Setsuko is late for work.

It’s not until our downtrodden protagonist is encouraged to take an English class that things take a turn. There, Setsuko meets John (Josh Hartnett), an English tutor who knows very little Japanese and encourages his students to wear wigs and use western names in class. As an EAL gateway, he’s a bit of a flop, but to Setsuko he’s a chance for change. In a tacky blonde wig and using the name Lucy, Setsuka starts digging deep into herself to find something new.

Hirayanagi defies her audience’s expectations almost immediately. Rather than embracing life, Setsuko merely gets drunk and badmouths her colleagues at a leaving party. However, when Mika runs off with John to America, Setsuko takes Ayako to find her, even though it’s obvious she’s doing it for her own interests rather than that of her sibling.

Based on her own short, Hirayanagi has constructed a protagonist who, initially, breaks the stereotypical mould of someone who sets off to rediscover themselves ala Eat Pray Love or Shirley Valentine. No, in her dogged pursuit of John, Setsuko comes across as somewhat manipulative. Not that the audience isn’t made to feel sympathetic towards her. Knowing that her sister once stole her boyfriend from her, it’s understandable that Setsuko would look for love in all the wrong places. Hirayanagi is quick to prove that her hero is only human.

Once things move to the US though, Oh Lucy! loses something and it’s not just Hartnett’s foppish English teacher being exposed as a sad sack once he’s back on his home turf. Having originally kept the aforementioned rediscovery tropes at arm’s length, Setsuko’s world view is broadened by clichés of alcohol, drugs and sex. And as she explores America, she comes across as more naïve than you would expect. She’s not Eddie Murphy in Coming to America, but her actions don’t ring true. None of which gels with what we’ve seen of her previously. Though admittedly, this could be a byproduct of Setsuko reinventing herself.

That aside, there’s strength to be found in her interactions. As sisters, Minami and Terjima are wonderfully bitter to each other, sniping at any given chance. A highlight sees them bickering in broken English over the head of a fellow passenger, played by Megan Mullaly (Will and Grace).

Sombre with broad strokes of humour, Oh Lucy! may not do much with its fish out of water second half, but with strong performances by all the cast, Hirayanagi has assembled a testament to self-discovery that is happy to admit that we can’t make changes wholesale.

 
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Penguin Highway

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

Whenever a new anime feature film makes waves with a sense of whimsy, fantasy and bold storytelling the inevitable appraisals as ‘The New Hayao Miyazaki’ or questions as to whether a new ‘Studio Ghibli’ has emerged often accompanies the film’s immediate success. When in fact what we are seeing is the emergence of filmmakers having grown up on the works of previous masters such as Miyazaki, Otomo, Oshii and Takahata. Young bold filmmakers with unique visions and their own stories to tell.

Filmmakers such as Mamoru Hosoda of Summer Wars fame, Makoto Shinkai whose Your Name remains Japan’s top earning anime, and with the debut of Penguin Highway, independent filmmaker and animator Hiroyasu Ishida is likely to join the ranks of anime’s new avant-garde, having already drawn the above-mentioned comparisons.

Produced under Ishida’s own Studio Colorido banner, and based on the award winning novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Penguin Highway is an impressively paced boys-own-adventure story that begins as a light hearted character study of a precocious fourth grader which unexpectedly escalates into a wild end-of-the-world escapade, complete with metaphysical mysteries, strange jabberwocky monstrosities and, as the title suggests, plenty, and we do mean plenty, of penguins.

During its opening monologue, the film introduces us to Aoyama, an overtly confident, if somewhat socially awkward student who views the world as one large scientific experiment. Urged on by his father, Aoyama documents everything around him, from weather patterns to the behaviour of bullies. But when a rookery of penguin suddenly appears in a field, his curiosity is put to task in figuring out the how and why.

Turning to his friend and chess instructor, a young woman who works at the local dentist clinic, Aoyama soon discovers a number of peculiar incidents around his home town that seem to share an elusive common thread, the least of which include the fact that the dental nurse can manifest penguins from random objects, and that one of his fellow classmates has discovered a giant orb of water floating in a field hidden deep within the woods.

