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Moonless Dawn

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“It’s raining sparks,” says Haruka Echigo’s Saki, as the sky fills with dreamlike fireworks during Moonless Dawn – a moody 60-minute feature on existential youth.

Inspired by the music of Japanese band LOWPOPLTD, Harika Abe’s debut steers the intertwining stories of three students in Shibuya. The first is Yuka (Yuka Nakao) – a popular schoolgirl who occasionally meets with strangers in love hotels; Saki, a timid and troubled student who is at odds with her strict parents, and Kou (Yuzu Aoki), an aspiring musician whose wimpy father teaches at his school.

Sitting uneasy at the precipice of junior high school, these aimless characters are drawn together by Kou’s music and develop a platonic bond that fills the void of dull Japanese academia and home life. Their meeting point (or club treehouse of sorts) is the rooftop of a mysterious building that overlooks the sullen city. A place they can jointly escape to, away from the moral and forced-upon obligations of their daily lives.

The film also muses on interesting present-day concerns about modern technology and relationships – where people are so accustomed to communication through their phones that they’ve forgotten what true interaction and connection feels like. Take Kou, for example, who barely acknowledges the existence of his single father – a man physically bullied by his own students and incapable of retaliation.

In another awkward scene, with minimal use of dialogue and eye contact, Kou invites a classmate over with the intention of making a move on her. Yuka, meanwhile, finds some form of imprudent satisfaction from encounters with seedy older men – relentlessly vying for her attention on Shibuya’s busy promenade.

Contrasting the village-like suburbia with the city’s modern constructs, Abe’s restrained direction suits Japan’s grey palette and allows her young actors to deliver understated performances which gently unravel and build portraits.

But the one-two combo of Moonlight Dawn’s brief running time and slice-of-life narrative means it never truly gains enough traction – the screenplay drifting as free-spirited as its characters, before an odd twist (or turn?) and unsatisfying denouement. The result is a peculiar and laconic snapshot of Japanese adolescence that would better suit an intriguing TV pilot, rather than a feature film.

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JK Rock

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

The latest from director Shunji Muguruma (Shadow Kids, Oh! My! God! Kamisama kara no okuimono) is a tune made up of familiar notes. A trio of high school girls form a band and, when discovering that their favourite hot spot, Tero’s Rock Café is at risk of closing down, they enter a band competition to raise the money needed to keep it open. The trio are mentored by Jyo, a former musician who felt he missed his chance at stardom while his former bandmate raked in the glory, learning to rock again through the youthful energy of his proteges.

Of course, like the best music in the genre, cliché is part of what makes it work. The music itself, courtesy of Koji Endo strikes a heartful chord through its simplicity, allowing the infectiousness of both the tunes and the performance thereof to flow in and out of the frequently melodramatic narrative. It’s almost unfair how catchy the music is, making ‘humming the baseline’ into less of a suggestion and more of a foregone conclusion.

While Kaori Tanimoto’s scripting toys around with the tropes of the genre, which makes for an uneasy but ultimately successful blend of the expected and the unexpected, the real shining moments come from the framing. Between the teenaged band Drop Doll, Jyo and his experiences as part of JoKers, and café owner Tero’s own past history as a musician, the story essentially contains three generations of musos. The vigorousness of the teenagers just starting out, the brooding on what could have been from Jyo, and the nostalgic satisfaction of Tero that he ever got to play at all. Between these three is the blueprint through which all rock and roll resonates.

Rock and roll is a driving force in pop culture for a reason, and whether you’re from the land of the rising sun or the house of the rising sun, the shared experience remains.

JK Rock may be held back somewhat by its familiarity, but the delivery and frenzied glee makes for a very fun feature. Watching these musicians put their heart and soul into their playing, it’s hard not to get lost in the euphoria of it all, and if film is meant to make an audience feel more than anything else, you’re most certainly going to get that here.

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Ne Zha

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

The best kind of cinematic underdog stories are the ones that go beyond the borders of a cinema screen. A debut feature for its director Jiaozi and his animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon, with nary a name-brand actor in sight, Ne Zha has already become one of the biggest commercial successes for a China-born animated film.

Of course, in the era of Avatar and Disney-helmed tentpoles, monetary gains can only push a feature so far. Good thing, then, that this is the kind of production that outright demands that kind of audience pull.

For an East Asian product, the visuals are all kinds of American influenced. It has the round bounciness of Dreamworks (and, let’s be honest, the same sophomoric sense of humour in places), the lighting effects and facial expressions of Disney/Pixar, and the energetic finesse of Laika.

However, rather than feeling like a hodge-podge of familiar elements in a cynical attempt at international notoriety, all of these elements come together astoundingly well.

Everything from the quieter moments of the titular Ne zha kicking around a jianzi, to the action scenes that make Kung Fu Panda look like a test run, are rendered in stylised but highly effective fashion, making every second feel like a glorious panorama unto itself.

