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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.

 
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Manji (aka Swastika)

Asian Cinema, Classic, Festival, Film Festival, Review Leave a Comment

Japanese films have this particular relation to the Western tradition and there is a mutual fascination and mirroring going on that has lasted for decades. Just think of The Magnificent Seven, one of the most iconic cowboy films in the canon, which was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. In pulp cinema too, there are parallels. This melodrama made in 1964 is a kind of harbinger of the sexual revolution but with a very Japanese twist. Its slightly lurid palette and emotional musical score recalls 1960s films from Hollywood. Partly now, some of this seems kitsch but there is something both endearing and attractive about its approach.

The heroine of the picture is a young married woman called Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), who tells her complicated tale of lust and betrayal in flashback mode. She was determined to be a dutiful wife in the terms of the day but at her art class she comes across an alluring model called Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The model’s irresistible beauty brings out a latent lesbian desire in Sonoko and the two embark on a secret affair. Sonoko’s husband is appropriately shocked and tries to coral her back into the marriage by reminding her of the weight of society’s disapproval. Sonoko becomes mildly hysterical at this point and declares that her lust for Mitsuko outweighs all rational and conventional moral considerations. Later, the two lesbian lovers engineer various schemes to draw both the husband and Mitsuko’s boyfriend into a game of plot and counter plot. This being Japan, there also has to be an element of a suicide pact that will seal the fate of the lovers.

Far from being a simple case of the transgressors getting what they deserve, and the conventional order being preserved, Yazuo Masumura’s film recognises the lover’s logic of desire and leaves the question of, which is the true morality, open. Even so, the film does take a very soft focus approach to the mechanics of their love (In the Realm of the Senses, it ain’t) but, in its chaste and histrionic way, it comes out as a plea for tolerance and a comment on the wastefulness of repressed lives.

 
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The Great Battle

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

Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Two Towers ‘Helms Deep’ battle looms large in this South Korean period action epic, loosely based around historical events from 625AD, during the Tang Dynasty when Chinese emperor Taizong was rolling across outlying nations unopposed. His armies attempted to annex the nation of Goguryeo, on the Korean peninsula.

In a version of the Thermopylae scenario (immortalised in Zack Snyder’s 300) where an outnumbered few stood against many, a rag-tag handful of crazy-brave warriors stand against Emperor Taizong (Park Sun-Woong) and his 200,000 strong army. The five thousand warriors take refuge within the walls of the Fortress of Ansi, commanded by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung). The odds are not good.

While director Kim Kwang-sik goes for a fairly classical treatment of the material, there’s a good amount of creative liberty taken with the plot and execution. The story begins as a young officer named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is despatched to the fortress of Ansi, where Commander Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung) has supposedly gone rogue and become disloyal to his lord, Yeon Gaesomun (played by Yu Oh-seong who starred in the recent South Korean film The Spy Gone North).

After spending time with Commander Yang Manchun, the young officer wrestles with his own loyalty to his orders and whether this man is a traitor or a well-loved leader of a large civilian populace and army. Once Emperor Taizong and his armies arrive, the testing of the people within the fortress begins and the young Samul sees real sacrifice and honour, first-hand.

Given the extensive battle sequences, it’s no surprise that their nimble execution is paramount. There’s a very stylised approach to the violence, including ye olde Zack Snyder-style ramping slow-mo effect (that 300 made famous) that ensures the audience can clearly see the jets of claret and slicing swords, something Kim Kwang-sik deploys with aplomb. CG aerial views and close-quarters combat meld with a visceral intensity that indulges in some CG enhanced bloodletting and hyper-stylised fight choreography that’s more than a little Manga inspired.

Overall, this rip-roaring battle epic has genuinely got the goods, with big emotions and accessible characters, while never descending into saccharine theatrics; it chugs along like a rollicking hybrid of Seven Samurai, 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Terrifically enjoyable.