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

At a time when Black Mirror remains the dominant pop culture reflection of man’s relationship with technology, and the Internet in particular, this film immediately grabs attention because it swings in the opposite direction.

In the latest cyberspace coming-of-age story from Mamoru Hosoda, of Summer Wars and two-thirds of Digimon: The Movie fame, the depiction of the Internet through the virtual world of U is among the most inviting ever put to screens. The beautifully rendered 2.5D animation, the sheer scale of the digital world and all its facets, the conscious but optimistic tone of the story; this ain’t your daddy’s Hellscape.

With that as the foundation, Hosoda offers a spin on the classic story of Beauty & The Beast. Bolstering the original’s look at surface-level prejudices and finding one’s true self, the story of Suzu and her titular pop idol avatar (acted and sung angelically by Kaho Nakamura) is as much about her coming to terms with her own identity as it is about her trying to break through to that of The Dragon (Takeru Satoh).

In its exploration of the Internet as a place for introverts to discover themselves, the writing and visuals have Makoto (Your Name) Shinkai-sized gut-punches lying in wait, showing a breadth of understanding of what can make socialised media such a drag to deal with… but also, something that a lot of people need to help them with the real world’s vile nonsense. It sticks firmly to the idea of the digital self as a source of empowerment, and through the eyes of Suzu, both as an awkward high schooler and as a captivating music star, is an invigorating one.

Much like the Disney’s version of Beauty & The Beast, Belle is also a musical. Well, in as much as something like anime Macross Plus could be considered a musical, since they share an equal emphasis on music and song as a means of personal and even communal revelation.

Nakamura’s utterly disarming voice, combined with the work of composers Taisei Iwasaki, Ludvig Forssell, Yuta Bandoh, and Miho Sakai, creates an enveloping and rapturous soundtrack, one that manages to push the film’s already-monumental levels of emotional engagement even higher. At this point, tickets for it should be printed on facial tissue, because audiences are going to need it on hand.

Belle is one of the most heartrending depictions of the Internet in recent memory, not by resorting to trendy cynical nihilism, but by showing that it is also capable of the miraculous. It manages to celebrate the good that can take place, but in an honest fashion, which only makes its consistently tear-jerking developments hit that much harder. And beyond that, it’s a very touching and resonant tribute to those who occupy these screens not to punch others down, but to raise others up, including themselves.

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

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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Embrace Again

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

After the success of her 2019 thriller The Whistleblower, writer/ director Xiaolu Xue returns with the poignant and emotionally charged opus Embrace Again, a chronicle of the Chinese metropolis Wuhan, as it faces a sudden and harsh lockdown in January of 2020 in order to control the rapid COVID-19 outbreak.

As we’ve seen with the handful of Pandemic films that have emerged in the west, Embrace Again doesn’t lean into any of the usual conspiracy, dystopian thriller tropes, instead Xue has crafted a series of interconnected stories that not only humanise the chaos faced by the city, but the very real fear, resilience and charity of everyday people caught up in the city.

Borrowing a narrative style similar to the popular interconnected anthology films of the 2000s such as Paris, Je T’aim, Tokyo and [heaven forbid] Valentine’s Day, Embrace Again has four primary storylines running through its two-hour plus stretch, including a beautifully effecting romance between an elderly paediatrician (Wu Yanshu) and a chef (Benz Hui); an odd-couple friendship between a vivacious delivery driver (Jia Ling) and an academic shut-in (Zhu Yilong); an immature father (Huang Bo) forced to live in his car to protect his wife and son from exposure and a middle-age married couple (Xu Fan and Gao Yalin) who reconnect as their travel agency is shuttered.

Utilising her impressive cast, which also includes A-Listers Zhou Dongyu (Under the Hawthorn Tree) and Liu Haoran (Detective Chinatown), Xue has crafted a tender love letter, and a heart-felt thank you to the people and city of Wuhan. Her ability to strip the film of any politicisation without glossing over the seriousness of the reality, will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows, but Xue’s intention is immediately apparent, with Embrace Again championing unity over division, and hope over fear. The film remains firmly unapologetic from first frame to last in celebrating the humanity and compassion, and yes, the sacrifices and grief of Wuhan’s people against an invisible and undefined threat.