As for the story, it taps into regional shenmo storytelling (basically stories to do with gods and demons fighting each other) to tell the tale of Ne Zha, a child born from a demonic seed that is doomed to die at three years old from a divine lightning blast. Wielding mischievous child for all its worth, Lü Yanting imbues the title character with vibrant energy, while also selling the more emotional moments with uncanny poignancy.

And opposite him, we have Han Mao as the dragon prince Ao Bing, whose destiny is tied directly to Ne Zha, leading them both on a path that could see their world and themselves destroyed. It’s quite impressive that, even with very little dialogue, the animation is just that damn good that Ao Bing makes for the most emotionally intense character in this entire affair.

In-between the fight scenes, the jaw-dropping visuals, the familial drama and the occasional spurt of potty humour, it is at its heart a story about fate in a world where mortals rub shoulders with beings of ultimate power. It follows a similar line of thought as Eli Craig’s Little Evil in how it examines the notion of a demonic child meant to be the end of everything, and asks a simple question: Says who? It breaks down the idea of predetermined fate and turns its own cheekiness into a showing of strength and heaven-shaking defiance.

Through the use of familiar ideas and narrative tropes, both foreign and domestic, Ne Zha spins a yarn about prejudice – the mountains it creates and the sheer personal power that can shift them into the sea. And with how far Jiaozi came to create this, it’s hard not to think that he’s shattered a few mountains for himself.

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The Longest Shot

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

The Longest Shot is a Chinese-Australian co-production shot largely in Melbourne, using the historic locales of that city as stand ins for French Concession, a section of Beijing which, from 1849 until 1943, was governed and controlled by a foreign power (there was also a considerably larger International Concession).

Inside this country within a country, power dynamics are constantly shifting, particularly between Chinese gangsters vying for influence and power.

When world-weary hired killer Zhao (Wang Zhiwen) is asked to off two local gangsters, the Irish interloper Pee (Chris Downs) and Bobo (Xu Yajun), who are enmeshed in an escalating street war that’s bad for everyone’s business, Zhao is hesitant to agree. He’s racked with Parkinson’s and has all but given away that life.

Zhao’s keen to repay old favours, make some sweet bank and tie up loose ends so he pulls on the tough-guy pants and steams on in for some old-school wet work. He drafts in Russian friend Luc (Konstantin Konewhoff) to help, though both men fear the multi-sided gang war that could explode.

So, between the scheming local gangsters, Brother Wang (Jack Kao) and Du (Lee LiChun) and corrupt French Concession official Commander Fouquet (Fabien Lucciarini), every devious gangster plots their respective enemy’s demise, unaware that there’s equally nefarious plans set against their own fiefdoms.

The Raymond Chandler style, Rube-Goldberg plotting, with multiple bad guys and multiple schemes, requires scene after scene of gangsters talking in rooms, feeling like the filmmakers had more than a little of the Coen Bros. masterpiece Miller’s Crossing in their crosshairs as a tonal target for the look and feel they were going for.

The film hits its stride on several occasions and the more seasoned cast members really engage with solid, charismatic performances and some claret splattered action sequences. The almost OCD level of sub-plot exposition eventually subsides and the film rattles along at a clip after the first hour, though the amount of plot machinations needed to move the character pieces around the chessboard means way less character development and that’s to the film’s detriment.

Crisp, colourful, elegant and very art deco, it lacks the authenticity of similar fare, such as Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad (set in a similar period) but it’s a handsomely mounted production nonetheless, featuring grand locations with that requisite sense of opulence.

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David Park: KOFFIA’s Significant Milestones

It’s the hundredth-year anniversary of Korean cinema, the March 1st Movement and the provisional establishment of the first Korean government, all celebrated on the ten-year anniversary of the Korean Film Festival in Australia.
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The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

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

The undercover-cop-and-gangster dynamic gets turned on its head in the gritty Korean crime-thriller The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil.

A slew of murders in the South Korean city of Cheonan forms an unlikely partnership between a cop and gangster-crime lord, brought together by a shared desire to nab a perp whose actions are as violent as they are random.

While operating with a sense of non-disclosure to their organisations, the cop and gangster pairing are not undercover in the conventional informant sense a la The Departed. That would be banal. Their arrangement is strictly ends-orientated, with whoever can catch the assailant left to enact justice as they see fit. Just exactly how they execute “justice” differs between the two men with The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil offering an exploration of criminal ethics while also being an enjoyable, bloody frenzy.

While not precisely When Harry Met Sally, there is something fundamentally romantic about the idea of cop and gangster working together and having the two men – hardened by their professional career – developing a respectful relationship founded on compromise. Their differences are fewer than you imagine, with the two leads delivering a chemistry that would have you believe that in another life the two would be laughing up a storm and swinging down soju in a bar until the wee hours of the morning.