Without question Aoyama is the heart of Penguin Highway, and director Ishida handles the character beautifully as a guide to help his audience navigate the turbulent, and at times perplexing narrative. Coupled with the film’s gorgeous art design and a nostalgic undercurrent, reminiscent of films such as The Goonies or Monster Club, Penguin Highway undoubtedly warrants the inevitable comparisons it will receive, but remains far more deserving of praise as a unique, beautifully entertaining and wholly original film.

 
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Rampant

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

Hyun Bin and director Kim Sung-hoon teamed up last year for the South Korean buddy cop actioner Confidential Assignment, which showcased Kim Sung-hoon’s keen eye for action filmmaking. Rampant sees them teaming up again, though this time it’s for a zombie extravaganza set in feudal Korea, in the kingdom of Joseon.

The setup is convoluted but in a nutshell: Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) summons his carousing, roguish brother Lee Chung (Hyun Bin) back to the kingdom after years spent away (for reasons unknown). The cause for the Crown Prince’s invitation is that his kingdom is besieged by a zombie infestation that he hopes his estranged brother (who’s also a renowned sword fighter) can assist in quelling.

Sumptuously photographed and with lavish production design, this fusion of historical epic and zombie gore-fest largely works on the level of spectacle and for the most part, it chugs along with percussive momentum, setting up and executing terrifically enjoyable set-pieces.

The performances are curiously unengaging in terms of characterisation, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable, it’s only that they lack any semblance of irreverent humour or a knowing wink at the audience but Oldboy writer Hwang Jo-yoon and director Kim Sung-hoon are playing this for its drama, the only issue being that the drama is deeply ordinary and devoid of emotional heft.

There is enjoyably gruesome zombie imagery and when it does kick into high gear during the many set-pieces, it never seems to fall headlong into being a satisfying all-out zombie actioner, which would sate the horror crowd; it instead prefers to maintain a statelier period tone and try to play to a wider audience.

For fans of the undead genre and the frenzied spilling of arcing jets of claret, this is an entertaining ride through a juxtaposition of genre tropes; for the horror uninitiated, it may be too much of a gory punch to the face that lacks the ‘feels’ to pull you through the story.

 
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Tez Vi Truong: Whistleblower

Film Victoria’s Key Talent Director Placement supports emerging directors in skills development. Tez Vi Truong was the chosen candidate on The Whistleblower, Australia’s largest co-production with China.
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Soulcalibur VI

Asian Cinema, Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In some ways, Soulcalibur is the red-headed stepchild of the fighting game oeuvre. Not as technical and respected as the Tekken series, nor as instantly accessible as the Street Fighter franchise, it occupies a strange middle ground and has never been given the kudos that is so overdue. Happily, with Soulcalibur VI, the underrated franchise has its best chance at garnering mainstream attention, boasting a generous offering that is easy to pick up but satisfyingly deep to master.

Soulcalibur VI, like everything in 2018, is sort of a reboot, boiling down the various disparate plot threads from previous games, and plonking them down in one cohesive narrative set in the 16th Century. To be brutally frank, the story is serviceable at best, but it’s also quite clearly not the point. Ultimately both “Libra of Soul” and “Soul Chronicle” (aka: the story) modes want to get you into as many varied fights as possible, utilising various weapons and characters. Libra is the real star here, as you can create your own unique fighter and have them enter the game’s world, even levelling up and improving weapons – in an RPG-lite type of experience. Soul Chronicle offers a similar caper but using characters that already exist in the game, it’s similarly varied and offers action aplenty. These modes are legitimately impressive, and really give a sense of depth and lore (even if you end up skipping past some of the denser walls of exposition on screen).