While the film does lean into melodramatic and sentimental distractions, no thanks to an impressive if emotionally manipulative score from composer Peter Kam, Embrace Again is an emotional roller-coaster that offers light against the dark curtain of division that we see so often embraced by the media and political class.

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Cross-Cultural Collaboration

All Circles The Moon And Dirt Shines In The Sun, a video installation directed and edited by Wahyu Al Mardhani and Chris Cochrance Friedrich, offers a glimpse into the rituals and local customs of Indonesian culture.
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One Second

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

When Zhang Yimou burst on to the world cinema scene in the Eighties, his early films – Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern – were embraced by critics and art movie lovers in the West. Here was a new voice; wry and warmly humanist and quite different from the bland party-approved heroics of nationalism or socialist realism.

Yimou has gone on to make many different sorts of films (including costume dramas and even big action films such as The Great Wall), but his old preferences never went away. In a gigantic Communist society, where the masses prove their conformity with patriotic zeal, the focus on an individual or a family can be a telling counterpoint.

It is no wonder that his new film is set in the Maoist Cultural Revolution era (the filmmaker spent time in internal exile because of the legacy of his non-Communist family).

The protagonist of Yimou’s latest stumbles into the story across a vast desert landscape. It turns out that he may have escaped from a remote labour camp; a fact that he is not too keen to let the local villagers know about.

In the village, the people are hanging out for the arrival of cans of film showing the latest patriotic propaganda film. The village projectionist is a very important man, as only he can work the aging industrial-style projectors. Our hero is shadowed by a ragamuffin girl, who has attached herself to him. They are both awaiting the big screening, but he is only really interested in the little newsreel that is attached to the feature. This reel contains a snippet about diligent peasants helping with sugar production. It is important to him because it contains a very quick shot of his teenage daughter, who he has lost touch with since his internment. It is only one second of footage (hence the title) but in this strict and over-controlled era, it represents a precious moment of family connection.

Yimou was often praised for his artful use of saturated colour, but the palette in this dour Mao suit period is deliberately drab. Almost the whole film is shown in muted blues and grey and browns. Even the people’s faces are covered in grime or dust blowing in from the desert. Still, despite it all, the warmth shines through.

The filmmaker has managed to keep on the right side of the authorities somehow (his work at the Beijing Olympics was a masterpiece, not without its propagandist uses). One suspects though, that he is playing the long game and we should be happy that he is, when it enables him to present simple but affecting little stories like this one.

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Drive My Car

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

At around the 40 minute mark of Ryuskue Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the opening credits begin to roll. In that time, we’ve seen the main character walk in on his wife with another man, seen him crash his car, heard his wife spurt out a screenplay idea whilst having sex and then we’ve seen her die.

Based on the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, Drive My Car is a multi-layered examination of understanding others, art and ourselves. It is a film filled with stories; characters’ life stories, fictional stories created by the characters and references to real stories. And it’s a film that urges you to try to understand these various stories and through doing so, you may be able to understand the film itself.

After the opening prologue, the film picks up two years later with the widowed Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) on his way to Hiroshima to direct a theatre production of Uncle Vanya. Still plagued with hurt because he never got to confront his wife about her infidelity, he is left wondering whether he really knew her at all.

The theatre company employs a chauffeur named Misaki (Toko Miura) for him. And although he is at first reluctant to let her drive his treasured red Saab, she turns out to be an amazing driver and friend for Kafuku, as he begins to confront his demons.

The film gets interesting when the actor that Kafuku’s wife cheated on him with, named Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), is cast as the titular character in Uncle Vanya. The play begins to merge with real life as Kafuku attempts to finally figure out the reasons behind his wife’s actions.