Their moral conduct is their clearest divider, with the two men operating with a stern forcefulness that prevents them from swaying from the direction set by their moral compasses. The cop (Kim Mu-yeol), tough as nails and unable to let bad things happen in front of him even if it means being late to a crime scene, is complemented wondrously by the gangster crime-boss (Ma Dong-seok aka  Don Lee), an imposing figure who could easily save money on security by doing the job himself.

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil switches gear into action scenes quite spontaneously, with a warning for those who are squeamish to prepare themselves. Where delivering a shoot-em-up would be taking the easy route, Director Lee Won-tae focuses the action in TGTCTD on hand-to-hand or knife-to-pokie-machine (!) combat to elicit tension. This decision works a treat in highlighting the actors’ athleticism and delivers solid, albeit stabby, choreography.

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Extreme Job

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

Not since Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices has there been as big of a secret in the fried chicken world as the undercover stakeout at the centre of Korean action-comedy Extreme Job.

Pressure placed on Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong) to advance in the ranks of the Korean narcotics investigation unit finds him and his ragtag crew of accompanying misfits go undercover as owners of a fried chicken restaurant. Under their surveillance is neighbour Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun); a resurfacing drug-kingpin who dreams of “an era of meth” in Korea.

The fact that a charming film like Extreme Job exists is a testament to absurd yet interesting ideas actualised in Korean cinema.

The motley crew assembled in the stakeout – including a newbie recruit keen to make his first arrest, a budding chef, a tough as nails operative, and a determined moustachioed gent – dazzle due to their well-meaning-but-clumsy nature, with their time on the job a comedy-of-errors.

The most exemplary failure made by the team is in their success as restaurateurs. A feat which renders them unable to focus on the investigation due to the insane demands of the business. You know that restaurant on Instagram that everyone goes to? This would be the one. Their struggles with popularity are the only stumbles of Extreme Job; like an overcooked piece chicken left in a fryer, the film spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on the narcotic unit’s inability to investigate.

Here, the action takes a back-seat in favour of pseudo-drama, drying out the meat on what is otherwise a tender film that focuses on family and classism. Extreme Job, however, regains balance towards the tail-end of the movie with director Lee Byeong-heon serving up a deliciously camp action set-piece that rewards the viewer’s patience.

Drugs. Stakeouts. Fried chicken. Extreme Job is a golden nugget of a film that is as unashamedly-ridiculous as it is entertaining.

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Inseparable Bros

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

Written and directed by Yook Sang-hyo, Inseparable Bros [The film’s literal translation from Korean is “My Special Brother”] is a gorgeous tale of the yin and yang of co-dependent friendship.

When the movie opens, Kang Se-ha (later played by Shin Ha-Kyun) is a teenaged and quadriplegic boy confined to a wheelchair. With no immediate family left to care for him, his second cousin doesn’t want to be responsible and so foists him off on a local priest who runs a home for mentally-challenged youngsters. There, Kang Se-ha stands up to bullies with intelligence and scorn.

Also a resident of the home, his simple-minded “brother”, Dong-gu (Lee Kwang-Soo) helps him with daily tasks such as eating, going to the toilet and brushing his teeth for him, even assisting Kang Se-ha to read and get around.

We jump ahead to adulthood and see how Kang Se-ha negotiates his way through life by being the brains, while Dong-gu somewhat ineptly follows his minute instructions. Eventually, Kang Se-ha engineers a savvy business providing various services (such as translation and compiling reports) for cash while trading the skills of those seeking his help to assist others at a volunteer organisation.

Every time circumstances throw a new obstacle at him/them, Kang Se-ha has to use his wits to come up with a creative solution.

One day, the duo crosses paths with a young woman at the local swimming pool where Dong-gu loves to play. Always looking for ways to make enough money for them both to survive, Kang Se-ha engineers a meeting with Mi-Hyun (E Som) and offers her an irresistible and mutually beneficial proposal. She proves to be the only person to treat them without prejudice. Eventually, Mi-Hyun helps the pair broaden their horizons. The unexpected reappearance of Dong-gu’s mother upsets the balance of their friendship as she petitions to bring him back into their family circle, unfortunately at the expense of Kang Se-ha.

Sang-hyo’s visual style is beautiful but mostly pedestrian – that is to say, in service of his storytelling. Occasionally we see fun scenes such as the action-packed and vertiginous sequence where our enterprising duo deftly use strategic manoeuvers on a pedestrian ramp to outrace an elevator. The writer/director’s strengths lie in his candid dialogue that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter. His gifts are best displayed in his ability to present a tight trio of endearing characters who ingeniously navigate the stuffy constraints of bureaucracy and wrangle social and standard media to their advantage.

Shin Ha-Kyun gives an excellent performance despite his character being mostly immobile and restricted to his wheelchair, while Lee Kwang-Soo is especially endearing and convincing as the goofy Dong-gu.

Heart-warming and infused throughout with mild drama and gentle comedy, Inseparable Bros is an adorable film that champions love and family beyond blood-ties.