Of course, a decent story offering would be for nothing if the game didn’t feel right, and yet again Soulcalibur delivers the goods. The combat, unlike most fighting games, is weapons-based and uses a combination of normal hits, hard hits, kicks and blocks. Once you start combining these simple elements – and take advantage of Soul Edge and Reversal Edge attacks – the variety is dizzying, but never so obtuse that it gets in the way of fun. Because, ultimately, that’s what a fighting game should be: a kicky-punchy (or hacky-slashy) good time. Soulcalibur VI delivers this and more, a gorgeously-animated, fast-paced flurry of spectacular moves and interesting modes. Feel like the lord of all creation as you tear through Libra of Soul and Arcade mode. Come falling back down to earth as you get your arse utterly spanked by a 13-year-old kid from Japan in the online component.

Soulcalibur is a great fighting game franchise, and Soulcalibur VI is, quite simply, a great fighting game. Take a chance on this unjustly overlooked combat caper and forge a violent path in this eternally retold tale.

 
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One Cut of The Dead

Asian Cinema, Film Festival, Horror, Review, short film, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

There’s much to be made about the opening shot of Shinichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, which is ostensibly a short wherein a film crew are attacked by zombies. As a 37-minute-long continuous shot that takes us in and out of warehouses and vehicles, it’s a technical marvel of low budget filmmaking which ends on a beautiful crane shot. But then there’s the little things that distract: gore splattered on screen is wiped off by a hand off camera, the cast miss their cues and in one instance, our hero calls for the director to cut. Taken on its own, this could be Ueda’s affectionate ribbing of when a filmmaker’s ideas just about out-reach their talent. It’s good, but it’s not great.

And then he flips the switch and One Cut of the Dead becomes something different entirely; a behind the scenes look at how the whole thing was put together.

It all begins with Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), a director of news re-enactments and karaoke videos. Mild mannered and aware of where he sits in the pecking order of life, his creed is “I’m fast, cheap, but average”. At home, his wife, Nao (Syuhama Harumi), moves from hobby to hobby to distract from her real passion of acting, whilst his daughter Mao (Mao) is an overzealous wannabe director who routinely gets fired. Things start looking up when Higaurashi is asked to direct a short film for a new Japanese horror channel. The catch is it must be filmed live and performed in one take. From here One Cut of The Dead follows Higurashi as he tries to achieve what he thinks is the impossible, but which we, the audience, knows can and will be done.

Starting with the film within a film and moving backwards to show its pre-production allows Ueda to have a lot of fun with narrative flow, rewarding his audience with jokes that snowball. Things that seemed out of place earlier, begin to make more sense as the film progresses. The key is how Ueda banks on you being ahead of his characters. So, when the prim and proper actor Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) tells Higurashi that she won’t film anything to do with vomiting, the humour comes from knowing where this will eventually lead to.

However, not content with the pre-production and constructing a satirical stab at the politics of filmmaking, Ueda goes one step further by showing us the production of the short. And it’s here that Ueda’s cast really jump into the chaos feet first, with Higurashi having to keep every mishap and blunder off camera in order to keep his bosses happy. Those who’ve seen the play, The Play That Goes Wrong, which adopts a similar ‘show must go on’ motif will know what to expect.

Put simply, One Cut of the Dead is a cinematic jigsaw with all the disparate pieces falling satisfyingly into place. Ueda’s attention to detail and meticulous planning is to be applauded as he weaves a clumsy horror short into a tableau which celebrates imagination, filmmaking, and, perhaps most importantly, family; whether that be the one you’re born into or the one you accumulate in a sweaty warehouse covered in fake blood.

 
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River’s Edge

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Teen angst remains a bedrock of the high school movie. Whether it be tackling first world problems in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or a coming of age tale in Lady Bird, teenagers can be found lamenting their plight at the hands of teachers or adults, who just don’t get them.

Adults are largely absent in River’s Edge, the latest film from Isao Yukisado. Their lack of presence becoming a metaphor for how much of a part they play in the lives of the film’s protagonists. Based on an early ‘90s Manga by the same name (and sharing the name and many of the themes with the cult 1986 Tim Hunter film starring Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper), the film charts the interwoven lives of a group of students – all of them deliberate stereotypes – as they wrestle with a cascade of problems inside and outside of school.