The film is obsessed with showing us how words aren’t everything, and that it is in fact the space between the words that shows us much more. This is illustrated through the endless rereads of the Uncle Vanya script that Kafuku forces on his cast. It is shown through the vast array of languages that the cast speaks: some Korean, some English, some Japanese and one even sign language

Hamaguchi’s film is calm, reflective and rarely opts for the easy way out. He chooses to let the film breathe and leaves it up to the viewer to put the pieces of the puzzle together. In one of the conversations between Kafuku and Taktsuki, which is taken straight from the pages of Murakami, Takatsuki says that it is truly impossible to know someone else’s heart completely; and that all we can do is attempt to understand our own heart and go from there. This is code to unlocking the secrets of the film. If we can know our own heart completely, we can look at all the various stories, metaphors and references that the film holds and gather our own meaning of it all.

The film could do without a homecoming scene near the end where Hamaguchi seems to force the melodrama and attempts to answer questions that don’t need to be answered. But, this is a small hiccup, and the film manages to pick back up for a powerful ending.

The chemistry between Misaki and Kafuku is undeniable and is a driving force of the film. The score is hauntingly beautiful and adds the perfect atmosphere to the brooding and often dark subject matter. But Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe’s screenplay is the obvious highlight; keeping Murakami’s dark and dreamy tone but also adding their own dramatical touch.

The film perfectly manages to capture how, underneath the deceptively calm surface, there is often a world of darkness waiting to be uncovered.

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Railway Heroes

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

Chinese cinema loves to indulge historical drama, often with a degree of creative license to enhance the cinematic flair and elevate the legacy of its protagonists. However, Railway Heroes, one of China’s 2021 tentpole releases, boasts a refreshing degree of authenticity, largely due to its remarkable attention to detail, from production design to its inspired casting and deft direction from Yang Feng (The Coldest City).

Set during the late 1930s, amidst the second Sino-Japanese war, the film chronicles the story of the ‘Lunan Railway Brigade’, a group of ordinary railroad engineers, labourers and station personnel who run an underground resistance cell against the Japanese during their occupation of east China’s Shandong Province. With the enemy commandeering the rail lines as supply chain, the Resistance implement an ingenious and dangerous intelligence relay channel through the various stations peppered along the Jin-Pu Railway line, planning, and implementing raids in order to disrupt the Japanese advancement.

Based on a number of historical records and conversations with descendants of Lunan Railway Brigade members, Yang Feng has adapted a compelling narrative, delivering a stunning work of cinema set against the harsh inhospitable winter backdrop of Shandong, a metaphoric reflection of the inherent cruelty faced from the Japanese occupation

The cinematography is rich and exacting with every frame a beautifully rendered plate that, in and of itself, will mark Railway Heroes as a cinematic achievement. Thankfully, the same care and consideration has been taken with the film’s refined use of CGI, utilised more as an enhancement to the practical effects as opposed to a heavy-handed approach often seen with similar projects.

Boasting an ensemble cast led by Zhang Han Yu (Chinese Doctors, The Great Wall) as the stoic leader of the Resistance cell, Feng’s ability to weave a taught spy thriller within the action and drama of the remarkable story is only elevated by the dedicated performances from each of his players, with particular notable stand-out Fan Wei (My People My Homeland), whose portrayal as an alcoholic Station Attendant instills a tragic sense of desperation and complexity amidst the cat-and-mouse machinations of the plot.

Railway Heroes is a rich and emotive film. It’s visually compelling, crafting a fully realised world in which to unfurl its Machiavellian tale of spy craft and bloody occupation. The cast is flawless, and the narrative a respectful tribute to the men and women who lived it. And while the film does occasionally slip into nationalist propaganda – it’s no more an indulgence than any Pearl Harbor film from the last twenty years – Yang Feng has delivered an intimate biography of ordinary men, whose courage and resilience under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances is worthy of celebration.

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Fist of Fury Noongar Style

Kyle J Morrison is on a mission keep the Noongar language alive, and he’s found the perfect vehicle with the highly entertaining Fist of Fury Noongar Daa.