The main focus is on Haruna (Fumi Nikaidou) who regularly protects Ichiro (Ryo Yoshizawa), a closeted gay boy, from being beaten up by her boyfriend, Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi). In an effort to thank Haruna for help, Ichiro shows her the secret he keeps hidden in the long grass by a river: a rotted corpse which the young man visits in times of trouble. The fetid skeleton ends up symbolising the dark secrets that all the characters hide, whether it is a penchant for violent sex, becoming involved in prostitution or a willingness to commit bloody murder.

This makes River’s Edge sound like a no-holds barred visual fright fest, but these moments are scattered throughout the narrative. For the rest of the time, Yukisado follows the sombre teens as they wax lyrical to each other and an unknown interviewer about the lives they lead and want to lead. Like a Japanese Ken Park there is a never a moment when the audience doesn’t feel like something is going to go terribly wrong.

Despite splashes of gallows humour that lighten the mood on occasion, the film’s bleakness can be tough to wade through. Does that make it a bad film? Not necessarily. After all, despite the heightened reality of some scenes, there’s still a truth that will resonate with those who grew up never understanding why they were told high school would be the best years of their lives. Adults, it argues on behalf of its characters, are only there when things get really rough. Until then, you are left to navigate by yourself without a map.

Filmed in Academy ratio – giving the whole thing the feel of a demented after school special – and seasoned with suitably melodramatic performances from its cast, River’s Edge is the kind of film that will make you want to comfort its characters, whilst making you feel relatively grubby at the same time.

 
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I Want To Eat Your Pancreas

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

Fun fact: The average human pancreas weighs approx. 80 grams, has a creamy, rich mouth feel with a taste comparable to aged sashimi scallops… best not ask how we came about these facts.

But knowing this information has exactly as much relevance to the storyline of I Want To Eat Your Pancreas as the film’s actual title, and that’s to say, practically nothing. It’s not that there isn’t a passing mention of pancreas consumption, or that hardcore Japanese pop-culture fans will respond to some brand recognition, it’s just that compared to the other 99.8% of the film’s 108 minute run time, it’s a little puzzling that this is the reference Studio VLON used to label this beautifully rendered feature length anime for its Western release. Especially considering that the movie resonates as an emotional teenage coming-of-age fable that will likely have any wayward eighties-horror aficionados wondering into the cinema dabbing tears from their eyes as opposed to saliva from the corner of their mouths.

Spawned from the serialised novel by Yoru Sumino, and having already been adapted as a live-action film under the similarly ambiguous title of Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, director Shin’ichiro Ushijima wastes no time in establishing the bittersweet tone of his film, opening on a funeral scene weighed down by a somber narration delivered by the film’s central protagonist, Shiga.

From this point on, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas essentially takes place as a flashback, introducing Shiga as deeply introverted high schooler, more comfortable looking at the pages of a book than engaging with the world around him; a pastime that finds him in possession of a book he finds abandoned in a hospital waiting room. Flicking through its pages and realising it’s a personal dairy of a terminally ill patient, Shiga is suddenly confronted by one of his fellow classmates, the vivacious Sakura, who claims the dairy as hers.

Sakura explains that she suffers from a pancreatic disease, but as it doesn’t impact her day-to-day health nobody besides her immediate family know of her illness, and begs Shiga to keep her secret.

More distressed by having a conversation with a fellow classmate than learning of her condition, Shiga basically indicates he couldn’t care less and walks off. An action that immediately fascinates and attracts Sakura, bonding her to him regardless of his discomfort.

To call what follows, a simple teen love story, would do an injustice to what is essentially a beautifully crafted relationship between two damaged souls, deftly jumping between light-hearted playfulness and emotionally jarring moments that resonate with genuine angst.

Best known for his work on the series One Punch Man, director Ushijima has crafted a captivating and emotional work with his debut feature. And while the film does suffer from some pacing issues during its second act; never quite reaching the sense of heartbreak it strives for, it’s a film that nonetheless gets beneath the skin and eats away at you long after the credits roll… right down to your pancreas.